Given the wide assortment of wireless audio technologies in today's ecosystem, it's easy to get bogged down in sound quality and engineering specs. What's not so easy is explaining to a parent or less tech-savvy relative how they should use their devices and connections amongst the current crop of systems and speakers. Between the industry leader Sonos, Apple's native AirPlay, a wide variety of Bluetooth-connected portable speakers and the evolving multi-vendor Play-Fi standard, there are plenty of good choices -- but each of those approaches requires setup, syncing and pairing before you can get to the actual, fun playing-of-the-music part.
That's why the alternative approach taken by Korus with its v400s and v600s wireless speakers is so intriguing, especially as a gift or recommendation for Mother's Day. I wouldn't want to have to explain Bluetooth pairing or WPA2 Wi-Fi encryption to my mom just so she could play music wirelessly, and with the Korus speakers I wouldn't have to.
All the Korus speakers use a small dongle called a Baton to connect sources to speakers, and as soon as you plug the Baton into your Lightning port, 30-pin iOS port or computer's USB port, you can stream clear audio up to 65 feet (quite a bit longer than Bluetooth) at an audiophile-friendly 480kbps bit rate. No configuration, no tweaking, no pairing and no aggravation required. Both speakers come in a basic piano black finish that's unfussy and handsome, although it might not be to every decorator's taste. (Korus has a promotional deal with Dancing With The Stars, so Mom may have already spotted the units on TV.)
The Baton-to-speaker connection is based on a protocol called SKAA, which makes me want to put on my black suspenders and play some English Beat. Korus licenses the SKAA tech from audio chipset designer Eleven Engineering, which also provides the wireless interconnect underpinnings for several other speaker makers. Using the SKAA-based Batons, each speaker can cycle through up to four connected devices by pressing the connect button on the very minimalist control cluster. Additionally, it's easy to combine up to four Korus speakers together for multi-room listening. There's even an iOS app to control the relative volume of the teamed speakers.
Korus sells the shelf-sized, corded v400s and the room-filling, nominally portable (it can run off D batteries for a rated 90 hours) v600s in bundles with all the available Batons (Lightning, 30-pin, USB) plus two device charging cables that sleeve over a connected Baton to charge your phone or iPad while you listen. The v400s bundle is currently $350 and the v600s is $450, discounted quite a bit from the nominal list price (and with free shipping, at the moment). That's roughly comparable with the Sonos component pricing, but the big difference is that the Korus units aren't trying to be part of a bigger music management picture, library consolidation or streaming service approach -- they're just going to play what you're playing on your iPhone, iPad or computer, end of story. (There's not a Baton for Android or Windows Mobile devices, at least not yet, but the speakers do include a standard 3.5mm audio input jack.)
Simplicity is commendable, but what about streaming and sound quality? I tested both the v400s and v600s speakers in my house, with plenty of wireless chatter and interference to keep them honest. To my surprise, I was able to easily stream to the kitchen or living room from my iPhone in the furthest corner of the second floor -- a range where Bluetooth would have given up completely and even Wi-Fi streaming might have been touch and go. I stepped out to the backyard and even over 50 feet away I could still hear the music playing with no skips or slurs noticeable. Korus does acknowledge that you may sacrifice some range if you're using the charging cable while streaming, but within 20-30 feet I didn't perceive any issues. Korus also claims near real-time synchronization between device and speaker for drift-free playback on videos or gaming, which held up in a brief iPad video playback test.
Both speakers also delivered clear, room-filling sound without distortion or static. I'm not a particularly audiophilic listener, but I found the smaller v400s to be great for bedroom or kitchen audio when playing classical, jazz or rock. The larger v600s delivers more low-end sound and held up very well in the living room with high dynamic range tracks from iTunes Plus and Spotify. I didn't try out the USB version of the Baton, but it seems like a good fit for karaoke, video streaming or other Mac-centric playback.
Of course, the obvious drawback of a dongle-centric system like the Baton is that teensy adapters have an unfortunate tendency to wander away and go missing. With a $50 retail price tag for a new Baton, losing one is no small matter. I would have loved to have seen a small storage panel or other way of securing the Batons to/inside the speaker when they're not in use, but barring that there are always other ways to solve the problem.
The Korus speakers aren't a minor investment, and certainly if you're planning out a high-end wireless home system they may not be the complete package. If, however, you want to put good sound in a convenient location and you don't want to worry about fussy networking or having to configure visiting devices just so they can join the playback party, give the Korus chorus a listen.
Rating: Three out of four stars possible