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Swimming in the digital upstream: A music lover discovers wireless tunes

By on 31 May 2011 in Gadgets

Swimming in the digital upstream: A music lover discovers wireless tunes
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Given he’s a rather conservative fellow, it might surprise our three readers to learn that The Prodigal Fool is an early adopter of all things digital. Even better, his aversion to social contact; a love of things he can stroke, slide and control with his large fingers and a laziness that almost rivals The Dude’s has transformed him into the perfect consumer of Apple products. Seriously, the Fool buys virtually every product Apple releases within weeks of its release. The result? A veritable kingdom of digital products and an unhealthy obsession with integration and ease-of-use above anything else.

On the other hand, Straight-Six came into contact with his first Apple product, the Macintosh, in college in the early 90s and then again only three years ago when the Fool advised him to acquire a MacBook Pro for work. As fate would have it, this also marked the moment that poor little Six bade a teary farewell to his big-rig hi-fi system with the dedicated audio salon converted into a bedroom for the brace of little Sixes, little locusts that they are. But behind Six’s slower pace lies a furious focus on quality over quantity. Superior execution over speedy progress.

Anyways, a serious lack of time and space, family priorities and horribly expensive watch purchases (take a bow, vintage Rolex) have all conspired to delay addressing the critical challenge Six has been facing: how to access his 1,600+ CD collection rapidly and intuitively with no loss in quality. At all. You see, he’s a die-hard audiophile who still owns a $15,000 turntable that’s currently gathering dust in the kids room. He even had tubed monobloc Unison Research amplifiers as part of his former system, fer Chrissakes.

This explains why Six delayed and ground his teeth as he watched the Fool buy hundreds of horribly compressed MP3 tracks from the iTunes store. But while the latter flicked and ticked and opened his musical horizons, the former found himself wed to a single Case Logic CD holder for months on end. This meant having to get up from his chair to change CDs during dinner parties and freak-out dancing sessions in the nude. And all this in 2011, when CDs were supposed to have been dead and buried!

Clearly, the situation was untenable. But the habitual high-end, and obscenely expensive, solution wasn’t on the cards this time. Instead, Six would test the digital streaming waters with a trusty, basic iPod touch as a source, backed by a trusty MacBook Pro. The hi-fi set-up was a high-end mini system from TEAC fronted by BlueRoom Minipod speakers. It says an awful lot about ones life when the kitchen/dining room is where you listen to music most.

So, on the advice of the Fool, Six ordered an AirPort Express with AirTunes and a nifty Monster Cable to connect it all to the TEAC system. Installing the Remote app on the iPod touch was another breeze. And hey presto! Six was streaming music directly from his iPod Touch to his kitchen hi-fi. With no need for the MacBook Pro to be on at all. Truly, this was magic for a dude used to handling music media.

Yeah, yeah, we hear the kids at the back of the classroom sniggering about how obvious this all is and how Six is sooooo late to the game. But please give a thought to the reality that both of your editors grew up with vinyl and cassette decks (mercifully 8 tracks skipped them by); Spectrum ZX81 and 64 computers; Coleco and Atari games consoles and 8mm home videos and VCRs. We’re almost middle-aged, dammit!

So, after several months of using and listening to streamed music in this manner, and comparing compressed tracks to 24-bit remastered CDs featuring Louis and Ella, what did Six make of it all?

Well, this has to be one of the cheapest, easiest ways in which you can stream music wirelessly to the various hi-fi systems around ones home. No discussion there at all. And the set-up is absolutely idiot-proof. While the iTunes interface is pretty decent, its limits were soon reached, providing strong incentive to look at what else is available for real music lovers to replace long lists of tracks. More sophistication, if you please.

Having to rely on the battery-hungry iPod as a controller/source ain’t ideal either. These big screens are energy-hungry mothers, we tell you. But most of all, it’s the sound quality – yes, differences can be heard even over a modest 1,500 euro kitchen hi-fi system – that really irks. Flat, amputated sound that harkens back to the horror days of early digital recordings and the anorexic CD players that spun them is unacceptable in a day and age when we can download 24- and 32-bit recordings that’ll make your hair stand on end through their palpable realism.

You can begin to address these shortcomings by ensuring that tracks are ripped in Lossless mode i.e. same quality as CD. But you’re then faced with the bottleneck that are the cheap Digital-to-Analogue converters used by the Airport Express (DACs, as they’re known, turn the 1s and 0s that make up digital music into an analogue signal your amplifier can understand and your speakers can play). Another bottleneck is the lack of sufficient storage space on an iPod, meaning you’re back to having your laptop on all the time somewhere in the house. Or a massive hard-drive.

You see where all this is going, right? Six is now very much committed to digitizing his entire CD library, but the appropriate interface and storage space needs to be in place. And most importantly: the sound has to be bit perfect. In the weeks ahead, we’ll keep you posted on where all of this leads the poor bastard. All for the love of music, eh?


Swimming in the digital upstream: A music lover discovers wireless tunes

Straight-Six, a very late technology convert, throws himself into the murky waters of digital music. He loves the convenience but loathes the loss of quality it seems to impose him. So, where to next?

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Straight-Six had a proper job as a journalist for Dow Jones before lowering himself gently into the warm, forgiving waters of The Guide. He’s our resident fanatic: he relished detailing his BMW M3 for two full days at a time before crashing it at Eau Rouge in the wet; he spends insane amounts on his home-cinema system and has thrown tens of thousands of euros at vintage Rolex sports watches. The little fool simply does not understand the concept of restraint or the meaning of excess. He also – following a legendary "heavy" lunch – once nibbled (yes, like little dogs do) a dear lady friend of ours.

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  • Grey Thompson

    Great article ;-)

    The Airport Extreme is a phenomenal way to stream music to speakers – no question there. The issue is most certainly the DAC, making the Airport Extreme weak for any high-end system.

    Unfortunately, I’m not aware of wireless streaming devices with a high-quality DAC, so I’d love to see what you come up with! Personally, I’d get that $15,000 turntable cleaned up, and start getting your vinyl on. Why bother with a DAC when you can avoid the conversion altogether. Besides – we all know vinyl sounds better!


    – Grey

    • Straight-Six

      Thanks, Grey.

      Oh, you sound like a bit of a masochistic purist. Just like me!

      Indeed the Airport Express has an optical digital output, like Running Man says, but the Airport Express can only output 16-bit/44.1 khz recordings. So hi-rez digital need not apply. That’s not good enough for me, I’m afraid. I want bit perfect. Besides, the optical connection itself might be questioned, along with the quality of the parts in the Express. Yeah, everything affects the sound. Even digital tunes can’t get away from this audiophilia nervosa!

      And the issue moves beyond the recording quality to also encompass the challenge of using your iPod or IPhone as a music controller: think about needing to quickly lower the volume, for example, which means you have to unlock your device, launch the remote app and then pause/lower the volume. Not ideal.

      And then there’s the iTunes interface, which even after just several months of use has very obvious limitations. Others have better music library interfaces, which are designed to really let you move organically through your collection in a much deeper, more connected manner than just tracks and playlists…

      And as for the turntable upstairs (a Basis Debut Gold Standard, if you’re interested), well, I’ve never had a more visceral, connected audio experience than when I span vinyl on it. Breath-taking stuff. It’s just that small kids and expensive turntables don’t really mix….:)

      Bring on a new house and dedicated hi-fi room. Yay!

  • Running man

    Buy a cheapish DAC (Cambridge audio do one) and connect the digital out from the AE. Voila…

    • Grey Thompson

      I had no idea the Airport Extreme had a digital out! Now I’ll have to look into purchasing one again… damn.

  • Matthew

    Straight-Six….. I am still waiting for the next installment….. so what gives?

    Just to whet your OCD appetiite, and fast track you to the inevitable, have a look at where you will end up…

    Mrs Six, and the Sixlets will hate me for it, but better you know now….

    Say hello to Pandora for me!

    • Straight-Six

      Matthias, my hunk of a wildebeast:

      The shopping list for the next step is already put together and costed. So, the post will be coming shortly, I swear it.

      And don’t worry: the Sixlets and Mrs. Six have already lost all hope of saving me from plunging into the digital stream…

      Take care, old friend.