We all want the same things. So reckons the Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn. His songs document interpersonal relationships, not those that exist between man and his audio machinery. Do audiophiles all want the same things? Not by a long shot.
The vinyl-or-die brigade’s idealism conveniently sails past the hard truth that no two turntables, tonearms or cartridges sound alike. The same can also be said of the digital world where everything from the D/A converter to the streamer (and its power supply) to the file format used to encode the stream make a difference to what we eventually hear.
The digital audio world also has its fair share of idealists. For some, DSD is the only way to go. Until real life says otherwise – 99.9% of the world’s recorded music remains unavailable in the bitstream format. Ditto MQA and its pre-cursor, hi-res PCM.
File format coverage only starts to become properly comprehensive once we drop down to lossless audio e.g. FLAC/ALAC etc. This is otherwise known as CD-quality and is audiophile sweet spot for quality and, most importantly. availability. Digital libraries can be built by ripping yesterday’s physical media collection onto today’s hard drive but we can’t own everything – it’s just not possible. We must use the likes of Tidal and Qobuz are to ‘flesh out’ our collections. Streaming services fill in the missing 90%. Let that sink in for a minute.
Consequently, music streaming service support is a factor when choosing a hardware streamer. We ask: “Does it to Tidal?” or “Does it do Qobuz?” because we know that our FLAC collection will never be as comprehensive as a streaming service’s library. Tidal and Qobuz are akin to having unfettered access to a CD store.
One of the better-sounding hardware streamers is Sonore’s microRendu (reviewed here). Converting its Ethernet input to USB output, the Sonore serves as an endpoint for local network streams – it will play catch on data dispatched from MPD/DLNA, Squeezebox and HQPlayer servers. However, only one operational mode gives us access to the cloud: Tidal via Roon. In Roon parlance, the microRendu is Roon Ready.
Roon’s popularity in part stems from its near-seamless integration of cloud and local storage. Like Sonos, we’re not forced to switch control app in moving between our two zones, even with search.
We live in a streaming age – hi-res PCM, lossless and lossy are all available – and vinyl’s presence looms large once again. The pragmatic audiophile might dabble in a range of formats because it’s fun or because he’s not a die-hard audiophile at every waking hour.
The flexibility afforded by a more pragmatic approach might see our audiophile’s qualitative baseline vary over time and according to circumstance. Late at night, dim the lights and spin a well-worn favourite on vinyl. Or fire up Roon and stream a few hitherto unheard new releases. On the morning commute, Spotify goes where Roon cannot.
Getting FLAC files from LAN server to a smartphone is a finicky process compared to Spotify’s one-click offline listening. Spotify? As an audiophile? Yup.
Once the background din of the train or plane is factored in, is the qualitative shortfall not offset by the convenience of a one-click process? The same could be asked of house-bound activities like cooking and housework where Spotify’s use of lossy Ogg Vorbis is more than good enough for background music. Spotify’s UX is better than that offered by 99% of audio manufacturer supplied control apps. Roon gets closest of all. AURALiC’s Lightning DS gives it a good shot.
Off-setting its SQ dip, Spotify has a more extensive library, especially with modern electronic music. For this user, Spotify fills in Tidal’s blanks. And it’s UX is the same, uniformly superb green, black and white whether streaming content directly to a smart device, playing offlined content on that same smart device or when using it as a remote control for another network-connected streamer. This latter feature is otherwise known as Spotify Connect.
Spotify Connect doesn’t work in the same way as Airplay. With Airplay, music must first travel through one’s phone or tablet. Turn off the phone or tablet and the music stops. Being an Apple technology, Airplay is baked into iOS and OS. Windows and Android users must install additional $oftware. Spotify Connect pulls music from the cloud directly with any PC/Mac, smartphone or tablet (with Spotify installed) acting only as a remote control. Turn off the control device and the music keeps playing.
If a) we don’t own a given album as a download and b) Tidal or Qobuz doesn’t have it, our we are automatically driven into lossless territory. Now Spotify Connect moves from background listening into the foreground.
Remember those idealist audiophiles? This is the point where they jump in with their lossless-or-die polemic. We don’t all want the same things. Spotify is relevant to the pragmatic audiophile, myself included.
Because its allows me to offline an album (like Craig Finn’s latest) with a single click, because its interface is almost unsurpassed and because its library size far exceeds that which I will ever own, Spotify is what I use on an iPhone 6S Plus in tandem with Audeze’s Lightning-connector ‘phones whilst out on Berlin’s streets and its U-Bahn. If Spotify moves to lossless as it has been recently hinted it might, it will become an even more essential audiophile service.
Several reasons why Spotify addition to the Sonore microRendu this week might be seen as a Big Deal™. As one part of a v2.5 update to the Small Green Computer-developed Sonicorbiter operating system and de/activated via its web interface, the microRendu now offers an additional output mode: Spotify Connect. A win for pragmatists (like me) who bowl in through the front door and want to cut their iPhone-headphone listening immediately over to the main rig.
Those wanting to get their hands on this update (which also brings with it some more idealist-friendly features – see below) can do so via snail mail only. US$20 paid to Sonore gets a microSD card with v2.5 preloaded sent anywhere in the world. Anyone who purchased a microRendu within the last 30 days gets a free microSD card.
Pop out the old card, pop in the new – easy. This old school approach to a software update was likely implemented so that Sonore could sidestep the tech support calls generated by inviting end users to a download an image file and write it to a memory card.
For those taking the twenty-dollar plunge, the benefit is two fold: 1) The microRendu user need no longer switch over to a separate Spotify Connect-capable device; 2) the Sonore device’s SQ-smarts are brought to bear on Spotify streams.
In my experience, getting the digital hardware right is just as important as the file format. We don’t tend to hear differences in rigidity and/or suppleness (aka a sense of ease) between formats as we do between DACs and streamers. On the other hand, more revealing systems expose a lossy codecs frayed edges. Some might sooner hear Spotify Extreme’s 320kbps played via a dCS stack than a FLAC run through an AudioQuest DragonFly Black.
This latest software update allows the microRendu to lay out the middle ground so that we might decide for ourselves because, as audiophiles, we don’t all want the same things.
Further information: Sonore
Sonicorbiter v2.5 release notes: