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We get into quality music streaming. Big Prodigal style.

By on 3 January 2012 in Gadgets

We get into quality music streaming. Big Prodigal style.
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Back in May, Straight-Six dipped his big toe in the wide, whacky world of digital music streaming. Late. Armed with nothing more than an iPod Touch and an Airport Express & AirTunes he began to uncover the incredible potential and pitfalls of digital file-based music. Several months later, and in time for the holiday season, he finally pulled the trigger and is now paddling – with armbands – in the beginner’s pool of music streaming. Below is the first installment of a two-part post on how he’s splashing along.

It would be reassuring to relate that our first steps into various areas of interest and passionate pursuits were taken fully armed with patience, knowledge and contemplation But you need only read up about how we dropped head-first into the world of vintage watches to understand that we’re not always lead by our grey cells. Wallet-bending lust traditionally drives Prodigal decisions. That, along with ego and hardcore envy.

Nonetheless, our love of music and visceral attraction to the equipment that can get us closest to it has remained a constant ever since Straight-Six bought a Beard P-35 tubed power amplifier for his 14th birthday, infecting the Prodigal Fool with the audiophile bug in the process. While we started out at the purist end of the spectrum, confiscating entire rooms for our altar-like set-ups, the arrival of little Prodigals meant pragmatism and integration into ever-changing lifestyles ruled the day. In other words, we’ve had to work damned hard to find the best compromise we can to avoid turning our backs altogether on the audiophilia nervosa condition.

Despite his intensely conservative nature, the Prodigal Fool was the first to move into the world of file-based music and the devices that played/streamed them. One could successfully argue this was lead by his compulsive need to own the latest and hottest gadgets out there. And you’d be right. But while this permitted him to ride the leading edge, it has also given rise to a plethora of gadgets, sub-systems and wireless/non-wireless audio equipment dotted around his abode. For instance, the Fool uses a quality Vita Audio R4 iPod docking station in his kitchen. Where, you ask? It’s placed above his fridge, meaning you need to reach almost to the ceiling to manipulate the iPod given the unintuitive Vita Audio remote. It’s ridiculous, impractical and a clear reminder of why iDocks are destined to be phased out completely in favour of wireless control.

Where, wondered Six, was the oft-touted synergy of music streaming? The killer UI that governed an entirely wireless and seamless music delivery system? And what about actually hearing all of the music, rather than, say, the iTunes’ pathetic offering of MP3-quality music tracks – a mere tenth of the size of the original track? Sure, the $0.99 per track price point remains marketing genius, but the compression on offer was developed for MP3 players, shit-can headphones, crappy laptop speakers and bombastic docking stations. Immediate convenience shackled by permanent musical inferiority.

Six bluntly pointed to the reality that the Fool’s musical online purchases simply sucked in terms of quality. And always would. The Fool had sold-out.

Much arguing and punching ensued at Prodigal Towers, followed by lashings of wine during the kiss-and-make-up session. The outcome? The Fool advised Six to experiment with the iPod Touch, AirPort Express/AirTunes some ripped CDs and Internet radio. “See where that gets you, little one,” he seethed.

Fast forward a few months and Six was left utterly amazed by the convenience, breadth and sheer magic of what was on offer. However, the quality, interface and reliability left much to be desired. Slow start-up via the iPod, regular drop-outs via the home Wi-Fi network and a clunky iTunes UI needed addressing. Along with the need to produce bit-perfect copies of some 1,600 CDs and make them fully accessible via integration into a multi-room/system reality that had sufficient resolution to require lossless music. There would be no compromise on quality, as that would be the equivalent of selling out on a musical collection built up over the last 26 years.

Months of further study and conversations with pros followed, leading Six to conclude that there was indeed a place more sadistic and complex than the traditional audiophile asylum he’d inhabited for decades: high-end, computer-based audio hell.

We’ll spare you the painful details, but it turns out that the good old days of spunking cash on big boxes, wiring them together before pressing play on your CD player, or lowering the needle on your slab o’ vinyl, are long gone. In their place lie multiple combinations of software and hardware so perverse – and rapidly outdated – they make you scream for DOS. Seriously. And all we wanted to do was play some quality tunes!

Six fearlessly went on, despite the mountains of advice and multiple options on offer. Once again, it was about being pragmatic, what with three different music systems on three different floors to tie together, and a dictatorial, technophobic Finnish wife to convince.

And that’s when a US brand called SONOS, founded by a former Apple engineer, reared its head. Purporting to “Stream all the music on earth in every room”, SONOS came highly recommended as the most hassle-free, quality provider of digital tunes. Again and again, owners and sellers of the equipment talked about the brand’s brilliant and intuitive approach toward what could be a terrifyingly complex endeavour. Only the Meridian Sooloos system bettered the Sonos, and that at a much higher price point. It appeared Six had found his digital backbone.

As ever, the SONOS system wouldn’t come alone. Six wasn’t willing to settle for the built-in SONOS DACs (Digital-to-Analogue converters), instead choosing the Arcam rDAC for dining room duties, while the built-in DACs of his Primare SP21 receiver would set things straight for the home-theatre set-up. The dining room speakers were also in need of a serious upgrade, and the Bowers and Wilkins CM1 was just the device for the job. And what of the master bedroom shitbox? It would be replaced by the SONOS PLAY:5 active loudspeaker, which could also be placed anywhere in the house and seamlessly linked into the separate SONOS wireless mesh network.

So, decisions had finally been taken, equipment ordered, monies transferred and a set-up date inked into the calendar. With Six’s family away for the install date, there was nothing to do but wait patiently. And listen to a charming Dutch guy explain precisely why it would costs thousands to rip our entire CD collection. Like we keep telling ourselves: if you’re going to do it, may as well do it right!

Tune in Friday to read all about the actual installation, firing up of the complete system(s), our first impressions and why more financial pain and aural pleasure are just round the corner.


We get into quality music streaming. Big Prodigal style.

Just how do you get you an unapologetic, and analogue, audiophile to go completely digital? You give him/her bit-perfect music transfer, an unbeatable user-interface, facile set-up…et voila!

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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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