Bowers & Wilkins is now several products deep into its consumer-level headphone and speaker line, and as pricey as these offerings are, they're nothing compared to the high-fidelity speakers B&W manufactures for recording studios and living rooms of the rich and famous.
The latest addition to the B&W line-up is the Apple AirPlay-equipped A5, a £399 black-and-metallic rectangular speaker that delivers powerful wireless audio. At moderate levels, the A5 is a joy to listen to, and even at high volumes, it's generally a solid performer, though some deep bass tracks distort at maximum volume. Setting the A5 up is a piece of cake thanks to a free app, and the design is, like most Airplay docks – and indeed B&W products – simple and easy on the eyes.
The minimalist approach to Bowers & Wilkins' speaker docks has, for better or worse, become the default design scheme for almost all AirPlay docks – black cloth grilles and metallic highlights with very few, if any, buttons. It's almost as if Apple demands this style of design for AirPlay docks, but B&W were among the first, if not the first, to implement the look.
The rounded rectangular contour of the A5 will immediately call to mind both the B&W MM-1 computer speakers and the Zeppelin Mini, as will the thin metallic band wrapped around the middle section of the system, which houses a tiny status LED. Pressing on the band's left side powers the system on or off, and there are volume controls on the right side of the band (see the image to the right). The black speaker grille cloth hides two 20 Watt 1in aluminium tweeters and two 20 Watt 4in mid/low-range drivers.
Despite being equipped with AirPlay, it would have been nice for the A5 to have a physical docking area to charge iPhones, iPods, and iPads, like the Zeppelin Mini has. There is, at least, a 3.5mm input on the rear panel (but no 3.5mm cable included), alongside the Ethernet connection (for wired connection to a router), a Reset pinhole button, and the connection for the included power adapter.
All of this is situated below a bass port that moves air produced by the speakers out of the system, helping to improve bass response. The rubberised bottom of the system also ensures that, despite delivering some serious bass response, the A5 won't dance across table tops and bookshelves, and plunge to an early death.
Unfortunately, the included remote control (see below) is the same remote B&W has used for years now – it looks quite nice, but its egg shaped exterior makes it hard to operate at times, and the battery compartment can be very difficult to remove and replace. The remote has controls for Power, Volume, Play/Pause, Track Forward/Backward, and switching between the Aux input and AirPlay devices.
Setting up the A5 is simple with iOS devices – you download a free app, and it walks you through the brief process. A setup app can also be downloaded from B&W's website to configure AirPlay on Macs and PCs.
Unfortunately, the A5 has some trouble with deep bass frequencies at top volumes. Whether using AirPlay or the Aux input connection, the A5 vibrated and slightly distorted at near-maximum volumes when playing the Knife's "Silent Shout," a song with tremendously deep bass.
Since the system uses digital signal processing, this is a bit surprising, as DSP tends to squash challenging dynamic content at top volumes to avoid distortion. On songs with lesser low-end presence, the system still occasionally vibrates at maximum volume – not distorting, but audibly rattling due to the vibrations of its own drivers. Basically, the A5 can get louder than its frame can handle, but it seems unlikely that you'd regularly be listening at such high levels.
Happily, at moderate-to-very high (but not maximum) volume levels, these issues disappear, and we're left with a powerful speaker system. Low frequencies are robust, mids articulate, and the highs crisp and punchy. The A5 sounds excellent whether playing dense rock mixes like the end sequence to Grizzly Bear's "Yet Again," or more dynamic, instrumental material, like John Adams' "The Chairman Dances."
On the classical piece by Adams, the mids seem to get the bulk of the spotlight, but high frequency content like the wooden percussion isn't muffled or hidden. The low frequency content, like the big drum hits at the end, is delivered with a focus more on the low-mids and the attack rather than the sub-bass frequencies. This means the A5 manages to sound powerful without being muddy, or overly weighted towards sub-bass frequencies, like many systems are in the “Age of More Bass.”
This focus on the lower mids rather than the sub-bass frequencies is most apparent on hip hop tracks like Jay-Z and Kanye West's "No Church in the Wild." The attack of the kick drum loop is powerful and delivered with a serious thump, but the deep bass synth that accents the beat has more midrange presence and less deep bass resonance than it would have on a bass-heavy system.
If you're looking for a thunderous, booming system, the A5 is a bit more refined, and probably not what you seek – check out the Beats by Dr. Dre Beatbox Portable if you want to hear more serious sub-bass content on a wireless dock. Those seeking a more measured, even response, will enjoy the A5's balanced delivery. However, no one will enjoy the distortion at top volumes.
If £400 seems a little pricey for a system that distorts, even if only on certain tracks and at high volumes – it is. If you can afford an AirPlay system in this range but don't want to deal with distortion, the Klipsch Gallery G-17 Air offers distortion-free performance at top volumes and a refined, B&W-like frequency response.
That said, the A5 is undoubtedly a high quality system at moderate-to-high volumes, and its sleek, simple design will blend well in a variety of settings. The distortion is a downer, but for most genres, it will not be an issue, especially if you aren't constantly blasting the system at maximum volume.