Music in the Air

Wireless sound systems provide a new dimension of portability for your digital music

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The ADAPT Bluetooth Adapter ($40) from Outdoor Tech is a 2.9-ounce device that clips on easily to a shirt pocket or pants pocket, or sits unobtrusively on a shelf. It has a standard 3.5mm output jack that connects via standard cable to your home audio system, if that’s convenient, or you can plug in your favorite headphones for wireless sound while traveling. The ADAPT unit also has a built-in microphone for hands-free cellphone calls without wearing a separate Bluetooth earpiece.
For the same $40 you can exchange portability for superior audio quality and Bluetooth range with the Logitech Wireless Speaker Adapter, a 3.5-inch rectangular box. Plug it in near your AV receiver or powered speakers, connect using either an RCA (white and red) or 3.5mm cable and pair it with your Bluetooth device—there’s a button on top that says connect so it’s not rocket science. The result: an effective, inconspicuous audio connection to your AV system from anywhere in a roughly 30-foot radius.
Apple’s Airplay technology allows wireless music playback to compatible speakers from Apple computers and handheld devices and Windows machines running iTunes. It also supports viewing video (via iTunes) and photos (Apple devices only) if you have an Apple TV unit connected to your set.
Airplay has several advantages over Bluetooth when it comes to wireless audio. Since Airplay piggybacks on your existing Wi-Fi network, it has much greater range—you can connect to speakers all around the house, without the 30-foot Bluetooth limitation. You can also have music stored in your iTunes library piped to multiple rooms simultaneously, though unlike Sonos and other multiroom systems, Airplay doesn’t support sending different audio to different speakers. Airplay sound quality is also generally superior to Bluetooth, since the Airplay audio signal is uncompressed. On the other hand, Bluetooth works with a wider variety of devices, offers more portability (you don’t need a Wi-Fi network), and can be less expensive since Airplay speaker manufacturers have to pay a licensing fee to Apple.
Apple TV $100
This compact multipurpose Airplay-equipped device is especially useful for hardcore Apple users. It connects to a high-def TV or AV receiver via HDMI (older sets need not apply), allowing you to play your iTunes library through your home entertainment system. You also get direct online access to an interesting, if limited, number of online services, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube and Flickr. If you have a portable Apple device running iOS 4.2 or later, or a Mac running OS X Mountain Lion, things get more interesting—you can transmit video and photos to the Apple TV, or “mirror” whatever’s running on your Apple screen on your TV screen, meaning any games you play, online services you access or web-sites you visit can appear in big, beautiful HD.
Logitech UE Air $400
For sweet room-filling sound from your Airplay system, you can’t beat this substantial (23.1 x 9.2 x 9.2 inches) Logitech speaker. There’s a pop-out dock for Apple portables with the old 30-pin connector (or a newer Lightning model with adapter) that lets you play music directly and makes wireless set-up much simpler. If push comes to shove, though, you can also establish the Airplay connection using your web browser and a wired Ethernet port is available. Audio reproduction is exceptional even at very high volumes (this sucker gets LOUD), with treble and bass levels remotely adjustable via a downloadable app.
Bose SoundLink Air $350
This Bose system is considerably smaller than the Logitech (12.1 x 6.8 x 4.0 inches), and delivers sound with similar depth and precision, albeit not at the highest volume settings (crank it up too loud and audio quality suffers noticeably). The 4.7-pound Bose has room-to-room portability on its side, with a convenient handle around back, though you’ll have to plug in when you reach your destination unless you invest in the $90 optional rechargeable battery.
Libratone Zipp $400
This high-performance speaker has an exciting trick up its digital sleeve—it’s a truly portable Airplay system. Ordinarily, Airplay speakers require you stay in range of your Wi-Fi network, but that electronic tether pretty much leaves beach trips and picnics in the lurch. Libratone solves the problem with its Lounge ($1,300), Live ($550) and Zipp models by giving you the option to let the speaker set up its own local Wi-Fi access. It shows up in your portable device’s standard wireless network access list, you choose it, and voilà—you’re connected. The Zipp makes best use of this technology, with its lightweight portability and a rechargeable battery that lasts roughly eight hours. The circular shape is not merely a design element. The speaker drivers are positioned to project in all directions, an unusual move that pays off here with sound that’s balanced and true no matter where you move in the room, or outdoors. And the “Zipp” in the name? It’s short for “zipper,” since you can zip off the original cover and exchange it for different color alternatives. Not a big selling point to me, but maybe your daughter will enjoy playing dress up with your pricey Airplay speaker.
Two-for-One Special
Samsung DA-E750 $700
What happens if you have a mixed marriage—you know, Android and Apple people living under the same roof? This uniquely styled Samsung unit accepts both Airplay and Bluetooth connections, plus physical docking for Samsung Galaxy phones and 30-pin Apple connectors. I’ll get to the sound in a minute, but let’s start with first impressions—this is one of the most beautiful electronic devices I’ve ever taken for a test drive, encased in a rich dark wood cabinet with two glowing tubes visible under a transparent dome on top. I’m not 100% convinced this tube-based amplification enhances the sound compared to top-tier digital reproduction but, damn, it’s mighty purty.
And it sounds purty too, perhaps with a bit more bass boost than is absolutely necessary (unfortunately, you can’t adjust bass or treble balance), but the warm, rich sound is consistent with the luxurious design. I also found the Bluetooth range more generous than most of the players I tried out. Even from the far side of a large room, or the room next door, the audio played flawlessly, with no dropouts or loss of quality.
Do you really need to spend this much on a tabletop audio player? Of course not, but if that’s the price of cross-platform domestic harmony, it just might be worth it.

Steve Morgenstern writes regularly about technology for
Cigar Aficionado.
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