When a commenter suggested that we should check out AirEnabler, we knew we had to do it. This $50 promises a plug-and-play version of the arduous, hacker-y process described here for putting Apple’s AirPlay wireless music connection into your car. Not only that, but it does the same for any of the sound systems in your home, to boot, stretching that $50 a pretty long way.
After testing Qnology AirPlay Enabler in car and home alike, we’re impressed with almost all of it. There’s a problem with this device, but you can fix it — it’ll just cost you a bit more.
Setting up AirPlay Enabler could not be easier, which is great news. Products like this should just work.
You simply plug it in, join its little WiFi network from your phone, tablet, or computer, and then turn on AirPlay, just like you would with any other AirPlay device made by Apple or any other company. Presto — your music is now emanating from your car or home stereo, and you’re only out 50 bucks, rather than the $100 Apple charges for AirPort Express, which doesn’t even work in the car, the way AirEnabler does.
Anyone who can use an iPhone can get it working in under a minute, with no computer or complex configurations required, as with this ingenious homespun method. (Note: If you’re putting it in a car, that car has to have an Aux In line-in, or whatever you want to call it. I’d personally never buy a car or car stereo that didn’t have one, but some of them don’t.)
In our testing, we found that being connected to AirEnabler’s WiFi hotspot did not affect our iPhone 5s’s ability to connect to the internet. In other words, you can still Facebook while you drive, you idiot. Just kidding — this also means you can still use your iPhone to navigate as you drive and listen.
Before you order one of these for yourself, though, consider the cheap-looking DAC (digital-to-analog) converter that ships with it:
Musicians painstakingly crafted their music, someone mastered it, a label or distributor put it on a music service, which beamed it over the network you’re paying for to your phone — and now, the DAC gets to decide how good that music sounds. The one that comes with AirEnabler is bad. Here’s “silence” turned up a bit over a car stereo:
To make the AirEnabler sound completely clean, free from clicks and hiss, I simply swapped in a Creative Labs Xmod, but all kinds of USB DACs are available — the best deal on a decent-sounding USB DAC I’ve found after a few minutes of googling around is the first-generation Griffin iMic, which Amazon sells new for $31 (bonus: it can also add a super-clean audio input and output to any computer). This refurbished ultra-compact Creative X-Fi is also an amazing deal at just 15 bucks.
Update: The manufacturer likes to use the ELE EL-D01 MINI HIFI USB PCM2704 DAC BOARD CARD + ELNA Capacitor, which only costs $24 — we’d probably recommend that one, but again, you have many options.
With that in mind, even the prissiest audiophile could have a reason to pick up a Qnology AirEnabler — but really, we’d put the price at $74, because you’re not going to want to use the included DAC. Audiophiles will want to spend a bit more on their portable USB DAC, as they already know, and they probably already have one anyway.
Here’s what our “wireless” set-up ended up looking like, with my old, great-sounding Creative Xmod USB DAC swapped in for the smaller one that ships with the device:
With that in mind, we still recommend the $50 Qnology AirPlay AirEnabler for at least five reasons:
1) Once you get it set up, you could easily tuck all of this stuff away under a car seat or in a compartment, and never have to look at it or deal with it again.
2) It truly is great to be able to hop into your car and get some music playing without remembering to bring or having to connect any cables.
3) Anyone in the car can use it without a wire changing hands, which could be nice for group car trips.
4) If you find an ultra-compact USB DAC that sounds good, like this $25 jam from Logitech or the Creative X-Fi mentioned above, you can minimize the extra wiring. Also, you can get fantastic sound that way — even better if you drop some extra cash on something like this.
5) Most Bluetooth is lame for music because it compresses it and degrades the sound (although this is changing). AirPlay/WiFi is clearly the way to go for wireless sound in the car at this point, and this device delivers that in the easiest way we’ve ever seen.
Advanced users will be interested to know that they can telnet into their AirEnablers and reconfigure it to connect to their existing home networks rather than creating its own, allowing any device on that network to send music to whatever speakers are connected to it. The other advantage of doing this — you can use your iPhone for data-intensive stuff while playing music without using your limited cellular data plan.
But for everyone else, this thing comes configured the right way, right out of the box — and swapping in the USB DAC that makes sense to your ears and budget is just as easy as everything else about Qnology’s AirEnabler.
Photos: Eliot Van Buskirk