Building a Better Wi-Fi Audio System

A few weeks ago I reviewed the Altec Lansing inAir 5000. It wasn't bad, but for $500 I would have hoped for more. That seems to be the case with many Wi-Fi audio systems these days, and that got me thinking:

For the same amount of money, could I build an audio system with similar functionality, similar footprint - and that actually sounds good?

Challenge accepted.

I'll present some options for those looking to add the flexibility of a Wi-Fi audio system, but who don't want to sacrifice too much sound quality to do it. I'm not talking about just plugging in your iPod analog. I'm talking about complete access to your iTunes library, on whatever computer it may live. Most AirPlay-enabled iPod docks are priced in the $500-$700 range (iHome's iW1 is a relative bargain at $299, but it doesn't offer a lot of horsepower), so that was my target. No list like this could be comprehensive, but it should give you some excellent ideas, and an place from which to start looking.

The Stream

First, you need to figure out the "wireless" part of the equation. You can put together an audio system to accept a signal - digital or analog -from just about any source, and there are plenty of music streaming devices on the market, from the Logitech Squeezbox to a whole range of more esoteric network players. but if the idea is to mimic the functionality of an AirPlay-enabled speaker, you're probably going need an Apple product in the mix. In it's previous incarnation (it just got an "HD" refresh, of course), the Apple TV was about as good a piece of gear I've ever reviewed. It's not without its faults, but in terms of ease of use and what it does, it's fantastic. You'll need to plug it into a TV to set it up (presuming you have Wi-Fi), but then you can connect it directly to your small system and just use it as a music streamer. iTunes will send it a signal, and as long as you can control iTunes from some other device (see "Optional Accessory" below), you never need to access the Apple TV itself. Aside from HDMI, however, it only has digital audio outputs, though. So to make it work in your system, you'll either need a DAC with an optical input, or a receiver with optical or HDMI inputs.

Alternately, you could just pick up an AirPort Express, Apple's small-scale router/Wi-Fi connector thingee. Functionality should be about the same, at least for what we're doing here: you can select it as an AirPlay destination in iTunes, and sending music its way. The AirPort Express has analog and optical outputs, so you could save some money by skipping the DAC and going direct-in analog. Personally, I like the idea of having a quality DAC in the system, as audio quality was our other main goal. Paradigm's Shift A2 speakers even have an AC plug on the back specifically made for an AirPort Express.

The Speakers

If size is a concern - and you're hoping to mimic the footprint of an iPod dock - powered speakers are the way to go. I love the sound of the Audioengine A5s. (You'll want, of course, to read our review of the new model, the A5+). They're small, powerful, and have great bass response. There's even a version with a gorgeous bamboo cabinet. Also worth checking out is the Emotiva Pro airmotiv4, which has a trick folded ribbon tweeter. The Paradigm Shift A2's even have an AC outlet for attaching an AirPort Express (more on that in a moment).

Our price point doesn't preclude the use of a small receiver or integrated amp, however and there are a few of those on the market. It's a bulkier solution, though you could put the receiver and a wireless streamer in a cabinet, and leave just the small speakers visible. An inexpensive A/V receiver, like the $250 Denon AVR-1312, would be a great pick. Of course if you go this route, your speaker choices are nearly infinite. We loved the Polk TL3s. You could also go with some small bookshelves from Polk or PSB for this price.

Ideally, you'd want to add a subwoofer to any of these setups. As our point of comparison is with iPod docks, these speakers will sound as good - if not better than most - even without a sub.

The DAC

You'll need this in your Apple TV-based setup, though in other cases, strictly speaking, you won't need an external DAC. The advantage there is smoother, more natural sound from your digital files than you'd get from a standalone streamer on its own. At $169, Audioengine's D1 DAC is one of one of the cheapest DACs aimed towards the audiophile market, and one of the few low-cost options that's not just a USB DAC, but also includes an optical input. There are many other DACs available for even less, but few of these have the necessary connections, and some of 'em have few pretentions towards audio quality.

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