Abit is normally associated with enthusiast-class overclocking motherboards and to a lesser extent their now discontinued line of Radeon graphics cards. Most people would not think of abit as a manufacturer of multimedia speakers. So it was to our surprise when abit announced a new line of speakers late last year. Dubbed "iDome", this new product line consists of three products that, when used in combination, represent abit's vision of a "personal digital theater". The product line currently consists of the iDome DS500 digital stereo speakers, the iDome SW510 digital subwoofer and the AirPace WAD-01B wireless music access point.
Now that you've heard the pitch and seen the pretty picture, your probably thinking "well thats just dandy, but what about the sound quality?". Funny, because that was exactly what we thought so we obtained one of each of the three products that make up abit's new multimedia product line and evaluated them over the course of several weeks. Read on to find out if motherboard manufacturers are any good at making speakers, but first, a short primer to explain all the fuss surrounding digital speakers.
|Analog vs. Digital|
Abit's Personal Digital Theater is built around the concept of a digital speaker system. Traditional speaker systems are analog and rather simple in comparison. An analog signal representing the sound to be played is passed to the speakers where it drives the speaker's cones, which in turn creates sound waves that our ears perceive as sound. While this is the basic concept of a speaker, an actual sound system is much more complicated. Additional steps must be considered, such as the generation of the analog signal being passed to the speakers as well as amplification and processing of the signal to control various aspects of the sound like intensity and the amount of bass present.
In a computer, the task of signal generation and processing is handled by a sound card / chip and the process is digital since your computer is a digital device and the sound that is to be played begins as a digital file or stream on the computer. However your ears, and sound for that matter, are fundamentally analog. So at some point the sound signal must be converted from a digital signal to an analog signal. Unfortunately, this conversion is never perfect and a certain amount of information is always lost in the process. This also means that the more you convert the signal between analog and digital, the more it's degraded. In a computer, this conversion is usually handled by the sound card, which has one or more built-in digital-to-analog converters (DACs). The quality of a sound card's DACs is one of the main determinants of the sound card's quality.
Analog Speaker System
The transmission of analog signals also has many problems which all sound systems must deal with. The inherent problem is that it is extremely difficult to perfectly transmit an analog signal through a wire without signal degradation due to interference or signal loss. The severity of these problems depends on many factors such as the length of the wire that is transmitting the signal, the level of electromagnetic interference the wire is exposed to, the conductivity of the material that the wire is made of and the purity of the material. While a digital signal cannot completely escape from these problems, resulting in misreading and data loss, it is significantly more resilient than analog signals. It's also possible to correct most data lost during transmission with the use of error correction algorithms and except in extreme cases, digital transmission can be thought as being relatively immune to signal degradation.
After being converted from digital to analog form by the sound card's DACs, a sound signal inside of a computer must contend with a great deal of interference generated by the other components in the system. Then it must survive the journey through a wire to the speaker, all the while being subjected to interference from external sources and signal degradation due to impurities in the wires and connections. Sometimes the signal might also be converted back to digital form again to allow for further processing before being converted back to analog form. Ultimately what this means is that a significant amount of information is lost on the way from the signal source to your ears and a certain amount of extra junk is added to the signal. So the sound you end up hearing isn't quite the same as the original recording.
Abit's Digital Speaker System
Abit attempts to minimize these problems with their digital speaker technology by decreasing the number of times the signal is converted and by reducing the distance the signal must travel once it's been converted to analog. To accomplish this, the iDome speakers take advantage of the digital S/P DIF optical output found on most modern sound cards and many onboard solutions. The signal passed through the S/P DIF output has skipped the sound card's DAC and is in its pure digital form. It is also relatively safe from further degradation on its journey to the speaker since one of the primary advantages of optical fiber technology is that the signal is transmitted via light and is totally immune to electromagnetic interference. Amplification and extra processing is done locally by the iDome while the signal is still in digital form, and then when the signal is ready to be converted into sound waves, the signal is passed through a DAC and then immediately transferred a very short distance to the speaker cones. Theoretically, these precautions should ensure that there is minimum signal degradation and you hear the sound "the way it was meant to be heard".
Although abit has gone to great lengths to ensure that the sound signal that arrives at the speaker is as true to its original form as possible, that isn't the only factor that affects sound quality. The quality of the DACs and speaker cones also greatly affect the sound quality, not to mention various environmental effects once the signal actually gets converted to sound waves. Read on to find out if abit's strategy has succeeded in creating a superior set of speakers.
|iDome DS 500 & SW 510|
The iDome product line currently consists of two multimedia speaker sets, the DS500 digital speakers and the iDome SW510 digital subwoofer. These two units are sold as separate products and they are designed as independent units, each with their own controls and each capable of receiving, decoding and playing digital and analog audio sources. This means you can purchase either the DS500 or the SW510 to supplement your existing sound system, or you can use the DS500 separately in a 2.0 setup or combine them to make a 2.1 speaker system. You could even purchase two DS500s to make a 4.0 or 4.1 setup. Both the DS500 and the SW510 offer pass-through outputs so you can daisy-chain them together, allowing you to connect multiple speaker sets to the same S/P DIF optical output.
While the current street prices for these units may seem very high, they are not unreasonable considering each unit contains a high-spec internal DAC, MDF cabinet construction, built-in adjustments for treble and bass and the wide variety of input and pass-through output connections. The iDome product line is not lacking when it comes to features.
The iDome DS500 is a two-piece speaker set that consists of two slick looking ported satellite speakers. The satellite speakers are very large for multimedia standards and resemble a small home theater bookshelf speaker. Each satellite is rated at 25 watts RMS and contains a 1" tweeter as well as a 4" full-range. The tweeter handles high frequency sounds while the 4" full-range speaker is on a crossover that only feeds it mid and low frequencies. This two-way approach traditionally works much better than using a single full-range driver to do everything and usually results in better sound quality. The satellite cabinets are made entirely from MDF with a plastic front facade and they are supported by a transparent plastic stand.
The transparent stand on the right channel speaker is illuminated by a red LED which is recessed into the speaker cabinet. This creates a cool effect since the light from the LED is spread out relatively evenly by the transparent plastic, causing the engraved "iDome" logo to glow red. Unfortunately, since the left channel speaker does not have its own power source, it does not contain any LEDs. Since only one of the speakers glows, it greatly diminishes the cool-factor of the effect. Luckily the red LED can be disabled by a switch located on the back of the right channel satellite speaker.
The SW510 is rated for 50 watts RMS and since the SW510 is designed as a stand-alone product, it features the same set of inputs and pass-through outputs as the DS500. It is also capable of decoding digital signals, just like the DS500. The SW510's 6.5" driver is located on the rear of the unit, above the connection panel. While the driver is rear firing, the enclosure is also ported on the bottom. The port on the bottom of the unit is recessed by about four inches, which gives it additional room to breathe. Instead of transparent plastic, the SW510 sits on four rubber legs which should do a decent job of keeping it planted and absorbing vibrations.
To help give you an idea of how the iDomes sound, we tested them with a wide variety of movies, games and music. While the DS500 and SW510 are separate products, they are also sold together as a bundle so we tested them together as one unit. We tested the iDomes over a period of several weeks to allow the speakers to properly "burn in" and reach their full potential. This extra time also allowed us test the iDomes with a very wide range of material.
At its heart, the AirPace WAD-01B is a 802.11b/g wireless access point and it has all the amenities you would expect from such a device. It even looks like a normal wireless networking device from afar, but once you get closer, you notice a couple things you won't see on any other wireless access point. On the back panel of this otherwise innocent looking networking device are analog and digital audio outputs. Even stranger still, the AirPace is the only networking device I know of that has a remote control. It needs all of these additions because the AirPace is a wireless audio access point.
In addition to normal wireless access point features, the AirPace is also capable of operating as a wireless client that can connect to an existing wireless network. The AirPace is equipped with a standard RJ45 Ethernet jack that can connect to an existing wired network or it can be connected to a nearby computer to lend it wireless capabilities. If the feature list stopped here, the AirPace would be a very versatile little device but we haven't even gotten to the key feature yet. While in client mode (wired or wireless), the AirPace unit is capable of receiving audio streams from other computers on the network and it can output the audio stream using its compliment of analog and digital audio outputs. That means that as long as the AirPace unit is hooked up to a set of speakers and connected to your network, you can play audio from any machine on the network and listen to it wherever the AirPace is.
Bundled with the AirPace is a very compact IR remote and a short Ethernet cable to get you started. The little remote only has six buttons and is meant to be used with the AirPace unit when it is configured as a wireless audio system. The six buttons control various multimedia functions like volume, changing the track, playing and pausing the music. The remote doesn't work as you might expect. When the AirPace unit has established an audio connection with a computer running the AirPace client software, commands from the remote are relayed to the computer, where the AirPace client software then performs the appropriate actions. Think of the buttons on the remote as a portable, wireless version of the media buttons found on many "multimedia" keyboards. Unfortunately the small size of the remote makes it especially easy to misplace and we wished the AirPace unit had a similar set of controls on the unit itself as a backup. The remote is also completely useless when the AirPace is not being used as a audio system.
We tested the AirPace both as a standard network device and as a wireless audio system. When used as a wireless access point, the AirPace performed admirably and we observed similar range, signal strength, and connection speed as other entry level wireless access points. The AirPace supports in-browser web administration and offers a rudimentary set of administration options like a DHCP server, MAC address filtering, and support for WEP, WPA and WPA2. Overall, we thought it was a pretty typical entry level wireless access point, which isn't necessarily a bad thing since access point functionality is merely a bonus feature.
To start streaming audio, you must first select "wireless audio" instead of "PC speaker" in the AirPace client software. By default, this effectively routes all the audio to the special AirPace sound driver and it also means that your sound card is now deactivated. Luckily, switching back and forth is quick and painless. Once you've routed audio away from your sound card, you need to select from a list of available AirPace units on the network (yes, you can have as many as you like) and connect to the desired one. When you've established a connection through the network, all the audio generated by your computer will be played by the AirPace unit you're connected to.
Although it is really that simple to get up and running, there is some room for tweaking your experience and the AirPace client software offers two option windows called "Buffer Setup" and "Advanced Setting". The buffer setup window lets you choose the size of the audio buffer and there are two available presets; "movie/game" and "music". A larger buffer means more transmission delay, but you get a more stable connection and the chances of broken audio due to wireless signal interference are reduced. During our testing, we found that the "music" mode gave us perfect audio, but at a very noticeable half second delay. This means that there is a half second difference between what we hear and what is being played. While this isn't an issue for music, it is a huge problem when the sound needs to be in sync with video such as in games and movies. Setting the buffer to movie/game mode decreased the delay enough that we weren't able to notice it but we would occasionally experience a momentary drop in audio due to wireless signal interference.
The advanced setting window has a couple of interesting options. By default, using wireless streaming means that your computer's sound card is no longer active so there is no local audio. If you want to stream audio to the AirPace and hear it locally, there is an option to do so in this window. Another default behavior of the AirPace unit is that it can accept multiple audio stream connection at once. This means that if I am listening to music on my computer, and someone else is watching a movie on theirs, and we both connect to the same AirPace unit, then the AirPace unit will simultaneously play both of our audio at the same time. You can force the AirPace unit to only accept one connection at a time from the advanced setting window. Lastly, the AirPace client software is launched automatically when windows starts, this behavior can also be toggled from this window.
Overall, the AirPace performed well as both a wireless access point and as a wireless audio system. The software and drivers did not give us any trouble and everything worked as it should. The performance of the AirPace as a wireless audio system was quite good. The sound quality of the streamed audio was perfect and streaming audio created no noticeable network traffic congestion. We set up the AirPace unit right next to our computer and with the help of a splitter, we connected both our computer and the AirPace to the same set of speakers. We were unable to notice a difference in sound quality between a direct connection and streaming the audio through the AirPace.
|Our Summary and Conclusion|
Abit iDome DS500 Digital Speakers
The abit iDome DS500 Digital Speaker system is an excellent product. It boasts a very stylish high quality design and 100% MDF enclosure construction. The bass and treble controls are very handy and although the built-in EQ presets weren't particularly useful, they don't hurt either. While we liked the DS500's design, we wished it had a headphone jack, which is essential for multimedia speaker sets. We also would have liked to see both speakers light up instead of just one, but we thought the iDomes looked fine with the lighting disabled.
The real strengths of the DS500 are its sound quality and its digital capabilities. The DS500 sound great and the quality of the highs and mid-range certainly make up for the speaker set's $100+ cost. While the DS500 lacked deep bass, that is to be expected when dealing with 2.0 systems. We also really liked the DS500's ability to utilize digital audio sources. The ability to get equal sound quality from a "free" integrated solution compared to a premium discrete sound card is a huge plus and it also helps to make up for the DS500's cost. However, considering the emphasis on digital connectivity, we would have liked to see the DS500 sport a coaxial S/P DIF connection, in addition to the existing optical connection.
If you’re looking for a nice set of speakers to add to your sound system or a stand-alone stereo unit, the DS500 should definitely be on your audition list. These speakers offer a very detailed and clear sound that is sure to please any music enthusiast. However, we recommend you pair the DS500 with a decent subwoofer to supplement the bass, an area where it is decidedly lacking.
Abit iDome SW510 Digital Wubwoofer
While the DS500 digital speakers excelled in our sound quality tests, the SW510 didn't do nearly as well. We think the SW510 is a rather mediocre subwoofer that suffers from loose and boomy bass that isn't as deep as we like. Its saving grace is the ability to accept digital connections, a trait it shares with the DS500. Unfortunately this advantage isn't enough to justify the $100+ cost of the SW510. If you're in need of a subwoofer to add to your system and you absolutely have to have digital connectivity, then the SW510 is one of the only games in town. However, if analog connectivity will do, then we recommend looking into a low-end home theater subwoofer instead. For the price, you might be able to find something a bit better than the SW510.
Abit AirPace WAD-01B Wireless Audio System
The abit AirPace wireless audio system is a very interesting piece of kit. On one hand, it offers some very cool features that some people will find extremely useful. Its ability to stream music to just about any point within wireless range of your network is very cool and its secondary functionality as a 802.11b/g wireless access point is a welcome bonus. We also liked that the software and hardware worked flawlessly and exactly as it should right out of the box. On the other hand, most people won't have a use for the AirPace's somewhat unique abilities. To make matters worse, the AirPace is almost impossible to find. We weren't able to find any US retailers that carried them, although abit assures us that they are out there...somewhere. Abit also claims that some retailers bundled the AirPace unit with the iDomes, although we were unable to find any retailers that do. However, if you absolutely must have one, there are several European retailers selling it and if your willing to stomach the cost of shipping, one can be yours for about $80 Euros ($108 USD).