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A pretty wireless speaker better seen than heard

When an audiophile-centric company like Cambridge Audio makes a go at the wireless-speaker market, it can be tough to tell whether it's just hoping to make a quick buck or has a worthwhile new take on the category. The Minx Air 100 ($450) falls into the latter category, with a tasteful, reserved design that immediately distinguishes it from the more eccentric speakers on the market. It supports both Bluetooth and AirPlay, plus it can stream Internet radio directly, making it possible to stream tunes even when you don't have a mobile device on you.
What's disappointing is that the Minx Air 100 doesn't sound as rich as I'd like for its price, especially with tough competition from similarly priced systems like Peachtree Audio's Deepblue ($400) and Klipsch's KMC 3 ($400). For less critical listeners (or fans of lighter music) the Minx Air 100 is an solid overall package that feels well-made for the price. Audiophiles will want to look elsewhere, however, or at least at the Minx Air 100's larger step-up cousin, the Minx Air 200.
Design: Classy looks
The Minx Air 100 is one of the nicest-looking Bluetooth speakers to enter the CNET offices. It has a plain, white plastic cabinet with a gray speaker grille, giving it a Sonos-like appearance that looks good pretty much everywhere I put it. Its understated figure is a welcome departure from the goofy designs that are increasingly common with AirPlay and Bluetooth speakers.
Cambridge Audio Minx Air 100(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
The top has two series of mushy rubber buttons that give a satisfying click when you press them down. The buttons on the right are used to control volume, pairing, and play/pause, while the numbered buttons on the left give you one-touch access to your favorite Internet radio stations. Standalone Internet radio capability is a particularly nice plus over other AirPlay and Bluetooth radios, since it allows you to quickly get some music playing, without having to grab a smartphone or tablet.
Cambridge Audio Minx Air 100(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Cambridge Audio Minx Air 100(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
The Minx Air 100 also includes a remote, but it's an afterthought. The thin, cheap clicker sports bubblelike buttons that are laid out in a grid without much organization. However, I rarely found myself wanting to use a separate remote, since you'll do most of your controlling from your smartphoneor tablet and the speaker itself has controls on it too.
Setup
AirPlay speakers all face a similar conundrum; they need to get on your Wi-Fi network, but they lack a screen and keyboard for entering a password. The Minx Air 100's workaround is a little more difficult than most, requiring you to connect a laptop, smartphone, or tablet to a temporary network created by the Minx, then set your browser to 192.168.1.1 to select your home Wi-Fi network and enter your password. It's simple enough for those who've tweaked network settings before, but a guided setup through the Minx's app would have been a lot better. (Bluetooth syncing, as always, is much simpler.)
The Minx app does let you configure the Internet radio preset buttons on the top. The app works reasonably well. You can browse by the typical categories like genre and location, though it's much easier to find something worth listening to if you know a station to search for. Unfortunately, only "true" Internet radio stations can be set as presets, so there's no way to program a button to play a Pandora, Spotify, or Rdio stream, for instance.
Features: AirPlay and Bluetooth, but no battery
The Minx Air 100 is one of the more flexible speakers in this price range thanks to its supporting both Bluetooth and AirPlay. Bluetooth allows it to wirelessly stream from the majority of smartphones and tablets on the market, albeit with (theoretically) compromised sound quality. AirPlay lets iOS devices stream without any audio compression, although it requires the Minx Air 100 and the iOS device to be connected to the same Wi-Fi network.
This flexibility can be useful even if you're an iOS-only household. AirPlay might work better in your home, but Bluetooth allows you to quickly start streaming in other locations where you might not have a Wi-Fi network to connect to.
Cambridge Audio Minx Air 100(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Ports on the back are as limited as you'd expect from a wireless speaker: Ethernet, minijack, and analog input. That should be enough for pretty much every purpose, especially considering its wireless support. There's also a USB-like port, but it's labeled "Service" -- in other words, don't expect to connect your iPod or phone to this speaker, for charging or for music.
Cambridge Audio Minx Air 100(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
The back also features a convenient handle, which ironically highlights one of the Minx's shortcomings; it's not a portable speaker. The system is just small enough that you can imagine dragging it outside for patio duty, but there's no built-in battery, so it always needs to be plugged in.
Sound quality: Better seen than heard
I had the Minx Air 100 set up directly next to the Klipsch KMC 3 and Peachtree Audio Deepblue for listening tests, and it was quickly clear that the Minx Air 100 was the lightweight of the three.
I started with Neil Young's "Harvest." The closing track "Words" picks up a lot of steam toward the end, and the livelier the music got, the more the limitations of the Minx Air 100 were apparent. Young's voice and guitar sounded flat on the Minx, while the other two systems came alive. Switching to heavier fare made the difference starker. "Hand of Doom" from Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" was surprisingly rocking on both the KMC 3 and the Deepblue, but sounded comparatively thin on the Minx, especially in the bass department, even with the bass control on the back turned all the way up. At their best, the KMC 3 and the Deepblue can sound reasonable close to a full-range speaker, but the Minx Air 100 always had a tinny quality that reminds you of its limitations.
The differences were less apparent with softer tunes. The Beatles' "Here, There, and Everywhere" and John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" sounded sweet on the Minx, although I still preferred the richer sound of the other two speakers. The Minx Air 100's strength is creating a more laid-back sound that never gets too boomy, so if you're interested mostly in background tunes, the Minx may be a good fit for you.
The head-to-head matchup also clearly demonstrated that the sonic differences between Bluetooth and AirPlay are typically overstated. The Peachtree Deepblue and Klipsch KMC 3 are Bluetooth-only, but sounded fuller in every way, even compared with "lossless" AirPlay on the Minx 100. Speaker quality matters more than wireless-audio standard, lossy or not, on small systems like these.
Conclusion: Good-looking, but thin-sounding
The Minx Air 100 isn't going to win over anyone picky about sound quality, but its looks and convenient feature set make it worth considering for less critical listeners who want the flexibility of AirPlay and Bluetooth audio streaming.

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