First Look: Audioengine W1 Wireless Adapter

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The days when a household held a single set of speakers attached to a stereo receiver have waned. Today it’s common to find each room equipped with some variety of noise-making device. Nearly as common is the desire to pump music from one room to another. Apple has provided a solution with the AirPort Express Base Station—a small device that not only acts as a wireless router or access point but also allows you to stream the contents of your iTunes library to speakers attached to the device.

Audioengine, the makers of the A5 and A2 powered speakers, has come up with another wireless solution—the $149 W1 Wireless Audio Adapter. I’ve had the W1 in hand for nearly two weeks and these are my impressions.

Two-part solution

The W1 is made up of two USB modules—a transmitter (called a “Sender” by Audioengine) and a receiver. In addition to bearing a male USB connector, each module has a mini-plug jack—the Sender uses this jack for audio input and the receiver uses its jack for audio output. Each module also includes a blue LED that indicates when it's paired and a button for pairing Senders and receivers. The most basic setup works like this:

Jack the Sender into a free USB port on your computer. On a Mac, open the Sound system preference and choose the W1 as the output source. On a Windows PC, just wait for Windows to see that it’s there—it will automatically be selected as the output. Plug the receiver into a power source—this can be the W1’s included USB power adapter, any USB charging device (a powered iPod dock or iPod power adapter, for example), or the powered USB port on Audioengine’s A5 speakers. And finally string an audio cable between the receiver and an audio input—an auxiliary input on your stereo receiver or the input on a set of powered speakers. (An RCA Y-adapter cable and two mini-plug cables are included in the box.)

Start playback on the device attached to the Sender and the audio plays through the noise-maker you’ve connected to the receiver. Any sound that would normally be played from the speakers attached to your computer or other audio device will be transmitted to the receiver. So, for example, if your email application is open and bleeps every time a new message is delivered, you’ll hear that bleep through the speakers attached to the W1 receiver. For this reason you’ll want to be careful about running applications that make sound.

In most cases you can control the output volume with the device attached to the Sender. For example, if you’ve connected the Sender to your computer, moving the volume slider up or down in iTunes or adjusting your computer’s volume slider will change the volume output from the receiver. The exception is when you’ve docked your iPod and have connected the Sender to the dock’s audio output jack. Adjusting the volume on a docked iPod has no effect on the signal sent from the dock’s audio port.

A W1 Sender can transmit to up to eight receivers. Note, however, that it can transmit to only one at a time. This is great if you want to have your music follow you around the house, but not useful if you’re looking for a “music everywhere at once” solution.

Why not AirPort?

The first question likely to spring to mind is, “Why would I want the W1—and pay $149 for the privilege—when I can use a $99 AirPort Express Base Station for the same purpose?”

The answer is: For some, the AirPort Express Base Station is a perfectly reasonable—if not desirable—solution. And by that I mean that if you want to stream music from your computer to a receiver or powered speakers, an AirPort Express Base Station is a great way to go. But an AirPort Express Base Station is no use to you if you want to step outside a computer-to-speakers environment.

For instance, your computer and its accompanying iTunes library is downstairs and it’s a bother to run from floor to floor to choose new music. With the W1 Sender attached to an iPod your music is available in the palm of your hand.

Or you’ve just planted a new movie on your iPhone and would like to hear the audio on your Big Speakers. Because the audio and picture would be out of sync, iTunes won’t stream a video’s soundtrack via AirTunes. (Rogue Amoeba’s $25 Airfoil 3 does allow streaming a video’s soundtrack in sync, however.) The W1 doesn’t have to deal with network traffic and its delays so syncing isn’t an issue. Feel free to watch your movie on the iPhone and listen to its music on the speakers attached to the W1’s receiver in perfect sync.

Or you're the last remaining person on earth who doesn't have an iPod and would like to broadcast music from some other music player. Zune away, baby. As long as the device you want to hear has an audio output jack, you're in business.

Range and sound

I placed the W1 in various locations around my house—the Sender attached to a computer downstairs and the receiver jacked into my A5s in the living room upstairs, the Sender tethered to a laptop in the back bedroom playing through the receiver attached to my TV’s AV receiver next door, and the Sender attached to an iPod in the kitchen transmitting to speakers in the downstairs office. It performed beautifully in each configuration. Audioengine claims the thing has a range of 100 feet and while I didn’t take it to that limit, I did test it through walls and floors and across the stretches of a typical house and there were no drop-outs or interference that I could detect.

By way of comparison, my now-ancient PowerBook G4 using its AirPort card didn’t perform nearly so well streaming AirTunes to an AirPort Express Base Station. When I took that laptop downstairs and attempted to stream music to the upstairs’ A5s attached to an older AirPort Express Base Station I got drop-outs and stuttering. Swap in the W1 and the problems vanished.

As for the sound quality of the W1 I can only say that I didn’t hear anything that distracted me. The sound from the speakers I attached to the receiver sounded as good as a wired connection to me in a casual listening environment. And output strength from the receiver was fine. When switching input sources on a stereo receiver using the W1 I didn’t have to rush to the volume knob to crank it up or down when choosing the W1 source.

I’ll spend more time with the W1 before issuing my final judgment, but, at this point, it looks like a viable and useful option for wirelessly broadcasting music from one place to another.

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