For those of you not familiar with Audioengine, it is a speaker company that specializes in outstanding consumer speakers. Audioengine’s self powered A2 and A5 speakers sound terrific .
Audioengine just released a new product, the W1 which is two small devices. One is marked “sender” and the other “receiver.” These units, which are each the size of a pack of chewing gum allow you to send a wireless audio signal from any one device to just about any other device in your home.
Setting up the W1 is very simple. You need an audio signal through an eighth inch stereo plug and power. There is no software to configure. The two devices automatically find each other and pair up. For power, the W1 requires a USB port. This can be the USB port in your computer or one of those little AC USB plugs. The W1 comes with one of the portable AC adapters and I had a second one from my iPod so this was not a problem. Not so coincidentally, the Audioengine A5 speakers come with a built in USB plug so if you are using A5’s, you truly have “plug and play.”
Let me give you a few examples of how I used the W1. First, I streamed audio from my Mac to my stereo. This worked fine across three rooms up to about 80 feet. Beyond that the signal started to degrade a bit. Most interestingly, however, is that there was no noticeable lapse. I was able to watch Indiana Jones’ lips on my Mac and hear his voice through my stereo without detecting anything out of sync. The product specifications list the latency as less than 20 milliseconds. I also hooked up my MIDI keyboard to my Mac and began klunking away in Logic. Again, I had the W1 attached to my Mac and fed into my stereo. This allowed me to get a full rich sound with no discernible lag. It sounded much better than the lousy speakers I’m currently running off my keyboard. It was also helpful when editing music. I am currently working on one song that uses 10 instruments. When I try to play it back through my Mac speakers, a lot of it gets washed out. Piping it through to my stereo with the W1 made it a lot easier.
So using the W1 on your Mac gives you near simultaneous wireless audio through an external source. I can definitely get used to this. This, of course, leads to the next question, how is the Audio signal?
Audioengine explains the W1 is supposed to provide CD-quality HD stereo sound with no reduction in audio quality. I really wasn’t sure what that means. I ran an informal test where I played a CD through the stereo connected with optical cable and then loaded the CD into my Mac and played the same track through the W1. I tried to hear a difference. I really tried. I had to strain to tell a difference. The Audioengine folks told me the quality matches or exceed the Airport Express. After running a separate comparison with my Airport express, I believe them. In the end I concluded that if you get near the 100 foot range of the device you will hear a difference. Also if you are an audiophile with a very good ear, you may hear a difference. But I doubt someone like that would be interested in any wireless solution.
In addition to testing the range of the W1, I also did everything I could to interfere with the wireless signal. I rang the cordless phone, operated data services on my iPhone, dowloaded some files over my Airport network, and ran the microwave oven all at once and there was no discernible effect on the W1 audio quality.
Once I got comfortable with the W1 I began looking around my house for other devices I could use it on. I ran my subwoofer on it with no problems. So if the cable under the carpet ever fails, I’m good to go. A few days ago I had to get some work done in the garage but wanted to hear the presidential primary debate. There is no TV in my garage. So I attached the W1 to my television audio out and hooked up my portable iPod speakers in the garage. It worked fine. I even hooked up the W1 “Sender” to my Generation 1 iPod nano and wirelessly blasted music through my stereo.
I don’t think you can review this product without comparing it to Apple’s Airport Express. While on the surface these products seem very similar, in fact they are quite different. The W1 works from any source, not just your computer, and requires no software. The W1 allows you to use it in a variety of contexts and essentially becomes a 100 foot long wireless cable you can use between just about any of your components. Because there is no software, there is no limitation. Just about anything with an audio out can pipe over the W1. I looked hard for something really old to try on the W1. Like an original Mac or my old Atari 400 computer. Unfortunately, I’m not much of a pack rat and all that stuff is long gone. However, I did find a 25 year old Walkman cassette player in the garage with a tape still in it. It worked fine with the W1. This leads to two questions. First, is there anything the W1 won’t work with and second, why did I have a Debbie Gibson cassette?
In contrast the Airport Express is a dedicated product that allows you to stream music or provide a remote ethernet or USB port to your network. It doesn’t require a dongle from your computer and all the Macs on your network see it wherein with the W1, only the computer with the “sending” unit attached will be able to transmit.
Another possible distinction is that the W1 runs its own network so it won’t slow down your computer network. For instance, if you are currently running a wireless N network and attach an Airport Express, it runs at “G” speed and will slow down the network. The W1 won’t be a part of your Airport network and not get in the way.
I find plenty of uses for both the Airport Express and the W1 in my home. For streaming iTunes, I’ve stuck with the Airport express. All of the Macs in the house see it and the lag doesn’t bother me since it is just music. For streaming audio with no latency, the W1 is the only tool for the job. Very low latency and superior sound quality make it the best choice. Likewise, when the source is any device other than my Mac, once again the W1 is the only option. The W1 retails for $149.00 and can be purchased directly from audioengineusa.com.