If you own an Apple iPad or iPhone you’ll probably know they both include Airplay support.
So what is Airplay? Well AirPlay is Apple’s wireless streaming process, which works in a way similar to DLNA, by allowing you to stream music or movies from a smartphone or tablet compatible product, which plays it back.
So you can sit on the sofa with your phone in your hand, browsing the web, listening to music from across the room. Some docks can also stream movies, if you hook the system up to your TV.
A few years ago there were only one or two docks with the technology and (crucially) the certification, however now more and more consumer electronics manufacturers are AirPlay compatible.
So if you are considering getting an AirPlay dock for your new iPhone 4S or iPad 2, here’s our round-up of the best. Although remember that AirPlay is a proprietary technology, so it can only stream wirelessly from Apple devices.
Steve May looks at the best Airplay speakers
B&W Zeppelin Air
Not to be confused with the original Zeppelin, this AirPlay-enabled revision of the original audiophile dock has been spruced up with new drivers and fresh signal processing (originally developed for the brand’s MM-1 PC speakers) for rock-solid bass.
Design and features
If weight is an indicator of quality, then this puppy is a front runner; it’s exquisitely built. Inside are two 25mm Nautilus aluminium tweeters and paired 75mm mid-range drivers each driven by a 25w digital amplifier; a ported sub gets its own 50W amplifier. The result is more than enough welly for a main room sound system. Your iPhone/iPod/iTouch can be docked dead centre.
The Zeppelin Air goes loud, yet never loses its musical grip. The system’s extraordinarily tuneful bass owes much to the brand’s Flowport design, which reduces low-end distortion. Voices sound rounded and are free of sibilance. The system sounds fine with a wide range of music, although we think classical music lovers may end up frustrated, because this Zep just doesn’t throw a particularly wide soundstage.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that JPEGs and standard def video can be output via a low rent composite video connection, but this doesn’t display album art when your iPod is on musical duties.
With the Zeppelin Air, Bowers & Wilkins can still claim the performance high-ground, however that price point is becoming increasingly tough to swallow, particularly when you consider what other brands are offering for the same or less.
Prodigious power for a dock
Build quality is supreme
Deep bass, good mid-range
Doesn’t mate with an iPad
Stereo soundstage a little tight
Denon’s CEOL is effectively a complete hi-fi system built around an iPod dock. It’s available with or without speakers; if you go for the RCD-N7 base unit and provide your own enclosures it’ll set you back £500 (the same as the Zeppelin Air), add the matching SC-N7 boxes and it’s £600.
Design and features
Consider the RCD-N7 a multifunction CD receiver with AirPlay on top. Available in gloss black or white finishes, the iPod dock itself is concealed in the lid of the unit. There’s also an FM/AM tuner onboard, but we’re doubtful it’ll get much use given you can also stream internet radio services and log into Last.fm.
Once networked, the CEOL will find all DLNA / uPnP devices, and allow you to drill down for music. Compatibility is excellent with MP3, AAC, WMA, WAV, OGG and FLAC files all playable.
Audio quality is excellent across the board. Apple lossless files played direct and via the ether sound fabulous, exhibiting excellent resolution. The supplied bookshelf speakers also have a lovely rich timbre. The CEOL’s amp actually has enough poke (2 x 65w) to drive much larger boxes. We ran it with both the supplied SC-N7s and a pair of much larger floorstanders. The diminutive receiver did a surprisingly good job driving the bigger boxes. Either way, the CEOL delivered a lively, enjoyable listening experience.
This AirPlay hi-fi system hits all the right notes. It’s beautifully designed, generously equipped and surprisingly good value for money.
Excellent integration of AirPlay and network streaming Embraces an Apple design aesthetic Sounds fabulous
Takes up more floorspace than a solo dock
Can’t be upgraded for multi-channel sound
When Philips launched its Fidelio DS9010 iPod sound system, it caught many by surprise. This wasn’t just another boom box; with its distinctive SoundCurve design, this upscale dock had the sonic chops to take on Bowers & Wilkins’ Zeppelin Air. It’s only Achilles’ heal was a lack of AirPlay.
Well, the brand has now addressed that with the DS8800W, an AirPlay upgrade that builds on the success of the original and junks the dock in the process. The only physical connection is the 3.5mm mini-jack on the rear. A USB is provided to charge iPhones, iPods and iPads.
Design and features
While the brand has made slight changes to the Fidelio cabinet, the overall design is still unmistakably SoundCurve. The distinctive curvaceous back increases the rigidity of the cabinet and reduces internal resonance and distortion. It’s powered by a 2 x 15w amplifier.
Philips’s boffins have managed to coax an inordinate amount of bass from this modestly proportioned unit. Overall fidelity is good and dialogue sounds crystal clear. Remember you can stream audio from IPTV, YouTube and a variety of other sources, as well as your iTunes collection.
The standard Philips pebble remote is also included, although you’ll probably end up using your iOS device most of the time. A Fidelio app allows internet radio to be streamed direct, fine-tuned with one of five acoustic presets.
We’re big fans of the Fidelio family, and with the DS8800W priced at just £350 the only question is not if we should buy one, but how many? After all, why stream to one room when you can stream to many?
Soundcurve design delivers big bass from a small box
Build quality is high
Fidelio app adds internet radio
Some users may miss the physical dock
Stereo soundstage somewhat Scrooge-like
The iHome iW1 wireless speaker is refreshingly different from its competitors. Y’see, this little fella employs a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, which means you can take your music anywhere you fancy – as long as it’s within Wi-Fi range.
Design and features
The iW1 doesn’t actually feature a physical dock, but there is a USB connector which can be used to recharge, or tether, an iOS device; a button in the roof puts the system into connected iPod playback mode. For non Apple products, there’s also a stereo mini-jack input.
Soft touch controls visible only when the unit is powered are a nice design frill, and cloth-covered grilles and a neat metallic trim prevent the system from looking cheap. The iW1 sits on a smaller charging station and has an integrated carry handle. Once fuelled, the unit will run at full volume for around 3.5 hours, dip the volume down mid-way and you’ll get a healthy 6-7 hours playback. The brand also supplies an app which streams net radio.
While it’s hardly high fidelity, the iW1 certainly makes for a fun party system. It very nearly goes loud enough to be heard over general hubbub, just don’t push the volume too hard else it’ll begin to distort. Much of its sonic bravado can be traced to the use of a Bongiovi Acoustics processor, which dynamically boosts bass depth and mid-range bite.
Portability is the key to the iW1’s appeal. We love the idea of popping it off the charger, and using it everywhere from the kitchen to the patio, just make sure your Wi-Fi signal is strong enough to reach. This is a wireless speaker in every sense.
Portability and battery life
Neat design embellishments
Works with the iHome net radio app
No physical dock
Limited stereo soundstage
Distorts when cranked loud
The Marantz NR1602 is an AirPlay-ready receiver that shares at least some conceptual DNA with the Denon CEOL. It’s a do-everything entertainment centre. There’s no integrated physical dock, but you can charge your handheld via the front mounted USB.
Design and features
As with the CEOL, it features internet radio, Last.fm access and media streaming. Unlike its Denon rival, it boasts seven channels of amplification, not just two. This means that it can be expanded from stereo to full multi-channel surround sound when you see fit.
Build quality is excellent. Available in silver-gold or regulation black, the NR2602 stands just 105mm tall, has a distinctive curved fascia and doesn’t look out of place alongside Blu-ray players, set top boxes and the like.
An optional Bluetooth receiver can also be added to the mix, via the M-XPort (Marantz-eXtension Port) on the rear. So even if you don’t have an iPhone you can stream music directly; alternatively multiple users can play with the NR1602, regardless of their mobile allegiance.
With seven channels running at 50w apiece, the NR1602 is reassuringly dynamic; it’s sounds just as good with ink-jet pop (Little Mix) as it does with multi-channel movies (Tron: Legacy), so everyone should feel satisfied. Audio media playback compatibility is also high. We successfully streamed MP3, AAC, WMA, Ogg, WAV and FLAC from both local USB and across our LAN from NAS and PCs. Even better, album art is displayed when available.
If you’re looking to take your music collection to the next level, then this multi-talented maven is well worth an audition. With dual AirPlay/Bluetooth compatibility, net radio, bullet-proof media streaming and surround sound capabilities, it’s impressively expandable.
AirPlay and Bluetooth side by side
High-quality audio performance
Excellent music file support
So many features, you’ll probably not need them all
The Audyssey MultiEQ calibration system is a little hit and miss