Searching for the best iOS-friendly speaker system out there
We've reviewed a few popular Bluetooth speakers lately, and while some are great, the tradeoffs are usually the same: you'll tear your hair out dealing with the clunky process of pairing and unpairing devices, and there's usually a significant loss of sound quality involved. But if you're on iOS, you also have the option of using Apple's AirPlay system, which works over Wi-Fi to offer a much smoother experience. Setup is a breeze (just make sure your device and speaker are on the same Wi-Fi network), playback is seamless, and there's almost no degradation in sound quality. If you own an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, adding an AirPlay speaker to your living room or bedroom can theoretically turn your device into an powerful little entertainment hub with great sound, no wires, and no hassle.
Until recently, that dream really was theoretical — although there have been a few AirPlay speakers on the market, they were almost all extremely expensive and saddled with the usual bugginess of first-generation products. (In many cases it was cheaper and simpler to just add an Airport Express or Apple TV to your existing speakers.) That's changed recently as newer AirPlay speakers have started to roll out; manufacturers are starting to get the hang of the technology, and there are some more inexpensive options out now. We gathered up a bunch of available AirPlay speakers and tested them out to determine which one's worth the money in your wallet and the space in your home.
Before we get started, there are a few longstanding AirPlay issues to consider in general. First of all, you'll always need to be near a Wi-Fi network, unlike Bluetooth, which only requires that the device and speaker to be relatively close to each other. You can use a Bluetooth speaker almost anywhere, but AirPlay devices are much more restricted in their portability because of the Wi-Fi requirement. (Forget about streaming wireless music in the park, for example.) You'll also need to set up AirPlay speakers anew every time you hit a different Wi-Fi network, and some networks (like one at the Verge offices) are too crowded for AirPlay to negotiate a reliable connection.
None of these issues are dealbreakers if you're just listening to music at home or in your backyard, but there's definitely something lost when speaker and phone can't just connect directly as they do with Bluetooth speakers. If you can deal with those tradeoffs, AirPlay definitely offers better sound, more usability, and tighter integration with your iOS device. So... which speaker to buy? Let's take a look.
Bang & Olufsen's B&O Beolit 12 looks like a lunchbox. An $800 lunchbox. I don't know how better to describe it, really — the 6.2-pound cube is a dead ringer for a cooler. It'd be a good-looking cooler, at least, thanks to its leather strap, prominent mesh-like grille and hard plastic sides and edges. There are a few capacitive buttons on top of the device, and it's simple to use, once you get it set up. To get it ready, you'll need to deal with an Ethernet cable, a computer, and IP addresses — the manual does a good job of guiding you through the process, but it's not as seamless or obvious as it could be.
The Beolit 12 has USB and line-in inputs, but it's definitely designed to primarily serve as an AirPlay device — there's no remote or dock, and everything's supposed to happen on your phone. There is a rechargeable battery inside the device, which makes it much more portable than some of the other Airplay speakers we tested. The battery is rated to last eight hours, which is plenty of time to accompany a picnic or party.
Batteries and beauty are one thing, but the Beolit 12's greatest quality is that it sounds absolutely fantastic. It's a bit heavy on the bass output, but sound is crisp, clean, and without a hint of distortion. Adele sounds incredible singing "Set Fire to the Rain," and there's remarkable clarity in the crazy bass line of The Knife's "Silent Shout." It's not the loudest speaker I tested, but it's certainly loud enough to fill a room and fuel a party — just maybe not a club-like rager. Whether it's superior enough to warrant its $799.95 price tag is a more difficult question, but suffice to say you'll definitely get what you pay for.
Great sound doesn't come cheap
JBL's $249.95 OnBeat Air is one part AirPlay speaker, three parts dock. There's a swiveling dock on the device that accepts iPhones, iPods, or iPads, and there's a brace for the iPhone that keeps the device in place even in landscape mode. It's a killer device for watching movies in bed, and the OnBeat's relatively small footprint — it weighs 1.9 pounds and is only about 5.5 inches wide — makes it perfect for your bedside table or desk. There's a small, simple membrane remote, which is better than no remote at all, but not much.
To set up the OnBeat Air for AirPlay, you just put your iOS device in the dock. Up pops a message prompting you to download a JBL app, which you use to get the speaker on the right wireless network. The app is simple and helpful, but the process is a mess: you connect directly to the OnBeat Air's ad-hoc wireless network, then use a clunky interface on the tiny screen to connect to the network. Then you go back and connect to your original Wi-Fi network, at which point you can finally listen to music over AirPlay. Well, theoretically anyway: it took me about six tries to even get the networking page to load, and three or four more to get the connection to take. It did eventually work, though.
Listening to music is a very hit-or-miss experience with the OnBeat Air. High-end frequencies are bright and airy, despite being a bit tinny. There's almost no bass response, though, so hip-hop or pop music loses a lot of oomph. Vocals come through clearly, but the device doesn't get very loud, and distorts at anything above about 60 percent volume — once again, this is a device you'll want on your desk or bedside table, not filling your living room. It's a great and versatile dock, but not a great AirPlay device or a great speaker. You might even be better off saving $50 and buying the plain-Jane OnBeat, which is the exact same device without the AirPlay functionality.
Great iPod dock, so-so AirPlay speaker
If B&O's Airplay speaker looks like a lunchbox, the Logitech UE Air Speaker is a bowtie. A big (about 20 inches wide), heavy (6.4 pounds) bowtie. It has a mesh grille on the front, and the sides curve slightly toward the back — it's a nice look, and would look great on a shelf or table. Two buttons flank a volume scroll wheel on the top, and on the back are Ethernet, line-in, and power jacks. A dock pops out of the front, and lets you drop in your iOS device; the dock connector rotates a bit, too, so you can dock an iPad if you so desire. I love that the dock is retractable, because the speaker is so much sleeker when it's not showing, but I still want the option for when my iPhone needs to charge and play music simultaneously.
Logitech's setup is similar to JBL's — when you first dock your iOS device, it prompts you to download a companion app, and all the setup happens within that app. Logitech's app is even better than JBL's, and I was set up and listening to music in all of about 90 seconds. The Logitech / UE app also has an EQ built in, so you can customize the speaker's output without changing universal EQ settings on your phone.
The UE Air Speaker sounds good, but it's not the sonic wonder the Beolit 12 is. It's insanely melt-your-face loud, but it has a bit of distortion on the highest highs and the lowest lows. It compresses sound a bit to try and combat that distortion; that means a song like M83's "Midnight City" loses its peaks and valleys. It's ever so slightly tinny as well, again a result of the compression. It does a nice job with pop or classical music, but anything with huge dynamic range or loud volumes doesn't shine quite as brightly.
Altec Lansing's $499.95 inAir 5000 is enormous. Its trapezoidal body is wider and taller than the UE AIr Speaker, with a mesh grille covering the front and back and silver accents on the side and top. The few buttons and ports are hidden on the side, so you don't see them from the front – it cuts a very attractive figure. There's a USB port on the back for connecting your iOS device directly to the inAir, and a line-in port on the side for connecting almost anything else. A glowing light underneath the device shows the speaker's status. There's also a nice metal remote, which you can use to control playback, volume, and the like. It's really basic, with only a few controls, but it's nice to have.
Getting it set up to use is a complex process similar to the Beolit 12. You connect your computer to the inAir's ad-hoc network, then enter its IP address, then use a kludgy in-browser menu to get the device connected to your desired AirPlay network. There are clear instructions in the manual, but this is definitely not a device you'll want to move around much, because it's such a bear to get it connected to a new network. That t's enormous and cumbersome to carry around doesn't help, either.
You'd expect large sound from such a large speaker, and that's definitely what you get from the inAir 5000 — it was easily the loudest speaker I tested. Sound potency doesn't necessarily equal sound quality, but I was generally a fan of the inAir 5000's output. Vocals are bright, airy, and clear, and there's just the right amount of punch in the low end. There's the tiniest bit of distortion on really bass-heavy tracks, but only at near-max volumes, and at that point your ears have probably stopped working anyway.
Big speaker, big sound
It's the $29 headphones of AirPlay speakers
iHome typically aims its products at the happy medium: not too expensive, but still good enough to be workable. With one look at the iW2, you'd already have guessed it's the cheapest of the bunch, at $199.99. Its black mesh grille wraps around the entire body, and a silver edge covers the bottom. There are a handful of buttons at the top set into a fingerprint-prone glossy black surface, and there's a large, full-featured remote as well; this is definitely one of the least AirPlay-specific speakers we tested, since you can do so much with the remote or on the speaker. There's a USB port on the back, and the iW2 comes with a cable for connecting your iOS device directly; there's a button on top for switching between wired and wireless audio sources.
iHome went the app route for setting up the device, which is definitely the best move, but it's not executed very well here. When you first plug your iOS device in, you're prompted with four possible app downloads, and it's not obvious which is the right one. (You want iHome Connect.) Even once the right app was installed, the first few times I tried to connect the iW2 to a Wi-Fi network it simply didn't take. Fortunately you can go the direct-connect-and-IP-address route, too, and that worked pretty easily.
The closest analog for the iW2's sound quality is the white earphones that come with your iPhone: though discerning listeners will immediately toss them aside and get something else, lots of people use them because they're free and most people don't care that much about sound quality. That's the power of a $199 price tag: it's tempting to forgive the iW2 for distorting even at medium volumes, and its compression is such that there's virtually no low-end or dynamic range in a song. The speaker's reasonably loud, and once you get through the setup process it's a pretty seamless experience, but audio quality is awfully mediocre.
On pure sound quality alone, there's no contest here: the Bang & Olufsen Beolit 12 is head-and-shoulders above all the other devices tested here. $799.95 is a seriously steep price, though, and for most people the increase in perceived quality won't be as large as the increase in price.
The iHome iW2 occupies the other end of the spectrum: it's cheap, but you'll quickly tire of its limitations and poor quality, and likely find yourself wanting something more.
The Altec Lansing inAir 5000 occupies the perfect middle ground. At $499.95 it's not particularly pricey for what it does, and its sound is good enough that only the most discerning listeners will take issue with it. (Those discerning listeners also don't blink at spending $800 on a speaker, so the Beolit's no problem.) The inAir 5000 is large, so make sure you've got room for it, but it's good-looking and unique enough to stand out. More importantly, it sounds good on nearly any kind of music, and whether you're pumping jams to a party or listening to quiet classical music while you read, you'll be happy with how your music sounds coming out of the inAir 5000. If you're looking for the best mix of price and quality, look no further.
For now, anyway. We'll be reviewing more AirPlay speakers as they become available, so stay tuned!
An imperfect system, but great bang for your buck
The Altec Lansing inAir 5000 is a great happy medium among AirPlay speakers. At $499.95 it's a little expensive, but its sound quality and design are a step above most of its competitors. It can't match up to the B&O Beolit 12 in terms of pure sound quality, but for buyers looking for the right mix of price and quality the inAir 5000 strikes the balance just right.
For audiophiles, it's an easy choice
Bang & Olufson know how to build a speaker: the Beolit 12 sounds amazing, is impressively loud for its size, and even looks good — as long as you're into the high-end lunchbox aesthetic. There's really only one reason not to buy the Beolit 12, and that's the fact that it costs $799.95. For most people, that's probably a dealbreaker, and with good reason; it's hard to justify spending more a speaker for your iOS device than you did on your iOS device. If you're not concerned with the outlay and only want the best sound possible, look no further, but if you're looking for a better value you'll probably find it elsewhere.
Not for the discerning listener
Logitech wins big points for making the UE Air Speaker incredibly easy to set up — thanks to the handy companion app, I had the Air Speaker ready to use faster than any other AirPlay speaker I tested. Though its sound is plenty loud, it's not always high-quality, and you'll definitely notice the compression dulling low and high notes. At $399.99 it's a good speaker, and a solid choice for someone who's not overly concerned with sound quality and just wants to pump up the jams, but there are better AirPlay speakers out there from Altec Lansing or B&O.
Even $199 is too expensive for this
The iHome iW2 does support AirPlay, but it's not a good implementation on any level. Sound quality leaves a lot to be desired, and even the setup process is more complicated than it ought to be. If you don't care at all about sound quality and just want to listen to music as cheaply as possible, it'll serve you fine, but it's definitely worth the extra cash to buy a device like the UE Air Speaker or the inAir 5000. For $50 more, you can also get the $249.95 JBL OnBeat Air, which adds a useful dock and improves sound quality a lot — though even the OnBeat Air leaves a lot to be desired in that department.
A great dock, not a great speaker
If you're buying a device to use as a dock and alarm clock, and AirPlay's just a nice feature to have, the $249.95 JBL OnBeat Air is a great device. It's small enough to fit on your bedside table, you can dock an iPhone or iPad (and even rotate the iPhone), and JBL's companion iPhone app is a pretty decent alarm clock. At anything beyond medium volumes, though, the OnBeat Air starts to distort, and its compression makes everything sound tinny and washed out as well. Setting up AirPlay wasn't as easy as it could've been either. I'd consider the OnBeat Air as my next alarm clock, but not as a speaker for actively listening to music.
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