I’ve never wanted da smart speaker in my home due mainly to privacy concerns. Google, Amazon and to a lesser extent Apple have more data on me, and on us all, than any of us will probably ever realise. The last thing I want to do is bring a device (or multiple devices) into my environment that will allow them to hear every word I say, record every question I ask, track everything I listen to and monitor and control every smart device I use.
There’s no denying the convenience of a smart speaker though. They offer wireless connectivity to every music source befitting a modern digital lifestyle, in compact, stylish devices. Some of them even sound pretty good, though no smart speaker on the market today is a substitute for a good hi-fi system.
When Edifier reached out with a sample of their new MS-50, however, it peaked my interest. The MS-50 is what I like to call a dmi-smart speaker. It is wifi-enabled supporting AirPlay and Spotify, and there’s Bluetooth onboard too for offline connection. It can function as a speaker in the Amazon Alexa ecosystem, though has no onboard microphone of its own so cannot be used to speak with the AI robots, nor can it be used to listen in on your impromptu karaoke. Pair it with an Echo Flex or the older Echo Dot and you get a cheap entry into the Alexa ecosystem with better sound than any of the Amazon devices.
It is designed much like a traditional speaker, albeit one a combination of old-fashioned enclosure design concepts and modern DSP (digital signal processing) with digital amplifiers and a digital crossover, allowing the sound to be tuned in software. In a nutshell this gives you exceptional bass response from a small cabinet, with crisp clear highs that are free of distortion at high volumes.
It also enables nifty features too, like stereo pairing. Stereo pairs can be configured in the Edifier home app, and allow these modern speakers to form something resembling a traditional stereo system without a single wired source input in sight. When used individually the speakers default to summing all input audio to mono.
That’s not where the features end, however. Control is via the aforementioned app, via the Alexa ecosystem and (including the Alexa app and partnering Amazon Echo devices) or via a touch panel on the device itself. Surrounded by a ring of LEDs that blink, flash and illuminate according to the current operational state of the speaker, the touch panel surrounds the only real button on the device – a central button used for power on and off and a mute function.
The touch panel itself has four controls for play / pause, next / previous and mode, the latter toggling between Bluetooth and Wifi, access to the unit’s setup mode for wifi connection and a quick shortcut to restore factory settings. There are occasional voice prompts when the setup mode is active, as well as flashing lights to tell you what the speaker is doing.
The panel is laid out with mode at the top, next / previous to either side and play / pause at the bottom. The touch panel handles volume adjustment too. This is done by moving a finger clockwise around the panel to increase the volume, or counterclockwise to decrease the volume. It works flawlessly and, as volume controls go, is actually quite fun to use. Naturally you can control the volume from connected devices too, including within apps on the Mac or iOS via AirPlay.
The MS-50 is a compact speaker, roughly a cuboid in shape though elegant curves and chamfers to all of its panels. The sides and back are veneered in real Walnut wood which is beautifully lacquer finished, giving a wonderful grain texture without a join in sight. The enclosure itself is actually MDF and the top and base panels are plastic, the latter recessed to accommodate the C7 figure of eight power socket with a channel for the cable to run neatly out of the back. The front comprises a fabric-covered, mesh plastic grille which hides the two drivers. The grille is removable, though it’s not intended to be removed.
Behind the grille we find the two drivers. A 0.75 inch (19 mm) silk dome tweeter is situated above a 4 inch (102 mm) long-throw mid bass driver with a ribbed cone surface to reduce deflection. THere’s a bass port at the bottom. To save space the port is formed as a long, flat oval shape, which also allows the air to exit more uniformly from the cabinet with less chuffing at the cabinet’s resonant frequency. The result is a cleaner low-frequency output and less perceived distortion, especially given the size limitations of the cabinet.
Total system output is 40W – 25W mid bass, 15W treble from class D bi-amplification. Frequency response is rated at 52Hz – 18kHz, though no linearity figures are given. Signal to noise ratio is stated as better than 85dB(A). These figures don’t mean much when they’re quoted without any linearity or environmental references, but in reality they don’t really matter for a device like this. In practical terms the MS-50A doesn’t produce much if any noticeable hiss when it’s playing, even with your ear close to the tweeter. It can produce plenty of bass for its size, highs don’t appear rolled off and there’s more than enough volume.
The MS-50A supports two input modes. Bluetooth 5.0 allows direct streaming from a supported device. Dual-band wifi gives you support for AirPlay 2 (supporting multi-room control if you have an Apple HomePod mini), Spotify Connect and Tidal Connect
Setup is simple. Out of the box the speaker will boot in setup mode. If it doesn’t, hold the mode button to enter setup mode and the speaker will appear in the app
You’re then prompted to choose a wifi network and enter the password (if any). After a couple of minutes during which the speaker connects to your network and configures itself, you’re ready to go. You can add additional devices from the app’s Home Screen. You can also setup stereo pairs if you have more than one supported device on the network, and view what’s currently playing across your devices.
Tapping a speaker gives you a set of playback and volume controls, input selection and settings. There’s not much you can configure. The settings page shows you your network configuration, information about the speaker and the current wifi signal strength, and gives you access to the user manual, amazon account linking and the option to restore the speaker to its factory settings. You can also rename the speaker to something more easily identified on a network. You can’t add room images like you can with most multi-room systems. Nor are there any EQ functions to tailor the sound to your taste. What you see (and hear) is what you get.
Also lacking are any facilities for DLNA playback, on-device internet radio or local file playback from a smartphone. Similar devices such as portable speakers in the Yamaha MusicCast platform have these features and more besides. But you’ll pay more for the extra functionality, and they don’t sound quite as good.
The MS-50A is a sound-first smart speaker. It might be about as simple as a smart speaker can get, but it makes up for its lacking features with a deep, rich bass, clear highs and slightly elevated midrange which pushes vocals and spoken word audio out into the room. I’ll admit that I still don’t see the appeal of smart speakers, at least not monaural ones, for music. Music has been in stereo for over 50 years and it should be played that way. No doubt if I had two of these to configure a stereo pair, they would make a formidable system given their size and price. But where I found the MS-50 came into its own as for podcasts and radio.
I used it mostly via AirPlay, streaming podcasts from Downcast, internet radio and background music from Apple Music, all from a MacBook Pro. There were no dropouts and I appreciated that I was able to control the volume from either the app, the Mac or the speaker itself, as well as basic transport control. The MS-50 is a great option for simple streaming.
It can easily fill a relatively large room too. There’s no distortion even at high volume. The sound that comes out of such a small box is really quite surprising. If you’re buying these primarily to listen to music, I would certainly suggest you buy two to pair them up for proper stereo. But if you’re after a great-looking, well-built streaming speaker, and you don’t want invasive smart tech in your home, The MS-50 may just be for you.