At first, I didn’t really see the appeal of the Sugr Cube. Or portable wifi speakers in general, for that matter. Now, after spending some time with the device, I’ve come to appreciate the value of taking your music around with you. But is this tasty little music box worth its hefty US$199 price tag? That depends.
First impressions and setup
In terms of packaging, Sugr Cube really leaves nothing to be desired. It comes in the classy-looking and sturdy black box pictured above, and inside that box is a tasteful presentation of everything you’ll ever need relating to Sugr Cube: the speaker itself, one USB cable, two charger plugs, and an outlet adapter for every kind of power outlet I’ve ever seen on my travels throughout the US, Europe, and Asia. The Sugr Cube is portable in the global sense – it comes with the tools you’d need to plug this thing in anywhere.
It also comes, of course, with setup instructions for the speaker, and the process is remarkably simple. Download the Sugr Cube app to your phone (there are Android and iOS versions), enter your local wifi password, follow a few simple steps, and you’ll be all synced up and ready to rock. The entire process took me two minutes, if that.
As far as the hardware quality goes, Sugr says the device is handcrafted, and I believe them. The speaker casing is made with real wood that looks great, and the whole thing feels very solid. The startup behind the gadget is based in China, the US, and Norway, and you get the feeling that cross-border cooperation has helped ensure that the Sugr Cube includes sleek design inflences from all over the world.
It has also been designed with simplicity in mind – aside from a volume dial and a microUSB port on the back, there’s not a button anywhere on the device.
What the Sugr Cube can do
The Sugr Cube’s claim to fame – and the reason why it can get away with having so few buttons – that it’s touch sensitive. You can tap the top of the speaker to toggle Pause/Play, and tilting it 45 degrees left or right will skip to the previous and next tracks, respectively. If you want to see this in action, you can check out a quick video I made below, but this video comes with an important note: you’ll hear the music skip once but that was not common during my time with the Sugr Cube. It was probably just a glitch in my home wifi (which has been causing some problems for me recently).
These features are cool, but they do take some getting used to. Especially if you’ve got the speaker playing while moving it around, you’re probably going to confuse yourself by accidentally tapping or tipping it and pausing or skipping without actually meaning to at first. And to be honest, I do wonder whether the touch features are really worth the expense they probably added to the device. Tapping the top of the Cube to pause and tilting to skip is a neat party trick, but once you get over the novelty of it, it’s not any easier or faster than pushing a traditional play or pause button.
Of course, more important than how the speaker operates is what it can play. And with Sugr Cube, the answer is basically everything. In the mobile app itself, you’ve got the option to stream from Pandora and Spotify, or tune in to streaming radio from China’s Douya or any of the dozens of stations available in the app (including numerous BBC stations, Talksport, Jazz FM, KISS, and many more).
The Sugr Cube app streaming Pandora (left) and playing a radio station (right).
But the Sugr Cube also supports AirPlay, which means that these days, you can use almost anything to stream music to it. You can stream your iTunes library, or all of the audio from your Mac. You can stream from apps like Soundcloud and QQ Music. I’m even able to stream music to the Sugr Cube using the my music app of choice for Android, which is DoubleTwist. All of the music that I have and want to listen to across my various devices, I can get to stream on the Sugr Cube quite easily.
You can also load up to 4 GB of music onto the Sugr Cube itself via its internal flash memory, and control playback via the app or using the touch controls. You won’t even need to plug anything in; you can transfer music to the Sugr Cube remotely from your phone inside the Sugr Cube app (supposedly you can also do this remotely via PC or Mac computers, but I couldn’t get that to work). Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any way to organize your stored music into playlists, or even to shuffle it instead of playing it in sequence.
How it sounds
The obvious downside of the Sugr Cube, of course, is that there’s only one speaker. That means that you’re getting mono sound rather than stereo. You can get proper stereo sound if you pair two Sugr Cubes together, but as I only have one, I wasn’t able to test this. In any event, buying two of these things would be a pretty expensive proposition.
I was really impressed with the Sugr Cube’s sound quality given its size, though. I’m no audio expert, but everything I streamed through the speaker sounded clear and crisp, and most importantly it wasn’t lacking in the low-end. Obviously you’re not going to get the same kind of bass out of this thing that you’d get out of some monster subwoofer, but I doubt you’ll find another speaker this size that boasts better bass, either. I found it did a good job with everything from the quiet subtleties of Iron and Wine’s “Upward Over the Mountain” to the pumping new-age G-funk of Kendrick Lamar’s “King Kunta.”
It can also get pretty damn loud. To an extent, this depends on the source it’s working with – I wasn’t impressed with the volume output when streaming from my DoubleTwist library – but with the right source this thing bumps. Playing Pandora at top volume was loud enough to fill a large room and then some.
The portability factor
The Sugr Cube with an apple for scale.
As I said, I wasn’t really sold on the concept of portable wifi speakers, but as luck would have it, the day I opened the Sugr Cube, I also undertook a little home improvement project. This project necessitated me moving a few times between one room, another room, and the basement so that I could fish a cable through the wall of one room, under the floor, and up into another room. I like to work with a little music, and the Sugr Cube was perfect for this task – I could carry it around from place to place easily, with no need for any wires or plugs. And my music continued to stream seamlessly even when I was walking. The device’s small size and portability made the task more bearable, and I began to see how it could be nice to have even if you’ve got a nice set of wired speakers or headphones in your home.
Of course, the Sugr Cube isn’t wireless all of the time; it does need to be plugged in every so often to charge its 6,000 mAh battery. A full charge can get you around seven hours of music, according to the Sugr folks, and my experience aligns with that. Total battery life might depend a bit on what you’re streaming and at what volume, but you can definitely get quite a few hours of tunes out of the thing without needing to plug it in.
Is it worth it?
Now we come to the toughest question to answer about the Sugr Cube: is it worth it? One the one hand, it’s an excellent portable wifi speaker that can stream almost anything you throw at it. On the other hand, it’s priced at US$199 (and that’s a sale price), which seems like an awful lot to spend for sound that isn’t even in stereo.
Given the build quality, the touch features, and the impressive sound (for the size) reproduction, it’s hard for me to say that Sugr Cube isn’t worth US$200. But I do wonder if that pricing could be a problem. Are users looking for a portable wifi speaker really so concerned with quality that they’ll be willing to shell out that much when there are decent budget options also available? And will the high-end sound freaks who don’t balk at spending US$200 on audio gear still be interested such a small speaker that only produces mono sound?
I can’t answer either of those questions, so I’ll just say this: if you’re looking for a high-end portable wifi speaker, the Sugr Cube will not disappoint. The build quality is excellent, the sound is impressive given the source, and the gadget will stream audio from just about anything you can throw at it. You can certainly find cheaper ways to play your tunes via wifi, but if you don’t need to find a cheaper option I’m sure you’ll find the Sugr Cube to be as sweet as I did.
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