Press Clipping
Review: Artiphon Orba 2

THE ARTIPHON Orba 2, which is about the size of an orange sliced in half, looks more like an Echo Dot than a musical instrument. It’s meant to be held in the palm of your hand, where you can press its keys, whack it, tilt it, and otherwise physically manipulate it to make musical sounds. The strange form factor is intriguing, especially if you’re not a trained musician and find traditional instruments intimidating.

The device is easy to pick up and immediately start using, even if you’re bad at making music. Slap any of the eight slices across the top of the Orba and they produce various sounds at various pitches. Sound comes out through speakers built into the bottom, or it can be routed elsewhere using the headphone jack on the side. The musical pads respond to the intensity and direction of your press, letting you add vibrato and control the dynamics of each sound. Combining button presses with certain gestures let you add or adjust various filters and effects. For example, rotate the Orba while playing a note and the pitch will bend and warp along with the movement. The buttons provide haptic feedback and contain LEDs, so the whole Orba rumbles and buzzes and flashes like a gaming controller as you use it. All of these features work together to make conducting your own song a tactile experience.

Artiphon’s synthesis engine lives inside the Orba 2. A small selection of basic sound packs are preloaded onto the device; you get a variety of drum, synthesizer, and string sounds to play with. You can tweak the sound offerings by connecting the Orba to a computer or phone using a USB-C cable.

Artiphon Orba 2
The Orba 2 is the second generation of this weird little beatboxing grapefruit. It costs $150—a big step up from the $100 price of the Orba 1, but one that comes with several new features. This newer Orba supports sampling, and it allows you to record samples in the wild or import sound files from your phone or computer. It also lets you build loops that are up to five minutes long, a big upgrade from the 45-second limit on the Orba 1. The Orba 2 also has a quantizer feature, so the rhythmically challenged among us can enjoy having our performances automatically aligned to a tempo grid to make everything sound tighter, and maybe a bit more robotic.

The built-in speakers aren’t loud enough for use during a live performance, but they’re serviceable enough to hear what you’re playing while fooling around. A headphone jack lets you plug a pair of cans right into the side for much better audio fidelity. And really, that’s where the Orba 2 is at its best: with your headphones on, hunched over this little matte hemisphere while lounging on your couch or intently ignoring everyone else on the city bus. It’s great for bringing along on trips where you’ll have a lot of downtime, or for handing to a kid you need to keep busy for a while.

Artiphon Orba 2 surrounded by musical instruments and toys.
The Orba 2 provides auditory, visual, and haptic feedback when you use it, much like an analog instrument. PHOTOGRAPH: ARTIPHON
Artiphon Orba 2
Artiphon Orba 2

RATING: 7/10

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It’s when you try to get a little more advanced that the Orba 2 can falter. When I tried to establish a Bluetooth connection between the Orba 2 and the Android app on my Pixel phone, things got pretty flaky. Connecting the two devices with the included USB-C cable made everything work fine, but wouldn’t it be nice to deal with one less cord in your life?

Musical sophisticates may be less smitten with the Orba 2, as it’s not the most intuitive of instruments. In my testing, the buttons didn’t always work the way I expected them to. They’re sensitive to velocity, so the volume of the sounds coming out of the instrument will change depending on how hard you smack the buttons. That sensitivity can feel inconsistent, and you might have to try a few times to get a particular note to play at your desired sound level.

You can’t export your sounds as individual tracks or as MIDI notes, which can make it difficult to transfer a ditty into a digital audio workstation or other piece of software that allows you to tweak the recordings of individual instruments and mix the song more thoroughly. Artiphon did recently add the ability to save songs, but the files are stored on the device and in the app. Exporting them for use elsewhere takes more effort.

You probably aren’t looking at the Orba 2 if you’re planning to debut a new piece of equipment during your set at Coachella. The instrument feels like more of a bauble than a serious music making tool. But it’s a fun one, and the general weirdness of it is commendable. If you’ve got a creative itch and some time to kill—and some patience—the Orba 2 is a good egg.