Review: NuVo Wireless Audio System takes a few steps forward, and a couple back
When one company comes to dominate a market in the fashion that Sonos rules the midrange, multiroom audio scene today, I’m always delighted to see a challenger emerge with a superior product that exploits the weaknesses in the champion’s calcifying armor. There is no better way to advance the state of the art.
So when I heard that NuVo Technologies was finally shipping the multiroom audio system it first demonstrated at an industry trade show way back in the fall of 2011, I couldn’t wait to hear it. After comprehensive evaluation, however, I must report that consumers will have to wait a little longer for a market shakeup: NuVo’s Player P100, Player P200, and Gateway GW100 deliver only incremental improvements over the much-less-expensive Sonos ecosystem. In some respects, NuVo’s system is inferior to what Sonos currently offers.
How it works
For the system to operate wirelessly, you must purchase NuVo’s Gateway GW100 and connect that component to your router using an ethernet cable. The Gateway creates two MIMO (multiple input/multiple output) networks, one on the 2.4GHz frequency band and one on the 5GHz frequency band. Each NuVo player can connect to either network and play media from the same music sources, namely your local library or one of the music services that the system supports. As with Sonos systems, the NuVo wireless networks operate independently of any conventional Wi-Fi networks you might also be running.
The Gateway is capable of transmitting and receiving two 150-megabits-per-second spatial streams for a maximum wireless data rate of 300 mbps. NuVo claims that the system can support up to 16 audio streams simultaneously, with each stream carrying data at up to 600 kbps (more on this later).
If you connect all of your NuVo players to your router through ethernet, you don’t need to buy the Gateway. In this respect, the NuVo system is similar to a Sonos system, but with a key difference: As long as you connect at least one Sonos module to your router via ethernet, all the other modules can operate wirelessly on Sonos’s dedicated mesh network. That single wired module can be any player, or it can be Sonos’s $49 Bridge.
If you want to run any of NuVo’s modules wirelessly, however, you must buy the Gateway, which costs $150 more than the Sonos Bridge. The presence of a five-port gigabit ethernet switch might account for some of the Gateway’s comparatively high cost, but if you’re going to hardwire NuVo’s players, you might as well connect them to your router.
Once you’ve connected and configured your players (described in the next section), you control the NuVo system using your smartphone or tablet running the company’s Android or iOS app. (NuVo has announced a dedicated hardware controller, but it's not yet available.) NuVo offers desktop utilities for Macs and for Windows PCs that make it easy to add music stored on your computer—or a NAS box on your network—to the NuVo library, but the company doesn't supply a software controller for the desktop. I’ll get into more depth about the controller apps below. In general, however, as with the Sonos system, each player can play an independent track, or you can stream the same music to two or more players and the system keeps the music in perfect sync.
NuVo Player features
Each of the NuVo Player models has a built-in amplifier, a set of five-way binding posts (for unpowered speakers), a line-level audio output (for an outboard amp or self-powered speakers), a line-level audio input (to support a digital media player or other source), an integrated wireless adapter (to connect to the Gateway), a 10/100 ethernet port, and a USB 2.0 port. The $479 Player P100 delivers 20 watts per channel, while the $599 Player P200 provides 60 watts per channel.
Unlike the nonamplified Sonos Connect, neither NuVo Player unit sports a digital-audio output, so you can’t connect them to an outboard digital-to-analog converter (DAC). And unlike the Sonos ConnectAmp, neither of the NuVo Players has a dedicated subwoofer output. You could connect a subwoofer to the line-out jack on either player, but it would need to be a sub with a built-in crossover to filter out the higher frequencies that are already being sent to any connected speakers.
Both NuVo players feature Audyssey Dynamic EQ and Audyssey Dynamic Volume, the latter of which is designed to maintain a consistent volume level across all the music in your library. You can bypass the volume-control feature if you don’t like it, and you can tweak the EQ settings for each player using the controller app.
In addition to a beefier amp, the P200 supports Bluetooth audio streaming using CSR’s excellent AptX audio-encoding technology. The P200 is also outfitted with a microphone input to support Audyssey MultEQ room-equalization technology, but that feature won’t be implemented until later this year, according to a NuVo Technologies spokesperson. Aside from the expected differences in weight and power consumption, the remaining specs are the same for both players.
The Gateway is powered by a wall wart, but the two players have integrated power supplies with detachable AC cords. None of the three components is likely to win an award for design innovation, being housed in the type of thin, black plastic that router manufacturers are wont to use. Each of the two players has nonbacklit, touch-sensitive buttons for volume up, volume down, and mute. A very small LED indicates power and connection status; the P200 has a second LED to report its Bluetooth status.
Testing the system
I first installed the Gateway in my “home-run closet,” where a number of other devices also reside (the whole purpose of a home-run closet being the place to stash your network infrastructure). The Asus RT-N66U dual-band router that forms the heart of my wireless network is there, as well as the wireless iControl module that drives an ADT Pulse home control/security system that I’ve also been testing (the iControl has a Wi-Fi router and a Z-Wave transceiver).
I connected the Gateway to my router with a 3-foot cable, set up the P200 in my home theater (about 35 feet from the closet), and set up the P100 in my master bedroom (about 60 feet away). The moment I began streaming music (encoded as 16-bit, 44.1kHz FLAC files) from my home server, the system was plagued by frequent dropouts. I contacted NuVo and described the problem and my setup.
The company’s suggestion was that the Gateway should be at least 9 feet away from any other wireless sources, including wireless routers. Um, I have a home-run closet, not a home-run room. Fortunately, my home also happens to have at least one hardwired ethernet connection in every other room, and moving the Gateway to my kitchen solved the dropout problem. That said, I previously tested a Sonos system with one unit connected directly to the router in my closet and three other units operating wirelessly elsewhere in the house, and I encountered no similar problems. NuVo’s Gateway shouldn’t be so sensitive to the presence of other wireless hardware.
Once I got the system operating correctly, I began my evaluation by connecting a pair of Bowers & Wilkins’s new M1 bookshelf speakers to the P200, and a pair of Audioengine’s P4 monitors to the P100. I did not test the system with powered speakers.
One of the few areas where the NuVo system outshines a Sonos system relates to the highest-quality audio files. The NuVo system can stream and decode FLAC files encoded at up to 24-bit resolution, with sampling rates as high as 96kHz. Sonos devices currently support FLAC files with a maximum of 16-bit resolution and a 44.1kHz sampling rate.
Speaking of high-bit-rate music, I noted above that the NuVo system can support up to 16 audio streams, with each stream carrying data at 600 kbps. The bit rate of a 24/96 FLAC file can easily exceed 1000 kbps, so how does NuVo's system manage it? By analyzing the bit stream before transmission and compressing when necessary.
I buy high-definition tracks from Bowers & Wilkins’s Society of Sound service, so support for 24/96 tracks is kind of a big deal to me. If you think CD-quality audio is good enough, you won’t care. You’ll care even less if you purchase tracks from Amazon, Google, or iTunes, or if you primarily stream music from services such as Pandora, Rhapsody, or SiriusXM. (NuVo supports these services, but not Last.fm, Rdio, Slacker, Spotify, or several others that Sonos systems support.)
I chose Peter Gabriel’s Society of Sound album Half Blood for my first listening session. A collection of Gabriel’s hits arranged for and recorded with a full orchestra, the album is encoded in 24-bit FLAC at a sample rate of 48kHz, and it sounded marvelous on the NuVo system. "San Jacinto," the first track I played, opens sparingly, with just piano and the shimmering ting of a triangle. Garbriel’s voice then enters the picture, accompanied first by pizzicato strings and then marimba. Both NuVo Players delivered the delicate arrangement with aplomb, rendering each instrument distinctly.
I had similar experiences with a variety of other tracks, including a number of albums I had ripped from CD and encoded as FLAC files. Speaking strictly about audio reproduction, NuVo’s players are top shelf. I wouldn't go so far as to describe them as audiophile quality, but they are very good. (For the record, I wouldn't describe a Sonos system as audiophile quaility, either, but the presence of a digital output on the Sonos Connect does give you the option of utilizing your favorite high-end, outboard DAC.)
NuVo’s controller apps, on the other hand, need a lot of work. (I tested the Android version on a Samsung Galaxy S II and the iOS version on a second-generation iPad.) The user interface is designed well enough, with large buttons for playback control, and thumbs-up/thumbs-down buttons for services such as Pandora. You can queue up as many tracks as you’d like, including entire albums stored on a networked computer or NAS. (Windows Home Server is not supported, but you have an easy workaround.) You can also connect a USB hard drive to either Player’s USB port, and the controller app will automatically index the tracks it finds there—another feature that Sonos can’t match.
But NuVo's controller fails significantly in that you can’t edit the queue in real time or save it as a playlist. With a Sonos hardware controller or controller app, you can move tracks up and down the queue by touching and dragging them; remove a track with a flick of your finger; insert a new track in the middle of the queue; and save the entire queue as a custom playlist. NuVo says that the company plans to add queue-editing features in a future version of its apps, but that users must create playlists in iTunes or Windows Media Player.
Should you take the plunge?
Consumers can buy the Gateway GW100, Player P100, and Player P200 from a custom installer or—a first for NuVo Technologies—directly from select online retailers such as Parts Express. If you’re a fanatic about audio quality and you have a deep library of high-resolution audio tracks, NuVo’s system is a good value. Apart from the Gateway's requiring ample distance from your wireless router, the system is very easy to set up and use. More important, NuVo’s system is capable of streaming high-definition audio tracks that a Sonos system will simply ignore.
NuVo’s controller apps are significantly inferior to what Sonos has to offer, but software is easy enough to update. On the other hand, if it were easy for Sonos to add support for 24-bit, 96kHz FLAC files to its product line, I suspect the company would have done so by now.
If the quality of your music library tops out at 16-bit, 44.1kHz FLAC or Apple Lossless tracks, though, I see no need to spend the additional cash to acquire a NuVo system over a Sonos. Whereas a one-room Sonos system can be had for less than $350 (a $49 Bridge plus a $299 Play3), a one-room NuVo system will set you back more than $700 (a $199 Gateway, a $479 Player P100, plus the cost of speakers).
One could argue that I'm making an apples-to-oranges comparison here, so let's run the numbers for an amplifed Sonos system: A wireless one-room system with a $499 ConnectAmp and a $49 Bridge would cost $548, plus speakers. That's still $130 less than a NuVo system based on the Player P100, and it's $230 less than a NuVo system based on the P200. Bringing music to additional rooms in your home will also cost considerably more with a NuVo system, because Sonos has a larger collection of hardware with a much broader range of prices.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that NuVo Technologies needs to go back to the drawing board: Aside from requiring the Gateway for wireless operation (and the fact that the Gateway is overly sensitive to the presence of other wireless devices operating in close proximity), the company has a capable multiroom audio system. But NuVo would be well advised to have its accountants sharpen their pencils to improve this system's price-performance ratio for consumers who don't have high-resolution music libraries.