Micromega Airstream WM-10 Wireless DAC Reviewed

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MicromegaWM10-DAC.gifThere was a time when serious music lovers turned a deaf ear to the notion of digital audio files stored on a computer. Of course, those were the days when digital music was all about MP3 and portable audio players. Compression quickly became a four-letter word in audiophilia. We've come a long way, and hardcore music lovers now take their digital audio files very seriously. As hard-drive storage solutions grow ever larger and ever cheaper, gone is the need to even consider that four-letter word. With the stumbling block of compression out of the way, what has emerged is a new high-end product category featuring devices designed to transfer full-resolution audio files directly from your computer to your audio system. A whole new crop of high-end USB digital-to-analog converters has arrived, opening the door for audiophiles to enjoy both the convenience of digital music and the higher-end performance they crave. 

Additional Resources
• Learn more about high end digital and audiophile DACs from AudiophileReview.com.
• Read about streaming versus Blu-ray for audio.

One drawback to the USB DAC, however, is the need for a wired connection between computer, DAC, and audio system. Enter Micromega, who has cut the cord with a high-end wireless receiver/DAC that allows you to wirelessly stream full-resolution audio signals directly from your computer to your audio system. The new WM-10 operates over an 802.11n network and supports AIFF, WAV, ALAC (Apple Lossless), MP3, and WMA files. Micromega is based in France, and the company's products are distributed in North America by Audio Plus Services. The WM-10 has an MSRP of $1,595. 

The Hookup 
A product that streams audio from your computer to your stereo - "So what?" you may ask. The market is saturated with less-expensive network audio devices that accomplish the same thing. True. What Micromega aims to deliver is a higher level of performance combined with easy setup and use. We'll talk performance in the next section; in terms of setup and user-friendliness, the company has done a nice job of offering extremely easy setup for network newbies while still providing enough flexibility to accommodate more advanced options.

Unlike many network audio devices that are Windows- and/or DLNA-based, the WM-10 is an Apple-sanctioned product designed to work specifically and directly with iTunes (on either a Mac or PC). You don't need to load a third-party media player onto your computer or piggyback another software platform onto iTunes (although you can if desired). Micromega's wireless Airstream technology is essentially Apple's AirTunes, which Apple uses in its standalone AirPort Express wireless module. The fact that this is an Apple-friendly product will certainly appeal to a large segment of Mac devotees who have not, thus far, had as many options in the streaming-media category. (In the interest of full disclosure, my husband is a Mac tech, and my household currently contains three Macs, three iPods, and two iPhones; I would say I fall squarely in Apple fangirl territory.) For those people who don't wish to be constrained to iTunes, the WM-10 is also compatible with Rogue Amoeba's AirFoil software, which allows for the wireless transmission over AirTunes of all audio signals on your computer, enabling the use of a different music software platform. 

Because the WM-10 can create its own Wireless-N network, you don't have to add it to an existing home network--nor do you even need to have your own broadband network in place. (I can't imagine that users of this type of product wouldn't have a broadband network, but still...) Once again, if you don't mind doing a more advanced setup, you have the option to use your existing network instead. 

The box itself is a model of simplicity. The front panel contains only a single LED, and the back panel sports just three connections: one stereo analog output for those who want to utilize the WM-10's internal DAC; one coaxial digital audio output that allows for straight digital pass-through of the signal; and a power connection. This is a wireless-only product, with no Ethernet port for a wired connection between computer and WM-10. The included User Guide is a simple, four-page brochure with clear, easy-to-follow instructions. To perform a basic setup, you first connect the WM-10 to your audio system via the output of your choice (analog is recommended), plug it in, and power it up; the front-panel LED will glow blue when initialization is complete. Next, go into your computer's wireless network settings, find the "Airstream" wireless network, and join it with the supplied password. Finally, launch iTunes on your computer; at the bottom right corner of the iTunes window, you'll see an option to switch the iTunes audio output from the computer to the WM-10. That's it. Cue up your iTunes music and enjoy. You can add multiple computers to the network to stream content from different iTunes libraries (you can only stream one library at a time), as well as add a second WM-10 in order to stream the same content to multiple rooms. 

If you opt for the easy setup route described above, you're forced to disconnect your computer from your own wireless network to join the Airstream network. That means you lose Internet connectivity and any other network/streaming functions you may have in place for that particular computer. If you're investing in a high-end audio product like this, I would guess that you do (or at least should) have a computer that functions solely as an audio server, so it wouldn't be a huge issue to keep said computer on the Airstream network most of the time. If you don't have a dedicated audio-server computer, then you have two choices: Either jump between wireless networks as needed or perform a more advanced setup that allows you to add the WM-10 to your own WiFi network instead of the Airstream network. This requires you to do a hard reset and re-configure the WM-10; the full instructions are not supplied in the User Guide, but you can download a detailed PDF file from www.micromega-hifi.com that provides a very clear, step-by-step guide with photos. Because the WM-10 simply receives signals from a computer software program, Micromega doesn't include a remote. However, they do direct iPhone and iPod touch users to a free app that allows for control of iTunes via your handheld device. Simply called "Remote," this is another Apple-designed application that's easy to set up and works over the wireless network, so you don't need line-of-sight between computer and remote. I was able to successfully control the iTunes/WM-10 combo from anywhere in my home. As for the user interface, the Remote app basically mimics the iPhone's iPod player, so navigation will be familiar to users of that program. If you've added multiple computers to the Airstream network, you can switch libraries each time you cue up the Remote app, and the app does allow for volume control within the parameters of your audio system. In general, response to commands was quick and reliable, although the app was sometimes slow to find and connect to my iTunes library when I first launched it; you can speed up this process by selecting the "Stay Connected" option in the Settings menu, but this can drain battery life.

When evaluating any wireless audio product, sound quality and signal reliability are the two crucial elements. Let's begin with the latter. The WM-10's closed 802.11n network has an estimated range of about 300 feet. I tested the audio streaming using two different computers: an older PowerBook with an 802.11g wireless card and an even older PowerBook with an 802.11b card. While 802.11n is technically backwards compatible with 802.11g/b, the system did not work with my 802.11b-equipped laptop. I could add the computer to the Airstream network, but the audio signal would disappear after just a few seconds of playback. 

Click to Page 2 for The High Points, The Low Points and The Conclusion.

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