Kevin Hunt: Denon's Cocoon Home speaker dock not quite ready to fly

Oh, the beauty of the insect life cycle. Let's see if Denon's Cocoon Home, stuck in the pupal stage of speaker-dock metamorphosis, someday emerges as a newly molted ... Zeppelin Air?

Better settle into an ergonomic lab chair, because this transformation could take some time.

The Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air remains the top premium-priced speaker dock for wireless music and slick design (close your eyes and think "dirigible"). The $600 Cocoon is plagued by firmware-gone-wild affects like significant distortion at higher volumes, reverting to "maximum volume" when starting Airplay streaming from iTunes, sluggish controls and failed connections with a DLNA-enabled Windows computer.

The rough edges revived memories of, yes, the first Zeppelin Air that passed this way two years ago — the one I characterized as the "Zeppelin Err."

Ahem. Bowers & Wilkins, the captains of that inflatable ship, refined the Air into a smooth-running speaker dock. (If only humans were eligible for firmware updates.) The Cocoon, even in recent weeks, has gained some self-control and greater reliability after a firmware update.

That's encouraging, because the Cocoon is the rare speaker dock that welcomes both Apple and Android patrons. The Cocoon invites wireless streaming from Android devices and DLNA-enabled computers, though only Apple devices may sit upon the dock.

It has the now-requisite app (Android, too) as a quasi-remote control for the speaker dock and the docked device, though none are as good for iTunes music control as Apple's venerable (and free) Remote app.

The user must connect the speaker dock to a home network, either wired (Ethernet) or Wi-Fi. The Cocoon also has a physical remote and touch-sensitive controls along the top that are not always so touch sensitive. (A firmware update seemed to resolve that, though starting the update required tapping, repeatedly, like Babatunde Olatunji on the controls.)

The Cocoon's dock is, by invitation only, iPod-iPhone-iPad. It's a clever one, too, with a tiny OLED display screen showing time, music, volume and source information as the face of the retractable dock. Push in the dock and the screen sits flush with the cloth grille that conceals what's essentially two speakers packed tightly, each with a 1.5-inch tweeter for highs and a 4-inch driver for lower frequencies. Four 25-watt amplifiers power the ensemble.

Under restraint, the Cocoon's sound might approach the Air's, with somewhat looser bass, but it distorts even at moderate volume. The Cocoon needs a firmware fix.

Airplay, Apple's wireless streaming technology, delivers music to the Cocoon from an undocked iDevice on the same home network. That part worked flawlessly. Unfortunately, I lacked an Android device to test the non-Airplay streaming, though I spent several hours trying to introduce a DLNA-enabled laptop to the Cocoon. Windows Media Player listed the Cocoon as a connected device but declared either an error or failed command each time I tried to play a compatible digital music file.

Denon's troubleshoot: Use the Android mobile app to stream music from a PC. That, of course, does not help when surrounded by an iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. Better: Return to iTunes and Airplay for streaming from the Windows computer.

Internet radio promises a world of streaming stations, yet the Cocoon has only three station presets. The app does much better with a "favorites" option. Playing music from a connected USB storage device also was frustrating: The Cocoon app didn't display the available songs. And iTunes Match is not supported, though it will be with an upcoming update.

The Cocoon — the series includes the $400 Cocoon Portable — arrived at an inopportune time, too early to catch Apple's shift to the Lightning connector. An updated Zeppelin Air ($600) and the more conventionally designed Z2 ($400) arrive in May from Bowers & Wilkins with Lightning connectors.

Even if the Cocoon Home can't compete with Lightning docks, there are still millions of owners of Apple devices with old-style connectors. It would look a lot better than a garden-variety dock with some firmware refinements and a lower price.

What: Denon Cocoon Home speaker dock

Price: $599,

Hot: Streaming music for Apple refuseniks via Android and DLNA technologies, retractable dock with display, decent sound at moderate volume.

Not: Balky DLNA streaming from a computer, sluggish controls, excessive distortion at high volume.

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