Best AirPlay speakers: 5 budget options to choose from

15th Dec 2013 | 16:06

Best AirPlay speakers: 5 budget options to choose from

Our pick of budget AirPlay speakers

Apple's AirPlay wireless audio technology is convenient but expensive.

We check out five inexpensive options to use with your iPad, iPhone or iPod touch.

1. AQ Audio SmartSpeaker

Price: £160 GBP / $260 USD

AQ Audio SmartSpeaker

The SmartSpeaker lives up to its name by being one of the cleverest speakers on test here, though it isn't quite so smart when it comes to sound quality.

First: the features. Not only does it pack a built-in battery, it can also create its own Wi-Fi network , so you can actually use AirPlay out of range of your wireless router - it's more like a Bluetooth speaker, but with the convenience of AirPlay. You can also set up several SmartSpeakers to act together as a kind of surround-sound system, though only PCs and Macs can take full advantage of that feature.

While those features work well, the sound quality was a bit disappointing. There's a good amount of detail, but it's rather flat and lifeless. Bass was a particular weak spot, and the whole soundscape feels constrained. We like the fact that you can connect directly to this AirPlay speaker, but its overall output isn't so great.

2. Pure Contour 200i Air

Price: £120 GBP / $200 USD

Pure Contour 200Di Air

Big, natural sound is the order of the day with the Contour 200i Air - which should be no surprise, since it's just about the largest of the speakers here. It's the only one to offer a dock connector for charging devices or playing music from non-Wi-Fi iPods (though it's the older 30-pin dock connector, not the newer Lightning).

It's smart in terms of looks, but it's in sound quality that the Pure Contour D200i really impresses, with gloriously open audio that can easily fill a room. The treble is bright and crisp (it can get a bit harsh at high volumes, but is great at normal levels), and bass is punchy and refined, although not very deep.

It's easy to set up, and though it offers no extra features outside of playing music, it can be found really cheap online. A lovely, though not quite perfect-sounding, speaker that does offer a good audio range.

3. Philips Fidelio DS3880W

Price: £140 GBP / $230 USD

Philips Fidelio DS3880W

The Fidelio DS3880W (also known as the SoundRing) is probably the smartest design of the AirPlay units we have here. The circular speaker sits on a docking base that charges its built-in battery, so it's easy to grab and carry around the house.

In terms of sound quality, it's broadly very good, with loads of detail, and bass that's both punchy and deep. However, it can sound a little robotic, especially in the mid-range, lacking the natural, broad sound of the Pure Contour 200i Air. And while bass is delivered in good amounts, it's not perfect in its definition - it can sound a little mushy at times.

The Fidelio is also a little bit more fiddly to set up than some speakers here, but the end result is a compact, smart, nice-sounding AirPlay option. The sound quality isn't the best, but we love the design and portability of the Fidelio.

4. JBL Soundfly

Price: £160 GBP / $260 USD

JBL Soundfly

It would be fair to call the SoundFly the most unusual speaker in this group test. It's smaller than all the others, and its plug is directly on the back of the speaker, so you just stick the whole thing right into the socket. The idea is to keep it out of the way in a kitchen or a similar situation, and it works pretty well.

Unfortunately, the audio quality has been compromised somewhat by the design. It's high-end heavy, but that high-end is a little shrill and unnatural. Bass is similarly odd - it's really pokey and forced, as if trying to compensate for not being able to resonate through the floor or table.

That said, there's decent levels of detail, and it sounds better than a lot of cheap docks. A good option for the space-conscious, but not if you've got pure sound quality in mind. The clever design makes it great as a kitchen-type speaker, but it compromises the audio.

5. Gear4 Airzone Series 3

Price: £140 GBP / $230 USD

Gear4 Airzone Series 3

The AirZone Series 3 from Gear4 is among the cheapest AirPlay speakers, but it's pretty strong when it comes to the audio. The balance in particular is excellent, with bass, mid-range and treble all complementing each other perfectly - nothing is either overwhelming or underserved.

The only problem is that this well balanced sound is more compressed than that from the Pure Contour 200i, feeling less full despite offering slightly better performance in the mid-range. The bass isn't as impactful as the Pure either, but the treble is nice and clear, and the mid-range is genuinely warm.

The AirZone Series 3 is light on extra features (in that it doesn't offer any at all), but it's quick to set up, it's easy to use and it'll fit nicely in just about any home. Gear4's speaker offers superb balance, but we found that the output sounded a tad compressed.

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