Sengled lightbulb speakers: The best worst stereo on Earth

The idea, design, software are all great. It just sounds terrible

Review It's not often these days that you are disappointed by a product. Websites with online ratings and amateur reviews have made it so easy and fast for people to share experiences of new gizmos that you can instantly tell a hit from a dud – and avoid the duds.

What makes the Sengled lightbulbs all the more disappointing is that I'd seen them in action, and been impressed with the general manager for Sengled USA, Alex Ruan, when he gave a talk at the Internet of Things World 2015 conference back in May.

"We can do much more with light bulbs than ever before," he told attendees, outlining a line of products: lightbulbs with speakers, lightbulbs with WiFi boosters, and lightbulbs with cameras.

Lightbulbs are a great "form factor" for smart-home devices. They have their own power supply, they exist in every room already, they are easy to install, and people are very comfortable with them.

For us, they were a highlight among the many products at IoT World (some of which were plain terrible).

And so we asked Sengled to send us some to test and they shipped the two versions of their lightbulb speaker: the standalone Solo and the stereo/networked Pulse. The first costs $59.99 and the second $149.99 for two bulbs/speakers.

Not cheap, but with one Sonos speaker likely to set you back $200, a good entry point. We had visions of running the radio in the kitchen or music in the lounge. A lightbulb-sized speaker is never going to replace a proper stereo but you don't need high-end sound in every room.

And then we screwed them in.

Probably the nicest sound that comes out of the bulb is the "beep bop" when you turn it on, to let you know it has power and is ready to pair with your phone. After that, it's all downhill.

Despite having what appear to be relatively large speakers placed around the outside rim of the bulb, the sound they emit is tinnier than your iPhone. There is literally no bass or even sense of bass. Despite claiming a frequency range of 100Hz–20kHz, all that appears to come out is mid-range and even that wasn't pleasant.

It felt like going back in time to the 1980s and putting up with terrible sound quality from a portable stereo just because it could get loud. This didn’t seem right. At $75 a lightbulb, surely there were some decent speakers in there.

So, using the iPhone I switched from music to radio (TuneIn). Human voices were much better but again, not in any way warm. Slightly grating in fact. The stereo aspect of the bulbs did work incredibly well, you could get a real sense of the sounds moving around.

Plus the sensation of sound coming from much higher up than usual (in the middle of the wall rather than on top of a surface) was a pleasant change; it seemed to float in the room. The only problem is that the sound is so bad it's more like dealing with a bad smell than savoring a lovely experience.

Back to the music. No, no, turn if off. Back to radio. Too tinny. Try music again.

At this point my wife walks in. "What is that horrible sound?" I felt obliged to stand up for Sengled. "It's not that bad. And the stereo aspect is really good." She looks unpersuaded. "It sounds terrible. I'm going to have to go to another room."

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