Review: Logitech UE Air Speaker With AirPlay
AirPlay wireless speakers had a rough first year of availability, quickly developing a reputation for setup, performance, and pricing issues. But there are signs that Apple's Wi-Fi streaming standard is finally ready to square off against more popular Bluetooth alternatives: AirPlay software kinks are being addressed, and more interesting speakers are showing up at a wider range of price points. So the Logitech UE Air Speaker ($400) has arrived at just the right time, signaling the start of a new generation of AirPlay speakers -- while it's still expensive, this all-in-one speaker comes closer to the user and sonic experiences that customers have expected since AirPlay first showed up in standalone audio systems.
Before diving into the product itself, it’s worth discussing the Logitech UE Air Speaker’s name and positioning; this is actually the “Air Speaker,” by “Logitech UE,” a new brand of sorts. Headphone aficionados will recall that Logitech purchased premium earphone maker Ultimate Ears back in 2008, and has slowly merged the brands together, only recently subsuming UE’s web site. Given the direction of that process, and that the earphone developer’s name was never used in speakers before, it’s surprising to see “UE” pop up at all here, particularly since Logitech has previously released many excellent iPod and iPhone speakers under its own name. It’s likely that Logitech is conscious of its first attempt to sell an Apple audio system for more than $300, and hopes to use Ultimate Ears’ cachet with audiophiles to justify the price.
Air Speaker demonstrates that Logitech has learned quite a bit from its various Pure-Fi speakers, starting with a much-appreciated decrease in visual complexity and overwrought frills in favor of a cleaner design. Measuring roughly 20 1/4” wide with a gentle convex front arc, Air Speaker looks somewhat like a bowtie when viewed head-on, sporting a unified black fabric grille that’s propped up slightly above a flat surface by a glossy black, UE-branded base. One press pops the base open to reveal an Apple device dock, notably the first by Logitech to support encased iPads, iPhones, and iPods alike with a flexible Dock Connector plug. With the dock closed, the system is around 5 1/2” deep, expanding to around 7” when the dock’s opened, and the bowtie’s sides reach a height of 7” at their peaks. Whereas many prior Logitech desktop speakers screamed “overdesigned,” Air Speaker is just a little edgier than “neutral,” and then largely because of its varied curves rather than bold colors or materials.
Contrast Air Speaker’s elegance with Logitech’s earlier and obviously related Wireless Boombox, which had a bone-like shape and drew far more attention to the eight speakers inside its roughly 15” wide by 2.5” deep by 5” tall chassis. The Wireless Boombox sounded great, but its see-through perforated grilles and accented drivers skewed masculine and a little inexpensive, particularly on the back. Air Speaker looks nice from all angles, and could sit in any room of a house without complaints from its most fashion-conscious inhabitants. However, unlike the entirely portable Boombox, the 6.2-pound Air Speaker requires its included wall power adapter—the only other item in its package—and isn’t meant to be carried or moved around.
While the Wireless Boombox featured relatively simple controls and indicators, Air Speaker takes a further step towards elegance. The unit’s matte black plastic body is interrupted at the top by a glossy panel with three metal circles: the first and third are smaller “mute” and “power” buttons, the latter with a green indicator light, while the second is a large volume dial, automatically mirrored by the volume slider on an iOS device’s screen. A tiny rectangular light below the UE logo on the dock stays solid green when the unit’s fully on, dimming in a slow pulse when it’s in sleep mode. There’s no remote control in the package; virtually anything you want to do can be handled with your iOS device.
Impressively, that statement even includes setup of the Air Speaker on your wireless network. AirPlay wireless streaming was always supposed to be easy, and Apple made sure that its own devices were simple to start using. But earlier third-party AirPlay speakers repeatedly stumbled—and hard—by overcomplicating the initial setup process; users almost always needed to consult instruction manuals, flip their iOS devices back and forth between different Wi-Fi networks, and use Safari to enter in numerical URLs just to make the speakers work the first time. Logitech has solved these problems.
All you need to do is unpack the Air Speaker, plug it in, and connect your iOS device to its dock. You’re quickly prompted to download the free Logitech UE Air app, which cuts out all of the unnecessary steps demanded by most other AirPlay speakers: it requests only your Wi-Fi network’s password, and an OK for the name it picked for the speaker. That’s it: the speaker’s set up and ready to play. This is the best AirPlay out-of-box experience we’ve yet seen; only users without iOS devices will need to follow alternate instructions to set Air Speaker up using a computer. Logitech’s iOS app also allows users to adjust Air Speaker’s bass and treble levels to their personal preferences with sliders, plus a single button to return the bass and treble to their original settings.
In a word, Air Speaker’s sonic performance is “good.” Unlike most companies selling speakers for Apple’s devices, Logitech has chosen to obscure the audio drivers found inside this unit, publicly mentioning only two “tweeters” and “woofers” without discussing their sizes, power, or other characteristics. Normally, audio companies brag about the components they’ve chosen for their premium speaker systems, so Logitech’s lack of detail is particularly surprising here. While we believe that there are substantial similarities between Air Speaker’s drivers and the ones in the $150 Wireless Boombox, there’s also no doubt that Air Speaker is better. The key question is whether it’s $250 better, all things considered.
On its default bass and treble settings, Air Speaker sounds like Wireless Boombox with noticeable boosts in the mid-bass, bass, and volume departments: the larger unit performs at roughly twice the peak volume, with somewhat deeper lows and a greater emphasis on the low mids than the smaller but nicely balanced Wireless Boombox. None of these changes is a great surprise given Air Speaker’s larger chassis and more powerful amplifier, but it’s fair to say that the new system sounds like a desktop-ready update of the older one, albeit without the room-shaking power of even bigger and more expensive AirPlay speakers we’ve tested such as Bowers & Wilkins’ Zeppelin Air and Philips’ Fidelio SoundSphere. That said, the Air Speaker sounds a lot better right out of the box than iHome’s iW1, though the differences in their price tags and features are considerable, particularly now that iW1 is being aggressively discounted by some retailers.
Playing with the iOS app’s bass and treble settings can change Air Speaker’s sonic performance without making huge improvements. Modest tweaks to the treble can sharpen up the highs a little, rather than bringing them up to the same peak detail levels as the tweeters in the Wireless Boombox or in top rival Bluetooth systems such as JBL’s OnBeat Xtreme. Moving the bass slider up tends to cloud the lower midrange rather than deepening the thump below it.
Setup aside, the single biggest advantage Air Speaker arrives with by comparison to other AirPlay speakers is the passage of time. For the first year or so of AirPlay’s life, users experienced wireless audio interruptions, including hiccups that could come as often as 10 seconds into a track, and show-stopping crashes that started when the iPhone 4S was released. Speaker makers were forced to shoulder unusually high return rates, as users wondered why their expensive AirPlay speakers were stuttering when cheaper Bluetooth versions were trouble-free. Thankfully, iOS, router, and other software updates have recently fixed many of these issues. From a user experience standpoint, the only things that remain problematic with Air Speaker are track-related controls: a new song can take up to 6 seconds to start playing after you press play on a wirelessly-connected device, and track changes may take 3 seconds thereafter. Bluetooth streaming changes are nearly instantaneous, and better for frequent track-changers, while AirPlay wireless can work over much longer distances and play music simultaneously across multiple speakers.
If you’ve been waiting for a no-nonsense AirPlay speaker with good sound, a neutral design, and the sort of simplicity that Apple’s own devices are known for, the Logitech UE Air Speaker is worth considering: unlike most of the AirPlay audio systems we’ve previously covered, Air Speaker benefits from second-generation polish in everything from setup to controls and consistently solid if not particularly mindblowing audio performance. While the $400 price tag and less than ideal track control responsiveness are still stumbling blocks relative to some of the best Bluetooth speakers we’ve tested, it’s worth bearing in mind that Logitech’s systems often benefit from more aggressive street pricing after they’ve been on the market for several months, and post-release software updates may (or may not) improve performance further. At its current price, Air Speaker merits our general recommendation; if and when it’s discounted, we’d suggest that you take it very seriously unless substantially better rivals have appeared.