Hands on: Echobox Explorer

It looks like a flask, but the Echobox Explorer hides high-proof music

Tidal devotees get a hi-res music player to call their own, but Wi-Fi-only connectivity hobbles its mobile aspirations

Why can’t all our gadgets have fun designs? There’s no unbreakable rule that says they all have to be black, oblong boxes, so it’s good to see one company going in a very different direction. This is the Echobox Explorer, and no, it doesn’t contain a liquid you can sneak into your mid-morning coffee to give it a kick. It’s a different music player than you’ve seen before, and not just because of its woody construct and cool design — it’s created specifically for use with Jay Z’s hi-res music streaming service Tidal.

The hip flask design is funky, and lends itself perfectly to slipping comfortably into a pocket, or grasping in your hand.

The player comes with the Tidal app installed, along with three months access to the service (a $60 value) for free, so you can stream all the high quality tracks it offers. We’d say, “on the move,” but it’s not quite a smartphone replacement because it doesn’t come with a SIM card. It has Wi-Fi, so about the best you can do is connect it to your phone’s hotspot while out and about.

That doesn’t stop it being crazy, and very cool, to look at. The hip flask design is funky, and lends itself perfectly to slipping comfortably into a pocket, or grasping in your hand. There are four wood designs from which to choose, each with metal end embellishments, and that awesome knurled “cap” that twists to adjust the volume and pushes to turn the device on and off. Contrary to the curvy body, the screen is flat, but it doesn’t ruin the aesthetics or ergonomics.

Echobox has used the open source version of Android on the Explorer, which means it doesn’t come with Google Play installed. It’s also version 4.2, which is way behind the most up to date Android release. While it’s slightly less of a concern here than on a phone, due to the absence of permanent connectivity, it’s still not ideal.

Hands on: Astell & Kern’s $600 AK70 music player

Aside from Tidal, the player will happily read all your music files, hi-res and otherwise, with the USB Audio Player Pro app. The system will read virtually all PCM files at up to 24bit/192kHz resolution, though DSD files are subject to PCM conversion. Additionally, if you seek out the APK files on the internet, it’s possible to side-load other apps like Spotify onto the Explorer. There’s 64GB of internal memory on board, and a MicroSD card slot to add another 128GB. The 4,500mAh battery is expected to last between 12-16 hours before needing a recharge.

A Texas Instruments Burr Brown DAC, and a Texas Instruments TPA6120A2 amp provide the musical power, and a Rockchip 1.6GHz quad-core processor drives the Android operating system and apps, with 2GB of RAM.

We tried out the final production version of the Explorer, which will ship out to the device’s Indiegogo backers in September, but the software is still being tweaked ahead launch. Tidal’s app operated smoothly, and it was possible to exit all the way out to basic Android, although some of the features — such as the screen brightness adjustment — seemed unwilling to work for us, hence the final tweaks. Otherwise it was all very responsive, and while a 3.5-inch screen is a little small compared to modern smartphones, it’s adequate.

Plugging in Echobox’s own titanium in-ear headphones, we listened to several tracks and enjoyed the crisp, clear audio the device reproduced. There was plenty of bass thump through N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, but it wasn’t overpowering. Cleverly, the earbuds come with three screw-on filters which change the audio response to give more bass, enhanced treble, or a flatter response, similar to RHA’s T20s. We were listening with the bass-heavier filters.

To pre-order the Echobox Explorer you’ll need to spend $500, but that’s not where the expense ends. It doesn’t come with headphones included, and the titanium models cost an additional $230 with an iPhone-compatible in-line microphone, or $200 without. Also, if you want the flashy charging dock in matching wood, that’s another $75. You do get a leather case to protect the wood body included, though.

We love the look and the ergonomics of the Echobox Explorer, but because it’s built around a music streaming service, it’s odd the only data source is Wi-Fi. While you can still upload a fair amount of hi-res audio files, the Wi-Fi limitation is a drawback, especially if your mobile plan doesn’t allow the use of a hotspot. However, if Wi-Fi is ever-present in your life, and your head is turned by the fun design, you may want to give the Echobox Explorer a shot — or should we say swig?

Highs

  • Fun, crazy design
  • Excellent ergonomics
  • Hi-res audio support
  • Free trial of Tidal included
  • MicroSD card slot

Lows

  • Old version of Android and no Google Play
  • Wi-Fi only
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