This is a long review, and I apologize for the length, but I am very fond of these items and they deserve some coverage. If you want to read a very quick summary, check out my last post. I also had to publish an incomplete draft in order to add in-document links, so if you received e-mail notification about the post and it was incomplete, I apologize.
I love technology, and I love teaching others about technology in relation to what they are doing in their classrooms. I have a special affinity for technology that “changes the game” and makes technology easier to use or easier to incorporate into our lives. As a music teacher and a musician–there are few occurrences where I am bursting with excitement about a product. This is one of those situations.
This review is going to look at a CME’s XKey Air and the CME WIDI BUD. You can click on either of those last two links to skip to the section about that product, and there is a (20 minute) video at the end of the review.
If you want to buy these devices, visit the CME Website. Whie the WIDI BUD website is “live,” at the moment, the only place to buy the WIDI BUD is B&H (This will change over time). Special thanks to CME and Virgin Musical Instruments for making these products available for this review and for the sessions that I will be presenting in the 2016-2017 academic year.
CME XKey Air (25 Key Model $199, 37 Key Model $299)
The XKey first came to my attention in late 2014, as a representative from CME (or more specifically, their distributor in the United States) contacted me about the product and their coming attendance at TMEA. While the company has been around since 1993, the current CME was formed in 2012. After reading some reviews on the Internet, I can’t tell when the original XKey came out (my best guess is 2014) as a high quality portable MIDI keyboard. The features of that keyboard included high quality materials, full sized keys, function buttons (instead of wheels), velocity-sensitive keys, and low-travel keys. While the keyboard can be used for performance, the target was portable studio and notation work–something it is perfect for.
I remember stopping by CME’s booth at TMEA, seeing the XKey for the first time, and showing them the Miselu C.24 keyboard. I asked them to consider BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) MIDI with their keyboard. At the time, my C. 24 was one of the few of those devices “in the wild” as they sent it to me early so that I could show it at various music education conferences. Just a word about the C.24–I lost mine in Nashville at NAfME. The C.24 was an exciting device as it was the first BLE MIDI device on the market. It promised to be a device that could be used as an iPad cover, and featured the ability to “flip” the device into form to make a playable keyboard that worked with magnets (not springs). You could combine multiple units to make a longer keyboard. The keys were scaled on an old model of a “woman’s” piano (apparently, piano keys used to be a relative item, based on the desires of the purchaser versus an industry standard). The C. 24 works, and is still available from Miselu at a (now lower) cost of $149. I do worry about the durability of the C. 24 (all the moving parts to flip open the device) and the future of the company (it still hasn’t released a promised control module to backers)–plus the function of the case changed when Apple changed the design of the iPad and the C.24 could no longer be used as an iPad case. This means that the market is still open to a high quality BLE MIDI portable keyboard, and the XKey Air fits the bill.
In addition to my feedback, CME heard that same feedback (“Please add BLE MIDI”) from a number of users, and ran a Indegogo Campaign to provide the capital to start that product. That project was funded by August 2015, and started shipping this spring.
In form, the XKey Air and the original XKey are identical. In fact, the only difference would be a Bluetooth sticker on the XKey Air, as well as multiple LED indicators and a power button on the Air. In my video review, I talk about the packaging of the XKey Air, which may seem irrelevant. After all, why does the packaging matter? I don’t know why, but it does. Part of the joy of buying an Apple product is the unboxing experience, which was carefully designed for the user. The XKey Air comes packaged in the same thoughtful way as an Apple device, and would fit perfectly on the shelves of an Apple Store. There are a couple of instruction sheets in the box, as well as a labeled micro USB cable. If you have other micro USB cables in your house, you can use them with the XKey Air–but I like having cables labeled so you know what device they came came with.
As for the keyboard, it is a joy to use. It pairs effortlessly with BLE MIDI on the iPad. As with most BLE MIDI devices, it is instantly detected by the iPad and connects with a single touch. While the keys do not have the tradition “travel” of a piano keyboard, they are pressure sensitive and every button works as it should. Some reviews of the original XKey longed for a way to attach a sustain pedal to the keyboard (instead of pressing a key on the XKey Air), but this is a portable keyboard–attaching cables and secondary pedals defeats the portable purpose of the keyboard. The low-travel keys should make the keyboard more resilient to throwing it into a backpack and running along. I had issues with other previous portable USB keyboards that I have used over the years (One example was an M-Audio 25 key unit that did not stand up to portable use).
My only complaints about the XKey Air are minor. First, the 25 key model costs $199, and the 37 key model costs $299. The original 25 key XKey is $99, and the 37 key XKey is $199. As both a consumer and a music educator, I would love to see the price point drop on these models. That said, if you have an original XKey, you can attach a Zivix PUC+ to it and make it a portable BLE keyboard for the same cost of $199. In other words, the price point isn’t terribly inflated, but I would still love to see a small price drop . I would imagine that some kind of education pricing (for the original XKey or the XKey Air) could be obtained if you reached out to the company. My other complaint is that it would nice if the XKey Air included a light bag of some kind to offer protection as you throw it into a backpack.
Is it worth buying the XKey Air for $100 more than its equivalent XKey? It depends on what you want to use it for.
The XKey Air is an ideal device for anyone wanting a portable MIDI keyboard interface without wires. When I am working with my iPad or my MacBook, I prefer not having to deal with cables. Additionally, an iPad needs a USB dongle (an additional $29 purchase) to work with a a USB MIDI keyboard.
If I were creating a school MIDI lab with fixed computers, I would consider the original XKey (even above a comparable M-Audio product). They are going to look great in your lab and will hold up to the rigors of daily use. This would also be true if I was teaching with Chromebooks…you probably are not going to buy a WIDI BUD (more on that in a moment) for each Chromebook.
However, if I needed keyboards for a 1:1 iPad school where student iPads were the MIDI lab (not a separate room), I would consider the XKey Air (even at $100 more per device). Why not go truly mobile with your lab? Also, if I was the teacher and I did any work at all in GarageBand (SoundTrap, Soundation) or notation programs, I would want a portable keyboard, particularly if the device I was using was a portable device (MacBook, iPad, Chromebook). As a warning, in a 1:1 scenario, each XKey Air has a unique MAC Bluetooth address, but show up as “XKey Air 25 BLE” on the Bluetooth MIDI interaction panel. This would make connecting difficult–much as we found with our Bluetooth QWERTY keyboards in our 1:1. If every device has the same name, how do you know which one you are using? Zivix has a unique identifier with every name, so I know it is possible to uniquely identify each BLE MIDI device, and I hope that CME is able to add this functionality in a future firmware update (if it isn’t there already, which I may have missed while looking through they XKey app).
In short, I think both CME XKey keyboards are wonderful. They are high quality portable keyboards and a far better solution (in my opinion) than mini keyboards like my old Akai LPK 25, my old M-Audio key stations, and even the Miselu C.24. Do you need the BLE MIDI feature? That’s up to you–I would say, “Yes,” because if you want to add it later, you can (Zivix PUC+) for relatively the same price-but then you again need cables (of a sort) to use the feature. It is wonderful to be able to connect without wires to your iPad, MacBook, Windows laptop, or Chromebook. I do wish the pricing was a bit lower on the XKey Air ($150), but $199 isn’t terribly out of the ballpark. When I spend money on devices, I have to ask if they save me time and frustration in the long run over doing things another way. In the world of iPad, the XKey Air allows me to connect to my iPad without a dongle (as it would to a newer Mac [2012?] than may 2008 Aluminum MacBook) which is a separate $29 purchase. It means less time to connect and take down, and less things to forget going from place to place. So if you are going to use a keyboard with your computing device–in terms of convince, it simply may be the best option to spend an extra $100 for the Bluetooth capability.
So yes, if you are interested, either the XKey or the XKey Air is a “consider buying” item.
When I opened the package from CME, my initial reaction to the WIDI BUD, packaged in a small blister card with minimal instructions, was, “HO HUM.”
That initial reaction was really, really, really wrong. It is going to be a while until BLE MIDI is packaged with every device. If you have a newer iPad or MacBook, you have it already–but old Apple devices, many Windows devices, most Android devices, and most (all?) Chromebooks do not have BLE MIDI capability.
This little dongle, which looks like a newer flash drive, gives BLE MIDI capability to nearly every device.
This means that you can use an XKey Air with an older iPad, MacBook, Windows computer…you get the idea. There are limitations (you have to be running Windows XP SP3, Ver 4 of Android, iOS 4.2, Chrome 43.0) but generally, if you have a modern device, the WIDI BUD can add BLE MIDI to your computing device if it does not have it.
Last summer, Web MIDI was announced, and over the last year, programs have been adding it: Noteflight, Flat.io, SoundTrap to name a few.
With this dongle, you can make a Chromebook into a BLE MIDI device, utilizing Web MIDI on these programs. Sure, you can also add a wired USB connection, which is what you would do for students (you would have a stack of physical keyboards that they would check out, use, and return). But for YOUR use…go wireless. Trust me on this one.
What is amazing is that the WIDI BUD makes a connection with a BLE MIDI device on its own. I haven’t tried having two BLE MIDI sending devices turned on at the same time, so I do not know how the device would respond to two competing devices for its attention–but plug in the WIDI BUD, and turn on the XKey Air, and it works. That’s it. The WIDI BUD will remember that connection until it loses power. So, if you want to connect another BLE MIDI device (such as the JamStik+ or the PUC+), turn off the XKey Air, turn on the JamStik+, and plug in the WIDI BUD.
So yes…the WIDI BUD works with ANY existing BLE MIDI device. (See note)
Let me copy and paste that again…
The WIDI BUD works with ANY existing BLE MIDI device. (See note)
So…the JamStik+, the PUC+, the Korg MKey Air, and the few keyboards sold with BLE MIDI…should be able to work with the WIDI BUD.
Note: This statement was not true. It turns out that the Quicco Sound mi.1. See more at my follow-up article.
I have now said this for over a year…reliable MIDI interaction with a BLE MIDI device is a game changer in ease of use and functionality.
Chromebooks being able to use MIDI keyboards over a wired USB connection is a major step forward, and it means that I could teach Music Theory (mostly with Noteflight or Flat.io) with Chromebooks, and I could teach a Music Technology class (SoundTrap, Soundation, Noteflight, Flat.io) using Chromebooks. But to be able to connect wirelessly means that using those programs for my own use (not just in teaching) becomes a possibility.
Being able to use any BLE MIDI device with just about any host computing device is a game changer, too. At that point, you are only limited by the apps and programs that are available on your computing device. And remember…on Chrome OS, the best apps require a subscription to get all of the features that you want to use (Noteflight requires a subscription to even use MIDI recording). I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, because companies deserve to earn money. But it is something that we need to teach IT departments as they typically don’t plan for annual subscriptions.
My only complaints about the WIDI BUD are the size of the device (it has to be that small, but people will lose them), and they are a TIGHT fit in your USB port (which is probably intentional so that you leave it plugged in). I am leaving this WIDI BUD in its package after I use it, so that I can keep track of it.
My only other complaint is that I can’t find the pricing for the WIDI BUD on CME’s website, so I am hoping that it is released soon and will be affordable!
As you can tell, if you have a computing device that does not have BLE MIDI, I think the WIDI BUD is a must buy. I don’t know anything else like it on the market.
Thanks again to CME and Virgin Musical Instruments for allowing me to review and show off these devices. A video appears below.