Moving the WM-10 to my main hi-fi system, I found that even lower bitrate tracks were enjoyable and easy to listen to. I’m trying to expand my understanding of Jazz and have found myself really getting into Abdullah Ibrahim’s music. listening to ‘African Dawn’ ripped at 192kbps was a lot of fun – some of the grooviest piano I’ve heard in ages. The WM-10 gave the piano plenty of weight, enough resonance and air and most importantly, enough timing and rhythm to make tracks like this emotionally involving.
There’s definitely more happening at the higher bitrates, from 320kbps and up and there’s no reason to rip at anything less than lossless these days given the low price of storage but it’s nice to know that any legacy low bitrate tracks in your collection won’t prove to be sonic abominations. Listening to a 320kbps rip of The Dave Brubeck Quartet At Carnegie Hall proved this point – there’s enough getting from the hard drive to the speakers via the WM-10 to make this album absolutely sparkle.
So there’s nothing objectionable about the sound of these sub-CD quality tracks through the WM-10 and listening to albums in their entirety instead of zipping through them piecemeal was the norm rather than the exception. The top end micro-detail and the associated sense of air or spaciousness is most affected by compression, along with the associated depth and width of the soundstage. You also lose some of the bite to certain instruments, but in isolation, you really don’t miss it.
The difference between low bitrate and CD quality is noticeable when you run them back to back though. I took Patricia Barber’s ‘Postmodern Blues’ from Modern Cool and ripped it to my Mac every which way. There’s a lot happening on this track to show what a system is up to, from the initial percussion to the continuous bass notes, the strummed bass, the piano and the rich vocal. I find that if I don’t get absorbed into listening to this track, then something is awry.
It turns out that the 128kbps rip was OK, I could listen to it and not really mind, even though I was very aware that some of the music had been lost in translation. It wasn’t all that involving compared to what I’m used to. The move to 320kbps gave more definition, depth and energy across the board and things just got better from there. A much better result than I’d anticipated from the lower res files but an extremely good performance from the 320kbps and especially the lossless rips, with excellent instrumental separation, no blurring on transients and nothing to make you think you were listening to anything less than a good CD player.
The only potential downside to the sonics was a lightweight tonality. The WM-10 is relatively neutral as a source but tends toward a forward, slightly dry sound and this is emphasized up top. There’s a hint of hardness about it but it’s not edgy and it isn’t fatiguing, just a little way from being warm and probably exacerbated by my own system’s leanness. It’s no worse than many a metal dome tweeter I’ve heard though and it never bothered me, even on long listening sessions.
Comparing the WM-10 to Pro-Ject’s super little $299 Dock Box Fi (review here) showed that the WM-10 is sonically ahead of the the dock, with more detail and impact and a marked increase in dynamics and energy, although the Pro-Ject was a warmer and smoother listen. The WM-10’s advantage isn’t really surprising considering the price differential but then again, some would expect the WM-10’s humble origins to keep it mired below the dock in lo-fi land. Not so I tell you.
My Marantz SA8260 SACD player had an edge over the WM-10, which I expected but it wasn’t huge, which I didn’t expect at all. The Marantz had more authority in the bottom end, more detail and spaciousness and a wider, more expansive soundstage. The dynamics were also stronger but again, in isolation, you wouldn’t notice or care. Sonically I’d pick this exceptional disk spinner every time, but for convenience, (especially when driven by an iPad) the streamer kicks butt while still sounding sweet.
Besides the aforementioned forwardness (and it really is mild), the WM-10 takes up a full slot on an audio rack, is also limited to CD quality files and doesn’t have any digital inputs besides the Wireless Apple connectivity. Will the typical buyer care? I think not – see below.
A look at any audio forum will reveal a crowd of audiophiles and IT boffins experimenting with everything from high end DACs and third party precision ripping software to solid state hard drives and esoteric big dollar music streamers. This same crowd will condemn the Airstream and/or iTunes without a second thought and some might expect that I’d be right with them with my torch and pitchfork but I review products with an eye on their intended market.
For every tweak crazed audiophile with his state of the art multiple component streaming setup, I’ll bet there are a hundred music lovers just looking for a simple way to get what’s on their computer to sound good on their hi-fi or home theatre systems – without a degree in computer science, without multiple software downloads and endless patches, without a soldering iron and without any complications and frustrations.
For this much larger market, products such as the Airstream fit the bill perfectly and the price isn’t too likely to offend. If you’ve got a Wireless capable computer that either doesn’t need to be online all the time or can connect to the Internet using Ethernet, and you use iTunes, there are few products as easy to set up and use as the Airstream.I had not one single instance of the connection dropping or of catch-up buffering affecting playback.
The straightforward and reliable WM-10 looks classy and sounds very nice. If a few hundred dollars could be knocked off the price, it would be even stronger in its limited space (i.e. self contained music streamer). I know that something like a Squeezebox or even a USB DAC will kind of do the same thing for way less money and if that’s your scene, then by all means go for it, the WM-10 is a far simpler and more intrinsically elegant proposition.
Micromega’s Airstream WM-10 is the result of some deceptively simple yet innovative thinking. It’s definitely hi-fi, just not exactly as we know it. With improved Airstream functionality slated to be built into upcoming high power Micromega integrated amplifiers, I reckon that the company is on a major growth path and could pick up a big portion of the “Keep it Simple” market. I could live with one in my rack with no issues at all, in fact since I dropped it back at the importer, I’m missing it a whole lot. ASHLEY KRAMER