We’ve been busting Google’s chops for quite some time here and on Gizmodo about wireless music playback. Apple’s AirPlay system is becoming a standard not only for Apple’s computers and iOS devices (which can even stream apps that lack native AirPlay support), but a healthy swath of stereo equipment too. Even Android users are flocking to it, as evidenced by the fact that for about a year, the top search term to Evolver.fm was “android airplay,” leading to this story.
DTS, the prominent sound processing company with links to plenty of consumer electronics companies, acquired Phorus this past July, whose Play-Fi system plays music wirelessly from an Android app. The DTS acquisition means Play-Fi could find itself in all sorts of consumer electronics products, just like AirPlay. In other words, Google might finally have an Android-friendly answer to AirPlay, without having to build it itself.
We’re listening to the standalone speaker (the $199 Phorus Play-Fi PS1 Speaker) today, but this story is about more than that. Let’s take a look at how it stands up to our hands-on testing — and at the platform in general, which promises to give Google and Android ammunition to take on Apple and AirPlay.
In terms of Phorus’ own hardware, the set-up couldn’t be much simpler. You just fire up the free Play-Fi Android app, follow the prompts for setting up the speaker(s) on your WiFi network. The Play-Fi app was responsive, and never crashed during testing, using a Samsung Galaxy S II and a Kindle Fire, and switching between the two with ease (although it does not play .m4a files, not that Android folks should have many of those). As advertised, there’s never any need to walk over to the speaker and mess with it during setup.
The system would presumably work just as easily if Play-Fi ends up in home audio equipment, as DTS hopes it will.
You can add up to eight Phorus speakers and devices to the system, and multiple users can play different stuff on different speakers from different Android devices. As with Sonos, each of these speakers talks to the others in order to prevent problems with phase cancellation. We heard several Phorus systems simultaneously, including several PS1 speakers and one PR1 receiver, and can attest to the fact that the addition of more units didn’t mess with the sound quality.
Apps + Music
Things get a bit tricky here. You can play any of the music stored on your device, music from any Windows media servers on your home network, and whatever outside services Phorus has integrated into its Play-Fi app. As of today, that list only has one item on it: Pandora. However, the team told Evolver.fm it would be aggressively adding every worthwhile service with an API, so it shouldn’t be too long until Phorus achieves parity with Sonos’s list, or something close to it.
So Apple’s AirPlay still has an advantage here, because apps can integrate AirPlay natively, and you can also set any other app to stream to AirPlay speakers. That doesn’t matter much to Android users, however, because nothing similar exists for Android. In other words, this isn’t a strike against Play-Fi, although the system’s allure will increase with the addition of Spotify and other options.
In addition to the small, standalone Phorus Play-Fi PS1 Speaker ($199) we’re listening to today, DTS just released a Phorus Play-Fi PR1 Receiver ($149) that lets you send music from the Play-Fi app to any sound system wirelessly. For those of us who already have nice speakers, that receiver is a way better option.
But what about building Play-Fi into other home stereo equipment, the way DTS’s main product is? As we suspected, that is precisely the plan.
“Thinking of PlayFi as a platform, in terms of working with other manufacturers so they can also enter this market is a huge initiative for DTS,” explained Dannie Lau, general manager of Phorus, a wholly owned subsidiary of DTS (updated). “You will see another speaker announced from CES going into the market, but it was the platform that DTS saw, and that was the reason they acquired Phorus. For Phorus, the plan was always to create a platform to be licensed — to become the Intel, the magic inside… a lot of manufacturers’ equipment.”
So there you have it: DTS has technology for putting wireless Android music playback in third-party equipment, and it definitely has the existing relationships to make that happen.
The small size of the Phorus Play-Fi PS1 Speaker ($199) — 8.5 inches by 6.5 inches by 5.5 inches — limits its bass possibilities, clearly, as does the fact that it’s just one speaker. That said, this thing sounds as good or better than other docks we’ve seen of a similar size, with a bass port on the back for adding to the low-end, and an omnidirectional design overall. And unlike Bluetooth speakers, which compress audio as it is transmitted, the Phorus Play-Fi’s Wi-Fi connection sends all of the bits representing your tunes. And it gets pretty loud — like, houseparty loud.
As with any small speaker dock, though, serious music fans are going to prefer bigger, more serious speakers, which is where the PR1 Receiver comes in now, and where third-party manufacturers will come in later.
The Phorus Play-Fi PS1 Speaker ($199) sounds acceptably good, and it’s well designed. However, its small size (and resulting sound quality implications) are a factor, and if you want to hear it in something resembling stereo, you’d need to drop $200 to two units. More serious music fans already have other speakers, or know where to find them — for them, the $149 PR-1 is a much better option, even though it costs more than Apple Airport Express.
But we’re ultimately more excited about the prospects of Play-Fi leeching into home sound systems and more powered speakers, which will start to happen in less than three months at the Consumer Electronics Show. DTS is in just about everything, and it’s global. So if Sony, Philips, Samsung, Onkyo, Bang & Olufsen, and other makers of home sound systems and speakers get onboard with Play-Fi the way most of them do with DTS, and the way some of them already have with AirPlay, music fans with Androids will truly be sitting in the proverbial catbird seat.
Google should be thankful.