JBL Soundfly Air review

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In situ, with bottle of wine and delightfully filthy socket for scale. Yeah, but we don’t eat off the socket, right?

[UPDATE 7 Oct 2015: as people keep stumbling across this review, I have to add now that the Soundfly proved to be very flaky in long-term use, and an iOS update seemed to break it. It’s been sitting on a shelf ever since, as I can’t be bothered to faff around with it. I have moved on to a Pure Jongo T2, which I use exclusively with Bluetooth. Any form of wifi music streaming is just too much hassle.)

I’ve had a cheap plug-in iPhone/iPod speaker. It cost me around £26 in Asda, and it was alright, really. About the size of a radio, with a pair of 10cm speakers, it was a decent enough way of playing music and charging the device at the same time. With my iPhone 5, of course, I needed to use an adapter, and the big disadvantage with such a speaker is that your iPhone, if that’s what you’re using, is tethered to the speaker dock. It’s okay if you use an iPod with it, mine being a Nano, but control with the supplied remote was awkward (and impossible, once I’d dropped it in a sink full of water and it stopped working). I also dislike repeatedly using the Apple 30-pin connector – I really don’t think it’s a good design for constant plugging/unplugging. There’s a risk of damage to either the dock or the device. The one in my car is borked, and VW’s cost-to-replace is prohibitively expensive.

As to sound quality, that of course is a very subjective thing. For £26 you don’t expect much. It was alright, but I felt it tended to sound muddy and boomy down at the bottom   end, and much too boomy to play at louder volumes. On the other hand, spend 10x more and you can bet that the sound quality won’t be 10x better.

One of my key issues as a listener is that I most often want music in the kitchen when I’m working, and (rarely) want to still be able to hear as I move from room to room. Obviously the ideal solution for this kind of thing would be something like the Sonos system, which gives you a base unit and a range of satellite speakers. But that’s expensive, and my budget for home entertainment has to be rock bottom.

The problem with the cheap Asda speaker is that it sounds boomy at higher volumes. Shake-the-walls and disturb-the-neighbours boomy. And at lower volumes it becomes inaudible beneath the sound of kitchen appliances.

I’ve also had a cheap Bluetooth speaker. This one is much smaller, about the size of one of the smaller Jamboxes, but nowhere near as expensive. It cost around €49, but it doesn’t sound twice as good as the Asda speaker. In fact, it’s pretty useless for music altogether. It’s okay for speech/podcasts. There’s no low end to speak of, so it doesn’t boom at higher volumes. It distorts. Attempt to pump up the volume for music and it quickly sounds intolerably mushy. On the plus-side, the battery life of the speaker is pretty damn good.

Bluetooth connectivity means no cables, but it doesn’t give you much of an advantage over the tethered variety of speaker. The range of Bluetooth is fairly pathetic in my experience, and you quickly lose the connection at any distance over a couple of metres, when walls get in the way, or even the big sacks of water we call the human body. Although on paper Bluetooth has enough bandwidth for compressed audio, this particular speaker sounds a bit thin to my ears, which admittedly are not “golden”.

I’ve been wanting for a while to try an Airplay speaker, which would use the home wifi network to stream music from connected devices, without the range issues of Bluetooth.

Typically, even entry-level Airplay speakers cost more than Bluetooth. And so we get to the problem of price points. You’ve got the low end (£25-50); and then you’ve got the mid-range (£120-£300); and then you’ve got the high-end (£330–£1600). The range of prices extends at each price point, and the brands become more recognisable in terms of audio pedigree. At the top of the mid-range, you can get an entry-level Bose speaker. In the middle of the high end, you get brands like Marantz, B&W, and thence to silly money territory with Libratone or Bang and Olufsen.

My problem is that I can’t really justify going over £100 for listening to music in the kitchen. Marketing people like to put you in a box. For them, there is really no box between £50 and £120. So if you want to spend a little more than £50, you have to spend more than twice as much. That’s fucked up. I mean, we’re listening to 256kbps compressed audio files here. All you’re going to do by spending more money is reveal the limitations of the source, aren’t you? Combine that with the sound of the kettle and the electric mixer and the fan oven, and, well, at £300 you’re fucking kidding me. And, yes, I am looking at you with your £350 headphones listening to a 99p music track at 256kbps.

Anyway, I had £50 worth of vouchers and I sucked it up and bought a JBL Soundfly Air. It was reduced from £159 to £125. It’s somewhere between the ASDA speaker and the cheap Bluetooth speaker in size, and it offers 10 whole watts of music power. Looking at it, I reckon it’s worth around £75, but in marketing terms, £75 doesn’t exist. This is a few watts more than my Pure Evoke kitchen radio (single speaker model), but a lot less boomy. As with the Asda speaker, Pure give their radios a kind of “radiogram quality” with a bass boost which sounds like shit.

The odd thing about the Soundfly is that it plugs directly into a wall socket. Now, in a modern house with loads of sockets: wahey. In a 70s house with limited numbers of sockets, not so convenient, mainly because the Soundfly takes up a whole double socket because of its width. More on this in a moment.

Anyway, I have a socket in my kitchen that was home to my Pure radio and, given that I can stream radio from my Phone, iPad, or Mac, I decided to experiment with putting the Pure in a cupboard (for occasions when the broadband is flapping) and using the Soundfly as my kitchen radio and music player.

Set up was a bit of a pain, but you only have to do it once. You have to connect your phone to the Soundfly’s own wifi, load its IP configuration address in a browser, enter your own wifi network and password, and then click connect before reconnecting your phone to your own wifi again. It worked on the second try, and since then (touch wood) has been unproblematic.

It appears as an output option on your phone, or via iTunes on a Mac, and there’s a second or two of delay before the sound is audible.

Soundwise, it’s an improvement over both the Asda and the cheap Bluetooth speaker (as you’d hope). It’s crisp and clear and undistorted even at high volumes. It does in fact sound pretty loud, far too loud even with the kettle boiling and the mixer running etc. So that’s good. There’s not a whole lot of bottom end, but I’d rather that than the booming flubbiness of the Asda speaker or the Pure Evoke.

Airplay seems a lot less flaky than Bluetooth, and I like the fact that I can start listening to the radio on my phone in my bedroom in the morning, and then just flip it over to the Soundfly as I’m walking down the stairs. The Soundfly has a useful sleep mode, dropping off after 10 minutes of inactivity (no standby lights) but waking up within seconds when you connect to it.

As to the socket problem, I tried connecting it to a triple plug adapter, which worked quite well, the only problem being that the speakers were pointing at the wall rather than out into the house. It still sounded okay, with the sound reflecting from the wall, but I wasn’t sure if this would make sound travel to next door a bigger problem (my house being a semi). I had another sort of multi-plug adapter that also plugs directly into a socket, but this tended to fall out with the weight of the Soundfly on it.

It’s a shame that it’s not technically possible (without a Sonos-type base unit) to have more than one Soundfly. It would be an ideal solution for multi-room audio (without ridiculously high volumes) to have one of these in, say, two downstairs rooms, streaming music over the same wifi network. A couple of Sonos units (with one of them needing to be connected directly to the router via ethernet) would set you back around £500. And at that price – along with the sound of my fan oven, the buzz of the refrigerator, the Kitchen Aid mixer, the sizzling of the frying pan, and the kettle coming to the boil – you will hear the sound of me laughing in your face.

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