May 2006

Play It By the Numbers: Digital Music Playback for Audiophiles

Regular readers of this column know that when it comes to digital reproduction of music, my attitude is a bit icy. With good reason, too: sloppy CD mastering and today’s trend toward ultracompressed MP3s renders sound, well, icy. Brittle, irritating and fatiguing are other descriptives that critics use when being polite about the sensation of listening to music converted and stored as numbers. Though we are 25 years into the digital era, the process is still far from perfect—inadequate sampling rates standardized early on still severely limit bandwidth and ultimate musicality—but quality has, admittedly, made some great strides in recent years.

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Arcam rLead for iPod and Arcam Solo
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Apple iPod Hi-Fi
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Focal iCub powered speakers
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Focal Sib and iCub Surround System
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Cambridge Audio Azur 640H Music Server

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But digital is here to stay, and with the advent of the iPod generation, more and more young folks are being weaned from the idea of buying discs of any sort, relying more and more on downloads from the Net for their principal source of software acquisition. So now the trick is getting the best sound possible out of the iPod and from our existing CD collections as well.

In case you were on Mars recently, you already know that Apple (apple.com) is trying to take a bite out of the home stereo market with the introduction of its new iPod Hi-Fi ($349). The Hi-Fi features a remote control and a built-in universal dock so you simply place the iPod in it and away you go, the dock simultaneously charging the Pod. You can also connect your computer’s audio or a game box through an additional audio input or by using Apple’s AirPort Express, which uses your computer’s wireless function to transmit tunes from iTunes off your hard drive.

It’s Apple minimalism maximized, both in style and size, but the sound can be surprising. A bit shy on the low end, it nonetheless reproduces a respectable frequency spectrum for the reduced fidelity of typical MP3 and WAV files; more than acceptable since most folks do not store bit-for-bit versions of their tunes on the iPod.

The brains behind Hi-Fi included Victor Tiscareno, formerly of Red Rose Music and AudioPrism, both highly regarded audiophile concerns. The hope is that Tiscareno and his Apple corps have some other interesting tricks up their sleeves since the company seems intent on succeeding in the entertainment and music fields. Tiscareno is capable of some pretty mean feats, so don’t look at the Hi-Fi as Apple’s final say in living room-size sound; chances are there’s plenty left under that bushel basket.

For those with a slightly bigger wallet who would also like a bigger sound than the Hi-Fi can deliver, the French-designed Sib and iCub system ($995) from Focal (focal.tm.fr) is a simple, elegant solution which can be driven by the iPod and also more traditional components including tuners, CD and DVD players or your laptop. The iCub is a small but hefty self-powered subwoofer that also contains a stereo amplifier to drive the matching Sib satellite speakers. It’s about as plug-and-play as the Apple unit, but has the potential of keeping family and neighbors awake on those late nights you just can’t stop listening. It is an excellent choice for dorm rooms, offices, small apartments or any other location where space is at a premium. The iCub is WiFi-capable and also includes a Dentyne-pack-sized remote and cool styling of the sub and the satellites, with options to balance the sub with the sats in any given context.

When you learn that Focal is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of speaker drivers, and the parent company of loudspeaker legend JM Lab, it is no surprise that the Sib/iCub combo produces sound well beyond what you’d expect from such a modest looking package. The iCub sub can fill the room with tuneful, deep bass and the Sib satellites produce mids and highs with impressive resolution—no particular errors of omission or addition—creating a sonic illusion that I found quite impressive during a recent audition. If real estate is an issue, or if you just don’t want the hassle of assembling a piece-by-piece audio system, this Focal solution should definitely be on your short list.

For even better iPod performance, British Company Arcam (audiophilesystems.com) offers yet another alternative, which is linked to its highly acclaimed Solo ($1,599) all-in-one CD player/tuner/amp/preamp, a wonderful component that I hope to review more fully later this year. In the meantime, it presents another sensible answer for anyone desiring well-above average sound without the quandary of matching components. Arcam has a well-earned reputation for producing some of the finest sounding digital players, amplifiers and A/V receivers on the market, and for the money the Solo is hard to beat.

Now Arcam has made the Solo iPod-friendly by introducing a cool interconnect that creates an interesting synergy between the two devices. The rLead ($85) not only allows astounding musical performance via the Solo, but allows the user to control all the iPod’s functions using the Solo’s remote, while all the usual iPod screen information like artist name, song title and so forth is displayed in the Solo’s LCD information display, an ingenious implementation of interface technology. After all, plugging the Pod into a home stereo is nothing new, but allowing the two to interact and communicate is. Leave it to Arcam to come up with such a crafty and useful implementation of cutting edge ideas.
One thing to keep in mind is that the iPod is nothing more than a miniature hard-drive, and if you don’t need your digital music storage device to fit in your shirt pocket, then consider the idea of a full-blown music server, which is nothing more than an overgrown iPod. These have been around for some time, but the prices and features have improved greatly, though, like with all audio gear, you can spend as much as you like: Linn’s Kivor can easily set you back a cool $20,000 while the splendid McIntosh MS 300 is a bit more affordable at just over $5,000.

But another British manufacturer, Cambridge Audio (cambridgeaudio.com), recently debuted a music server for the masses—or at least the somewhat better-heeled masses. The Azur 640H ($1,399) packages a very nice CD player with a 160GB hard drive and Cambridge’s AudioFile “jukebox” software—essentially its version of iTunes—all in one convenient unit. The 640H allows storage of up to 3,000 uncompressed songs or 30,000 compressed files—that’s about 200 to 250 CDs in the uncompressed mode—and connecting an external hard drive can increase the storage capacity even more. Of course, you can rip your own CDs onto the drive, burn CDs from your play lists, download tunes from the Internet and access music from your PC or Mac. It also allows streaming of Internet radio, which can open up an astounding universe of music in its own right. Another feature of the Cambridge server is that it’s built around the company’s high-performance CD player, the 640C, so from the get-go, the sound of the unit is ahead of the game thanks to the audiophile quality Wolfson DAC chip employed therein. All user functions are displayed in a convenient window or can be routed to a television for even easier readout. Think of the 640H as an iPod on steroids.

Leave it to an inveterate tinkerer and musician—not to mention designer of some of the sweetest-sounding vacuum-tube-based amplifiers on the planet—to come up with one of the most logical solutions to high-end digital-music playback: use a simple computer to act as an audiophile-grade CD transport and music server system. Of course many people already use their computers for music, and they are content with the mediocre sound provided by most such devices, but Gordon Rankin, chief scientist at Wavelength Audio (wavelengthaudio.com), was convinced there was a better way to get high-performance sound, even from our lowliest laptops.

“The idea stemmed from a headline I saw on Excite.com that said something to the effect that CD sales were down 12 percent, downloaded music sales up 6,000 percent,” says Rankin. “Well you don't have to hit me over the head any more than that.”

So he set out to take advantage of the characteristics of the data transfer scheme of the USB output of today’s PCs and Macs by designing a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) for connecting any modern computer to a quality hi-fi system to extract the best possible music reproduction from digital files. The resulting sound is nothing short of breathtaking.

Why? Well, largely because the inherent problems in the data recovery and interpretation by the average CD player have been overcome. Using the USB bus of the computer as opposed to the standard S/PDIF bus makes all the difference according to Rankin. “Basically the DAC has a single digital USB input. USB, unlike S/PDIF, is bidirectional and therefore has error correction and buffering on both sides,” he says. “This happens automatically so the data on the disk is identical to what is going out all the time. Also since this interface is asynchronous, the clocking problems associated with S/PDIF go away.” In other words, the age-old faults of CD-read errors and jitter in the digital stream disappear. So the sound coalesces in a way not heard in traditional CD or computer playback.

Rankin’s original DAC, the Cosecant ($3,500) was introduced a couple of years ago, and in early 2005 he debuted the more affordable Brick ($1,750). Though the Cosecant is slightly more neutral and more refined than the Brick, when I first plugged in the Brick, the results were jaw-dropping. The sound opened up as I’d never heard it before, with far more ambiance surround the musicians, far more presence, far more realism—just far more like music than the CD player I’d been using. Other reviewers have compared the Brick to $20,000 CD decks and found no difference, while my modest $1,200 player has been resigned to the corner in shame until the Brick has to go back to Rankin.

And true to Wavelength’s “tubes sound better” philosophy, all Rankin’s DACs include a vacuum tube in the output stage. Oh, and unlike most CD players, the Wavelength solution includes no filters and no oversampling or upsampling, the lack of which helps keep things simpler, mathematically speaking, and thus, more faithful to the original recording.

Setup is a breeze with the Brick because it is totally software independent. It takes no more than a couple of minutes to plug and play—a simple assignment of sound output to Brick in the Mac system preferences settings is all it takes once the cables are in place. Windows machines are slightly more difficult, but still no software required; just change a setting or two.

Since the sonics of the Wavelength DACs are so superior, even to those of expensive, dedicated CD players, Rankin is also promoting the idea of using a standard computer as a high-end music server. “A computer will always be better than even the most expensive transport, just from the virtue of an endless supply of software,” Rankin states. In addition, the nearly flawless error correction potential of CD ripping or playback through the computer’s advanced buffering capacity creates, as Rankin mentions above, as close to a bit-for-bit reproduction of the original as is mathematically possible. He advocates using iTunes as the digital jukebox software, implementing the Apple Lossless compression scheme since it does not suffer from the quality loss encountered in traditional MP3 algorithms. In this way, he estimates a 250GB drive can hold up to 500 CDs, so most music collections should fit on one or two of these devices. And though it’s a breeze to add new items to the library as new discs arrive, there is no need to rip all those esoteric titles into the server, saving them for those once-a-year spins. Going this route, a state-of-the-art digital playback system can be assembled for the price of a cheap laptop, an inexpensive hard drive and a Brick—maybe a tad over $3,000—and expandability is almost unlimited. Don’t forget the wireless capability of this system, which allows for transmitting the music from your computer to other sound systems throughout the home.

In my all-too-short audition of the Brick, I can say that, in various comparisons, I always preferred the musical experience of the Brick and my Mac iBook to any other playback of the same material, though I didn’t do any such trials with vinyl. I piled on many old favorites, all of which grabbed my full attention because they sounded so much better and alive than I remembered from previous listening—in all, more enjoyable and inviting than standard CDs.

My usual test selections from vocalist Ann Dyer and Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio were all greatly improved. Reflections, an old Prestige recording of Steve Lacy interpreting Thelonious Monk bloomed in my living room with a richness and musicality that only the original analog tape or a very clean LP of the session could equal. The new disc from guitarist Anthony Wilson on Groove Note, Savivity, spotlights the leader’s ability to emulate the sound, feel and emotion of the old chitlins circuit and early ’60s soul-jazz. With the Brick, from the bottom end provided by Joe Bagg’s B3 organ pedals, all the way up to the highs of Wilson’s upper strings, the resolution is accurate, pleasing and engaging, with none of the usual digital artifacts. It bears repeating that the essential musicality of the recording was not masked one bit; instead it was brought into full focus via this unique playback system: I was transfixed by Wilson’s artistry and the underlying soulfulness of the recording.

One note: The Brick will not work with the iPod because the iPod does not have a digital USB output and Apple has no plans to allow for one. This minor shortcoming aside, if you are in the market for a new digital-playback system, and would appreciate the convenience of a high-quality music server, the Brick is one basic building block that should be on your shopping list.

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