Despite creating a beautiful, feature-rich and well thought-out wireless speaker, Sony’s SRS-X9 fails to deliver consistently high quality sound over its wireless and wired inputs.
The wireless audio phenomenon in consumer tech is huge and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. It’s into this already crowded category that Sony is throwing three new contenders for your wireless speaker dollars. The biggest and baddest of the three is the SRS-X9, a sophisticated-looking all-in-one affair that straddles the line between bookshelf speaker and home theatre sound-bar.
The SRS-X9, which retails for $699 CDN, is priced at the high end of the wireless speaker market, placing it in competition with the Sonos Play:5 ($499) or possibly the Sonos Playbar ($749) as well as offerings from Pioneer,Bose, Bowers & Wilkins, Polk Audio and Marantz.
Set-up and Connectivity
As you would expect from such a device, it offers a wealth of connectivity including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, line-in (via mini-jack), Ethernet and USB. It’s also DLNA and AirPlay compatible.
If you’re a music junkie, now is a great time to be alive. Not only is it easier than ever to find and buy new music, it’s completely portable. Through devices like iPods, iPhones and other digital media players, your tunes can go wherever you go.
There has been one tricky exception to this digital revolution, and that’s in-home audio.
Yes, you can buy some great docks that let you plug in your i-device or other gadget and get the tunes going in at least one room. But if you’ve got your entire library on your computer, it seems silly to rely on your portable player’s limited memory, plus docks attached to the sounds systems in each room. Thankfully there are two great alternatives if you want to have whole-home control over your music without having to resort to ridiculously expensive professionally installed systems.
A little while ago, Apple started experimenting with transmitting music around Wi-Fi and wired networks from their iTunes software. They called it “AirTunes.” As the name implies, with just iTunes running on your computer, and a compatible AirTunes device like Apple’s AirPort Express, you could be listening to your iTunes collection anywhere you could plug in an ethernet cable or be in range of your Wi-Fi network.
Over time, Apple renamed the feature to “AirPlay” since it became capable of images and videos as well as audio. AirPlay is now an ecosystem unto itself, and many manufacturers are creating audio systems with AirPlay technology baked right in, so no additional hardware like the AirPort Express is needed. The AirPlay component is automatically detected by iTunes.
Currently the limitations on AirPlay are: You can’t stream more than one song to multiple AirPlay speakers from iTunes (they must all play the same song or none at all) and, iTunes itself is the only source of AirPlay audio from your Mac or PC. To access your iTunes library, your computer must remain on, with iTunes running the whole time. You can however, use an i-device like an iPhone or iPad to create a second stream of audio to your AirPlay speakers, but only one. Multiple speakers can only be accessed from iTunes on a computer.
Finally, because AirPlay runs over regular Wi-Fi, if you have other devices that are fighting for Wi-Fi bandwidth, you could experience some interruptions to your music streaming.
Long before Apple started its AirTunes/AirPlay ecosystem, a small company called Sonos was busy creating their own proprietary standard for wireless home audio. They call that standard “SonosNet” and it is effectively a separate WiFi network that runs parallel to your home’s existing network, but because all of the bandwidth is dedicated to streaming Sonos audio, interruptions are avoided. Plus, every Sonos component you add, effectively extends the size of this network, making it more robust.
The Sonos system is made up of two types of components: The software controller (which can run as an App on your smartphone, iPod Touch or tablet) and the hardware player (there are three different kinds of players: All-in-one speakers, amplified players and non-amplified players). You may also need a Sonos bridge device if your home router is located too far from any of the hardware players and running an ethernet cord to the nearest one isn’t practical.
Other than the dedicated wireless network, benefits include: No need to leave your computer turned on if you store your music on a networked-hard drive. Sonos doesn’t need the iTunes software, but it can still access and play all of your iTunes music, as long as the songs are DRM-free. Sonos can play more than one song to more than hardware player. The software controller gives you the ability to group and ungroup players as you see fit. Want one song in every room simultaneously? No problem. Want a different song in each room? It can do that too. The system can also be configured to split a stereo signal between two different hardware players, so that one acts as the left speaker while the other acts as the right.
Limitations on Sonos at the moment are: Sonos is purely for audio. There are no hardware players that connect to your TV or other display devices for showing movies and images. Sonos doesn’t play nicely with AirPlay, unless you buy an AirPort Express and mate it to one of your hardware players, but this is a bit tricky and not every hardware player supports it. There is no way to stream music wirelessly from your smartphone or tablet to a Sonos player, however you can buy special docks that let you use your iPhone or other device as a source of music for the whole SonosNet network. The disadvantage being that if you use that same device to control your Sonos system, you won’t be able to walk around the house with it. Sonos makes two different all-in-one speaker hardware players: the PLAY:3 ($329) and the PLAY:5 ($449).
One of the simplest ways to enjoy a Sonos system is to buy their Sonos PLAY:3 all-in-one speaker system ($329). Using the PLAY:3 wirelessly means you’ll also need the Sonos Bridge ($59). The PLAY:3 is a small, self-contained stereo speaker cabinet which comes in two colours: black and white. Other than an ethernet port on the back, and some small volume buttons on the top surface, the PLAY:3 is as minimalist as it gets. Even the power transformer is contained inside the PLAY:3’s cabinet, leaving only the power cord exposed.
Many people have noted that Sonos takes their design inspirations from Apple and that is very clear in the PLAY:3’s overall look and feel. You can rest the speaker flat, in a landscape orientation, or you stand it on one end to fit into narrower locations. The cabinet has small rubber feet for both options. The speaker’s volume can be controlled either from the software controller, or the physical buttons on the cabinet.
Set-up of the PLAY:3 couldn’t be easier: Simply install the Sonos software on your computer, power on the bridge and the PLAY:3 and follow the on-screen instructions.
As Sonos’s entry hardware player, the PLAY:3 lacks some of the options found in the rest of the Sonos line-up, specifically: there is no auxiliary audio jack and indeed no jacks of any kind other than ethernet. This means that they PLAY:3 is strictly for playing Sonos audio sources and can’t be used as an AirPlay speaker nor can it send its audio to a secondary device like a sub-woofer. There is also no way to power the PLAY:3 down when not in use – it is always on. A somewhat hidden but handy feature is that you can plug any ethernet device into the back of the PLAY:3 and get internet connectivity through the SonosNet wireless network.
One of the earliest companies to join the Apple AirPlay bandwagon is Pioneer. The Japanese company with a long history of making consumer audio products, has embraced AirPlay in almost its whole range of home theatre receivers, and this summer they are debuting their first stand-alone all-in-one AirPlay speaker systems.
There are three models to choose from: the XW-SMA1 ($329), A3 ($429) and A4 ($429) – available in the coming weeks. The A1 and A3 are acoustically identical, the only difference being that the A3 has a built-in rechargeable battery and is somewhat splash-proof for outdoor use. The A4 is a higher-end unit which is more comparable to the Sonos PLAY:5.
For my comparison, I tested an A3.
The SMA1/3’s cabinet (only available in black) is sleek and glossy, without any physical buttons. Along the bottom of the unit are several LED indicators to signal power, network and input status while on the other side are touch-sensitive buttons areas for power, input and volume up/down.
Around the back, you’ll find ethernet, USB, AC in and an auxiliary mini-jack. There is also a small button for activating the speaker’s network set-up functions and a stubby antenna near the top which can be raised and lowered on a rotating cuff to improve Wi-Fi reception.
The SMA1/3 is taller but shallower than the PLAY:3, and it weighs 2 lbs more than the Sonos. Unlike the PLAY:3, the SMA1/3’s power supply is an ugly brick which you’ll need to tuck away so it can’t be seen.
In terms of music streaming options, the SMA1/3 is a virtual Swiss Army knife. Much like the PLAY:3, it can be connected to your network via ethernet or Wi-Fi. Once on the network it will recognized as an AirPlay speaker by iTunes and any iOS device you have. But beyond that, the SMA1/3 is also recognized as a DLNA 1.5 compatible player, which means you can stream music to it from other devices such as your PC, even when not using iTunes.
The SMA1/3 also boasts the ability to handle direct-streaming from certain devices. If you have an i-Device, you can set-up the speaker with Wi-Fi Direct, bypassing the need for a full Wi-Fi network. While this is similar to Bluetooth streaming, it is much more flexible – the Wi-Fi range is much farther than Bluetooth. Similarly, if you have an HTC One smartphone, you can use HTC Connect to establish a direct stream from your phone to the SMA1/3.
Finally, you have two wired options. The first is via the USB port. Connect your iPhone or iPod/iPod Touch using your existing dock cable and you can play music directly. As a bonus, the SMA1/3 will also charge your device. Alternatively, you can use any other portable media player (even an analogue one like a Sony Walkman Cassette player!) via the AUX in mini-jack port.
The SMA1/3 also comes with a dedicated credit-card sized infrared remote to control power, volume, play/pause, next/prev track and input mode from across the room, though in practice this isn’t needed if you’re using AirPlay to control the action via an i-Device.
If you opt for the SMA 3, you get a 5-hour battery and a degree of weather protection for outdoor use.
Each of the networking options offered by the Pioneer unit worked well, and I was especially impressed by the unit’s ability to pull my home Wi-Fi setting from my iPhone when I connected it via USB – that’s a neat trick which I haven’t seen before and it dramatically reduces the hassle of networking a device like this.
So, How Do They Sound?
When it comes right down to it, regardless of the features, you’re buying a speaker system so it had better sound good.
Before I proceed, let me point out that I am not a professional audio reviewer. I have, however tried the SMA1/3 and the PLAY:3 side-by-side using identical tracks and sources as well as some differing material.
The Pioneer and the Sonos are designed to provide what is, in the opinion of their engineers, the best sound characteristics at all volume levels. Some tweaking can be had using the Sonos’s adjustable treble, bass and loudness controls. Strangely, even though the Pioneer lists “Sound Effect (EQ, DRC, Loudness)” on its feature sheet, I was unable to find any way to control these settings. Update: Pioneer has confirmed that while these features are part of the SMA’s audio design, they are turned “on” by default and cannot be adjusted by end-users.
The good news is, they both sound great. The SMA1/3 and the PLAY:3 go for clarity over power with the SMA1/3 excelling at delivering crisp, bright highs. But there is a definite winner in this contest and that title goes to the Sonos PLAY:3. I suspect the reason is the PLAY:3’s speaker profile. Sonos has employed 3 separate Class D amplifiers, one for each of the speaker’s three drivers (1 tweeter, 2-mid-range). It also employs a bass radiator – a passive system for reproducing low-end sounds. The result is a fuller, richer sound than the Pioneer unit offers. It can be heard across all genres of music, but I was especially aware of it when playing jazz – the PLAY:3 let me feel more of bass thrumming than the SMA1/3.
Though Pioneer doesn’t get as specific as Sonos as to the design of their speaker, on the surface at least, they seem close enough: 2 Mid-range, 1 Tweeter and a Bass Reflex Port. Perhaps Sonos’s use of dedicated amps, plus their choice of the bass radiator over the bass reflex is enough to make the difference.
There’s no question that Pioneer targeted the Sonos PLAY:3 in designing the SMA1/3. The size, shape and functionality all closely mirror what Sonos has done. For the most part, this approach is a success, particularly where the Pioneer fills in the feature gaps left by the Sonos. In terms of versatility, you get a bigger bang for your buck with the Pioneer. But Sonos has the edge when it comes to overall sound quality. So which to choose?
To figure this out, you need to determine your priorities. If you want to buy a single unit that will complement your existing sound set-up at home and you’re not looking to build out a dedicated network of audio components, or if you’re a student or someone who lives in a small 1 or two bedroom apartment, the Pioneer SMA1/3 is a great choice. You get plenty of versatility and compatibility and while it doesn’t sound quite as good as the Sonos, you might well feel the extras offset this difference. And I should reiterate – the Pioneer does sound very good. We’re not talking about night and day here. If I hadn’t played the two units side by side, I would have no reason to criticize.
If, on the other hand, you want a dedicated and expandable wireless home audio system that can grow as you grow, the Sonos is the preferred choice. It lacks the Pioneers multiple source options, but its fuller sound works better in big rooms.
Whichever you go with, you’ll be enjoying the leading edge of wireless audio – easily the best thing to happen to music since the first CD was ripped to a PC.
On first blush, when I read the rumour that the next iPhone would be dropping the ubiquitous 30-pin dock connector, the skeptic in me cried “No way!”
Apple has been a rarity in the consumer electronics industry in the sense that they alone have created a multi-billion dollar market for accessories designed exclusively for use with Apple products. Obviously, the sheer number of products that Apple has sold is a big reason why companies big and small have gotten into the i-accessory game, but there’s a subtler, more powerful reason: consistency.
Ever since the advent of the third-generation iPod, Apple has employed the same 30-pin Dock Connector on every single i-device with the exception of the iPod Shuffle. There are hundreds of millions of i-gadgets in use all around the world, and while their technical capabilities vary depending on the model, that same 30-pin connector is on all of them.
How many other product categories in consumer tech or elsewhere can offer that level of compatibility?
So you can see why any suggestion that Apple might be ready to step away from such an overwhelmingly entrenched standard – one that they have the exclusive rights to – would be greeted with a fair degree of dubious eye-brow raising.
But the notion isn’t completely laughable. In fact, it might make sense.
First, let’s consider the fact that Apple has prided itself on being able to predict the demise of a technology often well before consumers are willing to relinquish it. The first iMac famously debuted with no floppy drive. It was the first mainstream machine to do so. The optical drive was read-only and the only way to get data out of the iMac was to transmit it using the Internet or via an attached USB-device (keep in mind, super-cheap USB thumb drives were essentially non-existent back then). It wasn’t long before other PC makers were stripping out the floppy from their designs, never to be seen again.
Apple’s next big ditch: you guessed it – the optical drive itself which they made an optional accessory on the stunningly thin and light MacBook Air. Again, much like with the iMac, Apple proved prescient and the MacBook Air has become the laptop after which the “Ultrabook” line of Windows machines has been modelled.
Second, let’s take a look at what that 30-pin connector actually does for i-Devices:
- Sync data
- Pass through audio and/or video content (which is simply a specific form of data syncing)
All of these functions are handy, yet none require the 30-pin connector per-se. USB connectors, be they mini-USB or the now-standard micro-USB are just as capable of handling these duties and do so on the myriad smartphones that Apple does not make. Micro-USB can even handle high-definition 1080p output via a newer technology known as MHL (Mobile High-Defintion Link). And thanks to iCloud, you never need to physically connect an i-Device to a Mac or PC in order to sync data. Even iOS updates are now done “over-the-air.” There is virtually no reason, other than to maintain consistency of design, why Apple *needs* to keep the dock connector.
If Apple chose to abandon the 30-pin dock for the the industry-standard Micro-USB (which is unlikely – they will probably create a smaller dock connector), they would certainly please a segment of their customers who would prefer to carry a single, cheap and easily replaced power cord – but what about that massive eco-system of accessories like speaker docks and alarms clocks whose numbers are now to great to count? Would they have to issue all-new designs just for the iPhone 5 (or “The New iPhone” as I suspect Apple will call it)? Yes and no.
In the past two years, Apple has been making a bit of a fuss over a wireless audio and video standard they call “AirPlay.” AirPlay lets you effortlessly stream audio or video from your Mac or PC’s iTunes software to any AirPlay-equipped gadget on your home Wi-Fi or wired network. Apple TV is a great example of this. Not only can you stream hi-def movies from iTunes to your TV via AirPlay, you can stream any music or video from your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch in the same way, so long as the app you’re using has been AirPlay-enabled.
AirPlay has seen a lot of support amongst the top brands in the electronics space. Pioneer, Denon, Sonos, JBL, B&W, iHome and Klipsch – just to name a few – have all introduced AirPlay-compatible products and that number is guaranteed to grow. Why? Because AirPlay is the new, wireless dock-connector at least as far as bullet number three from the list above is concerned. It’s a new standard and is already supported by nearly every Wi-Fi equipped product Apple sells.
I know – that’s all well and good for new products – they obviously don’t need a dock connector for audio and video, but what about those older products? The ones that are still carrying around a seemingly obsolete dock? Well here’s where we take an even longer drive down the speculative highway…
I think Apple could easily create an AirPlay Dock Adapter, which would snap into any speaker dock and give it AirPlay connectivity. Assuming that the adapter could draw power from from the dock in the same way that an iPod or iPhone could draw power for recharging, nothing else would be needed. Given how inexpensive Wi-Fi radios have become, I’m guessing that Apple could sell these for $50, turn a very handsome profit, and give millions of older speakers etc., a new lease on life.
I’m not the first one to think this is a good idea – at least one enterprising fellow is trying to get some movement on this notion – assuming Apple doesn’t beat him to the punch!
So readers, what do you make of these prognostications? Would you freak out if Apple dropped the dock from the new iPhone?
Of all the features that launched with last week’s iOS update to 4.2, the one I was most eagerly anticipating was AirPlay.
In case you haven’t been following along, AirPlay is the ability to wirelessly stream audio and video from a device like an iPad to your 2nd generation Apple TV. It’s essentially and enhancement on the existing AirTunes feature that already let you stream audio from iTunes to an AirPort Express router so that you could pipe your tunes directly into a connected receiver. AirPlay takes that framework and expands it to include video.
The system is dead-easy. Just make sure that your i-device and your Apple TV are on the same wireless network. Then choose your app: iPod for video or music, the Photos app for, well, photos and the YouTube app for, uh, you get the idea. Once your media is playing or your photo is displayed, simply tap the little rectangle pierced with a upwards-pointing triangle icon and choose “Apple TV” from the list that pops up.
The result is nothing short of spectacular. I tried AirPlay using my iPad as the source device and played back a high-quality version of How To Train Your Dragon. For the techies out there, the file specs are: 1280×544 in .m4v, @155kbps with 5.1 Dolby. In short, it’s a file that has been optimized for Apple TV. Once I had selected Apple TV from the AirPlay list, the movie started playing on my plasma TV within 2 seconds.
I didn’t watch the whole movie but I did let it run for several minutes during which there was no observable glitch in audio or video. Both were perfect. In fact, the video compared so well to the HD version we had rented via Bell TV’s on-demand service, I couldn’t tell the difference.
Sounds great right? Yes – it really does exactly what is promises. But (you knew there had to be one…) I’m extremely disappointed by the lack of AirPlay video support for 3rd party apps.
That’s right. As of right now, the *only* apps that can send video wirelessly via AirPlay to the Apple TV is the Video app on the iPad (iPod app on the iPhone/iPod Touch) and Apple’s own YouTube and Photos apps.
Here’s why this stinks: Apple TV is, out-of-the-box, able to stream any content that iTunes can play on your PC. It also has it’s own YouTube app. Lastly, it can present photos from your PC if you enable iTunes to stream that content too.
So what exactly has AirPlay done to extend Apple TV’s capabilities? Nothing. Well, almost nothing.
If you have content on your iPad or iPhone that you don’t have on your Mac/PC, then I suppose it’s handy to be able to stream that content to the Apple TV without the need of a middle-man device. But let’s think about this: If you bought an Apple TV, it’s fair to assume that you were already using your computer as your primary media repository and you were okay with managing that media via iTunes. Now I’m not suggesting that you would *never* use just your i-device to download new content – thereby skipping the iTunes-PC step, but I’m guessing it will be rare.
I real promise that AirPlay held for me, and I suspect many other Apple TV owners, was the ability to use all of the 3rd party apps that have popped up in the App Store that support all of the media file types that iTunes (and thus Apple TV) don’t support.
I was frustrated by Apple’s decision to limit Apple TV to just a few video formats when they announced the product, but I immediately thought “okay, no problem, Apple doesn’t want to support other formats, I can deal with that since it looks like AirPlay will enable other companies to take on that burden through 3rd party app development.” With AirPlay being limited to just Apple’s trio of native apps, what would have been an otherwise perfect compromise between what Apple was willing to do and what consumers wanted, is now almost superfluous. A neat trick of engineering that will rarely be used or needed.
For the sake of being optimistic, I hope that this limitation with AirPlay is merely temporary while 3rd party apps are updated by their developers to be compatible with the new feature… but I’m not very convinced this will happen. Some other blogs have pointed out that 3rd party video *was* working in the beta of 4.2 but was subsequently disabled in the final release. Apple, what say you to this?
Update: Apple got back to us rather sooner than we thought, or at least, MacRumours thinks Steve Jobs has gotten back to us. In an email reply reportedly sent to one of their site’s readers, who asked about Safari YouTube and 3rd party support, the iCEO himself said he “hopes to add these features to AirPlay in 2011.” I don’t know if we can bank on one as-yet unvalidated email, but here’s hoping!
Okay, your turn: Have you used AirPlay yet? If so, do you think it’s a feature you’ll be using on a regular basis? Let us know.