We’ve covered wireless audio solutions before here on Sync, and by golly we will continue to cover them – wireless audio is one of those technologies that can change the way you experience media. Well executed, it can bring a goofy smile to your face as you try to contemplate how you ever lived without it. Poorly executed and it leaves you wondering what all the hype is about.
Unfortunately HP’s Wireless Audio falls into the latter category.
Before we get into why, let’s review some of the basics.
The primary goal of any wireless audio system is to let you experience the digital music that you have stored on your computer, smartphone or other device on a set of speakers that are better suited to the task and often located in a different room than the device with the music.
Sometimes the speakers belong to a high-end home theatre system, sometimes they’re just a small tabletop radio with an auxiliary input. But they aren’t the tinny things that come stock with most laptops or PCs which means your music is going to sound a lot better.
There are three wireless technologies that companies have used for this. First is Wi-Fi (or a proprietary version thereof). Its strengths are distance – it can usually cover your whole home and sometimes more – built-in networking (you can do more than just stream music over it) and flexibility (there’s virtually no limit to how many devices can share a Wi-Fi network, and you don’t need extra hardware). It’s drawbacks are mostly related to reliability. Because only a few Wi-Fi routers can help to prioritize one type of network traffic over another, streaming music can sometimes cut-out or fall out of sync with a video source.
Second is Bluetooth. It’s a piece of cake to set up, almost all modern laptops and smartphones support it, audio quality is good and lag is rarely if ever an issue, but it caps out at about 30m of distance and so far, Bluetooth connections can’t be multi-device (I can only stream my music to one Bluetooth speaker at a time).
Third is fully proprietary wireless signal. This is used by HP’s Wireless Audio. Proprietary wireless’s main strength is that the devices which use it share a dedicated, highly reliable signal which can be used to deliver a wide range of audio including 5.1 surround sound. The down side is that you have to use a dedicated wireless dongle with limited transmission strength. Depending on the frequency(ies) and power used by the system it may or may not be successful in penetrating walls and other structures.
Thus is the weakness of HP’s Wireless Audio solution. In testing out the review unit, I found I wasn’t able to maintain a connection between the receiver unit and my laptop which had the USB dongle, unless I stayed within about a 15-20 feet “safe zone.” The orientation of the laptop (and thus the dongle) also made a big difference at the edge of the safe zone. This is in stark contrast to HP’s claim of “30m bi-directional range,” using a tri-band combination of 2.4, 5.2 and 5.8Ghz frequencies. If you’re hoping to get your music from one end of the house to the other, the HP Wireless Audio system isn’t going to deliver.
I was also disappointed that HP hadn’t created a free app that I could download to an iOS or Android device so that I could control the audio remotely. That feature exists for both Apple’s AirPort Express as well as Sonos’s wireless solution.
So without the ability to effectively stream music from more than one room away and with no built-in way to control the audio on the computer, I found myself wondering exactly who the system was meant for. Which application had HP envisioned when they created the Wireless Audio?
Then it hit me: The scenario that was made for HP’s strengths without being affected by its weaknesses. For folks who have all of their movies on their computer and want to watch them on their computer’s display but want the audio to run over their home-theatre speakers, the HP Wireless Audio works perfectly.
Distance is no longer a factor because your receiver and computer are in the same room. There’s no need for remote control because the computer is sitting right there in front of you, or at least within arm’s reach. The ability to stream 5.1 surround is big benefit and not running cords from your PC to your receiver is obviously another. Finally, the Wireless Audio’s dedicated signal and resulting no-lag is perfectly suited to movie soundtracks: no one likes watching an actor’s lips start moving a half-second or more before the words start coming out.
But for all its strengths in this scenario, I just can’t see someone dropping $99 for this capability. It’s hard for me to imaging that someone who has a great 5.1 set-up doesn’t have an equally great widescreen TV to match and if that’s the case, a single HDMI cable kills two birds with one stone: you get great audio *and* video.
However, if you were thinking “hey that’s my set-up exactly” when you were reading my computer+speakers scenario, you’ll be pleased to know that set-up of the Wireless Audio was painless. HP provides a dedicated control panel for Windows that lets you sync your receivers (yep, you can have up to 4) to your computer. There are few options and after the install you’ll mostly manage the audio levels for your Wireless Audio from your Windows sound properties.
The receiver itself, while generous with connectivity options (it has RCA jacks, a mini-jack/TOSLINK combo and an RCA-style S/PDIF connector) and uses a nearly universal mini-USB port for power, is nonetheless cheap-feeling with plastic case that is so light weight, one can’t help but wonder why it needs to be so big.
Oh by the way, in case you’re a Mac user, sorry – you’ll have to stick with Apple’s Airport Express or other solution – HP’s Wireless Audio is only compatible with Windows PCs.
Overall, I’d have to say that if you’re looking to build a wireless home audio system on a budget and you don’t mind the occasional lag, Apple’s Wi-Fi and Airplay-based AirPort Express is a much more versatile gadget for the same price.