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Audioengine AW1 Wireless Audio System

Date: October 6, 2008
Author(s): Rory Buszka

Does your living arrangement make it impossible to locate your PC near your preferred space for audio listening? Audioengine’s AW1 wireless audio system could be your solution, but does it improve upon the traditionally lacking audio quality of previous wireless systems?

Introduction, First Impressions

Audioengine is one company that’s done much to advance the state of high-fidelity audio on the desktop. Their first product to gain significant acclaim was their A5 two-way powered monitors, which were designed specifically for desktop audio use, unlike most studio monitors – which usually require some additional equipment to convert the PC’s ‘unbalanced’ line-level output signal into the ‘balanced’ type used by professional audio systems for long cable runs.

The company later supplemented its product range with the A2 compact two-way mini-monitor, and the A8 powered subwoofer. Needless to say, if you’re using one of their (analog-fed) high-fidelity speaker systems, you probably aren’t feeding it with crap from your motherboard’s onboard sound card, either – their A5 two-way monitors sat on Maximum PC’s Best-of-the-best list ever since their introduction.

Satisfied for the moment with their range of high-quality PC audio offerings, Audioengine next turned their attention to the problem of transmitting a high-quality audio signal wirelessly to an audio system across the room – or two rooms away.

Previous wireless audio systems transmitted an analog signal over the same 900mHz radio frequency band used by cordless telephones – and were notoriously lacking in the quality of their wireless transmission. However, a more ideal solution is one in which the audio signal is transmitted wirelessly in digital form, and processed into an analog waveform at the receiving end.

Audioengine has taken the digital-transmission route with their own wireless audio transmitter, the AW1. The AW1 system consists of two modules – an identically-styled transmitter and receiver, with a USB plug hanging off one end of each module. The transmitter module contains the codec chip that receives the incoming audio data from the PC and produces a digital audio signal. It then streams the digital signal wirelessly via an 802.11 protocol to the receiver, which actually contains the digital-to-analog converter. This arrangement avoids entirely the noise and distortion introduced by transmitting an analog audio signal to the receiver module – at least, in theory.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the Audioengine AW1 wireless audio system, and see how it performs when it comes to delivering pure sound over long distances. Has wireless audio distribution finally come of age?

First Impressions

Inside the Audioengine AW1’s simple yet attractive packaging, you’ll find the transmitter and receiver modules, a special power adapter for the receiver module, documentation, and a set of cables for converting the receiver module’s 35mm minijack output to stereo RCA connectors, or simply connecting it directly to a device with a 35mm input jack. You can also connect the transmitter unit to an analog audio source with a second included 35mm male-to-male audio cable.

The transmitter and receiver modules are about the size of a pack of gum, and each one has a USB plug sticking out of one end, and a 35mm stereo minijack on the other. The transmitter, marked by a rocket ship, is plugged directly into a USB port on the host machine, and behaves like a USB audio device. The good news here is that you’re not limited by the quality of the audio hardware built into the PC itself – the Audioengine AW1 handles all its own audio processing. It also serves its own power needs completely from the host machine’s USB port.

If an audio source is plugged into the 3.5mm minijack on the other end of the transmitter unit, then that signal will be used instead of the audio signal from the host PC, but the transmitter must still be plugged into a USB port to receive power. This offers some additional flexibility in that you can hook up a portable media player to the transmitter and send its output to the remotely-located sound system.

The Audioengine AW1 package also includes a power adapter with a single USB connector. Either the receiver (marked with a planet) or the transmitter may be plugged into this power adapter, which makes it possible to either stream audio signals to a sound system in another room, or stream the audio output from another device to your PC. If you try the latter configuration, however, you’ll need to plug the receiver module’s analog output into your sound card’s stereo line-in jack, since the USB audio connectivity of the AW1 system doesn’t work in reverse.

Now that we’ve covered the hardware package and its physical features, let’s see if the Audioengine AW1 truly delivers a high-fidelity audio experience in our listening tests.

Listening Tests, Final Thoughts

The Audioengine AW1 transmitter behaves like any generic USB audio device when you plug it into your PC, making setup simple and fairly seamless – there aren’t any extra control panels to configure or drivers to install. The downside to this is that there’s no equalization or DSP settings at the device level – you’ll need to rely on your media player software’s functionality for those features.

The AW1’s transmitter automatically sets up its own 802.11 connection to the receiver unit, and begins transmitting audio. The visual metaphor in the icons identifying the transmitter and receiver begins to make sense – the rocket ship travels to the planet.

To test the Audioengine AW1 transmitter’s audio quality, I connected the transmitter to my main PC, and connected the receiver to a high-quality audio system that I’ve had on my desk awaiting a review article of its own – the NuForce Icon-1 USB DAC/stereo integrated amplifier and S-1 speakers.

I left the Icon-1’s USB input connected to my laptop, and connected the transmitter’s analog audio output to the Icon-1’s stereo analog inputs. This allowed me to start both machines playing a playlist of lossless FLAC audio files simultaneously and switch between the two, comparing their audio quality.

The only changes to the reference system for this review were that the ASUS Xonar D2 audio card was replaced by the Audioengine AW1 transmitter unit’s built-in audio codec, and the reference Beyerdynamic DT770 headphones were replaced by the NuForce Icon-1 amplifier and S-1 desktop speakers.

Upon the recommendation of a friend, I’ve recently come to appreciate the music of the Finnish metal group Sonata Arctica. Their synth-driven melodic style has also proven to be an excellent test for a sound system’s transparency and its ability to separate individual instruments within a complex harmonic structure.

On a system lacking in transparency, the upper harmonics of instruments can sound like lifeless noise, but on a system that effectively gets out of the way of the recording, individual sounds like guitar distortion, cymbal crashes, and synthesized effects remain distinguishable from one another, even with many of these sounds occurring simultaneously. For this review, I used Sonata Arctica’s album Winterheart’s Guild to conduct listening testing.

Listening to the difference between the Audioengine AW1 wireless link and the Icon-1’s built-in DAC (digital-to-analog converter), I first noticed that the AW1 sounded a bit more dynamically compressed (that is, the difference between soft and softer sounds, or loud and louder sounds, was not quite as pronounced.)

In addition, the ‘imaging’ – that is, the precise rendering of phase relationships between speakers that allow you to perceive individual instrument locations – was not quite as precise when the AW1 system was used, though this is an extremely subtle effect that won’t make much of a difference for most listeners. On the track “Silver Tongue”, the slight dynamic compression caused the sound to seem slightly flatter, masking the subtle difference between hard drum thwacks and ‘harder’ drum thwacks.

The other characteristic that seemed slightly hampered when using the Audioengine AW1 system was overall ‘openness’ – some of the very low-level detail began to be lost. In the song “Victoria’s Secret”, the feverish guitar work is overlaid by keyboard work that follows the same notes. Through the AW1 system, the two instruments following the same notes couldn’t easily be separated by ear.

However, switching over to the Icon-1’s DAC allowed the system to resolve the individual instruments’ differing harmonic signatures flawlessly. On the track “Gravenimage”, individual voices in vocal harmonies seemed slightly blurred together instead of being rendered as multiple distinct voices in harmony.

Minor ‘audiophile’ nitpicks aside, the sound quality of the Audioengine AW1 far exceeded my expectations. Unlike older wireless audio systems that transmitted their audio signals in analog form, the AW1 retains the impression of listening to a ‘CD-quality’ source, even when the transmitter and receiver are separated by long distances.

To test the AW1’s range, I connected the receiver module to a shelf stereo in another room, about 30 feet away and separated by one wall. The AW1 delivered enjoyable, high-quality sound even in this particular application, where the source and destination were separated by a meaningful distance. It’s definitely good enough to feed a shelf stereo, a set of powered PC speakers, or the ‘aux’ input of an iPod docking speaker in another room.

Final Thoughts

If you want to be able to enjoy your digital music collection in another room of your house, the Audioengine AW1 is one of the best things going in wireless audio. While it’s still not quite as clean or transparent as a direct connection between the sound system and a high-quality sound card, it performed far better than I’d anticipated, given my previous experience with sub-par wireless audio gizmos. Though it won’t replace a direct digital connection to the source component, it’s more than adequate for sending audio to a stereo system in another room. Its few sonic weaknesses are most likely caused by lower-quality DAC componentry than most high-end sound cards use.

However, if you’ve got a pricey top-of-the-line home theater or hi-fi system, and want to stream audio from another room for critical listening on your high-quality components, you might be better served by something like Slim Devices’ Squeezebox, which actually streams the entire media file to the receiver unit for decoding, or by placing a dedicated PC equipped with a high-quality sound card into your home theater setup. The fewer encode/decode stages in the signal chain, the better your sound quality will be.

The bottom line is that Audioengine’s AW1 wireless audio system is a practical and good-sounding way to enjoy your music in another room without pulling an unsightly cable across the floor, or attempting to route a cable through your wall. I can easily recommend it for just about anyone who’s looking for a way to stream music from point A to point B without wires, but more than that, streaming any sort of media wirelessly from room to room automatically does quite a bit to elevate your ‘geek’ credentials.

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