In my testing of AirPlay-enabled speaker systems, it's largely remained true that you get what you pay for in terms of sound quality. Which means Bowers & Wilkins's $800 A7--the most-expensive AirPlay system I've yet reviewed--had better sound very, very good. Thankfully, it doesn't disappoint: It sounds incredible.
The A7 cuts an imposing figure on your shelf or tabletop: The 12.6-pound unit measures 14.2 inches wide, 8.7 inches tall, and 6.3 inches deep. It's a handsome, rounded-corner rectangle with a wraparound, black-cloth speaker grille, brushed-chrome accents across the top, and a thin aluminum band that wraps around three sides of the unit. The enclosure is made of glass-filled ABS.
There are few buttons on the A7 itself. Integrated into the leftmost edge of that metal band is a power button; on the right side, also integrated into the band, sit two volume controls. The subtle buttons are geniune, tactile ones--they click--which is a nice reprieve in an era where too many speaker manufacturers opt for touch-sensitive capacitive buttons instead.
Across the bottom of the back of the A7 are a power jack, a 1/8-inch (3.5mm) auxiliary input port, a USB-B port, an ethernet jack, and a Reset button. You can stream music to the A7 via Wi-Fi or wired ethernet; alternatively, you can listen to USB audio from your Mac or Windows PC, or to another audio source using the auxiliary input.
Like many AirPlay speakers, the A7 offers more than one version of "off." In Sleep mode, the A7 remains connected to the network--you can wake it up remotely by playing music on your AirPlay-connected iOS device or computer. In Standby mode, the speaker is essentially turned off--you can wake only it by pressing the power button on the unit itself.
There's an LED on the front of the A7 that indicates its current status: off when in Standby mode, dim red when asleep, bright red when on, purple when streaming via AirPlay, green when playing via USB, and orange when playing from the auxiliary input. The LED flashes other colors to indicate volume adjustments, errors, and such, but you'll never keep all that straight (and you really don't need to unless you're troubleshooting, in which case you can refer to the manual for details).
You connect the A7 to your wireless network using B&W's iOS app; the appropriate app for your Mac or Windows PC; or by connecting your computer to the speaker via ethernet and then visiting the A7's IP address in your browser of choice. I used the iOS and Mac apps, which are straightforward and make setup simple.
The A7 ships with an oblong remote that feels a bit like an afterthought. Though the overall design is similar to that of the remote for the company's previous iPod, iOS, and AirPlay speakers, those remotes were made of metal and plastic--the A7's remote is all lightweight plastic. You get a handful of tiny buttons: power, volume up and down, previous, next, play/pause, and an input selector (to cycle through AirPlay, USB, and auxiliary). While the button layout is fine, the remote feels more like something you'd get with a much-less-expensive system.
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.