Tagged: Audio

Review: HP Wireless Audio

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.

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Sonos SUB: First impressions

I’ll admit it: when I read the press release for Sonos’s new sub-woofer, the Sonos SUB, I was skeptical. Why would anyone need a wireless sub?

When I think “sub-woofer” I picture home theatre set ups- you know the kind- 5, 6 or even 7.1 surround systems with that “.1” referring to the sub woofer which, more often than not, is tucked into a corner, hidden under a plant or sometimes concealed behind a wall panel. What these configurations all have in common is permanence. Your average home theatre buff will spend a fair amount of time figuring out optimal speaker placement and once wired in to their locations, never moves them again.

Why would Sonos seek to market a wireless sub to this group of buyers? Yes, the Sonos sub enables placement options that wired subs can only dream of, but when I tell you that Sonos’s sub is incompatible with every amplified home theatre system on earth, you’re probably going to start scratching your head. I sure did.

Before I explain this bizarre limitation, let me clarify who the Sonos sub is actually aimed at: people who already own, or intend to buy one of Sonos’s all-in-one speakers, the Play:3 or Play:5 or their Connect:Amp powered receiver for bookshelf speakers.

Now, about that strange incompatibility. Let’s do a quick refresher on the nature of sub woofers. Subs are designed to do one thing and do it well: provide the low-end bass reproduction that standard speakers simply can’t deliver. In home theatres, they are loved for that couch-shaking rumble on movie soundtracks. Audiophiles use them to fill in the lows that their dedicated stereo speakers can’t reproduce. But regardless why you use a sub, your receiver/amplifier plays a critical role. Every system that includes a sub needs a setting known as “cross-over.”  Cross-over is the frequency at which the sounds you are playing are divided into signals. All sounds above the cross-over frequency get sent to the regular speakers. All sounds below that frequency get sent to the sub-woofer. Sometimes, as with inexpensive HTIBs (Home Theatre In A Box) systems, that cross-over frequency is set at the factory and can’t be changed while receivers/amps used in component systems will typically have an adjustable cross-over frequency so you can get the perfect calibration for your specific speaker/sub-woofer combination.

So what does that have to do with the Sonos SUB? Well, just like every other sub-woofer, the Sonos SUB needs to have a cross-over frequency established. On Sonos systems, that cross-over setting is managed in the software and is dynamically set based on the particular combination of Sonos speakers in your room(s). But because the software uses its knowledge of volume levels and amplification of ALL the speakers in your system, it can’t make the necessary adjustments if your system included components that the software isn’t aware of from an amplification point of view. This includes any externally-amplified speakers you are running through one of Sonos’s Connect devices. These devices only pass music signal, not amplification to a set of speakers. Conversely, all Play:5, Play:3 and Connect:AMP components will work with the SUB.

One of the benefits of the Sonos software-controlled cross-over system is that the cross-over frequency can change. Not only can it change based on which speakers you’re using with the SUB but it can also change as you adjust your volume levels which means you’re always getting the optimal amount of low-end for any moment in time. If the engineers at Sonos ever feel the blend needs to be adjusted, they can do so via a software update. The down-side to this arrangement is you can’t tweak the cross-over frequency if you aren’t happy with how the software is dealing with it.

If you haven’t already guessed from the details so far, the Sonos SUB is intended to enhance the enjoyment of music within an existing Sonos set-up. This is not a sub for home theatres. As an acknowledgement of this fact, Sonos took a little more care with the design and materials in their SUB. After all, if your sub-woofer is wireless and can be placed anywhere, why not show it off a little? The SUB’s piano-black gloss finish and striking shape makes for a great conversation piece. But look a little closer and you’ll see that Sonos’s engineers found an intriguing solution to a design challenge.

Their research told them that traditional down or side-firing sub-woofers limit placement options for consumers. Their boxy shapes can be hard to hide and they certainly don’t slide under couches very well. At the same time, rectangular subs, while easier to stow under furniture, aren’t much to look at if you do need to leave them visible. To make a sub that was both elegant when seen and slim enough to be hidden, Sonos employed a “ying-and-yang” arrangement: two speaker cones and ports which fire from opposite sides, but both facing the inside of the cabinet – the donut hole in the centre of the SUB. The benefits of this design are two-fold: because there are no externally facing speakers, you can position the SUB with any of its five available surfaces facing down and sound quality is never compromised (the “bottom” should probably never be used on “top” for balance reasons). Plus, overall vibration on the SUB’s cabinet is reduced to negligible levels thanks to balanced output of the two drivers. It’s the sub-woofer equivalent of a boxer engine.

It’s also worth mentioning that Sonos’s built-in wireless system creates a level of flexibility that wired sub-woofers simply can’t match. If you use Sonos gear in a multi-room configuration, but decide that you don’t need sub-woofer power in each of those rooms all of the time, simply unplug the SUB, carry it to the other room, plug it in, and then associate it with the new room from within the Sonos app on your smartphone or tablet. The software does the rest, including a recalibration step that ensures you get the right balance between the SUB and the speakers in your second (or third or fourth etc..) room.

But how does it sound?

I auditioned the SUB in a small listening room at Toronto’s The Spoke club. Sonos Product Manager Craig Wisneski had two Play:3 speakers set up at either side of the room, configured to run in stereo mode (each Play:3 speaker reproducing just one channel respectively). We sampled several tracks including some reggae standards which are perfect for checking out low-end sound thanks to their bass-heavy rhythms. Without the Sonos SUB, the sound produced by the stereo Play:3’s was already (to my untrained ears) full, rich and satisfying. Adding the SUB to the mix did exactly what you would expect – it filled out the low end that you hadn’t even noticed was missing.

It very much reinforced for me that the SUB has been designed for music – not movies. The effect of turning on the SUB was immediate and noticeable while retaining a subtlety I don’t usually associate with sub-woofers. It many ways, it does what all good audio gear should do. It gives you the impression that you weren’t hearing the full range of music before you added it to your set-up.

Price

Here’s the part that might give you pause when considering if the Sonos SUB is right for you: the price. At $749 the Sonos SUB is more expensive than two Play:3 speakers plus the Sonos Bridge all put together. It’s a big expense for a product that many consider a nice, but optional extra to their music system. And while Sonos has plans to release a slightly cheaper $649 matte-black version of the SUB later this year or possibly early in 2013, that’s still twice what it costs to buy a decent powered sub-woofer for component systems. But therein lies the catch – if you want that deep bass sound to accompany your existing Sonos wireless speaker set-up, there is – for now – only one game in town. Is the SUB $749 worth of sub-woofer? Probably not. But if you value stunning industrial design, the convenience of place-anywhere-wireless convenience and a speaker that has been designed to provide optimal low-end sound for your existing Sonos gear, then it might very well be worth the asking price.

In any event, you’ve got a few weeks to decide/save up – the Sonos SUB starts shipping July 30th if you order online. But if you’ve already made up your mind, you can pick one up right now at selected retailers and installers such as Best Buy, Future Shop but call first as stocks are limited at this point.

CES: Nano HiFi packs amazing sound into a tiny package

The Nano HiFi: Big sound from a tiny stereo

Well it sure doesn’t look like much on the outside.

In fact, it looks a heck of lot like dozens of other micro-bookshelf stereos on the market.

But turn on the Nano HiFi, and it’s a whole different story.

The sound that this diminutive system creates is spectacular.

Now just so we’re clear: I’m not an audiophile, and I don’t spend much time auditioning lots of different sound systems and you will never, ever hear me claim that a $1,000 pair of specially shielded speaker cables will make your music come alive.

Heck, I don’t even listen to much music these days when I’m not in the car or at the gym.

But I have had a chance to listen to some of the small stereos on the market in the $250-$500 price range and I can tell you that as far as these untrained ears are concerned, none of them come close to the Nano HiFi, and its suggested retail price is $350.

The makers of the Nano HiFi claim the little unit’s audio prowess comes from the speaker design. They used terms like “multi yoke technology” and “higher sound-pressure-levels” but I have no idea what any of that means. What I do know, is that I’ve never heard such deep, rich and clear sound come from such a small package.

There is one thing I should share as a sort of caveat to my gushing praise: The unit I listened to was perched inside a curved acrylic wall. I asked the company rep if the curved shape of the wall was having any impact on the sound I was hearing. He claimed it made no difference at all. So while I’ll have to take his word for it, a small part of me remains a tad skeptical.

You’ve never heard of Nano HiFi, and even when I Google them, nothing comes up – not even their official website with the obvious name www.nanohifi.com. Talk about flying under the radar.

But if these guys land a distribution deal in Canada (any takers?) I think you’ll be hearing a lot more from them soon.

Nano HiFi features:

  • iPod/iPhone dock
  • Slot-loading DVD/CD player
  • FM radio
  • USB port for accessing audio files from a thumbdrive
  • Bluetooth
  • remote control

Edifier: Canadian-designed audio gear

There is a certain tendency we Canadians have, to downplay our achievements. Call it being humble, or too polite to toot our own horn, but we don’t take the time to recognize the talent that lives here. Edifier Enterprises is a good example of this. They are a Chinese company that specializes in audio gear. But their sales, design and R&D is all based in Vancouver. Which makes them pretty much Canadian as far as I’m concerned. So why hasn’t more Edifier products made it to the shelves of Canadian retailers? Take a look at some of their new products – they sound good – but they look incredible.