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 thats everything I
want it to be: its 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.
Im 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 Ive heard for under $7000.
In my setup, the laptop sits among my other audio gear as a
fellow traveler. For all intents and purposes, its 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, Ive never exploited that capability because my
second system isnt anywhere near a computer. Of course, other options have been
available for a while now (Apple AirPort, et al.), but Ive 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 wasnt 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.
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 AW1s 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 AW1s 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. Its important to note that a computer is not
required on the AW1s receiver end; although both the AW1s transmitter and
receiver have USB connectors, the receiver plugs into an included wall-wart transformer,
which has a built-in USB port.
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 AW1s 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 Id never appreciated before is
the two-prong power outlet built into the amps back end -- the perfect spot to plug
in the AW1 receivers power transformer. What followed was a lot of plugging
in: the power transformer into the NADs outlet, the AW1 receivers USB
connector into the power transformer, the included 3.5mm-to-female-RCA cable into the AW1
receivers 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 . .
The first thing I noticed about the AW1 is that its output
level is several dB lower than that of the NAD amps 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 Browns 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 AW1s ability to maintain a
solid connection with my music server as to evaluate its sound. True to its makers
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
couldnt tell. The AW1 truly is a plug-and-play device that works as advertised.
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 AW1s price, this rig seemed the
best place to start my critical listening.
Going in, I wasnt 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 arent really all that relevant to their competitiveness vis-à-vis
each other. After all, the AW1 takes advantage of your computers 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 Avitals excellent solo "Bass Introduction," from his The
Ancient Art of Giving [CD, Smalls SRCD-0014], was detailed, conveying the
bassists 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 Jamiroquais 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 Prestons
drums on The Cults "She Sells Sanctuary," from Love [CD,
Beggars Banquet USA 80065], is, to me, the epitome of how a rock drum kit
should sound. Through the AW1, the rich, sharp crack of Prestons 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 Id so painstakingly ripped to my laptop sounded flat and lifeless, like
low-resolution MP3s. This wasnt 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 didnt 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 Id thought Windows couldnt surprise me
anymore, the sound came back.
Even with that frequency-chopping glitch out of the way, I
still wasnt quite hearing from some tracks the full frequency extension that
Id expect from a digital source. The normally vibrant cymbals on "Ill
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
Hendersons "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 systems lower resolution, I suspect that the
AW1s 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
AW1s limited extension at the frequency extremes. Unfortunately, I wasnt able
to try the AW1 with better interconnects (such as AudioQuests Mini 3.5mm-to-male-RCA
model), which might have told me more about the AW1s capabilities in the context of
high-resolution systems. But even with excellent cables, Im not sure the AW1 would
be a good fit with a highly resolving system.
Im 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 youd 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 youre 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.
Price of equipment reviewed