Hidden Radio Review: If Apple Built A Bluetooth Speaker, This Would Be It

 @redletterdave
on September 26 2012 10:12 AM

Apple doesn’t build its own speaker systems (unless you count those EarPods), which is why it’s up to third parties to continually innovate audio speakers for the growing number of smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices that rely on wireless technology. Many peripheral speakers are sleek and some have excellent sound, but few can walk the line between portability, beauty and function. The Hidden Radio & Bluetooth Speaker is one of those rare speakers.

Nine months after successfully funding their project on Kickstarter – setting the goal at $125,000, but raising $938,771 from 5,358 individual backers – industrial designers John Van Den Nieuwenhuizen and Vitor Santa Maria finally began shipping out the first units of their Hidden Radio & Bluetooth Speaker to their first batch of customers on Monday with the help of Palo Alto, Calif.-based ShipWire. The Hidden Radio is a compact, powerful wireless speaker and FM radio built for iPhone and iPad, which leverages Bluetooth wireless technology to play music and other audio remotely and instantly.

The Hidden Radio has an elegant, iconic design that disappears into the environment when it’s not in use, hence the name. The lid blankets the speakers when off, but as soon as you lift the lid, the Hidden Radio automatically springs to life and enters pairing mode, which makes for effortless wireless syncing with an iPhone or iPad. To control the volume of the device, you simply lift the lid to make it louder, and lower the lid to make it softer. It’s really that simple.

“We tried to lift every impediment possible so anyone can use our product,” said John Van Den Nieuwenhuizen, who stopped by IBTimes’ office in New York for a quick chat between flights. “We don’t put any barriers up to technology.”

Nieuwenhuizen, who left his native Australia for Milan at 21 to pursue a career in design, said he met his partner Vitor Santa Maria while working for Motorola in Italy. Even though the firm only had about 10 designers at the time he joined, Nieuwenhuizen said working for Motorola at the time was very exciting especially since it was right around the time the telecom company was enjoying renewed celebrity and a large influx of money from its highly popular Razr cell phone. Nieuwenhuizen's number of co-workers grew from 10 to 300 people in a very short amount of time.

“Motorola was just booming at the time,” Nieuwenhuizen said. “It was really fun. It felt like you could do anything. You could do as many projects as you want, get as many responsibilities as you want, just as long as you were willing to do work.”

Once Nieuwenhuizen met Santa Maria, who had similarly left a foreign home (Rio De Janeiro) to pursue design in Milan – he’d even helped design the iconic Motorola V70 phone – the two designers quickly got to know each other and realized their design tastes, and even their backgrounds, were very similar. Both came from the Southern Hemisphere to pursue design in Italy, and both had similar visions for the type of business they wanted to own and lives they wanted to live.

“We’re the same in our quirky humor, but we’re very different in our skill sets,” Nieuwenhuizen said. “I’m a little bit more right-brained, a little more creative up front, Vitor is just so ultra-focused on something, it’s really incredible. Absolutely anal. But it’s great in a business partner.”

Nieuwenhuizen and Santa Maria remained in close contact, keeping their eyes peeled for opportunities to innovate products that improved lives, until one snowy Saturday night in Chicago back in 2007, when inspiration struck.

“When it snows in Chicago, you ain't goin' anywhere," Nieuwenhuizen said. "I had a bottle of wine open, it was around 11 o’clock at night. I was sketching away and I started one thing, and I looked at my speakers, and I thought about my computer. One thing led to the next.”

Nieuwenhuizen called up Santa Maria, and the two continued to look at Nieuwenhuizen’s designs and make adjustments to them, until that “a-ha moment” hit.

“The ‘a-ha moment’ was we were adding all of these buttons and functions to it – saying to each other, ‘We gotta add this, we gotta add that’ – and we looked back on it on paper and said, ‘Well it looks good, but it’s got all this shit all over it.’ So we just took the eraser, got rid of this, got rid of that, and we’re like, ‘What if it’s just the cap?’” Nieuwenhuizen said. “It was so simple, we wondered, ‘Why hasn’t someone else done it yet?’ That was the point where we said, ‘Wow, let’s get rid of everything.’ So we kept pulling away more stuff to reveal the pure essence of the product.”

The original iPhone had just been released that year -- Android had yet to be unveiled -- but Bluetooth technology was already becoming a popular trend; yet despite the massive market need for Bluetooth speakers, there really were no favorable choices on the market. Apple offered a dock at the time, but as Nieuwenhuizen said, “they only worked with Apple, and when you took the phone out of the dock, it looked empty, and that drove me nuts.” His design, what would later become the Hidden Radio & Bluetooth Speaker, was “a product I really wanted for myself.”

For years, Nieuwenhuizen and Santa Maria designed and prototyped the Hidden Radio, sharing the idea with friends and bloggers, and each new person that saw the Hidden Radio’s design instantly understood how it worked, and loved it. That’s how Nieuwenhuizen knew he and his partner were onto something great.

Hidden Radio & Bluetooth Speaker: The Review

The Hidden Radio & Bluetooth Speaker perfectly matches its name: it’s hidden when it’s not needed, but despite its unassuming design, the speaker packs a wonderful punch.

The Hidden Radio's design was partially inspired by one of Nieuwenhuizen’s heroes, Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa, which explains the Hidden Radio’s humble but powerful form factor.

“[Fukasawa] brings [an idea] back to its absolute core and adds a little bit of poetry,” Nieuzenhuizen said. “You can see that in our product: It’s very simple, but it’s just got this beautiful poetic element. We really try to do the right thing ethically, but we also try to keep our products simple, modest and balanced.”

The speaker, which comes in three different colors (black, silver and white), is shiny and perfectly smooth, but also lightweight and portable -- it even comes with a slick microfiber bag for travel. One will also notice that the Hidden Radio has no written labels on the outside, but that too has a purpose.

“A lot of companies put their massive logos on them, and it’s fine for their business and it works for their personalities, but it’s just not us,” Nieuwenhuizen explained. “We really want to hide the logos; if you buy our product, you don’t have to keep advertising it. The product is the advertisement, because it’s a hard product to copy.”

Of course, the functionality of the design is obvious. It’s portable enough to carry around in almost any bag or purse, making it easy to bring to a party or any spur-of-the-moment event, and since has no physical controls on the outside -- save the lid that activates the device and adjusts the volume -- it's extremely easy to pick up and use. The design respects the user and makes them feel smart, which is something Apple also aims to do in every product it makes.

From a performance standpoint, the Hidden Radio & Bluetooth Speaker is excellent at its job, thanks to its 360-degree speaker design that evenly spreads sound throughout any room it’s in. And it can get loud too: the Hidden Radio can reach between 80 to 90 db, but audio tends to get distorted when the device’s limits are pushed. In addition, the speaker doesn’t carry too much bass, so it's almost best to play this speaker at a low to medium-loud level.

However, despite its minor audio shortcomings, the device is quite excellent. The speakers themselves last for a long time on a single battery charge – 15 hours, right out of the box for me – and they are very reasonably priced. The speakers, which once cost $99 on Kickstarter, will cost $149 each (the white model will set you back $180) until Sept. 30; after that, the Hidden Radio will cost $190 for black and silver, and $220 for the white model. Not bad for a speaker as durable, agile and fashionable as the Hidden Radio. 

Conclusion

The Hidden Radio & Bluetooth Speaker is the first major project launched by Nieuwenhuizen and Santa Maria, who will now continue building products under the company name “Hidden." To their credit, this introductory product makes one hell of a first impression.

The speakers perform exactly as promised, and even though its maximum audio output is a bit distorted and the bass leaves much to be desired, the system is simply gorgeous, and will definitely make an impression on friends and party guests. The speakers sync effortlessly with Bluetooth-friendly devices, and users get plenty of playtime from each individual charge.

Nieuwenhuizen and Santa Maria didn’t set out to build a “rockstar design,” but to build a product that improves people’s lives. Your life probably may not be revolutionized by the Hidden Radio, but owning this slick, portable speaker for use in almost any situation will definitely enrich it. If you own an iDevice, the Hidden Radio may be one of the only speaker set that matches Apple's philosophies and design proclivities: It's exceedingly easy to use, it has a smart and gorgeous design, and most importantly, it respects the user's intelligence.

"We want these products to be used for many, many years," said Nieuwenhuizen.

HiddenRadio - How it all started from HiddenRadio on Vimeo.

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