I could hear the hi-res audio siren call beckoning me from across the convention floor at CES this past January. I quickly made my way into the private demo room inside Sharp’s massive booth in the Central Hall of the LVCC. “I’ve got just the thing for you,” grinned David Fisher, Sharp’s senior manager for audio. Talk about a man who knows his audience. When I first feasted my eyes upon the Sharp SD-WH1000U wireless high resolution audio player, or WHRAP for short, I knew I had heeded wisely.
The offer was made to cue up a few of the usual demo tracks so I could see/hear the $5,000 WHRAP in action, but I spied the High Fidelity Pure Audio Blu-ray edition of Elton John’s seminal Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on a shelf below where the unit rested. Bingo! I asked to hear the 96/24 5.1 mix of the 11-minute opening track, Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding, and I marveled at the quickness of the WHRAP’s cue-up response and just how freakin’ biiiiig and enveloping the song’s immense ARP synthesizer intro, played by engineer David Hentschel, sounded.
But as we all know, demos can be tricky beasts under any trade-show conditions, so I had to find out more about the WHRAP for myself on my own home system turf. A few calls, er, emails later and a sizable WHRAP package was on its way directly from Japan for proper aural inspection. (Note to Marvel Studios — WHRAP would be one helluva name for a love interest for Groot in the next Guardians of the Galaxy movie.)
Out of the box
Whenever anybody asks me, “Do you work out?” my usual reply is, “Sure — if you count lifting, unboxing, and setting up bulky A/V gear a work out.” (OK, I’ve never actually said that to anyone out loud, but that’s my answer and I’m sticking to it.) The Sharp WHRAP arsenal arrived from Japan by way of a multi-tiered Halliburtonesque carrying case, and the FedEx guy who rang my doorbell looked a bit peeved after having to carry it up to the door like an airport skycap. (We’ve since become brothers in arms and legs after I began meeting him at the curb to assist with cumbersome speaker deliveries.)
Consumers who purchase Sharp’s WHRAP system won’t have to deal the Haliburtonesque case, of course – that’s just for reviewers. Still, the gear is heavy, and there are plenty of optional accessories, so plan on an involved unboxing experience.
The delineation of new details really showcases the WHRAP’s hi-res audio muscle.
In the case I found the WHRAP, two VR-WR100U Wireless Bridges ($999/each), WiSA, and boatloads of wire and connecting cables – contingencies for the fact that unless you own WiSA-compliant speakers, there’s going to be plenty of wire involved in your so-called Wireless High Resolution Audio system. And herein lies the problem: virtually no one owns WiSA-compliant speakers yet, because the technology is brand new and has only begun to get integrated into speakers.
For those not familiar, WiSA is a trade group based in San Francisco that promotes an across-the-board 7.1-channel wireless-speaker standard. WiSA says it operates in the “relatively unused” 5.2 to 5.8 GHz UNII radio frequency spectrum to transmit uncompressed 96/24 HD audio from 2-channel stereo to 7.1 surround, along with system configuration and calibration data. In order to have a fully wireless WiSA audio system, you need a WiSA source (the WHRAP is one of the first out there) and WiSA-compliant speakers with built-in amplification. Currently only Bang & Olufsen’s BeoLab 18 and Klipsch’s Reference Premiere series speakers are the only WiSA-compliant speakers on the market, but that is going to change very soon.
Features and design
For its $5,000 pricetag, the WHRAP purports to deliver uncompressed high-resolution 96-kHz/24-bit files wirelessly, whether via physical discs or virtual delivery — FLAC, WAV, DSD, home network storage device; you name it. On the video side, uncompressed Full HD (1080p) video is to be transmitted wirelessly via the Wireless HD (WiHD) standard and included adapters. Sharp’s philosophy is to try to eliminate cable as much as possible to avoid potential degradation in the signal chain.
While I did admire the WHRAP’s curved front-panel design and dual-layer insulated base (replete with spiked aluminum rubber feet!), to borrow a line from Howlin’ Wolf, I’m a back-panel man. And the back of the WHRAP has lots of goodies indeed — including stereo analog audio outputs both balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA), three-input/two-output HDMI, coaxial and optical S/PDIF digital outputs, a wired-Ethernet port, and a USB port (though I preferred using the USB port on the front; more on that in a bit).
To ensure at least one small forest was able to survive another change of seasons, Sharp provided the 143-page WHRAP operation manual as a PDF. WiSA, WiHD, Internet, and Video settings and connections were all properly diagrammed and if-then-elsed, and thus my overall setup time was uneventful.
Virtually no one owns WiSA-compliant speakers yet, because the technology is brand new and has only begun to get integrated.
I placed the WHRAP on a table just out of reach from my usual HTZ perch, my late-1950s Eames lounge chair — the very same one my late audiophile grandfather used — and plugged it into my power strip (the part of the deal that ain’t wireless). Next, I snapped the WiHD wireless-HD video transmitter onto the back of the unit, thus making HDMI and power connections a reality in the process. I put the diminutive yet quite essential WiHD receiver on an open spot on top of my gear rack.
I put the encyclopedia-sized Bridge on another table closer to my main gear rack, making sure it sat within the recommended 10-meter range for the WHRAP to wirelessly transmit hi-res audio signals to it via the WiSA interoperability standard.
My Pioneer VSX-1021-K 7.1-channel receiver and my source unit, Oppo’s almighty BDP-105 universal player, were ready to be deployed, as was my 7.1 speaker array: a pair of towering GoldenEar Triton Ones that serve as my fronts, a Paradigm CC v2 for my center channel, a Thiel SS1 SmartSub subwoofer for the low end, and a quartet of Thiel SCS4 bookshelf speakers as my rear channels.
Amplification was provided by a McIntosh MC207 multichannel amp, and The WiHD Bridges connected to the MC207’s L and R inputs with XLR cables. The not-so-wireless WHRAP itself was plugged into a power strip via cabling that was culled from the Sharp “suitcase.”
An onscreen menu guided me to recognize all of the channels in my system, and I did so with the proper reverence (read: clicks). But as much as I would have loved to have partaken in the full-on surround-sound WHRAP experience — which the WHRAP OSD was admirably searching for to connect with — I had to settle for stereo since I did not have WiSA-compliant speakers in my system.
I switched between using the Sharp AudioCentral Remote app on my iPhone (it’s also available for Android) and the handheld remote, which I found ergonomically pleasing enough to the degree that I wound up using it quite instinctively, especially when perusing menus to cue up various tracks and folders, depending on the source.
And when that blinking red light finally turned blue on the Bridge, it was Go time.
Once I had the system up and running, I was like a kid in an aural candy shop, pulling item after item off the physical and virtual shelves to see if the WHRAP could deliver the goods. Spoiler alert: It did. I brought out every configuration and format I had at my disposal: Blu-ray Audio. Hi-res audio files downloaded from HDtracks (FLAC) and Acoustic Sounds Super HiRez (DSD). And even a few regular ol’ CDs and DVDs, just for good measure.
It’s what I have to call the delineation of “new details” that really showcases the WHRAP’s hi-res audio muscle. Take Pharrell’s overly ubiquitous Happy, a song one tends to nod reflexively along to at this point in its shelf life, rather than actually listen to. But when I cued up the 44.1/24 FLAC version I’d downloaded from HDtracks, accessed via the USB I plugged into the unit’s front slot, the song came alive in different, and exciting, ways.
On the chorus, I continually heard how Pharrell carries the “g” sound at the end of the phrase “clap along” to the beginning of the first word of the next phrase “if you feel” so that it sounds like “clap along, gif you feel,” almost as if alongif had actually now become one hybrid elongated word — something I never noticed before. Pharrell’s clear enunciation of words at the ends of phrases and lines carried on throughout the remainder of the track. Yep, the WHRAP made me quite happy to hit the repeat button for a song I thought I’d grown tired of hearing.
Once I had the system up and running, I was like a kid in an aural candy shop.
Going one level up on the hi-res scale, I next played the 96/24 file of Rush’s Losing It, from 1982’s Signals, which I accessed from the library I’d loaded onto my Sony NWZ-A17 Hi-Res Audio Walkman (plugged into the WHRAP’s front port). I’d recently heard that song played live — for only the second time ever — on the band’s R40 Tour stop in Newark, New Jersey, and the studio version reaffirmed its subtle yet powerful feel. Ben Mink’s electric/synth violin lines caressed Geddy Lee’s measured vocal about a dancer’s desperation to stay at the top of her game. Mink’s violin wafted into the right channel and then over to the left during Alex Lifeson’s understated guitar solo (which itself kept to a hard left) before taking a furious center stage in the song’s final minute. If you think Rush music is unable to stir emotion, you need to check your heart muscles STAT (not to mention your ears).
On the video front, the Blu-ray of Peter Gabriel’s Back to Front: Live in London was simply stunning across the board. The picture was as crisp as ever on my 50-inch Panasonic plasma (yes, I still love plasma; deal with it), the deep blacks of the image seamless with the bezel during the quite moody Mercy Street, its full surround mix both dramatic and driven in all the right places.
And then I put in an SACD, Dire Straits’ 1985 digital-age audio benchmark Brothers in Arms, and hit a snag. Hmm. I took it out and put in another SACD, this time Genesis’ Foxtrot. Same deal. While the player recognized the SACDs and the menus with artist names, album titles, and tracks came up onscreen and the time counter for the songs I tried to play was incrementing, I got no sound. I grabbed the remote and went to the SACD Priority menu under Playback Settings and switched between the Multi-channel and Stereo options to see if that would help, but still got nothing. When I switched to the CD Mode on that menu, the Brothers in Arms CD layer played, but the onscreen menu turned generic with no artist name or song titles when it did so. I was clearly getting nothing for Money for Nothing.
Perplexed, I reached out to Sharp to see what was what, and one of their engineers in Japan gently reminded me: “The WiHD does not support SACD transmission, so no sound is appeared from the connected devices. The WiHD does not support ACP Packet, which is defined in the HDMI Specification to transmit the copy-protect information, so we can’t transmit the SACD contents via WiHD.” It’s something that’s indeed denoted in the manual as a limitation of WiHD, not the player, but I guess I got overeager since the SACD logo appears front and center atop the face of the WHRAP.
Considering the cumulative amazing listening and viewing sessions I’d been having with the WHRAP up to that point, it was a hiccup I could live with.
I was sad when I had to take the Sharp SD-WH1000U WHRAP gear out of my system and return all of it to the case for transport across the country for other ears to enjoy. I loved its flexibility and ease of transition from format to format, not to mention the top-shelf hi-res audio playback quality. The $5K price tag ($6K if you require the Wireless Bridge) may intimidate the faint of wallet, but the consistently high hi-res audio performance kept my ears tremendously satisfied. WHRAP it up, I’ll take it!
- Excellent overall hi-res audio performance
- WiSA is a wonderful thing
- Ditto WiHD (mostly)
- Seamless format transitions
- NNW — Not Necessarily Wireless
- Can’t play SACDs via WiHD
- $5K/$6K could be a deal-breaker