Pros Great bass sound
Lots of connectivity options (AirPlay, HTC Connect, DLNA)
Can charge your iPod
Cons Somewhat expensive
Instructions on how to configure the unit are needlessly complicated
Summary I wanted to check the state of some new Airplay speakers, so I decided to compare a few of them, namely the:
- Bose SoundLink Air
- Pioneer A4 XW-SMA4-K
- Pioneer A3 XW-SMA3-K
- Logitech Wireless Boombox
Right off the bat, you can notice that the Logitech unit is in a different category. It's much less expensive (1/3 the price) and uses bluetooth rather than Wi-fi. However since it received great reviews online, I decided to compare it as well. I'm glad I did (read on!).
First of all, let's talk about what's common here.
When using a bluetooth speaker (the Logitech here is the only one), you get instantaneous response when you change track, change the volume, press play or stop: that's the beauty of using bluetooth. Also, apparently bluetooth has less bandwidth than wi-fi, so it compresses the music before sending it to the speaker. However in real usage, I could never tell the difference. If you are a real music expert and have an very good musical ear, maybe you can hear it but I certainly could not. All the music I played sounded great whether I played it on the bluetooth Logitech or on the other Airplay speakers.
Using Airplay, you will encounter a delay when you try to control the music. It's around 1 to 2 seconds before any action on your iPod/iPhone will take effect on the speaker (except for Stop and volume changes which are almost instantaneous but not quite). This delay will also occur when you skip songs (something I hate) however it does not occur if your let your playlist continue and your iPod is simply going on from one song to the next. This means if you are throwing a party and try to skip a tune, you will get silence for 2 seconds.
All three Airplay units have about the same wi-fi hotpoint power level, so you can expect the same range as a typical wi-fi 2.4 Ghz router you may have in your home today. You may also encounter the same interference problems as your regular wifi.
All Pioneer and Bose speakers have remotes, which I did not use. I figure everyone will control these units via their iPod/iPhone/iPad or other devices anyway. None of the units have any mute button on the speaker themselves. Only the Bose unit has a mute button on the remove (Pioneer doesn't have any).
Aesthetically, the unit look nice. It's fairly large and rather heavy: the speaker weighs 8.4 pounds (3.8 Kg). To power the unit requires the use of an external power brick. The cables are fairly long, so you won't have a problem to reach your outlet.
Buttons are placed in the correct spot and are easy to use. The touch buttons are capacitive (no tactile feedback when you press the button) and they respond quickly when pressed.
On the back of the unit, you find on one side an ethernet port with a USB port and on the other side the power port and a AUX input. The ethernet is a nice touch if you happen to have a hard-wired network at home and don't plan on moving the unit often: you'll never have to worry about wi-fi signal drop-offs.
The USB port can be used for both connecting directly to the speaker with your player (iPod, iPhone, etc) and playing music through USB or can act as a charger for your device. Unfortunately it only charges your device if the speaker is turned on (what was Pioneer thinking?).
When you charge a device you can still play music via wireless to the speaker (good thinking here Pioneer). When playing music through the USB (as a dock) you cannot control the volume with your ipod: you must to use the volume buttons on the A4.
There also another button on the back labeled 'network setup'. This button can be used to setup your network but can also be used to set the speaker to be a wi-fi hotspot (more on this later).
When you power on the speaker, it takes a long time to be ready (34 seconds). However if you check the manual there's a 'quick-start' mode that you can set and once done it starts within less than a second. When in standby, the unit only uses 0.5 watt of power but if you set it to quick-start mode, it uses 3.5 watts in standby.
Once set to 'quick start' mode, the unit can also be awaken by your iPod, so you don't need to press any buttons on the unit to send music to it (I like that). This is particularly useful because the unit will power-off itself after a while if it doesn't receive any music. Once it's powered off, if it's not in quick-start mode then you'll have to press the power-on button to see it on Airplay. If the unit is in 'quick start' mode then it's always visible on Airplay and as soon as you send music to it the A4 will wake-up and play your music (it takes 2-3 seconds to wake up).
Configuring the unit to work with your existing wireless network can be done in so many different ways, it can be confusing. By far the easiest way is to simply plug your iPod/iPhone, wait for the 'On' light to stop blinking, then connect your iPod in the back and then press both the Input and Network Setup buttons at the same time for 3 seconds. You iPod will then display a message asking you if you allow it to share the network settings with the Pioneer; tap Ok on the iPod and you're done! All the wireless security settings and password were setup and the A4 is now able to be seen via Airplay. If you prefer, you can also set it up using a web browser, particularly if you want to change the wireless name of the A4.
The unit can connect to your existing wi-fi network but if ever you take it elsewhere where's there's no wi-fi, it also can act as it's own wi-fi hotspot which is great. Switching the unit that mode (called 'wireless direct') is easy: power it on and press a button in the back for 3 seconds. It then appears as a new network (with a weird name 'Wireless Direct' and a bunch of numbers/letters that's unique to the unit) and you can join that network. Once you join the network, you can use Airplay in the normal way. I think that's a great idea. It gets even better with the A3 which is the a portable version (more below).
In 'wireless direct' mode, I could operate the unit from 2 walls away (the unit was in a closed room and I was in another closed room (both doors closed) approximately 25 feet away. I didn't try further but checking with a wi-fi sniffer I could see that the signal was just as strong as the one from my wireless router (in 'g' mode only however). The A4 uses Wi-fi 2.4 Ghz channel #11, even if other channels are unoccupied. There's no way to change the channel even through the settings.
When connecting to your router, it supported modern encryption methods such as AES and TKIP with WPA2, which is a good thing. I had no problems configuring it to find my wireless router which doesn't broadcast its SSID.
I did not try the unit with a Android phone but I assume the experience is similar. I did not try DLNA either.
However I think adding these 2 was a great idea since it makes the unit really universal.
Now let's talk a bit about the sound. I found it to be well well balanced. The unit really has great deep bass; Adele's song 'Rolling in the deep' is a real pleasure to listen to on this speaker. This is no surprise since this unit is the only one that has a dedicated subwoofer. This sub really makes a difference. On top of it, the unit can play really loud (louder than I could bear anyway!).
Of course, since this is a fairly compact unit, there's little to no sound separation between the left and the right channels. The speakers within the unit are so close together, your can't really hear separation between the two. That's true of all the speakers in this review anyway.
When controlling the volume from your iPod, the volume control isn't really linear. Set your iPod to half-volume and you will barely hear the A4. However it's very sensitive towards the 3/4 of the volume range, so fine adjustments can make a big difference. It requires a bit of fiddling but I got the hang of it pretty quickly. I didn't have that problem when using the volume buttons on the A4 itself. I also did not experience this issue with the Bose unit, so Pioneer has improvements to make here.
Overall, I found the A4 to be really good. Out of the 4 speakers listed above, this unit had the best sound; it was head-and-shoulders above the rest because of the subwoofer.
To read how the other speakers fared, see my other speakers reviews!