Teenage Engineering’s ‘Magic Radio’ Is a Boutique Freakshow

Teenage Engineering’s ‘Magic Radio’ Is a Boutique Freakshow
Image: courtesy of Teenage Engineering

Teenage Engineering has been quietly making some of the most exciting niche gadgets for about 15 years. Now, its latest offering is one of the weirdest concepts it’s ever produced. With the OB-4, the boutique electronics studio wants to make radio exciting again.

Fans of Teenage Engineering mostly associate the brand with its dirt-cheap Pocket Operator devices and its more pricey line of unique synthesizers. But more recently, it has been getting into home audio with products like the modular Bluetooth speaker designs in did in collaboration with IKEA earlier this year. The OB-4 is a new Bluetooth speaker, but it throws in a bunch of new features that absolutely no one asked for and, in turn, it earns the “magic radio” title that its creators have bestowed upon it — at least in concept, we haven’t used it yet.

In addition to being a standard portable multi-speaker Bluetooth device, the OB-4 records any sound that’s played through it on a two-hour loop. Teenage Engineering hopes you’ll find creative ways to combine the tape loop with the built-in FM radio. Using the motorised “Tape” knob, a user can instantly wind back the recording to allow you to catch the title of the song you were just vibing to or sample an interesting bit of noise to incorporate into your own music. Theoretically, I guess you could use it as a kind of TiVo for radio if you’re so inclined. The device also lets you manipulate the time stretch audio, loop it as a beat, or just treat the knob as a little turntable.

Let’s stop right here and talk about those motorised knobs. This is a high-end novelty gadget that will cost you $US599 ($835) for the black model and $US649 ($905) for the glossy red edition. Yes, you get a volume knob that’ll adjust itself even when you’re controlling the device remotely with a phone. Yes, you get the same gorgeous design sense that landed Teenage Engineering in the permanent design collection of the SFMOMA. And yes, you get a bunch of neat unique features. But 600 bucks is a lot of money, and most of us will probably only gawk at the thing. That’s ok, gawking is good.

Photo: Teenage Engineering Photo: Teenage Engineering

Teenage Engineering is all about making design decisions that push users to make creative decisions with restraints. I don’t know if anyone will get much mileage out of the tape mode, but I’ll say that I own TE’s OP-1 synth and the built-in FM tuner is one of my favourite features. TE product designer Thomas Howard told Engadget that the team is really interested in radio in terms of the “sense of being able to tap into something that’s really live and really local to your community.”

The designers want to expand how people can use radio and they hope to put FM transceivers in future products to, for example, connect a synthesiser to the speaker with zero latency. The company told Engadget it also can use a Bluetooth Low Energy connection for transmitting MIDI data.

The OB-4 is also a device that’s built to make you imagine the future. “Disk Mode” is what TE is calling its “public research space.” This is where the team will provide updates and try out experimental features. For now, the only features are an ambient noise machine, a metronome, and a trippy mantra generator. More stuff is coming.

Oh right, this is primarily a portable speaker. If you’re into the boring stuff, it has two neodymium tweeters and two 4-inch bass drivers with 38 watts per channel. TE claims it has an average battery life of 40 hours and can go as long as 72 hours with normal radio listening.

Of course, I can’t attest to the quality of any of these features until I’ve used it. For now, all I can tell you is it looks nice on a shelf. Stay tuned.