Today, wireless music systems are gaining in popularity as a means for people to harness the music they have on their computers—whether they use an iTunes library or Internet radio services such as Pandora. In the August 2010 CI E-Newsletter, I reviewed the Sonos S5 ZoneBridge wireless music system, which uses a Wi-Fi connection to sync with your computer to stream audio. Recently, I had the opportunity to review the Bose SoundLink system, which was loaned to me by the company. While it also offers wireless audio, the SoundLink takes a different approach than the Sonos ZoneBridge—it uses an RF adapter that plugs into your computer’s USB port to capture audio and transmit it to the SoundLink system. In theory, this is a simpler approach than the ZoneBridge, eliminating the need for a Wi-Fi connection. Once I overcame some setup “nuances,” I found the SoundLink to offer high-quality sound from a compact package. However, with the exception of true Bose loyalists, I think most would be turned off by the high price tag.
The SoundLink system is a self-contained speaker, so there aren’t a lot of pieces to unpack: the speaker unit, the power adapter, the USB transmitter dongle, and the remote control. This makes getting started very easy. After plugging the speaker in and powering it on, you plug the SoundLink USB key into a USB port on your computer. This eliminates the need for a Wi-Fi connection, as well as the need for any new software. However, you do need to have a computer running Windows 7, Vista or XP, or Mac OS 10.4 or later.
Setup was not totally painless. I had to spend some time fiddling with my computer’s settings in order for it to recognize the SoundLink. Overall, however, someone with general PC knowledge should have no problem setting up the SoundLink system.
I also discovered that the USB key itself presented some problems. If you have a laptop computer, where USB ports are sometimes at a premium, it could become an issue for one port to be always tied up with the USB key. In my case, I connected the USB key to the front of my desktop PC, which actually sits underneath my desk. Almost on a daily basis, I knocked the USB key out of the USB port, since it stuck out a few inches from the PC tower.
Bose claims that the USB key can transmit up to 60 feet, depending on obstructions such as walls. This is useful, since the SoundLink has an internal battery, which means you can unplug the SoundLink and enjoy up to three hours of high-volume music on a full charge (Bose claims much longer battery life when listening at lower volume levels).
There is also an auxiliary jack on the back of the SoundLink unit for attaching another audio device, such as an MP3 player, portable CD player or music phone.
Be sure not to lose the SoundLink remote, which is the primary input device. On the SoundLink speaker unit itself, the only controls were the volume controls. With the remote, which Bose claims can operate a variety of audio applications on your computer, you can control volume, rewind and skip tracks. You can also use it to switch between auxiliary devices and wireless audio.
The SoundLink has a relatively small footprint, measuring 6.7" high by 2.0" wide by 5.1" deep. It weighs in at just under five pounds, including the battery.
The SoundLink’s Bose pedigree is on full display once you have it up and running. I was impressed with its full, crisp sound across a range of applications, including MP3s I had saved on my computer and Internet radio. Even at high volumes, there was none of the distortion that is common with speakers of a similar size.
The SoundLink wireless audio system delivers the high-quality sound I would expect from Bose. It is especially attractive to those looking to stream audio from a computer without having to rely on a Wi-Fi connection. That being said, I think most people would be turned off by the SoundLink’s $550 price tag. If you are looking for a wireless audio system and price is not an issue, the SoundLink is definitely worth a look. For the rest of us, wireless audio is becoming more common, so it should be possible to find an acceptable, more-reasonably-priced solution.
Wayne A. Thorp, CFA, is the author of "Gadget Corner." All reviews are based on firsthand experience of the product or service. No third-party compensation is received for opinions on products, services, websites or topics. However, sometimes the author is not required by the manufacturer or their PR firm to return the product under review. In such instances, it is our policy to convey this within the review. The views and opinions expressed in these reviews are strictly those of the author. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider.