Did you know that 2013 is the International Year of Quinoa? Until this year not many people outside of health shops would have heard of the once-Incan-cultivated grain, but now it's seemingly everywhere. The same goes for wireless audio, for while the UN probably isn't considering lionizing Sonos next, more competing products have cropped up in the last 12 months than seemingly in the last five years.
Play-Fi emerged late last year as an Android streaming protocol, but with the addition last month of an iOS app, the system is getting a little closer to the power offered by the Sonos ecosystem. The Phorus PS1 Speaker is a hybrid Bluetooth/Play-Fi speaker that can also function as a charging cradle for your wireless devices.
While setup presented its own issues, performance is where the Phorus PS1 isn't able to compete against the new Sonos Play:1. Sound quality is overly clock-radio-like, midrange-heavy and lacking both true bass and treble. Add to that some connectivity issues and the lack of an Ethernet port -- though you can use a USB-to-Ethernet adapter -- the PS1 is unfortunately a disappointing execution of a great idea. Get a Sonos instead. Also: buy quinoa.
Before the arrival of the Sonos Play:1, Phorus' products weren't competing with Sonos' directly, but attempted to undercut them as a "value" option. Yet with cost-cutting comes compromise, and against the cute-as-a-button Play:1 the Phorus PS1 comes off looking like a cheap iPod dock.
With more than a passing resemblance to the JBL OnStage -- which is not surprising given the same engineers designed both -- the Phorus speaker is about the size and shape of a coffee tin with a roughly pyramidal shape. The "dock" features a large rubber lip that will hold most gadgets, including tablets, securely. While there is an indentation that could have been intended to house a connector, the only charging is done via the rear USB port and a couple of included USB adapters. Also at the rear are a 3.5mm input, a further unused Micro-USB port, and a power socket. Unfortunately the unit lacks an Ethernet port, but we did have success connecting a Mac Ethernet-to-USB adapter.
For sound production duties, the Phorus offers two neodymium drivers each driven by a Class D digital amplifier.
There are five buttons on the front of the speaker: power, volume up and down, and two wireless buttons, one for Bluetooth and one for the proprietary Play-Fi system.
The Phorus is a speaker system that uses the Play-Fi protocol for multiroom audio based on the existing 802.11 specification (b/g/n). Phorus says the system is designed to scale well, and isn't tied to an existing proprietary Mesh network like Sonos. At present there are just a speaker dock and a "receiver" but Phorus tells us there are more products planned from other companies.
Although the PS1 is currently billed as "Wireless Audio for Android" on the Phorus Web site the company has much loftier aspirations for the system than just streaming music from Google phones. Last month the company added iOS support, and coming shortly is PC playback. With future improvements including hi-res audio -- at present it's limited to 16/48 -- and more streaming services coming, parent company DTS is really hoping to take the Play-Fi(ight) directly to Sonos.
While the app is available for iOS and Android, they don't yet have the same functionality -- you can't currently stream from an NAS or other computer with the iOS app, nor can you listen to Internet radio. On iOS you can currently only listen to the music on the phone itself or via Pandora, and though AAC is ostensibly supported it didn't work during our testing.
The Phorus system offers Bluetooth in addition to Play-Fi so that users don't have to download the special app to use the speaker if they don't want to, which is a problem visitors to owners of Sonos or other proprietary systems inevitably face. This also means that you can use any Bluetooth-supported app on your phone, which is useful as Play-Fi only currently supports Pandora for use in the US. If you're overseas it replays Deezer in Europe, and Asian services QQMusic and KKBOX.
Over many years of reviewing Sonos devices, I have barely had any problems connecting devices -- the setup is almost idiot-proof. However, the process isn't as straightforward when it comes to the Phorus and Play-Fi. First, to use the Phorus system you'll need to download the Phorus app and then hold down the Wi-Fi button on the device for 8 seconds until it beeps and begins to pulse. From there, Android finds the speaker and sets it up while iOS users currently need to perform the extra step of selecting the unit from the available Wi-Fi networks.
Unfortunately I find you'll also need to know your wireless password every time you add a device, as the PS1 is not quite WPS-compatible -- this is something you don't have to do with the Sonos. I also found that this is the step the setup would fail at most often: while the device would give a solid light indicating a connection the Phorus app was no longer able to find it, and I had this problem on two different networks, at home and work. There were several times when I would select the Music option, and the app would tell me "No Play-Fi devices" found, and this would happen even after having just set them up.
Happily, connecting a sold-separately USB-to-Ethernet cable to the USB port solved some of the connectivity issues -- the system also installed the unit without having to perform any additional steps. I would recommend this method for anyone having issues, though I still experienced music dropouts.
Given that the PS1 is the same price as the spectacular Sonos Play:1, its overall performance can only be described as lackluster, both in terms of reliability of the connection and its sound quality.
Apart from the connection issues mentioned above, I found that the system had an issue with dropouts, and this was even when using an Ethernet cable at the rear of the PS1. The dropouts were either mild -- hiccups of a fraction of a second -- or severe, with unlistenable seconds between bursts of sound, and may have been related to another network interfering with the Play-Fi system. Connecting a Play-Fi dock by Wren exhibited exactly the same dropout pattern across both devices; it was mostly with FLAC files as MP3 played without a problem, and going wired didn't help with lossless playback. The system also failed to recognize ALAC (Apple Lossless) so if you have a lot of these in your collection this dock is not for you.
When the system was working as it should the speaker was able to go loud and lacked "boxiness" in sound, but that's as far as I'll go in terms of praise. Though there was a fairly good representation of sound across the whole spectrum, it lacked a little vocal presence and the midrange frequencies could seem a little woolly and imprecise. In comparison voices could sound a little boxed in and nasal on the Play:1, but the sound was much more balanced across the spectrum and less typically Bluetooth-speaker-like.
Depending on the instrument --"plinky" ones sounded best -- the side-mounted speakers could cast sounds out a fair way when sitting on your desktop. As an example, the hooting woodwinds that accentuate each verse in Vampire Weekend's "Diane Young" appeared to be coming from a foot to either side of the small speaker box.
The instruments on "Yet Again" by Grizzly Bear sounded disjointed, and while the vocals were fairly intelligible they were dulled. By contrast the instruments sounded more cohesive and the voice sounded even clearer on the Play:1. Bass reproduction was acceptable for such a small device and it also didn't distort when set to full volume. The speaker was able to play the deep bass line in The Beta Band's "Life" without missing notes or dissolving into flatulence. However, the Phorus lacked the high-end sparkle and low-end punch of the Sonos and mainly substituted midrange honkiness.
Play-Fi as a system holds tremendous promise; it's currently the only standard that isn't Bluetooth that offers to work across different manufacturers. But the Phorus PS1 suffers from connectivity problems and poor sound quality. If you have the money you should take these words of wisdom (borrowed) from Parker Brothers: Go directly to Play:1. Do not to Phorus go. Do not forget $200.