Pioneer’s $399 A3 XW-SMA3-K, known to its friends—OK, referred to by me—as simply the A3, is an impressive AirPlay speaker system. The all-black, rounded-rectangular prism is 12.6 inches wide, 7.1 inches tall, and 5.8 inches deep, and it weighs 7 pounds, 11 ounces.
On the front base of the unit are, on the left, several status LEDs, with a strip of touch-sensitive controls to the right. It’s a bit silly that the LEDs for On, Input, Network, and battery level sit on the left, while the buttons to toggle some of those those statuses (Standby/On and Input) sit on the opposite side. Why not put each of those LEDs next to the corresponding button? The only other touch controls, which sit next to Standby/On and Input, are Volume Up and Down.
The A3 includes a tiny, wireless remote control. The remote includes a Standby/On button, along with play/pause, previous, next, and volume buttons.
The rear of the A3 sports a built-in handle for toting the speaker around. There’s also a rotatable Wi-Fi antenna, a USB port, an ethernet port, and a 1/8-inch (3.5mm) auxiliary input. Those ports are covered with stiff, rubber flaps, because the A3 is water-resistant. Specifically, it’s IPX2 rated, which means that it can sustain vertically dripping water when tilted up to 15-degrees; Pioneer warns you not to place the unit in water, splash it, expose it to rain, or use it in a humid environment (like a bathroom). So it can get wet, in theory, but it probably shouldn’t.
Also on the back of the unit is a Network Setup button. You can connect the speaker to your home network by joining the A3’s self-created network from your computer and then configuring the system via your Web browser. Even better, though, is that like a few other recent AirPlay speaker systems, the A3 can inherit your iOS device’s network-connection settings. You just connect your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch to the A3’s USB port, confirm an iOS alert that you’d like to allow your device to share its Wi-Fi settings with the speaker, and the A3 handles the rest on its own.
You can also connect to the A3 directly, without needing to join a separate Wi-Fi network, using what Pioneer calls Wireless Direct. It’s the same feature that’s built into the excellent Libratone Zipp (4.5 out of 5 rating), though it’s worth noting that the A3’s manual (in stark contrast to the Zipp’s) is poorly and densely written, and a bit hard to follow. Luckily, Wireless Direct is simple enough to use: Press and hold the rear Setup button for a few seconds, and then connect your iOS device to the speaker’s own wireless network. Of course, putting your iPhone on the A3’s network means that the phone won’t be able to reach the Internet, but it does mean you can stream to the portable A3 even when there’s no wireless access point around.
Yes, the A3 is portable, like the aforementioned Zipp. The built-in, rechargeable battery needs about three hours to charge completely, and then you can expect four hours of playback at full volume, or six hours at 50-percent volume. Listening at comfortably loud volumes, I got a full five hours of battery life in my testing.
Whether it’s plugged in or not, the A3 shuts itself off after an extended period of idle time, which is great; a disappointing number of AirPlay speakers cheerily stay on in perpetuity after streaming music.
The A3’s audio performance is good. The unit employs a pair of 3-inch midrange speakers, along with a single 1-inch tweeter. The end result is ear-pleasing, with impressive bass performance and a fine overall sound. Lower frequencies are slightly over-emphasized at the expense of higher frequencies, but the overall sound remains quite listenable.
The A3 is a very good portable AirPlay speaker. But it’s not so portable that you’d want to lug it from room to room or out back on a regular basis: It’s big and it weighs nearly eight pounds. Its audio quality falls just short of great, and the needlessly complicated interface shortchanges the strong features like the Wireless Direct option. For $50 more, you can get the aforementioned—and better overall—Libratone Zipp, and for $100 less you can get the more portable (but Bluetooth-only) Jawbone Big Jambox. But if the A3 is the speaker that fits your budget, and its feature set matches your needs, it’s a fine option.