Review: Cambridge Audio Minx Air 100 + 200 Bluetooth + AirPlay Wireless Speakers
After two and a half rough years, AirPlay wireless speakers appear to be fading away. Well-publicized issues with AirPlay chip pricing and performance led a number of big players to discontinue past models and cancel future releases, leaving a small number of in-the-pipeline models to trickle into the marketplace this year. That's what British speaker company Cambridge Audio is doing with two new speakers today: having already debuted in the United Kingdom, Minx Air 100 ($449) and Minx Air 200 ($599) are now arriving stateside. Thankfully, they're somewhat different from most of the AirPlay speakers we've previously reviewed -- following in the footsteps of Pioneer's Elite Music Tap, the two Minx Air models also include the more popular Bluetooth wireless streaming standard, as well as an interesting approach to Internet Radio streaming that may appeal to some users.
Save for their footprints, the two Minx Air units look almost identical. Minx Air 100 is around 13.7” wide, 6.8” tall, and 4.6” deep, while Minx Air 200 is larger in each dimension at around 17.5” wide, 8.3” tall, and 6” deep. Each features a glossy white plastic chassis, a wide silver plastic ring around the front edge, and a face-covering fabric grille that from a one-foot distance could be confused with plastic. The neutral design is unmistakably derivative, with proportions and shapes that recall Bose’s family of SoundDocks. Cambridge Audio’s designs are notably dockless, however, relying near-exclusively on wireless hardware to perform audio from Apple’s devices. You can connect audio cables to their backs if necessary, but the cables are neither supplied nor particularly necessary in this increasingly wireless age.
As familiar as they look, both Minx Air models surprise with sheer heft. The smaller Minx Air 100 feels like a solid brick, far heavier and denser than the plastic might suggest from afar, and the enclosure appears to have substantial internal reinforcement—a factor that can make okay speaker drivers sound good and good speakers sound great, especially at higher volume levels when speakers might otherwise tend to rattle. Minx Air 200 is heavier but doesn’t feel quite as dense, as if there’s more empty space inside. Both models have the same basic rear panel design, featuring a power port, bass adjustment knob, WPS button, Ethernet port, micro-USB “service” port, 3.5mm audio aux-in port, and RCA-style stereo auxiliary inputs, all underneath a rear handle that makes the unit easy to pick up and move around. A hole inside the handle serves as a port, so you can feel air rushing out when music is playing.
Cambridge Audio includes the same items with each Minx Air speaker. Both systems are required to be tethered to the wall at all times for power, so the company includes three power cables—one for U.S. and similar outlets, the other two for differing European wall blade standards. An Ethernet cable is included as an alternative to wireless for Internet connectivity, and identical black Infrared remote controls are in the Minx packages, notably featuring 10 separate buttons for Internet Radio tuning, plus volume, pairing, power, and bass controls. Most of these buttons are mirrored on tops of the Minx Air units, but the remote’s second set of five Internet Radio buttons are not found on either of the speakers.
Minx Air’s Internet Radio capability is actually pretty interesting. Left on their own, most AirPlay speakers do nothing but sit around waiting for devices to send them audio. Instead, each Minx Air comes with ten pre-installed Internet Radio stations that can be left alone or changed to different presets using the free Minx Air iOS application. Since the Minx Air units only have five radio buttons on their tops, you’ll want to program those with your five favorites; the other five stations will be accessible solely with the remote or the iOS app. Using a search tool, an extended list of stations, and a bitrate filter, the app does a really great job of presenting you with stations to choose from, and making preset reprogramming easy. Once that’s done, either Minx Air can be used as a standalone wireless radio, lacking only the capacity for independent manual tuning. While the units aren’t as versatile as standalone Internet Radio tuners, they’re close enough that most people won’t care.
One small wrinkle in the Minx Air user interface design relates to its input selection methodology. Instead of a universal input selection button, you press a chain link button to switch to Bluetooth—the only way to turn on the Bluetooth antenna for pairing—or select one of the Internet radio buttons to activate that specific channel. AirPlay doesn’t have a button. Instead, Cambridge Audio gives AirPlay priority over the other modes, so any iOS or iTunes device that selects the Minx Air for AirPlay purposes will automatically turn off the speaker’s Bluetooth or Internet Radio stream and begin AirPlay streaming instead. In practice, this won’t be a problem for a single user, but people who like to pre-empt each others’ audio will find it easy to do remotely with Minx Air. An oddly-labeled “X” button shifts to the auxiliary audio inputs for use with wired devices.
On a related note, whereas most AirPlay speaker developers tried to find ways to simplify the Wi-Fi setup process, Cambridge Audio unfortunately uses the oldest and most complex system: rather than relying on an app or a USB-cabled iOS device to transfer Wi-Fi settings, you’ll need to monitor flashing lights, manually switch Wi-Fi networks, use a web browser, and enter numbers and letters on a keyboard to bring either Minx Air onto your 802.11b/g network—a non-painful but non-intuitive process that requires an instruction pamphlet to complete. Apart from staying out of that process and its tendency to randomly crash, the Minx Air app is otherwise pretty nice, handling Internet Radio tuning and preset reprogramming with ease. Semi-hidden sliders let you play with preset EQs and speaker-specific bass adjustments, as well.
AirPlay and Bluetooth performance were both solid, albeit subject to the standard caveats we’ve noted in many past reviews. Bluetooth mode is far more responsive, instantly responding to track and volume changes made on the device, albeit with a roughly 30-foot broadcasting distance and without the benefit of iOS volume mirroring. Switching to AirPlay adds Wi-Fi-caliber streaming distances and proper volume mirroring, but introduces some delays, notably including playback and track change lag. With volume levels properly set on the iOS device and Minx Air unit, most users will find the sound quality indistinguishable between the two modes.
If there’s any disappointment across both Minx Air 100 and 200, it’s the actual speaker hardware, which isn’t quite what we’ve come to expect from audio systems at these price points. Most $300 and up speaker systems use four or more drivers to differentially handle sonic highs, mids, and lows; some excellent Bluetooth systems we’ve tested at half that price actually have four to eight drivers for this purpose. By contrast, Minx Air 100 is equipped with only two 4” drivers, which are both unusually large and few in number for a $449 system, while Minx Air 200 has twin 2.25” drivers with a 6” subwoofer, similarly under-specified for a $600 model. The only positive is that the drivers in both Minx Air systems are on the large side, which combined with their sturdy enclosure reinforcement leads to superior high-volume performance.
Judged solely on the basis of sound quality, it would be hard to recommend Minx Air 100 over the eight-driver $150 Logitech Wireless Boombox or the subsequent $250 Logitech UE Boombox for most purposes. At regular near-field listening levels, Minx Air 100 performs music with the sort of flat, mid- to bass-focused presentation we’d expect when a large 4” driver is expected to replicate as much of the audio spectrum as it can without assistance. While you can hear some oomph in the mid-bass, and you can use either the speaker’s rear dial or digital remote/app controls to boost the bass to meatier levels, there’s no treble sparkle to speak of, and songs play with warmth rather than great detail. To Cambridge Audio’s credit, the sound isn’t bad—it’s just not impressive in any way by the standards of top $300 speakers, let alone $450 models.
Minx Air 200 uses a three-driver speaker array to achieve somewhat different results. Whereas many companies use $600 speakers to build upon the bass or high-volume performance of their lower-end models, Minx Air 200 initially appears to go in the opposite direction due to its shift from the 100 model’s 4” speakers to 2.25” drivers with a 6” subwoofer. At regular listening levels, the biggest differences we noted in the more expensive model were treble improvements that made songs sound a bit sharper and more defined. Just barely obvious at these volume levels were gains in the bass—slight deepening and clarifications that only modestly adjusted the lower end of the sonic signature. It was only when we turned both systems up to dangerously high volume levels that the differences became more apparent. Surprisingly, Minx Air 200 isn’t much louder than the 100 model despite its considerably larger size and higher price tag. Both systems are capable of filling a small room—that’s it. However, Air 200’s 6” subwoofer begins to show its strength at higher volume levels, offering noticeably cleaner and deeper bass than the 100 model, while the tweeters keep the detail up in the highs and mids. This isn’t exactly remarkable by $600 audio system standards, but it’s the key sonic differentiator between Minx Air 100 and 200.
As much as we’d like to offer general-level recommendations for Minx Air 100 and 200, we can’t: their high U.S. price tags just aren’t justified by their overall sonic performance and feature sets. Despite our appreciation for some of the user experience and design streamlining Cambridge Audio has achieved with each model, as well as the interesting approach it took with Internet Radio tuning and dual wireless streaming options, there’s no escaping the fact that these systems are sonically outperformed by considerably less expensive alternatives. The AirPlay and Internet Radio features collectively add roughly $100 worth of value to speakers that would otherwise be worth $150 to $250 if equipped solely with Bluetooth. If you love the designs or features, we wouldn’t discourage you from considering these speakers, but there’s not enough meat on the 100 model for us to recommend it, and definitely not enough extra muscle in the 200 to justify a $150 further premium. Should Cambridge substantially discount the Minx Air units, we’d suggest giving them a second look.