The Gadgets: Creative's new SoundBlaster Wireless for iTunes dongle, that shares music to little receivers around the house, and also to the GigaWorks T20W wireless-receiver speakers.
The Price: $US150 for starter kit with SB Wireless and one receiver; $US130 for the GigaWorks T20W wireless speakers
The Verdict: I like wireless streaming, but I hate headaches that come from wireless devices that try to do too much. Sonos alone meets my satisfaction when it comes to an insanely micro-manageable whole-house audio system. But if you just want to send audio from point A to point B (and points C, D and E) without running a bunch of wires, Creative's newest take on it makes sense.
What you get in the starter kit is a dongle for your Mac or PC, and a single receiver with 35mm or RCA stereo jacks. You can buy additional receivers, or you can buy speakers with the receiver built right in. The sound is great—I don't hear any weird digital compression. Range-wise, I was able to carry it throughout the house without losing more than a momentary blip of connectivity, so you shouldn't have a problems in (or out of) a normal-sized house.
I wouldn't call this a "smart" distributed audio system. It's pretty blunt force. All the hardware comes pre-paired (hence the need for a dongle at the PC end, despite the use of Wi-Fi), and it basically streams USB audio—whatever's playing on your computer—to points around the house. You can configure and control up to four "zones" using software for the Mac or PC, or you can just use "broadcast" mode to send the same audio to every point. There's a remote control for the receiver, but it's limited to play and pause of iTunes.
The Inevitable Comparison to AirPort Express: From a cost perspective, comparing this to AirPort Express is a little murky: AirPort Express costs $US99 a piece, requires an audio system but no dongle for your computer. If you wanted to have three of them around your house, at different music or home theatre systems, you'd pay $US300. You'd need those audio systems, and even then, you probably wouldn't want to plug one in outside.
With the same computers and music libraries, Creative gives you a few more options. It's not cheaper, up front: You're out $US150 for the dongle and first receiver. Adding two more receiver modules at $US70 a piece gets you close to that $US300 mark. But you can have 4 zones, and even more receivers in "broadcast" mode, so the more you add, the cheaper it could get overall. (Apple doesn't guarantee AirTunes reception to more than three Express units.) I think Creative should lower the price of receivers to $US50 each, to get competitive, but let's face it, I have no idea what that would do to their profit margins, if there are any.
It's really the speaker and the iPod dock that make this thing different from the AirPort Express. Buy the speakers for $US130—in a bundle with the dongle for $US200 even—and you have a standalone audio receiver that you can take outside when you're BBQin' and a really nice pair of computer speakers that you can use wirelessly or directly plugged in.
Forget your computer and the SB dongle entirely, and pair the $US130 wireless speakers or $US70 receivers with the $US250 Cambridge SoundWorks MovieWorks HD, which doesn't just have HDMI out for videos, but an integrated wireless interface that works just fine with these accessories.
The Caveats: Despite having "iTunes" in the name, it sends all your computer's audio to the speakers or receiver. That means that you can be chilling to your iTunes when suddenly the annoying sound of an IM breaks your reverie. (It also means you can play audio from other programs—say, a movie in VLC—it's not all bad.)
It doesn't output audio at a fixed line level, but at whatever volumes your computer and iTunes are set at. If the system volume is cranked, you could experience distortion. It's not a defect, it just means you have to pull down one or the other (or both) volumes to 2/3 strength, then turn up the sound at the receiver end.
I said the hardware comes pre-paired, and for the most part, it works right out of the box. If it doesn't, I find holding down the "connect" button on the side of the dongle for like 5 seconds really helps. The one major conflict is that the dongle and the MovieWorks HD are not exactly friends. They both do the same thing, so having both is not necessary (but not verboten either). If you do, you may find yourself mashing that "connect" button a lot. [SoundBlaster Wireless, GigaWorks T20W Speakers; Cambridge SoundWorks MovieWorks HD]
Easy to set up
Lots of options, including powered speakers with built-in wireless receiver
Excellent sound quality, even streaming from one side of the house to another
Starter configuration is not cheaper than AirPort Express
Occasional device pairing issues, when using multiple Creative X-Fi accessories
Since it's all just USB audio out, you may have to play with system volume settings to avoid distortion