The category of tabletop speakers is a crowded one indeed, and it can be difficult for a manufacturer to distinguish its offering from the rest of the pack. Aperion Audio has done just that with the new Allaire ARIS powered tabletop speaker, which stands out in its design, its performance, and its flexible approach to connectivity. Want to directly connect an audio player or portable device? Go with the basic $297 ARIS model and use the auxiliary input. Want to stream audio wirelessly over Bluetooth? Step up to the $334 ARIS kit, which adds a standalone Bluetooth receiver. Want to stream audio via Windows "Play To" or any DLNA application? Get the top-shelf $374 version, which comes with a hybrid WiFi/Ethernet card for a wireless or wired connection to your home network. The elephant that's notably absent from the room is built-in AirPlay, although you can do what I did and connect an Airport Express via the auxiliary input to get the same benefit.
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The ARIS is as nice to look at as it is to hear. I love the aesthetic, which combines an oval-shaped brushed-aluminum cabinet with an adjustable, red metal stand and detachable black mesh grille. The unit has a fairly unobtrusive form factor, measuring 14.75 inches wide by 6.5 inches deep by 6.5 inches high (with the stand, which can be removed). Its weight of 11.3 pounds gives you an idea of its solid construction, due in large part to the 4mm-thick extruded aluminum housing. A small, rubberized button panel sits on top, with buttons for power, volume, mute, and equalizer. Three red LEDs glow from behind the mesh grille to provide various forms of feedback, such as power status, mute status, and equalizer mode. The backside offers a hard power switch, the 3.5mm auxiliary input, and a card slot to insert the WiFi card, if you choose to go that route. The glaring omission is a remote control; Aperion does not provide one, assuming that you will control playback through whatever source you choose to mate with the speaker.
The level of setup complexity depends on which connection route you choose, although I didn't find any of the methods to be particularly difficult. Making a basic wired connection via the auxiliary input is as simple as it gets. You can connect an MP3 player, smartphone, or tablet directly via its headphone output. One of my demo systems involved feeding stereo analog output from my OPPO BDP-93 universal player to the ARIS auxiliary input.
The optional Bluetooth receiver is the Avantree Roxa, which uses the Bluetooth 4.0 aptX codec that claims CD-quality sound over Bluetooth. Simply plug the Bluetooth receiver into the wall and run the supplied 3.5mm cable from the receiver's mini-jack output to the ARIS's auxiliary input. Turn on Bluetooth in the desired audio device, pair the products, and you're good to go. The Roxa also has a USB port for charging your mobile device. You can pair two devices at a time. I successfully paired a MacBook Pro, an iPhone, and a Samsung tablet at various times. Once the devices are paired, the ARIS will play whatever audio source you cue up within the device, be it iTunes, Pandora, Spotify, etc. The Bluetooth approach is great in its flexibility to play any audio source from your device, but it does have a limited range of about 10 meters (32 feet).
The wireless-card approach requires a little more setup. The card is configured by default to create its own wireless network. If you don't have a home network already in place, you could stream directly from your networkable audio player to the ARIS without having to configure anything. Most people will likely prefer to add the ARIS to an existing network. If your router supports WiFi Protected Setup, then you can just hit the WPS buttons on the router and wireless card to add the ARIS to your network. Since my router doesn't support WPS, I had to do a manual setup using a Web-based setup wizard. This process was straightforward enough; my one gripe is that the Web interface doesn't allow you to manually put in an SSID name, so if you're not broadcasting your SSID for security reasons, you have to change that setting before you can add the card to your network.
Once everything was set up correctly, I was successful in sending music from a Windows 8 laptop via the Play To function in Windows Media Player (although I did occasionally get connection error messages for no reason that I could determine). ARIS offers an Android app called "ARIS Control" that you can load on your smartphone or tablet, which then enables you to play music over DLNA and control playback/volume. Frankly, I found this app to be a bit confusing, and preferred to use other DLNA apps, like PLEX and AllShare, both of which worked great. Obviously, the network approach gives you more range than Bluetooth to wirelessly stream content from any networkable devices in the house, and you can add multiple ARIS speakers to that network. However, it's not quite as flexible as a Bluetooth connection, as your source needs to be DLNA- or Windows-compatible. ARIS supports the MP3, WMA, AAC, Real, and FLAC formats over DLNA.
I live in an Apple-centric home, filled with iPhones, Macs, Apple TVs, and Time Capsule servers. So yeah, AirPlay would've been a great addition. Given Aperion's approach with the card slot, the company could've offered an optional Airport card, but a company representative says that the price of said card would be similar to the Airport Express, which is more versatile anyhow. Since I already had an Airport Express in my possession, I simply attached the ARIS to it via the Aux In, which instantly added the ARIS to my AirPlay network of devices and worked perfectly for my needs. If AirPlay is your connection method of choice, you could buy the base model of the ARIS, without the $37 Bluetooth receiver or $77 wireless card, and use the money saved to pick up an Airport Express for $100 or less.
Now let's talk performance. To say that the ARIS impressed me is an understatement. This is a two-way speaker that uses six drivers: two one-inch Neodymium soft-dome silk tweeters and two four-inch woven-fiberglass drivers facing forward, plus two four-inch passive radiators to the rear. The powered speaker uses four 25-watt Class D amplifiers and has a rated frequency response of 48 Hz to 20 kHz. I tested the ARIS with a variety of sources, from compressed MP3/AAC files on my mobile devices to AIFF files on my Mac to stereo PCM of SACDs and DVD-Audio discs from my OPPO BDP-93. The first attribute to jump out at me was the speaker's excellent dynamic ability; for its size, the ARIS is capable of playing remarkably loud without the audio disintegrating into a harsh, distorted mess. The sound isn't just big; it's also well balanced. The highs were clean and crisp, the midrange was full, and the speaker had an impressive amount of bass for its stature. The ARIS served up deeper, cleaner bass than either my SoundCast tabletop speaker or my larger Russound AirGo outdoor speaker. Of course, the ARIS can't do subwoofer-deep bass; the deepest bass notes in Tom Waits' "Long Way Home" and The Bad Plus' "1979 Semi-Finalist" didn't ring out as loudly as they will through a 2.1-channel system with a dedicated sub, but they had excellent presence and seamlessly blended with the rest of the elements to produce a cohesive whole that just sounded great. Brighter elements in tracks like Junior Kimbrough's "Junior's Place" and Rage Against the Machine's "Bombtrack" were clean and didn't veer harsh, even when I played them at higher volumes. All of the instruments in Bucky Pizzarelli's Swing Live DVD-Audio disc were well represented, from the clean acoustic bass to the smooth clarinet to the rich vibes. The soundstage is expectedly contained to the area in front of the speaker, but the sound quality remains consistent across a pretty wide stage for even coverage around your room.
The equalizer function includes three options. As Aperion describes them, "Natural is tuned as a high-fidelity system to reproduce sound with as little coloration as possible. Bass boost adds the thump you love, without the boomy artifacts. And enhanced stereo is engineered to create a larger sound stage for you, without overdoing it." I was perfectly content to stick with the Natural mode for my listening sessions; the Enhanced Stereo mode sounded too echoic, and I didn't feel that the bass needed any boosting.
Read about the high points and low points of the Aperion Allaire ARIS on Page 2.