Published on March 3rd, 2013 | by Greg0
Pioneer A4: Big Sound, Airplay, And More
When it comes to wireless speakers, we've tried most all of the major ones out there, and a few that are pretty unusual. Broadly speaking, they can be divided into a few classes, and the biggest change in the category has been the removal of docks. A few years ago, most systems offered an iPod dock and speaker, but now almost all of them have done away with the dock completely. And now you have three types to choose between: AirPlay (for iPhone, iPad, and iTunes users in the Apple ecosystem), Bluetooth (for most other folks, or those with a multi-OS household), or custom protocol (usually in the 2.4Ghz spectrum, like the recently-reviewed VEHO Mimi X3). And within each group, you need to choose from outdoors-ready (like the SoundCast Outcast), portable (like the K-Mini Kai), or for stationary use. Our gadget today is an AirPlay unit meant for home or office use, similar in some ways to the Bowers and Wilkins A5.
But the excellent Pioneer A4 Wireless Speaker does a number of things to set it apart from it's oddly-similarly named competitor. For starters, it's one of the first AirPlay units that we've seen that is also DLNA certified, which allows you to stream media from other devices that aren't Apple products. If that wasn't enough, it's also one of the few AirPlay speakers that does not require a router, thanks to Pioneer's Wireless Direct. In practice, we primarily used the SMA4 (as it's technically known) through our existing 802.11 infrastructure, but we also took it outside and used it on a sidewalk through the direct connection. Unlike the sister unit, the Pioneer A3, this one isn't truly portable- it doesn't have a built-in battery and so requires a nearby power outlet. But the option to skip or bypass your router is still nice.
Finally, the unit also works in a limited way with Android devices- it plays friendly with HTC Connect. We didn't have a chance to test it out, but those with HTC phones as well as iOS devices should definitely pay close attention to Pioneer's new units. Plus, a recent firmware update has added one big feature lacking in other AirPlay units- a direct connection to Pandora. We still missed Spotify, but it's definitely an edge over other AirPlay speakers. Compared to Bluetooth units, the range is much greater. And compared to custom protocols, you can mix and match between different AirPlay units and still have a multi-room, whole-house audio system that you can control from your iPhone. AirPlay can have some issues, though, with lag and responsiveness- but these issues have improved greatly in the past year or so, and we faced few of them in our tests with the A4. There's an ethernet port for those who want a direct network connection, and a USB jack as well.
It's a fairly big unit, with a large footprint, and weighs eleven pounds. That means it's not well-suited for kitchen or counter use (there is a smaller sibling, the A1, that is a better fit). But for an entertainment system or living room, or bedroom on a desk or cabinet, it's great. The sound is impressive- offering significant bass, maybe even a little too heavy for most listeners by default. The overall effect is sharp and fairly precise, better suited for electronic and rock than the warmer acoustic-friendly Bowers and Wilkins units. With five drivers, including two in the midrange and a dedicated back-ported 100mm subwoofer, there is plenty of power for even a large room. Volume was a bit hard to control, and separation not quite as impressive as some other systems, but for party listening this was a very compelling package and distortion minimal. The A4 booms, whether on tracks like "Empathy" from Crystal Castles or "Bucharest" from The New Division.
The A4 is not quite stunning at first glace, but pretty slick-looking, and we liked the touch-capacitive buttons. Most staff approved of having some buttons on the unit, whereas other competitors have removed them in the name of minimalism. Setup is simple, and we liked the various improvements Pioneer has made to make the unit more than "just AirPlay". Available now, expect to spend just under $400 for the Pioneer XW-SMA4-K Wi-Fi speaker.