Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity doesn’t make a whole heck of a lot of sense to most people, but not because of the math involved. The formulas really aren’t that difficult to parse. No, the real reason Relativity is difficult to grok is because we simply don’t experience on Earth the sort of astronomical speeds and extreme gravitational forces at which relativistic effects come into play.
Micromega’s WM-10 AirStream wireless DAC, a hot-rodded Apple AirPort Express designed to facilitate high-fidelity streaming of your iTunes library to your hi-fi setup or home theater system..
And so it goes with extreme audiophile pursuits. Most people have no real experience with diminishing returns of exotic hi-fi gear and would balk at the notion of paying 10, a hundred, perhaps thousands of times as much for a single speaker or source component that sounds better, but not exponentially better, than standard brick-and-mortar-variety A/V gear.
And chances are that those people will balk at Micromega’s WM-10 AirStream wireless DAC, a hotrodded Apple AirPort Express designed to facilitate high-fidelity streaming of your iTunes library to your hi-fi setup or home theater system. Why the predicted hubbub? Because, while the AirPort Express sells for a mere $99, the AirStream will set your client back a cool $1,595.
There are more differences between the Air- Stream and AirPort Express than merely the former’s brushed metal chassis, though. For one, Micromega has equipped the AirStream with a much beefier power supply and a fancy new clock to reduce jitter, and has removed the 8P8C Ethernet and USB ports (or, more accurately, hidden them inside) to completely eliminate the possibility of any physical contact between the device and a potentially noiseridden computer source.
Because of its simplicity, the device is incredibly easy to set up, assuming you merely want to connect it to one computer. Hook the AirStream up to an audio system with a pair of high-quality stereo RCA interconnects (or a digital coax cable if you want to completely defeat the purpose of the WM-10), log onto your computer, connect to the device’s wireless network, and you’re done. Playback is as simple as firing up iTunes and selecting the AirStream instead of your computer’s speakers as the output device. Or you can download Apple’s Remote app from the App Store and control your library wirelessly on your iPhone or iPod Touch.
There are a few limitations to this setup, though: the computer on which your iTunes library resides will no longer be connected to your home network, therefore isolating it from the internet, and you can’t access the iTunes library on a computer that doesn’t have a Wi-Fi antenna. If you’re feeling adventurous, though, the WM-10 can be added to a wireless home network with a bit of fiddling (the instruction manual humorously refers to it as “not a trivial procedure”), and although the setup requires a full wireless computer, once the deed is done you will have no trouble accessing computers wired directly to the home’s wireless router.
A look under the hood: Micromega has equipped the AirStream with a much beefier power supply and a fancy new clock to reduce jitter, and has hidden the 8P8C Ethernet and USB ports inside.
Either way, given that the connection to the Air-Stream is ultimately wireless, audio quality and performance is the same either way, in my experience. I’ve yet to suffer any audio dropouts while using the system in either configuration, so for me the lack of network hopping and the ability to surf the internet while listening to music make the more complicated setup worth the trouble.
When played through a pair of MartinLogan’s new low-budget Motion 2 speakers, powered by a Denon receiver, I can’t say that the WM-10 sounds appreciably better than my $400 URC PSX-2 networked iPod dock. Played through the larger MartinLogan Purity electrostatics (and powered by an Anthem amp), there’s definitely a difference, especially with lossless rips. The acoustic guitar and chimes that open Thomas Dybdah’s “Cecilia,” for example, ring through with a noticeably clearer high end and a smoother, more analog midrange. Even lowly MP3s sound better through the AirStream. “’81,” the third track from Joanna Newsom’s epic new album Have One On Me, sounds more open, more airy, more spacious and effortless through the Airstream than it does streamed across the network to my Play- Station 3, even when compressed to a measly 320 kbit/s.
Is the increased audio quality worth the staggering premium, though? That’s really up to the end user and how much he or she is willing to pay in the quest for elusive audio perfection. Look at it like this, though: If you had a Kharma Grand Enigma loudspeaker moving at 99 percent the speed of light and wanted it to peg the needle on the cosmos’s universal speedometer, you would need an infinite amount of energy to accelerate the now infinitely massive speaker that last one percent. The Micromega AirStream, by contrast, is a perfect fit for any equipment rack and certainly sounds more than one percent better than your typical iPod dock to these ears (if you can really put a numerical value on such subjective notions), and it only costs 16 times as much as the AirPort Express upon which it’s based. Granted, that’s hardly a bargain. But then again, it’s all relative, isn’t it?
Playback is as simple as firing up iTunes and selecting the AirStream instead of your computer’s speakers as the output device.
Price: While an AirPort Express sells for a mere $99, the AirStream will set your client back a cool $1,595.
■ The WM-10’s 802.11n Wi-Fi delivers a 300- foot wireless listening perimeter, while multiple WM-10s can be set up to deliver content throughout a home
■ A Marvell chipset combines with jitter-reducing reclocking circuitry and a highly regulated noise-filtering R-Core transformer for higher performance
■ The WM-10 connects with Apple’s iTunes, as well as Sonic Studio’s Amarra, and Rogue Amoeba’s Airfoil software.