Building a bridge from the artist’s heart to our own – is that not what the pursuit of better sound quality is all about?
As audiophiles, we might choose a pair loudspeakers, add an amplifier, DAC and streamer (or phono stage and turntable). We turn it on so that we are turned on. We sit back, we listen and we savour the fruits of our system compilation labour. At home and with a great audio system in place we ascend to king of an imaginary kingdom.
This reality suspension is often short-lived. Snapping at the heels of our fantasy world comes real life. We might not have the finances or space for a dedicated listening room or we might eye such a proposition as potentially troublesome: a retreat that will ultimately isolate us from those with whom we live.
Therefore our audio system invariably operates in a living space shared with others. Between the loudspeakers sits the TV.
As audiophiles, we are deeply misunderstood creatures, are we not? Our partners and/or children might not share our passion for better sound. On matters of audio reproduction excellent, our family members are outsiders. They jokingly dismiss our pursuit as the onset of madness. “Their loss!” we feebly reason.
Unlike spending a nice car or watch, our multi-box, rack-stashed installation connotes ‘oddball’. Set against the majority world of tiny white earbuds and portable speakers, our audio pursuit is seen as an outmoded extravagance. Each to their own, right? Not so fast…
Piled up at home, hi-fi hardware can also be the source of a domestic dispute. Lighting the touch-paper are phrases such as “I like the sound but why must it all be so big?” or upping the confrontation ante, the audio showroom perennial: “There is no way we are having THAT in our lounge room”. Gear lust meet ice bucket challenge.
At least, that’s the way many audiophile dudes like to tell it. That their latest purchase was nixed by their significant other on aesthetic grounds.
Could it be that our partners’ objection isn’t as singular as a matter of aesthetics? Could it be more nuanced: that our unintentional exclusionary attitude, fuelled by the language that we use (I’m looking at you “WAF”), builds an invisible wall around our carefully curated hifi system? Could it be that for many an audiophile their audio system/s serves double duty as a domestic fiefdom? Look – but don’t dare touch.
Emboldening the font on the “KEEP OUT” signage is audio hardware’s intrinsic complexity: the maze of wires, the numerous boxes each with their own mysterious dials and switches. For the non-audiophile/s with whom we share our lives/homes, even something as fundamentally simple as source selection might require a round of in-house training. We should dismiss this at our peril.
Enter audiophile pal Barry. He’d been called overseas on a business trip that left his wife home alone. Returning from work on day one, she couldn’t get TV sound working. Barry had routed the TV’s Toslink output through a DAC which fed the amplifier and loudspeakers in turn but he hadn’t taken the time to clue his wife in on how it worked. She was not happy.
This same knowledge-based entry barrier persisted for music playback. In his absence, Barry’s wife was effectively locked out of the lounge room’s entertainment possibilities.
Little wonder that more mainstream-focussed products like the Devialet Phantom and the Naim Muso arrive with Spotify Connect functionality. The appeal of these all-in-one hardware solutions stems from their intuitive use just as much as it does their simply aesthetics. Why? Because Spotify Connect’s smartphone-based output device selection is a cinch, its simplicity inherited from the most popular wireless connection method of them all: Bluetooth.
Did mention of the B-word make you wince? It needn’t.
In years past, before the advent of the iPod or the Sony Discman, we might have added a cassette player to our system in order to take sounds out into the street with headphones.
Their popularity bolstered by the advent of the Sony Walkman, a cassette could go where vinyl could not: onto public transport and into the car. The cassette tape’s convenience was undeniable even if its sound quality wasn’t.
Is Bluetooth not the cassette tape of the 21st century? Convenience rules. We use it in the car to play music AND conduct hands-free calls. We might even use it out in the street with many a Bluetooth headphone now sounding very good indeed (see the Master&Dynamic MW60).
And if Apple make good on rumours of its plans to drop the 3.5mm headphone socket from the iPhone 7, we can expect to see more Bluetooth headphones coming to market (not fewer).
Back at home or out at the office, the 99.9% of the world’s population that aren’t audiophiles might use a Bluetooth-equipped smartphone to stream audio to a portable loudspeaker like the UE Boom or a Beats Pill. One could argue that it’s these very hardware devices’ small form factor and cheap componentry that give Bluetooth a bad name more than the lossy nature of its transmission protocol. Alternatively one might argue that such devices keep people away from laptop speakers.
Airplay is lossless but it’s restricted by Apple to the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Androiders are left out in the cold or are forced to source an app with (hamstrung) Airplay functionality.
Pretty much every smartphone in the world has Bluetooth and it doesn’t demand wifi network authentication before music will spill from the loudspeakers. You pair n’ play.
Why not harness Bluetooth audio’s ease of use and ubiquity to extend use of our home-based audio systems to each member of the household?
It would be easy to dismiss Bluetooth as solely a concern for entry-levelling products like the AURALIC Aries Mini or Audioengine’s HD6 or – to a lesser extent – the Dynaudio Xeo 2. Why show Bluetooth the elitist red card when it tries to enter the high-end?
Audiophiles running the popular Chord Hugo (or Hugo TT) as a main system DAC already have a Bluetooth input at their disposal. Experience tells us that the lossy compression demanded by its limited bandwidth comes up short when A/B-d against the Hugo’s hardwired digital inputs. Experience also tell us that feeding the Hugo with an aptX-equipped source device helps bridge some – but not all – of the wireless-wired delta.
To leverage this performance shortfall as a reason not to add Bluetooth to one’s rig is to miss the point. This isn’t about us. It’s about others.
Including Bluetooth as a digital input doesn’t force us into a corner. Its presence doesn’t lock us out of USB, coaxial or Toslink. As evidenced by the Chord Electronics D/A converters, wireless and wired connection methods aren’t mutually exclusive options.
Bluetooth might not be the preferred choice of the always-on audiophile. And are we really always on? How exhausting that would be. Look around you: we are easily outnumbered by those who don’t share our lossless-or-die attitude. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you probably live with such people.
With a Bluetooth input rolled into the mix of inputs, the home hifi system becomes less exclusive and more inclusive. Unleashed is the potential to build a bridge from the artist’s heart to many others, not just our own.
What do you think? Time to vote:
Insightful comments are welcomed below.