Review: Wren V5BT Bluetooth Wireless Speaker
Wren Audio's release of the distinctively wood-bodied V5AP unfortunately coincided with widespread industry abandonment of the AirPlay wireless audio streaming standard it was built upon: Apple's Wi-Fi-based AirPlay was slow, buggy, and susceptible to audio drop-outs, which combined with unjustifiably high price tags to keep most users away. Like several other companies, the relatively young Wren hedged its bet on AirPlay by announcing a universal Bluetooth version called V5BT ($399). Surprisingly sold for the same price as the AirPlay model, V5BT also ships with fewer pack-ins, though most users will find the stability of its wireless performance to be better than the earlier model's. Our review of V5BT is based substantially on our earlier review of V5AP, with additional details where appropriate.
V5BT’s single most intriguing characteristic is its unusual shape, which defies the typical box, trapezoid, and bulge designs we’ve seen in other 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 V5BT 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. Viewed straight-on from the front, the right edge resembles a vertical infinity pool, challenging you to arch your head to see a four-button control panel. When fully on, V5BT’s power button is illuminated white, turning to orange in standby mode; a separate white light flashes to indicate volume changes, and two additional lights toggle between Bluetooth and wired auxiliary audio inputs. Once again, the unit’s design has a unique sophistication—clear evidence that Wren wasn’t content to produce something aesthetically me-too.
That message is strong, but arguably undercut a little by Wren’s material choices. 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, V5BT would have been more aesthetically appealing.
There are some changes between the V5AP and V5BT that we noticed pretty quickly. Wren just leaves out of V5BT’s box a plastic remote control that we noted felt too cheap for V5AP; as a result, the only way to change tracks or play/pause status is on your iOS device itself. A USB port that was capable of digital input from Apple devices was apparently modified to offer only device charging in V5BT, but we couldn’t actually get it to output any power to devices we tested. USB cables that were supposed to be in the box were also absent here; all our V5BT included was a wall power adapter, which has plenty of length and worked just as expected. Thankfully, the swap from AirPlay to Bluetooth was relatively painless: we were able to stream music clearly from well past the standard 33-foot Bluetooth distance, going two rooms away with no drop-out in audio, and unlike V5AP, track and other changes on your device are immediately acknowledged on V5BT. Sonically, the Bluetooth performance will be basically indistinguishable from the AirPlay model’s — quite clear, and without obvious amplifier noise, except that it won’t cut out or be delayed with V5BT.
When we reviewed V5AP, we noted that it was sonically fine rather than great for the price — an issue with most of the AirPlay speakers we had previously covered. While we aren’t surprised that V5BT has basically the same audio hardware inside, we are accustomed to seeing Bluetooth versions sell for at least $50 less than otherwise identical AirPlay equivalents, as Apple’s parts and licensing fees drove up AirPlay speaker prices to untenable levels. The fact that V5BT arrives at the same price tag means that it remains sonically under-equipped by $399 speaker standards. Inside are a total of four drivers: twin tweeters measuring 0.75” each, paired with two 3” full-range drivers. One might note that Bluetooth audio systems selling for 1/4 of V5BT’s price sometimes contain four drivers of similar sizes, but to its credit, Wren didn’t select cheap parts for this model. Beyond the use of reinforced wood rather than plastic for the housing, Wren selected somewhat higher-quality drivers, and backed them with a 50-watt DSP-assisted amplifier.
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 amplifier power combined with the number and size of drivers. In real-world testing, we definitely liked how V5BT sounded: while it leads with relatively bassy sound, it does have a nice balance of highs, mids, and lows that we found instantly engaging and respectably detailed at virtually all of its volume levels. At its peak, it can fill a small room with relatively dynamic audio that sounds engaging at volume levels where smaller speaker might go flat, and it benefits from a wider apparent sound stage. Just like the AirPlay version, only modest bass clipping is apparent at V5BT’s top volume levels; at 90% and lower volumes, the system’s DSP and speakers work well together to eliminate distortion.
When we rated V5AP earlier this year, we noted that we really liked Wren’s sound and industrial design, but didn’t think the AirPlay performance or $399 pricing were quite right. As we said back then, if “the Bluetooth version of this speaker come[s] in at the right price point and offer[s] comparable audio quality, it has the potential to be a good option for many iOS users.” What actually happened with V5BT isn’t exactly what we’d hoped: users are now effectively paying Apple’s AirPlay premium for a Bluetooth speaker, while losing both the V5AP’s remote control, Apple cable, and USB wired connectivity in the process. Consequently, what you gain in device compatibility and wireless stability is offset by several omissions and issues, while the price remains above the $299 to $349 levels where V5BT would have been most competitive. For the time being, V5BT merits the same B- rating as its predecessor, but if the price drops and the USB issue gets resolved, we’d suggest that you give it more serious consideration.