Since debuting in 2015 as a simple portable P.A./boombox, Mackie’s FreePlay brand has expanded into a full-fledged series with three models to suit a variety of needs: FreePlay LIVE, FreePlay HOME and FreePlay GO. Their names tell the story. The largest unit, LIVE ($399), is primarily a personal P.A., while HOME ($249) might be considered a modern-day replacement for the bookshelf stereo, and GO ($179), the smallest of the three, is meant to be tossed in a knapsack for music on the move.
For this review, Mackie provided the LIVE and HOME units, but all three share a number of features, including up to 15 hours of rechargeable battery life, control via the FreePlay Connect app, and an all-in-one design with a low-key visual aesthetic. Devoid of brash colors, glowing lights and other design elements you often find on Bluetooth speakers, the FreePlay Series has a modern, mature sensibility built around a tasteful black metal grille and durable molded enclosure, both with distinctive curves that help the units blend into a variety of situations. Likewise, while neither unit I tested was especially heavy, they both looked and felt pleasingly solid. As a result, the FreePlay Series projects an air of sophistication; whether you’re setting up the LIVE Personal P.A. for an audience or have a HOME unit sitting in a corner of your kitchen, their appearance tells you a bit about what to expect.
What you expect, of course, is good sound, and FreePlay delivers that, too. The 4-pound HOME does a nice job as a portable Bluetooth speaker capable of streaming audio from devices like your phone or an Amazon Alexa, but I spent most of the review period focusing on the LIVE PPA, since it’s most applicable to PSN readers.
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The LIVE unit offers 150 W of power and covers a frequency range of 60 Hz to 20 kHz using a high-output 6-inch woofer and dual tweeters, all of which sit in a specially tuned ported enclosure that offers 90-degree dispersion. The back panel demonstrates the thought put into ensuring the LIVE is flexible enough for a variety of scenarios. Dual 1/4-inch/XLR combo inputs can take mics, guitars and other instruments, while a 1/8-inch stereo aux input can connect smartphones and other devices. That said, the LIVE offers Bluetooth connectivity, so you might prefer to stream audio to it wirelessly, depending on your situation. Rounding out the back, a 1/4-inch balanced monitor out allows you to send your mix to another powered speaker, mixer, portable recorder or something else.
Atop the unit sits a multipurpose LED meter and a button-based mixer that allows you to adjust all three inputs’ levels and overall volume, apply onboard reverb, and choose EQ presets for recorded or live music. For users who don’t feel like repeatedly dashing over to the LIVE unit to adjust things, Mackie offers the FreePlay Connect app for iOS and Android devices, allowing wireless control of all those parameters, even when also streaming music to the LIVE via Bluetooth. Additionally, the app can save and recall snapshots, which is a nice touch. The app works smoothly and at a respectable distance; my only issues with it came from my finicky phone, which doesn’t like to remember Bluetooth connections from one day to the next.
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In use, the LIVE unit simply worked—no surprises, no disappointments. It set up quickly for a number of impromptu living room jam sessions, able to get brawny when necessary and provide a considerable amount of low end despite its diminutive size. For a backyard party, it filled the space easily with streamed music without ripping the heads off of people sitting near it; no doubt, the EQ presets helped.
But the way I used the LIVE unit most often was as a backup P.A. for a series of lectures at public libraries where I ran Apple Keynote and video clips off a laptop. AV systems in libraries are invariably old, quirky, poorly maintained and used by hundreds of people a year, and the staff is rarely knowledgeable about them, so you’re usually on your own if you need to patch in. Getting a laptop and the AV systems to play nice was always simple when it came to video (the VGA connector is alive and well in America’s libraries), but during the review period, there were a number of occasions where the LIVE PPA came to the rescue in terms of audio. Since it weighs just under 9 pounds and measures 7.75 x 14 x 7 inches, the LIVE unit was no hassle to bring along just in case, and when it was pressed into service, the unit was great, covering seated audiences of up to 60 people without breaking a sweat. During video clips, I would visit the back of the room to check the sound, and coverage was always strong and clear, even when LIVE was placed relatively low to the ground on a chair. (There’s a built-in speaker tripod mount for users who are better prepared than I was.)
Also of note is the unit’s built-in, rechargeable lithium-ion battery; while you can run LIVE plugged into a wall socket, the battery was rock-solid during the review period, going multiple months without a recharge while periodically getting thrust into 90 minutes of speech and music without a hiccup. Intriguingly, the various FreePlay models can link to each other wirelessly, too, for a multi-room listening situation, though they can only share Bluetooth audio.
While the original FreePlay tried to be all things to all people, Mackie’s idea to offer an expanded line of largely specialized units was a great move, allowing the company to provide quality sound at a variety of price points that scale up with the user’s goals, ensuring customers get only the features they need. LIVE in particular does a fine job for a sub-$500 PPA, cementing what I expect will be a long run for the FreePlay line.
Mackie • www.mackie.com