We worry a little when we’re sent pricey Bluetooth speakers for review, our experience being that part of the high pricing is often hot air — it’s $700 so it must be great, eh? Not always, no. On the other hand we also find that units from real hi-fi companies are less prone to such underperformance, and of course DALI (Danish Audiophile Loudspeaker Industries) qualifies big-time on that count, after 30 years of hi-fi speaker design. This is the company that recently won Sound+Image’s award for Best Loudspeakers up to $10,000 with its thrilling Epicon 6. Can it deliver similar performance value at such a smaller size and price?
Well my, it’s certainly impressive when you lift it from the packaging. The Katch is wide at 27cm, but slim, less than 5cm deep, and while we regularly use the adjective ‘well-built’ for a unit with solid construction, this is a level above — it’s exceptionally well-built, with a luxuriously-finished extruded aluminium body, front and rear baffles made from a solid polycarbonate ABS plastic with attractive hexagonal-grid grilles front and back. The unit under review was what DALI describes as ‘Cloud Gray’ (above), although to us it looks like beige front and back, brushed dusty-rose aluminium around the cabinet curves; definitely a feminine combo. The other two options are Moss Green (DALI has a thing about green) and Dark Shadow (sounds like the return of Sauron, but actually a rather pleasant pheasant blue). They’re all classy combos.
A leather carry-strap sits flush in general use but slides out neatly to provide a handle, since this is designed to be a portable speaker. It’s heavier than some at 1.1kg, significantly more than, say, the Bose SoundLink Mini II’s 670g, and double the weight of the UE Boom 2. That’s a chunk of your hand luggage allowance. But solidity counts, especially when it includes a 2600mAh internal battery which can be charged to give an impressive 24 hours of playback.
So the combination of size, weight and price may deliver something special. The driver specs are certainly promising — this is no mono speaker (as are a surprising number of Bluetooth speakers), having a pair of 3.5-inch aluminium-cone woofers with cloth caps plus a pair of 21mm textile-dome tweeters… it’s also a closed box design with a pair of racetrack-shaped (7 x 5cm) steel-coned passive radiators, their movement driven by the back energy within the unit from the other drivers.
And DALI’s stated performance specs seems extraordinary for a portable speaker — frequency response of 49Hz to 23,000Hz within a -3dB envelope? Maximum sound pressure levels of 95dB? My my.
Connectivity is straightforward enough — most users will likely favour Bluetooth, which offers NFC touch pairing as well as the usual connection via your device’s settings menu.Indeed two devices can connect simultaneously, and can play in turn (not at the same time).
The Bluetooth spec includes the aptX codec which allows higher quality transmission than the default SBC Bluetooth connection if you have an Android device that also supports aptX.
There’s also a minijack input on the side, alongside a USB socket which is for charging, not playback. DALI cleverly notes that this combination will service not only direct connection and charging from your preferred smart phone or tablet device, it’s also a potentially great fit for Google’s Chromecast Audio (not video) dongle. With its audio output plugged into the minijack, its power coming from the 5V-capable USB charging socket, in this way your Katch could be part of a Chromecast multiroom arrangement.
We began with simple Bluetooth playback from our iPod touch, pairing quickly and confirming with a nice bloopy connection sound. One early portrayal that had our ears pricking up was the alternate take of The Doors’ Riders on the Storm, where the opening bass line emerged from the Katch and filled the corner of the room with its full octave before being joined by a remarkably forward and weighty drum sound, and finally Morrison’s vocal projecting out in front of it all, everything held together as a highly entertaining whole.
Bill Berry’s recording of Ellington’s Take the A Train was also treated beautifully, the acoustic bass a little mild and recessed, but the piano growing in stature through the tune, the horns and solos positively bursting from the Katch with the dynamics of a full-size speaker, even a full sense of the room acoustic — when they say the Katch is “carrying the DALI DNA”, this is presumably what they mean.
Lemon Jelly’s The Staunton Lick jigged along with its jangling guitars rather too projected, and putting some sweeps through the Katch (via the cable input) there did seem to be a few little peaks or resonances up at 9kHz and 11kHz, a few small dips in the bass, but overall impressively well balanced, and with that remarkable frequency claim borne out — useful bass from as low as 40Hz and clean extension up to our hearing limits.
When we ran a channel ID track, the stereo separation was also unusually genuine and effective for a portable unit, so many of which are, as we said, actually mono. But it was backwards — left was right and right was left, through both Bluetooth and the minijack connection. From the DALI logo and the button iconography, you’d assume the strap goes on the left. We hesitate to suggest that DALI has accidentally switched the channels somewhere, but, um, should that be the case, the unit could be firmware updated (the old way, by download and USB) or used facing the other way — there’s one tweeter on each side (see above), so it doesn’t matter sonically at all.
As with all small speakers, positioning greatly affects the sound. We often have to distinguish how products sound depending whether they’re near or far, in free space or by a wall. DALI has very helpfully included a choice of two sound modes to allow some basic adjustment — one is brighter, the other warmer. If the Katch is across the room, or you’re using it outside, you’ll most likely pick the brighter (‘Clear’) sound. If the Katch is closer, on your desktop or bedside table, going ‘Warm’ calms things for a better nearfield balance. Experiment — our favourite spot had the Katch up on a cupboard near a corner with the ‘Clear’ setting.
You switch between the two sound modes using the far right button on top of the unit (if it does go the obvious way round), one of five nice flush-sunk studs. The others are for volume up/down, Bluetooth pairing and power, the last ringed by four lights which give a constant and useful reminder of the Katch’s charge level.
We didn’t notice any sonic penalty for going to battery operation, and in this mode the Katch sensibly turns itself off after a few minutes without an input. You then need to manually press the power button to restart, upon which it reconnects to your device, ready to play.
As for volume, this was for us a speaker that, like real hi-fi, tended to find its own level. When we played the modern recording of Gershwin’s own piano roll of Rhapsody in Blue, there was a level at which the piano sounded real — below it was too quiet to enjoy, above it got peaky. Some Mozart (Neville Marriner on Philips) was the same — a level just below room-filling had the Katch sounding its best, though orchestral strings were one element for which the Katch lacked a bit of richness in the low mids. Its sonic beauty thinned a bit with pop and rock played at high levels — complexity congested, bass levels unable to keep up with the midrange, unbalancing the sound.
There is an option of pairing two Katches as a stereo pair — this always lifts power and clarity dramatically, but we didn’t have a second unit to try it. As a single unit, it is at medium levels that the Katch sounds its best, and its best is impressively close to a hi-fi performance.
The Katch is highly impressive in its presentation, both visually and sonically, a high quality compact and portable unit which often overcomes its size limitations. Of course if smallness and battery playback are not on your wishlist, there are larger Bluetooth and wireless speakers at this price with a bigger sound; add a few hundred bucks and you can get real hi-fi with full-size active wireless stereo standmount speakers.
The Katch, on the other hand, delivers its gold in achieving such a large and musical delivery from the bounds of such a portable unit — premium sound from a premium product.
- Volume limits, Channels reversed, Big plug adapter