Freed of the 30-pin connectors, buttons and recessed charging ports required on traditional smartphone speaker docks, AirPlay device manufacturers are given the liberty to pursue more creative designs. We’ve seen some oddball shapes as the result.
This AirPlay speaker, the Altec Lansing inAir 5000, is one of the more striking specimens — it’s shaped like a giant axe head, with the “blade” pointing toward the sky.
The iOS-friendly music streamer doesn’t just look cool, it also happens to sound great as long as you keep it at moderate volumes. But it underperforms at higher volumes, and it suffers from the same network connectivity problems common in other AirPlay devices, making an otherwise solid product a bit of a disappointment.
The $500 inAir is some high-end hardware: The plain mesh-over-grill exterior hides two 3-inch Kevlar drivers, two 1-inch tweeters, and a 4-inch subwoofer. Volume controls are tucked away on one side, with AUX and headphone jacks on the opposite side. Two ports — an Ethernet port for get-gadget networking and a USB port for setup/iOS devices — are located on the back, along with power, reset, and Wi-Fi syncing buttons. Since the streamlined inAir doesn’t have any kind of display, your only status indicator is a multicolored LED that flashes from the bottom of the unit.
There’s a handsome remote included, too. But since your iOS device controls it just fine, the ridiculously stylish brushed-aluminum clicker is one of the best-looking accessories you’ll never need.
Connecting the inAir to a Wi-Fi network is easy if you have an iOS device. I plugged an iPod Touch into the USB port, downloaded Altec’s free app, and then hopped straight into the setup. This app-driven express lane saves a great deal of time and eliminates the tedium of setting up wireless networking. Old-school browser-based setup is also an option too, but it’s really more of a backstop — more AirPlay manufacturers are turning to app-based setup, which is a good thing, as the early days of AirPlay were messy in that department.
I breezed through the essentials, (network passwords, device names) in just a few minutes, and then started streaming from iTunes immediately.
At its core, the inAir is an iOS companion device. Even though it pairs with a Windows PC running iTunes just fine, most of the wireless DJing perks are reserved for an iOS experience.
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The inAir is a small step forward in terms of AirPlay connectivity. My review unit only dropped its connection a couple times a day while testing in my RF quagmire of an apartment. (Believe it or not, this is actually an improvement, given the relatively poor AirPlay experiences we’ve been dealing with over the past year.) But after a week of use, I noticed the inAir’s status LED had started flashing purple — it had dropped the network connection entirely. A hard reset and a quick re-run through the setup app got things cooking again. It’s a small hassle, but given the stability I enjoy with other wireless speakers, even one weekly instance like this is more than I’d prefer.
It’s too difficult to say whether these hiccups are due to the inAir device or the AirPlay platform, but it definitely has a negative impact on the convenience of wireless streaming.
So how does it sound? At mid-to-moderate volume level, the 8.5-pound speaker can deliver neighbor-waking bass. Thanks to some baked-in signal processing, the inAir produces that booming bass with virtually no distortion. The catch is that the DSP wizardry gets a little heavy-handed once you really pump up the volume.
Although the inAir gives you even more distortion-free volume once you crank it from “moderate” to “loud,” it does so at the cost of a lot of dynamic range. Basshounds will feel cheated with this duality, and hardcore audiophiles will undoubtedly take issue when the pleasantly sharp-edged highs, fully present at moderate volumes, grow flat and dull at higher volumes.
Warm mids across the board help sweeten an otherwise uneven package, but the issue is less about power and more about sophistication. At even moderate volume the inAir is great for blasting a room with the sounds of Hollywood explosions, bassy Skrillex warbles, or electric organ solos from The Black Keys. Concertos and Buddy Rich drum solos just sound loud and lack presence.
Good-but-not-great audio and wireless chops aren’t that uncommon these days, so it’s hard to say whether the inAir is a progression in the overall speaker space. However, as an AirPlay device it’s undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
The inAir doesn’t absolve AirPlay of its “work in progress” feel, but it does offer more in the way of stability than some of its first-gen competitors. If you don’t mind the occasional mid-playlist hiccup, aren’t too picky about EQing and are itching to burn $500, the inAir is a good investment. If you crave absolute wireless stability or a truly transparent audio experience, skip it.