At this year’s CES in Las Vegas, I had the opportunity to attend an event for an unusual little device being dubbed a “Wireless DAC.” Upon arriving, I saw a box of the plainest kind, about the size of a CD player, with one blue LED in the center. After introductions and some chit chat, I did what any of us would do, looked at the back of the unit. The rear panel was about as plain as the front! A protruding half-circle piece I presumed to be the antenna, a couple of analog RCA outs, digital out, and power cable. That was it. What is this strange box and what is it doing at a high end audio show? Well, it’s the HD Micromega AirStream WHi-Fi wireless DAC and it’s at a high end audio show, because it delivers high end sound.
Based in France, Micromega has a long history in the world of CD players and digital audio. With the latest digital audio craze being the Apple iTunes store and digital downloads, it comes as no surprise that Micromega would be on the forefront of bringing us a means of delivering high quality sound from downloaded music files.
Since compressed digital downloads have been around, they have never been well accepted into the world of audiophiles alike. Seen as inferior to the 44.1/16 bit fidelity of CD audio, or even more inferior to vinyl lovers, compressed “portable” audio (MP3’s) has never had a spot in most dedicated 2-channel systems. Well, I can tell you that is all about to change. I could not believe the number of suite’s at the Venetian during CES that used a MacBook Pro and iTunes to show off systems costing tens of thousands of dollars. With the ability to rip CD’s in a lossless compressed form (Apple Lossless, FLAC), there should be zero loss of quality. In fact, many believe they can reproduce those files more accurately with no mechanical CD transport getting in the way.
Personally I feel that this is, without a doubt, the direction high end sound systems are headed. It is only a matter of time before iTunes, or Amazon start offering higher than CD quality files for download. Once that happens, CD’s, which are already a dying breed, will become near extinct. But why wait? Start building your system around a digital media server today.
- DA Converters: Cirrus Logic 4344 24/192
- Wireless Network: 802.11n
- Protocol: Apple Airtunes
- Input Sampling Support: Limited by Airtunes to 16bit/44.1kHz
- Outputs: 1 RCA Analog, 1 Coaxial Digital
- MSRP: $1,595 USA
- Distributed in the USA by Audio Plus Services
The Airstream is a simple box, available in silver or black. As you can see from the pictures, it is not the kind of design that will stand out on your AV rack.
Inside the Airstream is a slightly modified Apple Airport Express. This provides the wireless networking tools required to beam your music from a PC to the Airstream. From the Airport Express, the signal is then reclocked through some custom circuitry in order to eliminate jitter. Then it’s on to the 24bit/192kHz DAC’s provided by Cirrus Logic. The unit is powered by a high quality, low noise R-Core transformer.
One thing to note, even though the unit is capable of handling high resolution 24bit/192kHz files, the Airtunes protocol is still limited to 16bit/44.1kHz.
The Micromega Airstream is merely a frontend digital music “transporter.” It still requires the use of an iTunes enabled computer (PC or Mac) with a network connection. The Airstream connects via a wi-fi network to your computer and iTunes takes care of the rest.
I hooked up the Micromega via a pair of Straight Wire interconnects to my Marantz SR7001, which I use as my pre-amp/processor. Plugged the unit into my surge protector and was done.
Out of the box, the Airstream is configured as its own wi-fi network. So if you have a laptop with built in wi-fi, setting up the Airstream is as easy as choosing it as your network. After you have selected the Airstream as your network, open iTunes and choose the Airstream as the output device. You’re done! I think I was able to have it up and running in about 5 minutes? AND that is including Window’s boot time.
For my own setup, however, I wanted the Airstream to connect to my existing wireless network. I have a wired desktop PC which has all of my music on it and that is what I wanted the Airstream to have access to. Getting the Airstream to connect to my wireless network took a few more steps, but I found it very straightforward and simple. Just download the Apple AirPort Utility and press the small reset button on the back of the Airstream. Then using the AirPort Utility, just enter in your network SSID and password, hit save and you are done.
If you have an iPhone or iPod touch, make sure you download the free Remote App that connects to your iTunes library. Then grab your beverage of choice, plop yourself down in your listening room and have your entire music collection accessible in the palm of your hand.
The closest comparison I have is using my PlayStation 3 to access media on my PC via Asset uPnP. Asset transcodes lossless files, like Apple Lossless and FLAC, to WAV or PCM which are compatible with the PS3. This solution works and is perfectly fine for background music, but there is so much noise generated from the PS3 and my projector that any serious music listening is quite hampered. This is my main reason I decided to run A-B comparisons between the Airstream and my Marantz CD player, instead of the PS3.
The Micromega Airstream is a joy to use and listen to. Browsing through iTunes via the Remote app is fairly straightforward. If you don’t care about maximum battery life, I suggest you set the Remote app to stay connected to your library. That way you don’t have to wait for it to connect to WiFi, then find your library and connect to that. The connection to my router was rock solid and I only had one break up- for about 3 seconds. It could have easily been caused by my PC or Linksys Router. Now, on to the important part, the sound!
The Airstream is very pleasant to listen to. I found it added a much needed softness to my system that allowed me to listen to music longer. Overall I found it much easier to get lost in the music, which I think is the ultimate goal of most audiophiles. I was able to close the door, turn off lights and just listen. I didn’t think about what speakers i have, or what amp is running, i just listened to the music.
Miles Davis Live – Time After Time – The background percussion was more tangible, with more air around the brake drum and symbols. Miles’ trumpet sounded cleaner, like the tone has been smoothed and molded. There was a bit more to the soundstage and the speakers disappeared a tad more.
Miles Davis – kind of blue – Flamenco Sketches – Sax has tons of presence. keys click like in the room. I really love the tonal quality of the Micromega Airstream.
E.T. Original motion picture soundtrack by John Williams – There was great depth to soundstage. I felt that the strings didn’t have a “wirery” sound, but were more natural to my ears. My mind had an easier time placing each row of instruments in the symphony. I could “see” that oboe player seated in the music hall. . each click of changing notes. As a trombone player, something I always listen for is the sound of brass instruments. I can tell you that they sounded very good on the Airstream.
If you are like me and jumped straight to the conclusion, then you must want to know the obvious: is this device worth $1595? Yes I believe it is and here is why. One can always break down a device into its individual components and add up the cost of said components, but much more goes into the design of a unit like the Airstream. A lot of time was spent pairing the right power supply to the guts of the Apple Airport Express along with a custom chip that re-clocks the data to eliminate jitter. The end product is a sweet sound that is a joy to listen to. If you are looking for a device to transport your digital music files to your high-end system, definitely check out the Micromega Airstream. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.