As someone who plays music from Apple devices, if I needed wireless speaker I’d get the Pioneer A4. Reviewers tested and loved its room-filling sound at $400. But in an effort to popularize Airplay vs Bluetooth, Pioneer is now selling the A4 for $200, which is an absolute steal for a speaker that takes full advantage of AirPlay’s high fidelity streaming.
The A4 isn’t the biggest AirPlay speaker, but it packs a full array of drivers and tweeters that were hand picked by renowned speaker designer, Andrew Jones. It’s also DLNA certified, which means you can stream media from non-Apple devices, and its HTC Connect system lets anything HTC link up to it. A few other AirPlay speakers have this feature, but when coupled with its incredible sound, the added compatibility makes the A4 a great product.
AirPlay is Apple’s Wi-Fi-based wireless speaker technology. Typically, you pay a bit extra for this transmission medium that, because it transmits music in full fidelity, gives you much better sound and range than a Bluetooth speaker — Bluetooth compresses the signal in transmission, which hurts the sound quality. Using AirPlay also doesn’t require you keep your phone or laptop’s Bluetooth on. As long as you’re connected to the same Wi-Fi network as the speaker, you can stream audio. This means that on AirPlay, violins sing and bass sounds nuanced, not thumpy. This audio quality a strength unique to the format, so when shopping AirPlay, you want a speaker that can produce serious sound.
If you didn’t already know in detail what Airplay is, I’ll explain it here, but if that’s the case, you should probably consider something else. It’s a very specialized product category, but here are the its distinguishing characteristics.
Airplay is limited to Apple products: AirPlay is a wireless transmission protocol that’s Apple-specific, meaning that (mostly) only iOS devices or Apple computers can play audio on these speakers. Good AirPlay speakers, like our pick, actually have the ability to stream via DLNA, a format of streaming that most computers and gadgets can handle, but it’s a tricky setup.
Airplay is expensive: To do anything with AirPlay, you would normally expect to spend over $350 for a speaker (our pick was released at $400). At and above that price, speakers will usually have the hardware to play the music at the quality with which it’s being transmitted. With the exception of our pick, if you’re not Apple-centric or if your budget for a wireless speaker is $300 or less, we’d say head over to Bluetooth, which, despite advancements, still compresses the sound data, killing the music’s quality. Generally, a sub-$300 AirPlay speaker won’t have the chops to take full advantage AirPlay’s lossless streaming.
Airplay, like Bluetooth speakers, has an easy to use, nearly invisible interface: If you’re used to navigating Apple’s menus, AirPlay will be intuitive and simple because almost any iOS software that plays audio can be routed to the speaker. Again, AirPlay is Apple-specific, which means it works on Apple computers and iOS devices, but not on Android devices or PCs. Once you’ve set up the AirPlay speaker to your home Wi-Fi, iTunes and software like Spotify will show a small arrow that you can tap to play your music through the speaker. Since it’s playing over Wi-Fi, you can take your iPhone or laptop around the house without interrupting the connection, as long as you’re within the network’s range.
You’ve probably also heard that, instead of buying an AirPlay speaker, you can get an Airport Express and plug in your existing speaker via 3.5mm audio cable. The interface will be as simple as with AirPlay, but you’re back to dealing with cables and bulky appendages. Besides that, the placement of your speakers becomes limited to where you can place an Airport.
Besides those constraints, AirPlay’s format has its share of issues.