Concluding the countdown of my Top 10 favourite audiophile moments of 2014. You can find spots 10 through 6 here.
5. AudioQuest Ethernet cables
Easily the most controversial topic I’ve touched on this year. I used not to review cables at all but I’ve relaxed that policy for when special circumstances present, particularly if accusations of ‘snake-oil’ sit just around the corner. I’ll leave you to decide if that’s trolling or not. Sometimes I like the challenge of the debate and sometimes I just wish those who would claim that what I’ve heard simply isn’t possible would just go listen for themselves. If you don’t hear it, then by all means run at me, but please, listen first. At $25 for the Pearl accessibility shouldn’t be an issue.
I’ve heard several AudioQuest Ethernet cables in numerous systems during 2014. An audible difference was heard by all present on each occasion,. This was as true for the Squeezebox Touch at home as it was for a multi-thou MSB setup at a pal’s place in Melbourne. Then there were the show demos in Munich and Denver. Am I hearing things all the time, all over the world? Not a chance. My coverage of the Pearl, Carbon and Vodka has one more article left in it, before which I hope to plug the guys at AudioQuest for greater technical information on what’s going on and why their cables sound superior to the Blue Jeans equivalent that ships with a measurement certificate confirming its status as being within spec.
The Japanese take seem to take audio far more seriously than any other nation that I’ve visited to date. High-end two channel gear is positively bountiful in the big department stores: Bic Camera and Yodobashi Camera. You would not believe the range of gear that the Japanese have access to. I can’t even begin to tell you how much incredible gear awaits visitors to Dynamic Audio in Akihabara – that place is six floors of some of the finest audio gear on the planet. Actually, not some of it, but ALL of it!
What about headphone? A two minute stroll from Dynamic Audio is e-earphone. Their store is dedicated entirely to headphone listening and even with it being tucked away on the 5th floor in an anonymous, side-street building, business is booming. So much so that a few months back e-earphone opened a second store that sells – get this – only custom IEMs. Like I said, the Japanese are serious audio connoisseurs.
And nowhere is their passion for headphone listening more apparent than at the bi-annual headphone festival put on the by the other big Tokyo headphone store, Fujiya-Avic. Running each Spring and Autumn at the Nakano Sun Plaza, the headphone festival is extremely well attended. I noted a demographic some 10-15 years younger than that of a typical US regional show. And the Japanese aren’t afraid to carry multi-box headphone listening rigs and in numerous cases calling them portable would be a stretch.
I’m a big fan of simplicity – a single device and that’s it. Call me fussy or precious if you like but if it doesn’t fit comfortably in a front jeans pocket, it’s a no go. Perhaps my attitude is more aligned with Western head-fiers but if you want to get a flavour of what’s possible or what’ll be arriving in the USA, Europe or Oceania down the line, Tokyo is the number one place to go.
3. Pono player
Talking of singularity with portable audio, no greater DAP-induced wow arrived in my life this year than Neil Young’s PonoPlayer. An even greater achievement when you consider this is also the year that gave us sumptuous second-generation Astell&Kern players and the cloud-connected Sony NWZ-ZX1.
Putting aside doubts about mainstream acceptance, this is the finest sounding portable player I’ve heard to date. Maybe it’s because the man behind the circuit, Ayre Acoustics’ Charles Hansen, has been designing amplifiers for over twenty years. Hansen designed the audio circuitry. Perhaps his fully discrete (no op-amps!), zero feedback take on I/V conversion and output buffering is why the PonoPlayer sounds so nicely balanced.
Since my review was published on Christmas Day, Hansen and I have bounced several emails back and forth. He’s somewhat determined that I let readers know about its balance output mode – connect one pair of headphones to each of the two 3.5mm output sockets and bingo, you’re up and running with 4x the single-ended power output. That’s good news for owners of higher-end cans.
Hansen is also at pains to point out that the output impedance issue is a non-issue: “Specifications have zero, nothing, nada, zip to do with sound quality. That is why neither Ayre, nor Pono, nor (get this!) Bose publishes any specification for any of our products except for the ones that matter”, he says. The 5 Ohm output impedance figure was apparently “erroneously leaked out by an unknowing intern” and that “The production unit are significantly lower, but I refuse to say how much lower”.
My advice with the PonoPlayer, as with everything else detailed here: suck it and see. For US$399 I doubt you’ll come away unimpressed with its sound quality, particularly against the backdrop of the AK100 II’s asking price.
2. Xiaomi Piston 2
An IEM one of China’s biggest companies – and the world’s 3rd largest smartphone distributor – could easily be dismissed as a throwaway consideration. Made for use with Android phones, its remote control is fully functional with a Samsung Galaxy S5. That in itself would be newsworthy in a world dominated by iOS-centric in-line remotes but the Piston 2’s fairly nondescript aesthetics give up few clues as to the sonic satisfaction that awaits anyone prepared to give them a go.
Unpacking them for the first time it’d be easy to conclude that all the money has gone into the packaging; popping open the plastic box reveals a rubber mould that houses the earphones themselves, beneath which sits a selection of tips to (hopefully) meet most ear canal sizes.
The earpiece is cut as a single piece of aluminium and houses a beryllium alloy driver. Despite being rear-vented there’s very little sound leakage to speak of. The cable, Kevlar sheathed below the Y-split and PTE above, shows very few signs of microphony. The Piston 2 are just as suitable for a run around the block as they are the office or the bus.
In the context of their asking price, the sound quality is outstanding: nicely judged tonality without glare or dryness up top, shades of wet-warmth and a plump bottom end. The Piston 2 scale well too: hooking them into the Chord Hugo sees them dig even further into the lower frequency for a fuller, weightier presentation. What more could you ask for at $30?
In 2014, I listened to music through the Xiaomi Piston 2 more than any other transducer. I’ve taken them almost everywhere: to the gym, to work and to the pub. I don’t fret about losing them (as I would the custom Ultimate Ears) and I don’t worry about damaging them each time I shove them into a pocket. I think I even ran them through the washing machine in September and they survived just fine. Like a cockroach, they’re hard to destroy.
A couple of non-audiophile mates have dropped their own cash on the Xiaomi IEMs on my recommendation and have come away suitable wow-d. These are earphones to kickstart an audio journey, to move you a step up from the bottom rung of stock earbuds, proving that you don’t have to spend a great deal of money to get better sound. Grab your own pair from eBay.
A lot of audiophiles – Neil Young included – would have you believe that hi-res is where it’s at and that CD-quality audio is yesterday’s news. Even if we humour the marketing spiel that high-resolution audio sounds better than its Redbook counterpart, the corresponding of catalogue is vanishingly small and it’s expensive to own.
We must steel ourselves against seeing hi-res as anything other than bleeding edge. It’s a display of what’s possible for those who care to take things to the limit but it’s far from mainstream-ready. If the music isn’t there, interest soon fades. Meridian’s MQA hi-res encoding origami threatens hi-res streaming application. That’s exciting because streaming is how the majority of folk access music nowadays. Downloads are on the decline.
Regular readers will know that I don’t listen to a lot of hi-res audio when conducting reviews. Why not? The number of CD-rips that comprise my audio library dwarfs the hi-res content. Of the releases I do own, some sound great – the 24-bit/96kHz Pono version of Beck’s Mutations is just sublime – whilst others are rendered redundant by less than stellar mastering – I’m looking at you The Hold Steady.
Try this on for size: think of your top 10 favourite albums of 2014 and then see if you can get them from HDTracks, Qobuz or Neil Young’s PonoMusic store. You’d probably be lucky to score more than one or two. Now imagine that you could score all ten. How much is that going to cost you? 10 x $20 per album = $200. Yikes, that’s a lot of dough for something intangible.
And there’s the rub: $200 would buy you almost a year’s worth of a Tidal HiFi subscription – a streaming service that delivers audio in CD quality. It’s for those who wanna feed their ears something more nourishing than McSpotify or Beats King.
Neil Young tried to kickstart an audiophile revolution with Pono but his idealism, that hi-res is the be-all and end-all, will ultimately alienate your average Joe. Joe doesn’t necessarily have the gear to appreciate its (alleged!) more nuanced delivery and he certainly doesn’t like the idea of having to Pono up the cash for his favourite albums yet again.
Tidal gives back to US and UK-based listeners all that was eroded through the slow march toward a de facto lossy standard. This streaming service returns us to what we enjoyed so much throughout the 1990s: CD quality audio. And it does so for US$20/month. At over 25 million songs Tidal’s catalogue goes deep enough that I have to try very hard to trip it up. You can’t say that about HDTracks or PonoMusic.
And Tidal provides better sound quality without forcing users to take a hit on convenience. The interface isn’t as slick as Spotify but it’s far from unusable. You can listen via Google Chrome on ANY computer or use one of the bespoke apps that exist for Windows, OS X, iOS and Android. So far, so standard. But the Tidal guys aren’t stopping there. The Norwegians have already locked down integration with all manner of devices: Sonos, LINN, Bluesound, Auralic, Mirage and Squeezebox. The latter is how I choose to listen. A detailing of the ICKstream setup procedure can be read here.
So my number one pick of 2014 goes to a service and not a product because it has brought better sound to more people than anything else this year. That’s a revolution done right.
See you again in 2015!