Five years ago, using Bluetooth to wirelessly stream music wasn’t impossible, but the results weren’t particularly impressive — there were few stereo Bluetooth audio systems, and even fewer with good speakers and audio hardware inside. That changed when $100 to $200 Bluetooth speakers hit the market with increasingly impressive audio hardware, and then Apple upped the ante by introducing AirPlay, a pricier and less popular wireless standard that promised superior sound quality. While Bluetooth remains dominant by a wide margin, and has improved in sound quality such that the differences between top Bluetooth and AirPlay speakers are today footnote-worthy, companies continue to release separate audio systems with both standards.
Today, we’re looking at four recent wireless releases: Brookstone’s Big Blue Media Tower ($400) and Ecoxgear’s Ecoxbt ($130) are on the Bluetooth side, with AQ Audio’s AQ SmartSpeaker ($179) and Bowers & Wilkins’ A7 ($800) representing AirPlay. Collectively, these speakers are noteworthy because they demonstrate today’s wide variation in wireless speaker pricing and features—AQ Smart Speaker is the least expensive AirPlay speaker we’ve seen, and A7 is tied with Philips’ Fidelio SoundSphere for the most expensive. Designed to be waterproof, Ecoxbt is a rarity in wireless speakers, a different take on the previously-released iDevices iShower, while the Big Blue Media Tower is one of the priciest Bluetooth speakers we’ve seen—a taller and more powerful sequel to the Big Blue Studio we loved earlier this year. Each has a unique feature to set it apart from the pack, but is any one compelling enough to earn our rare high recommendation?
AQ SmartSpeaker has a currently unique and arguably pretty compelling pitch. Nearly 9.5” tall by 3.8” wide by 4.4” deep at its largest points—unusually tall and narrow for a standalone audio system—AQ SmartSpeaker looks sort of like a faceless Moai statue: there’s a black fabric speaker grille on the front and a gray soft touch rubber back, both bulging out from a thin silver metallic stripe that runs vertically through the unit’s center. Volume and power buttons are nestled in the stripe on the top, ports and a switch are found on the back, and a red rubber base keeps it from slipping around on a tabletop. Three lights are found on the unit: a white power light and yellow Wi-Fi light are within the top power button, and a larger white dot continually flashes above a chromed AQ Audio badge on the lower front; its blinking is the speaker’s only annoying design element. Each AQ SmartSpeaker includes a power adapter, 3.5mm audio cable, and an unusual little keychain with a passive stand for an landscape-orientation iPhone or iPod.
What makes AQ SmartSpeaker really different from its rivals is the functional design ethos. Each unit has its own rechargeable battery, capable of running for 10 hours of AirPlay playback or 20 hours of wired playback on a charge, as well as two audio drivers that AQ conspicuously avoids discussing with greater specifics. It only claims that the drivers disperse audio at wide angles to fill a room, and downplays—but doesn’t obscure—a critical fact: AQ SmartSpeaker is a monaural speaker. The aforementioned “switch” on the back toggles each unit from operating as a left channel, merged left-right channel, or right channel speaker, and if you purchase two or more speakers, you can simultaneously stream iTunes audio to them, flipping their switches for proper stereo sound. Regrettably, the speakers can’t operate in stereo without iTunes involvement; iOS can only stream to one AirPlay speaker at a time, a “current” iOS limitation that Apple has not as yet signaled will change at any time in the future.
Putting that non-trivial limitation aside for a moment, the dual AQ SmartSpeaker experience is pretty cool—evocative of Griffin’s beautiful but ultimately failed 2007 wireless system Evolve, thanks to a similar two-speaker bundled price tag of $349 and the ability to expand beyond that if you’re willing to buy additional speakers. Viewed most positively, AQ SmartSpeaker improves in several ways upon Evolve: you can move each individual speaker anywhere within a roughly 100-foot radius of your wireless router, use them one at a time or together, and enjoy 10-20 hours of battery life with individual recharging capabilities rather than a central recharging dock. AQ Audio makes the AirPlay setup process easy with a feature that grabs Wi-Fi settings directly from your iOS device—just supply the USB cable—and also has a Direct mode that creates its own Wi-Fi network when you want to use the speaker away from home. By AirPlay standards, AQ SmartSpeakers are relatively simple to set up, and reliable for 802.11b/g streaming.
On the other hand, if you spend $349 for two AQ SmartSpeakers, you also give up Evolve’s premium industrial design, guaranteed stereo, and integrated Apple device charging features. More importantly, AQ SmartSpeaker’s audio quality isn’t great—an issue hinted at by the lack of specifics on the speaker drivers inside. Regardless of whether a unit is operating in one-channel or merged monaural mode, the audio is flat: only decent in treble, fine rather than detailed or lively across the midrange, and significantly deficient in bass, it’s only noteworthy in its ability to fill a small room. Even then, a little sizzling distortion can be heard at peak volume levels, something that can be avoided by keeping the audio at or below the 90% mark. Songs we tested tended to lack either the oomph or sparkle we’d generally expect from $150 wireless speakers.
Overall, AQ SmartSpeaker is a mixed bag: on the plus side, it’s a nice-looking and relatively easy to use speaker with unique expandability, strong rechargeable battery life, and an affordable entry price; the flip sides are the so-so audio quality, the lack of stereo support for iOS devices, and the high incremental cost of adding additional speakers. From our perspective, most AirPlay-focused users will be better off with iHome’s iW3, which is $20 more expensive but has its own aesthetic, sonic, and functional advantages; there are also numerous Bluetooth speakers at or below this price point with considerably better overall sonic performance. That having been said, if you’re intrigued by the ability to operate multiple AirPlay speakers in single-channel mode, or are really interested in saving a little bit of money on each speaker, consider AQ SmartSpeaker as a viable alternative. It’s worthy of our limited recommendation.
Company and Price
Company: AQ Audio
Model: AQ SmartSpeaker
Price: Single – $179, Twin Pack – $349, Four Pack – $675
Compatible: All iPads, AirPlay-Compatible iPhones + iPod touches