Review: Sugr Cube is a music streaming box of tricks
The Sugr Cube is a portable, Wi-Fi-enabled speaker block that plays tunes from multiple sources and packs a powerful audio punch for such a small unit. We tested the Kickstarter-funded speaker to see how it measures up against comparable speakers offered by the likes of Sonos.
Design and setup
The first thing to say is the Sugr Cube really looks the part, 104 x 104 x 108 mm (4.1 x 4.1 x 4.3 inch) of carefully rounded wood (cherry and maple are the options). A rubber layer underneath adds some stability and you certainly won't be reluctant to show off the speaker on your desk or in the kitchen.
What's also striking about the Cube is the lack of visible controls. You tap on top of the box to start and stop playback, or tilt it left or right to skip between tracks in the current playlist. Even though hitting the top of the unit isn't technically that much different from hitting a play button, we much prefer this way – perhaps it's the way you don't even have to look at the speaker.
There's something pretty magical about walking into a room, tapping the top of the Cube and having your music carry on from where it left off. There is a volume dial and a microUSB port around the back, but otherwise everything is handled through the mobile apps, of which more shortly.
When your phone rings or someone's shouting at you from another room, you just tap the top of the box, with no need to search for a mouse or a keyboard button. It works instantly every time, and while it might seem like a pointless gimmick at first, we think it's the most compelling feature of the Sugr Cube.
Getting the device set up on our Wi-Fi network was a question of downloading the app (available for Android or iOS), tapping in a Wi-Fi password and then pointing our phone at the speaker. Setup is completed via sound waves, a series of quiet beeps that tell the speaker what it needs to know. It's not quite a hassle-free process (the supplied instruction manual isn't much help) but it's straightforward enough.
And then you're up and running. After charging, the speaker can be taken anywhere you like, as long as it still has Wi-Fi signal – even if you're playing local music you've transferred to the Cube, you can't go outside the reach of your wireless network, so no picnics in the park. There's also no Bluetooth connectivity, with everything working via Wi-Fi.
Audio and software
You can tell a lot of audio engineering expertise has gone into the Cube: it sounds very, very good. It's not quite on a par with the Play:1 Sonos speaker we also had nearby in terms of richness and finer detail, but it's close. Sugr Cube is smaller, has a more focused speaker output and offers wireless operation, though, so once you grade on that curve it's about even between the two.
Like the Sonos Play:1, you can pair two Sugr Cubes for a stereo sound effect. And as the volume goes up, it sounds better and better: powerful, distortion-free audio that's so loud and clear it's hard to believe it comes from a little wooden block you can hold in your hand.
The Cube can do more than fill a bedroom with sound – it can fill a modest church hall. Individual sounds remain clear and unfuzzy, and while bass levels could be deeper, this is more of a limitation of the speaker's form factor and small size than anything else (the makers of the Cube have in fact just released a bass-enhancing update to the firmware).
Mids and highs sounded sharp and bright and while we don't have the broadest choice of music to test the Cube with, we were pleasantly surprised time and time again. Of course it doesn't match more expensive, bigger audio setups, but it produces the best sound we've ever heard from a speaker of this size by a clear margin.
The most useful playback options are Spotify Connect and AirPlay. If you're a Spotify user, you can beam your tunes to the Cube if it's on the same wireless network, then control playback via the Spotify app or desktop software. AirPlay lets you do the same using any software from an OS X or iOS device, though we found it more temperamental than Spotify Connect (perhaps a fault of Apple's rather than the Cube's).
If the Sugr Cube could use some polish it's in the mobile apps, particularly the Android one. It's not always clear how to do something, and we noticed occasional crashes and lagging. To be fair to the Sugr Cube team, updates are being pushed out regularly and the Cube has only just gone on sale, but there's definitely room for improvement.
We couldn't get some of the radio stations working and transferring tracks to the Cube's integrated 4 GB of flash memory (via iTunes or straight from a PC) was a somewhat convoluted process. At times it's not clear if the app has registered your input and there are one or two spelling errors, tell-tale signs of software being rushed out to meet a hardware launch date. Pandora support is here too, which I couldn't test as I'm outside the US.
Nevertheless the Spotify and AirPlay functionality worked perfectly almost every time, and these are the features most music-lovers will be interested in. If you're using these options you never have to open the Sugr Cube app at all after the initial setup.
As far as battery life goes, the development team quotes 24 hours of non-stop playback and that's a claim our testing bears out (at least if you're sticking to a respectable volume level).
There's a glut of wireless speakers out there at the moment, but the Sugr Cube scores highly both for its looks and its effortless control system. Audio performance is very impressive if not quite market-leading, and it manages to hold its clarity no matter how loud you want to go. While the software isn't perfect yet, that's easier to fix than bad hardware design, and the Sugr Cube team seems committed to keeping the updates coming in the future.
You can order your own Sugr Cube now from the official site for US$229, which puts it squarely in the Sonos Play:1 price range. For our money the Sonos still edges it terms of sound quality, but the Cube can go wireless and has a more imaginative control system. Considering the device was funded on Kickstarter less than a year ago, it's a fantastic little bit of kit.
Product page: Sugr Cube
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1. For being the size of a popcan.
The Ion Audio Tailgater ($80) or Block Rocker ($100) are probably much much louder speakers. They offer 50-75 hours of battery life and you can even charge your phone off of it while camping but the downside they are not very small or compact but the bluetooth speaker market is crowded with tiny speakers.
A pair of VM Audio EXAT30 floorstanding bluetooth speakers are $270 but with a 10" sub and 800 Watts RMS (2400 Peak) they are in a totally different ballpark than what you would get from a popcan sized bluetooth speaker.
If you care enough about music to buy $200 - $300 speakers to listen to it then why not do it on a pair of speakers bigger than your fist? In the majority of the use-cases I think of going with a slightly larger speaker seems like a completely reasonable solution.