A few weeks back we told you about Phorus, a new company, led by some veterans of JBL, with a new, Android-friendly wireless audio ecosystem based around DTS's new wireless protocol called Play-Fi. Well, now the Phorus PS1 speaker ($199) and PR1 receiver ($149) are here. Should you Android fans pick one up? Or perhaps a houseful?
Let's find out.
There isn't much to the vaguely toadstool-shaped PS1. It's simple and straightforward, with a clear control layout (and if you get lost, there's a cheat sheet on the unit's base). Around back you'll find an aux in (should you want to use it as a speaker for a non-wireless device, along with a power supply jack, a reset switch for dealing with crashes (I never ran into one over several weeks of use), and a couple of USB ports, neither meant for data, sadly (one for charging a device nestled in the PS1's cradle; the other is for factory updates). The speakerless PR1 includes all of the above, with a line-out jack added (and, obviously, no amp or drivers); it even resembles a PS1 with its top lopped off.
The Phorus team told me setup would be easy. And it was. There's really almost no setup, per se. Install the Play-Fi app on your Android device, fire up one of the company's products (either the speaker-endowed PS1 we got in to test, or the speakerless PR1 receiver), enter your network password at the prompt, and you're in business. Give your Phorus device a name, send music it's way over Wi-Fi. . . it couldn't be simpler.
Want to add a second Phorus device? Just choose "Add Play-Fi Device" from the main menu and you're there. Instantly you have a second level control within the app; you an easily give the various units in your system names, and just as easily rename them if you relocate them. Got a friend coming over who's got an iPhone, or an Android phone or tablet he or she doesn't feel like installing the Play-Fi app on? The Phorus devices have Bluetooth onboard (and there's a handy front panel button to put it into pairing mode), so they can still share tunes if they like (though they won't have access to the other Phorus units on your network, and obviously Bluetooth streaming isn't lossless, like Play-Fi is. Or they can plug into the aux input.
Offhand, I really can't recall a wireless speaker system — let alone a multi-unit system — with a simpler network setup procedure. 'Nuf ced about that.
The Play-Fi app is, for now, primarily a file player. It gives you access to the audio files stored on your phone, anything living on a DLNA/UPnP server on the same wireless network as the Android device running Play-Fi app. For now, the only streaming service offered is Pandora; Phorus and DTS are working on new deals, but nothing had been announced as of the time of this writing. It can't run as a background app (a la AirPlay), so you can't stream via Play-Fi from anything but the Play-Fi app itself — a bummer, really, but understandable at this stage of the game.
But having easy access to music stored anywhere on your network is a great feature. Not only did it locate my network drive instantly, but it worked well staying in the portable realm: figuring I might not want to run a bunch of instances of the Play-Fi app to access the content on a few Android devices I had around, I fired up Skifta on a Samsung phone (full of MP3s) and a Samsung Galaxy Tab (full of FLACs), chose "Play on unlisted device" (which configures Skifta as a vanilla DLNA server) on both devices, and was up and running in seconds via the Play-Fi app running on the Kindle Fire. Metadata comes across just fine, album art and everything, from both FLAC and MP3s.
Now, the user experience isn't perfect: the generic DLNA/UPnPinterface is a bit rudimentary by comparison with iTunes — you can sort by the familar variety of criteria — Album, Artist, Song, Genre, with a few options and combinations — but there's no real hierarchy (you choose Artist, you get an alphabetically sorted list of all songs by that artist, rather than a list organized by album title). If you're pulling content from a phone with 32 GB of storage, you'll likely be unworried by all of this, but you might find Play-Fi (or any other DLNA player, for that matter) a bit slow and ungainly if you've got a really sizable NAS-housed music collection.
You also have the usual access to .m3u playlists (and these can come in pretty handy if you have a large library you'd like to access via DLNA/UPnP). Sure, it's a bit of a pain by comparison to iTunes, but par for the course for DLNA clients, in my experience. I generally use "Artist Index" as my primary sorting method in such cases; that at least breaks things down into alphabetical chunks.
I also noticed (this was primarily while using the Kindle Fire as the controller) that volume control was fairly laggy — I'd have liked to see smoother operation on this front. It definitely isn't a deal breaker given the overall ease of use of the system, but it's a little disorienting, especially if you're trying to manage the relative levels of two devices. Thankfully, there's very little latency in the system, and the two PS1 units I had on hand for test played in sync, so far as my ear could distinguish, when located in rooms within hearing distance.
How's it sound? Well. . . it sounds its size, but certainly delivers the much-vaunted room-filling sound. Phorus's design team includes some veterans of Harman/JBL, and in form factor and sound the device reminds me of JBLs docks — convincing mid-bass performance and volume that belies the small size and light weight.
It supports 16/44.1 FLACs, but doesn't play back high-rez files, so no 24/88.2 and 24/96 files (thankfully, when you make the attempt it simply gives you a "this file not supported" message rather than crashing, as I've seen some media players do when confronted with high-rez files). While I would have liked to see this support (since it'd be nice to use the PR1 as an inexpensive high-rez streamer) I'm not sure that'll be an issue for anyone using the speaker-equipped version. For audiophiles interested this might be a consideration.
The Phorus system — and Play-Fi — exhibits a lot of promise. It'd be near perfect if it could function in the background (a la AirPlay), letting you stream audio from whatever apps you might be running, and until the necessary deals are cut, having Pandora as the only streaming service option feels a little limiting given the current popularity of Spotify, MOG, Rdio, and the like. But that's probably going to be a temporary thing.
The easy access to one's local or networked media libraries is fantastic (provided you're not into high-rez audio); The Play-Fi app is one of the simplest-to-operate DLNA/UPnP clients I've seen — if you've got a lot of music stored, and a household of Android-owning but not-terribly tech-inclined folks who'd like to hear it, the Play-Fi solution might be a nice way to connect them to your library. Add a PR1 to your main rig, scatter some PS1s around wherever you need 'em, and you're all set.
The upside — and down — is that the Play-Fi app has to be running on your tablet or phone, which has to be connected to your wireless network. While this isn't that much of a disadvantage these days, the fact that you'll be managing your home music experience from an app that doesn't have access to the variety of other streaming services whose independent apps may be living on the very same device may seem a bit odd.
Still, I found the Phorus experience quite enjoyable overall, and as the initial product offering for a new Wi-Fi streaming protocol it succeeds admirably. And more services should be on the way. As with the Smart Radio, we're very interested in seeing what developments Phorus has coming up in 2013.