Though docks for Apple's iDevices are as thoroughly common as white earbuds, models with wireless capabilities are steadily becoming the new standard. And not all wireless technologies are created equally. While the latest Bluetooth standard offers significant improvements from the past (battery life, audio quality) and the notable advantage of being nearly ubiquitous, devices that support Apple's AirPlay wireless technology – which allows transmission of uncompressed, CD-quality audio over WiFi – are, with few exceptions, an evolutionary step or two beyond. And among our favorite entrants is the new mid-level Bowers & Wilkins Z2.
The Z2 is available in black or white and is pretty, if subtly so, with a sturdy and solid rubberized ABS plastic housing and painted stainless steel grille. And while it's just seven inches high, a foot across, and four deep, it weighs a husky five-plus pounds, thanks in large part to a pair of 20-watt, Class-D amplifiers and a pair of 3.5-inch drivers. On top is a slot and a Lightning adapter for Apple's newest iPhone 5 and iPod Touch models, so you can simply plug in and play if you choose (which will charge your device as well); there's also a standard 1/8th-in (3.5mm) stereo plug if you have a non-Apple device. To use AirPlay, you'll need a home WiFi network, and setup requires downloading and using a free app from Bowers & Wilkins on an iOS device and a few minutes. A remote control handles, power, play/pause, track select, and volume – which you can also adjust on your wireless device, or using touchscreen buttons on the Z2 itself – as well as input selection.
So enough about specs and practicalities: We're doing our best not to gush, but frankly the Z2 is the best speaker dock we've tested at this price point. Audio from both streaming services like Pandora or our own files (high bit rate AAC and MP3) was rich and full and detailed, even at high volume, without distortion. Despite there being no dedicated bass driver, there's plenty of bass punch that gets channeled through an open port in the back, again with surprising detail and none of the flatness or muddiness that tends to plague speaker docks – so while it certainly can't compare with a dedicated subwoofer in a quality 2.1 system, without a doubt, the Z2 has no trouble filling a room. While devout audio junkies would still likely want to opt for B&W's top-shelf model, the A7, the Z2, at half the price , is a no-brainer for anyone looking for a high-performing, no-compromise compact audio system. [$400; bowers-wilkins.com]