The Magic Radio and the Suspension of Disbelief
The Magic Radio OB-4 is Teenage Engineering’s latest contraption. The Swedish tech house has a history of creating curious musical instruments, gadgets, and home goods. Prefigured by a product line developed for IKEA, the Magic Radio is a Bluetooth speaker with aspirations of eccentric grandeur.
Inside an obelisk that would have Dieter Rams covetous is a Bluetooth receiver, FM radio with digital scanner, analogue audio input, and dream machine. It presents as a speaker — and it sounds quite good — but it is in the curious Disk mode that this device betrays is surreal raison d’être. Here we find a metronome with speed controlled by a multi-purpose motorized wheel, a meditation setting with looped recordings of two dozen variations on shamanic incantations (yes…), and a hypnagogic real-time radio remixer where the motorized wheel now allows you to control how deep you want to slip away into the void.
The build quality is superb. It was built in Romania in a flourish of European engineering capabilities and a move away from the diminishing returns of Chinese manufacturing. It has sharp (very sharp) 90º edges. The volume control is motorized as is the ever-turning Tape wheel. The latter records all audio played through the unit and can be turned backwards to repeat anything it has heard over the past two hours. It can also create audio loops from its input, and these can be further manipulated with various key/wheel combinations.
Some design decisions yield challenges to the user. With a limited interface consisting of only two button and two wheels we are forced into unintuitive button combinations to access most features. Input and Play buttons have the same size, shape, and surface. Though they are positioned side by side, a tactile point of differentiation would be useful. The volume wheel’s protrusion makes it susceptible to being moved accidentally when scrolling the always inviting tape wheel. Since the wheel is quite sensitive and as the system is capable of reaching high volumes, this can yield an unpleasant surprise. There is no speaker cover. While this makes for an elegant appearance, it exposes the soft cones to damage.
The radio has a rigid handle that can be rotated to lay it at a slight angle. However as there is no footing and no lock position, the handle can kick out and send the unit falling on its face. When set down on its handle, it seems the unit should go speakers down. This muddies the sound and hides the text labels of the buttons and knobs. If set down the other way, all of the text is upside down but visible…
A deeply felt gap is the omission of an audio output. With so many sound creation features and so much emphasis on meditative states, it is strange there is no way to isolate this experience within headphones or to reproduce it elsewhere.
•More spacing between the two wheels
•Another button or two for more intuitive control
•Speaker grills (magnetic face — why not?)
•Better orientation of the button labels
•Allow the handle to move in but one direction (whichever direction the speakers are intended to be)
•Power jack on the side rather than in back
•USB-C as power source
Teenage Engineering promises the small, strange set of Disk mode features is just the beginning. It has me curious as to where they intend to take this device in the future — and if they haven’t already designed their Magic Radio into a corner of amusing quirks and limited usability.