Monitor Audio Airstream S150 review: Simply brilliant sound quality
For those who don’t follow the British hi-fi scene, Monitor Audio is a long-established native builder of passive loudspeakers. The kind of boxes audiophiles attached to their expensive amplifier-and-CD player setups when CD was exciting new technology. Now, though, in the era of downloads and streaming, the traditionalists are having to rethink their approach, to branch out. In the case of Monitor Audio, it’s channelling its four decades of audio expertise into making much smaller, mains-powered Bluetooth speakers: enter the Airstream S150.
Compared with some of the company’s classic speaker designs, the S150 is very different. It’s not big and bulky or clad in expensive wood veneer. It doesn’t have spikes on the bottom or gold-plated speaker terminals at the rear. It’s a smart-looking device, predominantly tower-shaped but with a top that slopes and angles backwards. It looks a bit like a loaf of sliced bread that’s been squashed in the freezer.
Once you get used to it, though, it’s not an ugly look, and if you don’t like the ostentation of the white two-tone model pictured here, there’s also a classic charcoal-grey version with black speaker cloth. Both look equally smart in my opinion.
Monitor Audio Airstream S150: Controls and design
Aside from its odd shape, though, the design is pleasingly simple. Below the top power button, there’s an LED that lights up blue when pairing or connected over Bluetooth, or green when you’ve set it to the 3.5mm auxiliary wired connection.
The S150 can retain five Bluetooth devices in its memory, but it won’t swap over to the 3.5mm input automatically when it detects a signal as some other speakers do – you’ll need to press the source switcher button on the side. There’s another button here for setting it back to Bluetooth or setting up the pairing, and the volume buttons are also situated on the side of the speaker.
The one thing the S150 lacks is any kind of media-playback controls, so you can’t pause or skip tracks directly from the speaker, which is a shame. There’s also no remote control included, so you’ll need to keep your Bluetooth-connected audio source close to hand.
On the back, alongside the 3.5mm input, there’s a USB port that can be used for charging devices. This outputs 5V at 1A, so will slowly charge most smartphones, but tablets typically require at least 2A, so it’s not practical for larger devices. The USB port won’t charge devices when the speaker is in standby, either, which is irritating.
Monitor Audio Airstream S150: Drivers and sound quality
The front speaker cover can be removed if you want a look at the drivers. Once you’ve done that, you’re greeted by a 1in dome tweeter with 3in bass drivers directly above and below. Upon closer inspection, you’ll see the two bass drivers are actually angled slightly left and right, rather than directly forward.
This helps to disperse the sound, extending the sweet spot across a much broader area than you’d otherwise expect from a solitary tower-shaped speaker. There’s also an auxiliary bass radiator on the back to help out with the lower frequencies.
The two bass drivers output 25W each, where the central tweeter outputs 10W. And while the S150’s frequency response of 80Hz – 25kHz might leave you feeling slightly worried about the lower frequencies, the reality is that there’s a rich, weighty low-end.
Listening to my bass test tracks of choice – A$AP Rocky’s “L$D” and The Toure-Raichel Collective’s “Tidhar” – there was plenty of deep, controlled thump to the bass, far exceeding what I expected for a speaker of this size.
The mids and trebles were also suitably delicate and I was happy to hear that it wasn’t overwhelmed by the emphatic bass. The sound isn’t as detailed as other mains-powered Bluetooth speakers I’ve listened to – the Bowers & Wilkins T7, for instance – but that speaker costs twice as much as the Monitor Audio Airstream S150, so to even come close is commendable. On Menahan Street Band’s “Make The Road By Walking”, I was able to pick out every individual percussion and brass instrument.
Regardless of whether I set the speaker to a low volume or pushed it to maximum, the S150 remained neutral and controlled throughout, resisting veering towards muddy or overly bright sounds at either end of its frequency range. It didn’t distort at maximum volume, either, and I found it capable of filling a large room with loud music – another surprise given the speaker’s size.
Monitor Audio Airstream S150: Verdict
The Airstream S150’s simplicity grants it a certain overall charm. It’s completely unfussy in both its design and ergonomics, and if all you want is an easy (and reasonably priced) way to play music from a wired or Bluetooth source with fantastic sound quality, it’s tough to beat.
If you’re desperate for AirPlay, then the company’s Airstream S200 is also worth a look, but it is £50 more expensive. For my money, I’d rather stick with the S150: it’s cheaper and sounds fantastic whatever music you play through it. A worthy award-winner.
See also: The best Bluetooth speakers of 2016 – what are this year’s finest wireless boomboxes?
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