Look, ma, no wires for Apple-friendly speaker

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Danish audio-video manufacturer Bang & Olufsen is known for its strikingly designed, pricey electronics gear. Hmm, sound like any smartphone-tablet-computer maker you can think of?

So it's no coincidence that B&O is bringing its high-style ethos to the market for peripherals designed to work with Apple's iPhones, iPads and Macs. The result is the Beolit 12, a portable speaker that uses Apple's AirPlay technology to wirelessly stream music throughout your home.

The Beolit 12 introduces B&O Play, a new line that in the B&O world will pass for budget-priced -- in this case, $799.

Now, in the world of most mortals, $799 is a lot of money for a speaker. Even high-end manufacturers like Klipsch, Bowers & Wilkins and Bose sell similar products for hundreds less. Still, if you've got the coin and want the cachet, B&O offers very good sound in a striking package.

The Beloit 12 resembles a compact, aluminum-clad picnic basket. It measures about nine inches by five inches, and stands about seven inches tall, with a rubberized top that provides easy access to the power, volume controls and wireless-network indicator. At about six pounds, it's easily transportable without being featherweight; a leather shoulder strap completes the basket metaphor.

Plays well with Apple

At the back are USB and line-in ports, should you want to directly connect an iPad, iPhone or iPod touch (or a non-Apple phone or MP3 player). But the Beolit works and plays best with the Apple ecosystem, specifically AirPlay, its proprietary system for media sharing across devices.

Airplay is what allows you to, for example, beam photos or a movie from your iPad onto a big-screen television equipped with the company's $99 Apple TV gadget. Once the Beolit is introduced to your network, it appears as an output option on a pop-up menu when you play music from any iDevice, Mac or Microsoft Windows PC running Apple's iTunes software. Choose it, and the music begins to play. That's it.

Unfortunately, it takes a good deal of effort to get to that effortless point. Setting up the Beolit is a pain.

Awkward set-up

You start by opening a door on the speaker's back, revealing a large empty compartment and exposing two ports: one for the power cable and the other for an included Ethernet cable. Plugging in the cables can be awkward, but it's nothing compared to the hoops you have to jump through to get the speaker onto your wireless network.

You'll need a computer, which can't be connected to the Internet during set-up. Plug the other end of the Ethernet cable into the computer, type an address into a Web browser that opens the Beolit's set-up page. Enter information about your Wi-Fi network, disconnect the computer and wait for the speaker to restart, amid much blinking of orange and white lights.

Once done, you're rewarded with sound that's surprisingly rich coming from such a compact package, thanks to the 120-watt amplifier driving a pair of two-inch tweeters and a four inch- woofer that provides solid bass.

The sound is by no means audiophile-quality. As with the one-box solutions from B&O's competitors, there's no real stereo separation to speak of, and squeezing everything into such a small package inevitably imposes compromises. Still, for what it is, you're likely to be happy.

Time out

B&O says the Beolit will play for eight hours with a device directly plugged in, but only four hours if you're using Airplay. That would be pretty disappointing if it were true.

During my test, the estimate proved much too conservative. With the volume loud enough to fill a large, fully furnished room, I got more than 6-1/2 hours of continuous listening between charges.

Is the Beolit 12 worth the money? Only if you understand the premium you're paying to buy into the B&O lifestyle. If so, you'll get some very nice sound along with it.

By Rich Jaroslovsky
Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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