Greg Handy developed a passion for audio in his early teens when he worked as an installer of car audio systems. This experience taught him about passive and active crossovers, subwoofers, and challenged acoustics, as well as how to troubleshoot persistent bugbears like ground loops and noise.
From there, his interests grew to home audio and home theater systems. Once he bought his own home, he began installing sound systems and theater systems in different rooms, spending much time and money along the way. It wasn't long before he began doing the same for friends and family, then sharing his passion for AV with the HomeTheaterReview.com audience.
Definitive Technology, part of the DEI holdings group, is well known for innovative speaker designs with award-winning sound quality. Founded by Sandy Gross and later sold, Definitive Technology has continued the legacy of designing and manufacturing high-quality speaker systems that are held in high regard. Recently, Definitive Technology entered the wireless speaker market, with its Wireless Collection of products that includes the W Studio (a soundbar and subwoofer combo), the W Amp (which converts any standard speaker to a wireless speaker), the W Adapt (which allows existing audio systems to stream audio wirelessly), and finally the W9 ($699) and W7 ($399) powered, self-contained wireless speakers. The Wireless Collection promises lossless wireless audio streaming from smartphones, tablets, and PC computers to any product in the line. I put the W9 and W7 through a variety of situations in my home, and the results surprised me.
Definitive Technology made the decision to implement DTS Play-Fi in the Wireless Collection, which is an open-architecture wireless system that can stream full-resolution music files over WiFi using your existing local area network (LAN) to multiple Play-Fi products, individually or at the same time. Different sources can be played simultaneously on different devices within the Play-Fi network, and various Play-Fi products from different manufacturers will play well together. More information about Play-Fi can be found here.
All that is needed to make the system work is to download the free Definitive Technology app to your desired devices: the iOS app is available through the App Store, the Android app through Google Play, the Kindle Fire app through Amazon, and lastly the Windows app for your PC, located on the Play-Fi website. (I used Definitive's own Play-Fi app, but a generic DTS app is also available.) Play-Fi is technically AirPlay-compatible for use with Mac-based systems; however, Definitive Technology made the executive decision not to include this functionality, so the Wireless Collection will not work with OS X Mac computers.
Streamed sources from your phone or tablet can include the music stored on it and one of the streaming services available through the iOS app. At the time of this writing, there are four music services available for the iOS app: Deezer, KKBOX, Pandora, and Songza. I must be out of touch here because I'm familiar with only one of those services. Can you guess which one? I felt better when I started researching the other streaming services. Deezer has not launched yet, so I will give myself a pass on that one. KKBOX is Asia's leading streaming service, and Songza is a free service with no audio ads. Its business model is to pick the right music for you depending on the occasion or mood. At this time, these are the only streaming services that will work with a smartphone or tablet, since support is required within the Play-Fi app to make a particular streaming service operate. I suspect additional streaming services will appear over time. [Editor's note: After the completion of this review, Definitive added support for Spotify Connect. Also, the Android app adds SiriusXM and QQMusic, which are not available through the iOS app.]
Conversely, PC-based computers can stream any service you subscribe to. Since audio operates at the device level, no special application is required for you to log on to your streaming service (for example, TIDAL) and start playing music. From there, it's up to your computer to direct that music to your Play-Fi device through the Play-Fi application.
Both the W9 and W7 are active speakers that share a similar look, which includes a solid aluminum base that houses four buttons for source selection, volume up, volume down, and play/pause functionality. Acoustically transparent fabric surrounds the speaker's four sides, and a glossy black top panel rounds out the exterior. I installed the W9, the flagship model of this duo, in my home office. Its design includes two forward-firing, one-inch aluminum dome tweeters and 5.25-inch woofers, along with two side-firing two-inch full-range drivers. Each driver has its own dedicated amplifier; each of the two woofers gets a 70-watt amplifier, while the tweeters and full-range drivers get a 10-watt amplifier. Singularly, that may not seem like much, but its sum is a respectable amount of power. The W9 is 7.5 inches high, 16.6 inches wide, and 7.3 inches deep.
The W7 has four one-inch aluminum dome tweeters (two front-firing and one on each side), one four-inch front-firing mid-bass woofer, and two side-mounted four-inch passive bass radiators. As with the W9, each driver in the W7 has its own amplifier; each mid-bass driver has a 30-watt amplifier, and each tweeter has a 15-watt amplifier. At 6.9 inches high, 5.9 inches wide, and 6.6 inches deep, the W7 is small enough to fit on your bedroom nightstand, which is where I put my review sample.
A Digital Signal Processor (DSP) brings it all together by dividing the appropriate frequencies to specific amplifiers that are powering specific drivers, while performing some equalization and a loudness contour, all in the digital domain. If you read my review on the Genelec G Four active speakers, you know my affection for and the benefits of an active speaker design.
As an owner of a Wireless Collection product, you become a member of the Aficionado Service Program, which entitles you to dedicated Hotline support, extended customer care support hours, personal consultations, and exclusive rewards. It is all spelled out in a small black tri-fold card, which clearly displays a toll-free number. At a time when most companies are directing you to a website or manual for customer support, Definitive Technology puts that toll-free number front and center. That's commitment. I did call the customer service line, and they were very helpful.
Connectivity is the same for both the W9 and W7, which is in large part wireless. However, some wired connections are available and can be found in the back of the speaker--including a digital optical input, an analog auxiliary input, Ethernet for a wired Internet connection, and USB for firmware updates and phone charging. There's also a WiFi setup button and AC cable connector, allowing for alternate power cables to be used in lieu of the one provided. I used the system exclusively in the wireless mode simply because that is the main premise of this speaker.
To get this show on the road, with both the W7 and W9 already plugged in and booted up (indicated by a steady single LED light), I downloaded the Definitive Technology Play-Fi application to my iPhone 6 from the App Store. I'm in the iPhone camp and do not own any Android devices; so, for my smartphone testing, I was limited to the iOS app, which apparently doesn't support as many features as the Android app. Once the app was installed, I had to perform a clunky initial setup: I had to start the Definitive Technology Play-Fi application, go through a few steps, exit out of the Play-Fi application, and open the settings menu on the iPhone, to WiFi settings, and choose the Play-Fi device, which appeared as an available network. I then had to go back to the Definitive/Play-Fi App to name the devices (W9 and W7 speakers). Then, I tapped Next on the phone display to go to some source choices. Tapping on Music will open up music stored in iTunes. After choosing my first track, I received an error message that the system could play this file type. Ah yes, all my music on my iPhone is ripped as a WAV file. I had to stop there, sync my phone with my computer, and change the copy setting to reduce the resolution of the music files stored on the iPhone. [Editor's note: the Android app supports playback of FLAC and WAV files.] Once completed, I was back in business.
Connecting my PC was more straightforward. I downloaded the Windows Play-Fi application and opened it. The application searched for speakers and found them. From there, I could play a CD on my computer, stream music from any website, or play stored files using an array of applications--like JRiver, for example.
Starting with the iPhone 6, I chose the W9 speaker, located in my home office, and played the song "Wiseman"by James Blunt, from his Back to Bedlam album (AAC File, Atlantic Records). My first impression was that of surprise. The sound was far more impressive than I thought possible from a one-box speaker design of that size. The stereo image was large and wide, and the bass was far deeper than its size should allow. What jumped out at me was the detailed bass, rather than a one-note, bouncy exaggerated boing. Mid-bass was stellar with detail, which created a sense of realism. Upper frequencies were not bad; however, they possessed a bit of smearing and were not as crisp as what I hear through my home system--which is hardly a fair comparison. Overall, I was pleased with what I heard.
Next, I played "Black Cow" by Steely Dan from their Aja album (AAC file, ABC Records). Vocals were clear and natural sounding. Imaging continued to impress me, while overall balance was good. The W9 can play loud if needed, with no strain detected unless at the very top volume levels. I was able to quickly and easily switch to or add the W7 bedroom speaker, such that just one or both speakers were playing at the same time. As I walked from room to room, it was a kick to control volume, turn off and on each speaker, or play both of them, and change music tracks or artists. Listening to those two same tracks and alternating between the two speakers, I could easily discern each speaker, and I preferred the W9, as you could guess. However, the W7 does have its place. Sometimes you need a smaller package, and for its size, the W7 was able to provide better sound than what you would expect--much better than a typical docking station clock-radio type product. It is missing some of the detail the W9 was able to muster, and the bass was not as realistic.
I changed my source device to my PC, where I began streaming from TIDAL, the new online music streaming service, which is so far my favorite. I played the same tracks used by my iPhone experience, plus at least another 20 songs from various artists. Music from the PC improved in way of focus, depth, and detail. It was too much fun being able to wirelessly stream music from a source that has little limitation in way of music selection. I was able to easily play tracks from different artists and turn on and off the different speakers. The more I used the system, the more I could see the attraction of all the functionality. I was able to jump from song to song, playing all different sorts of genres, with astonishing detail. I really enjoyed using TIDAL in conjunction with the speakers. The two complement each other very well. One awkward characteristic I noted was a time lag when streaming from TIDAL; however, the functionality, sound quality, and overall convenience are worth it.
For me, the biggest issue was not being able to stream from my Mac computer, and the next gripe would be the inability to stream full-resolution music files from my iPhone. In my opinion, Play-Fi should allow us to stream at the same quality level that AirPlay supports. Setup of the iOS app was hectic; but, do it once, and you're done.
On occasion, the system could not find speakers that were connected on the network. The fix would vary from restarting my computer or iPhone to restarting the Play-Fi app to unplugging and reconnecting the speaker. I suspect this type of issue is going to happen on any wireless device. I have seen Sonos devices have similar issues, so this is not singular to Play-Fi. My LAN could be the root cause, so I can't say it is entirely a Definitive Technology issue. For the most part, the system was reliable. The Play-Fi interface on both the iPhone and PC is not as sophisticated or intuitive as Sonos. However, the Definitive Technology app could evolve over time to refine its functionality.
Comparison and Competition
There is no shortage of wireless speakers making their way to the market. Sonos is the king of the hill for now, and the first system that comes to mind as a direct competitor to the Wireless Collection of products. It is a closed system, meaning only Sonos speakers will work together. For the time being, its interface is superior to the Play-Fi system. Alternatively, I preferred the performance of the Definitive Technology speaker compared with the Sonos. Bluesound, a newer wireless system that has an affiliation with PSB and NAD, offers a whole-home solution, as well. While I have little personal experience with Bluesound, I liked what I heard at CES. Denon's HEOS would be another alternative.
I really enjoyed using the Definitive Technology W9 and W7 WiFi speakers. My favorite way to use the system was streaming music using TIDAL from my computer. However, walking around my home with iPhone in hand, controlling the music I wanted to play and the speaker I wanted to listen to, was very addictive. It's a great conversation piece while entertaining. I was able to easily add music where it was not convenient to do so in the past, and the speakers themselves are impressive for their price point and size, thoroughly surpassing my expectations. The open architecture is an important feature. Imagine obtaining a Play-Fi speaker today; then, next year, another manufacturer offers a Play-Fi speaker that suits your needs for another part of your home, which can be easily added to your current eco system. This is where the consumer really benefits. Play-Fi is still in its early stages, but it's shaping up to be something special.
• Polk Omni S2 Wireless Music System Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Can DTS Play-Fi Dethrone Sonos? at HomeTheaterReview.com.
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