Review: Pioneer Elite Music Tap X-SMC4-K
If you've shopped for iPod and iPhone speakers in the past, you already know that most of them are sold for $300 or less -- mass-market pricing matching the vast majority of iPod and iPhone devices. Justifying higher price tags is challenging, but some companies have specialized in figuring out ways to make deluxe speakers with designs and performance that are worthy of their premiums. Two new high-end systems we've been testing over the past couple of weeks take very different directions: Geneva Lab aims for elegance with its 2011 version of the Geneva Sound System Model M ($650), while Pioneer has thrown in everything except the kitchen sink in its brand new Elite Music Tap ($479, aka X-SMC4-K), a new wireless system with both AirPlay and Bluetooth support built in. This review covers the Elite Music Tap, a less expensive version of which is sold for $399 as just "Music Tap," and lacks the built-in Bluetooth hardware.
At this point, Apple’s embrace of elegant, easy-to-use solutions is so well established that we needn’t rehash its history in that regard, but it’s important to note up front when discussing the Elite Music Tap. Unlike Geneva Lab, which created the Model M as a simple-looking wooden box with a metal front grille, or Bowers & Wilkins, which sells the Zeppelin Air as a stylish elongated football with a floating dock, Pioneer designed the Elite Music Tap with a lot of different elements. When it’s turned off, the nearly 20.5” wide, 9” tall and 5.7” deep system looks from the front like a mix of glossy and matte black elements, with two boxy speaker housings off to the side of a central core with a silver foot at the bottom. A dock pops out of the lower right, with a red-lit clock above it, and a 2.5” color screen is off to the left of the clock. Little lights signal a bunch of different operating modes; USB, headphone, and aux-in ports sit below the screen and indicators.
As much as we hate to say it, there’s no better way to put this: Elite Music Tap looks and feels like it was designed by engineers. The clock reads “P 2:27” to indicate 2:27PM, or “A 12:01” to indicate “12:01AM.” Pioneer’s bright color screen includes tons of different menu choices that will certainly confuse 75% or more of the people who might otherwise be interested in AirPlay speakers. The included 38-button Infrared remote control doesn’t have a single “input select” button—it has two function buttons so that you can move between all of Elite Music Tap’s many modes. Two of these modes cause a docked iPod to go off and on charging mode each time you sweep past them. By contrast with most iPod and iPhone speaker systems, which have been designed for plug and play simplicity, Elite Music Tap’s user experience is all so inelegant and messy that “normal” people would just want to scream. As bad as it is in use, it’s even worse when waking the system up from powered-off mode; you have to wait 45 seconds just to start using the menus. It feels like a lifetime.* (Update: Pioneer notes that Music Tap’s “Quick Start Mode” feature is turned off by default for some odd reason, and hidden in the fifth of five different settings menus.)
But—and yes, there’s a but—beneath all of the clutter, Elite Music Tap does have a lot to offer the tech-savvy user. Start with the AirPlay wireless feature, which uses the remote control and 2.5” color screen to help the system join a 802.11g/b network. While this process isn’t as easy as it could be, requiring you to dive through menus and then manually tap arrow buttons over and over again for each letter or number in your passcode, it’s not terribly painful, either, and only needs to be gone through one time. (An Ethernet port on the back is there for users who want to use the system near a router or networking cable; a composite video port passes through a docked iPod/iPhone’s video, as well. ) If you can put aside now common AirPlay issues such as occasional signal dropout and longer delays between starting and changing tracks relative to Bluetooth, you’ll actually like how Elite Music Tap works: the screen displays signal strength, track info, and even album artwork when it’s connected to an iOS device. For some reason, album artwork doesn’t appear when it’s streaming music from iTunes.
There are also a bunch of other features that will appeal to techies, such as support for DLNA, networked music servers, and vTuner Internet radio, each capable of streaming content from Internet- or home network-based storage devices. Elite Music Tap was able to instantly find and play back tracks from a networked Western Digital MyBookLive hard drive, albeit without album art, and offered a wide selection of well-sorted Internet radio stations for instant streaming. The unit also supports more common FM radio tuning and Bluetooth features; FM tuning is respectable, with only modest static in otherwise powerfully presented stations, and Bluetooth pairing went off without a hitch, with very good sound quality. Pioneer also offers a free Air Jam application, which lets you toggle Bluetooth streams from up to four iOS devices, creating a shared playlist so that multiple people can wirelessly deejay together at a party. If you’re considering the Music Tap version without Bluetooth, the AS-BT200 adapter can be purchased separately for $79 and plugged into a port on the system’s back at any time if you want it.
Sonically, the Elite Music Tap is in the ballpark of sub-$300 docking speaker systems we’ve tested—not in the same league as a pricier system such as the Zeppelin Air, which offers deeper bass thanks to its built-in 5” bass drivers, but reasonable nonetheless. Pioneer uses twin 2.6” full-range drivers plus two 3” passive radiators, a configuration that works respectably at small room-filling audio levels to produce sound that’s midrange-focused with enough treble and bass to satisfy most users, exhibiting only modest weaknesses in the upper treble and lower bass. The sound doesn’t have an apparent stage much beyond the unit’s edges, but given that it’s over 20” wide, that’s not a huge problem. Unfortunately, the Elite Music Tap doesn’t do very well when the volume’s turned up; the speakers begin to distort above the 35th of 50 volume levels and become terrible-sounding at the level 50 peak, a top level that’s noticeably lower and far less impressive than the Zeppelin Air and even less expensive systems.
Rating the Elite Music Tap is a challenge because it’s so different from most of the audio systems that have been released for the iPod and iPhone to date. If it wasn’t for the AirPlay wireless support, a feature found in both the $479 and $399 versions, it would be very easy to forget as an only sonically fair speaker system, but Elite Music Tap stands out from the pack because of AirPlay. Moreover, its broad support for other networked and Internet-based streaming features, its FM radio, color screen, and Bluetooth options are all appealing for different reasons. The system is regrettably let down by unusual factors, such as its initially sluggish startup time, overly complicated menu system, and poor high volume performance, each of which can be mitigated if you’re willing to just work around them by changing your listening habits. But for these sort of prices, you shouldn’t have to make compromises. For that reason, Elite Music Tap falls below our limited recommendation level and merits a C+ rating. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for a more elegantly executed, quicker-booting sequel.