Just soothsayin’. The final quarter of this journo’s first Digital Audio Demystified presentation last week was dedicated to two mainstream streamers (mainstreamers!).
The first was the Sonos Connect, whose piece-o’-piss setup and integrated search – where results from streaming services and local storage are returned to the same screen – make for a user experience that niche audiophile manufacturers could (probably) never compete with. Only Roon comes close but it’s not a hardware streamer…yet.
As a digital audio transport, the Sonos Connect is far from perfect: its onboard D/A converter wouldn’t keep pace with current sub-$100 eBay offerings from the Pacific Rim and its coaxial output spills much of the internal’s electrical noise into the connected DAC such that treble glare can be heard (seen!) within the first few bars. That’s where the likes of Aurender and AURALiC have the edge.
But with electrical isolation inherent to toslink connectivity, EMI/RFI does not pass go, does not collect $200. And whilst the Sonos Connect’s optical output sounds considerably better than its coaxial neighbour, the Aurenders and AURALiCs of this world still maintain their sound qualitative edge. And not simply because the Sonos system’s PCM compatibility doesn’t stretch into hi-res territory. The Aries and N100H simply sound better as digital transports.
One way to haul the Sonos Connect into audiophile territory is to have its digital output reclocked and cleaned up by a third party device. For this, I use a Wyred4Sound Remedy: toslink in, coaxial out, up-sampled to 24bit/96kHz. Hi-res aside, the Sonos Connect now plays in the AURALiC and Aurender league whilst adding streaming services that will likely never natively come to the Chinese and South Korean rivals: Spotify, Pandora, Soundcloud, rdio. The list of services that can be hooked into Sonos is seriously impressive.
I closed my DAD presentation with this: do not underestimate the Apple TV (and not simply because of its Airplay functionality). As soon as Team Cupertino drop a native Apple Music app onto the Apple TV it suddenly becomes a bona fide cloud music streaming device. Lossy-encoded streams, yes, but streams nonetheless.
Today, Forbes reports via Buzzfeed that Apple plan to announced a hardware-refreshed Apple TV in September. Rumoured for the next generation model are a thinner chassis, faster processor, more RAM and a touchpad remote control. So far, so ordinary. Apart from the new remote control.
(*Deep inhale*) However, also rumoured to be coming down the pike are a dedicated app store and associated SDK. Not such a fanciful leap when you consider the Apple TV already runs a variant of iOS.
The implications for the digital audio world are heavy. With an SDK, Spotify can write an Apple TV app and add it to the associated app store…and bazingo, its multi-million user base now has the option to stream music from an Apple TV, complete with HDMI connection to an outboard display for extra-sociable wow. Then Pandora writes an app. Then Qobuz. Then Tidal. Almost overnight we have an Apple TV capable of streaming lossless audio from the cloud. Tell me that’s not exciting.
“Ah, but the Apple TV device only outputs over toslink,” I hear you say. That probably won’t be an issue for all but the most ardent audiophiles. (Which is probably you if you’re reading this). No worries: a S/PDIF re-clocker can step in to step things up. And that’s not just a game only for California’s Wyred4Sound. The 2015 Empirical Audio Synchro-Mesh is reportedly significantly improved over the version I reviewed for 6moons way back in 2012.
I still feel a little uncomfortable in prognosticating what may or may not happen in the world of Apple but if the new generation Apple TV does indeed come to fruition as rumoured, and even if it does double in price, we’re going to see some interesting new times for wallet-sensitive mainstreamers and digital audiophiles.