When I upgraded to an iPhone a couple months ago, one of the first things I craved was an iPhone dock. I didn’t have any kind of stereo system in my apartment at the time and had been getting by with some Chill Pill speakers that came recommended by a friend. I mostly loved my Chill Pills: They sounded much better than the typically atrocious speakers built in to my laptop and were great for traveling. But at the end of the day, they didn’t offer the kind of room-filling sound that I could rock out to in my down time or use as a backdrop whenever I had friends over. An iPhone dock, I figured, was the modern day boom box: the all-in-one solution for enjoying your mp3s at a volume loud enough to piss off your neighbors. It wasn’t long, however, until I realized that such docks aren’t actually modern at all.
A Speaker Dock Is A Prison
The concept of docking your iPod or iPhone is essentially a relic of the pre-wireless era. If you think about it, there’s never a time when, given a choice, you would actually want to dock your phone. You would never think to yourself “Gee, right about now I would really love to stick my phone in a larger, stationary device, thereby restricting many of its functions and extinguishing its natural mobility.” No, we docked our phones and mp3 players out of necessity— because it was the best way to link them to those precious external speakers. Fortunately, though, we don’t live in the pre-wireless era anymore. Today there’s a better, more seamless, way to do things.
If you think about it, there’s never a time when, given a choice, you would actually want to dock your phone.
The Wireless Standards
There are currently two main technologies on the market for wirelessly streaming audio: Bluetooth and AirPlay. As it would happen, the two competing protocols were developed by the computing era’s two biggest rivals: Microsoft and Apple, respectively. Bluetooth, of course, has been around for years and is a great way for devices to wirelessly exchange all kinds of data. AirPlay, on the other hand, is newer— introduced by Apple in 2010— and, as the name implies, is designed exclusively for streaming media.
Each protocol has its pros and cons. But, for my money, AirPlay, while still nascent in some respects, is the clear winner when it comes to overall audio experience. There are two key reasons why that is.
First, AirPlay works over your home wireless network, which means wherever your speaker(s) and audio source are in the house, they’ll still be able to communicate with one another. You can also stream to multiple AirPlay speakers on your network at once, meaning you can have your music playing in multiple rooms in the house simultaneously. Bluetooth, by contrast, is only capable of one-to-one pairing, with a maximum operating range of about 30 feet.
Secondly—and this is the kicker for audiophiles like me—Bluetooth necessitates the compression of your audio signal as it’s being transmitted, thereby creating a somewhat muffled sound from your speaker. Some people will tell you that you can’t notice the loss of sound quality caused by Bluetooth’s audio compression; but that’s not only patronizing, it’s simply not true. If you physically dock your iPhone in a Bluetooth-capable speaker dock, it’s apparent that the sound is louder and more clean than if you use the same speaker dock in wireless-only Bluetooth mode. AirPlay, on the other hand, doesn’t compress your audio at all— it relies on that home WiFi network to deliver the same robust sound quality you would expect from a wired system.
Living With AirPlay
Once I had decided to get an AirPlay speaker, I settled on the Philips Fidelio SoundRing as my weapon of choice. The SoundRing looks good on paper, but once I saw a video of it in action, I knew it was the gadget for me.
The speaker has a gorgeous and distinct design, comprised entirely of a solid black ring with polished silver accents. From the outside, it looks not unlike one of the super-luxe devices you’d expect from the Danish AV aficionados at Bang & Olufsen. The innovation continues internally, as well. The SoundRing has not two, but four audio drivers: two front-firing and two side-firing. While most speakers focus all of their resources directly in front of them, the SoundRing’s side-firing drivers mean its optimal listening range extends in excess of 180 degrees— perfect for delivering great sound throughout the room.
My favorite thing about my SoundRing, though, is its portability. It’s about the size of a volleyball and I can pick it up and take it with me anywhere in the apartment. Whether I’m cooking in the kitchen, brushing my teeth in the bathroom or hanging out on the balcony, I can take great-sounding audio with me with ease. The SoundRing has an internal rechargeable battery that can last up to eight hours on a full charge, so I never worry about it dying on me. It comes with a tiny, silver ring that connects to an AC power adapter and acts as a charging station/ elegant stand.
Whether I’m cooking in the kitchen, brushing my teeth in the bathroom or hanging out on the balcony, I can take great-sounding audio with me with ease.
Despite the many pros, my SoundRing isn’t perfect. The main complaint I have about the speaker is its bass performance, which lacks the punch you might get from a bigger system. I listen to a lot of hip hop, so it’s a little frustrating not getting that chest-thumping bass when the volume is turned up. Another downside doesn’t come from the speaker itself, but from Apple’s AirPlay protocol. The system works by synching directly to iTunes either on your computer or your phone, allowing you to stream anything in either library. But if you want to stream from other audio sources, such as Spotify or your Web browser, you’ll have to get a special software program like Airfoil to do that for you.
As a new technology, the price of AirPlay speakers is still somewhat inflated. The cheapest models will cost you about $200, with the higher-end offerings going up to three times that. The SoundRing is actually toward the lower end of the spectrum at $299 from Amazon. That’s more than most speaker docks, but the added value makes it well worth the cost. As the technology becomes more widespread, it's likely that prices will trend down.
Refined And Redefined
AirPlay speakers in general, and the Fidelio SoundRing in particular, represent the refinement of the home audio system to its most essential elements. When I was a kid, I remember my Dad’s massive stereo system with two speakers and a main console that were each taller than I was. Contained in that console was a turntable, twin tape decks, a radio tuner and a CD player— it could play almost any kind of media you threw at it. But as our music libraries have migrated to our PCs, phones/mp3 players and, increasingly, the cloud, the need for such complexity on the hardware end has evaporated. When you have an extraordinary music player in your pocket, the only thing you actually need for the ideal home audio experience is a really great speaker— no strings attached.