Back in the old days high end audio products had funny little niggles. Preamps would pop when you changed inputs. Volume potentiometers often miss-tracked until they hit their sweet spot somewhere around of after noon. When I was young and foolish I asked a designer why this was true. He told me that high end products were designed to sound good. Then, once a design sounded good a little grudging attention could be paid to getting rid of niggles, at least those niggles that could be corrected without affecting the sound.
This 20th century preamble is needed to discuss the 21st century Bowers & Wilkins A5 AirPlay speaker. The A5 is quite small (a little larger than a toaster) and very stylish looking. Once out of the box I found it looking quite at home perched on a shelf that is just a little higher than ear level when I’m seated on the sofa. Bowers & Wilkins has a set-up app that got the A5 integrated into my wireless system without delay.
The Good: The good thing about the A5 is how it sounds. It is nothing short of amazing in terms of its ability to generate significant and relatively effortless sounding SPLs. I’m sure matching drivers and enclosures to amplifiers has proven to be a genuine boon to the designers at Bowers & Wilkins. Vocals are especially good, significantly better than other Wi-Fi speakers I have used of similar size. Anyone who expects more fundamental musicality than the A5 can create has unreasonable expectations. The A5 sounds superb with all kinds of music.
The Not Quite as Good: Using the A5 ties you to AirPlay and that’s being tied to a work in progress that may never get much better. AirPlay is designed to allow disparate playback systems (TVs, speakers, etc.) to function with iTunes. Now, iTunes is the 800 pound gorilla and even though I have all of my music cataloged there, as a playback manager, iTunes is lacking.
For example, if I start a track playing on my MacBook Pro and decide to play the selection through the Bowers & Wilkins A5 I need to be very careful. Why? Because AirPlay may decide to ramp up the volume to maximum when I select the A5 for playback. Interestingly, when I use AirPlay on an isomething (iPod? iPhone? iPad?) it always wisely reduces the volume when it connects to the A5. Worse, and everyone is free to blame this on my Wi-Fi system, the system momentarily cuts out when the MacBook or the iPhone is engaged in any other processor-intense activity (like checking my email). Lastly, and this should be taken as evidence of AirPlay’s work in progress status, when my phone rings the music stops (whether I want it to or not) and does not resume at the end of the call.
When I first learned Bowers & Wilkins was going to be making products like the A5 I was excited. I knew B&W would be willing to do the engineering heavy lifting needed to make a product that brought high end sound to 21st century expectations of convenience and interconnection. I expected Bowers & Wilkins to build something that would go head to head with Sonos and do them one better. But, while the A5 betters Sonos in musical fidelity it is significantly less advanced than Sonos when it comes to control and convenience. That’s a problem because by its nature the A5 is a convenience product. I’m sure designing and executing a Sonos-like interface would have been a huge undertaking for Bowers & Wilkins. Then again, they are a company with a unique capacity (among high end companies) for such an effort.
That’s my challenge to Bowers & Wilkins: Keep everything that’s great about the A5 but develop your own interface and do it better than Sonos.
The A5 is worth the effort.