Review: Bowers & Wilkins A7 Speaker with AirPlay
Five years ago, using Bluetooth to wirelessly stream music wasn't impossible, but the results weren't particularly impressive -- there were few stereo Bluetooth audio systems, and even fewer with good speakers and audio hardware inside. That changed when $100 to $200 Bluetooth speakers hit the market with increasingly impressive audio hardware, and then Apple upped the ante by introducing AirPlay, a pricier and less popular wireless standard that promised superior sound quality. While Bluetooth remains dominant by a wide margin, and has improved in sound quality such that the differences between top Bluetooth and AirPlay speakers are today footnote-worthy, companies continue to release separate audio systems with both standards.
Today, we’re looking at four recent wireless releases: Brookstone’s Big Blue Media Tower ($400) and Ecoxgear’s Ecoxbt ($130) are on the Bluetooth side, with AQ Audio’s AQ SmartSpeaker ($179) and Bowers & Wilkins’ A7 ($800) representing AirPlay. Collectively, these speakers are noteworthy because they demonstrate today’s wide variation in wireless speaker pricing and features—AQ Smart Speaker is the least expensive AirPlay speaker we’ve seen, and A7 is tied with Philips’ Fidelio SoundSphere for the most expensive. Designed to be waterproof, Ecoxbt is a rarity in wireless speakers, a different take on the previously-released iDevices iShower, while the Big Blue Media Tower is one of the priciest Bluetooth speakers we’ve seen—a taller and more powerful sequel to the Big Blue Studio we loved earlier this year. Each has a unique feature to set it apart from the pack, but is any one compelling enough to earn our rare high recommendation?
As we’ve said in the past, we have a lot of respect for the design team at Bowers & Wilkins. The British company routinely churns out bold and generally beautiful-looking audio gear for Apple’s devices—headphones that are nearly stunning, and speaker systems that look as premium as their atypically high prices. It takes confidence to release a speaker that looks like the Zeppelin Air, with a polarizing design and a $599 tag, say nothing of the audio engineering talent required to make it sound good enough to justify that price point. So while it’s not a shock that B&W has released something even more expensive and powerful for Apple’s devices, there’s surely an element of risk here that most companies wouldn’t even consider taking on.
A7 mitigates that risk by building upon a proven design: the one B&W debuted two years ago in its MM-1 Computer Speakers, which bowed at an eye-popping $500 price tag but looked a lot more conservative than the company’s $599 Zeppelin designs. Pitched at Mac users, MM-1 included twin satellite speakers that stood around 6.6” tall with 3.9” rounded square tower shapes, interrupting wrap-around black fabric grilles with beautiful swirled silver metal caps and accents. They looked great next to any iMac, and though they were far from the most powerful multimedia speakers one could purchase for those dollars, their size and elegance endeared them to many users, including us.
By design, A7 looks like a bigger, stretched-out version of the right MM-1 speaker: you get the same volume controls on the right side of the silver metal band, the same front-centered Bowers & Wilkins logo and small, multi-colored light off to its left, and the same power button on the far left side. Cosmetically, the biggest differences are in scale and the rear design: A7 measures around 14.2” wide, 6.3” deep, and 8.7” tall, with a huge plastic rear vent that looks like a black hole. The latter element is a direct carryover from the Zeppelin Air, which had two similarly-sized vortex-like vents, there made from glossy black plastic rather than the A7’s matte material. You still get a simple power cord and an egg-shaped remote control, which is nearly the same as versions we’ve covered for years now; no other cables are included in the package.
Ethernet, aux-in, power, and USB ports have also been carried over from the Zeppelin Air, though the composite video out port has been dropped—no surprise, because the Zeppelin’s front dock was the only way to get video out of a iPod or iPhone for that model, and there’s no dock on A7. Instead, the system exists as a large, standalone box that’s designed to be connected to the wall with a single cable and then left in a stationary position, performing music wirelessly from your iOS device or iTunes library. Most of the time, that won’t be an issue for users.
One obvious miss in the design was B&W’s choice to carry over the Zeppelin Air’s D-shaped USB connector, which prevents the system from working with common Apple and third-party USB cables to quickly bring the Zeppelin Air onto a wireless network—it also complicates what could otherwise be a simple firmware upgrade process, requiring users to hunt for the old-style USB cables that are now largely associated only with printers. Bowers & Wilkins relies upon older-style web and app-based tools that turn AirPlay setup into a five- or ten-minute chore; most of the new AirPlay systems we test these days have cut setup times down to 30 seconds or a minute by letting you connect your iOS device directly to the speaker, sharing Wi-Fi settings with one or two button presses, and then auto-joining the same network.
Besides the styling and pack-in differences, what A7 offers that its predecessors lacked can be summed up simply: more horsepower. Compared with the $500 MM-1, which contained two one-inch tweeters and two three-inch “woofers,” A7 adds a six-inch dedicated bass driver and repurposes the MM-1’s “woofers” for midrange performance. A7 also obviously adds AirPlay wireless functionality that MM-1 lacked. If you are considering A7 as an alternative to MM-1 for computer use, bear in mind that its shape isn’t as well-suited to being placed alongside a monitor; that said, if you use it with the included auxiliary cable, you’ll enjoy comparably deep and powerful bass performance, as well as the ability to reach higher volume levels.
On the other hand, A7 isn’t quite as different when compared with the $599 Zeppelin Air—in fact, A7 really seems like a repackaging of Zeppelin Air with small improvements at a steep price increase. Zeppelin Air similarly includes two one-inch tube aluminum tweeters, two three-inch midrange drivers, and a five-inch bass driver, plus integrated AirPlay and docking options. By comparison, A7 basically loses the dock and gains a larger bass speaker, while keeping a similar 150-Watt amplification package. Both A7 and the Zeppelin Air have five total amplifiers, four with 25W and one with 50W for the subwoofer. On paper and in practice, these differences aren’t profound given the A7’s $200 price premium; users of Apple’s older Dock Connector would actually have every reason besides styling and bass performance to prefer the Zeppelin Air.
That having been said, there’s a lot to be said for A7’s styling and a little to be said for its improved bass performance. Despite containing a better overall set of components, A7 is a lot easier to carry around and place anywhere than the Zeppelin Air, which for all of its boldness was a challenge to place in some environments due to its 10 inches of greater width and oblong shape. There was a certain precariousness when holding and positioning Zeppelin Air that A7 eliminates, while remaining every bit as classy and premium-feeling. There won’t be as much discussion—positive or negative—about A7’s shape, and you can decide for yourself whether that’s a good thing. Similarly, as much as we liked the look of Zeppelin Air’s dock, the lack of case compatibility seriously hobbled its practicality, and the replacement of its Dock Connector plug with Lightning further eroded its value. Consequently, its omission here isn’t a show-stopper.
Sonically, A7 and Zeppelin Air have as much in common as would be expected from their similar hardware and different dimensions. On a positive note, both systems are in the “extremely capable” category, fully able to perform music at high enough volumes to fill a medium-sized room with relatively low distortion, and with enough frequency range to replicate most of the sonic spectrum rather than just leaving out the bass, treble, or midrange sections of songs. A7 augments slightly deeper bass with a hint more treble to balance out what might otherwise seem overly low-end heavy, but the systems are otherwise extremely close to one another: Zeppelin Air uses its additional width to create a somewhat larger sound stage, while A7 has a little extra thump.
If this seems like faint praise given that we tend to expect this sort of performance from $300 speakers, say nothing of $600 or $800 ones, that’s because it is. As much as we like the way A7 looks and appreciate the fact that it produces very good sound, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s so similar to its older $599 brother that most users would strain to hear the differences. When you further consider that the rare $800 AirPlay-enabled rival such as Philips’ aforementioned Fidelio SoundSphere offers profound stereo separation and is bundled with a nice standalone iOS device dock—with a legacy Dock Connector, but a nice added feature nonetheless—it’s hard to see where the A7’s price point is coming from.
Overall, A7 is a good system that—like its predecessors—suffers more from its high price tag than any particular failing of the design or sonics. While we applaud B&W for moving to an industrial design that preserves the Zeppelin Air’s premium appeal while making carrying and placement considerably easier, there’s every reason to see the $800 A7 as a peer offering to its predecessor rather than a step up; for this reason, it falls short of the same general recommendation Zeppelin Air earned at a $200 lower price point. If money is no object and you’re looking for a handsome but conservative design, A7 is worthy of your consideration, but if you want very similar performance and features for less, the Zeppelin Air delivers more bang for the buck.