Guinness. It’s this hifi reviewer’s favourite adult beverage. Low/er in calories and yet more ful/filling than your average beer. In Australia, it’s not so easily found. In Hong Kong, draft supply is ubiquitous. An opportunity then to reignite my love of the black stuff with two pints each afternoon after a day spent walking the floors of Hong Kong High End 2016.
Puncturing my video-editing solitude on Monday’s post-show refreshments was one Robert Follis, a recent arrival to Melbourne from the old dart. Follis handles PR for Naim and Focal in Australia/NZ and, as it turns out, now does global PR for Acoustic Research.
Like his pal Johan Coorg of KEF, Follis is as British as they come. A few nights earlier, Follis had chided Coorg on his choice of portable audio player, the AK100 II from Astell&Kern; the South Korean iRiver subsidiary are king of the mountains with every other DAP manufacturer left to scrap it out for second place in the peloton behind.
Was Follis playing devil’s advocate in support of Acoustic Research’s latest portable player? Possibly. But it’s in in this trailing group of DAP manufacturers that we find many crown-threatening features: Sony’s ZX-2 slays the competition on battery life; newer models from Pioneer and Onkyo offer MQA support; FiiO’s output staging is modular. Cowon’s Plenue 1 is a real looker.
The majority of these Android-a-likes offer (installable) support for Tidal – a feature that remains MIA from Astell&Kern’s range.
Back at the appropriately named Devil’s Advocate bar on Lockhart Road in Wan Chai, Follis was keen to press home the message about Acoustic Research’s ARM 20.
Before that, a little history:
Founded in 1952 by Edgar Villchur and Henry Kloss, Acoustic Research were one the first hifi manufacturers to make great loudspeakers more affordable. An acoustically suspended woofer was the AR-1’s secret ingredient (US$185/pair).
The smaller, even more affordable AR-2 loudspeaker introduced in 1957 sold for US$85/pair; that’s around US$700 in today’s money. The combined successes of these and models that followed – the AR-3, AR-3a, AR-11 and AR-10pi – led Acoustic Research to ultimately command almost one third of the loudspeaker market in 1966.
Then came a series of new owners that caused a slow but sure erosion of the company’s loudspeaker market dominance. First Teledyne in 1967, then Jensen Electronics in 1989 and then Recoton Audio Corporation in 1996. In 2003, Acoustic Research was acquired by Voxx International who also own loudspeaker giants Klipsch and Jamo.
By 2014, almost nothing of the original Acoustic Research remained. As Follis opined, “It had becomes a shadow of its former self”.
But then at the eleventh hour came a fresh spark hire from Creative Labs. Acoustic Research would reinvent itself as a modern digital audio company. Its first product would be a zero compromise DAP: Burr-Brown PCM1794a DAC, Class A output stage, dual VCTCXO clocks, analogue volume pot. The compromise was its weight. At almost one full quarter of a kilogram, one would need to be more literally sturdy of pocket to take the ARM2 around town even if its US$1200 asking is modest by 2016 standards.
This year comes its a second model, the ARM20: Class A/B output stage, dual XO clocks and a digital volume control which sum to a doubling of the ARM2’s battery life to 16 hours but also a dialling down of output power to 2.1VRMS – ample for portable-friendly over/on-ears and sensitive IEMs. There’s also been some weight loss – the ARM20 tips the scales at 178g – and it says hello at US$800.
On the software side, a heavily customised version of Android sees the native music player talk straight to the hardware, thus bypassing the operating system completely. Think of this as “direct mode” for a DAP. Such deep coding keeps the Google Play Store off limits but as Follis details in the video below, third party apps like Spotify, Pandora, Tidal et al can be installed using Amazon’s own app store. Neat!
A first then for DAR: a product introduction in a bar. And in the interests of transparency, ’twas I who picked up the tab.
Not a beer drinker, we’ll forgive Follis for missing an opportunity to call out the ARM20’s audible background as ‘Guinnessy black’. Bar conditions being what they are, I can neither confirm nor refute.
Instead, Follis talks us through the AMR20’s finer points. Take it away, Rob…
Further information: Acoustic Research