Getting up and running with the D5x/DSx combo wasn't quite as seamless as I would have liked, and took a bit more doing than, say, starting up an AirPlay speaker for the first time.
Just to get it out of the way: dongles. They're a mixed blessing at best, but they're here to stay for the time being. Few existing sources (aside from the most recent generations of Apple's Mac Mini and iMac and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7 Plus support apt-X out of the box, so taking advantage of high-quality playback from the ZiiSound speakers using most mobile devices and computers requires a transmitter dongle that you plug into a 30-pin connector or USB port. Not an optimal solution for a pocketable device. Then again, you can pair a dongle once and then pass it around between devices, which can be more convenient than re-pairing again and again, say in a party environment with multiple users looking to stream tunes to the ZiiSounds.
Getting a single Zii to see my source devices over standard A2DP was simple enough (hold down the "button" to put the device into discoverable mode, after which time it showed up as a Bluetooth target on my Android phone more or less immediately), but pairing with the dongles and pairing the speakers with one another was a bit more obscure. The process involves what's quickly becoming my least favored wireless pairing process: a minimal interface that makes you hold down buttons and interpret the rate of tiny flashing LED indicators. There's just no way to make this simple without a screen as part of the equation — I'd love to see a mobile app or even a desktop applet for easy setup. Still, having beent through this sort of thing before, I managed to get a stereo pair assigned pretty quickly, but at first, I just couldn't get the subwoofer to pair.
Frustrated, I turned repeatedly to the quickstart guide, which wasn't incredibly clear on the issue. Luckily, a member of the Zii development team has posted a couple of handy videos on YouTube to help guide users through the pairing process. Turned out I neded to reset my review units; following that, everything paired without trouble.
Transmitting from either of the USB or iOS 30-pin dongles, the ZiiSound system is impressive on its terms. I wouldnt say it sounds as good as a lossless wireless solution like AirPlay or the Kleer system used by Arcam in their rCube, but it's a distinct improvement over the Bluetooth audio streaming that I'm used to. It sounds good enough that switching back to plain old Bluetooth SBC audio streaming from my Android phone sounds like throwing a veil over the Zii — a thin blanket, yes, but a blanket nonetheless. We weren't (as you'll see in the test bench on the next page) able to measure apt-X performance vs. standard Bluetooth vs. wired at the speaker, but that's really a matter of the resolution of our measuring tools. If I can trust my ears at all, there is a noticeable difference.
Anyway, beyond purer sonics, what this system really delivers is surprising horsepower for its size. "Room-filling sound" is a phrase that gets tossed around quite a bit these days, but the D5x/DSx 2.1 combo really does have sufficient power for a party. Maybe not sufficient to power a dancefloor, but certainly enough to keep a largish group of friends entertained. We've come to expect Creative's Bluetooth gear to deliver the volume, but this is in a different league from the average desktop dock. I brought the system along to an S+V event (held in a large, open department-store space), turned off the house PA, and (using a MacBook and Creative's USB dongle) played back a broad selection of hi-rez tunes from HDtracks, from McCoy Tyner's New York Reunion to Wilco's new The Whole Love to the Talking Heads' Remain in Light. I'd cranked up the ZiiSounds a bit at the office, but the little units exceeded my expectations — I even had to turn down the sub's level control. Sound quality remained more than acceptable even at fairly loud levels. The sub isn't going to win any awards for low-end extension, but it does plenty to add some visceral punch to your party soundtrack.
I'm not expecting miracles from small wireless speakers (though a lot can be done with such things on the engineering front these days), but the ZiiSounds sound pretty damned good, and considering their size and scalability they actually seem reasonable as a modular system. Set one up as a desktop dock for everyday use; add the other units when you have guests, and chances are nobody'll be disappointed.
The real question here is not whether a single D5x is worth $300. Considering the power output and the low end it dishes out at its price point, it may well be. If you're willing to accept a dongle and want something that plays loud, considered on its own the D5x seems a pretty good deal compared with Arcam rCube (even given the recent price drop of that unit to $499), though given its battery the rCube is more versatile and — more importantly — it uses Kleer's losselss streaming codec for better sonics. Still, apt-X sounds quite good, and not everyone needs to have a dock that'll go anywhere.
Whether consumers will embrace a 2.1 setup at $750.00, or a full 3.1 system at $1050.00, however, isn't clear to me. For that amount of cash you could also go with a more traditional setup, choosing, say, the new Monster Clarity HD Model Ones (which include an iOS dock), or even a pair of AudioEngine 5s along with AE's wireless kit. Or a couple of Sonos units, which do a whole lot more. Even if you want apt-X and like Creative's overall approach — and you don't need to go fully wireless — you could consider Creative's other speaker systems (which aren't completely wireless since the satellites require a wired connection to the amp/sub module). The T6 2.1 system isn't a bad deal at 399.99; a lower-powered option, the Inspire S2, sells for 149.99.
While the USB transmitter is platform agnostic, the mobile dongle Creative uses is iOS-specific, and AirPlay alternatives (obviously I'm putting aside the question of why AirPlay wasn't used in this product, though given the tangled webs of licensing agreements that surround such things, I'd guess there was a perfectly reasonable business decision made along the way).
There isn't a stereo AirPlay system on the market that I'm aware of that delivers on the punch of a ZiiSound system, though the Libratone Live is a possible alternative. You could also go with an Airport Express or Apple TV unit plus your choice of amps and speakers, at which point the possibilities are endless, though they all involve somewhat more tweaking — and shopping around — than picking up a complete ZiiSound system.
But maybe whatever the merits of this particular system (and it's a nice system indeed, especially if you're looking for something little and loud that plays nice with all of your mobile devices), the continuing evolution of the apt-X profile and it's potentially wider application is an exciting prospect for Bluetooth audio in general. Maybe we'll be seeing it integrated in more chipsets in the near future. Luckily, that seems to be happening, though progress so far has been slow. We'll see what develops come CES 2012.
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