In the past twelve months, dozens of hi-fi speakers with built-in Wi-Fi networking have popped up on electronics store shelves. While our gold standard is still Sonos’s excellent PLAY:5 speaker, we were recently impressed by Libratone’s Lounge and Live. See all speaker reviews.
Pioneer’s September 2012 announcement of its XW-SMA range of wireless speakers caught our attention, though; three compact models aim for high-end sound and simple operation. We’re taking a look at the premium XW-SMA4 first. Take a look at our Braven 650 review too.
Pioneer XW-SMA4: Design, features and setup
The Pioneer XW-SMA4 is the largest of the Pioneer XW-SMA family, but it’s not massively larger than the smaller SMA1 and SMA4 — measuring 360 x 210 x 170mm and 5kg, it’s heavy but still compact. See also Group test: what's the best speaker set?
The speaker is finished in a deep, glossy black on its sides and top, with the same gloss black on the speaker’s front grille. The internal surround, where you’ll find the XW-SMA4’s status lights and non-tactile touch-sensitive buttons, is finished in a matte dark grey plastic.
The same matte finish covers the back, which has a flip-up Wi-Fi antenna, power plug, Ethernet wired network port, powered USB port and 3.5mm auxiliary input, which can be used to connect an iPod, iPad, iPhone or other smartphone or tablet. The USB port will play back audio from Apple products, but can only be used to power or charge non-Apple devices.
Beyond the front panel’s power, input toggle and volume buttons, the only other button on the Pioneer XW-SMA4 is on the back. It’s a dual-mode Wi-Fi networking switch; press it for a second to start the speaker’s Wi-Fi Push Button Setup (WPS) mode, after which you can press the corresponding WPS button on your router to connect the speaker to your home network. Alternatively, pressing the XW-SMA4’s networking button for a longer period restarts the speaker in a Wireless Direct mode, creating an ad-hoc Wi-Fi network which you can connect your smartphone or tablet to directly — this is intended to be used where no infrastructure, Internet-connected Wi-Fi network exists.
Setting up the Pioneer XW-SMA4 is very simple. Instructions for installing the speaker via a PC or Mac, iOS or Android device are all included — they involve using either the Ethernet port or the rear USB port — but we opted for the incredibly basic WPS push-button procedure. After pressing the WPS button on the rear of the SMA4, we did the same on our Wi-Fi router — and you should find a WPS button on most Wi-Fi routers made within the last few years, or at the very least a web-based menu option — and the whole process was completed in under 30 seconds.
After the setup process is complete, the SMA speaker is connected to your Wi-Fi network. You can stream music wirelessly using a Wi-Fi enabled PC or Mac over DLNA (PC) or AirPlay (Mac), or via AirPlay on a mobile Apple device — we did the majority of our testing with an iPhone 4.
Pioneer XW-SMA4: Performance and sound quality
You can choose two power-on modes for the Pioneer XW-SMA range of speakers. The first, default, mode is a low-power standby mode, which takes around 30-40 seconds to power the speaker up and connect to an already-setup Wi-Fi network. The second mode reduces the power-on time to under 5 seconds in our testing, at the cost of slightly higher standby power usage. For convenience, at an extra cost of a couple of dollars a year in power, we opted for the fast-on power mode.
When you’ve got the XW-SMA4 turned on, it appears as an AirPlay device whenever you’re running iTunes on your Mac or PC, or when running any other DLNA-compatible audio program like Windows Media Player. Similarly, whenever you’re running an audio playback app on your iOS device, the triangle-in-a-rectangle AirPlay icon appears. Press the icon, select the Pioneer XW-SMA4 speaker, and within a second, audio begins to play through the speaker.
Excellent sound quality is a hallmark of the Pioneer brand. The company prides itself on paying more attention and spending more time and money on getting the best sound out of its speakers, and the XW-SMA4 is no different. We presumed the ‘Tuned by Andrew Jones’ label on the rear was little more than a clever piece of marketing — he’s Pioneer’s chief sound engineer, responsible for its $10,000+ hi-fi speakers — but the XW-SMA4 genuinely impressed us. Distortion is nonexistant, even when the speaker is playing music at its uncomfortably loud maximum volume.
Bass is excellent for a speaker of the XW-SMA4’s size and design. The speaker has a 5-inch forward-firing woofer built into the centre of its cabinet, and at low to high volumes it’s able to lend an excellent level of low-end punch to music, far more so than we expected it to. It’s able to shake the floor with especially low sub-bass kicks at moderate to high volumes, which is a phenomenon we haven’t experienced before with a speaker of this size.
Treble and mid-range performance are equally strong, with a musical signature that’s crisp and sharp with slightly down-played mid-high frequencies. Turn the XW-SMA4 up and you’ll hear all the detail you could expect to in your streaming music tracks, with the unexpected added extra of appreciably strong bass.
This is a sound that’s excellent for almost all the music tracks we tried out on the Pioneer XW-SMA4 — it’s genuinely one of the best speakers we’ve heard in the wireless music category, with what is undoubtedly the best bass response. Our only proviso is that the bass can be slightly overpowering when you’re listening to speech-heavy Internet radio or podcasts — if there was a bass-attenuating Loudness switch we could toggle for listening to talk-back audio, we’d have absolutely no complaints.
We did find that the XW-SMA4 speaker’s wireless network reception was generally strong, with good range that was always the equal of any laptop, smartphone or tablet we’ve tested in the same setting. The Wi-Fi status lightcan get annoying, though, as it only stays solid when the Wi-Fi signal is near full strength — otherwise it flashes, which is distracting. We had the XW-SMA4 connected perfectly and playing audio back perfectly when the light was flashing — although it’s useful to tell where the best placement for the speaker is, we’d appreciate the ability to dim or disable the flashing once we were confident of an acceptably-strong Wi-Fi signal.