GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "Equipment" Archives

Published April 15, 2008

 

Audioengine AW1 Wireless Audio Adapter

When I set out to write this review, I got to thinking how, years after I bought my first PC, I finally have a home computer that’s everything I want it to be: it’s fast, it plays the games I like without hiccupping, and it rarely crashes. As it turns out, it also makes an excellent digital audio source.

I’m a proponent of PC-based music servers. For the past few years, my reference digital source has been a dedicated laptop computer that feeds lossless audio files into a Hagerman Technology USB-to-S/PDIF converter and an Audio Note Kits DAC 2.1. Together, these devices comprise an excellent digital source that bests any CD player I’ve heard for under $7000.

In my setup, the laptop sits among my other audio gear as a fellow traveler. For all intents and purposes, it’s a digital transport that also happens to be a full-fledged computer. And although I can wirelessly access my audio server through my home network, I’ve never exploited that capability because my second system isn’t anywhere near a computer. Of course, other options have been available for a while now (Apple AirPort, et al.), but I’ve never been inclined to try them because of proprietary file format issues (I use Free Lossless Audio Codec, or FLAC), questions of fidelity, or setup difficulties. I spent (read: wasted) enough time getting my wireless network to work properly that I wasn’t about to mess with settings just to be compatible with an audio streaming device.

But technology progresses. Now I find myself reviewing the Audioengine AW1, which comprises two matchbox-sized modules -- a transmitter and a receiver -- that wirelessly stream PCM digital audio from any source computer, PC or Mac, to any amplification device, be it a preamp, receiver, powered speaker, or subwoofer. It promises plug-and-play setup, 100% compatibility with file formats, and CD-quality sound, all in a tiny package costing only $149 USD.

Description

Think of the AW1 as a wireless interconnect with a built-in DAC. It uses the well-established 802.11 wireless protocol, and Audioengine claims it benefits from some pretty slick engineering. Their technical wizardry, they say, ensures that the AW1’s transmitter and receiver modules will not interfere with or be affected by home networks, cordless phones, or microwave ovens. This is achieved by using a wireless chipset that constantly monitors the entire 2.4GHz frequency band and chooses the cleanest channels for the AW1’s use. Should conditions deteriorate on the channels being used, Audioengine says the AW1 can switch to others in fewer than 20 milliseconds, while using only as much transmitter power as is necessary to achieve a solid connection with the receiver module. It is this, they say, that prevents the AW1 from interfering with other devices.

Audioengine claims a data-transfer rate of 340Mbps for the AW1 -- more than enough for the 1411kbps needed for FLAC files -- as well as a signal/noise ratio of 91dB and a transmission range of 30 meters (100 feet). The AW1 requires no software drivers or batteries and is compatible, Audioengine says, with all music formats from any music player. It’s important to note that a computer is not required on the AW1’s receiver end; although both the AW1’s transmitter and receiver have USB connectors, the receiver plugs into an included wall-wart transformer, which has a built-in USB port.

Setup

My laptop, running Windows Vista, had no trouble recognizing the Audioengine. It took less than a minute to get the AW1 up and running, including the time it took to select the AW1 as the output device for my Foobar2000 audio-player software. With FB2k set to play from my jazz library, I climbed up two floors to connect the AW1’s receiver module to my office system, which comprises an NAD C321BEE integrated amplifier and Mordaunt-Short Carnival 2 bookshelf speakers.

A feature of the NAD I’d never appreciated before is the two-prong power outlet built into the amp’s back end -- the perfect spot to plug in the AW1 receiver’s power transformer. What followed was a lot of plugging in: the power transformer into the NAD’s outlet, the AW1 receiver’s USB connector into the power transformer, the included 3.5mm-to-female-RCA cable into the AW1 receiver’s output, and my own interconnects from that cable to the NAD. Phew! Next, I powered up the NAD, selected the appropriate input, turned up the volume a little, and . . . nothing?

The first thing I noticed about the AW1 is that its output level is several dB lower than that of the NAD amp’s usual partner, the NAD C521i CD player. Turning up the volume about one-eighth of a turn revealed that the AW1 was working perfectly, streaming the late Ray Brown’s recording of "You Are My Sunshine," from his final album, Walk On [CD, Telarc CD-83515], through two floors and about 25’ of space.

Over the next few days I spent a considerable amount of time in our upstairs office, listening as much for the AW1’s ability to maintain a solid connection with my music server as to evaluate its sound. True to its maker’s claims, the AW1 did not drop the signal even once, and I was never aware of any interference from other devices operating on the same frequency band, such as my wireless network. The reverse was also true: If the AW1 was interfering with my network, I couldn’t tell. The AW1 truly is a plug-and-play device that works as advertised.

Listening

My NAD system, which includes the Mordaunt-Short Carnival 2 speakers -- terrific but underappreciated little tykes -- makes for a satisfyingly musical secondary system whose sound I know well. Given the AW1’s price, this rig seemed the best place to start my critical listening.

Going in, I wasn’t sure the AW1 would stand up well against the NAD C521i CD player, which, though a couple of years old, is still competitive with current players in the $400 range. But after some thought, I realized that the prices of these sources aren’t really all that relevant to their competitiveness vis--vis each other. After all, the AW1 takes advantage of your computer’s USB bus for power, and the hard drive acts as its transport. The NAD has to provide all those things within its own metal chassis, which definitely bumps up its cost. But if we look only at digital circuits vs. digital circuits and not the supporting infrastructure, the fight is a lot fairer than it might at first seem.

In overall performance, the AW1 gave up little to the NAD player. Omer Avital’s excellent solo "Bass Introduction," from his The Ancient Art of Giving [CD, Smalls SRCD-0014], was detailed, conveying the bassist’s fingertip slides along the strings without making them sound screechy or etched. Acoustic upper-bass notes were somewhat boomy, though the heavy bottom end of "Canned Heat," from Jamiroquai’s Synkronized [CD, Japanese Sony OK 66973 2], was clean and melodious. The AW1 also passed my favorite test track of rock drumming. Though it hardly qualifies as a torture test, the sound of Nigel Preston’s drums on The Cult’s "She Sells Sanctuary," from Love [CD, Beggar’s Banquet USA 80065], is, to me, the epitome of how a rock drum kit should sound. Through the AW1, the rich, sharp crack of Preston’s snare was as viscerally pleasing as ever.

Tonally, the AW1 was slightly on the warm side of neutral. Through the NAD+Mordaunt-Short system the AW1 sounded clean, and definition was good with less complicated works, such as rock or quartet jazz. Complex orchestral works, however, sounded a little congested, as instrument sections tended to blend together rather than occupy their own spaces on the stage. The soundstages of most recordings were slightly wider than the physical locations of the speakers, but depth was often limited; voices were up-front and center, where they should be, but supporting instruments were fairly one-dimensional in the background.

Assured that the AW1 could leap tall buildings, or at least a two-story house, I disconnected the receiver module and moved it downstairs, where it would occupy a spare input on my new reference integrated amplifier, the Simaudio Moon Classic i5.3. In that location the AW1 had only to transmit its signal about 3’, but it was connected to a very revealing and neutral system that would put it to the test.

The AW1 surprised me when I first heard it though the Simaudio -- both the lower bass and the upper treble were missing. The lossless FLAC audio files I’d so painstakingly ripped to my laptop sounded flat and lifeless, like low-resolution MP3s. This wasn’t the case through the NAD system, so something was obviously amiss. I pored over my audio-output settings to see if something had changed, but everything was correct. Though I didn’t think it would (or should) make a difference, I unplugged the Kimber USB cable connecting the laptop to the Hagerman USB-to-S/PDIF converter and, just when I’d thought Windows couldn’t surprise me anymore, the sound came back.

Even with that frequency-chopping glitch out of the way, I still wasn’t quite hearing from some tracks the full frequency extension that I’d expect from a digital source. The normally vibrant cymbals on "I’ll Never Smile Again (Take 6)," from Bill Evans’ Interplay [CD, Riverside RLP-9445], for example, sounded muted, as if covered in a thin coat of felt. Decay was also curtailed, with cymbal crashes coming to a somewhat abrupt end. Sibilants and some upper-treble glare were problems with Norah Jones’ "Cold Cold Heart," from her Come Away With Me [CD, Blue Note 32088], and the cymbals on Joe Henderson’s "So Near So Far," from Musings for Miles [CD, Verve 517674], were bright and somewhat etched. Bass remained tight and controlled, though it was clear that my Audio Note AN/E speakers could go lower than the AW1 would allow.

Keeping in mind that this $149 device was playing through $3400 worth of amplification and $3000 speakers, it did quite well. While its weaknesses were somewhat masked by the NAD system’s lower resolution, I suspect that the AW1’s handicaps, as revealed by my reference system, were due in part to the throwaway output cable shipped with it, which might well have been the chief source of the AW1’s limited extension at the frequency extremes. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to try the AW1 with better interconnects (such as AudioQuest’s Mini 3.5mm-to-male-RCA model), which might have told me more about the AW1’s capabilities in the context of high-resolution systems. But even with excellent cables, I’m not sure the AW1 would be a good fit with a highly resolving system.

Conclusions

I’m not going to get carried away with critiquing a $149 audio device plugged into a high-end system. Instead, I celebrate the Audioengine AW1 as a nifty device that makes it very easy to spread great-sounding music around the home, out into the garden, or wherever else you’d like it (within 100’). The AW1 offers an affordable way to get into PC audio -- and to get PC audio into your amp. Even if you’re already using a PC as your digital source, the AW1 will make a great accessory to get music into the backyard for those fast-approaching summer barbeques. Your guests will likely be impressed with your wireless music system, and with the sound coming from your speakers.

...Colin Smith

Price of equipment reviewed


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