If you read my three part take on the NAD D 3020 you’ll know that I dug the amplification section, that I thought the DAC was kinda so-so and that I was bowled over by the convenience of its aptX Bluetooth capability. Audiophile-ish sound for anyone entering the room with smartphone or laptop.
Then I got to thinking: what if you already had an amplifier that you liked but wanted to roll in your own D 3020 aptX Bluetooth streaming experience?
Case in point: the Clones 25i is a better sounding amplifier than the NAD D 3020. That’s just the way it is. But the Clones doesn’t pack-a-DAC or Bluetooth streaming. I deployed the most excellent Resonessence Labs Herus to bring in the tidiest, most out-of-sight D/A conversion that sounded (for the money) outta sight! Discretion and simplicity is where the Herus has the edge over the recently reviewed ALO Island.
Discovery. I am not an audiophile all of the time in that I don’t demand the best sound possible (TM) 24 x 7. Sometimes I find myself ensconced in Spotify’s discovery mode or a friend drops by and he wants to hit me with a song from YouTube. High-quality streaming on Spotify is far from unlistenable, even when it’s streamed via Bluetooth. It’s not as nourishing as FLAC’s unfurled from my Antidpodes DS music server (review here) but that, by it’s very nature, only hosts music I already know. Pandora Radio is great for when you want to create a soundtrack for social gatherings or, again, discover new music. I’m an album guy whilst most of my friends are song by song randomizers. I pity them but what can I do? Besides, no-one but me wants to hear a concept album about a 70s German terrorist organisation.
Let us not also forget that the monthly cost of an all-you-can-eat-with-no-ads account on Spotify will run you just over half the price of ONE lossless download from Boomkat or Bleep. Little wonder that streaming music services are on the up and up and up.
However, I have my limits. I can’t abide listening to music via my Google Nexus 5’s pitiful speakers or those found on the Macbook Air on which I type these words.
I needed a dongle/box that could bridge smartphone and/or laptop to amplifier…
Enter the Arcam rBlink (AU$299/US$249). It’s a DAC and DDC that handles the following digital audio codecs: aptX, standard Bluetooth (SBC) and AAC. To tap the higher bitrating (384kb/s), better quality aptX mode you’ll need a compliant source device, otherwise the connection reverts to Standard Bluetooth (SBC).
A list of tablets that currently support the aptX codec can be found here. My workaday smartphone – Google’s Nexus 5 – doesn’t run with aptX. Neither does Google’s Nexus 7 tablet. Users of each must settle for SBC.
Apple devices don’t do aptX. They stream AAC instead. Thankfully, AAC is natively supported by the rBlink and right out of the gate it sounds a good deal better than standard Bluetooth. Odd that Apple seems to be ahead of the curve on this, especially considering Apple already have a clear path to wireless streaming with AirPlay.
Odder still that neither Google’s flagship phone nor tablet support aptX, especially when Google has positioned them both as torch bearers for its Android OS. If you think Android phone manufacturers are all over aptX, think again. In reality, some are, most aren’t. It would seem that aptX-compliance is heavily dependent on a hardware manufacturer’s priorities. I urge you to investigate the always growing list of aptX-compatible devices at the bottom of the aptX Wikipedia page here.
Fingerbobs. Pairing the aforementioned Macbook Air with the rBlink is easy enough. A slightly recessed push button announces the rBlink to nearby devices. One long push and the rBlink’s LED flashes purple. It ceases flashing once a device is paired and moves to blue when it registers an audio stream. No pairing will have you seeing red.
I’ve read complaints elsewhere that the push button requires biro or paperclip intervention. I don’t think think this niggle is justified, at least not with my review unit. Despite what’s indicated in the user manual I had no troubles depressing the ‘pair’ button with my forefinger. That said, you gotta wonder what on earth possessed Arcam to locate the SMPS’s 6V DC socket on the front of the unit, right next to the aforementioned push button? Cables emanating from both ends of the rBlink makes for some awkward in-rack placement. This might be a deal breaker for those more obsessed with neatness. I positioned the Arcam rBlink sideways on.
Once paired, ANY audio from my Apple laptop could be sent without wires, over AAC to the Arcam device. That meant a diet of YouTube videos, Pandora radio and Spotify could be enjoyed with the aforementioned Clones 25i integrated driving a pair of GoldenEar Aon 3 standmounts. Not all audio has to be first streamed from cloud – the Spotify client allows for in-app downloads no matter the operating system. Added to the test mix were a few songs hosted in iTunes and a smattering of (downloaded) Doug Stanhope podcasts.
DAC. The rBLINK’s internal digital-to-analogue conversion centers around a Texas Instruments PCM5102. As an entry-level DAC there’s little to complain about at its asking price. Its overall presentation leans a little towards softness without ever overtly communicating a sense of detail obfuscation; or rather, that’s the sound of an AAC stream decoded by the Arcam. Taken as a package like that the rBlink meets price point expectations but it doesn’t exceed them. Good enough to forget about the pitfalls of dual compression. Remember, streaming Spotify or Pandora via the Arcam device is lossy encoding on top of lossy streaming. For talkshow hosted radio you really don’t need anything more. It’s only when I switched over to music that I noticed some ‘warbling’ at the edges (read: diminished musical composure), exacerbated by the occasional hint of aluminium on transients. Could this be attributed to the more basic nature of the rBLINK’s internal D/A conversion, limitations of the streaming codec or the cloud compression? I suspect a combination of all three with the majority of blame levelled at aptX/AAC/Bluetooth streaming. It’s good but it’s not perfect.
In confirming the superiority of AAC over vanilla Bluetooth, I Spotified new releases from Future Islands and Beck to the rBlink via the Google Nexus 5, Macbook Air and iPad 2. The AAC-equipped Apple device(s) sounded more tonally convincing and less compressed than the Nexus 5. However, the Air’s pairing was troubled by occasional CPU perturbations that would result in playback stutter. This was clearly a Macbook issue and not an Arcam issue as no such glitches presented with the Google smartphone’s standard Bluetooth connection or with the aptX-dealing iPad 2.
DDC. Arcam have also included an S/PDIF coaxial output that allows connection to your existing DAC. This is where I see the Arcam conceding a little to audiophiles who already own a more accomplished D/A converter and don’t want to make the downward step with the hardware itself. In using the rBLINK as DDC is how I heard its in-built decoder fall short of the Schiit Bifrost Uber’s spaciousness and depth but, ironically, step forward as its ideal streaming partner.
Yes, musical minutae is exposed with cleaner resolve when feeding the rBLINK’s coaxial output into the likes of the Metrum Hex or AURALiC Vega but these decoders also reveal more shortcomings in the sound quality of upstream streamers. I found it better to stick to a DAC that can lend some tenderness to those splashy cymbal strikes and sawtooth guitar shreds – that’s the Bifrost Uber. Know that I also prefer Spotify direct-fed via USB into the Schiit box…and although that’s missing the point of this unit prospective purchasers should know that AAC Apple table streaming isn’t as fundamentally engaging as wired PC connection. On the other hand, I prefer the little rBlink to direct-wiring either the Google Nexus 5 or iPad 2 direct into the back of the Clones 25i integrated.
Back to Mac. I reverted to Airplay streaming from laptop to DAC, feeding the digital output of an older Airport Express (over Toslink) to the Metrum Hex DAC. Airplay streams audio without loss up to 16bit/48kHz. I’d suggest you do similaWM8805rly if – and only if – certain, very specific conditions are met: 1) your existing phone, table or laptop is an Apple device, 2) your existing DAC has optical input and 3) you don’t need the rBlink’s own D/A conversion. I enjoyed the latter more than I did the sound quality served up by the DAC found inside the Airport Express.
But like I said: I’m not an audiophile all of the time. The Arcam rBLINK is a neat solution for wirelessly bridging your smartphone/laptop and hi-fi rig. It’s for when sound quality isn’t the overriding concern and Airplay isn’t an option. It’s for when you just want to listen to the radio or pick through some new releases on Spotify. Or for when your mate stops by for drinks enthusing about how “you gotta hear this song, man”; Bluetooth pairing means there’s no need to handover your home wi-fi password. Pretty much every smartphone does Bluetooth nowadays and a few even deliver aptX or AAC (as used here). Most importantly, your pal can hear HIS song on YOUR rig. So what if it’s from YouTube or MOG. The rBLINK brings that fella one step closer to caring about good sound. Arcam show you how you can have it both ways: your existing DAC for when quality rides highest and the Arcam rBlink for when you just want convenience.
- Metrum Hex
- Schiit Bifrost Uber w/ Gen 2 USB
- Schiit Asgard 2
- Mr Speakers Alpha Dog
- Clones Audio 25i
- REDGUM RGi60
- GoldenEar Aon 3
- Atohm GT1.0
- Beck – Morning Phase (2014)
- Future Islands – Singles (2014)
- Peter Gabriel – Shaking The Tree: 16 Golden Greats (1990)
- Bob Dylan – Bringing It All Back Home (1965)