The Pioneer A3 does it all – it's a wireless speaker that streams audio via Apple's AirPlay, as well as via DLNA, and other standards including a direct wireless feature for when there is no Wi-Fi network around. As if this versatility weren't impressive enough, the speaker is portable and water resistant as well. No wonder it costs £270!
Alas, if you were expecting the A3 to also sound excellent – well, it doesn't sound awful, but the price you pay is for its feature set, not its magnificent audio. Deep bass lovers and purists seeking accurate audio performance should look elsewhere. Outdoor music lovers seeking a poolside speaker system that has a built-in rechargeable battery and excellent wireless functionality – read on.
Visually, the 320 x 145 x 180mm (WxDxH) and 3.5kg Pioneer A3 is, well, a bit dull. It's not ugly, which is good, but you won't look at this thing and immediately salivate over the design like you might with, say, the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air.
That's fine, though – the A3's real design strength is in its versatility. The black front panel of the system is as nondescript as it appears in the images accompanying this review, hiding two 3in mid-range drivers and a single 1in tweeter. Along the left side of the lower front panel are LED status indicators for power, input, network, and battery.
To the right of the same section are capacitive touch controls that can be a bit annoying to operate. You tap on the right, and the status indicators change on the left. The LED indicators look like they could be buttons, too, and until you memorise what different blinking lights and colours mean, you'll likely be keeping the Quick Start Guide handy.
On top of this, the A3 takes a lot longer to power up than a typical system, and it sometimes leaves you wondering whether you pressed the actual power button or mistakenly tapped the LED thinking it was the power button, because nothing seems to happen for a while. In other words, the A3 is a victory of versatility in design, but not as much of a coup in terms of simplicity or ease of use. It's not impossible to use by any means, but setting it up for the various wireless streaming possibilities isn't always an obvious process.
The back panel houses an antenna to aid streaming, as well as the connection for the power supply/battery charger, a 3.5mm Aux input, an Ethernet connection (for wired router playback), and a USB connection (for setting up AirPlay, as well as charging or wired playback). All of these connections have rubber, waterproof snap-shut covers over them.
Pioneer includes a cheap feeling remote control with the A3, with membrane buttons for Power, Play/Pause, Input, Track Forward/Backward, and Volume. It would be nice to see full menu navigation on the remote, but chances are you'll control things on the actual device you're streaming audio from, and the remote will only be of secondary use. The free ControlApp, available from Apple's App Store and Google Play, allows access to basic controls that further make the limited remote a non-issue.
Pioneer estimates the battery life of the A3 at roughly 5 hours on a full charge, but results will vary depending on how you use the system.
The A3 is pretty much unrivalled in terms of its wireless streaming capabilities. Like the Libratone Zipp, it has a built-in Wi-Fi streaming function that allows you to play music directly from your device even when there is no Wi-Fi network available. (Thus far, the Zipp and the A3 are the only speakers we've tested with this unique feature). It also has Apple's AirPlay functionality for iOS devices and computers with iTunes, as well as HTC Connect and DLNA streaming. Basically, aside from Bluetooth, you can stream wireless audio via most popular methods to the A3.
This is all very good news, because the A3 costs £270, and that's a lot of money – especially if the system doesn't sound like a near-£300 system. The A3 doesn't sound awful, but its bass response lacks much presence or power. It has a decent focus on low-mid frequencies, but almost no deep low frequency presence. At this price, you'd expect a bit more oomph from the bass – and you'd hope there wouldn't be any distortion.
Sadly, there is. Both The Knife's "Silent Shout" and Thom Yorke's "Cymbal Rush" distort substantially at maximum volumes. In addition to this, the A3 employs digital signal processing (DSP), and the dynamics noticeably change as the speaker gets louder. Usually, this manipulation of the mix is to help prevent the speaker from distorting. But in this case, the distortion still occurs, and thus the DSP is simply another hindrance holding back the quality of the sound.
Again, let us make the point that the A3 does not sound awful. In fact, it can get quite loud for a speaker this size, and on less challenging material with no deep bass content, you probably won't encounter distortion. Classical music, like John Adams' "The Chairman Dances" sounds bright and clear on the A3, although sometimes the lower register strings and percussion get lost in the mix due to the weak bass response.
Basically, the A3 sounds more like a sub-£150 speaker system, unless you are listening to rock or some pop music that has all of its bass content pushed into the low-mids, which are dutifully represented. But if the music you like has a lot of deep lows, like much electronic and hip hop music – and plenty of pop, these days – you are not going to hear much of it. Deep bass thuds on electronic tracks sound thin at moderate volumes and distort at higher ones.
With all of this in mind, I can recommend the A3 for fans of certain styles of rock, pop, jazz, and other genres that tend to have primarily low-mid presence rather than sub-bass in terms of low-end – think of an acoustic upright bass or electric bass versus a deep bass synth hit in a dance track. If the music you favour is more in the natural bass instrument realm, the A3 will be a better performer for you.
The A3 is not on the level of a typical near-£300 speaker system. It's true, however, that many AirPlay docks are not – it simply costs a lot to implement this technology, and thus you pay more for it on the consumer end of things. A speaker of roughly £150 quality will get a much higher price tag because of AirPlay.
But the A3 doesn't stop at AirPlay – it supports many other wireless streaming methods, as we’ve mentioned. That, in addition to its rechargeable battery, portability, and water resistance, makes it useful – so useful that, perhaps, its audio quality is not a huge deal. If you want a wireless system to use in the backyard, near the pool, and at the next picnic, the A3 will get the job done, without any pesky massive batteries. It just won't sound majestic doing so.
Another portable wireless option with a more stylish edge to it is the slightly more expensive (by £60), previously mentioned Libratone Zipp. If you need more bass, consider the Beats by Dr Dre Beatbox Portable, which is also a tad more expensive (£30 more). And if all of these seem a little big and pricey, you can cut down on size and money spent with the solid-performing Jawbone Jambox, a compact, portable Bluetooth speaker. For the price, however, the A3 doesn't disappoint, as long as you understand why it is priced the way it is – for its features and convenience, not its excellent audio performance.
Manufacturer and Product
Pioneer A3 XW-SMA3-K
Wireless Remote Control
2 (10W + 10W)
AirPlay, DNLA, HTC Connect, Wi-Fi, Wireless Direct, iPod, iPhone, iPad