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Monday, December 9, 2013

Which Wireless Speaker System Should You Buy?

Posted By on Mon, Dec 9, 2013 at 8:33 AM

The Beats Pill may be your most obvious choice for a wireless speaker, but it probably isn't the best.
  • The Beats Pill may be your most obvious choice for a wireless speaker, but it probably isn't the best.

If you've had even a cursory glance at the year's big pop music videos -- Miley Cyrus' "We Can't Stop" or Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," for instance -- you may have noticed the unabashed placement of one specific product: Beats Pill from Beats by Dr. Dre. It's tough to miss this rechargeable speaker, a device that allows you to stream music from any computer or smartphone with Bluetooth baked in (which is almost all of them at this point). But it's a bitter pill to swallow for fans of audio more than celebrity endorsements.

Featuring four tweeters and an audio algorithm that don't play all that well with the G-funk made famous by Dr. Dre, Beats Pill is far too tinny for a $200 purchase, especially one promising to make your party pop off. With that in mind, here's a range of better speaker options to wirelessly share your 2013 guilty (or unguilty) pleasures.

Beats Pill supports the NFC and Bluetooth 2.1 standards, which are fine and widely adopted (albeit outdated). These allow the Pill to easily pair with devices within 30 to 50 feet for playback and speakerphone functions. You can also have two Pills pair in stereo mode. However, for $100 you can get all of the above from the Logitech UE Mini Boom, which features a similar 10-hour battery life and slightly less crispy sound. Similarly, the Jawbone JamBox (which is natively stereo) comes in at around $150. If you're just playing MP3s while on the go, there's no reason not to save a little money and get a more balanced response. And those are just some mass-market options.

At this point, there's a Bluetooth speaker/speakerphone for every lifestyle. Search for Outdoor Technology's Turtle Shell 2.0 and for $129 you get an IPX-65 shock-proof, dust-proof, water-resistant housing for weekend warriors. It's compact, colorful and ready to face the elements within reason -- there's even an optional bike handlebars mount. In addition, it sports Bluetooth 4.0, which improves quick pairing, battery management/life and support for aptX, a wider-band audio codec that produces noticeably improved sound.

The Melody by Soundcast
  • The Melody by Soundcast

Packability is great, but so is sound that's highly potable. The Melody by Soundcast takes outdoor audio quality and volume up toward 11, though it dials back on backcountry compatibility. At 9 lbs. and $450, it's considerably more in all respects, but it offers 20 hours of omnidirectional, full-bodied sound in a rugged, rice cooker-like cylindrical housing. Sporting that aptX "CD-quality" codec, a 360-degree metal grill covering two stereo pairs of 3-inch drivers plus four bass radiators, you can sling the Melody by its sturdy handy into the middle of a patio or poolside conversation and quickly share pleasingly precise treble, dynamic midrange and rich, slightly boosted upper bass. While the stereo field is somewhat compressed, attack and sustain is as expressive as the source you feed. The Melody is even water-resistant, though I'd quickly yank it out of more than a light drizzle. Glampers, gourmet indoor picnickers, and on-the-go full-fidelity audio enthusiasts, put this one on your wish list.

  • SONOS Play

You don't have to invest in road-trip compatibility to get a movable audio feast, however. SONOS is a pioneer in multiroom wireless audio, and the company recently released its most affordable component: the $199 Play:1. The Play:1 does have more requirements for connectivity: a power outlet, an independently established broadband connection to a network "bridge" (currently included in the price), as well as installing a dedicated iOS/Android app. In exchange, it offers extended range (up to 100 feet), expandability (to stereo, or beyond if setting up surround sound or independently assignable speakers in multiple rooms), as well as full-spectrum audio through proprietary wireless. At only four pounds and six inches tall, the Play:1 is physically unobtrusive, but its sound isn't. With dedicated digital amplifiers for a woofer and tweeter, the Play:1 exhibits none of the compression artifacts of Bluetooth. Its strength is in liquid mids and upper-frequency clarity.

Cambridge Audio Minx Air 200
  • Cambridge Audio Minx Air 200

Setting up the SONOS system takes only around 10 minutes, but if you want to skip the extra box while still getting lossless sound, consider the Cambridge Audio Minx Air 200. At $600 it's a hefty investment, but it comes with a long British hi-fi pedigree and supports both aptX Bluetooth and Apple's AirPlay, meaning any Android/iOS device can pair and stream at their best. In addition, its 6-inch woofer delivers the most bass authority (levels are even adjustable), balanced by the silken highs of modal radiators (a type of flat driver). It's resonant, still portable (though wall-powered), and pumps the loudest, most distortion-free audio of any self-contained unit I tested. Including RCA inputs for folks with old-school iPods/extra components, it could be the primary speakers of a reasonably sized room.

There's one last scenario, however: you have a pair of speakers you already love, and you want to add wireless capabilities to them. For that, I'd turn to the NAD Electronics D 3020 ($500) or D 7050 ($1,000) network amplifiers, two compact monoliths of connectivity. The former features support for aptX, as well as 30 watts per channel of analog-digital hybrid stereo amplification, while the latter includes standard Bluetooth, aptX, and AirPlay, plus 50 watts per channel of direct-digital sound reinforcement. By no means does this showcase the full capabilities of these hubs -- which can accept high-resolution sources through USB and optical cables (and the D 7050 can pull from UPnP servers) -- but it does highlight the point-to-point wireless functions they can bring to any smartphone and a pair of reasonably sized stereo speakers.

NAD D3020
  • NAD D3020

In addition, both NAD units include impeccable headphone amplifiers, because sometimes guilty pleasures are too dark to share. Or perhaps your space is at a premium, your apartment walls are paper thin, or you want to listen at the office. Pair one of the amplifiers with the $300 NAD VISO HP50 headphones, featuring RoomFeel technology, and you've got a listening experience for one almost as spacious as a speaker set-up, minus all the pesky wires.

So, those are our suggestions. If you're sensitive to product placement, you won't be able to miss Beats Pill, but if you're sensitive to bad sound you should try to.

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Tony Ware


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