If you read the site, then you know that I love my Sonos audio system; you also know I am an OS X and iOS guy. Still, I’m always on the lookout for the next awesome home audio solution. That’s why I was pleased to have the opportunity to speak with a number of the key players froma few weeks ago.
Phorus, and their signature Play-Fi wireless technology, are poised to challenge your assumptions about home audio on every level. The system is simple to set up, sounds great, offers flexibility with regard to connectivity, is priced to be accessable, can grow as your needs do and, unlike Apple’s proprietary (and often wonky) AirPlay, Play-Fi is designed for Android with plans to have it “platform agnostic” in the relatively near future.
Let’s take a look at the various system components and how it all fits together.
First up, in order to understand Phoros’ offerings you need to understand just what Play-Fi is … and what it isn’t. ()
The company explains Play-Fi this way:
Play-Fi products have the latest Wi-Fi technology, 802.11n, built right in. Your music goes anywhere your network does, at lightning speed.
Multi-Room Streaming: Add speakers, link them up, and hear music everywhere. Or, have people stream their own songs to separate rooms at the same time.
No Hassle Connect: Instantly connect any Play-Fi product to your existing home network. No need to go near your router or even touch the speakers.
Advanced Audio Sync: Playback from linked speakers, regardless of distance, is perfectly synchronized, without lags, echoes, or any degradation in audio quality.
In this regard, Play-Fi may sound an awful lot like Sonos. There are, however, some key differences. First off, Sonos is both a hardware and a software system combined. Like Apple’s approach to controlling both the hardware and the software side of things, if you want to use the Sonos streaming system then you’ll need to buy Sonos hardware. For some, that is exceptionally limiting. And sure, you can AirPlay enable your Sonos system, but it is (and will likely remain) a closed and pricey system.
Play-Fi, on the other hand, is a technology that will roll out to numerous systems.
While it is baked into the initial Phorus hardware offerings, it will eventually, in the not-so-distant-future, be found in systems from other hardware manufacturers. I suspect this was always the plan, but it is even more the case now that Phorus is owned by DTS.
So, from the very start, when you compare Sonos and Phorus you have the “Open System” vs “Closed System” debate going. It is no surprise then that Phorus is initially rolling out for Android, although that is only part of the story!
More on that in a bit.
The “multi-room streaming and audio sync” are two things I have really enjoyed about my Sonos system. I love being able to have one room streaming music, and then add the same music to another room when I move. I also love how Elana can listen to one thing (often really bad music) when working out downstairs, while I listen to something else (much better music) in another room.
The Phorus system offers this same flexibility. When I heard the system in the demo suite in Manhattan, it was clear that the audio-sync functionality works perfectly!
And while I am drawing the inevitable line between Phorus and Sonos, let’s talk a bit about setup. While I wouldn’t say either system is difficult to set up, the Phorus system is far more user-friendly.
Here’s why …
If I have to reset my Sonos system, then I need to go into the app on my computer or handheld device, “ask” to connect to a room and then … go TO that room and press two buttons on the speaker. And while that isn’t complicated, it does mean that in my house I end up running from room to room to room. And lest you think this need only happen once, I have had a number of times when I’ve had to do a full reset and the full “Sonos house run”. Again, it isn’t a big deal, but it is a deal.
The situation is different with the Phorus system. To set it up, you place the speakers and receivers in the rooms you want and plug them in. You then fire up the free app on your Android device — smartphone, tablet or Kindle fire — and… set up each room. That’s right, everything is done right from the app. There’s no need to run anywhere.
It is a little thing, but little things matter!
And as for the sound… Play-Fi streams high-quality audio that puts Bluetooth to shame, because unlike Bluetooth the audio is not compressed when it is sent to the speakers or receivers. The company refers to it was “lossless”. All I know is that it sounded great when I heard it in New York!
So let’s talk a bit about the various hardware components.
There is the $199 PS1 speaker. Here’s how the company describes it:
Introducing the smart, great sounding, wireless Phorus PS1 Speaker. One can fill a room. A few can fill your house. And all of them work perfectly with Android.
Custom Design: PS1 Speakers are custom designed to deliver rich, full sound from a remarkably compact package. Their looks blend in, but the audio that comes out is anything but shy.
360° Sound: Two wide-dispersion custom transducers and a finely tuned, computer modeled energy port are precisely positioned to deliver room filling sound in a 360 degree spherical pattern.
High Quality Audio: Source audio is streamed losslessly over Wi-Fi, avoiding the audio quality issues that stem from compression or shorter range solutions.
Loud and Clear: At an SPL of over 90dB, the PS1 Speaker is LOUD. Proprietary adaptive signal processing adjusts the speaker characteristics to optimize clarity as well as depth at every volume level.
When I first saw the speaker, it reminded me of the JBL OnStage speaker dock I once owned. And although I can’t say for sure, I can’t help but wonder if that may, in part, be the result of the fact that Dannie Lau, Founder and General Manger of Phorus did a good bit of work with JBL back in the day. Regardless, the speaker has a small footprint, an attractive design, and simple but functional controls.
I appreciate the fact that it is a wireless speaker, but how at the same time it offers a nice secure place for placing your smartphone or tablet if you want to go hands free. It supports both vertical and horizontal positioning, and thanks to the USB connection you can even charge your device as it sits there.
The speaker has advanced dual-core digital signal processor, 2 neodymium transducers and Dual Class D digital amplifiers. At just 5.5in x 8.3in x 6.2in, it doesn’t take up much room; it does, however, pump out great sound. As previously noted, the speaker uses 802.11n Wi-Fi, and in those situations where you don’t have good WiFi it also includes Bluetooth.
It is a nice unit, and at under $200 is a good value. This is especially the case when one considers that the Sonos Play:3 — the smallest speaker they offer — is $299!
And if you already have your own stereo system or a speaker dock you love you can still use the Play-Fi system. This is accomplished thanks to the $149 Phorus PR1 Receiver. () As the company explains:
Already have a great home audio system? Make it a great wireless home audio system. Stream high quality audio from an Android phone to your stereo with the elegant Phorus PR1 Receiver.
Pure audio in, direct audio out: Stream clean, lossless audio from your Android phone or tablet over Wi-Fi, and the Phorus PR1 Receiver outputs it directly to your system through the line-in jack.
Play-Fi network ready: Access your existing stereo from the Play-Fi app, and link it to other Play-Fi enabled devices as part of a whole-home audio experience.
Slim, low profile design: The sleek, unobtrusive PR1 Receiver blends easily into any room environment.
That means that for as little as $149 you can begin leveraging the power of Play-Fi in your home. And since we have been looking at price comparisons, it is worth noting that the Sonos solution for this (the Sonos Connect) is $349.
As mentioned in the introduction, the Play-Fi system is initially rolling out as an Android-powered system. That means a free Android App is available to control the system once you install it in your home. Unlike Sonos however, the app does not simply control the system. While Sonos is controlled with the smartphone, tablet or computer app but it streams music from your computer or one of the many internet music services it supports, the Play-Fi system takes the music that is already on your Android device or the music that can stream through your Android device, and sends it to the Phorus system using Play-Fi.
That is a key difference and means, among other things, that the system does not rely on you having a connection to the net. Put another way, with the Phorus system you CAN stream through your handheld, but you can also stream from it.
And while the system is rolling out with Android apps, it will eventually be available on other platforms. The goal, I was told, is to have a system that is platform agnostic, but (at least initially) Android’s openness, when combined with the huge potential in a largely underserved market, led the company to choose it as the platform for the initial rollout.
There is one aspect of the Play-Fi/Phorus system that is, at this point, unclear to me. For me, one of the advantages of the Sonos system over, say, AirPlay, is the way in which the system uses wireless technology. Rather than rely solely on the available WiFi system, Sonos’ mesh means each unit grabs the signal and rebroadcasts it.
Multiple ZonePlayers in a single household will connect to each other on a proprietary peer-to-peer synchronous mesh network using AES encryption. This network, known as SonosNet, allows music to be played simultaneously in separate zones. A single ZonePlayer or ZoneBridge must be wired to a network for access to LAN and Internet music sources. SonosNet 2.0 integrates MIMO on 802.11n hardware, providing a more robust connection. A consequence of this technology is that every Sonos player or bridge has to constantly keep up a wireless connection, even when in standby mode or connected by cable. Sonos devices do not have power buttons. The company claims that they consume between 4 and 8 Watts in standby mode. source
That’s important for someone like me, whose home is large and long, meaning that I suffer from WiFi issues at both ends.
The Play-Fi system also relays on the available WiFi system, but it does not offer this same “mesh” approach. It is unclear whether or not this will be an issue for me, and it will be one of the things I test when the review sample arrives in the next week or two.
In the meantime, it is worth noing that a new era of home audio is on the way. It brings flexibility, accessible pricing and the music you love. At a time when physically docking your device in order to enjoy your music seems… ancient… Phorus and Play-Fi offer a great solution.
I’m looking forward to checking it out and am seriously considering purchasing a system for our lake house; we’ll have more soon.