Review: Cignias Nao Symphony Wireless Music Station
While Cignias' new wireless speaker system Nao Symphony ($299) isn't the specific product we'd call the "next-generation accessory of 2010," it is certainly at the forefront of a new wave of wireless audio products made possible by two converging 2009 trends: expanded iPod touch and iPhone stereo Bluetooth capabilities, and an increased number of inexpensive, powerful Wi-Fi and Bluetooth chips that are ready to be incorporated into iPod touch and iPhone accessories. Nao Symphony is the first speaker system we've seen with support for both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, plus App Store software to toggle between them, and though its implementation is imperfect, Cignias has illuminated some interesting pathways for future wireless speakers -- and created a product that some people will enjoy playing with right now.
The basic concept behind Nao Symphony is to offer a speaker with simultaneous wired and wireless connectivity options for iPod and iPhone users: two 4” drivers deliver properly left-right separated stereo audio regardless of whether a device is connected via the traditional iPod dock on top, the auxiliary audio port on back, or wirelessly via stereo Bluetooth. Notably, the system is supposed to be iPhone compatible, but iPhones put up the classic nag screen when they are plugged in—hit “no” and they’ll work anyway.
Before discussing the system’s Wi-Fi functionality, let’s take a step back and consider what the rest of the Nao Symphony design achieves. Place this speaker on a desk or bookshelf—the appropriate place for its 13” wide, 6” deep, 6.75” tall frame—and you can play music through your choice of sources, docking an iPod or iPhone on its top if that’s convenient, or just activating a Bluetooth connection with iPhones and newer iPod touches to stream music from greater than its promised 30-foot distances. An Infrared remote control is included with the system and capable of changing tracks, volume, and input sources as long as you’re in the same room; the only real oversight is that the iPhone or iPod touch’s integrated music player in Bluetooth mode cannot adjust the volume of the audio coming out of the speakers from afar. Other solutions, including Cignias’ included Infrared remote, top touch-sensitive buttons, or a separate application, are required for that.
As a music machine, Nao Symphony is a good enough speaker system, all things considered: in wired mode, its large twin drivers and amplifier deliver fairly flat audio at normal volume levels, but scale nicely to a high enough peak volume to fill a room without significant distortion—it’s fair to say that the speakers have actually been optimized to sound good loud. In Bluetooth wireless mode, distortion is slightly apparent in the bass at normal listening levels, and the performance doesn’t get any better as the volume is turned up. An easy summary would be that Nao was designed to work best with wired devices at medium to high volumes, and offers less impressive sound under other volume and wireless conditions.
That brings us to the system’s Wi-Fi capabilities, which require the use of a free Cignias application called MusicNAO: it’s a quick download, and though it’s not much to look at, it is actually sort of impressive on the backend side. The MusicNAO app can fetch software updates for the speaker system, which happened at least once if not twice over a couple weeks of testing—the first time we’ve seen an app do this for an iPod or iPhone accessory—but its primary purpose is to let you control an iPod or iPhone that’s docked inside Nao Symphony. Cignias pitches this as a way to give users full access to up to 160GB of music stored on an iPod that doesn’t have to go anywhere, assuming you have a spare iPod sitting around that you want to browse wirelessly using an iPod touch or iPhone, and it works. With a couple of caveats.
By default, Nao Symphony creates its own wireless network, and should you want to set your iPhone or iPod touch onto that network, the MusicNAO app will generally connect with the docked iPod, let you see its contents using an iPhone or iPod touch-style browsing interface, and allow you to adjust volume, select from the standard iPod integrated equalizers, and of course change tracks. Album art had problems displaying on the Wi-Fi browsing iPod, and the system places the docked device in “iPod Accessory Connected” mode, replacing its on-screen graphics with a generic iPod image, but from a “does it work to play music or doesn’t it” standpoint, it works.
Except when it doesn’t. When it was creating its own network, we sometimes had problems getting the iPhone or iPod touch to connect to Nao Symphony, in part because of Apple’s devices’ desire to auto-connect to known networks in the event of a disconnection, and in part for communications issues with Symphony that we couldn’t explain. Once a connection was established between the MusicNAO app and the system, however, it was easy enough to switch Nao Symphony onto an existing 802.11g network—not 802.11n—and access it at the same time as the rest of the Internet. Operating the system as its own standalone Wi-Fi island isn’t necessary once you’ve taken this step.
The only oddity at this point was the app’s BluetoothNAO button, which when pressed puts up a screen with the phrase “Currently playing from Apple iPod application,” along with a volume slider. When nothing is actually playing, there’s nothing to do here in the absence of track controls or other details. But if you start a song playing using the device’s separate iPod functionality, then load the MusicNAO app, this BluetoothNAO app adds back the volume control missing from the Bluetooth screen. It’s a dodgy workaround, and not as well-implemented as we’d have preferred—you still have to go back to the iPod or Music app to change Bluetooth tracks or stop playback—but at least there’s some other wireless volume changing solution.
In an ideal world, Nao Symphony would have a little more polish on the hardware and software ends: the substantially plastic unit isn’t unattractive, and in fact looks pretty neutral when its front grille is entirely black—one of two color options currently available—but it’s not exactly a stunner, either, and its color-coded input selection lights can take a little getting used to. Moreover, though the MusicNAO app is more powerful and useful than its interface might initially suggest, it’s not as easy to use for Bluetooth streaming, specifically for volume adjustment, as users might hope, and the wireless sound quality isn’t phenomenal; some of the hiccups in getting the Wi-Fi functionality working could also use added developer attention. Given its wireless capabilities, some people might also want to see it become part of a whole-home audio system with synchronized playback capabilities, which for the time being it doesn’t offer.
But our view of Cignias’ effort is generally positive: as imperfect as it may be, Nao Symphony gives users more versatility in playing back and controlling music for afar than the typical $300 speaker system, and the core technology here should be an inspiration for the next generation of iPod and iPhone speakers. There’s a lot to be said for being able to move between wired and wireless connections at will, and switching between Infrared and full-screen Wi-Fi library remote controls with an app; should the wireless and app sides get the added TLC they deserve, Cignias or a competitor could have a really excellent audio product on its hands in 2010. This one’s a good start.