Cord-cutters, rejoice: Wireless connection between your digital instrument and your computer, tablet or phone is a reality, thanks to Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) MIDI. We first saw Apple’s Yosemite OS and iOS 8 support BLE MIDI at the software level, and now Android devices are compatible as well, with Windows 10 expected to support it in a forthcoming update this summer.
CME announced plans last year to manufacture wireless versions of their Xkey line of keyboards to meet the BLE MIDI spec, and they’ve delivered. The Xkey Air, available in both 25-key and 37-key configurations for $199 and $299 respectively, are fully mobile iterations of the slim keyboard that I use as my main note-entry keyboard nearly every day.
Back in 2014, I reviewed the Xkey 25, and then in 2015 added an octave with the Xkey 37. The defining features of those keyboards — slim and sleek design, velocity-sensitivity, polyphonic aftertouch, and a handful of CC buttons — are all still present and work just as effectively in the Xkey Air just as they did in the USB versions of the keyboard, so while we won’t cover those in detail here, you can read about those features in our review of the original Xkey.
Using the XKey Air
I tested the Xkey Air 37 — the larger of the Air models — and its size and shape is nearly identical to that of the Xkey 37.
The high C on the Air has a removable Bluetooth sticker, but other than that you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the two. The right side of the keyboard has Xkey’s semi-proprietary micro USB (micro-B) port — the connector is a standard micro-B size, although the plug itself is a customized “slim” version, the cable for which comes included with the Xkey Air.
Yes, the Xkey Air is wireless, but you can also connect it to your device via this USB cable in the ordinary way for a wired connection. You’ll also need the cable to charge the keyboard. CME claims that the Air has more than 10 hours of play on a single charge, certainly enough for a full day of continuous playing. You can use the device in wireless mode even when charging (i.e., if you’re charging through your laptop but playing through your iPad, the latter of which doesn’t have a USB port).
Speaking of charging, one of the only other differences between the Xkey and the Xkey Air is the power switch and series of lights on the back of the unit. A solid blue light means that the Air is connected via Bluetooth, while a flashing blue light means that the Air is waiting for a Bluetooth connection. The green light is on while the device is charging and off when it is either fully charged or not charging. A solid red light means that the Air is connected via USB, while a flashing red light means that it is not connected via USB.
Even though the lights face away from the user, if you have any reflective surfaces it can be a little distracting to have the red light constantly flashing when the Air is perfectly functioning in Bluetooth mode.
Finally, while the Xkey 37 comes with a port on the left side and a special cable through which to hook up MIDI out, sustain and expression pedals, the Xkey Air 37 lacks this feature. Presumably if you’re going wireless, the whole point is to omit cables, so it’s understandable why this feature would be missing on the Air.
Connecting via BLE MIDI
Connecting the Air to your computer or other device via Bluetooth isn’t quite as straightforward as plugging in a USB cable into today’s class-compliant devices, but it’s fairly easy. I tested it on Mac OS X El Capitan 10.11.5 and on an iPad running iOS 9.3.2.
After powering on your Xkey Air, on Mac OS X (Yosemite or higher), you’ll want to make sure that Bluetooth is on in System Preferences > Bluetooth. Then, open up the Mac’s Audio MIDI Setup native app, and then go to Window > Show MIDI Studio.
From here, double-click on the gear in the Bluetooth device to open up the Bluetooth Configuration window. Find the Xkey Air and click Connect.
On an iOS device, again, be certain that Bluetooth in on in Settings > Bluetooth. Then, open Garageband, tap the Settings icon in that app, and tap Advanced.
Tap Bluetooth MIDI Devices.
You should see the Xkey Air appear. Tap to connect it to the iPad/iPhone.
Keep in mind that the Xkey Air can only connect to one device at a time, just as if a cable were connected. If, say, you’re connected to an iPad and want to connect to your Mac, you’ll need to unpair the Air from the iPad first, then connect to the Mac, as shown in this short video:
The Xkey Air’s settings are controlled via the free Xkey Plus app for PC, Mac, and iOS. The settings are customizable down the granular level of each individual key. Of particular interest is the setting, found in the Misc. tab, to automatically power down the keyboard after a certain amount of inactivity, in order to save battery life.
This is helpful, but if the Xkey Air powers off, you’ll need to power it on again using the switch in the back, and then re-connect it to your device. It would be nicer if there were an option for the Xkey Air to automatically wake and connect when pressing any key, as is the case with Bluetooth computer keyboards and mice.
Latency on the Xkey Air did not appear to be a problem, although it is greater than connecting via a USB cable. If you are a live player with a high sensitivity to latency in a performance or studio environment, you may notice an infinitesimal lag, but to my less demanding needs, the Air felt perfectly natural and responsive.
Connecting via WIDI BUD
If you do need a faster response, or if your device or OS doesn’t support BLE MIDI, CME offers the $49 WIDI BUD, a tiny dongle which plugs into the USB port of your device and connects it to the Xkey Air. This has a few advantages to a regular Bluetooth connection:
- Compatibility with many more devices
- No need to manually pair the Xkey Air with your device; it is plug-and-play like a regular USB connection
- Less latency
This is how I was able to use the Xkey Air on my Surface Pro 4 tablet running Windows 10. As mentioned earlier, full support for BLE MIDI is expected in a forthcoming update to Windows 10, but until then, PC users who want to wirelessly connect the Air will need to use the WIDI BUD. In Sibelius, the keyboard appears as “WIDI BUD” in File > Preferences > Input Devices.
For further reading, my colleague Chris Russell has an in-depth writeup about his experience using the Xkey Air and the WIDI BUD over at his Technology in Music Education blog.
Final impressions, price and availability
As noted earlier, the Xkey Air is available in both 25-key and 37-key configurations for $199 and $299 respectively. That’s $100 more than the non-wireless versions — the 25-key original Xkey is $99 and the 37-key is $199 — so prospective users will have to weigh whether going wireless is worth the extra expense for product that is already on the pricier end of portable MIDI keyboards.
If you’re on the road a lot, going totally wireless is appealing, and is well worth the premium. But even if you’re at a desktop most of the time like I am, having one fewer cable reduces the clutter in a surprisingly meaningful way. Now my three main input devices — computer keyboard, trackball, and MIDI keyboard — are all wireless for the first time. And, as has been the case with the previous two Xkey keyboards that I’ve reviewed, the Xkey Air has earned a permanent spot on my desk.