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playGo USB hands-on: Like AirTunes, only better

Right now, if you want to pump music on your Mac or PC to some nice speakers or a stereo in your house, you have a few options. With iTunes, you can always use AirTunes to wirelessly connect your laptop or desktop machine to an AppleTV or an Airport Express Wi-Fi base station that's connected to a stereo or speakers. playGo is a US$449.99 piece of hardware from Bicom that doesn't rely on Wi-Fi to stream lossless sound to speakers. TUAW received a review unit recently, and here's my take on this bit of audiophile technology.

Design

The playGo comes in two colors -- white or orange -- and is made up of two pieces; the playGo tx, which transmits music from your computer, and the playGo rx, which receives the signal and connects to speakers or an amplifier.

The playGo pair is machined of Corian, the rock-hard material that's used for countertops. The units are then hand-assembled, and the quality of construction is pretty obvious. The disk-shaped (4" diameter by 1" high) playGo tx connects to your computer via a USB to micro-USB cable, and is bus-powered. The square playGo rx (4" x 4" x 1" high), which looks like a larger, bleached version of the current Apple TV, must be plugged in, and includes a pair of gold-plated RCA connectors and a single digital audio out port.

There are no controls on the tx unit with the exception of a single connect button on the bottom. On the rx are capacitive touch controls that are engraved into the unit -- a power button, play/pause button, beginning/previous and end/next buttons, and volume up/down buttons.

The specs for the digital output are impressive:

  • 24-bit/96khz digital spdif output (TOSLINK), 192kHz option
  • Burr-brown SRC4192 sample rate converter
  • Clock regeneration for jitter-free clocking
  • Distortion-free volume control (256 step 0dB to -127.5dB digital attenuation)

and the analog output is no slouch either:

  • 24-bit/96khz digital to analog conversion
  • 106dB dynamic range
  • -93dB THD+N
  • 2V output
  • Gold plated RCA connectors

Green LEDs illuminate the center band of the playGo rx and tx units when they're in operation.

How playGo USB works

For me, the test of how well-implemented a hardware device is revolves around the need or lack of a user manual. Fortunately, one was not included with the unit I was testing, so I had no choice but to bravely start plugging equipment together. The tx unit was plugged into my office iMac with the included USB cable with its gold-plated connectors, while the rx went downstairs into a Bose home theatre unit.

When the playGo tx was plugged in, the middle of the unit glowed red, indicating that it was not yet connected to an rx unit. The second that I plugged in the rx unit, both glowed green to show that they were talking to each other.

Setting up output was as simple as pulling up System Preferences and choosing the Sound settings, then selecting the playGo tx as the output device. During playback of tunes from my iMac, the playGo rx LEDs pulsed green to indicate that it was busy receiving tunes. Powering down the unit causes the power button to glow white so that it's easy to find when you want to power up again.

I made a connection to the speakers through the traditional analog cables and was instantly rewarded with crisp, clear music coming through the Bose unit.

As mentioned earlier, the playGo USB doesn't use Wi-Fi, so there's no Wi-Fi connection required. It uses its own wireless protocol that doesn't interfere with others, so you're assured that it's not chewing up your network bandwidth when you're playing music.

The big plus of the playGo USB is just how easy it is to set up. I didn't need a user manual, I went through no complicated setup process; instead, it was truly plug and play. One concern I do have is that Bicom advertises the playGo USB as being able to simultaneously transmit music to multiple rx units in different rooms, but there's no indication that they sell the rx units separately.

The future and my conclusions

Bicom apparently realizes that the market for this device is somewhat limited, as they've recently begun a Kickstarter project to bring the playGo AP1 device to market. This will be an AirPlay-compatible version of the playGo, so that any Wi-Fi connected iOS device or Mac can beam music to the box. Since Wi-Fi setup will be required for the playGo AP1, the new device will include Ethernet and USB outlets on the back. The design remains pretty much the same.

I can't help but feel that the playGo USB won't be a big seller and that Bicom is betting the house on the AP1 instead. The price tag of the present unit definitely puts it into the realm of audiophiles who aren't averse to spending a few hundred bucks for a new way to move music around. The AP1 is less expensive since it won't require a separate tx unit, and that may make it more attractive to a larger audience.

I was very impressed with the playGo USB. The setup process was the first I can honestly describe as plug and play; it just worked. The sound quality of the music beamed from my iMac to the Bose home theatre unit about 50 feet away was exceptional, and the build quality of the paired devices is unparalleled (except for Apple products).

Whether you decide to back the playGo AP1 project and wait for that edition of the device, or if you buy a playGo USB now, Bicom and the playGo product both bear watching in the future.

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