Devolo MicroLink dLAN Audio Starter Kit review
If you want to liberate your digital music, but don’t have either the inclination or funds to invest in something like the Sonos system, there are other options. The dLAN Audio from Devolo is a much simpler device, using the mains electricity wiring in your house as a conduit to pipe your music over a network. Powerline networking isn’t a new idea, but despite some inherent advantages over wireless networking – ease of use and greater security for starters – it’s been slow to take off in the consumer market.
The Starter Kit comprises a dLAN Ethernet unit and a dLAN Audio device, but you can add as many of either as you like (costing £41 and £80 each respectively) to create a fully functional wired network. Compared to the occasional frustration of wireless networks, installation is refreshingly simple. Plug one end of an Ethernet cable into your PC or router and the other end into the dLAN Ethernet unit, which is plugged into a power socket. Then, plug the dLAN Audio in wherever you want the music – anywhere in the building within a 200m range. A software utility on the host PC then identifies the initial unit, asks you to assign an encryption password and lets you add other Ethernet or Audio adaptors.
Once that’s done, install the plug-ins for Windows Media Player or WinAmp, and the next time you start up either of those apps the audio is automatically transcoded to 192Kb/sec MP3 and streamed over the powerline to the audio outputs of the dLAN Audio. These take the form of RCA coaxial sockets and are joined by a pair of input jacks and, surprisingly, coaxial S/PDIF digital input and output, as well as 3.5mm microphone and speaker jacks on the side of the unit.
You can control and configure each dLAN Audio device by IP address over the network via an integrated web interface. Each unit has four available channels; these can be assigned to a separate streaming server or Internet radio station and are switchable via a button on the unit. You’ll need to get your hands dirty with the streaming URLs, as no presets are provided, but it works smoothly once up and running. The unit can also be set into recording mode, allowing you to stream audio from a hi-fi or MP3 player to any extra dLAN Audio devices on the network.
In use, the system performed without fuss. We had no complaints about sound quality, and the Quality of Service (QoS) protocol ensures there’s no interruption when network activity peaks. But there are other frustrations, the biggest being the delay between source and output audio: two rooms playing the same music within earshot will echo annoyingly. You can switch the delay between low, medium and high, but these aren’t set values, so can’t be tweaked to ensure synchronicity. Some people will also object to the bulky blue boxes sticking out of their walls, especially as they incessantly flash bright green LEDs.
The dLAN Audio isn’t as inherently flexible as streaming systems like Roku’s SoundBridge either. You need to go back to the server to change what’s being played and, unless you’re running multiple PCs or use Internet radio, you can only listen to one stream of music over the network at a time. But while this would be an issue if that was it, the dLAN Audio also forms the backbone of a powerline network, which can be expanded to suit your needs. Seen in this context, it’s reasonably good value. However, music enthusiasts will likely find the simplicity limiting.