It seems as though every venerable audio brand from Bowers & Wilkins to Meridian to Denon is throwing its hat into the iPhone dock game, and that not another day goes by when a new wireless Bluetooth or Airplay speaker system isn't launched. We were on the verge of burnout with these new devices – that is, until we heard the McIntosh McAire, the first product for the iTunes ecosystem from the legendary audiophile amp company. For audiophiles of a certain analog and retro leaning, it doesn't get much more ideal than McIntosh, a company that's been making famously well-regarded tube amps since 1949 and whose amplifiers have powered everything from Woodstock to the Grateful Dead.
Looking just like a boxy, vintage McIntosh component (complete with signature twin blue-lit meters), the McAire is essentially an all-in-one wireless iOS audio system that lets you stream the music on your iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, or iTunes-enabled Mac or PC (or, if the Airplay connection cuts out from time to time, as it is wont to do in our experience, then just connect the old-fashioned way, via USB). Wireless reception hurdles aside, the beauty of this device is its all-in-one delivery of surprisingly expansive, detailed, and accurate sound, even of the digital tracks on our iOS devices. The first time we sat in a demo room and played "Sleeping Ute," the opening track of our iTunes-purchased version of Grizzly Bear's 'Shields,' we thought the sound was coming out of a pair of Boston Acoustics speakers that had been placed on the side (no doubt, for effect), but in truth the sound was coming out of the two half-foot-high built-in speakers on either side of the McAire. Bigger-than-expected sound aside, the most impressive aspect of the McAire is the way, like any good sound system, it plays back tracks the way they were recorded and meant to sound, rather than with all the bass-heavy, equalized, subwoofer-ified treatments you'll find on many competing sound dock systems. We could hear a bit of the analog-ish, master tape hiss, not to mention some guiro scraping that sounded up close and real (versus the typical lost-in-the-mix canned background sound of the guiro on most sound systems). It also handles whatever dynamic range you throw at it, without fear of blowing your speakers, as we noticed on some extremely loud and soft opera and jazz vocalist tracks we played.
Yes, you could just get separate components that would deliver the same stellar sound, but that can be such a costly hassle. Even with the McAire, there is the issue of cost. At three grand, the McAire is pricey for an iTunes audio device. For a McIntosh system, though, which can typically cost $15,000 or more, it's entry-level reasonable. Bottom line? So far, it's the best all-in-one, out-of-the-box audiophile experience for iTunes we've tried. [$3,000, mcintoshlabs.com]