Tivoli Audio is one of a handful of companies in the audio world that enjoys a reputation for offering great sound quality, simplicity of design & experience, and excellent value. That reputation was built on the performance of its first product: The Model One tabletop radio, a compact, no-nonsense, mono FM/AM radio, that sounds far better than its tiny footprint suggests, and which the company still sells today. But times have changed since the Model One debuted 17 years ago, and Tivoli finds itself with an opportunity to build on its legacy with a new system designed for today’s biggest consumer demands: Access to streaming subscription services like Spotify, Bluetooth connections, and whole-home wireless audio, a market created — and still dominated by — Sonos.
The $300 Model One Digital, retains the classic looks of the Model One, but inside, it’s a whole new system. With support for Spotify, Tidal, and TuneIn, and the ability to connect to Tivoli’s line-up of ART wireless speakers, including the just-released Model Sub subwoofer, it’s a Model One for the modern age. But can the company preserve its focus on a simple, straightforward user experience as it blends rock-solid audio with the latest high-tech features? Find out in our Tivoli Model One Digital review as we put the whole system through its paces.
If you dig the retro styling of the original Model One, you’ll love the Model One Digital. Tivoli has preserved the furniture-grade wood cabinet from the Model One (available in walnut, black, and white), and its dimensions are only a hair larger than its predecessor. The rigid circular speaker grill has been replaced by a square-shaped fabric covering, which enhances its mid-century modern vibe while evoking memories of console hi-fi systems from the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Fit and finish is top-notch across the line; these devices look and feel premium in every way.
The large, circular AM/FM tuning dial has been replaced with a large, aluminum ring known as the mod bezel, which performs different functions depending on the operating mode. Inside the mod bezel sits the only “digital” element of an otherwise highly analog design — a color display that shows the time, the current audio source (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Aux in, or FM radio), and track info, if available. The only other control is a small sliver combo power-mode-volume button/knob.
We have some minor gripes about the design, but in fairness, these are nitpicks: The volume knob doesn’t stick out very far. Folks with big digits may have trouble gripping its perfectly smooth surface. The aluminum mod bezel rotates, and can also be pressed to access various functions, but there’s no way to know when you should press or rotate it — reading the manual is essential to understand how it works for things like FM presets or Bluetooth pairing. Our review unit’s bezel was slightly out of true, so it would occasionally rub against the interior glass of the display.
Then there’s the display itself: If companies like Nest, Samsung, and LG can create circular LCD panels for their products, we see no reason why Tivoli should make do with a square display. The company’s marketing material makes it seem as though the display occupies the whole of the ring’s interior, but it’s actually a much smaller chunk, with a lot of that space wasted.
Our other ART review accessories, a Cube ($200), a Sphera ($250, and formerly called the “Orb”), and a Model Sub ($400), all exhibited the same retro elegance of the Model One Digital, clad in walnut veneers and matching fabric. Fit and finish is top-notch across the line — these devices look and feel premium in every way. Both the Sphera and the Model Sub have keyholes on their rear plates, making wall-mounting possible, but buyers may be hard pressed to find a way to hide the bright white power cords when doing so.
The Model One Digital and the ART line of components are all built to run independently (they all have Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and aux-in capabilities), and the Cube and Sphera even have optional battery packs for truly wireless on-the-go power. Or, they can all be modular components of a whole-home Wi-Fi system. Using them as simple Bluetooth speakers is a cinch, and pairing be accomplished using the physical buttons on each device. Managing them as a set of networked hi-fi products on the other hand, requires the use of a free app (iOS/Android), and a good deal of patience.
These days, setting up Wi-Fi products should be a piece of cake. Companies like Google and Sonos have it down to a fine art, sometimes using a simple button press on a device to initiate the connection, or through a QR code that gets scanned by the app. Tivoli takes a decidedly old-school approach, involving a Wi-Fi setup mode on the speaker, and then switching back and forth between the app and your smartphone’s Wi-Fi settings, until the speaker is finally recognized by the app. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s a lot clunkier than it needs to be, and you need to repeat the process with every component.
Once you’ve finished, the app invites you to create a “Soundgroup” using just one, or as many of these components as you like. Whether it’s the Model One Digital, or any of the ART speakers, you can’t control them using the app until they belong to a soundgroup.
Great Wi-Fi sound, but clarity, range, depth, and tone all suffered significantly.
Grouping devices is fairly straightforward: Just pick the ones you want from a list and give the group a name. You will, however, need to decide the stereo relationship, if any, between speakers. Every new speaker added is automatically set to receive a stereo signal, but if you want two of them as stereo pair — say a Model One Digital as the left channel, and a Cube as the right channel, you need to assign these channels in the speaker’s properties.
While this arrangement offers flexibility, it lacks intelligence. When configured as a left-right stereo pair, there’s no balance setting for the two speakers. Instead, you adjust each device’s native volume level within its respective properties screen, and then control the master volume from the soundgroup’s main playback screen. Annoyingly, there’s no number-based index system to help you know exactly what volume level is selected for each device. All you have is a slider control, so you must eyeball it in the hopes that all of the devices in your group are set to the same level. Though this arrangement provides an abundance of choice, it’s not intuitive and thus not very user-friendly.
Join the party
On the back of the Model One Digital and its ART companion devices you’ll find two buttons labeled “Add/Drop,” and “Party Mode.” With Add/Drop, you can add the device to an available soundgroup. If you have more than one soundgroup, you press the button repeatedly to cycle through each one. Long-pressing the button removes the speaker from all soundgroups.
We can’t imagine how this is easier than simply managing the speaker via the app, but again, perhaps more choice is better. The Party Mode button is kind of like an override switch: It forces all speakers that aren’t currently in the same soundgroup as the speaker you’re using to join its soundgroup. You can also turn Party Mode on and off from within the app.
Speaking of adding and dropping, we experienced quite a bit of both with our review models. Even after several lengthy calls with Tivoli tech support, and product folks, and switching out our devices with an entirely new set, getting all of the components to remain stable on our Wi-Fi network proved a challenge. The Cube would intermittently disappear and reappear in the app. Sometimes a soundgroup we had created would simply vanish from the app, despite all the group’s devices being visible in the device list. We addressed these concerns with Tivoli and were assured that a fix in the form of a firmware update would be forthcoming.
The biggest benefit of buying a digital, streaming-enabled version of the Model One should be greater choice when it comes to music sources. While this is mostly true — you can stream music from your phone or tablet, a network-attached hard drive, access terrestrial FM radio stations, or pick from the huge variety of internet radio stations via TuneIn — actual music subscription service access is severely limited. You can sign in to Tidal and Deezer and access these services from within the Tivoli ART app, but Spotify Premium is only available via the Spotify app. Same thing for QQ Music. Sonos, by comparison, is natively compatible with over 60 services, including Apple Music, Google Play Music, and Amazon Music.
Jimmy Coberly, a Tivoli sales manager, tells Digital Trends that the company plans to expand these choices, but wasn’t able to offer a timeframe for doing so. Coberly did point out that it’s always possible to use a native app for the service of your choice, then stream it via Bluetooth-over-Wi-Fi to your Model One Digital/ART system, however as we note in the sound quality section below, this is a workaround, not a solution. We’re also a little surprised at the lack of a USB port for playing music from an external drive or memory stick. Despite Sonos’s ongoing refusal to add one to its line-up, it’s quickly becoming a standard feature on every other product in this category.
All for one, none for all
All of the components are equipped with an AUX-in jack, but the system can’t redistribute this source wirelessly to the other speakers. You’re locked into listening on just that one speaker — that is, unless you shell out an extra $60 for the tiny, black Tivoli ConX component. The ConX is designed specifically to pipe non-Wi-Fi analog and digital sources like turntables, CD players, or TVs into the ART system, while also acting as Wi-Fi receiver through its line-out port. Why the ConX can do this but the other components can’t is a bit of a mystery, but perhaps the bigger surprise is that it essentially duplicates the features of a $350 Sonos Connect at a fraction of the price.
In search of… search
If you’ve read some of our other whole-home audio reviews, you know that a big factor in how usable a system is based heavily on how easily the app lets you get to the music you want to play. Sonos has proven that a universal search — one which pulls results from every music source you have access to — is not only doable, but also incredibly helpful. Every system we’ve tested incorporates some degree of search, and the Tivoli ART app is no exception, but it is exceptionally limited.
Native streaming music access is severely limited.
The only real search tool is strictly for local music. There’s no way to filter by song, artist, album, genre, or anything else. So, if you happen to have every album by The Offspring on your phone, you had better know which track you want, because simply searching for “Offspring” will return all of them, alphabetically sorted first by album name, then by track name.
For streaming services like Deezer, or TuneIn, you can forget about search all together. Pulling these up as sources reveals a folder tantalizingly labeled, “search,” but there is no search function here. The same is true for networked music libraries. Speaking of libraries, unless your iTunes collection is housed on a DLNA-compatible computer or NAS, you won’t be able to access it via the Tivoli app. For Windows users, this is easily fixed (it has a built-in DLNA server you can enable), but Mac users will have to find a third-party software package to enable this.
What’s the frequency Kenneth?
In keeping with its heritage as a tabletop radio, the Model One Digital’s FM tuner can be used as a Wi-Fi music source. But there are some frustrating limitations to this feature. First, the FM signal can only be distributed within the soundgroup that the Model One Digital belongs to. All other soundgroups will need to use the TuneIn source for radio content. Second, there’s no way to change FM presets using the app — you’re stuck listening to the last station you physically set the Model One to. Changing stations or presets can only be done using the mod bezel. The app won’t even tell you which frequency/station you’re currently listening to or display the FM RDS info.
I’ve got the power?
When placing ART components around your house, you’ll need to be able to reach the buttons on the back. In the event of a power failure, the speakers power back on in standby mode. Pressing the physical power button is the only way to get them to reconnect to your network. None of the other whole-home audio products we’ve tested need a physical intervention after a power loss.
On a related note, you’ll also need to disable each speaker’s default standby timer, otherwise you’ll have to walk around powering them up, every time you want to listen to music. Having a standby mode makes sense when using a battery, but we think it should be turned off by default when connected to an AC adapter.
So how does the new Model One Digital sound? Fans of the original will be happy to know that the digital version is just as capable of pumping out full, superbly balanced sound from its small speaker enclosure. Same goes for the ART Cube, the ART Sphera, and the Model Sub. Pairing a Cube with a Model One Digital provides delightfully clear stereo sound. There’s enough low frequency available with this setup that casual listeners, or those in a small space like an office or a dorm room likely won’t need any more.
But if bass is what you crave, adding a Model Sub to the mix scratches that itch admirably. We stuck our Model Sub review unit under a couch (can you do that with your subwoofer?) and depending on the volume level, it delivered everything from barely-there bass all the way up to bum-rattling boom. Despite our misgivings about the volume level adjustments, once dialed-in, the system delivered truly superb sound.
There is, unfortunately, a caveat here. When playing local music from our iPhone, over Wi-Fi, things sounded great. Switching to Bluetooth over Wi-Fi was a different story entirely. Clarity, range, depth, and tone all suffered significantly, no matter how we adjusted the volume levels on both the iPhone as well as the speakers using the Tivoli app. We ran music streaming from the Google Play app, and then, just to make sure the problem wasn’t with Google, we played the same track locally using the Apple Music app. In both instances, sound quality was significantly diminished from what the system was able to produce over a standard Wi-Fi connection. Given that the app supports so few streaming services natively, a lot of customers will end up using this poor-quality connection for the majority of their listening, and that’s just not OK.
The Tivoli Model One Digital and the ART components are warranted for one year against manufacturing defects.
We really wanted to love the Tivoli Audio Model One Digital. Its predecessor remains proof that good things come in small packages. But the integration of technologies like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and streaming audio has clearly proven a challenge for Tivoli, and has replaced easy simplicity with confounding complexity. Though it still produces great sound, we don’t think that’s enough to recommend this new take on an old favorite.
Is there a better alternative?
Attempts to compare the original Model One to a system like Sonos wouldn’t have been appropriate, as they are clearly very different products. But now, with the introduction the $300 Model One Digital, with its streaming music, digital audio, whole-home Wi-Fi listening, and app-based control, Tivoli has planted its flag firmly in Sonos territory.
Unfortunately, with the possible exception of sound quality and style points, Sonos’s $200 Play:1 is a much better choice for people who want all of the benefits of wireless audio and streaming music — for now. If Tivoli adds support for Apple Music, Google Play Music, Amazon Music, includes a truly useful search, adds features like favorites and playlists, and stabilizes its Wi-Fi performance, we might change our tune.
How long will it last?
Tivoli Audio’s products are well known for their build quality in addition to their top-flight sound. We expect the Model One Digital and the ART speakers will last as long, and probably longer than any other product in this category. The real test will be whether or not the company continues to release firmware and app updates to keep the system competitive with the other, much bigger players like Denon, Sonos, and Yamaha. This is the company’s first attempt at a whole-home system, and there’s a risk that if it doesn’t meet expectations, Tivoli will discontinue development.
Should you buy it?
As individual components, the Tivoli ART speakers are a good buy for the money, and the Model One Digital is a satisfying update of the original Model One. They sound good, they look good, and they offer a decent, if not extraordinary, set of music-listening options. So, if you’re thinking of buying one instead of a stand-alone Bluetooth speaker, we think you’ll enjoy them. But as a whole-home Wi-Fi audio system controlled by an app, they just can’t compete with products like Sonos, Denon HEOS, or Bose. For multi-room — or even just multi-speaker — audio, you should look elsewhere.