Review: Pioneer A1 Wireless Sound System XW-SMA1-K
Ever since the first standalone AirPlay speaker -- Bowers & Wilkins' Zeppelin Air -- arrived in a stores a year and a half ago, third-party AirPlay sound systems have been less than thrilling. At the same time as Bluetooth wireless speakers have become increasingly affordable, reliable, and popular, audio systems built with AirPlay have remained expensive and unpredictable, notably suffering from audio drop-outs and comparatively so-so performance at higher price points. Speaker developers have been working with Apple to improve both the accessories and their software issues, but the complaints have continued; a AirPlay speaker's only major advantages now stem from its Wi-Fi connectivity, which enables it to work from greater distances than Bluetooth speakers, be used with minimal configuration after initial setup, and sometimes stream music simultaneously with other AirPlay speakers.
Pioneer’s new A1 ($299, aka XW-SMA1-K) is part of the Japanese developer’s second round of standalone AirPlay speaker systems, and as its names suggest, the company is beginning to understand Apple accessory development. Last year’s Elite Music Tap X-SMC4-K was an overcomplicated mess of a speaker, with a high price tag, all but indecipherable controls, and a “kitchen sink” approach to features. A1 thankfully strips away most of the visual and functional clutter in favor of a cleaner design, with only little hints—such as that full XW-SMA1-K name—that greater complexity lurks under the surface.
The A1 experience starts promisingly with a very straightforward unpacking, yielding a roughly 12.5” by 7” by 5” glossy black audio system that could easily be the thicker cousin of a Bose SoundDock, plus a matching Infrared remote control and a wall power adapter. Four power, volume, and input buttons are all nestled under the front grille, off to the right, while the unit’s three indicator lights are on the opposite bottom side off to the left. A1’s Infrared remote is similarly simple, adding only track and play/pause controls, while depending very heavily on a direct line of sight to the front of the unit; it’s not reliable off angles or at greater than 20-foot distances.
Notably absent from A1 are the sort of clock, screen, and other “why is this really necessary” design elements that the Elite Music Tap immediately brought to mind, along with one other omission—an iPod, iPhone, or iPad dock. If you want to make a physical connection to an iOS device, you need to self-supply a USB cable, which plugs into the back alongside an Ethernet port, a power outlet, and an auxiliary audio input. Pioneer notes that you can use your cable to connect non-iOS devices such as the iPod nano to the speaker; both audio and charging are supported via USB.
Despite the wired connectivity options, it’s obvious that A1 was built to be used primarily as a wireless device, and other elements on the back—a hand grip, a small antenna, and a seemingly simple wireless setup button—hint at some of A1’s interesting features. The hand grip underscores the unit’s semi-portable nature: it requires wall power but is extremely easy to pick up and carry around, with a solid, durable-feeling perforated matte black metal speaker grille on the front. A1’s antenna can be hidden behind the unit or popped up for additional Wi-Fi power if you’re having wireless issues, and the big button on the back is generally only needed a single time for initial setup of A1 on your network.
Only two things in A1’s design may remind users of Pioneer’s track record for overcomplexity. The first is a huge, fold-open instruction manual filled with arrows, letters, and initial wireless setup instructions for various devices—a clutter of “yes” and “no” decisions that beg to be laid out on a floor for inspection and consideration. Second is the aforementioned rear wireless setup button, which sadly is too good to be true. If you want to use A1’s “Quick Start Mode,” you don’t press the big wireless setup button. Instead, you have to power the unit on, wait for some lights to flash, then hold the front input button down for a few seconds until you see different flashing lights. This is supposed to place A1 in a wireless direct mode, temporarily serving as its own Wi-Fi router for temporary streaming purposes without joining a network, but if you already have a Wi-Fi network, this isn’t the ideal way to use the system. We had problems getting it to work, too.
Instead, you can unfold the included map and follow the most obvious iOS setup directions, complete with a “use a USB cable” step, and one where you need both the front input and rear wireless buttons—held down at the same time together. If that’s not simple and intuitive enough for you, there’s a wireless computer/tablet setup option that instead includes 11 steps. Another way to put this: Pioneer’s getting better at Apple-influenced design, but it’s not quite there yet.
There’s actually some good news: assuming that you’ve connected your iOS device to A1 with a self-supplied USB cable, pressing the front and back buttons together actually does something interesting. A dialog box appears on your device’s screen, requesting permission to share its wireless settings with A1 for AirPlay setup purposes. Give your permission, and A1 sets itself up without any additional effort—the first time we’ve seen wireless settings shared this way without the use of an app. While the earlier Logitech UE Air Speaker made this process easier, it had a dock built in and an app to aid in setup. By comparison, A1 does a reasonable job, stumbling only on making it easy for iOS users to cut right to the chase rather than fumbling through the oversized instructional map.
Once A1 is set up, the overall experience is basically par for the course by AirPlay speaker standards, though with small wrinkles. As with other AirPlay speakers, A1 lags at least a little behind Bluetooth speakers in responsiveness, requiring just under 10 seconds to start playing a new, uncached song from a streaming device, and sometimes dropping the audio signal entirely for reasons unknown—issues that are all but impossible to reproduce with Bluetooth speakers under similar testing conditions. Under normal usage conditions, songs stream fairly smoothly, with only 2-3 seconds of lag once a device is already sending music to it, and it has the aforementioned benefits, such as the ability to work within Wi-Fi range and stream music alongside other AirPlay speakers. That said, the slow initial uptake and audio drops are hard to look past; the less congested your Wi-Fi network is, the better it’s likely to perform.
When everything’s working as expected, A1 sounds pretty good. Armed with two 3-inch speakers plus a 3/4” tweeter, A1 puts out very full-bodied, warm sound with more than enough amplitude to fill a small room, generally but not ideally mirroring the volume level on your iOS device’s screen. The best way to describe A1 is as a respectably tuned loudspeaker, designed to do well at medium to high volumes, with tuning that’s just good enough to be used without complaint at lower levels. From a sonic standpoint, the only oddity hereis Pioneer’s use of a single tweeter, the sort of engineering shortcut that an audio company would only take if it doesn’t care much about stereo separation, and assumes a user will be too far away from the speaker to notice or care. Play a song with distinct left and right channel audio and you’ll notice that the high-frequency sounds don’t really play off to the unit’s left and right; they’re closer to A1’s center with only a little discernible right-channel tilt to the unit’s side.
To say that this sort of shortcut is unusual would be an understatement, at least for a $300 speaker, wireless or not. Sonic fidelity was one of Apple’s big pitches with AirPlay speakers—a guarantee that the connected speaker was receiving and capable of playing higher-quality audio—and though AirPlay speakers have been offered at various price points, A1’s in the middle of the pack, not cheap by either absolute or relative standards. It looks like a SoundDock, or somewhat like a Brookstone Big Blue Studio, but in this regard, it doesn’t match up to them.
Rating A1 is a bit of a challenge, but it’s ultimately in the same general league as the iHome iW1 and Logitech UE Air Speaker—good rather than great, with clean industrial design and solid high volume performance as strengths, albeit too expensive given the sonic quality and still unreliable AirPlay performance. At this point, Pioneer has eliminated most of the issues that were caused by its previous “toss everything in” approach, and has enough nice touches here that only the underlying streaming software and pricing are somewhat objectionable. Should AirPlay improve, or the price on this unit fall, A1 will be easier to recommend for use anywhere in a home.