Phorus Play-Fi Speaker Hardware Review

Phorus Play-Fi Speaker Hardware Review

Oct 12, 2012

Phorus promised an equivalent to AirPlay for wireless sound playback for Android back at CES 2012, and it’s finally a reality. The Phorus Play-Fi PS1 Speaker, originally known as the Phorus PlayCast, is starting to make its way out to the world. Phorus sent us a review unit to test out its functionality.

What the device does is to play music wirelessly, primarily over wifi, though there’s also Bluetooth and a 3.5 mm line-in jack to aid in the process. It currently supports just Android for its Play-Fi app, available from Google Play.

Setting up via wifi requires an Android device on the same network; launch the Play-Fi app downloaded from Google Play, choose the Play-Fi that needs to be set up, choose the wireless network it should be connected to, and then put in that wireless network’s password. The device will connect to a temporary network created by the Play-Fi, which will then connect to that network automatically from now on. Resetting to another network is easy, just hold down the wifi button on the bottom until it beeps twice. The lights on the buttons are covered when pressing them, so it can be hard to tell just based on that action alone when the light is going off.

Once the Play-Fi is set up, it can be named, which is important because the Play-Fi app supports multiple Play-Fi Speakers, making it possible to set up a whole home network with Play-Fi Speakers. Choose the speaker to use, and then select what kind of audio to play: Pandora, from media servers, and from the device itself. The app’s built-in Pandora works really well; it’s possible to log in and play music from saved stations, the quality is great and overall it’s just a good experience that shows the potential of the whole ecosystem. Playing music off of the device works too, though some files may be unsupported. DLNA media server functionality requires good server software, which can be hard to find. I was unable to get it working with my Mac.

The Play-Fi Speaker is really convenient; wifi music streaming works well and there’s no seeming audio loss versus a wired connection, perhaps because the device is decoding and playing back the music directly. Whatever trick it’s doing, it’s working well and is the best way to use the Play-Fi Speaker. It’s almost as if it was made to work with it! There’s a cradle that can hold a phone or 7" tablet, and a USB port on the back that appears to work with charging, though my Galaxy S III recognized it as a data+charging USB connection. It comes with a pair of very short mini- and micro-USB cables, ostensibly for charging purposes, which helps prevent a tangled mess, because if someone’s buying a wireless speaker system, that’s specifically what they’re trying to avoid.

The Play-Fi Speaker itself works well. The problem is that the Play-Fi app is limited in terms of what it can play over wifi. Yes, it can play back most any common music file on a device. That’s not a problem. But let’s look at Google Play Music. It’s great for streaming songs and managing which songs are on and off the device without any hassle, but recent app updates have hidden the song files in the data partition of an Android device, making it hard for anything but the app itself to find the files. So it basically requires music to be stored on the device itself, which is often just inconvenient. Forget using Spotify or Rdio with this at the moment over wifi. The sound quality is really good, superior to many speakers that I’ve owned with noticable bass for the small package, but it wasn’t anything that made me jump out of my seat and exclaim how great the sound quality was. It’s really more about the convenience of the package and what Phorus claims to be “room-filling” sound, which for what it’s worth, it can get loud. Sound was definitely audible throughout my studio apartment, which isn’t saying much, but it will be satisfactory volume-wise for many users. The volume can be adjusted either from the Play-Fi Speaker or the app.

Ironically, the easiest way to make sure I got high-quality music playing through the Play-Fi Speaker was to plug my phone in through the auxiliary wired audio port on the back. Everything played with that. Not so convenient, but it worked. Bluetooth audio works as well, which also makes this compatible with iOS devices, but there’s a noticeable drop in sound quality, that even a non-audiophile like myself can tell the difference in. Avoid this if possible.

So, while Phorus is going after AirPlay, considering the limited utility of the Play-Fi app right now and even the availability of reverse-engineered AirPlay sources like DoubleTwist, the Phorus Play-Fi Speaker is hard to recommend unless it fits exactly into a particular use case. What really needs to come is an audio driver that would just be able to capture and play all audio over wifi to the Play-Fi, which would fill in all the gaps and make this something truly worth the cost. Phorus should open up an API for music apps and interested developers to take advantage of this hardware system.

The Phorus Play-Fi Speaker is available now for $199. The Phorus Play-Fi Receiver is available for $149; it is identical to the speaker version but requires users to plug in their own speakers.