Logitech dips its toes into the realm of AirPlay audio. (April 15th, 2012)
Product Manufacturer: Logitech
- (Usually) easy setup
- Convenient Wi-Fi streaming
- Above-average audio quality
- Stylish aesthetics
- Expensive pricetag
- Audio quality good, but not great
- Docking iOS devices unnecessarily difficult
- Slightly awkward button placement
If maybe a little more slowly than Apple would like, AirPlay is becoming a staple of the wireless speaker market for iOS devices. The technology has a few advantages: Wi-Fi streaming allows for higher-quality audio than Bluetooth, in theory, and its integration into iOS and iTunes guarantees widespread support of options like broadcasting to multiple audio outputs in different rooms. Logitech's first entry into the AirPlay market comes courtesy of its Ultimate Ears brand, something previously limited to headphones. The UE Air Speaker rides on two promises: first, an easy setup process, and second, high-fidelity sound. At $400, can it deliver on expectations?
For most people, getting the Air Speaker working should be a fairly simple process. After connecting some power cables -- and, optionally, an Ethernet cable for linking directly to a router -- users turn the unit on and dock an iOS device. This prompts the download of the UE Air app from the App Store, which guides a person through pairing the speaker to a network, and afterwards enables very basic treble and bass controls. People without an iOS handheld can perform a more complicated setup procedure on their computer, similar to one used for Sonos speakers.
For full disclosure, it should be said that in the case of this review there was initially quite a lot of trouble getting sound from the Air Speaker, even using a direct dock connection; only after a few days did everything spontaneously start working properly, despite numerous troubleshooting steps including several re-pairings and factory resets. This appears to have been related to separate network problems though, and now the review unit works as you'd expect. The average person is unlikely to encounter anything similar.
Once the hardware is up and running properly, listening is relatively simple. Most of the time the speaker sits in a standby mode waiting for a device to connect. In iTunes or in an iOS app, people simply select the Air Speaker as an option from the AirPlay menu and hit play. It may take up to a few seconds for audio to kick in, but that's a quirk of just about any Wi-Fi music setup.
Any in-app volume changes are automatically mirrored by the speaker, and vice versa. In that regard it should be said that the device's volume, power, and mute controls are well-designed, but placed in a slightly awkward position on the opposite side of an arcing top surface. Another curious design choice is the dock; while it pops neatly in and out, the actual dock connector is attached to a spring that by default aims it back at the speaker grill. This can make it surprisingly hard to dock a device, with or without a case; I sometimes found myself holding the connector toward me with a finger to make it fit. Docked iPads can moreover feel a little unstable, so don't expect to treat the Air Speaker as a convenient way of charging a tablet and/or playing audio from it at the same time.
When operating in its native element though -- as an AirPlay device, with the source undocked -- the Air Speaker is a very convenient luxury. There's something to be said for curling up with an iPad to read and listening to music on a real sound system, instead of the tablet's built-in speaker. It also makes watching video more enjoyable, though of course if you have a TV with decent sound, the technology is a little redundant.
The Air Speaker is nothing if not powerful. Setting volume to less than half is enough to fill a room with sound, and at maximum it can be almost deafening. Bass response isn't massive, but in testing it was enough to add some punch to beat-heavy music like industrial. Both treble and bass settings can probably be left where they are in the UE Air app; pushing them much further than the presets just tends to wreck some well-balanced audio.
I will say however that for a $400 speaker system, the audio is not as clear as it could be. It's ever-so-slightly muddy. It's easily above average compared with most speaker docks, but again, that pricetag makes a difference. $400 puts it into audiophile territory, where any deficiency has to be accounted for. I doubt that anyone will be truly disappointed with the Air Speaker in practice, it's just that it lacks a certain "wow" factor people might expect -- fairly or not.
The UE Air Speaker is difficult to recommend for that reason. It hits all the essential marks but doesn't do much better, which is an issue when for another $100 you could buy an iPad. To be fair, it's probably a much more sane option compared with some other high-end AirPlay speakers, like Bowers & Wilkins' $599 Zeppelin Air. You just have to ask yourself if the convenience and power the accessory offers is really worth it next to adequate speakers which are half the price, if not less.