What does it all mean? Not life but the slew of products heard by yours truly in 2017. Reproducing a summary list is an easy cop out – a hat tip to pull quote culture. Yeah nah. More of a challenge and therefore more rewarding (for me and you the reader) is to tease out trends sketched out by a selection of the year’s best audio hardware, to join their dots and ink the connecting lines with greater indelibility. Here are three such trends:
Idealist audiophiles talk a lot about synergy – of one amplifier extracting better sound from a pair of loudspeakers than another – but offered bespoke-fit amplification, tailored to the driver level, those same idealists will politely decline; their ability to choose an amplifier is gone. Their loss is, ironically, their loss.
Fortunately, plenty of DAR readers see a bright future for actives: KEF’s LS50 Wireless – DAR’s product of the year 2016 – piled on the features in 2017 to heighten their price-bending performance benefits that, with crossover executed by DSP, simply cannot be matched by passive speakers and separates without spending serious cash.
This year, I had to reach all the way up to a pair of PS Audio BHK Signature 300 Monoblocks and matching pre-amplifier and DAC – almost twenty grand’s worth of extras – to see the passive KEF LS50 outperform their active variant, the US$2.2K KEF LS50 Wireless that also puts DAC and Bluetooth/Spotify/Roon/Tidal streamer inside the loudspeaker enclosure to tick another idealist audiophile box: shorter signal paths.
We don’t have to soldier on with the way we’ve always done it. There is no prize for doing it tough on the trial and error of system compilation: outboard electronics; a hifi rack in which to house them; interconnects and loudspeaker cables to tie them together.
Idealist audiophiles talk of the need for accuracy but give them a monitor with a recording studio heritage/focus and they’ll complain that it’s ‘too accurate’. Our gains in transparency is their loss.
At the high end of active loudspeakers, Finland’s Genelec crossed the floor with three different sized takes on the same design that deploy a trio of coaxially-aligned drivers, each driven by a bespoke fit amplifier and crossed over in the digital domain via DSP.
The Ones come in small 8331 (US$4500/pair), medium 8341 (US$6000/pair) and large 8351 (US$7750/pair) versions to offer dip-switchable bass and treble EQ according to room size, boundary proximity and placement. The aforementioned KEFs execute this DSP pragmatism via smartphone app but Genelec go one better with the optional GLM calibration kit (US$495) that can tailor The Ones’ output to the room in a matter of minutes. For the same price as a high-end separates-based room correction box, we can buy a pair of Genelec’s 8331 and the GLM kit outright.
Moving northwards on price from Genelec’s The Ones, we find room-accommodating models from Dutch & Dutch and Kii Audio plus the more unconventional-looking Grimm LS1, all of which harness DSP power.
Back at the entry level, the UK’s Acoustic Energy once again pulled the AE1 from the fire, this time as an active loudspeaker with balanced XLR and RCA analogue inputs (£1200).
For those not already eye-ing an outboard DAC, Klipsch brought us ‘The Sixes’ (US$799) with inputs for digital sources and MM phono and Vanatoo added a second entry-level model in the Transparent Zero (US$359). The latter two powered speaker systems may not feature active crossovers – their sale info is a little vague on the issue – but aimed at the consumer looking for a step up from a Sonos or Bluetooth monobox, it matters not: Klipsch and Vanatoo offer a complete system in a box where no additional choices/clutter (amplifier, streamer, phono stage, cables) are required.
In 2018, Andrew Jones and ELAC Americas have an opportunity to push the active loudspeaker message – fewer boxes AND superior sound quality – over the top of the entry-level passive scrimmage and into the endzone with the DSP-powered Debut series. If rumours are true and they land with Spotify Connect and Roon Readiness in tow, we could see the beginning of the end of the separates conversation below US$1000.
Single board computers (SBCs) aren’t new but for this reviewer in 2017, the Raspberry Pi emerged as bona fide challenger to the likes of the AURALiC Aries Mini and Sonos Connect. The base hardware is super-affordable – around US$50 for a baseboard, case and power supply – and the open-source developed operating systems are come free of charge; we pony up zero dollars for the inclusion of Roon Readiness, Squeezebox emulation or UPnP endpointing.
In the case of the Raspberry Pi 3, USB sits on the same data bus as Ethernet. Not a great recipe for lowering electrical noise and therefore optimising sound quality. Instead, we look to HATs: add-on boards that extend the Raspberry Pi’s functionality via its 40-pin riser and, in the case of ALLO Digital’s boards, extract digital audio data with a healthy dose of noise filtering. Their DigiOne S/PDIF board turns the Raspberry Pi into a streamer that aces the stock Sonos Connect and almost pulls up alongside the Wyred 4 Sound-modded variant at a quarter of its price. Their Boss DAC board makes the Raspberry Pi a viable alternative to the Aries Mini but at a quarter of the price.
The impact of SBC on the digital audio world doesn’t start and end with the Raspberry Pi. There are many credit-card computer boards from which to choose. One reviewer colleague swears by the ODROID C2 and a reader recently sent me an email rave about the Asus Tinker Board. Google helps us unearth ODROID and Tinker Board HATs.
The common thread is a price/performance quotient that runs rings around that of any of-the-shelf consumer grade PC (or Mac), audiophile tweaked or not, and lays down serious challenge to manufacturers asking us to consider multi-thousand dollar alternatives. The pressure brought by SBCs to the streaming hardware market will likely continue to strengthen in 2018.
Bluetooth & Lightning
Porta-Fi – I’m not against carrying a second device for better on-the-go sound. Despite only just scraping a pass on UI, a digital audio player (DAP) running solo with a properly matched pair of IEMs/headphones can sound very good indeed. I still occasionally use Sony’s NW-ZX-2, xDuoo’s X3 and an original Astell&Kern AK100.
Where the story goes of portable audio goes off the rails is with DAPs that weigh as much as a house brick or where one needs to add a portable DAC/amplifier that a) renders the rubber-strapped two-fer no longer portable but transportable and b) recasts the (often) multi-thousand dollar DAP as transport only – “Hello? This is 2012 calling – we’d like our UX back, please”.
Where these multibox quasi-portable rigs really come unstuck is not just on extra bulk but with background noise. That train you take to work is rarely silent. Those streets you walk burst with audible intrusion. All that money and pocket real estate spent on bringing Diana Krall with you as you go about your daily business and its audible advantages are eaten, in part, by real life – what’s up with that? Little point fussing over 24 bit FLAC when passing traffic tips the sound meter at 80db or more. Agreed: this argument holds less water at the office or at home but in these ‘static’ destinations the argument for small/pocketable/baggable loses its edge. On a plane cabin noise can occupy the adjacent seat at 85db before you’ve even hit play.
It might agitate portable purists but of greater benefit to more listeners than hi-res PCM, DSD or even MQA is active noise cancellation (ANC). Once you’ve gone wireless with the super-smart MDR-1000X / WH-1000XM2 headphones for US$399 (or less) it becomes considerably more difficult to justify rigs big/ger on bulk and big/ger on price. The Sony cancel noise more effectively than the Bose QC35 II and they sound better to boot, especially when paired with an LDAC-capable device. LDAC is Sony’s proprietary high-bandwidth Bluetooth codec that easily rivals anything Qualcomm has to offer with aptX HD. And both better-sounding Bluetooth codecs will soon land alongside AAC in almost every Android device courtesy of Google’s Oreo OS update.
Bluetooth headphones came a long, long way in 2017 and manufacturers woke up to the need to look after iPhone users with AAC support – hello RHA and B&W. Centrance’s bolt from blue – the BlueDAC (US$399) – also showed us that even lossy Bluetooth done well and amplified nicely can better lossless connections afforded by hard-wired Apple Lightning-connected headphones.
Where the iPhone and DSP / noise cancellation worlds collide is on 1more’s Dual Driver IEM (US$149). Not the most resolving earphone on the planet by any stretch but with ANC engaged via an inline remote that also houses DAC and bespoke fit amplification (ring any bells?), it’s like living in another world, with or without music. And it is another world when the background drone is dialled down to a mere hiss to put more aural space between the outside world and the music.
And yet number one advantage of Lightning and Bluetooth-connected headphones or IEMs over deluxe portable rigs isn’t the frequency response optimisation and/or noise cancellation wrought by DSP. Neither is it the vanishingly low physical intrusion of the DAC/amplifier folded into the headset, neckband or in-line dongle. Nor is it the (comparatively) affordable pricing. It’s that both connection types allow us to keep our existing smartphone in play. That means we get the benefits of 1) an always superior UI (compared to any DAP), 2) streaming services – not at all DAPs give us access to the Google Play Store for installation of Spotify, Soundcloud, Qobuz, Tidal et al – and 3) only having to carry a single piece of hardware that we carry already.
Looking to the future, if Bluetooth ever manages to go lossless, bragging rights notwithstanding, I doubt the DAP market will be strong enough to hold on to its current spread of players with their collective playback advantage eroded to hi-res support.