Wireless Music Systems
With Apple bringing out the iPhone 5 with a new 'Lightning' dock connector, this is a particularly topical subject at the moment. Many people with dock systems are now finding that they no longer work with their new iPhone 5. Apple are launching a Lightning to 30-pin adaptor but, this is a clunky solution to this problem and it is not guaranteed to work. Not least because your shiny new iPhone 5 will be swaying about on the end of this connector in an unsupported fashion! This connector may also not fit if you keep your iPhone 5 in a skin or case.
With the number of connectors and charging leads available now, our advice is to not buy a system with a dock but, to keep the music playing capability and the device charging capability separate.
The European standard connector for charging portable devices is now the micro-USB port but, this is a terrible connector for music systems with docks. It has very low tolerance to off-centre approach angles and has to be perfectly aligned to seat home.
Factors To Consider
In our view, the sound quality of any music system is THE most important factor. Typically, these devices need to reach decent volume levels without large amounts of distortion. The stereo separation is often less of an issue, because they are 'single box' devices and thus essentially a 'point source' of music. That said, some of them do a pretty good job within their physical confines and by using pseudo-surround sound effects.
This is another big factor for us. These things are going to be very visible and on display in your home after all. It's got to look good. Fortunately, most of the manufacturers get this, though most of the music systems covered here are basically black boxes.
Cost is obviously a major factor but, we have resigned ourselves to the fact that quality comes at a price. We would rather pay a bit more to the get the quality, aesthetic appeal and the features we deem essential. If you are working to a tighter budget though, you can still get a good system without compromising too much.
Bluetooth is a proprietary, open wireless technology standard for exchanging data over short distances. One of its applications is that of streaming music over relatively short distances. Pretty much every mobile phone, Smartphone and tablet on the market supports it, so choosing a music system with this technology makes a lot of sense.
The main disadvantages of this technology is that your mobile device needs to be 'paired' to your music system (this is done just once). Once they are paired, the devices will connect automatically next time they are close enough to do so but, this can take a few seconds to achieve. If you want to pair a second device to a Bluetooth music system, you have to tell it to pair with the right device. It can only be connected to one mobile device at a time. Basically, this means the connection process is not as quick and simple, when compared to Apple AirPlay. The range is also limited to that supported by the devices.
A major advantage of Bluetooth is that it is a device to device connection and it does not require a Wi-Fi network or any similar to achieve the connection. This means it is very portable and you device and music system do not have to be at home connected to your home network. We use Bluetooth to connect our iPhone 5 to our cars.
Apple's AirPlay is a proprietary technology developed by Apple and used in pretty much all their devices from PC and laptops, to iPhones, iPods and Apple TV. To extend the Apple ecosystem wider, Apple licenses this technology to other device manufacturers such as Denon, Bose, etc. This enables them to offer AirPlay compatible devices but, the licensing fees make them more expensive.
AirPlay is not just restricted to iOS Smartphones. There is now good support on Android devices too.
Many Android devices support the open Wi-Fi Direct standard and the iPhone 5 chipset is now capable of supporting this. Apple has not implemented it in iOS 6 though. Prior to the iPhone 5 launch, there were rumours that Apple would provide a similar capability that was to be called 'AirPlay Direct'. It now appears that AirPlay Direct is inherently supported in iOS 6 and that the key factor to enabling it is support in the music and entertainment devices themselves. The key difference that this brings, is the ability to connect without a local Wi-Fi network, so it would work outside of you home, in a car, etc.
In September 2012 the Libratone Zipp was announced, the first portable speaker system to support AirPlay Direct.
Our primary requirement is for a system with mains power. This should avoid the need for recharging and will more likely enable the system to have a higher quality musical output.
Some of the systems considered have a separate mains power supply unit and are thus capable of being used with alternative power sources (as the right dc voltage). Some also have optional battery packs, to enable portable operation and use outside of the home (e.g. on a patio or by a pool).
Ideally, we would like any music system to also provide a USB port, to enable devices to be charged from it but, this is not a common feature on these types of devices yet. It is now a common feature on portable music systems that have a built-in battery though.
Quite often it is handy to have a wired auxiliary analogue (AUX) input and it does provide a degree of legacy support and future-proofing. These can also be used (with a suitable cable) by guests and visitors with iPods and other devices. Our thoughts on this were validated recently (Sep 2012), when we realised the only way to connect our iPhone 5 to the Roberts Sound MP-53 in our kitchen is via the 3.5mm aux input.
On AirPlay only devices it is also very handy as you could plug in an external Bluetooth adapter for use with devices not connected to your home network. Bear in mind that limitations of Bluetooth though and the range and audio quality also varies a lot across these devices.
None of the devices we have considered so far have a digital audio input.
We are currently considering the following systems (in alphabetical order). These are ones that meet our key criteria and are available here in the UK at a reasonable price:
Aperion Audio Aris
This 'Audio Aris' speaker by Aperion uses DLNA to enable music to be 'pushed' to it from any DLNA capable device. An AirPlay version is due in the future though. The ARIS connects to your home network using Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) or with a simple on-board setup sequence when WPS is not available on your router. The speaker is rated at 100W speaker has six internal speakers (four powered drivers and two passive radiators). The speaker comes with the ARIS Wireless Card for Windows and costs $499 in the USA. Note: - This device is not available in the UK yet.
Apple AirPort Express
AirPort Express costs £79. This is an AirPlay only device but it supports both wired Ethernet and simultaneous dual-band 802.11n. This lets Wi-Fi enabled devices connect to your network on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz wireless bands, which means each connected device automatically uses the best band available for the fastest possible performance. This devices uses a bespoke connector to provide both analogue and optical audio out but, standard 3.5mm stereo audio jacks also work with it. One neat feature is the ability to connect a (compatible) USB printer and share it on your network.
It's a bit of an odd-ball solution to throw in to this feature but, the Apple TV is worth considering instead of the AirPort Express above, simply because it supports 1080p video too and is only another £20 more expensive. The downside is that it only has optical audio out but, if this works for you then this may be a better option.
Audyssey Audio Dock Air
This is an Apple AirPlay compatible wireless music system that retail for around £260. It is at the higher end of the market and has a good sound. It is also fairly compact. It also features a 3.5mm socket (audio in) to connect other devices using a suitable lead (handy if they don't have access to your local network). The system has two .75" tweeters, two 3" woofers and two 4" passive bass radiators.
Bose Soundlink Air
The Bose Soundlink Air is towards the top end of the market and sounds very good. It also has very good build quality but, the retail price is £299. We have seen this device for around £269 online though. Bose sell a (rather expensive) external battery pack which makes this device portable. Some of the reviews we've seen on-line suggest it doesn't handle heavy bass at higher volumes well.
Bowers And Wilkins
The A7 is an Apple AirPlay compatible wireless music system.
This is an Apple AirPlay compatible wireless music system that retails for around £130. It also features an aux in socket and a USB port to charge devices from (charge compatible with iPod, iPhone and iPad).
Polk Audio Woodbourne
Polk Audio's Woodbourne were announced at CES 2013. These are very much at the high end of the market and this unit features a mahogany wood veneer top. It is also quite a large unit, being 24 inches wide, by 7 inches tall and nearly 7 inches deep. At nearly 18lb in weight it is also nor designed to be portable. The back panel has a 3.5mm jack socket, optical input, a USB and an Ethernet port. It also has built-in Wi-Fi and supports both AirPlay and Bluetooth (with apt-X codec support).
Pure Jongo S3
The Pure Jongo is an interesting device. It is extremely well made and supports both local power and a rechargeable battery for outdoor / mobile use. The battery claims to last up to 10 hours. It supports both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivty and with Wi-Fi, multiple devices can be controlled and synchronised.
Our thinking is that it is best to avoid any music systems with 'docks' for charging as the number of connectors varies hugely across the devices we have in our home and we can't see this changing. It is better in our view to have powered USB ports and chargers that accept the specific charging leads.
We also have a preference for wireless music docks as this makes it much easier to use them and control the music playing on the source device. Selecting tracks on an iPod or iPhone whilst docked is very tricky. Wireless music systems also better enable a wide range of devices to be connected (iPods, iPhones, Android Smartphones and tablets, etc.).
Our preference is very much for an AirPlay compatible system because of the improved users experience and the fact that most of the music playing devices in our home are iPhones and iPods. That said, we do have Android Smartphones and a Nexus 7 tablet but, we have shown that these can be made to work with AirPlay technology.
We are also keen to have a device with an Aux input, so that we could connect an external Bluetooth adapter if required.
Having given it much thought, we decided to go down the apple AirPort Express route. The majority of the devices in our home run iOS and this includes all of the devices we as a household have music on. The AirPort Express also fits well with our approach to making these things invisible.