Since the beginning of this year, the AirPlay wireless speaker market has been slowing down, a fact we’ve discussed in reviews of the few remaining models that are still trickling into stores. Consequently, some developers are busy repurposing earlier AirPlay speakers to instead use the less expensive, more popular Bluetooth wireless technology — a process that’s already underway with Wren Sound Systems’ new V5 series of speakers. The young company began by shipping V5AP ($399), an all-in-one speaker with AirPlay, and is already readying a Bluetooth version called V5BT. We’re briefly reviewing V5AP today, and seriously looking forward to seeing the new version, hopefully at a more aggressive price point.
V5AP’s single most intriguing characteristic is its unusual shape, which doesn’t mimic the typical box, trapezoid, and bulge designs we’ve seen in most other AirPlay all-in-one speakers. Viewed from the top, it features two strong curves at opposing corners, leaving flat angles on the enclosure’s front left and rear right edges. Because of the curves, the 6.1”-tall V5AP has a maximum width of around 16.7 inches and depth of 4.25 inches, but it seems smaller apart from edges that flare interestingly outward. From the front, the right edge resembles a vertical infinity pool, challenging you to arch your head to see a four-button and three-light control panel. The unit’s design has a unique sophistication—clear evidence that Wren wasn’t content to produce something aesthetically me-too.
As strong as that message is, it’s undercut a little by the material choices in both the speaker and the included Infrared remote control. Most of the enclosure is a wooden cabinet built with fairly thick MDF particle board, covered by a light brown bamboo or darker rosewood veneer. As cost-effective alternatives to old-fashioned wood boxes go, Wren’s housing actually looks and feels really nice; moreover, its curves would have been virtually impossible to mass-produce with traditional techniques. However, the wood is offset by silver plastic edging and a matching silver front fabric grille that arguably make the system look a little dated. Some users will like the almost retro, mid-1900s front texture selections, but with slightly different choices, V5AP would have been more aesthetically appealing. The all-plastic included Infrared remote control both looks and feels a little too cheap for the speaker, adding track and play/pause controls to the volume, power, and source buttons also found on V5AP’s right side.
Wren’s audio hardware fits the general pattern we’ve come to expect from AirPlay speakers: fine rather than great for the price. Paralleling iHome’s one-time flagship AirPlay model iW1, V5AP packs a total of four drivers: twin tweeters measuring 0.75” each, paired with two 3” full-range drivers. While the tweeters are a little smaller than iHome’s 1” drivers, that’s not a fatal flaw given that Wren made a number of other choices to optimize V5AP’s sound quality. Beyond the use of reinforced wood rather than plastic for the housing, Wren selected somewhat higher-quality drivers, and backed them with a more powerful DSP-assisted amplifier, featuring 50 watts versus iW1’s 40.
On-paper specifications at best tell half the story of a speaker’s performance, and at worst can be extremely misleading—total system performance encompasses a lot more than just the number of drivers and amplifier power. In real-world testing, we definitely liked how V5AP sounded: it has a nice balance of highs, mids, and lows that we found instantly engaging and respectably detailed at virtually all of its volume levels. V5AP generally sounds a lot better than the iW1, benefitting from crisper treble, slightly deeper and noticeably cleaner bass, plus a modestly higher peak volume level. Neither of these systems will fill more than a small room with sound, but V5AP’s larger, reinforced cabinet and superior drivers enable it to produce more dynamic, less flat-sounding audio at the same volume levels, with a wider apparent sound stage. Only modest bass clipping is apparent at V5AP’s top volume levels; at 90% and lower volumes, the system’s DSP and speakers work well together to eliminate distortion.
Unfortunately, V5AP’s sonic caveats will be familiar to anyone who has been following AirPlay speakers for the last couple of years. Assuming that you’re willing to accept the AirPlay-skewed price to performance ratio, which puts V5AP in sonic comparison with $200-$250 docking speakers we’ve previously covered, you’ll have to deal with the Wi-Fi streaming standard’s well-established hiccups: delays before the beginning of streaming—here between 5-10 seconds from pressing play on an iOS device to hearing music—plus occasional failures to start streaming, and twice in our testing, signal drop-outs. Only the nearly automated AirPlay Wi-Fi setup process, which is aided by a rear USB port that connects to your iOS device with a self-supplied Lightning or included Dock Connector cable, was completely painless.
Rating V5AP was a challenge for only one reason: despite the well-understood AirPlay wireless speaker performance and pricing issues, which have all but destroyed the standard’s prospects against Bluetooth alternatives, we really liked this system’s sound and industrial design. Wren has come up with something that looks original and sounds good when it’s fully working, though the price tag and AirPlay hiccups will deter many prospective users. Should the Bluetooth version of this speaker come in at the right price point and offer comparable audio quality, it has the potential to be a good option for many iOS users. The AirPlay version merits only our limited recommendation, but it’s obvious that Wren can and will improve upon this model in the near future.
Company and Price
Company: Wren Sound Systems
Compatible: iPad 2, iPad (3rd/4th-Gen), iPad mini, iPhone 3GS/4/4S/5, iPod touch 2G/3G/4G/5G