We recently received and hooked up the Micromega WM-10, an unassuming black box that seems to be exactly what a lot of people are looking for (even if they don’t know it yet). The WM-10 was launched at CES 2010 and offers the ability to play high quality audio streams remotely using the WiFi (802.11n) wireless system.
Some people find the parts and pieces of computer audio a bit confusing. So, before we get into the WM-10 specifically, let’s review the general idea on offer here.
Products like the WM-10 assume that the customer has (or is willing to buy) a music server. A music server is a device for:
Since a music server can be configured using an existing PC or Mac, almost everyone is in the situation of having a music server. Audiophiles may wish to have a dedicated music server, of course, to avoid competition for resources between computing activities and music activities.
A music server could be hard wired to a D/A converter and from there be plugged into amplifier and speakers or headphones. As an alternative, one could purchase a music client (also known as a networked music player or music streamer). Here we use the term music client because it fits the server-client metaphor borrowed from computing (where the server is the base for massive central data storage and organization and the clients are remote devices for viewing and lightly manipulating data). The music client receives music data streams from the music server over some kind of network connection and then performs D/A conversion for input to an existing audio system.
So, in summary, the WM-10 is a music client. It is designed to work with a music server (e.g., a WiFi-enabled Mac with iTunes). The WM-10 receives WiFi music streams from the server and does D/A conversion. You plug the WM-10 into your preamp or receiver via a stereo analog connection. You control the songs that are being streamed from the server using an iPod Touch or iPhone.
With the above in mind, the concept of the WM-10 is pretty simple. The first idea is that audiophiles probably want their PC and their audio system in different rooms. This isn’t some whole house audio lifestyle B.S.; rather, it is a desirable choice because PC components tend to be noisy and the easiest way to deal with this is to relegate PC items to another room. It can also be a practical matter. Audio equipment is often in a more relaxed living space in the home than computer gear--which more often than not is assigned to a functional workspace. The WM-10 is therefore conceived as a remote client.
The second idea of the WM-10 is that such remote clients should be wireless. Many homes are not fully wired with Ethernet connections in all the right places, so wireless connectivity is simply the easier way to go. One could use AC powerline networking, but some designers are concerned about how easily and well this works.
The third notion behind the WM-10 is that audiophiles will want a high quality music client if they want one at all. While the WM-10 starts life as a humble Apple Airport Express, Micromega has redesigned it in two critical areas. Micromega has installed a higher quality power supply, and they’ve redesigned the clock circuitry for better D/A performance. When we get down to listening, I’ll address whether these changes merit the significant price premium that Micromega asks for the WM-10 (the WM-10 is $1595).
While on the subject of quality, I would add that Micromega chose the Airport Express because it uses an excellent chipset, which is capable of decoding 24bit/176k and 24bit/192k high-resolution files. As a practical matter, this is more a future-proofing capability than something you can use right now. The Apple Airtunes protocol currently limits you to 44.1kHz/16-bit data rates via WiFi, though future Airtunes updates are expected to allow significantly higher resolution data rates.