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If you’ve been following developments in the digital audio space over the last year or so, you already know that there is a war going on. It’s a battle for dominance in the wireless home hi-fi space, and it’s been drawing in some of the biggest names in consumer electronics: Bose, Samsung, Denon, NAD, Sony, just to name a few. They’re all gunning for the crown that remains on the head of the company that started the race, Sonos. Some might say it’s getting ugly.

So how can Rocki, a tiny, bootstrapped company — working with the proceeds of a successful $222K Kickstarter campaign – compete with these giants?

The answer is deceptively simple: Create a $50 device that can replicate the most popular features of the big boys’ products and then expand from the bottom up.

At least, that’s the theory. In practice, the Rocki Play – the company’s first product – feels more like a hobbyist’s toy than a serious piece of hi-fi kit. But it has all the right ingredients to dominate the price-conscious low end of the market, especially with tech-savvy users who don’t mind working with a product that is under active development.

The Rocki Play can plug into almost any audio device.

Above: The Rocki Play can plug into almost any audio device.

What is it?

The Rocki Play is a Wi-Fi-equipped, battery-powered digital music adapter that you use in conjunction with your existing powered speakers to stream music from your smartphone or tablet or music streaming service using the free Rocki app. It charges via micro-USB, has a claimed four-hour battery life and connects to your speakers via a single 1/8” mini-jack output. Your speakers must be part of an all-in-one device, e.g., a boombox, or powered via an amp. You can also use any regular headphones.

The Rocki Play is very small - truly palm-sized.

Above: The Rocki Play is very small – truly palm-sized.

Hardware

Unlike most of the wireless hi-fi products on the market, the Rocki is built to be both very portable and something of a personal statement. It’s tiny (relatively speaking) and easily fits into the palm of your hand. It’s ridiculously light, yet solidly built. Its skewed-hexagonal shape isn’t much thicker than a smartphone. Each Rocki comes with its own gel-skin cover, which is available in a rainbow of color choices, and you can order more if you grow tired of your first choice (incurable phone cover swappers will love this).

With the exception of a flush-mounted power button (which is invisible beneath that soft skin) there are no controls at all. The only features that break up the exterior are the micro-USB port (for recharging only) and the 1/8” mini-jack. A single LED gives you status indicators, flashing red, amber, and green for various states.

Whether you love or hate the look of the Rocki is made mostly irrelevant by its diminutive size. There isn’t a stereo component or bookshelf speaker this thing can’t hide behind.

The hardware works on the same principle that dominates the wireless hi-fi market: With its own built-in system-on-a-chip, each Rocki is a self-contained media streamer that you remote control from the Rocki app. Sonos, Denon Heos, and others work the same way. This means that unless you’re streaming an audio track that lives on your phone, you can set the Rocki to play and walk away, knowing that anyone else on your Wi-Fi network with the Rocki app can connect to and control the Rocki in your absence.

rocki-play-review-hardware-portsWhat really sets the Rocki apart from systems like Sonos however, is its ability to work independently from a Wi-Fi network by switching to an available hot-spot mode. Under this configuration, the Rocki works just like a Bluetooth audio adapter, but with better range and sound quality.

Then there’s the inclusion of a rechargeable battery. It’s the kind of thing that almost every Bluetooth speaker comes with, yet almost no Wi-Fi speakers do. Even standalone Bluetooth audio adapters often omit this capability. Which is why it’s so notable – it dramatically increases the number of scenarios in which you can use the Rocki.

Rocki has added support for pretty much every audio format both lossy (MP3) and lossless (FLAC, Apple Lossless, etc.), which will please those with a taste for high bit rate audio.

Included with the Rocki Play in its bare-bones, Amazon-esque cardboard box is a USB power adapter, flat micro USB cable, 1/8” to 1/8” mini-jack patch cord, and an RCA stereo-to-1/8” mini jack patch cord: everything you need to connect to virtually every type of speaker or amp.

The home screen shows the media on your device organized by album and the Rocki Play that you are connected to at the top (iOS).

Above: The home screen shows the media on your device organized by album and the Rocki Play that you are connected to at the top (iOS).

Software and Set-up

The free Rocki app is available for both iOS and Android. However, as of the writing of this review, the two experiences are light years apart. Rocki co-founder Dennis List told VentureBeat that, “Android is our primary development platform, and most of the features are tested here first. iOS should follow shortly and in the future we will definitely start syncing launches of specific features on both OS’s at the same time.”

Suffice it to say, the iOS app is buggy and missing several critical features, such as streaming music services. I’m not even sure if it qualifies as a beta release, so I’ll keep my comments to the Android version.

Setting up a Rocki is, surprisingly, kind of fun. If you follow the quick-start instructions by connecting the Rocki to your speakers before connecting the USB power cable, you’ll be greeted by a rich male voice, who confidently tells you, “I’ve successfully started hotspot mode.”

From there, you use the “add a Rocki” option from the app’s settings menu, and it walks you through a quick wizard in which you rename your Rocki, tell the app which color of gel-skin it’s wrapped in, and of course, associate it to your Wi-Fi network (“I’ve successfully connected to your Wi-Fi router”).

List tells us that more language and voice options are planned for future firmware upgrades, hinting that these might be tied to a contest.

There’s a lot to like about the design of the app. It’s clean, with a minimal UI that for now, only works natively on smartphones. The home screen by default shows you an album art display of the media on your device. But that’s where the party stops.

Plagued by a series of small bugs, the usability of the app suffers and at times is an exercise in frustration.

During playback of a selected track, sometimes the interface shows you a time-elapsed counter on a black background with mysterious “user” and “eye” icons on the left. Tapping these does nothing. Likewise, a favorite “heart” icon hovers on the right side of the counter and is equally non-responsive. At other times you only see the album cover behind the counter, with no additional icons.

rocki-play-review-now-playing

Above: The Now Playing screen lets you re-order or delete items from the playlist (and even indicates with an icon whether the track is on your device of from a service) but there is no way to favorite tracks (Android).

If you create a playlist, tapping on the heart icons beside the tracks will turn the hearts red, which you’d assume means that they are now your favorites. But jumping to the favorites menu quickly reveals you have no favorites at all.

It can be equally difficult to understand how to add tracks to a queue. Removing and reordering them at least is straightforward – a simple swipe to the left will kill a song while tapping and holding on its “grip” lets you move it up or down.

Perhaps these oversights should be forgiven as growing pains that any small outfit working hard to get a product in market must suffer through. But given that even hardware as clever as Rocki is only as useful as the software that drives it, the company needs to squash these bugs quickly.

That said, work on the software is happening at a rapid pace. List promises that within 2-3 weeks the iOS version will reach parity with Android, and shortly after that, we’ll see some major feature upgrades.

Most important among these for people who want true multi-room audio is the ability to group multiple Rockis for your choice of simultaneous or independent playback, something that the firmware doesn’t currently support.

There is currently support for popular streaming services Deezer, SoundCloud, Last.fm with Spotify, Pandora, Rhapsody, and Napster all planned for future releases. List also claimed support for NAS-based music libraries is imminent, which will go a long way to closing the music-support gap with Sonos. iTunes support might be a different story. List says they’ve been attempting to reach Apple for its blessing, but so far, no luck.

Sound quality and performance

Considering that Rocki is a $50 device connected to audio components over an analog connection, sound quality is amazingly good. I’ve run the Rocki with small, bookshelf speakers, a full home theater surround sound system, Audio-Technica ATH-M50x monitor headphones, and a regular ol’ pair of Apple Earpods. Each performed better than piping the same music to the same products from an iPhone.

This may not satisfy die-hard audiophiles, but it does tell the average consumer something important: The built-in D/A converter in the Rocki is just as good as, if not better than, the one in the iPhone. For most, this is certainly good enough.

If, on the other hand, you insist on having more control over the digital-to-analog process, just wait a few months. The Rocki Play + is coming soon and will offer both HDMI and optical outputs in addition to the analog one, all for a mere $89.

rocki-play-review-sonos-connect-lepai-amp

Above: The Rocki Play does many of the same things as the larger (and more expensive) Sonos Connect.

My only real complaint: There are no EQ settings within the app, which means your ability to tune the sound will be limited to the controls on your amp or other device. The default EQ is a bit on the bright side for my taste, but it’s hardly a deal-breaker.

The one area I knew I was going to be super-critical about was dropouts. In my house, I have tried to create a reliable AirPlay system, and every time I did, without fail, eventually the music would stop, and I’d have to interrupt what I was doing to try and fix it. It’s the biggest reason I remain such a fan of Sonos – their proprietary Wi-Fi networking tech has always performed flawlessly. Could I really expect a $50 device to deliver the same wireless performance as a $300 device and without a dedicated bridge? I was ready to be disappointed. But I wasn’t. The Rocki performed admirably.

Speaking of AirPlay – if you’re a fan of this Apple tech, you’ll be pleased to know that the Rocki Play is recognized as an AirPlay receiver. It’s yet another reason Rocki manages to one-up its more expensive competitor, Sonos, which requires the addition of an Apple Airport Express ($90) to become AirPlay compatible.

A number of optional gel skins are available to customize the look of the Rocki Play.

Above: A number of optional gel skins are available to customize the look of the Rocki Play.

Conclusion

The Rocki, despite is current software flaws, is a groundbreaking wireless audio device. It can do most of the same things that a Sonos Connect can do, at a fraction of the price, with a degree of portability and flexibility that no other wireless hi-fi product can match.

Sonos and its upscale competitors may not need to worry about Rocki just yet (they haven’t launched into the popular Wi-Fi speaker segment so far), but they should keep a very close eye on Rocki’s progress. List and his team have demonstrated that it’s possible to deliver reliable Wi-Fi audio streaming in a small, portable and inexpensive package. Makes you wonder what they’ll do for an encore.

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