Review: Audioengine AW1 Premium Wireless Audio Adapter â€“ It just works
The idea of wirelessly streaming music from a remote home media server to a living room audio system has long been the “Holy Grail” for husbands who have been forced by their wives to move their bulky computers into the basement, and who have been told they cannot drill holes in walls and run wires throughout the house. While in theory I agree that a house looks nicer without a giant CPU tower sitting next to the TV with wires spilling all over the floor, the available (affordable) wireless solutions haven’t been all that great. My quest for wireless audio started nearly 10 years ago with something called the “Kima”, and ended a couple years back when Apple released the AirPort Express with AirTunes.
Audioengine, best known for their high-quality speakers, has now put its foot in the audio-streaming ring with its new AW1 Premium Wireless Audio Adapter, a USB-powered, 2 unit (sender and receiver) pair of devices designed to serve as a wireless replacement for those long runs of audio cable you might be contemplating.
I love things that work as advertised.
The AW1 provides probably the most intuitive out-of-the-box experience you’ll find in a wireless adapter, and if you are remotely into technology, odds are you won’t even need the manual. Simply plug the unit marked “sender” into your Mac’s USB port, and then select the “Audioengine AW1” as your sound output in your “System Preferences” panel. Next, hook the unit marked “receiver” to your speaker of choice. Like the “sender”, the “receiver” is USB powered. If the speakers you are connecting to do not have a USB port, the AW1 comes with an AC to USB adapter you can plug in to any standard AC outlet to power the unit. Next, plug one end of the included 3.5 mm cable into the AW1 receiver and the other end into your speaker/home theater, and you are done.
Above: The AW1 â€“ sender/receiver, included cables, AC adapter.
While the AW1’s are designed to work with any speaker or stereo receiver, and virtually any audio source you can think of, they really are designed to compliment Audio Engine’s famous A5 speakers (which I happen to have handy), thanks to a few of the A5’s unique features. The A5’s sport a USB port on the top of the left speaker, meaning powering the AW1 receiver is not an issue, and it also sports two 3.5 mm inputs, one of which is right next to the USB port, allowing for an easy connection. While this works great, I personally find the AW1 looks a bit stupid sticking up from the top of the A5, and the cable isn’t all that attractive either. Luckily, the A5’s also sport an AC adapter on the rear, and you can hide the AW1 by plugging the receiver into the back of the A5. The only downside to that setup is if you do not plan to use your computer as your audio source, you’ll need to find another USB power source to power the sender unit.
Above: The a5’s USB port is cool, but not the most aesthetically placed…
Above: Luckily the back of the A5 has an AC adapter, so we can hide the AW1 back there. It ain’t pretty…
Above: …but it’s what’s on the front that counts, right? Much better.
A couple cool tricks
One cool thing I noticed you can do with the AW1’s that isn’t mentioned in Audioengine’s literature is the ability to broadcast audio from an external audio source TO your Mac by plugging the sender and receivers in “backwards”. For example, I have a Sirius Satellite radio in the living room. Using the AW1, I was able to beam the Sirius signal down to my Mac in the basement, and record programs using both Audio HiJack and QuickTime Pro.
Another nice little use I found for the AW1 is since it can stream any audio from your computer, you can use it to monitor for New Mail or new iChat message sounds from a Mac in another room, even while playing iTunes songs. (This actually can be a problem as well, as I will discuss in a minute).
One final cool trick the AW1’s can perform is you can pair an AW1 sender with up to 8 different receivers, meaning (if you can afford it) you can stream the same music from one audio source throughout your entire house without unplugging and replugging receivers. Currently, however, the AW1 can only stream to one of these receivers at a time. You need to press a small button on the sender to cycle through each receiver. Audioengine will be selling extra receivers later this year, but for the moment you would need to buy a full set of senders/receivers to do this.
Audioengine claims the AW1’s can broadcast wireless audio up to 100 feet in “CD Quality Sound with no loss of quality”, and in our tests this was indeed the case. I was pleasantly surprised at how clean the audio sounded, as I had some less-than-stellar experiences with Bluetooth audio in the past, and my first Kima used FM radio to transmit its signal which was very prone to static and necessitated constant “channel scans” to find a clear spot. The AW1 transmits uncompressed PCM audio over an 802.11 network using a closed protocol specifically designed for audio, and the quality is identical to a hard wired connection. Additionally, there is zero latency with the AW1, meaning when you hit “NEXT” in iTunes, the next song begins playing instantly. It really works well.
Issues: AW1 vs. AirPort Express
There’s not too much to complain about here. The only real potential issue I can see here would be price, as the AW1’s cost $149. Compare that to an AirPort Express Base Station, with AirTunes, for $99, and you may wonder why you would choose the AW1. Well, the first and most important difference is the ease of installation. I happen to own an AirPort base station and TWO AirPort Express Base Stations with AirTunes which I use to stream music from my Mac Pro in the basement to my living room and bedroom stereos. As easy as Apple claims the Express is to set up, it does take a bit of work, while the AW1’s take about 30 seconds to set up, including opening the packaging. I also find the AirPort Expresses will occasionally lose the network connection, and have to rebuffer occasionally despite my house being less than ginormous. I can see the AW1’s “do one thing and do it right” mentality being worth the extra cost to some people.
The second main difference is, while the Express has the nice bonus of being able to extend your wireless network, the only audio it can stream is iTunes content. The AW1’s, on the other hand, can stream any audio your computer can play as well as audio from any device you might be able to think of, be it a DVD player, CD player, game console… if it has RCA audio or mini stereo out, if can be streamed. Another nice benefit is the portability. While most users will hook up the AW1 to a specific computer and speaker and leave it that way, it is no hassle at all to move to another speaker/computer, and it fits easily in a laptop bag.
One minor annoyance I did run into with the AW1 that is not a problem with the AirPort Extreme, however, deals with one of those cool extra tricks I mentioned earlier. While AirTunes will stream only the music currently playing via iTunes, the AW1 plays all audio that your Mac is churning out. So for example, if you are having a party, and streaming music from your downstairs Mac, your guests will hear your Mail notification and iChat sounds being broadcast as well. Of course, you can go into most of these apps and turn off the audio notifications, or simply close them if this is undesirable, but it is important to remember that the AW1 is pretty much a blind transmitter, there is no additional software included to make it run “smartly”. This makes it very easy to set up, but also limits the ability to set up custom filters, sort of like how in Audio HiJack you can set the program to only record sound coming from Safari, while at the same time ignoring the audio from iTunes, Mail, or a game being played with sound. I actually found for the most part I liked hearing when I received a message, even when listening to music, but I think if I was entertaining I would need to go down and mute or quit those apps.
Depending how much of the Apple Kool Aid you have already drank, the AW1 might not make a whole lot of sense. If you already own an AirPort Extreme and the only streaming you plan to ever do is from your iTunes library to another part of your house, the AW1 might not seem worth the money. However, it does provide a streaming versatility that the Express does not by being able to stream not just iTunes audio, but audio from any application and any device â€“ not just your Mac. Factor in its ridiculously easy installation and the fact it can also stream audio back INTO your Mac, and there are plenty of reasons the AW1 might be a great addition to your home audio setup.
Pros: Extremely easy to set up, works as advertised with a wide range of devices, zero latency, a great fit if you own a set of Audio Engine’s A5 speakers, but works will all speakers, can be used to stream audio back INTO your Mac as well
Cons: Slightly pricey, can only stream to one receiver at a time, would be nice if it included 2 AC adapters for “computer-free” streaming.