Pioneer's X-SMC4-K Elite Music Tap AirPlay Music System is feature-rich but fares poorly
At a Glance
Pioneer's $479 X-SMC4-K Elite Music Tap is a mouthful to name—I'll refer to it as the SMC4 from here on out—and a handful to use. The SMC4 can play audio from just about any source, thanks to an iPhone/iPod dock, a USB port, and an auxiliary-audio input; support for Bluetooth, AirPlay, DLNA, and Internet radio; and a built-in FM tuner. And the system's audio quality is stellar. Unfortunately, the SMC4 exhibits some serious flaws that make using the system frustrating.
The 4.5-pound SMC4 is 20.5 inches wide, 8.6 inches tall, and 6.1 inches deep, taking the shape of a slightly curved mix of black plastic and metal; a metal grille covers the speaker at each end. The body of the system sits atop a built-in chrome stand. Positioned between the speakers is a shiny, black-plastic face with two displays built into it: To the left is a 2.5-inch-square color screen, and to the right is a red-LED clock.
Oddly, the clock departs from any of the accepted display formats I've come across for digital clocks. It reads P 4:36 for 4:36 p.m., or A 10:02 for 10:02 a.m. This kind of confusing design is a frequent problem with the SMC4.
To its credit, the SMC4 does some things right. The unit’s 1/8-inch (3.5mm) auxiliary-input port is right on the front for each access, alongside a headphone jack and the aforementioned USB port (which is for connecting USB sticks and drives, not an iPod or iPhone.
Below the LED clock, just above the SMC4's base, is the iPhone/iPod dock. The dock cradle hides within the unit; a firm press on the front triggers the mechanism that slowly rolls out the cradle. The button to expose the cradle is deeply recessed, just above the unit’s base; reaching it doesn’t exactly require finger gymnastics, but it’s awkwardly placed. On the back of the SMC4 sit an FM antenna port, an ethernet port, a composite-video output, and the connector for the included AC adapter.
Across the top of the SMC4 sit eight buttons: Power, Function, BT Audio, Air Jam, Play/Pause, Stop, Volume Down, and Volume Up. The Function button is the main on-board means of switching between input sources, BT Audio puts the device in Bluetooth-pairing mode, and Air Jam triggers a party mode that allows up to four iPhone owners running Pioneer's Air Jam app to add songs to a communal playlist.
Absent from this row of buttons, as you may have noticed, are Previous and Next controls. You'll find those buttons on the SMC4’s large remote. In addition to these two, as well as duplicates of the buttons on the SMC4 itself, the remote provides buttons for Display Off, Sleep, Clock, Set Up, Mute, Shuffle, Repeat, Rewind, Fast Forward, and Sound (for adjusting various audio options), as well as numbers 0 through 9 and various menu-navigation controls.
The first thing you’ll do with the SMC4 when you want to use it, of course, is turn it on. The problem is that the power-on sequence can take between 45 seconds and a full minute. You can shorten startup time considerably by turning on Quick Start Mode, but Pioneer says that Quick Start Mode requires 16 Watts. Fully powered-on mode consumes 23 Watts. Quick Start mode hews awfully close to “just leaving the darn thing on,” in my opinion.
Once it’s on, the SMC4 works as expected. I did have one control beef, though: As with many of the speaker systems we've tested, you choose your audio input by cycling through the available options. However, the SMC4 has so many playback options—eight, by my count—that choosing one is a hassle. I'd rather be able to switch directly to the input source of your choosing.
Pairing the unit via Bluetooth was a seamless process, and playing music from a docked iPhone or iPod was simple, too. As with most speaker systems that use Apple's Universal dock design, Pioneer warns that you must use the appropriate dock-cradle insert for your iPod or iPhone to avoid damage or malfunction. I didn’t—I placed my iPhone directly in the bare dock cradle—and my phone remained damage- and malfunction-free. I successfully played music from a USB stick, as well, and FM reception using the included wire antenna was in line with my expectations. (Note that you can’t use the USB port to charge a device unless you’re in USB-playback mode—the port’s dead in other modes.)
To listen to Internet radio, DLNA-streamed audio, or AirPlay, you need to get the SMC4 online. The included manual lacks decent instructions for connecting the SMC4 to a wireless network, but, fortunately, it’s not too difficult. You use the remote to slowly key in your settings on the 2.5-inch screen. To its credit, the unit connected quickly to my local network, and the signal-strength meter on the display is a nice touch. Connecting via ethernet was straightforward, as well—you just plug in your network cable. Note, however, that switching between wired and wireless connections requires a system reboot—meaning waiting through the aforementioned 45- to 60-second startup time. Luckily, most people won't need to go through that process often.
Browsing Internet radio stations is fairly simple thanks to the SMC4's screen, although—and this obviously isn't the system's fault—I quickly lost interest in this feature thanks to the preponderance of low-quality streams. The SMC4 can’t connect to streaming-audio services such as Pandora or Spotify.
The SMC4’s AirPlay implementation is ostensibly well done. Once the system was on the network, my iOS devices and iTunes on my Mac immediately recognized the SMC4 as an AirPlay option, and during AirPlay playback, the SMC4's display shows various bits of info for the currently track. (The display shows such data only during AirPlay and Internet Radio playback.) According to Pioneer, the display should also show album artwork, but it did so for me only intermittently.
However, I saw constant AirPlay dropouts when using the SMC4 over Wi-Fi. In my experience, AirPlay playback is rarely without the occasional hiccup, but the SMC4 suffered from major stutterfests. Wireless playback wasn’t always marred, but I experienced issues on two Wi-Fi networks using three different base stations. At best, Wi-Fi playback experienced only occasional hiccups; at worst, the hiccups left the music unlistenable. (The SMC4 fared far, far better when connected to a wired Internet connection.)
While I'm on the topic of performance, three times over the course of my testing, the SMC4 crashed—in the software sense of the word—and forced itself to reboot. While I couldn't methodically reproduce each crash, they occurred when I took some specific action, such as pressing Set Up on the remote while in AirPlay mode. While this isn't the first AirPlay system I've tested that's experienced stuttering playback to one degree or another, it is the first that's crashed on me.
The SMC4 employs a pair of 2.6-inch full-range drives, along with a pair of 3-inch passive radiators, generating the kind of sound that initially impresses. Bass presence isn’t overly powerful, but there’s respectable oomph, and music generally sounded clean and clear.
The SMC4 gets plenty loud, but things fall apart once you crank up the volume. The volume display goes from 0 to 50, and I started to notice light distortion around the mid- to upper-30s. From the upper-40s on, there was so much distortion that I found the audio unlistenable. For a system at this price, that’s unacceptable.
You get a couple sound processors with the SMC4, each of which you enable using the remote. Virtual Surround attempts to simulate a stereo image wider than the SMC4’s physical wingspan; audiophiles don’t always appreciate such acoustic trickery, but I found I liked the effect. The second setting, Sound Retriever, attempts to counterbalance the compression effects of lower-quality MP3s. To my ears, the feature sounded like an EQ adjustment. I ended up leaving it on. Regardless of whether I left these sound processors enabled or not, however, I heard that same distortion at louder volumes.
Macworld’s buying advice
With the SMC4’s steep price tag, it needs to be easier to use, more stable, and more capable at loud volumes. While I can’t rule out network interference as the cause of my Wi-Fi AirPlay issues, no other AirPlay system I've tested has had the same problems in the same testing environment. For $70 more, Klipsch's Gallery G17 Air is a much simpler and more acoustically impressive device, even if it doesn't provide as many input options. Given the price, I can't recommend the SMC4.