So you think you want some AirPlay speakers

Maybe you do. Maybe you don’t. I thought I wanted AirPlay speakers — one for the office where I spend most of my time, and another one or two for the rest of the apartment, a poor man’s multi-room audio system. I’m no audiophile, but I do want better than “computer speakers,” I want to be able to spread out, and I want to get rid of wires.

Unfortunately, now that I’ve tried it — several weeks of constant experimention now — I’m not so sure it’s what I want.

Here were my criteria while shopping:

Somebody please make that, because it doesn’t exit and it should. Basically I want an AirPlay version of a Tivoli PAL, but a wee bit bigger sound, and move the power adapter into the case. Tivoli, are you listening? (Actually, apparently they aren’t.)

Meanwhile, back in the real world …

The Bose SoundLink AirPlay: not perfect, but good enough

I finally settled on the new Bose SoundLink AirPlay. The design is decent but fairly blendy; they aren’t cheap, but you should see some of the other AirPlay speaker prices; they have a rechargeable battery (sold seperately). Alas, the power adapter truly earns the name “brick” (it’s one of the worst, plug-hoggiest power bricks I’ve ever seen). And there’s no headphone out, which seems odd. And there’s no FM radio (which is frustrating to me, but I never actually dreamed I’d get that).

I picked up a pair of these, and I’m mostly pleased with the devices themselves — although I could cheerfully strangle the Bose designer who thought that brick was a good idea.

AirPlay itself is a definitely a bit of a disappointment — mainly in terms of software control.

Apple’s AirPlay itself: built only for the simplest scenarios

If you’ve been living in a cave, you may not be aware that AirPlay is an (Apple) technology for sending video and audio wirelessly (over your wifi network) to other devices. So, for instance, you can start play a YouTube video on your iPad and the continue it on the (Apple) TV. Or you can walk in the door with a podcast playing in your earbuds, and then switch to playing it through an AirPlay speaker like the Bose SoundLink.

Most simple use cases like this work pretty well.

I wanted to do a little more though.

It doesn’t seem like too much to ask. But it is.

It’s generally tricky to manage AirPlay outputs from Mac/iTunes, especially multiple ones — and managing multiple outputs seems like one of the main reasons you would want to use AirPlay devices in the first place.

In particular, there Mac system output and iTunes output do not play nicely together. Any change to the iTunes output settings reverts the main sound output to “built-in,” so forget about seamlessly switching back and forth between multiple iTunes outputs and then back to system sound on the AirPlay speaker.

Also, Macs bizarrely cannot mute any AirPlay output, from either the system or iTunes. Volume control of the system otherwise works as expected, but iTunes volume gets strange and complex when using AirPlay.

I have very faint hope the new iTunes will improve this situation (but I haven’t installed it yet to find out, and won’t until at least a couple bug fixin’ versions have been released). At best, multiple output selection might get a little less finicky and clicky.

AirFoil mostly to the rescue!

The main reason I’m so devoted to the Mac platform is not the inherent superiority of Mac or OS X, but because one way or another they have attracted a developer community with sensibilities I really like. So often I can find really amazing 3rd party solutions to problems Apple has not solved (or even created). AirFoil is a great example.

I would have ended up returning my new AirPlay speakers if not for a software solution to the awkwardness described above: AirFoil was made to solve all of the annoying problems described above. And it mostly does. It basically just takes control of all sound sources and outputs and permits the kind of control I had assumed OS X itself would offer. So, with AirFoil’s help, I more or less have what I wanted: all system sound through wireless speakers in my office and/or the rest of the apartment.

There’s still a couple catches though.

The only remaining annoyances are probably not AirFoil’s fault, but limitations baked into streaming audio. First, AirFoil loses its connection to my speakers much too quickly. This one might partially be AirFoil’s fault, because other software seems to be able to remember for hours that its supposed to use the wireless speakers, even if stopped and started for long periods. Or it might not be AirFoil’s fault, because sooner or later all software seems to have to be told to reconnect. It’s a minor annoyance, but definitely a problem: I cannot count on sound coming from my wireless speakers.

Second — and worse — is latency, which turns out to be a far bigger problem than I expected. When I started this, I was sort of dimly aware that synced streaming audio would have to be delayed, that it would take a couple seconds to kick in after pressing play, it I underestimated how annoying it is. In particular, it results in a lot of uncertainty about the responsiveness of software, and its fairly shocking how often I have gotten disoriented and started and stopped music or a podcast three or four times before settling in. But that’s only the most basic scenario. Things get much worse when you are doing things like skipping ahead in a podcast or scrubbing. You can do it, but with a two second delay it’s awkward, murky, like trying to talk when you can hear an echo of yourself.

And then there’s a deal-breaker: user interface sounds. The dream of streaming all system audio is dead. Although AirFoil makes it possible, latency makes it undesirable. A little delay when playing media is awkward, but if delays on a lot of user interface sounds are downright disruptive and confusing. A particularly good example is Mac OS X’s new dictation feature, which I rather like, and which makes that nice little Siri bong when activated — an important sound that clearly indicates that the feature is “listening.” Activating this while listening to music requires stopping the music stream as well as playing the system sound, and with the delay it is hopelessly jarring and unusable. The signal’s effectiveness is basically destroyed.

Wired speakers to the rescue!

In a fit of annoyance with all this last week, I banished the office SoundLink to the living room, marched downtown to the mall and bought Bose’s Companion 20 mid-range computer speakers — brought them home, plugged them in, and started enjoying unstreamed, decent system sound in my office.

These are in fact the first non-crappy computer speakers I’ve ever owned. It’s far from premium audio, but I am not an audiophile. I am far more interested in functionality and features than sound quality. For instance, these speakers, in addition to having Bosely big sound for their size, have a great wired controller: a smoothly spinning knob, with a large touch surface for easy muting, and headset and mic ports.

And now the two SoundLinks are now placed strategically in the rest of the apartment, where they make for great apartment filling sound as needed — and they are ideal for that. Last night a friend dropped by after a hard day with her little baby boy, and I put on a smart playlist of music marked “bright and mellow,” and as we visited it played from the AirPlay speakers and very nicely filled the apartment. Perfect. Mission more or less accomplished.

Update, mid-2013

The Bose speakers and/or AirPlay are a constant mild annoyance and disappointment. They disappear from the AirPlay devices list regularly even when on. They respond to play/pause and other commands very slowly (3-4 seconds). And they turn off and become unavailable too quickly when running on battery power only, and take 20-30 seconds to become available after waking.

I thought these were normal typical wireless audio limitations to live with until I tried a Jawbone JAMBOX, which respond almost instantly, never disappears, stays available for hours, and not only wakes up instantly but connects automatically. Hmmm.