Review: NOCS NS2 Air Monitors with AirPlay
While it would be premature to call the AirPlay speaker market "dead," there are signs that Apple's Wi-Fi-based audio streaming technology has lost the war to Bluetooth: very few developers are discussing new AirPlay models, and some of last year's AirPlay speakers are about to be re-released with Bluetooth at lower prices. But several companies are still in the process of releasing models that were announced last year but delayed for whatever reason, and Swedish headphone maker NOCS's NS2 Air Monitors ($449) are the latest to arrive for testing.
NS2 is amongst relatively few AirPlay speakers to include two satellites rather than an all-in-one design, using your choice of two packed-in cables to connect the satellites to one another, and a wall adapter to provide power to the amplifier and wireless hardware inside the right speaker. The most striking element in the minimalist design is the use of colored soft touch rubber coating for the MDF wooden chassis: each of six different colors (black, white, gray, red, yellow, or orange) ships with two black drivers atop an elongated pill-shaped bass port. AirPlay speakers generally don’t come in more than one or two color options, and though three of the NS2 colors are apparently not yet shipping, three are available now.
If the design looks somewhat familiar, that’s because it is. Apart from small tweaks to the shape and finish of their cabinets, the NS2 Air Monitors bear more than a passing resemblance to a pair of bookshelf speakers released by Audioengine some time ago as A2. Both models combine small silk dome tweeters and larger Kevlar woofers atop long, pill-shaped bass ports, with the exact same visual balance of components and carbon fiber-esque finish on the woofers. But NS2’s cabinets are a little larger—6.25” tall by 4.25” wide by 5.5” deep—and have more rounded corner radiuses. Contrary to NOCS’ page, its woofers measure 2.75” rather than 3” in size, and there are other reasons to think that these speakers share similar DNA or the same factory, but we’ll leave further speculation to others.
One comparison that’s hard to ignore, however, is the price differential between those speakers. NS2 was supposed to sell for $399—twice the price of A2—but instead has launched for $449. What could possibly justify a $250 price difference? Well, NOCS promises a 70-Watt amplifier versus Audioengine’s 60-watt amplifier, and of course, only NS2 has built-in AirPlay wireless hardware. On the back of the right NS2 speaker is a small antenna that can be rotated upwards to improve the Wi-Fi signal, which although not documented on NOCS’ web site or packaging uses the 802.11b/g standard, like most AirPlay speakers. You’ll also find power, setup, and reset buttons to use during a generally painless but fully web-based AirPlay setup process, alongside aux-in, power, and left speaker connection ports. Most AirPlay speakers we’ve seen include USB ports and/or free apps to make the setup process easier, but NS2 has neither.
Thanks to a firmware update, the NS2 does support the AirPlay Direct mode that began to appear in some speakers late last year. This mode enables NS2 to create its own 802.11b/g Wi-Fi network in environments without wireless routers—an AirPlay addition that was primarily meant to help portable speakers operate outdoors. While you’ll still need a wall outlet to use NS2, this feature does remove the need for an existing network, though most iOS and iTunes users will want to keep NS2 on the same network as their devices for the sake of convenience.
From a performance standpoint, NS2 is a very capable speaker system given the typical size and frequency limitations that would be expected from a double-driver design. Sonically neutral rather than exaggerated, the highs aren’t ultra high and the lows aren’t super deep, but the rest of the frequency range is well represented here, most likely due to a combination of good driver selection, tuning, and the wooden housings. We were particularly impressed by the clean mid-treble, treble, and mid-bass, noting distortion in the mid-bass and bass only at very high volume levels—more than enough to fill a small room. For the most part, NS2 did a really good job with all of the music we threw at it.
The single most impressive thing about NS2 is the stereo separation achievable by the included cables: it’s enough to create a sonic field just as large as a 30” monitor, or much larger, depending on how far you want to move the speakers from one another. Placed alongside a 27” iMac, NS2 really brings music to life. However, it should be noted that there’s no subwoofer hardware here or equivalently powerful dedicated bass drivers, so movies and other audio won’t growl or rumble—something that’s common in much less expensive multimedia speakers, say nothing for audio systems at this price point.
AirPlay performance was as expected. Like all AirPlay speakers, NS2 generally requires a several-second delay before beginning the playback of a randomly-selected new track, almost immediately responding to a “pause” button while lagging a couple of seconds behind when you resume play. You can still expect occasional hiccups in connectivity or resuming songs—something we’ve seen in virtually every AirPlay speaker—but overall, the streaming and playback are reasonable. And because it’s an AirPlay system, NS2 can be used with iTunes on a PC or Mac to play back audio simultaneously with other AirPlay speakers in the same or other rooms.
From our perspective, the biggest issue with NOCS’ NS2 Air Monitors is the pricing—the same problem that has dogged so many other AirPlay speakers. While the sonic performance is solid enough by the standards of $200 audio systems, the $449 price tag is just too high. Should the price fall somewhat, NS2 would be worth seriously considering on the strength of its clean audio, wide stereo separation, and nice if familiar industrial design. At this price, however, it’s worthy of only a limited recommendation.