Most of the portable Bluetooth speakers we test in the $100-and-below price range tend to be rugged to some degree. Despite its price and size, the $79.99 House of Marley Liberate BT is a stylish, thoughtfully designed speaker that is more at home on desks and kitchen counters than in the great outdoors. For its size, the Liberate BT delivers laudable audio performance, with rich lows and crisp, clear highs. There’s plenty of tough competition in this price range, but the Liberate BT gets some key design elements right (the angle of the drivers, for instance) and manages to hold its own.
The 2.9-by-8.6-by-1.8-inch (HWD) Liberate is almost wedge-shaped, and offered in solid black, or, we’ll say a “botanical” pattern (pictured below). The materials used are eco-friendly—a mix of recycled plastics, cotton, and hemp make up the cloth that wraps around the outside, for instance. One major design aspect the Liberate BT gets right: The drivers are angled upward, so that when the speaker sits on a tabletop, the music is aimed more or less directly at your ears. This makes a huge difference in terms of perceived treble presence, which is the difference between a crisp mix and a muddy one.
The front face has circular perforations that expose a cloth speaker grille beneath. Behind the grille, stereo 1-inch drivers and a passive radiator deliver the audio. The top panel actually points backward because of the angled contour—this is where the controls for volume, Bluetooth pairing, and power are situated. The pairing button also doubles as the call management control for the speakerphone function.
Along the side panels, there are snap-shut covers that protect the micro USB port (for the included USB charging cable) on the right, and the 3.5mm aux input on the left (there’s unfortunately no included audio cable for this input, however). The rear panel has a strip of FSC-certified bamboo wood as an accent, and the bottom panel has two rubber strips to stabilize the speaker and keep it from moving around your desktop. House of Marley claims the speaker cloth is rugged, but the Liberate BT isn’t rated to withstand drops or water, so you’ll mostly want to keep it inside.
House of Marley estimates the Liberate BT gets roughly 8 hours of battery life, but your results will depend on your mix of wireless versus wired playback, and how loudly you play your tunes.
On tracks with intense sub-bass, like The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the Liberate BT delivers a laudable thumping bass response at moderate volumes. At maximum volume, it’s hard to tell if the drivers are distorting or the speaker is simply vibrating so much it begins to create a rumbling sound that’s not part of the mix. Regardless, the sound is not so intense that it’s annoying, and lowering the volume a bit seems to eliminate any hint of it.
Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” a track without much in the way of deep bass, gives us a better sense of the overall sound signature. The drums on this track receive enough low frequency response to have a sense of body and presence in the mix, but the speaker isn’t capable of boosting them to the point that they sound thunderous. This is a good thing, as many bass-forward speakers often exaggerate the lows to unnatural levels—here, the drums have body and depth, but don’t sound ridiculous. Callahan’s baritone vocals get a pleasant added presence in the low-mids, tacking on some richness that they arguably don’t need—but the speaker also balances this with a crisp, crackling high-mids and high frequency presence. The guitar strumming and Callahan’s vocals thus have plenty of definition and treble edge despite the somewhat beefed-up low-mids.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” the kick drum loop’s attack gets plenty of high-mid crunch, giving it a sharp edge that pierces the layers of the mix. The sub-bass synth hits on this track are more implied than delivered—we hear their raspy top notes, but the deep ominous lows that accompany them are too far out of the Liberate BT’s range to be reproduced. All three vocal performances are delivered clearly and crisply without any added sibilance or harshness. The Liberate BT is able to convey the sense of low-end power the track packs without actually delivering all the bass and instead focusing on clarity in the high-mids and highs—a nice trick.
Unlike much of the competition in this price range, the House of Marley Liberate BT is not particularly outdoor-friendly. So if it’s a more action-focused portable Bluetooth speaker you’re after, consider the Braven BRV-Pro, the EcoXGear EcoCarbon, or the Nyne Edge. And if you’re looking to spend less, the JBL Clip 2 is a solid (albeit less powerful) alternative. For $80, though, the Liberate BT delivers a solid music experience, and not all speakers need to be designed to survive outdoor parties and camping trips. If you’re looking for an attractive wireless speaker for your office or kitchen, the upward angling of the drivers and crisp, rich response makes the Liberate BT a good choice.