Boston Acoustics has joined the AirPlay speaker parade with the MC200 Air, a system that also features the ability to stream wireless audio from DLNA-compatible devices. From the visual design to the audio performance, there's nothing wrong here, but the MC200 just doesn't do enough to stand out from the pack.
The setup process isn’t as streamlined as some of the competition, and bass lovers will want to steer clear – this system doesn't offer much of a sub-bass presence, but it also doesn't distort on deep bass, even at high volumes. The overall sound here is crisp and bright, while the user experience is, after the initial setup, friendly enough. However, at its £250 price point, the MC200 Air isn't all that compelling, especially when compared with competing AirPlay systems.
The MC200 Air (pictured above next to an iPod) measures 400 x 134 x 152mm (WxDxH) and is available in glossy back or white plastic finishes. Its long front panel is dominated by a metallic speaker grille, with the Boston Acoustics logo below it. On the top panel, a series of buttons, backlit in various colours, are present, including power, mute, Air and Aux (choose either to switch your sound source), and volume – seeing this many physical controls on an AirPlay system is a rarity.
A 3.5mm Aux input and a headphone jack are located on the left side panel. Along the rear panel there’s a power adapter connector, along with an Ethernet port, USB port, setup button, and a flip-up, rubberised plastic antenna. The speaker unit is also wall-mountable using the two keyhole mounts on the back panel.
Setting up the MC200 Air requires far more effort than most popular, competing AirPlay models. The process is pretty much a one-time thing, but because many AirPlay docks have free apps that do all the legwork for you, the MC200 Air starts to feel primitive here.
There are three different methods you can use to set up the system for wireless play. According to the manual, the "easiest" involves pressing the setup button on the rear panel and then pressing the WPS button on your router, then waiting. That's fine, but you shouldn't have to even walk over to your router to set up an AirPlay system.
The other methods involve doing all the work that more user-friendly speaker systems take care of for you: Logging onto a Boston Acoustics network setup web page, clicking on Profile Configuration, and selecting a few different options from pull-down menus. Again, the process is not confusing, and it's a one-time thing, but it is an annoyance that rivals don’t bog you down with, for sure.
You can also use the MC200 Air as a wired Ethernet speaker – you'll still stream via your iOS device or computer's AirPlay functionality, but connecting to your router via Ethernet means a more reliable signal. That said, AirPlay has improved since its debut roughly two years ago, and the wireless streaming quality is now pretty solid. You also have the option to connect your iOS device via the USB charging cable that came with it, and get a digital quality direct signal (or just charge the device). You can connect a 3.5mm stereo cable to the headphone jack as well, but no cable is included, unfortunately.
If you have a DLNA device, you can also stream shared content that way – most of the set up process will occur on your specific device, and not so much on the MC200 Air itself.
The MC200 Air does not distort on tracks with deep bass at high volumes, but it seems to be employing some digital signal processing (DSP) to limit the deep bass frequencies as the music gets louder. This prevents distortion, but the end result is a speaker system that, at top volumes, sounds as if it lacks sub-bass response on any level.
The thunderous electronic drum hits on the Knife's "Silent Shout" sound like fingernails tapping on a tabletop. Lower the volume a bit, and things start to beef up in terms of bass response. This is because the distortion threat is more or less eliminated, so there's no need for heavy DSP. Even at modest volumes, the MC200 Air doesn't sound terribly powerful in the low frequency department, but it delivers a sound that's much closer to the ideal.
With certain music genres that rely less on sub-bass elements, the MC200 Air sounds crisp and powerful, with a rich delivery of the lower frequencies that would be covered by a woofer, not a sub-woofer. Arcade Fire's "Rococo" offers a nice example of a song with rich low-end content that doesn't creep too far into the sub-bass realm, and at mid-to-high volumes, the MC200 Air delivers this track cleanly and crisply, with clear vocals and a nice edge to the strumming of the guitars.
Bill Callahan's unique baritone vocals on "Drover" sound excellent on the MC200 Air, nicely combining the richness of his voice with its treble edge, while the pounding drumbeat in the background never overtakes the mix. On some systems with seriously boosted bass, both his vocals and the drums can sound too rounded and dull-edged, and the mix gets muddy.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West's "No Church in the Wild," the vocals are once again crisp and prominently featured, but the kick drum loop and the sub-bass synth hits sound a little too thin, robbed of their low frequency power, and the net result is a less compelling overall mix. In other words, this is not a system for lovers of deep bass and the genres that employ it, like most hip hop and electronic music. The MC200 Air is a far more appropriate choice for genres like folk, jazz, and some less bass-heavy rock.
Classical tracks, like John Adams' "The Chairman Dances," benefit from the clearly defined, crisp high-mid and high frequency sound signature of the system. The lower register strings and percussion, however, can sound slightly lacking. It's not nearly as thin sounding as the Jay-Z and Kanye West track, but the resonant, rounded sound you might expect to hear from a large drum hit or the bowing of large stringed instruments is dialled back a bit here. On the upside, the wooden percussive content – in the high frequencies – sounds amazingly bright and clear, and helps to add a certain sense of spatial depth.
At £250, the MC200 Air is on par with other systems in its price range, like the Audyssey Audio Dock Air, but the best AirPlay systems are priced much higher. Why do such expensive systems seem to deliver such relatively inexpensive sounding audio? AirPlay, as a feature, is not inexpensive to employ, so much of the price you pay is just to have that built-in wireless functionality, making a speaker system that would normally be priced far lower suddenly ascend to the £250 range.
If AirPlay's wireless functionality is the main draw for you, then there are some far more powerful, better sounding systems – although you will pay more for them. The Klipsch Gallery G-17 Air offers a refined, near-audiophile Airplay experience, while, if we really climb the price ladder, it's hard to say anything bad about the intense Bowers & Wilkins A7, except that it costs £700 (yes, ouchie).
There are other options such as the JBL OnBeat Xtreme, a Bluetooth speaker that outperforms most of the more affordable AirPlay options (which, believe it or not, the MC200 Air is one of). The OnBeat Xtreme’s RRP is £399, but you can currently pick it up for £250 – the same price as the MC200 Air.
In the end, for the price, the MC200 Air performs at about the same level as other comparatively affordable AirPlay systems, but make no mistake: You'll be paying a premium for the freedom of wireless audio, not for stellar audio performance.
Manufacturer and Model
Boston Acoustics MC200 Air
Wireless Remote Control