To wrap up our week of new speaker reviews, we’re looking today at two AirPlay speakers — Libratone’s Zipp ($449) and XtremeMac’s Tango Air ($300) — both from companies with past experience in making wireless audio systems for Apple’s devices. As Danish audio company Libratone has previously released large, monolithic, and pricey speakers, Zipp is actually its least expensive offering yet. By comparison, XtremeMac has generally focused on affordable speakers, such that Tango Air is its most expensive offering to date. Yet both developers have coalesced on a similar basic idea for new AirPlay speakers, releasing plastic and fabric all-in-one systems designed to be carried around with built-in handles. From there, the designs are very different from one another in pretty much every other way.
Tango Air’s design DNA is clearly shared with Soma BT, a compact Bluetooth speaker XtremeMac debuted earlier this year at CES; the two systems sport the same bulging box shape and “all-in-one wireless speaker” concept. But Tango Air is considerably larger, and its fit and finish have been upgraded with nods to Sony’s original $600 PlayStation 3 console: Tango Air’s core is handsome, piano-finished glossy black plastic, with satin silver buttons and a matching metallic stripe/handle on one side. Where Soma BT looked austere and functional, Tango Air looks premium and expensive, demonstrating how small tweaks in materials and scale can make a big difference in the desirability of a speaker. This is one of the nicest-looking AirPlay speakers yet released, comparing favorably in look and feel to the same-priced iHome iW1.
Unlike iHome, which built separate AirPlay speakers for wide and tall orientations, XtremeMac gave Tango Air the gift of versatility. Like an increasing number of rival products, Tango Air can be positioned horizontally or vertically, such that its four hardware buttons are either on the top or the left side, providing users with easy access to power, volume up/down, and input selection controls. A set of three input-specific LED lights is found below the input selection button, along with three other unmarked lights that illuminate briefly in sequence when the power’s turned on or off, and glow again when you’re adjusting the volume. You’ll need to read the manual to learn that “higher volume will be accompanied by more illuminated LEDs” for 3 seconds, after which the lights “will change to reflect the current source,” a non-intuitive use of very small indicators. While XtremeMac has done a nice job keeping the controls simple, the lights could stand to be just a little better.
XtremeMac has followed the lead of most other AirPlay developers in hiding a second panel on the system’s back, containing tiny reset and larger setup buttons for AirPlay, a multicolored light, a USB port, an aux-in port, and a power port. While this light’s color indications are again non-intuitive, you likely won’t need to use them more than once, the reason that these items are hidden away. As is the case with other AirPlay speakers, Tango Air’s rear USB port can be used for setup, as well as for audio input and charging from nearly any iPad, iPhone, or iPod connected via a self-supplied USB cable.
Since its design and release timing might suggest otherwise, two things about Tango Air need to be understood up front. First, despite its prominent handle, Tango Air is not actually a portable audio system. It’s tethered to the wall by its included power supply, and though you can easily carry it anywhere in your home or office, it has no battery inside to work on its own. Second, Tango Air uses AirPlay hardware that lacks a recent feature—PlayDirect—that we’ve seen on several late 2012 AirPlay systems, so it can’t create its own wireless network. However, it does feature easy AirPlay setup, pulling wireless settings quickly from your iOS device via the rear USB port. Consequently, Tango Air is easier to use than the earliest AirPlay speakers, but not quite as advanced as the best ones we’ve recently tested.
Sonically, Tango Air is in the same camp as most of the other AirPlay speakers we’ve tested: it sounds “good enough” rather than “great” given the price. Inside the housing are five active drivers—specifically two tweeters, two full range drivers, and one subwoofer—plus a passive bass radiator, the specs for exactly zero of which have been detailed or diagrammed by XtremeMac. As a result, you’d have to actually test Tango Air to discover that bass radiates out of its back, that the system’s stereo separation only works when it’s in landscape orientation rather than standing up, or that the audio is oddly flat for a $300 audio system. None of these factors come as huge shocks to people who compare Apple speakers for a living, but XtremeMac really could increase consumer awareness and decrease post-purchase returns by detailing its speakers’ performance characteristics on its web site.
Since so many AirPlay speakers have been sonically underwhelming given their high price tags, the mantra “expect less” has become the new normal, and thus we tend to compare AirPlay offerings to other peer-priced AirPlay offerings rather than less expensive and sonically superior Bluetooth alternatives. In that context, we can say positively that Tango Air delivers louder, clearer, and more balanced sound than iHome’s iW1, which leaned somewhat muddy, midrange- and mid-bass heavy, and unimpressive in power for its $300 price. By comparison, Tango Air has enough volume to fill a medium-sized room, considerably more treble sparkle, and when placed in the right position, respectably tight bass, as well. It also doesn’t suffer from terrible distortion when turned up to its peak volume, and only modest amplifier hiss is apparent at that level. However, from song to song, we kept noting that the sound curve was just a bit off: mids always sounded somewhat recessed, and treble had a somewhat artificial sounding emphasis, particularly when the system’s standing upright. While its competitors in the AirPlay market aren’t much better, there are plenty of Bluetooth and docking options that deliver a superior listening experience at lower prices.
All of this isn’t to say that Tango Air is a bad system. By current $300 AirPlay speaker standards, it’s actually pretty good, though it does a lot more cosmetically than sonically to justify that premium price tag. We’d call it worthy of the same general recommendation as iHome’s iW1, though iHome’s strengths are different, offering battery-powered portability and more bass-heavy sound, while Tango Air has positional versatility, a much louder peak volume, and arguably more premium styling on its side. Consider it if you place a premium on style and aren’t in need of audiophile-grade audio performance or an aggressive price tag.
Company and Price
Model: Tango Air
Compatible: All Bluetooth-Capable iPods, All iPhones, iPads