It’s commonly stated that physical media is on the way out. Soon we will operate purely in the digital realm, with all of our music being downloaded and stored on hard drives. We are already there when it comes to portable systems – it’s exceedingly rare to find anyone using portable CD or minidisc players. Back at the house, most of us have at least some computer involvement in our system; from simply backing up our physical media for archive purposes to full on media servers. A growing number of folks have gone all out and no longer own a dedicated CD player.
I agree that physical media will eventually be replaced but I question the timeline put forth by most media outlets. Audiophiles in particular are a special case – they are more than willing to put up with the inconvenience of physical media if there is even the slightest chance of improved sound quality. For that reason I expect CDs to be around for a long time to come, even if they do become somewhat of a niche market.
There has been much progress lately with respect to USB DACs, and it is easier than ever to get a high quality connection to your computer. So what’s all the fuss about? Part of the problem that many people have with making the switch is the computer itself. Many people just aren’t comfortable with the thought of having their computer integrated into their audio system. Your average computer is still a cumbersome, unattractive, noisy box with very little focus on audio. Laptops are smaller but how do you fit them into an audio rack? Yes, there has been some progress in this area, but I still believe it is a hindrance for many people.
One solution to this problem is to use a dedicated device for playback of your audio files. It might simply be a frontend that pulls files off a network, letting you store the computer itself in a different room. Or it might actually be a complete replacement, a sort of purpose built computer dedicated to audio reproduction. I’ve long been interested in these types of devices. So I set out to test a few of them and write up my experiences. That idea has snowballed into a larger project than I anticipated but has also been a lot of fun. This is just the beginning of what will eventually turn into a large thread documenting my reviews of multiple devices as well as compiling helpful information for anyone interested.
One of the most important aspects of these devices is the way a user interacts with it. A device can sound great and have every feature you can think of, but that won’t matter if it is frustratingly difficult to navigate through the menus. I’m not big on shooting videos, so the best way I can think to share the user experience with the reader is by showing pictures. Lots of pictures. I apologize in advance if someone is viewing this on a phone or other bandwidth-limited device. My photography skills are poor (at best), but I hope to use quantity to make up for the lack of quality.
Note that I’m posting this in the “Computer Audio” section. Despite the fact that these devices aim to replace your computer, we are still in the realm of hard drives and networks rather than the traditional “Dedicated Source Components” type stuff.
There are plenty of devices out there that can play audio tracks, either by streaming or else reading them directly off a hard drive/SD card. But my focus here is on dedicated audio only devices. No Blu-Ray players with SD card slots, no Western Digital TV or Roku style boxes. Not that there is anything wrong with those devices. They just don’t fit with my focus.
I went into this with basically three main requirements:
1) The device needs to handle FLAC files. I consider this the standard for serious listening.
2) It needs to have a dedicated display, capable of file navigation and most other basic functions. The majority of us don’t have (or want to have) a monitor in our listening systems.
3) The device must have a digital output for use with an outboard DAC. It can be toslink, coaxial, or AES/EBU. It doesn’t matter as long as it is digital. This will keep it relevant should the user ever want to upgrade.
With those requirements in mind, I compiled a list of devices to test. Some I purchased. Some I borrowed from friends. Some I got on loan from the manufacturer. All were treated equally no matter how I got a hold of them. I intend to keep testing more devices when possible. I’ll also compile a list of qualifying gear that I don’t yet have access to, and I would appreciate any suggestions that I’ve missed.
I was torn about how to handle certain devices that barely missed the requirements. The most common issue was the display – many products rely purely on iPhone/iPad/Android devices as the sole means of control. I decided to exclude these for now, since I feel like it adds an extra requirement to what might already be an expensive device. I’m all for Apple/Android support as an optional enhancement, but I’d rather it not be the only method. Speaking of Apple – I’m similarly divided about whether or not to include something like an iPad. When used with a digital dock like the inexpensive Pure Audio i-20, it meets two of our three requirements. The remaining issue is the fact that iPads do not have native support for FLAC files. Option one is to use a third party app (FLAC Player or Golden Ear) to accomplish FLAC playback, but the interfaces on both are fairly limited. Option two is to convert your FLAC files to Apple’s lossless ALAC format which would then play natively. That seems ideal except for the prospect of converting hundred of gigabytes worth of music. Still, I might explore the iPad option down the road, since I already have one anyway.
This is the associated equipment used for listening. This is a long term project so I’ve used almost of all of my gear at one point or another. Clicking the device will bring up my review thread, where applicable.
I also used a speaker setup with my Octet Matrix DE7B monitors on Sanus NF30 stands. When using the analog outputs of a player I paired it with my Analog Design Labs Svetlana 2 as a pre-amp, and used a Parasound 2125 amplifier. When using the digital output I paired it with a Lead Audio LA-200 integrated DAC/amp.
All cables used were Signal Cable, including Analog One and Analog Two interconnects, Digital Link coaxial and Optical Link toslink cables. Power conditioning was done by a Furman Elite 15pfi.
All equipment was burned in for well over 100 hours prior to auditioning. I don’t think this makes much difference but I recognize that other people do.
I listened to a wide range of music, from humble internet radio channels to amazing Reference Recordings HRx hi-res files, and everything in between. I’ll outline exactly what sort of capabilities each device has in terms of hi-res playback.
Obviously a key source of music is your own CDs that have been ripped as FLAC files (or whatever format your choose, I prefer FLAC). You can also purchase music from various locations. I’m going to focus on quality sources that offer lossless music; there are numerous other sources out there if you just need MP3 files. The following are some good places to find high quality music. Many even have free sample downloads. Most of these let you buy and download the files, but a few (Chesky 192/24, Soundkeeper, Reference Recordings HRx) require a physical disc because the files are so large. In that case you would copy the hi-res WAV tracks to your hard drive once you get the disc in the mail.
2L Records http://www.2l.no/
B&W Society of Sound http://blog.bowers-wilkins.com/music/society-of-sound/
Blue Coast http://www.bluecoastrecords.com/
Classical Shop http://www.theclassicalshop.net/Default.aspx
Deutsche Grammophon http://www.deutschegrammophon.com/
Pristine Classical http://www.pristineclassical.com/index2.html
Reference Recordings http://www.referencerecordings.com/default.asp
Unipheye Music http://www.unipheyemusic.com/Results.cfm?category=6
There are a few different options to look for when shopping for a device like this. I’ll briefly explain them here. Not every device does all of these, nor will every person have a need for all of them.
Network streaming: This means that you store your music on a computer or a Network Attached Storage aka NAS drive, and the device connects either through a LAN cable or WiFi. It streams the files from the computer and thus requires no local storage. Many devices accomplish this by adhering to standards like DLNA and UPnP . A notable exception is the Logitech Squeezebox line, which relies on Logitech Media Server. In my experience, wireless streaming is easily done with standard 16-bit/44.1kHz audio. Many devices can successfully do up to 24/96 audio but it requires a fast network and sometimes a bit of luck. I’m not aware of any situation where files above 24/96 can be successfully streamed over WiFi.
Direct connection: This is an option on most every device you’ll see. It will often be an SD card slot, USB port(s), or sometimes a slot for an internal hard disk to be installed. USB ports can almost always accommodate memory sticks and often support hard drives as well. Sometimes there is a limit to what sort of hard drives can be used; either a size limit, or a requirement for external power in addition to the USB connection.
Internet Radio: The majority of streaming devices out there will support internet radio in some way. Many of them use a 3rd party portal like vTuner or Reciva to provide a robust list of radio channels, sorted by things like genre, location, bitrate, etc. Others use their own proprietary database which usually isn’t as good. Internet radio can range from sub-FM to very reasonable quality. Many stations are simply rebroadcasts of actual FM or even AM radio stations, sometimes complete with static. Others are dedicated internet only stations. They are usually done in MP3 format but you do see some WMA and even more rarely AAC. Bitrates can range from 32k (barely adequate for talk radio) to 320k (arguably CD quality). Some stations, such as Linn Classical and Linn Jazz, sound excellent. Others are not as good, but still listenable. The average quality seems to be 128k MP3 which can be good enough for background music in my opinion.
Music Services: Many of these devices support one or more 3rd party streaming services. Pandora, Aupeo!, Last.fm, and Slacker Radio are just a few of the possibilities for streaming radio style services. Spotify, Rhapsody, and MOG are the main options for On Demand style listening. See my article over at InnerFidelity for more information about those.
You’ll need to decide which features are important to you.
Some devices offer some random feature that the others don’t. Some of these include AM/FM radio, a built in CD player, iPod support, an integrated amplifier for powering speakers, digital inputs for use as an outboard DAC, a built in headphone amp, ability to act as a digital picture frame by displaying photos, etc. These may be handy at times but I don’t consider them core requirements.
A list of devices that qualify based on my requirements, yet I have no experience with at the moment. When there is more than one model from the same company (Sonos for example) I won’t be listing all the options – merely the lowest priced choice. This is just a good starting point for someone to research these things. Again, feel free to point something out if I don’t have it listed.
Bryston BDP 1 - $2195
Cambridge Audio NP30 - $599
Sonos –starting at $698 for basic unit plus remote
Olive – starting at $599 for a basic model
Aune mini player - $320 (eBay)
Dugood HDAP-01D - ~$350 (eBay)
Sooloos Control 15 - $7500
Marantz NA7004 - $799
Denon DNP-720AE - $499
Cyrus Streamline - ~$3200
Naim UnitiQute - ~$2300
Musical Fidelity M1 CLiC - $1999
PS Audio Perfect Wave DAC with Bridge - $3799
There will be more of these devices being released as time passes, and I’d like to maintain this database as much as possible.
Edited by project86 - 4/23/12 at 9:29pm