Sugg. Retail: US $199 (Internet Direct)
From the Fall 04 Audio Ideas Guide
This is the kind of product you’re likely to start hearing more and more about in the coming years as computers make greater inroads into home audio. If it hadn’t been clear already, the success of Apple’s Ipod and Itunes player/music store have driven home an unmistakable trend: Commercial music is not going to be bound to a physical carrier forever, and there is already a large and growing group of people listening to their music as files on computers and portables instead of on little silver discs.
Audiophiles are, so far, not likely to be among this group, finding the sound of compressed audio files inadequate. And rightly so. The artifacts created in compressing, or “ripping” files from CDs to MP3s, Windows Media Audio, AAC or one of the other many audio file formats can introduce sonic compromises those of us accustomed to hearing well reproduced CDs and LPs aren’t willing to overlook.
As we’ve seen with both the CD and LP, however, the whims of audiophiles have little do to with the ultimate success of a music format in the mass market. In other words we end up getting what everyone else gets - and then trying to improve it. We’re now getting fast and legal access to music online. The bad news is, the dominant format right now is the 128 Kbs AAC file used by Apple on Itunes, which features (very) lossy compression. The good news? File based audio formats don’t have to be lossy at all.
Apple has introduced, for example, a lossless version of the AAC codec in its more recent versions of the Itunes player, allowing users to rip discs with (theoretically) no quality loss from the original while still reducing the data size (if you want to download music from the Itunes music store, however, you’re stuck with a 128kbs AAC file). If chewing up megabytes on your hard disc is less of a concern, there’s no need to compress at all. You can maintain full quality, for instance by importing a CD as WAV or AIFF files. With 250 gigabyte external hard drives going for a few hundred bucks (enough to hold around 380 uncompressed CDs), the need to compress audio for use at home is simply going away. In a few more years, when we’re routinely working with terabytes instead of gigabytes, accommodating large amounts of high resolution audio will be a trivial matter in terms of storage. Now, if we could only convince Apple and other online music stores to offer uncompressed downloads, and then 24/96 uncompressed downloads, we’d really be getting somewhere.
Either way, we’re heading down a path which will see computers as a source in more and more audio systems (if this thought scares you keep in mind your CD player and surround processor are basically computers with a very narrow purpose). As people who have built large collections of audio files on their computers are finding, however, playing back that audio on a home system in another room requires cumbersome wiring solutions or another, dedicated computer. With no way to control the source from the listening room, it can also be an ergonomic nightmare. This is the problem the Creative Labs Sound Blaster Wireless Music system was designed to solve.
Great on Paper
The Sound Blaster is what’s known as a digital audio receiver. In a nutshell, it’s a digital link between a computer and an audio system, giving you access to the music files on a PC in another room and providing analog or digital outputs which can be routed to a preamp or DAC in your listening room. Unlike some receivers, which need to be hooked into a home network via Ethernet cable, the Sound Blaster is entirely wireless, using the 802.11b Wi-Fi networking standard to communicate with a host computer.
The receiver itself is small and unobtrusive enough to be tucked away behind an audio rack or on the edge of a shelf. On its rear panel are a pair of RCA analog outputs as well as an optical digital output and a USB connector (used to configure the device for certain types of wireless networks). Other than a “remote finder” button there are no controls on the receiver.
Packaged with the Sound Blaster are software applications which run on your windows PC (unfortunately there is no Mac version available). This software allows the receiver to communicate with the computer containing the files you want hear while providing a host of features to organize, categorize and import music. Although falling short of the standard set by Apple’s Itunes player, the software is simple and relatively intuitive to use and the playlist features make accessing tracks in any number of highly customizable ways very easy. Want an automatically updated playlist containing only the tracks imported in the past week? No problem. You can sort by genre, artist, album, title and drag and drop songs into almost any imaginable configuration. If you’d like to feed music to multiple systems around your home, up to four Sound Blaster Wireless receivers can be used at once from the same host computer.
Although you can arrange tracks quickly using the Creative software on your PC, with no controls on the receiver the remote is the only way to control the system in the listening room. Almost as large as the receiver itself the remote features a small LCD screen which allows the user to browse and select music files on the host computer, add them to playlists, and control all the other functions of the receiver. Since it communicates with the receiver via radio signals instead of infrared, it does not need to be pointed at the receiver or even within its sightline. Some competing receivers use a video output to allow menu based operation via your television, which is all fine and good if you’re dealing with a home theatre system. On my audio only system a full featured remote with its own display, allowing access to all the files on my PC in the other room, seemed like the perfect solution.
In fact, the idea of being able to access uncompressed WAV or AIFF audio on my home network via digital output to my Musical Fidelity A3-24 DAC with the ability to tailor playlists and choose tracks at will right from the remote was a very attractive one indeed, and exactly what I’d been looking for in a product like the Creative.
Unfortunately you can’t get all of that from the little Creative box. The Sound Blaster Wireless Music system hints at the promise of a what a digital audio receiver should do but falls short for the serious audiophile for a number of reasons.
Not quite perfect in practice
First, it’s limited to playing MP3s and Windows Media Audio (WMA) files, which means that it can’t play back uncompressed audio at all. Nor can it play the AAC files available at the Itunes Music Store. These limitations aside, MP3s encoded at a high bitrate with a good encoder (ie. using the LAME encoder at 256 Kbs - ) can sound surprisingly good (more on that later).
Although a great idea on paper, the LCD equipped remote is clunky in practice and often very slow to react to commands, thus making a search through a large number of tracks frustratingly slow and sometimes impossible. The longer the list of tracks, the slower and more aggravating the remote. With nearly ten thousand tracks on my PC, the waiting could be intolerable. If not in use, the remote would often lose it’s communication link with the base unit, requiring the Sound Blaster to be powered off and then on again. The range of the RF remote was also disappointing, the reception getting spotty when I was about 15 feet away on the couch. These problems could be somewhat alleviated by creating playlists ahead of time on my PC and leaving them running, but in so do doing most of the promised usefulness of the remote was lost.
Setting up the Sound Blaster was mercifully easy, the receiver automatically detecting my home network and connecting to the Creative software installed on my PC. What was disappointing, however, was the actual range of my 802.11g router, which struggled to broadcast a strong enough signal across the width of my two bedroom apartment (around 35 feet). Granted I have a 2.4 Ghz cordless phone (which operates on the same band as the router and can cause interference) and live in a radio saturated urban environment, but with claims of range in the hundreds of feet from router manufacturers, I was expecting that getting a signal from one room the next was not going to be much of a problem. Even with a signal boosting antenna, I was forced to move the router closer to the receiver to get a consistently strong signal. Turning off my 2.4ghz phone made no difference, by the way.
Initial casual listening to the Creative via its optical digital output into my Musical Fidelity A3-24 DAC was certainly colored by the compression artifacts inherent in compressed audio files. Random sampling of my MP3 collection often resulted in hard and splashy top end, thin bass with limited pitch definition, and a lack of ambient detail. Listening to the Creative’s analog outs directly just made these tendencies worse, the sound getting far rougher overall and losing most of the fluidity and spaciousness it had via the optical out. Keep in mind that this is a relatively inexpensive product aimed at the mass market, and as such, not a lot of attention has been lavished on the analog outs. If you’re planning to use any such device with a serious system, you’ll want it to have a digital out.
And so back to the digital out I went. The more I listened the more I noticed that files ripped at 256 Kbs with the LAME encoder were much closer to the CD original, but still lacked subtle ambient cues. Still, with well encoded files the sound was very listenable, if not quite as good as a CD. Using familiar tracks I had ripped at 256 Kbs I made some comparisons between the digital output of the Creative and that of my Rotel RCD-951 CD transport. On the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir’s Overjoyed the CD source sounded fuller and harmonically richer with better solidity and smoothness and less grain. On Air’s Lucky and Unhappy the CD featured better separation of instruments, giving it greater coherence, and was also slightly smoother and airier than the MP3 file. The massive soundstage of the recording was well reproduced by both, but the CD had a noticeable edge in overall width and depth. Bass on the CD was also more clearly conveyed with finer pitch differentiation. On a Zdenek Macal recording of Beethoven’s Ninth the CD was quite a bit more robust and musical with more dramatic transients and a greater sense of dynamics, solidity and overall resolution.
All this might sound quite damning to the Sound Blaster, but it’s important to point out that while these differences were audible, they’re weren’t as stark as they may seem. The 256 Kbs MP3s were quite listenable and could be quite involving. The CDs just sounded better; quite a bit better in the case of the Beethoven.
Far from night and day, it was more like comparing a very good DAC to a mediocre one, the 256 Kbs MP3s more than adequate for background music. Of course, the sound of the device was limited by the formats it could play, leaving me to speculate how it might sound with an uncompressed WAV or AIFF. Without the ability to play uncompressed files, however, it’s likely to be used mainly for background listening, at least by folks who are serious about sound. As a provider of sonic wallpaper or a party jukebox the Sound Blaster is a natural, able to stream tunes endlessly in any number of playback configurations and locations. The ability to put your entire music collection on random is also a blast, akin to having your own personal radio station, minus the inane chatter and advertising. If Creative could fulfill the promise of the remote and offer the ability to play more audio formats, including uncompressed WAVs and AIFFs, they would likely pique the interest of a lot more audiophiles. Internet radio would be a nice bonus too. They’d better act fast. At the time of writing (June 2004) Apple has just introduced their Airport Express, which not only streams uncompressed audio via Itunes over a wireless network, it also acts as a wireless bridge, extending the range of a network. It includes a digital output as well as an Ethernet jack and costs only US 129.00.