In case you missed it from this year's CES coverage, wireless connectivity across your A/V gadgetsphere is poised to be the next big thing, and one look behind the component stack of a modern setup will tell you all the reasons why. It's a rat's nest back there! Unfortunately, like most CES "big things," it will be a little while before this new feature really breaks out into mainstream products. But while wireless video may have to wait, the lower bandwidth requirements of audio make it a good candidate for wireless. With that in mind, we decided to take Audioengine's AW1 wireless audio adapter for a spin. Follow us after the break to get our experience with these little USB dongles that promise to set your audio free from its copper cage.
The AW1 hardware
Affordable wireless audio has almost exclusively been the realm of integrated speaker systems; whether they be complete HTIBs or just transmitter/receiver pairs with the wireless receiver built into the amp, "roll your own" combinations of source, amplification and speaker components have not been the order of the day. We like the simplicity of the AW1 -- the whole enchilada consists of just a sender (with the rocketship graphic) and a receiver (with the planet graphic). As you can see, the units are quite small and streamlined: a USB plug for power/audio, a blue LED that blinks when the unit has power and stays lit when paired, a manual pairing button, and a 3.5-mm stereo jack.
Audioengine includes enough cabling to get most people started with the AW1: an A/C USB power supply, a 3.5-mm stereo/2 RCA (male/female) cable and two 3.5-mm stereo extensions (male/male).
The AW1 sends uncompressed PCM over an 802.11 connection using a protocol specific to Audioengine. Transmission reaches up to 100-feet with 92dB SNR. Frequency response is flat between 100Hz and 10kHz. We'd like to see response stats for a wider swath of the audio spectrum, but suffice it to say that the AW1 should be more than adequate for distributed or surround audio.
Finally, if you're into sending your audio across the whole house, up to eight AW1 receivers can be set up so the signal "hops" from one unit to the next. We only had one unit in for review, so this feature was not tested.
AW1 in use
The real strength of the AW1 is its simplicity: stereo audio is moved from sender to receiver, and that's all. Think of the AW1 as a drop-in replacement for copper interconnects. This leaves you free to input analog audio from a source component of your choice (if the source is a Mac or PC, you can use the sender as a USB audio device) and then break out the audio from the receiver and forward it on to amplification of your choice. Note that you get choice on both ends of the chain. We like choice. The next couple of pictures illustrate two examples: the first shows the AW1 sending audio from a computer (the AW1 sender is recognized as an audio device, the 3.5-mm jack is not used); the second shows the cabling setup we used to grab audio from our A/V receiver (power is delivered by USB, audio by the 3.5-mm cable).
In our tests, the AW1 worked flawlessly, moving audio transparently across 50-feet and four interior walls. We didn't experience any breakup of the audio at all, and the setup didn't pick up any interference with our existing 802.11b/g environment. The audio quality was great, and didn't suffer any ill-effects from its aerial journey. So even though the specs above don't cover the de facto 20Hz - 20kHz range, take our word for it -- the AW1 doesn't spoil your high fidelity party. Just to test things out, we listened to some lossless audio files on our main audio rig, and we couldn't tell a difference between wired and AW1 connections.
When we put the AW1 to use with our receiver's line-level output for the rear surround channels, it worked beautifully as well. The audio sent to the rear surrounds is less demanding than the primary channels, so this was no surprise. It's worth noting that any delay imposed by the AW1 was negligible; we noticed no difference between the audio delay needed when switching to the AW1. We did, however, need to add a little more volume to the rear channels when using the AW1 setup (the output is rated at 680mV).
We really enjoyed our time with the AW1, and found ourselves using it way more often than we had anticipated. In fact, when we requested the AW1 for review, we intended to focus solely on using the AW1 in a wireless surround-channel audio solution. But in our time with the AW1, it got more use as a conventional stereo audio streamer. Especially when used in conjunction with active speakers like Audioengine's A2s (review forthcoming), the AW1 made it super easy to pump high-quality audio anywhere, without locking us into any other gear.