AirPlay is the way digital music should be. If you have WiFi, you have music. But you also have a tough choice. More and more speakers come equipped with AirPlay, ready out of the box to blast music wirelessly from your preferred Apple gizmo. In a test of four speakers, the one that sounded sweetest was also among the cheapest.
These four speakers, which range in price from a few hundred dollars to nearly $1,000, include the Libratone Live, the Audyssey Audio Dock Air, the Logitech UE Air Speaker, and the Bang & Olufsen Beolit 12. Phew! Each one looks, sounds, and fits a little differently into your life and living room. But any AirPlay device serves one basic purpose: To beam music from a phone, tablet, or laptop to a room-filling speaker.
The Live is undeniably strange and beautiful—like a chair you might find in the office of a professor in the 22nd century. The speaker itself is a clean, furry, triangular prism—a felt-covered robotic organism with a shining chrome handle and lovely lines. The only element breaking up the friendly felt surface is a satisfyingly plush, glowing power button. The thing is gorgeous.
This is where the good things about the Libratone Live end. It's a design element—something you'd buy for your 1960s orgy pad or Lex Luthor's baby shower—but not a desirable speaker. Why? It just doesn't sound that good. Given its size, it lacks audio grandness. An apartment bedroom or living room fill with sound, but it's weak. Setting the thing up with your wireless network requires deciphering an idiotic array of color and repetition blinks on the unit's sole button. If your router uses a password with anything but letters in it, you're SOL.
And after all that, sound is dull and muffled, lacking the clarity you'd expect from something so large, and—at $700—expensive. The Libratone Live is a luxury piece of furniture that happens to be a mediocre AirPlay speaker.
•Aux inputs: Minijack, Optical
•Speakers: 1x5" bass, 2x3" midrange and 2x1" ribbon based tweeter
•Dimensions and Weight: 18.5 in x 7.7 in x 6 in, 14 pounds
Logitech's offering looks familiar—it's a wide black rounded box. Generic. Corporate. It also sounds like pretty much every iPod dock you've ever laid ears on. Average looks, average sound, average size. There's really nothing remarkable about it.
Except! Setup for the UE Air is as easy as it comes for an AirPlay device. Rather than fussing with a byzantine series of boxes and IP addresses to manually hook the speaker to your router, Logitech just gracefully allows you to plug in your iPhone. You'll be prompted to download an app. Download the app. Type in your wireless password. The rest is automatic. You'll be good to go, and can use the app later if you want to adjust bass and treble settings.
Unfortunately, it's just easy access to a room full of tinny sound reminiscent of a small speaker. You can do better.
•Aux inputs: Minijack
•Speakers: 1x 3" woofer, 1x 0.5" tweeter
•Dimensions and Weight: 21.0 in x 5.7 in x 6.7 in, 6.4 pounds
The 12 isn't what you normally associate with Bang & Olufsen. The King of Denmark usually builds speakers that are astoundingly skinny, and so expensive that any salted-fish-eating peasant would be terrified to touch them.
The Beolit 12, by comparison, is like a pretty, friendly lunchbox. This is a good thing! Its boxiness is charming, the bubbled speaker grille on the side is subtle enough, and, most importantly—it's totally portable. You'll be able to squeeze several hours out of its battery and cart it around with that sassy strap. Your Beolit won't be tethered to any wall or room in particular—it can follow you through your home, and it's powerful enough to stuff it with music. Bass and high ends both blast wonderfully—enough to give a true stereo system a run for its money.
But, oh no—this part is terrible—you can only set up the Beolit 12 via ethernet. Ethernet. Does your computer have ethernet? If it's a new laptop, there's a good chance it doesn't. You'll also have to activate the 12's wireless powers with a manual press of the button, which sours the lazy magic of AirPlay. Two stupid, stupid, inexplicable design choices, B&O. And at an absurd $800, there's no room for foolishness.
•Aux inputs: Minijack, USB
•Speakers: 2x 2-inch tweeters, 1x 4-inch woofer
•Battery: Yes, 4 hours (advertised)
•Dimensions and Weight: 7.48 in x 5.31 in x 9.05 in, 5.95 pounds
Audyssey has made terrific small speakers and docks, and they've finally made the one folks have wanted all along. The Audio Dock Air is just fantastic: a little heavy on bass, but able to fill a room with incredibly rich sound, across genres.
It's only about the width of couple dictionaries, but the sound is not confined to any given bookshelf, dresser, or countertop. Even with poor apartment acoustics, a room swells with bright highs, satisfying lows, and terrifically sharp fidelity. The Air cranks up as high as you can take it without distortion—even extremely loud rap stayed crisp at landlord-infuriating levels. You can, with confidence, use the Audyssey as the main music system in any room of your home.
And, above all, it's just so wonderfully simple. There's a wheel you'll never use, two small indicator lights, and that's essentially it—the rest is just gorgeously minimal mesh speaker grille and a matte black frame. It melds seamlessly with any room and surface. If you happen to notice it, you'll be pleased.
More AirPlay speakers should be following Audyssey here. This is a near-perfect split between a fair price, splendid sound, and friendly form.
•Aux inputs: Minijack
•Speakers: 2x .75" tweeters, 2x 3" woofers, 2x 4" passive bass radiators
•Dimensions and Weight: 4.7 in x 8.9 in x 8.3 in, 5 pounds