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.
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.