A while back we were asked about an easy solution to stream audio from a laptop to a receiver. It seemed simple enough, but we soon found out that there weren't too many practical or inexpensive ways to accomplish such a task.
Creative has offered a solution to the situation and while it may not be inexpensive, it's an easy and painless way to get your PC or Mac audio streaming directly to external speakers or a receiver. The system isn't without its faults, but we really enjoyed the overall performance of the device.
The Sound Blaster Wireless System for iTunes and Receiver is actually a bundle featuring two separate products. First, the wireless system for iTunes is simply a USB dongle that transmits audio from your computer to a Creative receiver. The second product is an actual wireless audio receiver that can connect to external speakers or an AV receiver. Creative has combined the two into a wireless system that retails for around $150 online.
Setting up the wireless system is fairly straightforward. You attach the USB dongle into an open port on your computer and then set up the receiver next to your external speakers or AV receiver. The rear of the receiver has two line-out connections: a 1/8 inch jack and an RCA analog stereo out. The receiver requires a power supply, which is included with the package.
To get the dongle and receiver to sync, you hold down the USB dongle "connect" button for a moment, then scoot over to the receiver and do the same to the "link" button on the rear. Once paired, a white LED light will remain statically lit on the front of the receiver. After the connection has been made, all audio from your computer will then stream to the wireless receiver.
The receiver itself has a play/pause button in addition to skip forward and backward track buttons. It's quite small and should fit snugly in your entertainment center. The white LED light it projects may be a bit bright, especially if you're using it in a dark room. The included remote control has a series of buttons, some of which will only work if you're using a more featured receiver (such as the MovieWorks HD dock). For use with the bundle system we're reviewing here, you'll only be able to use the volume, mute, play/pause, and skip track buttons. All that aside, you'll only be able to control tracks when using a PC.
The USB dongle has two LED indicators: a power and link light. The link light will stay lit when connected to the receiver. The dongle itself is a bit larger than a thumb drive and also has an antenna protruding out of it. The antenna feels a bit flimsy and looks as if it might break off if twisted in the wrong direction. We definitely recommend leaving it as is out of the box. A microphone and headphone jack also sit at the edge of the dongle, allowing you access to both features that would normally be cut off by the device taking over as a sound card.
The Sound Blaster Wireless System for iTunes and Receiver works fine right out of the box, but you'll need to install the included software to take advantage of some of the additional features the system offers. Unfortunately for Mac users, most of these features will only work on PCs--including the ability to control tracks with iTunes. If you're using a Mac, the only software you'll be able to use is an Audio Console tab in System Preferences where you can manage your broadcasting options.
If you use the system with a PC, the software will unlock iTunes compatibility in addition to the company's X-Fi audio EQ drivers (like the X-Fi Crystalizer) so that you can mold the music to your preference. While the system does work well with a Mac, you're only getting a streaming experience, nothing more. And since none of this information is disclosed on the packaging, let this serve as your warning.
The X-Fi audio EQ performance is a mixed bag. While some songs benefit from the Crystalizer, others have no change. Die hard audiophiliacs may just want to leave the setting off all together.
There was one more hiccup during our testing with the Creative system. Since streaming is done over the ubiquitous 2.4GHz frequency, you may get some interference from your wireless router. We recommend (if you can) placing the receiver as far away from your router as possible because you will hear static if they are too close together. We also experienced numerous Internet drops while streaming music. If this can't be resolved, try manually setting your router and Creative streamer to different channels on the frequency.
Overall, we enjoyed the wireless streaming audio experience the Sound Blaster Wireless System for iTunes and Receiver was able to provide. While it's priced around $150, it's definitely a bit more than what we'd like to pay. Also, we're a bit disappointed that while the product has the "iTunes" name, its features are limited with the operating system that natively supports iTunes.
As we mentioned earlier, there aren't too many other ways of accomplishing wireless audio streaming . You could use an Airport Express Base Station for iTunes streaming, but you'd essentially be buying a high-end product for a low-end feature. Eos will be releasing a similar device (without a remote control) called Converge in September 2009 that performs most of the same functionality, so if you're on the fence about the Creative, we'd recommend sticking around for our review of it later in August.
If you'd like to really get a complete package, Creative offers a speaker set, the GigaWorks T20 Series II that can receive wireless audio sent from the USB dongle reviewed here.