Quantcast

The Best AirPlay Speaker Today

By Alexander George, The Wirecutter

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.

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.

Pioneer A4

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.

Why AirPlay?

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.

Airplay costs as much but isn’t as robust or flexible as a full-powered wireless speaker system like Sonos. Setup for AirPlay through your browser or iOS devices is slightly more involved than Bluetooth pairing, and even the best AirPlay speakers are known to drop their connections regularly, especially if your Wi-Fi network is handling multiple devices. Depending on your architecture, you can link between three and six speakers, but operating them independently is tricky. Sonos remedies most of these issues with its own platform that lets you pick speakers quickly and without dropped connections. The trade off? A unique interface and app that, if you’re accustomed to iTunes, will be slightly obtuse.

The major grievance with AirPlay is price. You’ll end up paying more for a speaker because, as we said, you want something that’ll serve the quality of the data being transmitted, and because manufacturers must pay licensing fees to Apple to use this format–this cost is passed along to customers.

Is Airplay For Me?

Unless you’re working with an iPhone and an Apple laptop or desktop, skip to Sonos or Bluetooth.

Deciding whether you want AirPlay will depend on how you prioritize cost, sound quality, and your commitment to Apple. Unless you’re working with an iPhone and an Apple laptop or desktop, skip to Sonos or Bluetooth. Of course, go with AirPlay if you take music seriously and have high quality music in your library — as in, no mp3s, mostly something like Apple Lossless. The lack of compression means you’ll hear every bit of sound, which, as we mentioned, needs to come from a quality speaker to be worthwhile. If you’re more concerned with having house music or hip-hop to play at a party, go with Bluetooth. You likely won’t notice the step down in sound quality and you’ll save cash. If you take music seriously enough to spend several hundred bucks, have Apple gear, and only need to play for one room, AirPlay will make you happy.

Basically it’s right for someone in a small apartment who doesn’t need a full room system, but can spend a few hundred dollars on a speaker that’s better than Bluetooth.

Should I Do Sonos?

Maybe. If you’ve read this far, you probably care about your music’s quality and you have the music library to show it. When you’re getting into the serious audiophile realm of wireless speakers, if you live in a house or apartment with multiple rooms and you’re comfortable spending more than $400 or $500, we say skip the primo AirPlay systems and start building a Sonos. Besides a robust connection and easy setup, an advantage is that the Sonos app is especially well-integrated with non-iTunes music systems like Spotify and Rdio, which can be slightly tricky with AirPlay and have a delay in playback.

One of many possible Sonos layouts

Sonos, like AirPlay, doesn’t compress the audio when transmitting, so the sound quality is fantastic. It also has the benefit of being modular, so you can add speakers as needed. AirPlay is limited to between three and six speakers, while Sonos can handle as many as you can fit in your abode. Again, this is when you have $500-plus to spend on wireless sound.

Sonos’s proprietary wireless network is more reliable and robust than the Wi-Fi setup that AirPlay uses because Airplay must compete for bandwidth with other Wi-Fi users in your home. Unlike Sonos, Airplay’s reliability is affected and dropouts can occur when network usage is high.

Sonos can also stream multiple sources to different speakers in different rooms at the same time. AirPlay also lets you create multiple listening zones, but you’re limited to listening to the same thing in every zone. To get this ability on an Airplay setup, you’d need multiple iDevices or multiple instances of iTunes running simultaneously.

If these advantages fit your desires, get a $50 Bridge and a Play:5, which, with its five drivers and 3.5-inch woofer, can rival the sound of our similarly-outfitted AirPlay pick. If your budget is under $450, even down to $200, and you want to hear great sound from your Apple devices, get the Pioneer A4.

Our Pick

The A4 has the best combination of rich sound from precision speakers at a price that’s hundreds of dollars cheaper than inferior competitors. The speaker was designed byAndrew Jones, a legend in speaker design with a physics degree and a set of $80,000 speakers to his name. He’s behind our favorite bookshelf speakers and personally picked out the hardware. What sets it apart from its sister models like the A3 is a dedicated 100mm woofer. The whole thing has a exceptional sound power for a stand-alone unit thanks to it’s five drivers with dual 77mm midranges, a 20mm tweeter, and triple 10w + 10w + 20w amplifiers.

The A4's back

Unlike competitors, the A4 has control buttons on the unit itself, which lets you skip tracks or change the volume. It’s also DLNA certified, which means you can stream media from non-Apple devices, and an HTC Connect system lets anything HTC link up. Besides it’s standard Wi-Fi setup, if you’re stranded without a network, the A4 can connect to iOS devices via Wireless Direct mode — note, though, that it has no battery so it always needs to be plugged in. If none of those works, it also has a USB connection for even more devices, and it’ll charge whatever’s connected.

The result is stellar sound quality that does justice to the AirPlay format, which is absurd praise for a $200 speaker.

Who Else Likes It?

We’ve tested it and love it, but more importantly, the few critics who have reviewed the Pioneer A4 love it.

Our own Geoff Morrison reviewed it in depth for Sound and Vision magazine and found it to be exceptional for a wireless speaker. He says, “The A4 packs a surprising amount of performance in a small package. With all the attention paid to making it easy to connect, and all the multiple options therein, it would be easy to assume there had been no attention paid to sound. But Andrew Jones works his magic again, and this thing actually sounds really good.” Even at its peak volume, around 97 dB, Geoff found that there was no distortion. Really impressive.

TrulyNet has similar praise and even said that the A4, in some areas, supersedes the $600 Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air: “The sound is impressive- offering significant bass, maybe even a little too heavy for most listeners by default. The overall effect is sharp and fairly precise, better suited for electronic and rock than the warmer acoustic-friendly Bowers and Wilkins units.”

The A4 in situ

More reviews are expected, but these endorsements are plenty to convince us, especially since Audyssey, our previous pick for an AirPlay speaker, told us they’ve stopped production of their AirPlay speakers until further notice.

Upon closer inspection, the Amazon score of 3.5 out of 5 stars didn’t faze us. Some of the reviews come from users who misunderstood how AirPlay works, or had issues with setup and gave up. In this instance, we’ll take the word of veteran stereo reviewers and an accomplished audio engineer over Amazon users.

For further affirmation, we looked to past reviews of the A4′s step-down predecessor,the Pioneer A3. Reviews from MacWorld, PC Mag, and Digital Trends all dig the A3 for its sound quality, but all cite its lack of bass as the grievance that made it good, but not great. The A4 takes the same great speaker and adds a 100mm woofer that delivers that bass. The A3 does have a built in battery, though, if that’s your thing, but the A3 still costs $200.

All of this praise and confirmation that the A4 is a great buy came when it was retailing for $400. The fact that it’s retailing for $200 sounds insane.

Again, all of this praise and confirmation that the A4 is a great buy came when it was retailing for $400. The fact that it’s retailing for $200 sounds insane, but we spoke to Pioneer to confirm. They said:

“The A4 is not being discontinued and the price reduction is permanent. We want to more competitive with Bluetooth speakers, so we’re reintroducing the product at a similar price point as Bluetooth speakers in the category. The new price point should help reduce the confusion caused by the large gap in price points between Wi-Fi and Bluetooth based speakers. [People] can now better understand the benefits of Wi-Fi over Bluetooth (i.e., wider range of connectivity, whole home audio, better audio reproduction and sound quality) and take advantage of those benefits in a product that is similarly priced as a Bluetooth speaker.”

If you have Apple products and need a wireless speaker, get the A4 now.

It's Not Perfect

If I were searching for a drawback, it’d be minor. As Gizmodo points out in their flattering review of the Pioneer A3 (again, which eschews a subwoofer for a battery), capacitive controls, like those found on the A4, are a bummer. On speakers, knobs and hard buttons are more responsive and easier to understand when changing volume or skipping tracks. Still, it’s a minor complaint for an overall stellar package, especially considering you can always just skip tracks on your phone or computer.

The Step Down

Because the A4 performs like the best $400 speaker for just $200, there’s really no reason to go cheaper. If you don’t have Apple products and are loyal to Bluetooth, get a Big Jambox — you’ll get portability, a reliable connection across all Bluetooth devices, and sufficient sound quality. There a few cheaper options than the A4, but as we said, if you’re going AirPlay, you want a speaker that’s good enough to play the uncompressed sound to its potential. Once you get under $200, it’s not worth it.

Jabra's Big Jambox

We looked at budget AirPlay options, but stand by our recommendation that, if you for some reason don’t want the A4, go with Bluetooth. iHome has a line of AirPlay speakers: the iW1 ($300), iW2 ($200), and iW3 ($200). iLounge likes them, particularly the iW2, and we’d say that if your budget is $200, the speaker you get for that price won’t do justice to the sound that’s transmitting via AirPlay — the exception being our pick. MacNN’s review exemplifies reviewers’ general apathy towards the iHome models: “The iW2 is ultimately remarkable for how unremarkable it is. It’s not a sterling example of sound or design, but neither is it terrible.”

Logitech’s UE Air, at $350, is appealing, but as CNET found, the audio quality can’t compete with the A4, especially since it’s $150 cheaper. Even if you take the A4 out of the equation, the UE Air isn’t good enough to justify the price premium over a Bluetooth option.

The Step Up: A Whole-House System Rather Than a Single Speaker

If you have $500-plus to fill a space bigger than a studio apartment with music, start building a Sonos system. Start with a Bridge, which connects to your home network and links the speakers together. From there, add Play:3 and Play:5 speakers to the major rooms. If you’re getting serious and can spend into the thousands of dollars, add a subwoofer and a soundbar. The range and network stability that Sonos provides mean you can place speakers outside, too.

A Sonos setup with even two speakers (that’ll cost you just over $650) gives you a high fidelity sound experience that draws seamlessly from your iTunes library or streaming service like Spotify or Rdio. The result is a house filled by incredible quality sound drawing from a nearly limitless library of music. The extra cash you spend over a single AirPlay speaker goes towards the Sonos-specific precision control you have over the speakers.

The Competition

AirPlay, unlike Bluetooth, can range anywhere from $200 to well into the thousands — for now, the audio quality lost in Bluetooth’s compression makes buying a big, fancy speaker using that format totally pointless.

One of the more famous AirPlay models is the $600 Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air. It’s a beast of a speaker that’s lauded for having knockout sound in a striking package. CNETand Wired do the best job explaining why this thing is so great. For us, when you get to that price range, we’d take the money and, as we’ve said repeatedly, start a Sonos setup. For that cash, you get multiple speakers and a robust network configuration that, like AirPlay, loses no quality but can give you true stereo sound.

Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air

Is the Zeppelin worth the extra $400, or even $200? For the Wirecutter, Geoffrey Morrison conducted a comparison test between the A4 and the Zeppelin. He hooked up both the A4 and the Zeppelin to his network, and connected them both via AirPlay to his Mac. From there, he controlled his iTunes and the volumes of both speakers from an iPod touch. To test, he played his go-to Apple Lossless-encoded test tracks. Here’s what he says:

“I’d say the Pioneer sounds very good, but the [Zeppelin Air] is louder and has more bass. If they were the same price, I’d probably say get the B&W [Bowers & Wilkins], especially considering it’s a lot cooler looking. Is it 50% better [the then difference in price]? Hmm, a tough one. It’s louder, and has more bass, but I don’t think most people would be disappointed by the A4′s bass output. Side by side, sure, but $200 is a lot of money [when the A4 was selling for $400]. If someone doesn’t care about price, or they have a large room they want to fill with sound, why not get the Zepp? Otherwise, the A4 is a fantastic piece of kit. “

The true competition for the Pioneer is the brand new Bowers & Wilkins Z2. It’s a $400 AirPlay speaker with a Lightning dock on the top so you can charge your iPhone 5. Reviews from MacWorld, PC Mag, and Sound and Vision magazine all applaud the Z2’s knockout sound. It has been reviewed to about the same praise as the A4, but because it has no woofer, the bass isn’t as good as with the A4. As Sound and Vision said, “the result is that bass is merely present, not powerful.” Even if you take the sound between the Z2 and A4 as equal (which is difficult because the Z2 lacks the bass punch and costs $200 more), a few omissions in the design push the A4 slightly ahead. Specifically, the Z2 has only an auxiliary headphone jack while the A4 has a full USB connection. The Z2 also lacks DLNA and HTC Connect that you get with the A4. Besides that, a phone dock feels very mid-2000s to us.

Bowers & Wilkins Z2

One step above the Z2 is the Bowers & Wilkins A5, which starts at $500 — again, at this price, we’d start looking into a Sonos setup. Still, PC Mag liked it, but saw that it lost clarity at high volume levels, something that’s not a problem for the Pioneer. When our own Bryan Gardiner reviewed it for Wired and gave it a 7/10, he drew attention to the pricing, which he saw as excessive. “Speakers from the venerable British audio supplier have never been a budget-friendly choice, but at this size, $500 ultimately seems excessive even for a high-end AirPlay speaker.”

The A5’s step up model is the A7. It costs $800 and sounds like an $800 speaker. You don’t need to spend this much unless you’re a hardcore audiophile, but if you are and have deep pockets, Sound and Vision says it’s a good buy: “If you’re looking for a compact system that can fill a room with sound, and you’re an Apple-centric person, and $800 is within your budget, you should run right down to the Apple store, crank up an A7.” If it were our $800, we’d get a couple Sonos speakers, a bridge, and call it a day.

The Libratone Zipp is another option that is, at $400, a bit more affordable, and is also portable. But it doesn’t sound as good as one might expect given its price tag — I found this when I reviewed it for Wired. As PC Mag observes, “Because of the cylindrical shape of the Zipp, it’s hard to get a great sense of the stereo mix or placement, but this is not to imply that it sounds like you’re listening to a mono recording.” We don’t think portability has much place in an AirPlay speaker — if you want to play music in a park, the Logitech UE Mobile Boombox is your device.MacWorld notes that the Zipp sounds better than the Big Jambox, but in the context of playing outside or when moving from room to room, we don’t imagine the differences being noticeable enough to warrant spending the extra cash. We’ll take the Pioneer’s true stereo setup and $200 cheaper price over the Zipp.

Libratone Zipp

The similarly-priced Bose SoundLink Air suffers from high-volume distortion and lacks an on-board power button. It’s billed as portable, but the battery costs extra.

The sister models to the A4, the Pioneer A3 and A1, both lack the woofer in the A4. The A3 is billed as “portable,” which explains why it was the same price as the A4 but without the woofer. The problem is, even if we advocated AirPlay portability, the A3 only gets about four hours of playback and weighs nearly eight pounds. The A1, which costs $300, doesn’t match up to it’s siblings or other brands’ sound quality.

Outside of AirPlay, if you have lots of cash to spend and want the absolute best sound you can get without wires, the Stephen Mejias and Michael Lavorgna at Stereophile and AudioStream told us they both think the Dynaudio XEO is “the best sounding wireless speaker solution.” These start at $2,300 and use their own wireless format. We’ll leave that one to ears and pockets of those who can notice the differences.

Wrapping It Up

If you’re serious about quality sound from a wireless system and use primarily Apple devices, the Pioneer A4 has exceptional performance for an astounding price. You can spend a few hundred more and get a bigger set up, like the Sonos, or spend about the same and get a Bluetooth speaker. But if you want a solid standalone wireless speaker for your Apple devices, here you go.