Review: Bose SoundLink Air AirPlay Digital Music System
Though Bose made a name for itself in the Apple speaker market with the original SoundDock in 2004, its penchant for recycling old designs has left its "new" products feeling stale while competitors have aggressively moved forward. It's therefore no surprise that its SoundLink Air ($350) is largely a rehash of its previously-released SoundDock Portable, a 2007-vintage model designed to match the then-popular iPod classic. While Bose sells SoundLink Air solely in a neutral jet black color, the "new" design is unmistakably based almost entirely on the earlier version, notably replacing SoundDock Portable's 30-Pin iPod dock with Apple's AirPlay wireless technology. Like most of Bose's speakers, SoundLink Air doesn't strike us as fully worthy of its price tag, but fans of the company's industrial and sonic design philosophies will certainly feel right at home here.
Bose’s SoundLink Air bundle has a lot in common with SoundDock Portable’s. In addition to the speaker, which measures roughly 12.1” by 6.7” tall by 4.2” deep at its largest points, you get a candybar-shaped rubber and plastic Infrared remote control—identical to the prior versions, apart from the labels and functions of the eight buttons—and an oversized, cord-managing wall adapter that’s identical in power output and speaker plug compatibility. Unlike SoundDock Portable, which debuted at $399 and included a detachable battery, the $349 SoundLink Air leaves the battery out as a $90 optional accessory. While a battery option sets SoundLink Air apart from some of its solely wall-tethered AirPlay rivals, the steep price for the battery pack is unfortunate; several $200-$300 AirPlay speakers have rechargeable cells built in.
One surprise in the SoundLink Air package is a USB to micro-USB cable, designed to be connected to a new “setup” port on the unit’s back. Bose typically doesn’t include simple wires with its SoundDocks or SoundLinks—the cable is here for a reason. Unlike every other AirPlay speaker we’ve tested, SoundLink Air ships with instructions guiding you to a PC- or Mac-based downloadable AirPlay configuration tool, making only brief reference to an “alternative” setup technique found only in an online user manual. While the computer USB cable and software work properly to bring SoundLink Air onto a Wi-Fi network—and the online manual, once downloaded and searched, explains how an iOS device’s web browser could have achieved the same feat—SoundLink Air’s lack of simple iOS app or cable-based setup options is a disappointment. An auxiliary audio port on the back provides the system’s only wired connectivity option; otherwise, SoundLink Air is purely an AirPlay wireless speaker.
As with earlier SoundDock systems, SoundLink Air’s integrated controls and indicators are kept to a minimum. Capacitive volume buttons are located at the top of the right side; the only power, source, play/pause and track controls are the ones on the included remote. Notably, the power button is actually a sleep toggle, leaving the system turned on and awaiting an audio stream from an AirPlay device.
Bose’s only major industrial design changes from SoundDock Portable are tweaks to the matte black front grille. The prior model had a front grille with a yellow-orange peek-through light centered near the top, stopping above a matte bar at the bottom with a rotating dock in the middle. On SoundLink Air, the matte bottom bar has been moved to the top, sitting above a second, newly-added glossy black bar. The glossy surface lets a blue Wi-Fi icon shine through; this is SoundLink Air’s power and Wi-Fi pairing indicator, shifting from royal to aqua blue to indicate that it’s on your Wi-Fi network, then back to royal blue when it’s in sleep mode. SoundDock Portable’s rotating dock has been removed, leaving only a silver Bose logo to interrupt the unit’s front bottom.
Sonically, SoundLink Air isn’t surprising in any way—if you’ve ever heard the SoundDock, SoundDock Series II, SoundDock Series III, or SoundDock Portable, all of which sounded nearly identical to one another, SoundLink Air’s sonic signature and audio quality are going to be very familiar to you. Just as before, this system has been tuned to perform music with a warm but not overbearingly bassy skew, with enough treble not to sound particularly deficient, and obvious but not hugely engrossing stereo separation. It’s capable of reaching small room-filling volume levels at its peak, though there’s very obvious bass distortion at that point, with clipping that sounds like dull thuds. Compared directly against a SoundDock Portable, SoundLink Air has slightly better treble and what appears to be modestly cleaner mid-bass, both of which make the sound a little more dynamic than before, but the differences are modest. For $350, Bose is offering the equivalent of a $250 SoundDock Series III with AirPlay, but without the Lightning dock.
SoundLink Air’s AirPlay performance was exactly as expected; the wireless standard’s typical pros and cons apply here. On a positive note, SoundLink Air’s wireless sound quality is highly similar to a wired/docked connection through SoundDock Portable. Further, users have the ability to stream music from either iOS devices or iTunes software running on computers; once it’s set up on a Wi-Fi network, SoundLink Air appears instantly as an audio source across multiple devices. It also works properly with iTunes in simultaneous streaming mode, so that you can hear the same song playing in perfect synchronization across multiple speakers. Unfortunately, these standard AirPlay features are counterbalanced by caching-related delays during track changes: just as with other AirPlay speakers, we experienced a three- to four-second delay every time we started to stream a new track to SoundLink Air or resume playback from an extended pause. Bluetooth speakers continue to offer a more responsive user experience with substantially indistinguishable audio quality, albeit without broad support for multi-speaker synchronization.
We say “substantially indistinguishable audio quality” because the sonic differences between AirPlay and Bluetooth streaming are at this point less real than theoretical. Paired with the right speakers and amplification hardware, AirPlay technology can deliver lossless audio that’s theoretically identical to the originally recorded source material. However, almost all of the music performed by Apple’s devices has been compressed into MP3 or AAC formats before it’s streamed, making lossless streaming unnecessary. Many Bluetooth speakers are now capable of performing AAC files in their raw, highest-quality form, too. Combine that with the fact that the the speaker hardware in AirPlay systems such as SoundLink Air isn’t that impressive by $350 standards, and there’s little real reason to prefer this AirPlay unit over a less expensive Bluetooth one.
Overall, SoundLink Air is a hard speaker to recommend. Bose has substantially recycled the industrial design of an older product, incorporated the iffy AirPlay wireless streaming technology as its primary selling point, and charged princely sums for both the system and its optional battery pack. What you’re left with, then, is something that delivers the sonic experience of the already overpriced $250 SoundDock Series III at a further $100 premium for the wireless functionality, with a further $90 expenditure if you want portability. If that sounds appealing to you, we wouldn’t tell you to avoid SoundLink Air—it’s a fine system, and typically Bose in execution. There are just plenty of other options out there, many delivering equal or superior sound at better price points.