COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Listening to music wirelessly

This week I’ve been working with two small sound systems designed for playing music and other sources wirelessly from your computer and smartphone. The first of these systems is the Sonos sound system, and the other is a Pioneer AirPlay speaker.

While the Pioneer is a single stand-alone speaker, the Sonos is designed to be more of a system that can be expanded to play music through multiple speakers in different rooms. The source can vary in each room.

Sonos

The Sonos system consists of a speaker that connects wirelessly to your home network. Instead of using your Wi-Fi network, it uses its own built-in network to connect the speakers to a bridge, a small box that plugs into your wired network. If you have cable, that means the bridge plugs into your cable modem. A speaker can be located up to about 50 feet from the bridge.

You first need to run Sonos software on your computer so that it can find the bridge and speakers and register them onto the Sonos network. That then allows you to control your music source from your computer or phone (iPhone and Android). You can connect to pretty much every imaginable source of music, including your iTunes library, Pandora, Rhapsody, Sirius, Spotify, Internet radio stations and much more. If you use subscription services, such as Sirius, you need to register separately.

Sonos offers two sizes of bookshelf speakers, the Play:5 and the Play:3, costing $399 and $299, respectively. Currently Sonos provides the $50 bridge at no cost with either speaker. Each speaker is small enough to be tucked onto a small bookshelf and essentially disappear from sight. I’ve been using the Play:5, the larger of the two.

Using Sonos’ app for the iPhone, iPad or Android devices provides the biggest benefit. You can view, access and search all of the sound sources from your device to manage what you’d like to play, as well as create a program list. Controls allow you to skip songs, change sources and control volume.

The sound quality is similar to what you’d expect from a moderately priced bookshelf speaker: good mid-tones, some thinness in the base and high frequencies, and a lack of rich vibrant sound that you would get from a much larger speaker. But it’s perfectly adequate for most music and casual listening, especially considering that the music we listen to is so compressed.

Pioneer A4

The Pioneer XW-SMA4 is an AC-powered speaker that connects to your computer and other Apple devices using AirPlay. AirPlay is a new wireless technology developed by Apple for streaming content between different devices. It was introduced last year and is now finding its way into speakers and receivers from a number of companies, including Pioneer. It has the capability to display song titles, artists, album names, elapsed and remaining time, and album artwork on those devices with graphical displays. The XW, however, has no display.

Setup began auspiciously with a huge folded instruction sheet that’s almost as big as a small area rug. Because there are so many ways to set it up, using wireless and wired technology, you follow a maze of instructions. I chose to set it up wirelessly over AirPlay, and after waiting for a sequence of lights to go on and off, then pushing a button on my Cisco router (that I was unaware existed), the speaker connected via Wi-Fi to my MacBook and iPhone. It appeared on each device in the list of output audio sources.

I was able to play music from both the phone and computer using the iTunes controls. A remote control also comes with the speaker for on/off, skipping tracks and adjusting volume. The speaker would play perfectly even when I moved the computer to the other end of the home.

Sound from the speaker was quite good, just slightly better than the Sonos speaker. There was a fuller bass from its built-in sub-woofer without being so booming. The Pioneer speaker is about the same size as the Sonos, finished in glossy black plastic. (The speaker is also compatible with HTC Connect, HTC's AirPlay equivalent for its One-series phones.)

Pioneer also makes a model XW-SMA3 with a built-in rechargeable battery and water-resistant design for the same $399, but without a sub-woofer.

Both products, while simple to set up when things go well, can be challenging to diagnose when problems surface. I required support from Sonos to solve a Wi-Fi problem; its technician was very knowledgeable and helpful. The Pioneer device can be thought of less as a music system than one of a new class of speakers that play music from your devices wirelessly and without needing to be plugged in. But you will need to use a variety of apps to find your sources rather than everything being integrated on the Sonos app.

Both systems offer the convenience of playing audio content from the Internet and your devices. Neither will replace a full-fledged audio system with high fidelity sound, but they are certainly better than the boom boxes of years past.



Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer" published by Financial Times Press and available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other booksellers. He has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others; holds 30 patents; and is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Baker can be heard on KOGO AM the first Sunday of each month. Send comments to phil.baker@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor. Baker's blog is blog.philipgbaker.com, and his website is philipgbaker.com.

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