When does a half-empty box become a winning proposition? Micromega turns out a winning music streamer with clever thinking, and by keeping it super simple.
Hot on the heels of my Micromega integrated amp and CD player review, I was presented with the chance to review Micromega’s Airstream WM-10 wireless music streamer. Reading a little about it was enough to get me intrigued, so after a short drive out to Wildash Audio in Newton, into my rack it went.
Layout and Construction
The WM-10 takes a different approach to most music streamers. First, it’s very much a self contained unit, with no way for other digital sources to address the internal DAC. Second, it’s Wireless only, there are no USB or Ethernet connectivity options and unlike most other streamers, it creates its own 802.11n WiFi network rather than piggy-backing onto an existing network. Third, it’s designed to use an iTunes enabled computer as a source.
All these differences (or restrictions if you want to view them that way) make sense to a degree. Why not keep things simple and just avoid messing with more connectivity options than you have to if you can establish an easy to use and robust Wireless link? Why wouldn’t you choose the most popular music management software on the planet to control your streamer?
There is however a simpler explanation for the way the WM-10 operates – at a fundamental level, it’s an Apple Airport Express bolted into a Micromega chassis.
There is of course much more to it than that. While the streaming and even the DAC are all Airport Express, the power supply, low jitter clocking system and analogue output stage are all Micromega and are apparently of substantially higher quality than those found in Apple’s little white box.
The WM-10’s chassis is the same one found in every unit in this range of Micromega products, from entry level amp to top of the heap preamp and 400 watt power amp. The bulk of the WM-10 is filled with empty air, so it seems logical that it would have been built into a smaller and less expensive chassis. At a certain point however, economies of scale come into play and instead of tooling up for a new box, Mircromega has used what it had on hand and you can’t fault the company for this. After all, the WM-10 is a piece of hi-fi gear, not part of a ”lifestyle system”. To me, this minimalist version is the best incarnation of the design, the featureless front panel looks neat and purposeful, much like a Naim power supply.
As far as the WM-10’s features go, the operative question is “what features?” because there’s not much on the list. The front panel is vacant bar a small LED. Round back there’s an IEC power socket and switch, two analogue RCA outputs and a co-ax digital output. That I’m afraid is the lot but what else does the WM-10 need to fulfill its purpose?
Setup and Operation
The WM-10 is about as easy to set up as a CD player. That may sound far fetched but it took less than five minutes from the time I opened the box to the moment Frank Black started singing the rather excellent ‘If Your Poison Gets You’ from Fast Man Raider Man.
The ritual is this simple :
1.Unpack the WM-10
2.Plug in the supplied power and interconnect cables
3.Turn on the WM-10
4.Wait for the red LED on the front panel to turn blue (approx. 50 seconds)
5.Turn the MacBook Pro’s Airport networking on
6.Pick the “Airstream” WiFi network
7.Enter the password
8.Set iTunes to play on the WM-10, not on the computer speakers
9.Pick a rack and push play
How could anything be easier I ask you? No fiddling with computer settings, no mucking about with WiFi network authentication, just music in a hurry. It takes a few minutes more if you’re using a PC but that’s the norm with most tasks (don’t get mad, it’s true).
Running the workaround to get the WM-10 to coexist on my home Wi-Fi network or fiddling with replacements for iTunes seemed like an unnecessary step because the sheer effortlessness of the setup procedure using the built in Wi-Fi makes this unit perfect for its target market.
While I was investigating the WM-10’s PC vs. Mac connectivity, I had to download iTunes to a Toshiba laptop. Rather than transferring my entire iTunes collection to its hard drive, I grabbed my copy of Southern Manners by The Watson Twins and ripped it as Apple Lossless. Running from the Toshiba to the WM-10 to a Graham Slee Solo headphone amp (review here) and a set of Sennheiser HD650 ‘phones, I checked to see if the audio stream was buffering properly and playing with no dropouts.
The only dropout was me as I promptly closed my MacBook, put the writing on hold and sat down to enjoy the entire album from start to finish. This was no warmed up low quality computer audio stream; the WM-10 sounded darn good. As in CD quality good, with all the detail, clarity and spaciousness needed to make the layered ethereal harmonies and acoustic instruments come together as they should. Track number three – ‘High School’ has a combination of strummed bass guitar right through it, hard drum shots, softer guitars plus those lovely voices. The WM-10 had no trouble showing off these separate elements while making the song a cohesive musical entity.
You can call foul and say that I was giving the WM-10 an unfair advantage by running it into a good headphone rig but the microscopic resolution of this type of setup exposes any shabby weaknesses inherent in a source. If there’s something wrong, whether by omission or commission, you literally can’t miss it. On the other hand, when things are as right as this, they sound very good indeed….continues on page 2