Pros: Respectable sound quality, lots of features, no drop-outs or buffering issues
Cons: Touch-screen controller feels dated and somewhat cheap, lack of vTuner account setup, priced above the Squeezebox Touch
TEAC WAP-8600 I’d like to thank Teac for loaning me this review unit. I can’t find a local seller that carries this model, but the price on Amazon.de is roughly €400, which currently translates to around $500 USD. BACKGROUND Younger readers might not know this, but Teac has some serious audio pedigree. Founded in Tokyo circa 1953, the company became well known in the 1960s for their expertise in audio tapes (reel-to-reel and later cassettes). For the next 40+ years Teac continued to have a big impact on the audio world – they started the Tascam pro-audio division, which basically created the entire concept of the “home studio”. They also launched Esoteric Audio, which for over 20 years has been on the cutting edge of high-end audio. I don’t blame people for thinking of them as primarily a company that made floppy disk drives, but there is actually quite a rich history there if you only look. OTHER MODELS Teac doesn’t seem to market heavily in the USA for their “Teac” branded audio gear. Esoteric of course gets plenty of exposure in the audiophile press, and Tascam is still a big player, but the rest of it is practically non-existent. The website for the consumer electronics branch shows a collection of CD players in a wide variety of styles and focus. There certainly doesn’t appear to be a guiding principal of design theme for much of it, and it can be hard to tell how one model compares to the rest. An exception is with the Teac Reference line. We see a definite family resemblance between them, with a clear split in personality between the solid black models of the past year or so and the latest silver offerings. The older black models had received favorable reviews in The Absolute Sound as well as at 6Moons.com, so maybe Teac is showing renewed interest in expanding their audio division presence in the USA. As far as streaming playback goes, you won’t find much on the USA website. Head over to the European site and you’ll find half a dozen choices, including the WAP-8600 which I’m reviewing here. This seems to be the top of the WAP line, with the others being variations of the same thing but with less features. There are other models that look interesting, such as the portable WAP-R8900 with built in speaker, or the WAP-AX100 and siblings which have built in ICEpower amplification. None of those meet the specific requirements that I’ve set as my focus for this particular series of reviews. There’s also the slick looking Reference 01 series which, though not qualifying for this specific article, looks very intriguing for HeadFi purposes in general. Further investigation may follow. DESIGN The WAP-8600 has two main components – the receiver unit and the control unit. The receiver appears to be similar across the WAP line, with other models having different remotes or lacking wireless connectivity. Teac also sells additional receivers which can be used as part of a multi-room system, all running from the same controller. The receiver could easily be confused with a standard wireless router: it’s a small black box with a Wi-Fi antenna and an array of cryptic blinking lights. Closer inspection reveals the differences though – a 1/8th inch headphone jack, Toslink digital output, RCA analog output, and several USB ports. The controller consists of a charging base and the actual remote itself. The base holds the remote in such a way that it is tilted for easy viewing. The remote itself is based around a 3.5 inch touchscreen display with just a few hardware buttons on top. I tried to open the receiver unit to get a peek at the innards. It should have been as easy as removing 4 screws on the bottom panel and taking the device apart. Unfortunately one of the screws has a special star pattern instead of a normal Philips head, no doubt to deter curious people like myself from messing around with the guts. This temporary setback would have been easily overcome if not for the fact that I have the unit on loan from Teac… so I don’t want to risk damaging it. For that reason, I don’t have specifics about the internal layout or specific parts used. With 3 of the 4 screws removed, I was able to move the cover just enough to make an opening and peek inside. While the outside of this unit might scream “router”, the inside looks decidedly “soundcard”. I see a bunch of purplish capacitors sprinkled liberally throughout, but I can’t read the brand. I also can’t tell what chips are used for the DAC or opamps. The manual lists signal-to-noise ratio as 95dB, which is something you might find on an entry-level CD player (the $349 Cambridge Topaz CD10 is listed as having the same SNR, though to be fair some of the Denon and NAD models are considerably higher). It’s a far cry from the 120+ range found in my reference equipment. Still, one vague number is not much to go by. BUILD QUALITY The receiver portion of the 8600 is simple plastic that isn’t much to look at. As I said, it’s just like a router, complete with wall-wart power. The good part is that it is small enough to fit in the places where routers often go – on top of a bookshelf, under a desk, behind a stack of other gear. The only reason you might need access to it is for inserting a USB drive or using it with headphones. The controller, powered by an identical wall-wart PSU, looks a bit more upscale than the receiver. Notice I used the word “looks”. Where the remote appears to have metal trim, it is really just painted plastic. The rest of it is a sort of textured plastic that has a bit of a non-slip coating. It works well enough but still feels somewhat cheap. The rear battery cover on my unit seems especially flimsy. On the plus side, the remote unit slides into the charging base very nicely (unlike my old Logitech Harmony 880 remote which I’m still upset about). I like how the charger positions the screen at a laid back angle so you can use it without needing to take it out. One negative thing that I can’t avoid mentioning: the controller uses a resistive touchscreen rather than capacitive. In case you are too young to remember resistive touchscreen technology – it was commonly used in early smartphones from HTC and others. Unlike capacitive screens which react to the human finger, resistive technology is based on pressure. Combined with the somewhat small size of the screen (it feels smaller than 3.5” to me, possibly due to being somewhat recessed into the panel), and it makes navigation difficult at times. Picking a main function is easy enough but choosing the name of an artist from a list required fingernail action. Eventually I started using a stylus from my old Samsung Epix smartphone - I did much better with the stylus. Resistive screens were not always bad, but in this case I do feel that it is a compromise. I don’t know the resolution of the screen but I’m guessing it is not very high – I’m guessing it is 320x240. It does not look as clear as my similarly sized LG Optimus screen, nor the larger Squeezebox Touch. There appears to be some dithering as well, like it can’t reproduce the full spectrum of colors. It looks decent enough from arms length, and it isn’t bad enough to render it unusable… but it won’t win any beauty contests. I also notice what appears to be a dynamic adjustment of contrast: the screen gets slightly darker or lighter, ostensibly based on lighting conditions in the room. The problem is that this happens seemingly at random. It isn’t as bad as it sounds, and the difference between light and dark is not all that noticeable. But I don’t have a good explanation as to why it happens. FEATURES The 8600 has all the basic functionality one would expect from a streaming audio player. It uses the vTuner portal for internet radio, it features Aupeo! streaming, it can access content via a UPnP connection to a computer or NAS, and it can play local content through one of the two USB ports. It has built in Wi-Fi as well as an Ethernet port for a hard-wired connection. A 1/8th inch headphone jack rounds out the connectivity options. It’s a pretty robust feature set overall, with all areas represented to some degree. The 8600 handles a good assortment of formats: AAC, OGG, MP3, WMA, WAV, and FLAC. It will accept FLAC files up to 24/96 resolution, but they get converted down to 16/48 prior to playback. This applies to both analog and digital outputs. While full resolution playback would be ideal, I do appreciate the fact that I don’t have to tiptoe around my collection, as was the case with the NAD C 446. On the plus side, gapless playback is supported. The 8600 is unique among the streamers in this roundup, in that the main unit does not have a display or any buttons – that is all handled by the remote unit. Users do have the option of using Teac’s myWAP app for iOS instead of the included remote. No specific app is available for Android, though any UPnP/DLNA control app will do the trick. I’ll show some pictures of the myWAP app in action – it’s a fairly straight forward program, adequate and useful but not amazing. The controller is based around the touchscreen but it does have some physical buttons on top – a power button and dual buttons for volume up and down. Volume adjustment is handled in the digital domain, and affects the analog and headphone outputs but not Toslink. This unit has another fairly unique feature in the ability to record internet radio stations. It won’t work with Aupeo! but any standard internet radio is fine. I didn’t use this function but I could see it coming in handy for fans of talk radio. SETUP Getting the 8600 to work in my system was fairly straight forward. Through the controller, I simply entered my passkey for the network, and I was all set. I do wish it used a QWERTY keyboard layout instead of alphabetical. Insert a USB drive and the 8600 will automatically scan for files. It takes a while but only has to be done once. The 8600 worked perfectly with my 500GB portable hard drive without an external power connection. One curious aspect was how to configure vTuner and Aupeo! with customized accounts. Both will work straight from the box in generic form; vTuner will allow you to browse by categories such as genre or location, and Aupeo! will give you 128k steaming quality. But I couldn’t figure out how to register either of them to get a more personal experience. The manual was no help either. Eventually I discovered that the myWAP application allowed me to enter a name and password for Aupeo!, which didn’t seem possible from the standard controller. I’m still working on getting registered with vTuner so I can build a list of favorite stations. This seems like it could have been implemented better. USE The 8600 is very easy to use. Upon startup you are presented with a main screen asking what function you’d like to play: USB, Internet Radio, or Audio Server. Choosing one of those will lead you to further options which apply to that function. This is best illustrated by pictures. The “now playing” screen looks very similar no matter what source is being played. I like the fact that it always displays the bit rate and sample rate, though I do miss seeing the compression format. You get album title, track title, and artist information when playing your own music or Aupeo! stations. Internet radio isn’t as informative, though it varies from station to station. The now playing screen does show album art, though I had some difficulty getting it to display consistently. I’m guessing there is some maximum resolution corresponding to the low-res of the display itself. This wouldn’t be a huge deal if the spot remained blank or had some reasonable logo indicating that no album art is available (like the way it is done on the Squeezebox Touch). The problem is that Teac uses a terrible stock photo whenever the album art won’t work – which is quite often. To make matters even worse – after a short period of inactivity, the player switches to a different screen, with larger album art and less details. This is great for a real album cover, but terrible for the stock photo. Scroll down to my pictures to see just how bad this looks. Thankfully most internet radio stations have their own art, as does Aupeo!. The unit was reasonably quick during normal use – navigating through folders, skipping ahead to a new track, loading a new radio station, all was fairly smooth. Volume adjustments had a few seconds of lag, to the point where I wasn’t sure if my button push had registered. But this is one of the only units to have remote volume adjustment, so I shouldn’t complain. The myWAP app was a nice upgrade over the stock remote – not so much for the features, but rather for the fact that it is being used on an iDevice with a better screen. I use an iPad for it and find it much easier to navigate through artists or stations. I’ve also used other programs such as the free iMediaControl, and they all recognized and controlled the 8600 without issue. Main page Selecting USB Initial file scan Navigating the drive Tagging is key with large collections, as with any device This is the stock photo they use when album art won't display.... I expected the lovely Marta Gomez and got this guy instead This is what it looks like when album art works Larger view of proper album art Internet radio portal The usual vTuner options Finding a station Playing a station Aupeo! station Notice the "love/hate" buttons for rating this song SOUND QUALITY I mentioned before that the 8600 shares a similar appearance (internally) with a good quality soundcard. Continuing that trend, it also has a light green 1/8th inch headphone jack, similar to many soundcards. I don’t know anything about the internal design but it’s a safe bet to assume we are dealing with opamps and perhaps an integrated headphone driver chip. Keeping that in mind, the 8600 actually sounds pretty decent. It reminds me a lot of the Squeezebox Touch, which I also found surprisingly good through the headphone and analog outputs. There is plenty of room for improvement but it could also be much worse. Starting with the headphone out: there isn’t a ton of power here. You can forget about driving an HE-6 or even an LCD-2 with any amount of authority. But you knew that already. For somewhat modest loads such as Grado, Audio Technica, Ultrasone, and most IEMs, the Teac sounds pretty darn good. It has a nice even tone, not too warm and not too cold, with a reasonable transparency that allows details to shine through. It isn’t the most refined amp in the world – Grados and Audio Technicas could sound a bit shouty or harsh (as they tend to do) on certain material, and busy passages sometimes came across as congested. It also didn’t sound great with 300 ohm Sennheisers, lacking the proper drive to control their low frequency response. Still, considering my expectations when I saw the green mini-jack, I’m fairly impressed. It actually sounded quite good with the majority of my custom IEMs, easily on the level of a good soundcard from Asus or Creative. The analog outputs are of similar quality, but obviously don’t have the same issues with drive power. They are fairly clear and neutral, with a moderate amount of detail and a good overall balance. Once again I’m reminded of the Squeezebox Touch. Neither will blow you away in terms of absolute sound, but both may surprise you compared to what you would expect from such a small box. This device would fit right in with such gear as the Matrix M-Stage and AKG K701. The term “mid-fi” comes to mind, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way at all. The sound is noticeably better than the Grace Tuner, roughly on par with the Squeezebox Touch, but not on the same level as the NAD C 446. If I had to choose between them, I think the Squeezebox is ever-so-slightly better than the Teac, but the differences are negligible. The 8600 has an optical output, so it can be upgraded with an external DAC. When I tried some low priced options like the Hot Audio DAC Wow, I got just a modest improvement over the analog outputs. When I moved up to a nicer DAC such as the Yulong D100, I noticed a larger improvement. This means that the 8600 won’t automatically be the weakest link in a system until it gets built up to a higher level. Once there, a user could add a nice DAC and be all set. I did notice that the 8600 sounding better in situations where the DAC has good jitter reduction capabilities. A good test of this is the Matrix Cube DAC with defeatable asynchronous sample rate conversion. The ASRC process helps reduce jitter significantly and it did sound much better when activated. Turning it off resulted in relatively blurred transients, a collapsed soundstage, and less overall realism. If I use a high end, low jitter CD transport like my Marantz SA-1, the ASRC switch is basically imperceptible. What that tells me is that the 8600 has somewhat high jitter on the digital output. Most decent DACs these days have at least some type of jitter reduction capabilities so this is less problematic than it would have been in the past. I’ve noticed similar results with lots of CD transports, even some from “big name” audio companies. Considering the price and target market of this unit, I don’t think it will likely be used in a high end system where this will be a major drawback. I was curious about the mandatory downconversion process when playing hi-res material. Listening to 24-bit/96kHz tracks and having them drop down to 16/48, then switching to the overall similar sounding Squeezebox Touch (which handles 24/96 tracks sans reduction), I did seem to perceive a small decrease in quality. But it was far from being drastic, and I may not have even noticed if I didn’t know what to listen for. I suspect that the resolving capabilities of the 8600 are just not high enough to make this a big issue. In any case, I’ll gladly take handicapped hi-res playback over none at all. CONCLUSION The Teac WAP-8600 is an interesting device. It looks like a wireless router on the outside and a soundcard on the inside, which is basically how it performs (and I mean that in the best possible way). The sound is good enough to use in most real-world systems, and it offers a nice mix of features for the price. In many respects is a viable alternative to the Squeezebox Touch - for someone who prefers UPnP over Squeezeserver, or just wants a stealthy component that they can hide away rather than displaying on their shelf, the Teac might be a better fit. My biggest issue is with the controller unit – it looks like a remnant of the last decade, with its low resolution and resistive touch panel. It is not totally unusable, and it does get the job done, but it isn’t pretty or fun to use. The myWAP application for iPhone/iPad is a good alternative, but not everyone wants to use their iDevice as a remote. Other software can be used for Android or iOS and that works quite well, but the point remains – these are all ways to get around the flawed stock controller. If your tendency is to select an album and play it through then it won’t be so bad. But if you are more the “hands on” type then it is likely to frustrate. Why would a high-tech company like Teac use such an outdated design? Searching for an explanation, I did a little more research. The WAP-8600 is an upgrade of the older WAP-8500. That model used the same controller unit and was released in 2008 or possibly 2007. If you figure it took a little time for Teac to design and release it, then it seems likely that the controller unit was created 5-7 years ago - in a time where resistive touch panel devices were much more common. That helps explain it but doesn’t necessarily excuse the fact that it is still in use. Aside from that, the WAP-8600 is a quality device. I would recommend it, with reservations, if the price was right. But since it sells for roughly double the price of the Squeezebox Touch, I’m not sure exactly who Teac is marketing this to. Or maybe it is just at the end of its life cycle – Teac has a new streaming box, the MP-H01, due out shortly. It does away with the controller aspect, instead relying purely on Android or iOS devices as remote. It features Airplay and DLNA compatibility. It looks very attractive externally, and all signs point to it being far superior to the WAP-8600. I’ve seen various prices translating to roughly $300-350 which seems very reasonable to me. If someone is interested in a streaming device and likes the idea of buying Teac, I’d suggest waiting for the new MP-H01 to become available.