Back in January, Judie and I spent some time with the folks from Gear4. We got to know a bit more about the company and its vision, spent some time with their current products, and we even got to see one or two items that were not yet released. We were not, of course, allowed to photograph or discuss the latter items, but were assured that when they were released we would get to discuss and potentially review them.
Gear4 were good on their word; they sent over one of their new AirZone Series 1 wireless home stereo systems. At $299.99, it is the same price as the Sonos Play:3 and half the price of the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air we reviewed some months ago. That’s a good price for an AirPlay-enabled stereo system, but only if it sounds good.
Does it? Read on…
GEAR4 is proud to present AirZone Series 1, our first wireless home stereo system with Apple’s revolutionary new AirPlay technology. The stylish metal design and high gloss finish makes this one of GEAR4’s most premium speakers yet, and perfect for any home. Either dock your iPhone, iPod touch or iPad or use AirPlay to stream music wirelessly from anywhere in your home, with no loss in audio quality. It’s effortless to set-up, and delivers high performance sound to fill any room. With the AirZone Series 1 you can also stream music wirelessly from your PC or Mac using iTunes.
What’s In the Box:
Gear4 AirZone Series 1 AirPlay Speaker
The speaker makes a bold statement. With dimensions of 7″ by 7.55″ by 13.14″ and a weight of 6.17 lb., it is almost as large as the Sonos Play:5 and it stands out thanks to its silver color and striking black trim. Add in a curved design that is a significant departure from the commonly found angular design of most speakers these days, and the old-school volume knob on the top and the AirZone Series 1 easily distinguishes itself from an ever-more crowded field. That noted, the look is unique enough that you are either going to love it or you are going to hate it. I really don’t see much middle ground here. For the record… I love it.
It is not all good news, however. The speaker looks substantial, but it actually feels a lot less substantial than it appears. The plastic can be described as feeling a bit on the cheap side, and the speaker is surprisingly light for something that looks as substantial as it does. But my main issue is with the build of the speaker is the buttons on the top. In order to keep the lines clean and the look streamlined, Gear4 created buttons by “slicing” the plastic on the top on three sides. The result, of course, is a peninsula of plastic than can be depressed where the three cut sides come together. Don’t get me wrong, it works, but it feels cheap and some of the “buttons” make a loud, unsatisfying and cheap-sounding “click” when pressed.
And then there is the dock connector …The AirZone Series 1 is designed as an AirPlay dock but, of course, it also has a physical dock that allows you to play music directly from an iOS device. Unfortunately it is a fixed dock connector. That means it doesn’t have the flexibility we saw on the Sony dock we reviewed a few weeks ago (a feature that is good for protecting the most vulnerable part of an iOS device (read the full review)), nor does it have the ability to retract into the speaker and create clean lines, something we also saw on the Sony dock. Although to be fair, the Sony dock is neither AirPlay nor Bluetooth enabled, so its dock plays a far more prominent role.
There are two additional issues with the AirZone Series 1′s dock. The first is that I found it to hold devices at an angle that I found to be too steep for easy viewing. I would prefer if it were angled back or “reclined” a bit more.
Second, while the dock is designed to charge iOS devices even as it pulls music from them, I found this to be a hit or miss proposition. Devices often won’t properly charge without needing readjustment. In fact, I left my iPhone docked, and supposedly charging, one evening only to find it close to dead when I headed out the next morning. That’s a problem.
Then there is the remote control. It is a nice addition and, I guess a necessary one since one of the modes for this speaker is to have an iOS device connected, but it is one of the most unfriendly remotes I have used in a long time. Sure, it looks and feels like pretty much every other OEM remote you will find these day,s but it was difficult to press the buttons at times and the functionality wasn’t clear. Mix in the fact that the display on the speaker is just one line of text, and you can imagine how difficult it is to set the device up using the remote.
Fortunately this is an AirPlay-enabled device and, as such, you can have music streaming to it AND have your iOS device in hand thereby completely eliminating the need for a remote.
Let’s talk about AirPlay. I LOVE the idea. LOVE IT! And I LOVE streaming video from my iPad to an Apple TV-connected TV. It works well and is getting better and better. Still, when it comes to music, I’m still not entirely sold on the approach. Assuming you have a strong and consistent WiFi network (something you cannot always assume since WiFi itself can, at times, be finicky), you will still experience a lag between tapping the screen on your device and the “requested” change actually happening. It can, at times, be maddening. Mind you, this is not something that is exclusive to the AirZone Series 1, but the device did throw its hat into the ring with AirPlay, and it is the main selling point of this dock; as such it needs to be taken into consideration.
Finally let’s talk about sound. The sound coming from the AirZone Series 1 is good. I cannot, however, help but compare it to the sound from the aforementioned Sony speaker and, quite frankly, it doesn’t come close. The Sony speaker is louder, richer, and it offers more clarity. Things do improve if you spend some time playing with the various equalizer settings, but you still aren’t going to hear it and go “WOW! That’s incredible!” Then again, the Sony speaker has an MSRP of $299 and it offers no wireless connectivity. In other words you really aren’t comparing apples to apples, and if you listen to the AirZone without having something else to which to compare it to, then I suspect you will be quite happy.
Superior sound and contemporary design
Metal grille and high-gloss display area
Two woofers and high-efficiency tweeters
Effortless setup using the LCD display
Six audio equalizer settings
Dock charges your iPhone, iPod, or iPad
Auxiliary port lets you connect other audio devices
Here’s the bottom line. While I have been rather picky about a number of different aspects of the AirZone Series 1, I still think it is a decent speaker. I wanted to be blown away, but I wasn’t. At the same time, however, if you are looking for an AirPlay-enabled speaker dock, then it should be one that you consider. Just try to get to an Apple Store to check one out before buying, so that you can make sure you like the style, feel and, of course, the sound.
What I Like: Stands out from the crowd; AirPlay enabled; Old-school volume knob; Works with iPhone and iPad; Can be wireless, docked or use line-in
What Needs Improvement: One line of text makes setup a challenge; Device could be angled back a bit more for viewing; AirPlay is still wonky; Remote stinks; Dock charging can be finicky; Sound is good but not great