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Darko.Audio’s Product/s of the Decade: 2010-2019

  • Take a picture of this: a wired/wireless network streamer with internal DAC that punches on a level somewhere between the AudioQuest DragonFly Black (US$99) and its Red variant (US$199). Also included: a 4.3″ colour touchscreen; hi-res PCM support up to 24bit/192kHz; 3.5mm headphone socket; SD card reader; USB socket that doubles as USB storage device reader OR asynchronous USB output; and coaxial and TOSLINK sockets.

    On the software side of our network streamer: community-developed server software that runs on a Windows, MacOS or Linux; a smorgasbord of control apps for iOS and Android; integration for almost every active streaming service (even SoundCloud and Mixcloud); extensive Internet radio support; and – more recently – Roon endpoint status.

    Price? US$299.

    And if this same network streamer, the Squeezebox Touch, first introduced by Logitech in April 2010, were still being made today, it would romp home with Darko.Audio’s ‘Product of the Decade: 2010-2019’ award. No question. Amidst much wailing and gnashing of teeth among existing owners, the Logitech Squeezebox Touch was discontinued in September 2012. It was forever relegated to the supply inconsistencies of the second market. Very few devices have since matched its standing as the ultimate everyman hi-fi product.

    But ‘very few’ isn’t zero. The Squeezebox Touch is one of five Darko.Audio ‘Products of the Decade: 2010 – 2019’ and provides our jumping-off point for the remaining four, which all talk to this decade’s biggest change – a shift from downloads and CDs to streaming.

    Those thumping the table for vinyl are reminded that despite a sharp uptick in sales, those big black discs still make up less than 10% of music consumption worldwide. Extensively listening and conservative estimation tells me that we must spend at least US$1500 on a turntable, cartridge and phono stage for its sound quality to equal that of a streamer and DAC. And with vinyl, we pay per album played. One US$20 record would otherwise buy us a month’s worth of Tidal or Qobuz where we get to choose from millions of albums. Vinyl playback brings many of us a good deal of joy – myself included – but an everyman format it is not.

    Six months prior to the Squeezebox Touch’s discontinuation, the Raspberry Pi Foundation released its first small board computer (SBC), initially to help facilitate the teaching of computer science in schools and for a crazy low price: US$50. A Broadcom BCM2835 system-on-a-chip – that houses a 700MHz ARM CPU and GPU – and 512Mb RAM would run a Linux operating system directly from a microSD card inserted into the RPi’s side socket. An Ethernet port, HDMI out, 2 x USB sockets and 3.5mm analogue audio output provided the potential for network streaming.

    Early attempts were met with mixed results but the RPi of 2012 isn’t the RPi of 2019. It has since evolved to include a Quad-Core ARM processor and, with the RPi 4, up to 4Gb of RAM. The interim eight years have seen operating system choices broaden to a point that we are now spoilt for choice. The Raspberry Pi can now be run as a headless virtual Squeezebox, Squeezebox server, AirPlay device, DLNA streamer/server and Roon Ready endpoint, each of which offers varying degrees of streaming service integration. Device configuration comes via a web browser. Library navigation and playback control come via existing smartphone/web apps.

    The RPi’s analogue output leaves a lot to be desired. Its sound quality is inferior to even the Google Chromecast Audio but its ability to emulate a Squeezebox, a Spotify Connect streamer or Roon RAAT endpoint means it doesn’t suffer the Chromecast’s deal-breaking flaw: non-gapless playback. Add a USB DAC to the RPi and we have a network streamer that not only photocopies the Logitech Squeezebox Touch’s functionality but, in the case of the Schiit Modi 3 or AudioQuest’s DragonFlys, almost pips it to the post on overall sound quality.

    Almost? For audio obsessives like yours truly, the RPi + USB DAC gives us the detail retrieval of the Squeezebox Touch but – if we were to really pick nits – only two-thirds of its aural meat. It can, at times, sound thin and reedy. Why? Possibly because for all but the RPi 4, the USB data bus is shared with Ethernet’s. This flaw eventually gave rise to HATs (Hardware Attached on Top) designed by manufacturers who had designs on improving the quality of the RPi’s audio outputs. A HAT is an add-on board that attaches to the RPi’s 40-pin connector that, via i2S, pulls upwards the digital audio stream arriving at the RPi to electrically isolate, reclock, convert or decode it using bespoke circuitry. We now have DAC HATs that, when applied to an RPi, easily take on the Squeezebox’s analogue output for half its asking but also ace its SP/DIF digital output quality. A HATted DAC runs rings around the Sonos Connect in both the analogue and digital domains* [See Footnote #1].

    Audio manufacturers developing their own network streaming hardware and its associated software – Bluesound, AURALiC, Cambridge Audio et al – are forced to compete with RPi-based streamers on qualities other than price. Some, like Pro-Ject, realise that what can’t be beaten must be joined; their StreamBox S2 Ultra optimises an industrial version of the RPi via a fully customised Volumio OS and wraps it in a stylish metal case that the value-driven RPi accessory world has yet to independently produce. Aesthetics are not the RPi streamer’s strong suit — that’s one way in which consumers save money.

    Eyeing its range of third party HATs and operating systems that enable decent-sounding everyman network streamers for almost every streaming ecosystem – and for well under US$200 – the Raspberry Pi is our second ‘Product of the Decade: 2010-2019’.

    The most budget-conscious of readers could start with a single RPi and add an AudioQuest DragonFly Black (US$99) to one of its (four) USB sockets. The DragonFly Red (US$199) takes us up a notch but, when paired with the naked RPi, won’t best the BNC or coaxial output of the ALLO DigiOne-appended RPi on smoothness and refinement when hooked into a Schiit Modi 3. Ditto JustBoom’s TOSLINK HAT. For those who thirst for better sound quality than the Red but insist on remaining in DragonFly territory should switch-up to the Cobalt (US$299). Plugged directly into the RPi, it puts us in the same performance bracket as the ALLO/RPi/Schiit trio and for similar dollars down.

    Why isn’t Schiit’s Modi 3 in the running for Product of the Decade? As sharp as its value quotient, its RCA outputs require an amplification stage – an extra box – if our digital audio system is to talk to headphones.

    AudioQuest’s DragonFlys, on the other hand, have headphone support ready to roll and more readily jive with the 2010s’ most obvious trend this side of streaming: the rise and rise of ‘private audio’. We can use any of the three AudioQuest dongle DACs to improve the sound of a PC or Mac, irrespective of what follows it: headphones or loudspeaker amplifier.

    The DragonFlys complete their royal flush with smartphone connectivity where iOS and Android hookups come via Apple’s Lightning to USB adaptor and USB-C OTG cable respectively. Designer Gordon Rankin’s use of low power-drawing USB microcontrollers from Arizona’s Microchip means the DragonFly won’t get red-carded by iOS for drawing too much power and it won’t suck too hard on the smartphone’s valuable reserves.

    The AudioQuest DragonFly series means we no longer have to suffer our smartphone manufacturer’s indifference to decent sound quality or, worse, its refusal to specify a 3.5mm socket. It means we can access the same level of sound quality during our daily commute (bye-bye DAP) as we do when listening to music on our work computer or at home when sidestepping the Raspberry Pi’s (or similar streamer’s) internal D/A conversion.

    The DragonFly Red and Black were introduced at CES 2016. The Cobalt came to market in the middle of this year with lesser fanfare. All three variants remain peerless in their ability to give us a near-as-damn-it uniform listening experience via a properly pocketable device. A recipe that cooks up our third Product of the Decade: 2010-2019.

    When Chord Electronics launched the Mojo at London’s Shard in October 2015, we knew John Franks and his team meant serious business. The Mojo would be a smaller, more easily pocketable DAC and headphone amplifier than the Hugo but it would still talk to PCs, Macs and, like the DragonFlys, smartphones. Unlike AudioQuest’s dongle DACs, the Mojo wouldn’t specify an off-the-shelf decoder chip but Rob Watts’ code running on an FPGA. Watts’ WTA digital filter had been transplanted from the Hugo to a much smaller package but the Mojo launch event’s implication that every smartphone user could/would use one stretched marketing hyperbole to its very limit.

    Franks had shot for smartphone dominance only to ultimately find that many Mojo owners found his baby DAC’s sound so satisfying that many were letting it run 24/7 in their home hi-fi systems. Four years since the Mojo’s launch, we still struggle to find a similarly-priced DAC that can compete with the Chord unit’s detail dig and sense of inner space. It’s also an off-grid listener’s delight, a trickle charging system keeping the internal battery topped up as it plays.

    And it’s that internal battery that allows us to take the Mojo out of the house, to a local cafe, to work or on to a plane or train where it can even drive more challenging headphone loads; something that few smartphones can claim to do. Strapping the Mojo to the back of smartphone without obscuring large portions of the latter’s screen remains a challenge that would make even the most devoted of head-fiers throw their hands up in defeat. To this day, my favourite Mojo dance partner is the original Astell&Kern AK100. Connected via TOSLINK, this two-fer can be rubber-strapped together without obscuring the AK100’s screen. Chord’s alternative solution is the Poly streamer that, when attached to the Mojo, makes audible mincemeat of über high-end DAPs, even if its GoFigure app remains a challenge for some users.

    At the close of 2019, the Mojo sells for US$399. That puts it within a hundred bucks of the DragonFly Cobalt and casts its sonic edge – more detail, more punch – over the AudioQuest USB DAC as even better value than when it sold for US$599.

    In the context of our Raspberry Pi streamers, the Mojo isn’t limited to USB like the DragonFlys. It can talk to a naked RPi via USB but also a JustBoom HATted RPi via TOSLINK or an ALLO HATted RPi via coaxial (plus the right cable – I got mine from Zu Audio but AudioQuest also now make ’em). With the Squeezebox Touch, we again get the choice of USB (via Triodes’s EDO plugin), TOSLINK or coaxial. We listen for ourselves to find our own preference/s.

    At home and out in the street, the Mojo optimises sound quality and hardware pairing possibilities. Our fourth Product of the Decade: 2010-2019.

    There is no streaming without software. In the first half of the 2010s, I bounced between desktop apps for OSX/MacOS (like Audirvana) and Squeezebox Server’s web interface + iPeng / Orange Squeeze smartphone apps. Neither came without shortcomings: the experience of remote controlling a Mac could best be described as ‘basic’, a long way short of iPeng and Orange Squeeze’s powerful functionality, but not every streamer landing at DAR/KO HQ would talk to a Squeezebox server.

    And despite the slow emergence of now solid streaming platforms like Bluesound’s BluOS and AURALiC’s Lightning DS, each is tied to specific hardware. (It’s only in the last two years that Bluesound has begun licensing its BluOS streaming platform to third-party manufacturers).

    None can compete with the universality of Roon, which, for many digital audio fanatics like yours truly, arrived with shock and awe. With Roon running on a Macbook or Windows PC, I could remote control it using Roon Remote. Its interface had been designed with touchscreens in mind and was the single reason that in 2015 I bought a Microsoft Surface Pro.

    Four years on and Roon allows me to control streaming on AURALiC and Bluesound streamers as well as devices made by almost one hundred other Roon Ready partners where the biggest names in hi-fi rub shoulders with smaller manufacturers. The Chord Poly is one such device.

    And if compatibility and ecosystem building was Roon’s only achievement with its RAAT streaming protocol, it would still be light years ahead of the patchy mess of UPnP/DLNA devices where gapless playback isn’t even a given.

    Additionally, Roon can stream to Squeezeboxen, to a Raspberry Pi running Roon Ready code (or Squeezelite!), to KEF’s LS50 W and LS X (both run bespoke code), to Sonos devices, to AirPlay devices and to the Google Chromecast Audio. It’d be easier to count the number of devices to which Roon cannot stream.

    But wait, there’s more. Roon’s metadata layer gives us artist bios, albums reviews and makes hitherto hidden connections between players and releases. Its best feature, Roon Radio, has recently seen its reach extended beyond locally stored files to swim through Tidal and Qobuz; we get to re/discover long-forgotten gems as well as new music. And Roon’s digital magazine layout sidesteps digital audio’s greatest weakness by giving us something to browse in a non-linear manner, well beyond the A – Z of artist and album fields.

    Not even the upwardly-revised lifetime subscription price of US$699 can dent my enthusiasm for Roon which, in the age of free operating systems, is a tough pill to swallow for some.

    Make no mistake: Roon has revolutionised how many of us interact with our digital audio libraries in the high-end audio space to bring the UI on par with Spotify, where mainstreamers live. This is a staggering achievement given Roon Labs’ decentralised approach to software development, its dozen or so staffers are scattered around the globe. Our fifth and final Product of the Decade: 2010-2019.

    See y’all in 2020 – the start of another year. And another decade.

    Further information: Squeezebox Forums | Raspberry Pi | AudioQuest | Chord Electronics | Roon Labs

    Footnote #1: Beginners wondering why we don’t all just switch to TOSLINK for proper electrical isolation are directed to this podcast where Innuos’ Nuno Vitorino explains how TOSLINK receiver chips can work so hard to read the incoming signal that their circuits inject electrical noise into the D/A conversion circuit.

    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

    Product/s of the Year 2019: ELAC Navis ARB-51 & NAD M10

    Letter to the editor: MQA