If someone asked me to recommend a good AirPlay speaker, I’d tell them to buy a Wren V5AP if they need something relatively affordable and compact. The Wren V5AP gets our recommendation because it sounds as good as anything we’ve heard under $400 and even better than some products in the $600 range. We were enthusiastic about the V5AP at its original $399 price; at its current $249 price it’s an outstanding value.
Since our first article about AirPlay speakers, much has changed. Our previous pick, the Pioneer A4 XW-SMA4-K, was discontinued, although you might still find it for sale somewhere.
As such, we decided to revisit this guide to find a new pick. Many new models have arrived, including very recent introductions from JBL, Polk, and MartinLogan. As usual, we started this project by consulting reviews written by professionals we know to be competent, as well as user reviews found on various websites. However, reviews of these recently introduced AirPlay speakers were difficult or impossible to come by, so we decided to get them in ourselves and conduct a blind test.
There’s really nothing else in the price range and general form factor of the Wren V5AP that we feel confident you’ll like. But if the Wren V5AP doesn’t work for you—if, say, it’s sold out or you just don’t like its retro, wood-bodied look—we do have two alternate suggestions.
2.JBL Authentics L8
One is the Libratone Zipp. It’s a completely different style of product, designed at least partly for portable use and not quite as capable of filling a room as the V5AP. But the Zipp sounds quite good and looks really cool. It’s a good option if our main pick becomes unavailable.
If you want more of a home-style product and can spend $200 more, we recommend the JBL Authentics L8. It plays louder than the Wren or the Libratone, sounds better than either one, includes Bluetooth and DLNA wireless compatibility in addition to AirPlay, and works with an iOS/Android app that lets you control volume and tone.
Why should you trust me?
I’ve been an editor and writer for audio- and video-focused magazines and websites since 1989, including stints with About.com Stereos, Sound & Vision, Home Theater, Home Theater Review, SoundStage! Xperience, and others. In that time, I’ve tested thousands of audio products. Since the early 1990s, I’ve conducted blind listening tests on a frequent basis, including recent evaluations of outdoor speakers and computer speakers for the Wirecutter. I have a custom-built source switcher and several custom-built stands designed specifically for blind testing audio products, and I also own a full suite of audio measurement gear.
How we picked and tested
If you’re curious about what an AirPlay system is, check out What’s AirPlay below.
To start, I read through reviews of every currently available AirPlay speaker and called in a review sample of each one for which I could find at least two positive reviews. To these, I added every newly introduced model that the editors of the Wirecutter and I felt had real potential for excellence—pretty much every one we could get our hands on. To this group, we added a Sonos Play:5, to see how the sound quality compared to the best of the AirPlay speakers.
I started the evaluation by running all the speakers through a blind listening test, in which two staff members from the Wirecutter, A/V editor Geoff Morrison and headphone reviewer Lauren Dragan, participated. I also listened to all of the speakers (although I knew which one was which). I polled Geoff and Lauren to get their opinions, combined those with my own, and then gave the most promising models a longer listen.
One model, the JBL Authentics L8, started shipping just a couple of days after we finished our testing sessions, so I requested a review sample and Geoff and I compared it to our two favorites from the blind test.
Once the speakers arrived, I gave each one at least 10 hours of break-in. I then set them up in three groups of three atop two long, shelf-like stands placed a foot away from the wall of my listening room. I wired all of the speakers through their line inputs into my testing switcher; using AirPlay wouldn’t have allowed us to switch quickly among the speakers. I listened to AirPlay separately to make sure they performed similarly.
So that we’d be listening to the speakers at the same volume, I played a pink noise test tone from my iPod touch; then measured the level of each system at roughly the head height of a seated listener using an NTI Minilyzer audio analyzer and an NTI MiniSPL test microphone; then adjusted the levels using my testing switcher. All speakers were covered with thin black fabric so the listeners couldn’t tell which ones they were hearing.
Once I had the setup nailed, I called Lauren and Geoff in for two separate blind testing sessions. I then pulled out the four most promising models of the bunch for extended listening and in-depth ergonomic evaluation.
Our top pick for most listeners
In the blind test, Lauren and Geoff both considered the V5AP their favorite. “This one’s my favorite just because the sound is the best balanced overall,” Lauren said. “It has its problems, but overall it sounds the most natural.”
“It’s the best balanced of the three,” Geoff reported, comparing to the others in that round of testing. “I just like the character of its sound. It has a bigger soundstage and clearer treble.”
The V5AP has some other advantages besides good sound quality and a reasonable price.First among these is its appealing, tasteful retro look (your choice of rosewoodor bamboo finish) and its compact 6 x 16.8 x 4.2-inch chassis. It doesn’t include any other wireless technologies, but there are Play-Fi and Bluetooth versions available. Plus, if within the three-year warranty period you decide you want to switch to a different wireless technology, Wren Sound will mod your unit for $99, shipping included.
Elsewhere on the web, the V5AP and its Play-Fi and Bluetooth brethren (the V5PF and V5BT, respectively) get mostly very positive reviews. Comparing the V5AP with the B&W Zeppelin Air and the Klipsch G-17, InnerFidelity’s John Grandberg said, “I’d say the Wren V5AP is my favorite of the bunch. It sounds great, at least on par with those other two (which is saying a lot as I consider those top examples in this category) … Oh, and it’s cheaper too.” WIRED’s John Brandon called it “nearly flawless” and ranked it 9 on a scale of 10. If you want to see a full technical breakdown, you can read my review on About.com Stereos, which includes lab measurements that suggest the product’s been tweaked and improved since its first production run. (Which might be why we didn’t notice the bass port noise that Digital Trends’ Ryan Waniata complained about.) Among the reviewers on Amazon.com, the V5AP gets five-star reviews except among those who had AirPlay-related dropout problems.Wren also offers the V5US, a similar model that incorporates AirPlay, Bluetooth, and DTS Play-FI (a Sonos-like wireless multiroom technology available in products from several companies). Even though it looks almost identical to the V5AP, the V5US sounds a little smoother; voices, in particular, seem less sibilant, and it plays about 1 dB louder, a barely noticeable difference. The V5US is also available in an espresso/wenge color scheme we think is more appealing than the V5AP’s two available finishes. However, as of this writing the V5US costs $499—the same price as two V5APs. While we like it better than the V5AP, we don’t like it twice-the-price better.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
What were those problems Lauren cited? Mainly, low-fidelity bass. Lauren called the bass “one-notey,” probably referring to the “thumpy” character of the bass that both Geoff and I noted. It sounded to both of us as if there’s a very aggressive limiter in the V5AP that clamps down on the bass notes when they get too loud. That’s a good thing in that it should keep the V5AP’s woofers from blowing out, but it did give the bass an unnatural and mildly annoying character when we turned the V5AP up loud.
Speaking of loud, the V5AP can play loud enough for background music or casual listening, but it can’t crank up to party levels. I got about 95 dB max volume at one meter when playing Mötley Crüe’s “Kickstart My Heart.”
Many AirPlay speakers offer few features other than AirPlay, a 3.5mm analog input, a volume control, and a rudimentary remote. The V5AP is no different. (The V5PF and V5BT don’t even come with a remote.) It’d be nice if it included Bluetooth, an increasingly common feature in AirPlay speakers. It’d also be nice if the speaker had some sort of tone controls, either in an app or on the remote.
A nice step-up option
As described above, the Wren V5AP has some limitations. That’s why, for someone who’s looking more for an AirPlay speaker that might replace a full stereo system, we recommend the $599 JBL Authentics L8.
The L8 is a much more capable product than the V5AP in every way. It includes not only AirPlay but also Bluetooth and DLNA, and it has an iOS/Android app with tone controls and JBL’s ClariFi sound-enhancing technology. The L8 uses 4-inch woofers and 120 watts of total amplification, compared with 3-inch woofers and 50 watts in the V5AP. It’s much larger, at 9.7 x 26.2 x 13 inches. By the way, if you’re curious, the weird “inverse waffle” foam grille is an homage to the classic JBL L100 speaker of the 1970s.
There’s also a larger, $999 version with three-way speakers called the Authentics L16; we’d like to have heard it but it wasn’t ready at the time we prepared this article.
Geoff and I compared the L8 to the $699 Polk Woodbourne, which we’d planned to include as our step-up pick until we heard the L8. The L8’s midrange and treble sounded substantially clearer and more natural to us, so much so that after we finished our evaluation the L8 was the only one of these speakers I chose to listen to for fun. It also plays pretty loud for an AirPlay speaker. On my favorite max volume test, Mötley Crüe’s “Kickstart My Heart,” the L8 hit about 100 dB at a distance of 1 meter, superior to the 95 dB from the V5AP.
The only thing we didn’t like about the L8 is that its bass is absurdly pumped up. However, this is easy to fix if you use the iOS/Android app, which includes controls that let you boost or cut bass, midrange, and treble. I found that if I turned the bass slider on the app down halfway, the L8 sounded ideally balanced. Geoff preferred the simpler method of moving the unit further away from the wall, because proximity to walls reinforces bass.
Unfortunately, the Authentics L8 was so new that as of this writing we could find no published professional reviews or even user reviews on Amazon or Crutchfield.
What about Sonos?
Sonos remains the most successful brand in wireless audio, and because it works so much like AirPlay, it’s an option all potential AirPlay buyers may want to consider.
Sonos systems are not AirPlay compatible, but they do offer certain advantages over AirPlay: very simple setup, rock-solid wireless transmission, and compatibility with all popular phones, tablets and computers except Windows Phone. Thus, we wanted to find out how Sonos’ largest speaker, the $399 Play:5, compared with the best of the AirPlay speakers. To that end, we included it in our blind test.
The Play:5 didn’t particularly impress us during this round of tests. My notes praised it for a full and balanced sound but consistently complained about a crude-sounding, unrefined, and unnatural midrange. “It’s OK, but I can’t say I liked it,” Geoff said.
However, if you’re attracted to the advantages of Sonos, we think buying two of the smaller, $199 Play:1 speakers is a better way to go.
Personally, I think the Play:1 is the best-sounding Sonos product to date, as I explained in my tech-heavy review on About.com Stereos, and it also got excellent reviews on CNET, Digital Trends, and on Wirecutter contributor Chris Heinonen’s site Reference Home Theater.
A pair of Play:1s gives you two huge advantages not only over the Play:5, but also over all AirPlay speakers: You can run two of them in stereo, so you get real stereo separation and sound quality that can compete with conventional stereos. You can also use them in two different rooms, so you can get sound in more rooms for a party, then easily go back to your stereo setup later.
While the new Apple Music feature will not work with Sonos speaker system at launch, both Apple and Sonos have confirmed that they are working on getting the services to be compatible ASAP—with support planned “before the end of the year.”
We have a much more in-depth discussion about what can be done with Sonos in our guide to Whole Home Audio Systems.
What’s AirPlay and why would you want it (or not want it)?
AirPlay is an Apple technology that transmits audio around a home through a Wi-Fi network. The source of the audio must be an iOS device (an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch) or a computer running iTunes.
Who’s AirPlay for? People who want to play the same audio through multiple speakers in a home without a loss in sound quality, and who want to be able to choose among numerous brands and types of speakers. (They don’t have this choice with Sonos, which is available in only four speaker models, all from Sonos.)
AirPlay offers two key advantages over Bluetooth, the most commonly used wireless audio technology. First, AirPlay can send audio from a computer to multiple speakers including ipod classic docking station, so the same audio signal can play on multiple systems throughout a home. Using third-party apps, you can also get this multiroom capability with iOS devices. Bluetooth wireless can’t do this; it can transmit only from one source to one audio system (or two paired systems that are no further than 30 feet from each other). Second, AirPlay doesn’t sacrifice audio quality by adding data compression the way Bluetooth does.
There are other competing Wi-Fi-based wireless audio technologies you might consider. Like AirPlay, none of them apply any additional data compression, so none of them sacrifice sound quality in any way.
First and foremost is Sonos, which has an advantage over AirPlay in that it works with Android devices in addition to iOS devices, PCs and Macs. However, Sonos’ wireless technology is available only in Sonos products: as far as speakers go, there are currently three wireless models, a soundbar and a subwoofer. Because Sonos is such a big player in this market, we included a Sonos product in this comparison to see how it stacks up against AirPlay products. Bose, Samsung and LG have also introduced Sonos-like products, but none of them have achieved significant traction in the market.
There’s also Play-Fi, a relatively new technology from DTS that works with iOS and Android devices as well as PCs. Currently there are only a handful of Play-Fi products available, and the Play-Fi app accesses only a few streaming services (instead of the 30+ services on Sonos and the innumerable services available on iOS devices through AirPlay).
Finally, there’s DLNA, a communications standard designed to let all sorts of devices—computers, phones, tablets, audio systems, printers, cameras—send data to each other. However, DLNA can be sort of a DIY proposal: you usually have to go find your own control apps (such as Skifta) and figure out how to get them to work with your equipment.
The only thing we really don’t like about AirPlay, besides its inability to work with Android products, is that it’s prone to dropouts when streaming from iOS devices. Of course, Bluetooth can drop out, too, especially if the source is more than 15 feet from the speaker , but you can almost always fix that by moving the source device closer to the speaker. We haven’t experienced dropout problems with Sonos, probably because Sonos products form a mesh network that reinforces Wi-Fi signals. Also, if one Sonos product is wired directly into your router, the whole Sonos system can form its own wireless network that is even more robust.
What else did we consider?
We generally liked the sound quality of the Audio Pro Allroom Air One, except for its somewhat over-abundant bass, but at $799 it’s substantially pricier than the Authentics L8.
The B&W A5 sounded overly midrangy and somewhat muffled to our panelists.
We considered getting the B&W A7 in for this test, but based on a couple of brief listens and our experience with the other B&W AirPlay speakers here, we saw no reason to believe it would be a real contender.
The B&W Zeppelin Air has become something of an iconic design, but we found its sound far too bass-heavy and dull for our taste.
The sound quality of the Bose SoundLink Air didn’t impress us, not even at its low $329 price.
I reviewed the Cambridge Audio Minx Air 200 for About.com Stereos and thought it wasn’t as good as some of the other speakers I knew we’d be getting in for this test.
The Libratone Live gets too many 3 and 3.5-star reviews to merit consideration.
The beautifully designed MartinLogan Crescendo, which features high-end tweeters taken from the company’s tower speakers, sounded very nice but somewhat light in the bass for our taste, and at $899 it’s pricey.
The panelists generally liked the sound of the NAD Viso 1 AP, but we felt it didn’t play loud enough for its size, and its barrel-like design didn’t appeal to us.
We thought the $699 Polk Woodbourne sounded pretty good but not as good as the $100-less-expensive JBL Authentics L8. Considering that we were planning to make it our pick before we heard the L8, it might be a good buy for someone who prefers the Woodbourne’s more dignified look.
The $249 Sony SRS-X7 is remarkably inexpensive, but the first reviews from CNET and Digital Trends gave it 3.5 out of 5 stars.
We weren’t able to get a review sample of the Sony SRS-X9 in time for this article. It looks like a potential winner, with all the features of the SRS-X7 plus a much more advanced acoustical design, but it’s expensive at $698.
The $599 Archt Audio One combines a distinctive elongated egg shape with omnidirectional speakers that disperse sound evenly throughout a room. It offers Bluetooth streaming in addition to AirPlay, and includes a mode that lets it stream directly from iOS devices even when there’s no WiFi network present. It’s a nice-sounding unit, comparable in performance to the Wren V5AP and V5US, but for $600 we prefer the JBL Authentics L8, which sounds better and plays louder.
The Wren V5US is almost identical to our top pick, the Wren V5AP, but it’s more advanced. To AirPlay, it adds Bluetooth and DTS Play-Fi wireless multiroom audio capability. It also has an EQ switch on the back that optimizes the sound for use near walls and corners. We think it sounds slightly better overall than the V5AP, but considering the V5US’s $499 price, the V5AP is a far better value.
Wrapping it up
We’ve got two solid picks here for AirPlay speakers, and a superb AirPlay alternative from Sonos.
The Wren V5AP is simply a good-sounding, nice-looking, reasonably priced AirPlay speaker. Given our overall positive perception of the sound and the generally great reviews it gets, we think it’s your safest buy in an AirPlay speaker.
The Libratone Zipp is a good-sounding, cool-looking AirPlay speaker that you can use wirelessly anywhere, unlike almost all other AirPlay speakers. However, some people may want a speaker with more bass that plays louder.
The JBL Authentics L8 offers better sound and more features than the V5AP, at a price 50 percent higher. It’s a great choice for those who are more serious about sound.
If you don’t specifically need AirPlay, a pair of Sonos Play:1 wireless speakers can go woofer-to-woofer with anything else we tested here, providing a real sense of stereo separation and the option to split the pair up for multiroom use.