Under the Radar

Review: Cambridge Audio Minx Wireless Speakers

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Wireless audio presents a whole host of challenges for anyone building audio gear these days, but wireless audio is what consumers want. A decade of explosive growth in wifi and smartphones has created consumer expectations about how things should work.

Cambridge Audio has launched the Minx line of wireless speakers to address the new markets. We checked out the Minx Air 200 AirPlay/Bluetooth wireless speaker and the Minx Go portable Bluetooth speaker. Here's the short review: the Minx Air 200 delivers exceptional audio performance for the price and the Minx Go is a solid performer in a price range crowded with Bluetooth options.

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The reality is that you're going to get your best-quality audio with hard-wire connections all the way from your music source to the speakers. That means playing the music from a CD or LP or cassette through an amp to your speakers. No streaming. No wireless speakers. That fact doesn't hold up for an overwhelming majority of modern listeners. The ability to carry a music library on your phone or stream an almost infinite variety of music from Spotify or Pandora via a mobile device is a convenience that changes the game for audio gear. What's a quality audio company to do?

Cambridge Audio have long enjoyed a sterling reputation as a high fidelity audio company. They have long been one of the premier manufacturers of under-$1000 CD players, delivering devices with superior DAC (digital-to-analog) converters that rivaled players that cost several thousand dollars more. Of course, the CD player market has cratered and Cambridge Audio has started to take its expertise in digital-to-analog conversion to build other products.

Here's the advantage to a wireless speaker: you can stream whatever audio you want from a connected device. No matter if you've loaded music files onto your computer, phone or network-connected music player or if you want to use a music streaming service like Pandora, Spotify or Beats Audio. Or if you listen to Internet radio or use a dedicated app like NPR or iHeartRadio. The wireless speaker is somewhere else in the room (or maybe in the next room) and you control what it plays from a device you're holding in your hand. That's a convenience that's changing how everyone listens to music and audio quality can be a casualty in the changeover. Of course, it's not nearly as much of a step down as the move from CD's and LP's to super-compressed MP3's ten years ago, but the extra level of streaming introduces another opportunity for things to fall apart.

There are three ways to go here. The least common solution is for a speaker system to create its own proprietary network. Very few devices do that, but we're going to be looking at an option for that in an upcoming review.

The most common technologies for wireless audio streaming are Apple's AirPlay and Bluetooth. If you read the reviews of wireless speakers online, you'll see a lot of criticism aimed at all high-profile brands but a good chunk of those negative write-ups are talking more about issues with the streaming technologies than the speakers themselves.

AirPlay uses your wifi network to stream music. That means your performance is entirely dependent on the level on interference you get in your network. I've tested AirPlay speakers in two different locations. It's solid in a modern high-rise apartment building, but I've had dropout issues in a late-19th century house with incredibly thick walls. But that's because there are recurring, phantom wifi issues in the house. I'm not blaming the speaker.

Bluetooth provides a direct connection between the speaker and the device you're streaming to it. That means you've got to pair the device and the speaker and you've got to hope that the device and the speaker stay paired. You also have a limited distance (30 feet seems like an average) and need a clear line of sight from the device to the speaker. In practice, this works better for some speakers than others.

A lot of engineers would point out that both technologies have been implemented more as hacks than by design, but the customer wants their wireless speakers and companies better figure out a way to offer speakers that deliver.

Which brings us to our two options from Cambridge Audio.

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Minx Air 200

The Minx Air 200 delivers spectacular audio quality for the price.  It's not a casual purchase. Even though Cambridge Audio just dropped the price, it's still retailing for $500. It's also a device that takes up some space. It's nearly 18" wide and 9" high and weighs in at a hefty 11 lbs.

This is an awesome primary listening option for anyone who's embraced the streaming music lifestyle. If you're planing to set it up in your living room or bedroom and leave it in one place, you're likely going to love it. If your bedroom and living room are on the same wifi network, you might not even mind lugging it back and forth between the two rooms every once in a while.

The most striking thing about the sound is how neutral it is. I mean that as high praise. Aside from a bass control on the back of the speaker, there's no controls to fiddle with the audio. The Minx Air 200 is about accurate reproduction, so there's none of the hopped-up low end or hyper-compressed midrange to make it sound exciting the first time you turn it on but leads to massive ear fatigue later.

This show up most in classical music, jazz and music recorded with a lot of acoustic instruments. That doesn't mean rock guitars don't crunch or that you don't get a healthy amount of bass from the 6.5" subwoofer.

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This device is versatile. If you use Apple devices, it connects via AirPlay but you've also got a Bluetooth option if your wifi network is dodgy or if you prefer an Android device. There's an audio in port to plug an old iPod and RCA jacks if you want to add a CD player. If you're putting the speaker near your Internet modem, you can also connect directly via the Ethernet jack on the back.

Connecting the speaker to your wifi network requires just a little work. You have to use a computer to connect directly to the unit via wifi, navigate to a setup page via a web browser and enter your network password to give the Minx Air 200 permission to connect. It only connects to one network at a time, so if you're taking the unit between different wifi networks, you have to start the process over every time you move it.

The Bluetooth setup is easier and the unit remembers devices that have been previously paired with it far better than you'd expect if you've been using less expensive Bluetooth speakers.

There's not really a discernible difference between the audio quality of the AirPlay and Bluetooth connections. so you can feel good about using whatever hookup makes the most sense for you. Also encouraging: while a wired connection definitely sounds better than either wireless option, the wireless performance is remarkably close.

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The unit also connects directly to streaming Internet radio once you've connected it to your wifi network and Cambridge Audio has preprogrammed five of its favorite stations that are easily accessible via buttons on the top left of the unit.

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You can download a free app on the iTunes or Google Play stores to change the presets to any streamable online station and also have access to five additional presets, as well as some audio enhancement options for whatever station you're listening to. The interface isn't as slick as you'd hope, but it gets the job done.

Again, this isn't a budget option. Still, it's $200 cheaper than it's main competition ( the Bose SoundTouch 30) and I'd absolutely choose the Minx Air 200 even if the two units were the same price. If cost is not an issue for you, the Bowers & Wilkins A7 is in a class all by itself, but that one costs $300 more than the Minx Air 200. Plus both of those units are AirPlay-only and lack the versatility of this speaker.

Once you set up the Minx Air 200 in one place, connect your devices and program your radio stations, you're not going to get better sound for $500.

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The Minx Go is a Bluetooth speaker designed to give the company a market presence at the lower end of the market. It's definitely not a cheap speaker (it sells for $150) and the price puts it right in the middle of a really crowded segment of the audio market.

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The unit is just over 9" wide and just under 5" high and weighs just 2 1/2 lbs. There are two 0.75" tweeters, two 2" woofers and a rear-firing bass radiator that gives a surprising amount of thump for such a small unit.

I got 15 solid hours of play from a full battery charge. You can charge via the rear USB port or by plugging it into the wall. There's also a plug on the back that allows you to connect a source via the audio jack.

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Controls are dead simple. Press the power button for a couple of extra seconds to go into pairing mode. Once you're playing music, you've got volume buttons and that's it.

The Air Go comes with a travel bag and I took it on a couple of trips and didn't worry much about how it would travel when wrapped in some clothes in my suitcase.

This one isn't as small as most of the portable options on the market (in fact, it's about the same size as the Big Jambox), but I'm reasonably sure this is just about as small as the Cambridge Audio engineers were willing to go and still keep what they saw as an acceptable level of audio performance.

This one is definitely not for use in extreme conditions. I wouldn't put one of these out by the pool or in the deer stand or in the garage. There are cheaper options that are specifically designed to take a beating. Still, this one sounds much better than the Big Jambox and is a definite step up from the best $100 Bluetooth speaker options.

I've been using a $99 SoundKick around the house for the last couple of years and it's been a great option. Is the Minx Go a better speaker? Definitely. Is it worth a 50% premium over a $100 speaker? That's a tougher call. I like the clean lines and the attempt to bring some of the high-end audio values into a reasonably priced speaker. I say yes, but a lot of you might be okay with a less expensive option.

Summary

The Minx Air 200 offers exceptional audio quality for the price. It's versatile and should absolutely be at the top of your list if you're looking for a dedicated audio system and have given up on old-school vinyl & CDs. The system outperforms everything in its price range. If really want a less expensive option, the $400 Minx Audio 100 utilizes the same technology in a smaller package but the 200 really seems like it delivers a lot more value for only 25% more.

If you're dealing with a small space and a price is a definite issue, the Minx Go delivers an unobtrusive design, solid value and excellent sound.

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