Over the last couple of years, we've reviewed our share of wireless audio streaming options for the iPod. Most of them involve a dongle attached to the bottom of your iPod that allows you to stream tunes wirelessly to a little box that's connected to your home stereo or any powered speaker system with audio inputs. Those options are certainly intriguing--and some (the Belkin TuneStage 2, the Mondo Mint DMS300) have done well in our tests--but the next step in the evolution of wireless streaming is building the receivers right into your audio system. In the case of Parrot's Sound System ($449 list), the Bluetooth receiver is built right into the speakers themselves.
The system consists of two classy-looking, white-lacquered bookshelf speakers measuring 11.5 x 7.5 x 8.5 inches that are linked to each other--and to an audio source--by the Bluetooth wireless standard. Each speaker is essentially identical, and contains just three buttons: volume up, volume down, and Bluetooth sync. Their black-fabric speaker covers are removable and adhere magnetically, which is a nice touch.
On the inside, each speaker contains a digital two-channel Class-D amplifier with a 60-watt output. But the key bullet point here is the built-in Bluetooth 2.0: it includes the three key Bluetooth components--EDR (Enhanced Data Rate), A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile), and AVRCP (Audio/Video Remote Control Profile)--that are required for decent-sounding stereo audio. It's also worth noting that the speakers' firmware is upgradeable (via the Bluetooth link from a PC).
Because Parrot utilized the Bluetooth standard (instead of some proprietary wireless format), the speakers should be able to stream from any Bluetooth audio source that includes the aforementioned A2DP profile. While that doesn't include every Bluetooth device--many older cell phones have only the lower fidelity software profile used for monaural headsets--it does encompass a large and ever-growing list of mobile devices. As of yet, the iPhone isn't on that list, but it may eventually get the A2DP profile via a future software upgrade. As for standard iPods, you'll need to purchase a separate Bluetooth/A2DP dongle. If you don't already have one (the Belkin device mentioned above includes one, as do some car stereo and wireless headphone iPod solutions), Parrot recommends Ten Technology's NaviPlay--either the standalone adapter or the one included with the NaviPlay Bluetooth headphone kit. (A complete list of compatible phones and dongles can be found on Parrot's Web site.) Bluetooth streaming from PCs or Macs is also supported (a USB Bluetooth dongle is included if your computer doesn't have built-in Bluetooth support). Non-Bluetooth products, meanwhile, can still be connected to the Parrot Sound System the old-fashioned way: each speaker includes a standard red and white stereo RCA input. Of course, if you're really going to use the wired connection, you should probably buy a cheaper set of speakers.
We tested the Parrot Sound System streaming music from a laptop PC and a relatively inexpensive Nokia 5300 Xpress Music phone. We had a little trouble initially pairing both the phone and PC to the speakers, but after a couple of tries, the speakers were "discovered" and we were able to link up with them by entering "0000" as the pairing code. We hit Play on the music player and suddenly the music was emanating from the speakers.
In the case of the phone, the Nokia essentially became a remote for the music, and we were able to cycle through albums and artists from across the room. You can set the volume to a reasonably high level using the volume control, then ramp it up and down using the control on your phone. Within about 30 feet, we were able to get a clear signal, but as you move beyond that range, you will start to get some clipping and eventually the music will die entirely. Also, because Bluetooth relies on a degree of signal reflectivity, the range may actually be better in smaller rather than larger rooms.
It's a bit hard to judge the performance of the speakers. The quick answer is they're quite good--as you might expect from a set of bookshelf speakers that cost more than $300. The longer answer is that when you stream via Bluetooth, your compressed MP3 music gets compressed even further, so something is lost in the process. In fact, the speakers are good enough to accentuate the flaws in the music, which means your listening experience will vary according to the quality of your source material.
While lacking an external subwoofer, the speakers are relatively full-sounding and don't give the impression that they're fairly compact. You get a reasonable amount of bass and solid midrange that does just fine with nondemanding tracks filled with vocals and acoustic guitars. Push the system with heavier bass and it starts to get a little muddy, but all in all the speakers held together pretty well.
When we "wired" our iPod up to the speakers via the RCA jacks and listened to some lossless audio tracks, we were generally impressed--the speakers measured up to the best of the iPod dock speaker systems we've tested. It obviously helps that you can separate the speakers, which widens the soundstage. The sound quality wasn't as good with the Bluetooth streaming, but for a lot of folks, the wireless experience is going to seem just fine--certainly as good as a clear signal of analog FM radio. One note on the wired connections, though: while both speakers have a set of inputs, you can really only use either one or the other. And, somewhat annoyingly, there's no input toggle on the speakers themselves--you'll need to unpair your Bluetooth source before you can hear anything from the wired connections.
In many ways, the Parrot Sound System is a glimpse of the future of home audio. The idea of having a lot of music stored on your cell phone (or other Bluetooth-enabled portable audio device) and coming home to stream music to wireless speakers is both appealing and convenient. Yes, the speaker street price of around $350 is probably too much for many people, but if you're the cutting-edge, minimalist type who's a little ahead of the curve, the Parrot Sound System is certainly worth considering. Those who can't afford Parrot's high-end offering might check out the company's Bluetooth Boombox Speaker System, which retails for about $100 less. However, that model won't offer the stereo separation that these speakers do.