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On the road with Qobuz and Astell&Kern, Sony, smartphones

  • munich_2014Before we get to the main course, an entree. The Sony NWZ-ZX1 continues to impress with its sleek aesthetics and crisp, clean delivery of music. John Franks of Chord Electronics had one feeding a Hugo – the current piece de resistence of portable DAC/head-amps. It’s small enough – by Japanese standards at least – to go where you go (hence ‘Hugo’) and its sound is of sufficient calibre that it could front a serious two-channel rig back at home whereas the Sony running solo might come across as too lean in some systems. The Hugo’s magic recipe sits on two Spartan Xilinx Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs). The first FPGA handles the USB input and the second handles the decoding. As Franks explained, the software code that opens and closes gates on each FPGA is just as important as the Spartan chip itself – a sentiment echoed by Paul McGowan of PS Audio whose new Direct Stream DAC sports similar technologies.


    However, the sound quality is not all that I dig about Sony’s new generation Walkman. Instead of coding their own DAP operating system, Sony have dropped in a customized version of Android. Apart from an obvious additional row of navigation buttons along the bottom of the home screen that leads to music navigation, the ZX-1 looks like an everyday Android smartphone. Phone functionality is fully absent but Wi-Fi remains. And Wi-Fi on Android on a portable player opens the door to native apps from the Google Play Store. Come on in Spotify, have a seat Qobuz. These streaming services already allow users to download music direct to a locker inside the app and on the Sony player it runs no differently. That’s one up and over the Astell&Kern DAPs where streaming services don’t get a look in.

    Plat du jour. But hold ya horses because Astell&Kern launched second generation AK100 (US$TBA*) and AK120 (US$TBA*) this weekend in Munich. And guess what? Not only do they more closely approximate the Sony NWZ-ZX1’s aluminium, phone-size shell, they also run a customised version of Android that plays out on a full-height screen: 3.31″ WVGA (480px  x 800px). Notice the microSD slot on the side? That’ll give you up to an additional 128Gb of storage. D/A conversion has been moved from Wolfson to Cirrus Logic (in line with the AK240) but DSD dudes should note that the AK100 II and AK120 II won’t decode it natively – a conversion to PCM comes first. A balanced headphone output and Wi-Fi have also been added to each new unit’s feature set. Using the same Android-based operating system introduced with the AK240 keeps the user interface consistent across the newer models.


    Spotify now has 40 million users worldwide and whilst a lossless streaming subscription (200Euros per year) with Qobuz isn’t exactly new news, it’ll likely force Spotify’s hand to follow suit. What is news is that Qobuz intends to launch in Italy, Spain, Scandinavia and the USA ‘soon’.

    As I opined in a second piece on Pono, lossless streaming is FAR more likely to grab the average listener by the lapels than downloads from HDTracks. That the Qobuz booth enjoyed more buzz at the 2014 Munich show than their HDTracking neighbour underscores what a driving force this French company has become in recent months. On top of lossless streaming Qobuz also offers hi-res downloads and talk of hi-res streaming was never far away. Business Development Manager Jessica Martinez told me that the bandwidth offered by 4G networks would comfortably support on-the-fly hi-res streams.

    What kept the Qo-buzzing on the floor at the M.O.C. was news that the folks at iRiver (who steer the good ship Astell&Kern) are working behind the scenes with Qobuz in order to bring Wi-Fi downloads and (evenutally) streaming to their hardware devices – no smartphone or Sony NWZ-ZX1 required. We can expect to see full integration of the French music service on the AK240 and second generation AK100/120 in the very near future. I’m talking weeks, not months. At their booth, Astell&Kern demoed beta AK240 firmware that had it snaffling hi-res content direct from Qobuz over Wi-Fi. Apparently lossless streaming is also just around the corner – I’ll have more details on this once I’ve sat down with the USA arm of Astell&Kern in a more formal setting at T.H.E. Newport Beach Show next weekend.


    Qobuz integration won’t be coming to the first generation AK100 and AK120 players but neither are they yet marked as end of life. Production will continue, news of which will no doubt keep Michael Goodman smiling. His new Glove line of peripherals debuted in Tokyo two weeks ago with a DAC/head-amp exoskeleton for Gen 1 AK100/120 units that extracts digital audio over the DAP’s optical output and amplifies it with another Goodman-designed circuit. He’s already proven himself as one of the bigger brains in the portable space with the CEntrance H-Fi-M8 and the (also recently launched) Mini-M8, each of which handle USB and optical digital inputs.


    Goodman’s M8s and Gloves are a good examples of where lines blur again. With the explosion of such portable ampli-DACs in the headphone space, options now abound. You could opt to first run with a standalone DAP for which choices are now numerous: Sony, iBasso, FiiO, Pono, A&K, Geek Labs, Calyx…and then (later) attach an offboard amplifier which may or may not also supplant your DAP’s internal D/A conversion. The Sony and AK120/100 enjoy a significant performance lift from the Sony HPA-2 and ALO International+ respectively. The former stirs in more warmth and tonal richness, the latter abounds with better dynamics and separation. Know that the ALO device only handles digital decoding over USB (there’s no optical input) so sourcing audio from a less-than-stellar headphone output stage like a Google or Samsung phone will see you re-amplifying on a GIGO basis. If your line-out source is already good enough and you don’t need DAC, have a look at the Traveller from Lehmann Audio and the similarly iPod sized unit from Cypher Labs (about both of which more information will be forthcoming).


    However, of equal viability is strapping a second device to your existing smartphone, tapping its USB feed whilst making use of its already well-polished user interface and streaming app availability. Hi-res playback compatibility varies from phone to phone but if Redbook is good enough for you, the combinations of phone + external brick are numerous. Besides, at time of writing hi-res audio is more readily available as a download than a stream. Who knows for how long. David Chesky was touting some terrific-sounding Bob Marley in Munich on a Harmon/Kardon version of the HTC One, its internal DAC natively decoding the 24bit/192kHz HDTracks version.


    If you’ve a more ordinary smartphone, don’t sweat it. We’re now at a place where a mix n match approach can be deployed in order to reach audiophile-grade playback beyond the walls of your home. A listener starting with their existing smartphone (or Sony NWZ-ZX1) is kept in the loop with native streaming apps without him having to play wait-n-see for the same UI/functionality to be ported by Astell&Kern et al. Your average smartphone manufacturer or mobile OS developer satisfies a broader market than do independent DAP companies like iRiver. Android and iOS users already digging into Spotify and Qobuz will likely enjoy iterative improvements to native mobile apps more speedily than with via third parties like Astell&Kern where a lag with streaming audio software development is inevitable, if forthcoming at all.


    With smartphones calling the shots at the front end of the playback chain, the core appeal of the Chord Hugo and Cypher Labs Theorem 720 once again steps out; they offer D/A conversion and headphone amplification that’ll easily cut it with the SQ of independent DAP players. In many cases they’ll surpass them. Both the Chord and Cypher Labs best the AK120 for overall sound quality. The AK120 counters with pocket-sized portability.

    However, with USB, here be monsters. An iPhone’s USB output is more often than not a dead cert to play nice with the Hugo and Theorem 720 but compatibility remains a lottery on Android devices so it’s best to consult with the manufacturer before swiping the credit card. Google has yet to make USB audio a de facto standard in Android and not all of the manufacturer customisations roll a USB driver into the mix. The Google Nexus 5 is a no go but a Samsung Galaxy S3 plays nice. A half-assed compromise comes from USB Sound Player Pro (available from the Google Play Store). It rides into town with a USB driver pre-installed which will get you up and running with your phone’s USB digital output from within the confines of the app itself; it can output any locally stored content over USB. Want USB audio for Spotify and/or Qobuz as well? If your Android phone’s USB doesn’t already make with the ones and zeroes Cyanogenmod can assist. A search engine will take the more determined reader further.


    Owning music outright is set to slide away into a niche, much like owning cassette tapes or ashtrays. There’ll always be albums that you just have to buy, either on vinyl or as a hi-res download but renting access to a library of 18 million songs for the same price as two album downloads per month makes it more likely that streaming services will continue to steer the portable music listening experience for the majority for some time to come. Spotify now boasts 40 million users worldwide and who knows how long before it too offers lossless as a streaming option? Ditto Apple.

    And if you want to elevate your mobile streaming experience beyond the mundane, you’ll need opt for a USB ampli-DAC that’ll take you higher with smartphone-sourced tunes or drop cash on a DAP that integrates one or more of these streaming services into its operating system. Astell&Kern should be applauded for bridging the gap this month between Qobuz’ (lossless/hi-res) libraries and their own hardware devices. Sony don’t need to push so hard on the software front with users able to install native Android apps from the Google Play Store.


    Seeing Sony and Astell&Kern integrate streaming on their audiophile-targeted portable players casts some shade over the competition. It then has me asking myself which sounds better: the Gen 2 AK100 or the NWZ-ZX1? And then I see a stand-off between Cypher Labs Theorem-appended smartphone and a Gen 2 AK120. And what about the mother of all shakedowns, an AK240 vs. Chord Hugo + smartphone? Consumer choices give rise to more questions than couldn’t be answered by even the most committed, time-rich reviewer.

    As this is Munich Hi-end coverage wrapped in a theme, I’m here to merely provide a helicopter view whilst I continue to beat a path on the hi-fi show trail.

    Further information: Qobuz | Astell&Kern | Sony

    *Astell&Kern’s PR says that pricing on the AK100 II and AK120 II is yet to be formally announced, no matter what has been published elsewhere.

    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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