Though only a fraction of speaker makers understand this to be true, industrial design — the way something looks, feels, and works — has come a critical differentiator between audio equipment in the iPod and post-iPod era, arguably more important to mainstream users than raw sound quality and in some cases pricing. As Bose’s original SoundDock demonstrated starting in 2004, a streamlined, simple industrial design with good enough audio can justify a price premium over better-sounding, more powerful, and less expensive rivals, a reality that some companies have embraced more impressively than others. Today, we’re briefly reviewing two new AirPlay speakers with seriously striking industrial designs — Philips’ Fidelio SoundRing ($300, aka DS3881W/37) and Libratone’s Live ($700) — which are each designed to appeal to different users, but rely upon their distinctive looks to justify atypically premium price points.
Before discussing the specifics of each unit, we need to underscore a point that we’ve previously discussed in reviews of other AirPlay speakers: one year after its introduction, AirPlay remains a somewhat confounding and disappointing solution for streaming audio to third-party speakers. Despite the strong reliability and excellent video, audio, photo, and app streaming performance we’ve seen when iOS devices use AirPlay to share content with second-generation Apple TVs, third-party AirPlay speakers continue to suffer from overly complicated initial setup procedures, surprising streaming delays, and at best occasional audio drop-outs that under some conditions can become more numerous and disruptive. When we began to test Libratone’s Live, the recently-released iPhone 4S was dropping audio every minute and seemingly crashing the speaker, an issue that was acknowledged by multiple AirPlay speaker makers and remedied with iOS and router firmware updates. But as we’ve said before, recent Bluetooth speakers are faster, somewhat easier to set up, and more reliable with iOS devices than the AirPlay units we’ve tested. Our hope is that Apple and speaker makers update the AirPlay software to become more reliable in 2012.
Philips’ Fidelio SoundRing is the simpler and more universally appealing concept of the two units, though its unique industrial design certainly takes it out of the mainstream.
As its name suggests, SoundRing is a donut-shaped unit with four speakers hidden inside in an unusual configuration—two facing forwards, two pointing upwards and off to the sides from the top. Quite possibly one of the most attractive speakers ever released for Apple’s devices, SoundRing has a silver swirled metal core with a black fabric-covered body and a thin silver stripe running from side to side; the only visible power indicator is a blue light that shines through the front fabric. On top, the stripe integrates power, play/pause, and volume buttons; it stops only at a circular plastic bottom base, which enables SoundRing to sit flat on a surface with or without an included swirled metal stand. Inside is a rechargeable battery, refueled by an included wall adapter. Philips also includes Apple device-ready USB and audio aux-in ports on SoundRing’s back, plus a multi-colored button for setup and a 3.5mm audio cable for wired playback.
Given its price and optional rechargeable battery playback—the latter feature’s lifespan regrettably not quantified by the company in any way—SoundRing competes directly with iHome’s well-known iW1, which also sells for $300 and includes similar AirPlay and USB-based docking functionality. Both units are pitched as semi-portable systems that can be charged anywhere in your home, effortlessly picked up and moved around when needed, and then returned to their bases for recharging as necessary. SoundRing’s considerably narrower, virtually identical in height, and only a tiny bit thicker than iW1, with fewer lights and control gimmicks to worry about; the charging base is nearly as easy to use as iHome’s.
On the other hand, SoundRing’s AirPlay software is a bigger pain to set up, and the sound quality is roughly par with iW1, which is to say acceptable rather than great.
Note that SoundRing and iW1 don’t actually sound the same as one another. Fidelio’s smaller chassis hides smaller speakers, which offer treble performance and detail that iW1 lacks, but suffer from anemic bass and noticeable distortion during either loud playback or songs with significant low-end portions. While iW1 strips out the highs almost entirely, presenting audio in a flat but semi-rich manner, SoundRing tries to perform lows that its speakers really can’t handle, and suffers somewhat at higher volumes as a result. The peak volume isn’t quite small room-filling, and bass begins to experience issues at anything higher than safe near-distance listening levels. Of the two systems, we preferred SoundRing’s crisper sound for close-up listening, but iW1’s under most other circumstances. Neither is going to win awards for sonic performance; they’re both compromise alternatives, buoyed by unique designs.
It’s worth only a brief mention that Philips offers a free Fidelio app that works with SoundRing, adding clock, weather forecast, Internet radio tuning, and alarm clock functionality to iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches.