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Quad’s Artera Solus Play (or why DTS Play-Fi remains fundamentally flawed)

  • Ask any seasoned audiophile: Quad is a hi-fi brand with a firm legacy. Historically as British as fish n’ chips, the company’s ESL57 speakers and 33/303 amplifier are still revered by many. In 1997, Quad joined Wharfedale, Leak, Audiolab and Luxman as part of the International Audio Group (IAG) — a modern-day hi-fi giant that has successfully married its many brands’ venerable heritage to China’s manufacturing might.

    The Artera range tops Quad’s current line-up of solid-state electronics within which the £1699/US$2499/€1999 Solus Play combines an integrated amplifier with a DAC, DTS Play-Fi streaming platform and – wait for it – slot-loading CD player. The latter is an unusual inclusion in a hi-fi world where all-in-ones tend to mix streaming with phono staging.

    Build / looks / layout
    First impressions are positive, the Solus Play looks fabulous: an understated cool. The smoked glass top plate – packed separately – comes with rubber feet to damp vibrations. Build quality is good, everything put together nicely and feeling very solid. Tucked away underneath the main front panel are an infrared receiver and headphone socket.

    The front panel’s controls are minimal. The CD slot dominates with eject & power buttons to its right and a small circular OLED touchscreen to its left; difficult to read from the listening position. The blue-on-black text displays basic information – input, volume and digital signal sample rate – and the touch controls allow us to hit play on a CD, change inputs or adjust the volume. For streaming, we look to the supplied remote wand and/or the Play-Fi app.

    On the back panel, five digital inputs – two coaxial, two optical and USB-B for computers – are supplemented by two digital outputs (one coax, one optical). USB-A is for updates only. On analogue, there are two single-ended inputs and two outputs – one balanced and one single-ended. A balanced input would have been nice but its lack of inclusion is no biggie. Three antennas provide wireless network and aptX Bluetooth connectivity. There’s also an RJ45 socket for Ethernet, plus a single set of speaker terminals.

    Amplifier and DAC
    At 11.5kg, the Solus Play is much heavier than I expected it to be. That’s partly down to the 300VA toroidal transformer needed to deliver its 75W of dual-mono Class A/B power into 8 Ohms. 4 Ohm figures aren’t provided but Quad stresses the amplifier’s 15 amp current delivery. Weedy it isn’t. Volume is microprocessor controlled but operates in the analogue domain.

    The DAC chip is a 32-bit ESS ES9018 – the same as in the Mytek Liberty – which handles up to DSD256 or PCM385kHz on USB (driver needed for Windows). The PCM sample rate limit halves on the other inputs. They don’t do DSD either. MQA support is missing-in-action. Oh and don’t lose the remote, you’ll need it to select the digital filters (four PCM, four DSD), volume limit, gain, balance, passthrough and display brightness. Overall it’s a decent specification that should meet 99% of its users’ needs.

    Play-Fi from DTS is a hardware and software streaming solution used by IAG and several other companies, notably Klipsch and McIntosh. The Play-Fi app is available for iOS and Android. The desktop option is different, more limited in scope than its smart-device brethren and frankly not of much use.

    Through the iOS and Android versions of Play-Fi we access Napster, Pandora, Deezer, Amazon HD, Qobuz, Tidal and Spotify Connect. Radio listeners are well served: iHeartRadio, Internet Radio, and Sirius XM. And it does UPnP. Play-Fi’s multi-room capability allows us to mix and match equipment from different manufacturers, all managed from the same control point(s). Roon, Apple AirPlay and Google Chromecast do not present so Play-Fi’s promise of a broad functional spread must do all the heavy lifting. There’s always Spotify Connect and aptX Bluetooth to fill in gaps.

    In reality, things are less than stellar.

    Firstly, to get the best sound quality we need to activate the app’s “Critical Listening Mode”. This is needed as Play-Fi doesn’t have enough bandwidth to support 24bit/192kHz across multiple zones (which is limited to 16bit/48kHz). That’s not something I’ve seen before; it undermines confidence in Play-Fi’s technical underpinnings. Confidence that’s further eroded by four more failures to meet the streaming ecosystem’s self-proclaimed ‘audiophile’ ambitions:

    1) CDs are gapless. As is vinyl. So too are cassette tapes. Class leaders on the home streaming front – Roon, Spotify Connect, Tidal Connect and most modern UPnP implementations – also play gaplessly. Why? Because many audiophiles want their streams to playback exactly like the original CD or LP: without the playback software artificially slicing gaps in-between tracks as it finishes one track and pre-loads the next. But for Play-Fi, gapless playback is notably absent. Irritating at the best of times but exacerbated by Play-Fi being especially slow to access the next track when streaming. As a result, the gaps inserted between tracks by Play-Fi are longer than other gapped playback systems like Google’s Chromecast. And no, that’s not my network playing up. I checked, checked and checked again. Amazing that artificially gapped playback is still an issue twenty years on from when it first reared its head.

    2) But perhaps Play-Fi’s most dumbfounding feature is that its audio streams must travel through the app on their way from the cloud or LAN server to the streaming endpoint. Not just the phone or tablet but the app itself! Which means…

    3) …if we minimise the Play-Fi app, the music carries on playing but if we close the app, the music stops. This doesn’t happen with Roon, UPnP, Spotify Connect, Tidal Connect or Google Chromecast because those systems’ apps aren’t ‘carrying’ the stream. Salting this wound, we are forced to start over when we open the Play-Fi app once more. There’s no way of picking up where we left off as we do with Bluetooth- or AirPlay-carried streams that separate the protocol from the playback app.

    4) More generally, navigation within the Play-Fi app isn’t overly intuitive. I often found myself back at the ‘choose device’ screen without knowing why and the app’s playback controls are sometimes slow to respond to touch.

    To understate the obvious, I struggled to embrace Play-Fi. Instead, I turned to an external streamer for the longer listening sessions required to assess the Quad DAC/amplifier’s sound quality. More on this below.

    Review system
    The Artera Solus Play invites us to just add speakers, so I did: Graham LS6 standmounts (£2,600) supported by IsoAcoustics’ GAIA III feet (£450) with Tellurium Q Black II cables (£270). For comparison, an Allo DigiOne streamer (£360 with iFi power supply); an RPi 4 (£50), with & without the £50 iFi supply; a Mytek Liberty DAC (£900).

    Sound quality
    Quad electronics of yore had a reputation for warmth. So I was expecting (and hoping for) some richness, body and texture. And the Solus Play delivers – just lovely. Not overly so though – the sound here is just off to the left of neutral, warm to the same degree that the £349 Marantz PM60006 is light of musical body. Both are valid options, choose your preference. The way I hear it, the Quad plays better counterbalance to the LS6’s exceptional clarity.

    The slightly fuller tone of the Quad doesn’t impact the detail delivered. Indeed, the first thing that hits me isn’t tonality but soundstage size. Large, deep and realistic, with plenty going on even in seemingly simple mixes like “Talk To Your Daughter” (Theessink / Evans, Visions). Over time this sense of palpable realism proves to be the Quad’s strongest suit.

    The top end isn’t the most extended I’ve heard so I ran the LS6 standmounts grilles-off to let a smidge more treble through. The Quad’s dynamics are pretty good but they aren’t arresting. Bass is reasonably well extended and nicely controlled.

    Over-analysis of the Solus Play might miss the larger point that the Quad’s overall poise and balance are what really impress. Nothing stands out, for better or for worse.

    I pitted the Quad’s CD player against its internal Play-Fi streamer (pulling Tidal lossless down from the cloud) and heard zero difference between the two.

    I connected the Allo DigiOne Signature with iFi power supply to the Quad’s RCA SPDIF input and heard it trump the Play-Fi streamer. Bass was more controlled, there was more detail on offer and the soundstage was plain bigger…and more realistic. The difference justifies the bigger outlay – £360 vs £200 – the latter the difference between the Solus Play and its non-Play-Fi sibling, the Solus.

    Streamer option two was a bog-standard RPi 4 running Ropieee and Roon, plumbed directly into the Quad’s USB input. For £50 all in (with stock power supply) it worked remarkably well. Zero functional oddities. Play-Fi sounded better though by a nose: more refined. The RPi 4 sounds youthfully exuberant by comparison; enthusiastic but lacking a little control.

    Option three was the same RPi 4 but with the £50 iFi power supply, so £100 all up. Here the RPi 4 / iFi just edged Play-Fi with improved refinement, sweeter treble and a soupcon more clarity. It was a very close call though.

    Enter the Mytek Liberty (without SBooster) to get a handle on the Solus Play’s internal DAC. The DigiOne Signature + iFi PSU fed both. Put plainly: the Liberty gives us better sound quality than the Solus Play’s DAC: more colour, texture and weight. The Mytek also sounds more easeful, less forced. And there’s an extra level of detail on display too. Of course, this is just as we might expect when the Mytek DAC sells for more than half the Solus Play’s asking (£900 vs £1,700). The comparison by no means embarrasses the Quad DAC but a giant killer it is not.

    Finally the headphone output – it’s workable but a little flat sounding. Fine for occasional listening but more committed headphone listeners will want an external headphone amplifier.

    The sound quality of the Quad Artera Solus Play is very good, putting performers in the room the same way all good hi-fi does. No complaints there. Decent too are the unit’s looks, build quality and CD playback functionality.

    However, giving me serious pause is the DTS Play-Fi module that makes hard work of streaming, which is something that streaming should never be. My Quad contact reports that DTS is working on a fix for Play-Fi’s extra-gapped playback, with an update slated for release sometime in 2021. Let’s hope DTS can address some of Play-Fi’s other functional quirks while they’re at it.

    An unlikely rectification will be the Play-Fi stream’s need to travel through the smartphone or tablet on its way to the Solus Play (or any other Play-Fi-enabled device). As we have seen with Apple AirPlay, streams that travel through the smartphone (over wifi) accelerate battery rundown and the phone must remain switched on and within range of the streaming endpoint for the music to keep playing.

    DTS Play-Fi doesn’t enjoy Apple’s market penetration. Nor does it offer AirPlay’s gapless playback and app agnosticism. AirPlay will forward sound from any app running on MacOS or iOS. Google’s Chromecast isn’t gapless but, like AirPlay, it permits streaming from inside most streaming services’ native apps. Play-Fi streams must come from within the Play-Fi app and they aren’t rendered gaplessly. (In his November 2020 review of SVS’ Prime Soundbase – another Play-Fi-loaded streaming amplifier – Soundstage!’s Gordon Brockhouse pegs the inter-track gap at 3 – 6 seconds, depending on source. – Ed)

    Such Play-Fi findings aren’t new. In his article over at Audiophile Style entitled ‘DTS Play-Fi Has Major Design Flaws’, Chris Connaker tells us that the shortcomings described in this review have existed for at least three years. They are why Roon, Google Chromecast, Spotify Connect, Tidal Connect, Bluesound’s BluOS., AURALiC’s Lightning DS and (even) Sonos have all stepped ahead of Play-Fi on user experience: that all but Chromecast offer gapless playback and not a single one has the audio stream travel through the smartphone app speaks to the two main audiophile sensitivities in 2020.

    Even the long-in-the-tooth UPnP uses the streaming triangle method where the remote control device (smartphone) tells the server what to send to the streamer without acting as an audio stream intermediary. And yet Play-Fi’s take on UPnP doesn’t even accord with this ‘standard’, with the stream journeying through the smartphone app on its way to the Artera Solus Play. Close the Play-Fi app during a UPnP stream and the music stops. No other ‘UPnP’ implementation works this way.

    Time then to remind ourselves of the Artera Solus Play’s predecessor – the Artera Solus – that drops ‘Play’ from the name, Play-Fi from the feature set and 200 quid from the price tag — enough to cover the cost of an RPi4 + iFi PSU or an Allo DigiOne. Yes, such thinking undermines the all-in-one intent of the Artera Solus Play but for me, its DTS Play-Fi-derived frustrations make the Artera Solus plus external streamer the better choice right now.

    Further information: Quad

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    Written by Phil

    Phil is a Brit living in deepest Devon. Think: Tolkien's Shire but with killer cream teas. He's been around since digital audio's inception - he even wrote his dissertation on the introduction of the CD - but today's developments in both music and audio gear make him think 'we have never had it so good'. Phil is a Music-First audiophile with wide ranging tastes (Trad Jazz excepted): 5000 albums in his local library with the remainder coming from Tidal.

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