If you’re serious about your home cinema setup you’ll have heard of Monitor Audio. Designing and manufacturing surround-sound speaker packages for almost every budget, Monitor Audio has built itself a reputation for high-quality speakers without the astronomical price tag that often accompanies audiophile kit.
Now Monitor Audio is focusing its wealth of experience in the loudspeaker market on a new area – wireless music. Wireless audio streaming in the home has become big business of late, with brands like Sonos offering an all encompassing solution, while Apple’s AirPlay is gaining ground and more support every day.
The Monitor Audio AirStream WS100 wireless speakers differ from the solutions above, though. What you have here is a very simple, plug-and-play, high-quality wireless streaming system. These speakers connect wirelessly to your computer (PC or Mac) via a USB dongle – there’s no network configuration, account creation, library imports or other setup activity. Whatever sound is playing on your computer will be output via the WS100s, just as if you’d hooked them up via a 3.5mm jack cable (which you can also do by the way).
I actually found myself wondering what else I should be doing after setting up these speakers. I’m so used to having to tweak network settings, or pair devices, that simply plugging in a dongle and pressing play on the music app of my choosing just seemed too easy.
The WS100s employ SKAA wireless technology, which offers high quality, reliable audio streaming, despite operating on the 2.4GHz frequency. SKAA uses Walking Frequency Diversity (WFD), which should avoid any conflicts with other wireless devices and ensure smooth, uninterrupted playback. The system definitely seems to work, since you’d be hard pushed to find a more wirelessly crowded environment than my home, and I didn’t encounter a single drop, stutter or pop during playback. That said, I’ve never had a single issue streaming Sonos all around my house either.
The speakers themselves are more or less cuboid, measuring 125 x 120 x 120mm. They’re bigger than your average desktop speaker, but considerably smaller than even a compact pair of bookshelf speakers. They’re beautifully finished with a mirrored glass top, silver casing and black grille that wraps around the front and one side. The 1.8kg weight per speaker will ensure that they’ll stay put, no matter how high you crank the volume.
The speaker bases are hinged, allowing each unit to face directly forward or tilt up around thirty degrees. Strangely there’s no way setting the speakers’ tilt angle anywhere in between those absolutes, and although I found that somewhat limiting, it’s worth remembering that traditional bookshelf speakers, and even most desktop speakers offer no angle adjust at all.
The speakers are connected to each other by a captive cable, which allows you to place them roughly a metre apart – that’s assuming that you want to keep that cable hidden behind a shelf or table. A modular cable would have allowed the end user to determine how far apart they can place the speakers, but I’m sure that Monitor Audio has done its homework and determined the maximum distance to maintain the best possible soundstage. It certainly sounds that way.
You also get an infrared remote control in the box, with buttons for power, volume, input, play/pause and skip forward/backward. The remote is reminiscent of the one that ships with the Bowers and Wilkins Zeppelin, but this one doesn’t have a flat underside, so it falls to one side when sitting on a surface. It’s probably just my borderline OCD tendencies, but I found it incredibly annoying that the remote wouldn’t sit flat, and found myself balancing it against other items on my desk or coffee table to keep it upright. Chances are, though, that most buyers won’t be as unnaturally obsessive as me.
Given Monitor Audio’s long-standing reputation in the loudspeaker market I fully expected the WS100s to sound good, but I was genuinely surprised at how good they sound. Given the £249 price point, the WS100s represent an object lesson in affordable speaker design and manufacturing, and that’s before you factor in the wireless streaming angle. With almost every genre of music I threw at the WS100s, they returned a performance that I’d have been happy with from speakers costing double the price, if not more.
Diana Krall’s Live in Paris album sounds simply sublime with every nuance and spiral relayed with a delicate accuracy that I wouldn’t have thought possible on a wireless speaker set in this price bracket. It’s hard to pick a stand out track on an album like this, but Fly Me To The Moon probably showed off the WS100s to their best. Both the piano and guitar solos are conveyed with the kind of relaxed joy that epitomises jazz maestros, but all the time the bass and percussion is present in the background. And as for Krall’s vocals; they come through, strong, silky smooth and sumptuous.
The WS100s also managed to convey all the fragile beauty of Kate Bush’s debut album, The Kick Inside. Despite Wuthering Heights receiving all the attention back in 1978, for me The Man With The Child In His Eyes is the best track on the album, if not the best in Bush’s entire repertoire. Her pure and angelic vocals are rendered expertly by the WS100s, as is the light-as-air piano accompaniment. Things do start to unravel slightly when you push the volume up very high, but this isn’t a song that’s meant to be played at anywhere near top volume.
That said, there are albums that you really should listen to loud, and Soundgarden’s Down On The Upside is prime example. Blow Up The Outside World begins in fine style when pumped through the WS100s – the subdued guitars, bass and Chris Cornell’s vocals are all rendered with an acute sense of painful restraint. But when that restraint is let go during the chorus, the WS100s start to show their limits – with the volume high there’s a harshness to the sound that’s not uncommon when pumping rock music through small speakers.
I experienced similar results when listening to Heart Shaped Box by Nirvana and Alive by Pearl Jam. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t want to play rock music on the WS100s, but I wouldn’t want to turn the volume up to 11, Spinal Tap style!
By contrast Santana’s classic interpretation of The Zombies’ She’s Not There sounds truly wonderful via the WS100s. The haunting vocals, the stellar guitar solo and the signature percussion are all perfectly realised. Oh, and this one sounds great turned up loud.
Firing up Carboot Soul by Nightmares on Wax produced another fine performance. The WS100s manage to convey the album’s chilled out vibe perfectly, with Finer and Morse proving to be particular highlights – the often complex arrangements were handled with aplomb, creating a smooth sound that simply flows through the room.
I compared the WS100s directly with my Bowers and Wilkins Zeppelin, and was surprised at the result. There’s no denying that the WS100s create a wider and more open soundstage than the Zeppelin, but that’s clearly down to the fact that latter is a single unit rather than two separate speakers.
But do the WS100s sound better than the Zeppelin? It really depends on what you’re listening to, which is often the case when comparing audio kit. Of course the Zeppelin has an iPod dock and supports Apple AirPlay, but it also costs twice as much.
There are more comprehensive wireless streaming solutions out there like Sonos and AirPlay, but Monitor Audio isn’t really trying to compete with them. The WS100s are more about simplicity.
The sound quality produced by the WS100s was a real surprise given their price, and even the slight issue with rock music at high volume can’t really tarnish such an exemplary performance.
Monitor Audio has outdone itself with the AirStreem WS100 speakers. If you want a simple wireless audio solution with outstanding sound quality at a great price, look no further.