Review: Dali Kubik Free Wireless Bluetooth Speaker

01
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DALI Kubik Free: Like a High-End Mini Speaker

The Dali Kubik Free wireless Bluetooth speaker in red
The Kubik Free is designed like one of Dali's high-end minispeakers. Brent Butterworth/About

The first thing most people may notice about the DALI Kubik Free is the price. Seriously, over US$800 for a wireless speaker? Aren't these things supposed to cost $200 to $400, or up to $600 max? Yeah, maybe Bang & Olufsen can get away with charging comparatively ultra-steep prices for audio gear, but B&O's stuff tends to look sharp and modern. The Kubik Free speaker's appearance is nice enough, but – to my eyes – Libratone's wireless speakers look way cooler. And they're far more affordable, too.

But the reason behind the Kubik Free's high price starts to become clear once you realize that DALI stands not for the name of the surrealist painter, but for Danish Audiophile Loudspeaker Industries. This is a respected company that's been manufacturing high-end and mid-priced speakers for more than three decades. Take a look at the cutaway diagram of the Kubik Free, and you might realize it's designed like one of DALI's high-end mini speakers (e.g. Mentor Menuet) but is made from extruded aluminum and packed with electronics.

Obviously, the Kubik Free is targeted towards audiophiles who want a small, convenient wireless system that performs more like a real high-end audio product – not like an all-in-one system from Bose, Sonos, Raumfeld, or similar. To that end, the Kubik Free offers features that the more modestly-priced and less audibly-ambitious products generally lack. Of course, there's Bluetooth wireless with aptX support as well as analog input. But there's also an optical input that accepts digital audio signals with resolution up to 24-bit 96-kHz.

More important, though, is that the Kubik Free packs a Class D amplifier with four 25-watt amp channels. Why four channels? Because two of them power the Kubik Xtra, an optional speaker that turns the Kubik Free into a real stereo system.

So together, you might be looking at spending well under $2,000. But such a pair of high-end mini-monitors gets you: aluminum construction, high-quality drivers with each woofer and tweeter driven by a separate amp, Bluetooth wireless, a high-resolution digital-to-analog converter (DAC) built in, and a remote control, too. Does that seem like a bad deal? Not if the Kubik Free with Kubik Xtra sounds like a real high-end system.

02
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DALI Kubik Free: Features and Ergonomics

The rear of the DALI Kubik Free speaker, showing all the connetions
The DALI Kubik Free packs a lot of features for a wireless speaker. Brent Butterworth/About

• 1-inch fabric dome tweeter
• 5.25-inch wood-fiber cone woofer
• 25-watt Class D amp for each driver
• Bluetooth aptX wireless
• USB and Toslink optical digital inputs
• RCA stereo analog input
• RCA subwoofer output
• Remote control
• Unit can learn remote control commands from other devices' remotes
• Optional Kubik Xtra extension speaker for stereo or multi-room operation
• Available in nine colors
• 12 x 5.7 x 5.7 in (305 x 145 x 145 mm)
• 9.9 lb (4.5 kg)

That's a lot of features for a wireless speaker. What's missing? It'd be nice to have some sort of Wi-Fi audio capability, such as AirPlay or Play-Fi because that would bypass the lossy data compression Bluetooth can often add, while also giving multi-room capability.

That said, when you add the Kubik Xtra, you can put the Free in one room and the Xtra in another and have them both play in mono. But then you have a wire to deal with. A big, fat wire that will be very difficult to hide. Yuck.

I used the Kubik Free for a while on its own, then added the Kubik Xtra. My main audio source was my Samsung Galaxy S III Android phone connected through Bluetooth. I also set up the Free/Xtra speakers to flank my 47-inch Samsung TV, with the TV connected through Toslink optical to the DALI system.

03
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DALI Kubik Free: Performance

The remote control included with the DALI Kubik Free wireless Bluetooth speaker
The DALI Kubik Free wireless Bluetooth speaker comes with a convenient remote control. Brent Butterworth/About

When I first listen to an all-in-one stereo product, I always subconsciously cringe just a little. There's almost always something wrong somewhere: drivers interfering with each other, plastic protuberances blocking the sound's path, vibrating plastic panels, wind noises chuffing from little ports, etc. So it almost felt like something was wrong when I got the Kubik Free playing because I didn't hear any of that. What I hear sounds a lot more like my reference system (Revel Performa3 F206 speakers and a Krell S-300i integrated amp) than any other all-in-one wireless speaker I've tried.

Because the DALI Kubik Free has just one woofer and one tweeter, both sheathed with nothing but a thin piece of fabric, there are none of those weird, midrange-mangling frequency response anomalies that you hear in most other all-in-one systems. Listening to the Kubik Free is like enjoying a really good set of mini speakers, except that these have the advantage of digital signal processing and digital crossovers.

Vocals played by the Kubik Free speaker sound extremely clean and natural. Colorations are almost non-existent – the only thing particularly notable is a slight overall brightness. Otherwise, nothing is amiss when it concerns female voices. With music, male voices –James Taylor, Deep Purple's Ian Gillan, Band of Skulls' Russell Marsden – sound terrific. But when listening to men playing lawyers on The Good Wife, or to Tim Allen, Alan Rickman, and the other male actors in Galaxy Quest, I notice a slight amount of extra fullness. It can be heard somewhere in the 150 Hz range but ends up more as an acoustic character than an actual sonic flaw.

With just the Kubik Free playing, the sound is natural, but not spacious. After all, it's just one speaker. Add the Kubik Xtra and the system opens up nicely, providing a super-broad stereo soundstage that's the equal of what you can get with most good mini speakers. In fact, I think you'd be kind of crazy not to add the Xtra. With it, you've got a real stereo system instead of an all-in-one – big stereo sound rather than background music. Go for it!

The imaging with the full stereo rig is solid, throwing a strong center image along with clearly delineated images of various instruments spanning left to right on the soundstage. Thomas Dybdahl's "U" (from Science) sounds haunting. Dybdahl's voice is almost creepily realistic and distinct between the speakers, standing out in contrast to the other instruments. Sure, Science is a great but completely studio-phony piece. But more realistic, audiophile-style recordings, such as saxophonist David Aaron's Flip City, sounds just as stunning. You can pick out all the little atmospheric details of Aaron's full-bodied tenor alongside drummer Kate Gentile's cymbals skittering between the Kubik Free and the Xtra speakers.

Something else you should consider in addition to the Xtra is a subwoofer. When listening to the system (either the Free itself or with the Xtra), I often found myself wishing I could pump the bass up about +2 dB. While the speakers have enough bass to please most audiophiles – many of whom have a rather troubled relationship with bass – it's not, in my opinion, enough to please your average listener. Clearly, DALI went for low distortion rather than maximum bass output.

Fortunately, there's a subwoofer output on the Kubik Free. When you connect a sub, it automatically activates a crossover that filters the bass out of the Kubik Free and Xtra, routing it to the sub. The extra bass not only fills out the sound nicely, it subjectively tames that previously-mentioned brightness. Not completely, but appreciably enough.

I used a Sunfire True Subwoofer Super Junior for the subwoofer, but you could use almost any you want. It doesn't need to be a big one – just a good one. Because while you won't have to play all that loud to keep up with the DALI system, a good-sounding subwoofer will match up well with the speakers. Something like the Hsu Research STF-1 seems about right; DALI recommends its own Fazon Sub 1.

Crank the system up over 100 dB and it won't distort. But that brightness will come back. The system overall is better at what I'd call "comfortably loud" levels, with peaks in the 90s (decibel-wise), which is how I usually prefer to listen to pop and rock.

Could you get better sound from a $1,000 pair of mini speakers, a good $500 integrated amp, and a decent Bluetooth receiver? Probably. But you'd have more wires, more complexity, and more components than most people wish to deal with these days.

04
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DALI Kubik Free: Final Take

The DALI Kubik Free wireless speaker's built-in controls
The DALI Kubik Free wireless speaker features simple built-in controls. Brent Butterworth/About

The DALI Kubik Free, and the accompanying Kubik Xtra, are truly something special and unique in high-end audio market. It's no secret that the high-end audio industry has struggled to make its products relevant to the average music listener. But the Kubik system effortlessly crosses that boundary, with the way it's designed as a real high-end system with all the convenience and cool looks of a standard all-in-one wireless speaker. When I originally saw the price of the Kubik Free system, I thought it was too steep, but now it strikes me as something of a bargain for long-term use.

Product page: DALI Kubik Free