There are various systems that stream music around the home via Wi-Fi. Some designs use your home network to do this, but a home Wi-Fi network offers an unreliable path for real-time music because of the other demands upon it. Reliability could be improved by reducing the bit-rate and sending only low-res music files. But who wants that?
NuVo’s system, however, comes with its own separate ‘gateway’ wireless router to generate a dedicated network, along with two types of ‘player’ that will receive the signals anywhere in the router’s range (or directly, via Ethernet). The players include amplification, so you can just add speakers in each zone. They promise entirely uncompressed transmission of music, and they also offer a large bonus above obvious rivals like Sonos by including the convenience of Bluetooth in one of the two players. But can they offer a similar level of music access and convenient operation?
A note on availability: these NuVo boxes come from Amber Technology’s custom installation range of products so are available only from Amber’s network of custom integrators — Amber’s website will point you to your nearest. But they require no skill to set up and use; no more than a Sonos system, say. They even have an app to walk you through installation, and it’s an app clearly aimed at a consumer level, not engineers.
They do betray a certain trade focus in their design; there is a token curve on one side of each unit but they are otherwise pretty plain things, perhaps as they are likely to be hidden away. The ‘gateway’ will likely be in some quiet comms corner where its overbright blue LED can’t annoy you, while the players may be powering pairs of architectural speakers or sitting in a rack blinking quietly to themselves. You can control everything from any smart device, so there’s no need to have anything else within reach. The number of players is limited only by the maximum of 16 zones; for us the demonstration of this flexibility was somewhat curtailed by having only the one p200 player to review, but the idea was to judge its quality and then imagine the possibilities.
The p200 wireless audio player is a surprisingly weighty unit, with rock-solid speaker binding posts to the rear, an external indication of the audio quality within. It is a powerhouse compared with the other player in the range, the p100 ($100 cheaper), which has only 20W of Class-D power per channel (20Hz-20kHz, 0.5% distortion) compared with the p200’s 60W per channel here. The other key difference is the Bluetooth reception in each p200 player, and the superior aptX Bluetooth codec too, should your smart device of choice support it. (If it doesn’t, Amber tells us the p200 falls back on the lower SBC codec.)
Bluetooth aside, the players will receive all their music through the air from the gw100 gateway wireless router, a lightweight black box with a pair of hinged antennas and five Ethernet sockets on the rear. This plugs into the mains and needs a single Ethernet connection from your own home network router. Reliability and range are further strengthened by the gw100 being a Wireless N router, and a dual-band (2.4/5.6GHz) one to boot.
We plugged the gateway up on one floor and took the p200 player upstairs to the music room, where we connected its solid binding posts to a pair of small but competent Quad 9L2 bookshelf speakers, and later to a pair of more demanding JBLs.
We launched the NuVo app on our iPad 2 — it found the gateway quickly, asked us a few locational questions, then connected to the p200 player, just like a Sonos system; NuVo even uses the same procedure as Sonos to activate a zone — press the ‘volume up’ and ‘mute’ buttons on the player to have it join the NuVo network. You may at this point be prompted to upgrade the software of your player; this took a few minutes and worked seamlessly (you can even use the system while it does this), upgrading twice in a row, presumably for different components. Such is the plug-and-play simplicity of set-up.
So plugged up, app running — what can we play? On the home screen (see iPad) you are offered TuneIn internet radio, Bluetooth, ‘Library’, ‘Add Service’, and ‘Line in’.
Line in. To deal with the last and simplest first, the ‘Line In’ plays from any source connected to the minijack input at the rear of the p200 player — just the one (same as Sonos), and that source will be available to all players on your network (like Sonos).
Bluetooth. Select this and the p200 becomes ‘discoverable’. Our iPad paired quickly, though wouldn’t play any audio until we returned to the NuVo app to manually select the paired device. We noticed that the volume controls in the NuVo and other apps were in series, so you may need to jump between apps if you run out of volume on one or the other. The quality was excellent, though when reading NuVo’s claims for “high-definition” using aptX, remember that your smartphone or tablet must also support aptX, and standard aptX isn’t lossless. But certainly this option opens up the NuVo system to playback of anything you can receive on any of your smart devices, on any platform.
Music services. This is just as well, since the only dedicated NuVo service available in Australia is TuneIn internet radio. We got Pandora working too, by telling the NuVo we were in the US, but we gather Australians can now access Pandora as standard. TuneIn worked well and allowed easy access to different stream qualities, so we could select, for example, the 96kbps MP3 stream for ABC Dig Music rather than the 48kbps AAC version. While TuneIn is only one of many internet radio providers, it’s pretty much our favourite (its dedicated iPad app has a superb interface), so no complaints.
USB. There’s also a USB socket at the rear, slightly inconvenient but able to play sticks or drives of music with excellent file-type compatibility, including FLAC and WAV files right up to 24-192, and also the often-omitted Apple Lossless (but not AIFF).
Library. For many users, access to their own music library will be the most important of all sources. Here NuVo apparently boasts an advantage over rivals like Sonos in claiming high-res file support, stating “Mastering-grade, high-fidelity audio”. We couldn’t establish to what level such files can be sent losslessly over the Wi-Fi connection (no way to tell, and no specs published). But its broad file support on USB bodes well.
To access networked music, you add software to each computer from which you’re going to share music; NuVo’s software supports XP/Vista/W7 PCs, and Macs above 10.6. Amber says they’ve also tested Windows 8 successfully. On our Mac we chose the ‘iTunes’ option; this will work fine if all your iTunes music is on your internal hard drive. For us it did not tie the iTunes playlists there to the iTunes Media folder which is located on a connected Thunderbolt drive. This drive required adding manually by typing in its full location; music on NAS drives required the same. This had mixed success. The playlists issue would matter less if you could better manipulate playlists on the NuVo’s own interface, but here you can only set up lists with ‘Play Next’, ‘Play Later’; you can’t reorder or save them.
We enjoyed excellent sound from the p200. Old or new — ‘Angie’, ripped as WAV from the ‘Forty Licks’ Rolling Stones CD, sounded beautifully separated and clean streaming from the Mac (downstairs via Ethernet to the gateway and back upstairs via Wi-Fi!). Noisefloors seemed impressively low, allowing delicate acoustic music to flower, while power levels seemed strong enough to deliver denser rock without compression or confusion, or at least no more than was on the recordings. This ability to make the most of music was assisted by a good set of controls for each ‘Zone’ — bass, treble and balance controls, ‘loudness’ and mono buttons, and Audyssey Dynamic Volume (which flattens highs and lows). The bass and loudspeaker controls were subtle, not brutal, and we found that a little bass boost added to the enjoyment of the sound from our Quads, though we switched it back out when we tried our larger JBL speakers.
So this system works very much like Sonos, but whereas lately Sonos has looked a little trapped within its own world (admitting as much by suggesting people add Airport Express units to escape), NuVo breaks down that wall by including Bluetooth, and thereby opening the p200 player to any app you care to install on your smart device — potentially millions of them.
That’s just as well, since NuVo’s own app has so few services of its own in Australia, just internet radio and Pandora. The better internal amps, the Bluetooth and the support for higher file resolutions are the winning attractions for NuVo, so your choice will depend on your priorities. Jez Ford