Australian Audio & AV Show Archive

Australian Hi-Fi And AV Show 2016

Cambridge Audio / Rega hi-fi system

A Cambridge Audio / Rega hi-fi system representing all of the music sources – vinyl, CDs and file-based audio

The Australian Hi-Fi and AV Show, previously known as the Australian Audio and AV Show appeared this past weekend at the Intercontinental Melbourne The Rialto hotel. This attracted a significant number of hi-fi and home-AV names even though some of them had exhibited at another competing hotel-based hi-fi show that was held on July 1-3 at the Pullman Mercure Hotel near Albert Park.

Core trends

Most manufacturers were running equipment setups that had a turntable and a network media player and, in some cases, a CD player connected to the setup’s main integrated or control amplifier. This was to demonstrate their equipment’s prowess with both analogue and digital material while underscoring a reality with most of us heading between these different media for regular listening as some time in our lives.

Hi-Fi speaker designs

This year has been a chance for some manufacturers to showcase some interesting hi-fi speaker designs as these actually utter the music being played through the hi-fi system. There is still a strong interest in the traditional stereo setup rather than surround-sound audio, typically associated with watching Hollywood movies.

Active speakers

Bang & Olufsen Beolab 90 digital-active speakers

Bang & Olufsen Beolab 90 digital-active speakers

During the 2013 show, a few manufacturers were demonstrating active speakers that had integrated power amplifiers as viable pieces of hi-fi equipment, breaking the mould of “computer speakers, lifestyle audio and PA speakers” for this class of speaker. It included Linn even demonstrating “digital-active” speakers, a concept that Philips had pioneered with the DSS-930 and DSS-950 digital-active speakers that could be fed from an SP/DIF digital signal source.

This year, there were some more manufacturers presenting active-speaker designs including some “digital-active” designs coming from Linn and Bang & Olufsen. Here, this was more about proving that the speakers can house the amplification circuitry and, in some cases, digital-signal processing and conversion circuitry yet yield clear hi-fi sound without “stressing”.

Bang & Olufsen Beolab 18

The B&O Beolab 8000 “pencil” in a new form – the Beolab 18

For that matter, Bang & Olufsen had been a stranger to the hi-fi show circuit especially in Australia until this year where they occupied one of the banquet rooms to present their Beolab 90 digital-active speakers (14 ICEPower amplifiers and 4 Class-D amplifiers serving 18 speaker drivers)  along with the Beolab 18 which is the latest iteration of the Beolab 8000 “pencil-design” speakers and the Beovision 14 flat-screen TV. Typically, they didn’t want to compete with the traditional hi-fi industry and pitch towards the traditional “audiophile” mindset, but focus towards those who appreciated very good music and flim and those who valued the design they were known for.

A glass speaker housing

Spunc Sound presented a cube-shaped speaker design at this show. Here, it was using speaker drivers back-to-back to create a powerful clear sound for speakers in a glass housing rather than a traditional wooden housing that would normally require insulation to work against standing waves.

I even heard these speakers playing a Lady Ga Ga track from a CD to underscore how they responded with highly-rhythmic electronic-dance-music content as well as demonstrating the way they used sound-cancellation techniques to yield that clear sound. It underscored that rare possibility of being able to see through the back of the speaker that was in full flight.

Old speaker legends rediscovered

But some manufacturers have been rediscovering legendary speaker designs that have had a subsequent influence on how the stereo speaker was designed over the years.

The BBC influence

Harbeth speaker

The Harbeth speakers based on the legendary BBC monitor speakers

Two manufacturers had been demonstrating speakers that were based on their involvement with designing “near-field monitor” speakers for the BBC through the late 1960s. These were tools that came in to being for any radio or TV show that the BBC had a hand with, whether through the sound-production or the broadcast process.

One of these were the Harbeth speakers which were designed by the BBC as part of their R&D efforts and the first to implement polypropylene speaker cones. The other was the KEF LS50 50th Anniversary bookshelf speaker which was based on KEF’s LS 3/5 monitor speaker that was designed by the BBC to be used in their outside-broadcast vans, but implemented coaxial drivers which is something often associated with automotive sound.

Yamaha brings back their 70s-era speaker classic

Yamaha NS-5000 Speakers

Yamaha NS-5000 speakers that were based on the NS-1000M speakers launched in 1974

Yamaha had presented the NS-5000 floor/shelf speakers that were being launched at the show. These are a pair of speakers based on the NS-1000M speakers launched in 1974 when Supertramp released their “Crime Of The Century” album. But there have been a lot of today’s improvements built in to these speakers such as newer material for the speaker drivers.

I had heard these in action with Paul Simon’s “Late In The Evening” played from FLAC-based audio via a Yamaha CD player serving as a USB DAC, connected to one of Yamaha’s latest integrated amplifiers. Here, the song came through very clearly and underscored what the legendary design was about.

Open standards being used for network-based audio

FLAC files that can be created by Windows 10 Media Player handled by this network media player

FLAC files that can be created by Windows 10 Media Player handled by this network media player

There were two main paths for passing through computer-based audio – a Windows or Mac laptop connected to a DAC, CD player or digital amplifier which worked as a USB-based sound module; or a small network linking a NAS or other media server to one or more a network media players and implementing DLNA network media discovery technology.

Here, most of these setups were dealing with FLAC audio files which have effectively been “opened up” to Windows users through Windows 10 providing operating-system support for these files, whether for playback or “ripping” from regular CDs. It could be very feasible to use Windows 10’s Media Player software to play a high-grade FLAC file in to any USB DAC shown at this year’s show without the need to add extra software.

Bricasti M12 Dual Mono Source Controller

Bricasti M12 Dual-Mono Source Controller – an example of a USB-capable digital preamplifier

Some setups even exploited TiDAL as an online music source, even though there is the difficulty with running network-capable consumer AV equipment with a hotel network based around the notion of logging in via Web-based authentication. But IHG worked around this issue by providing the equivalent of a “home Internet connection” to most of these rooms for the duration of the show.

The fact that most of these setups implemented standards that aren’t owned by particular vendors meant that there was the ability for the companies to innovate. This was more so with the ability to focus on writing software and designing hardware that was about sound quality but without the need to reinvent the wheel.

Network-based lifestyle audio

There is still some interest amongst a few manufacturers in audio equipment that exploits the home network as a media-distribution path while fitting in with your lifestyle. But the idea of high-quality sound still exists for this class of equipment, whether in the form of a multiroom speaker system or a network CD receiver or network audio receiver that is the hub of a high-quality three-piece stereo system.

Denon had launched their latest generation of the Heos multiroom platform which included some speakers and network media players with one of these devices being able to stream audio content out from existing equipment to a cluster of Heos speakers.

Naim mu-so soundbar and mu-so Qb wireless speaker

Naim mu-so soundbar and mu-so Qb wireless speaker

Naim were also showing the mu-so multiroom speaker systems including the mu-so Qb which is a cube-shaped take on the original mu-so soundbar. As well, the latest iterations of their network media players can serve as master or client devices in a Naim-based multiroom setup.

But there is still the problem with the network-based multiroom audio scene where it is totally dependent on customers using equipment from the same equipment manufacturer or with the same chipset platform. There hasn’t been any effort in the AV industry to provide a standard for distributing real-time content like audio or video content in sync across a network to multiple endpoint devices of different types from different manufacturers.

Marantz CR-611 network CD receiver

Marantz CR-611 network CD receiver

There is still some interest in the high-quality lifestyle music system from some manufacturers. Marantz exhibited their CR611 network CD receiver which was paired up with a set of Jamo bookshelf speakers as their entry in to this scene, following from the previously-issued CR603 network CD receiver that was seen at the 2011 show. Here, it was highlighted with a Sound and Image award as the best “system solution” of the year for 2017, representing this class of equipment that can easily be sidelined by some peiple in the hi-fi scene.

Arcam Solo Music network CD receiver

Arcam Solo Music network CD receiver

Arcam used this show to premiere the Solo Music network CD receiver which is the follow-on to the Solo Neo and was previously mentioned on HomeNetworking01.info. This was a chance for me to try it out and I played one of the CDs from the ABC Classic 100 Swoon collection on it. I had “this unit play “The Lark Ascending” by Vaughan Williams and this unit, paired with the previously-mentioned KEF LS50 speakers, proved what these systems were about with this kind of music, something that would underscore one of the use cases that I highlighted for this class of equipment.

George Robertson, who represented Arcam even highlighted the way the Solo Music and its stablemates were built, underscoring the use of traditional electronics-building techniques along with Class-G amplification design. He even asked me to attempt to lift up the unit and I had found it very heavy, which showed how it was built to last.

Naim Uniti Atom and Uniti Core

Naim Uniti Atom network media receiver and Naim Uniti Core “ripping NAS” media server

Naim used this show to premiere the new Uniti range of lifestyle audio equipment. The first two products and the ones that were shown were the Uniti Core which is a media server or, should I say a “ripping NAS”; and the Uniti Atom which is a compact network media receiver that can be wired up to a pair of speakers. This even went as far as implementing a touchscreen user interface on the main unit along with a volume control located on top of that set – easy to find! But this doesn’t omit the high-quality sound associated with this brand.

BenQ treVolo electrostatic Bluetooth speaker

BenQ treVolo portable Bluetooth electrostatic speaker

I was even able to hear one of the BenQ treVolo Bluetooth electrostatic speakers that proved that the electrostatic speaker design isn’t just for the highly-esoteric hi-fi setup preferred by audiophiles with too much money to spend. Here, this setup yielded a very clear sound that could encompass all music types from your mobile computing device that is playing out those FLAC files.

Headphones

The “HeadZone” that existed during previous years where headphones were being premiered and demonstrated had gone but some manufacturers were still promoting premium headphones.

For example, BeyerDynamic had used their room to promote their newest range of headphones but the range they were exhibiting while Naim demonstrated a range of premium music headphones along with their headphone amplifier.

What was really becoming the case was that the headphone market has become very saturated with many different sets of “cans” on the market although there are some that do certain tasks well. Here, this show had focused on the headphones that were about listening to music through headphones at home rather than during your public-transport commute for example.

Conclusion

The Australian Hi-FI And AV Show kept the reality alive regarding how recorded music is played, whether through the familiar vinyl records or CDs, or file-based media streamed from a computer or NAS connected via a home network, or even a high-quality audio streaming service. But it has underscored that each of these music-reproduction paths can yield high-quality sound with the right equipment.

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Australian Audio And AV Show 2014

Introduction

IMG_2138In October I had visited the Australian Audio And AV Show which was hosted at the Intercontinental Melbourne The Rialto hotel and this was about observing the way hi-fi and home AV were progressing especially on the Australian market.

Video Technology

Regular readers may have seen some coverage about the new 4K ultra-high-resolution TV technology and I had a chance to see this technology in full flight for myself at this show, courtesy of Sony. But the Sony representatives have remarked that this technology’s appearance in the broadcast-TV context is still a long way off especially in Australia. Here, they remarked that 4K UHDTV content will have to be delivered in a packaged form i.e. Blu-Ray Discs, file-based video delivered via USB hard disks or via the home network.

Sony 4K UHDTV

Sony 4K UHDTV

BenQ and Epson presented Full-HD video projectors that were more or less targeted at home-theatre setups and were demonstrated in that context.

Audio Technology

The two main distribution trends that are hanging on for quality hi-fi sound reproduction at the moment are the classic vinyl record or file-based audio content delivered via the home network.

The classic vinyl record

A turntable equipped with an optical cartridge that uses light to follow the stylus vibrations

A turntable equipped with an optical cartridge that uses light to follow the stylus vibrations

The classic vinyl record is still focused on new-cut records that have been mastered using newer techniques that permit increased dynamic range. These are played on turntables that are equipped for improved stability and the sound path implements high-grade components from stylus to speaker.  The equipment that I have seen in operation at this and previous Australian Audio And AV Shows is more for those who value the vinyl format as a hi-fi content source rather than to be part of the image.

VinylPlay - an integrated-phono-stage turntable that raises the bar for this class of turntable

VinylPlay – an integrated-phono-stage turntable that raises the bar for this class of turntable

One manufacturer even implemented an “optical cartridge’ that uses reflected light rather than friction to follow the stylus’s vibrations in that groove. Here, this cartridge can be fitted to most tonearms associated with high-quality turntables and is connected to a special preamplifier which exposes this cartridge’s output as a line-level signal. Here, it was about using light as a tool to “follow” a source of acoustic vibrations before it is converted to an amplifiable electrical signal as well as being able to use this cartridge with most turntables.

One turntable that was exhibited here that is considered a proper specimen for bridging the classic medium with today’s Sonos speakers or the computer is the VinylPlay “integrated phono stage” turntable. This has a similar build to most of the recent Rega, Pro-Ject or similar turntables that properly welcomed back vinyl and has what is expected for stability, but has a built-in phono preamplifier with digital and USB outputs as well as line-level and “cartridge-direct” analogue outputs. Another feature that increases its useability, especially for a manual turntable, is a distinct arrow on the cartridge’s front that indicates where the stylus is, so you can be sure the needle is where you want it i.e. on that record. What I see of this USB-equipped record player is that it isn’t about a gimmicky flimsy unit but one that can properly bridge the classic records to a lot of equipment.

Digital audio

On the other hand, the quality of digital audio, both in the recordings that are distributed and the “file-to-speaker” playback chain has improved. For example, the “high-resolution” file-based audio content has been represented here as being above the 44.1kHz 16-bit CD-Audio or the 48kHz 16-bit standard-play DAT specifications that was “cemented” for digital audio recording and playback in the late 1980s. Typically, audio that is made to this specification will resolve towards 24-bit 96kHz or 24-bit 192kHz digital-audio streams and this will either be in the form of FLAC or similar audio files and it yields what could be perceived a clearer sound. It is also augmented through the use of digital-analogue converters or digital-amplifiers that are designed to “pull more out” of a digital-audio stream with very little in the way of unwanted sound artifacts.

Sony MAP-S1 network-capable CD receiver

Sony MAP-S1 network-capable CD receiver

Equipment that was designed to cope with the “master-grade” high-resolution digital audio sound could also bring out the best from classic digital audio content as I had seen for myself with the Sony MAP-S1 network-capable CD receiver. This unit was set up completely as a system with a pair of the Sony SSH-W1 3-way bookshelf speaker and I had let it perform with my Whispers “Love Is Where You Find It / Love For Love” CD. Here, it came through clearly with the soul music, yielding that desirable “punch” to the sound yet coming across clearly.

The home network as part of digital audio

Auralic Aries network-to-digital media bridge which serves an external DAC

Auralic Aries network-to-digital media bridge which serves an external DAC

Again, the home network is still considered as part of enjoying digital audio. This is typically with a network-attached-storage device or music-focused media server holding all the music and network media receivers playing the music that is held on the NAS or from one or more online sources. It has been brought about with the larger size of music files that are prepared according to high-resolution “master-grade” standards and these files being offered on a “download-to-own” basis.

There were a few of the network audio receiver devices which were built to work with an external digital amplifier or digital-analogue converter rather than doing the digital-analogue conversion themselves. These were pitched for use with the top-notch digital-analogue converters and digital amplifiers the were becoming part of a high-grade digital-audio setup.

.. which serves this Auralic Vega digital-analogue converter and Auralic Taurus control amplifier

.. which serves this Auralic Vega digital-analogue converter and Auralic Taurus control amplifier

One of these was Auralic Aries network audio bridge connects between home network or online content and DAC,  DLNA support and works as Media Renderer. Connects to DAC via USB, AES/EBU (Digital XLR), SPDIF Coaxial or SPDIF Optical, network via 802.11a/g/n Wi-Fi or Ethernet. As well, it works with Linn’s Songcast “network sound card” software so it and the DAC work as a computer sound card. This device is controlled using Auralic’s Lightning DS mobile-platform app but has the ability to work with an Auralic remote control for ad-hoc program selection and transport control.

The QNAP NAS works as a music server

The QNAP NAS works as a music server

This small network-media bridge  was fed by a QNAP NAS full of music and passed its digital signals via USB to an Auralic Vega digital-analogue converter. It in turn passed the analogue signals to the Auralic Taurus Pre control amplifier feeding a pair of Merak monobloc power amps to drive a pair of floor-standing speakers.

Another was the latest iteration of the NAD Masters Series of premium digital hi-fi components with the M12 digital control amplifier and M22 stereo power amplifier being driven by the <model number> digital media player. This unit appeared at previous Australian Audio And AV Shows and was an example of an optical-disc transport and network audio bridge device.

Latest iteration of the NAD Masters digital-driven hi-fi system

Latest iteration of the NAD Masters digital-driven hi-fi system

There is an increased number of dedicated music servers or “ripping NAS” units being presented at this year’s show with some of them working as the music servers for their distributors’ rooms. Two examples included the RipNAS Solid v3 and the Naim HDX. The Cocktail Audio music servers still appeared but were on static display, not serving an active system. As always, Naim pushed their music servers in to service as content libraries for two music systems, this time it was the NDS which was serving the Statement ultra-premium hi-fi system and the mu-so wireless speaker.

RipNAS Solid v3 ripping NAS

RipNAS Solid v3 ripping NAS

Lifestyle and multiroom audio

Lifestyle audio still had its strong presence at the Australian Audio And AV Show. This was mainly dominated with single-piece wireless speakers and soundbars with some of the soundbars being used to play music. Some of these systems implemented subwoofers to “lift” the bass response, whether they were packaged with the soundbars or simply as to be set up to work with one of the wireless speakers just to add that bit of “bite” to the sound.

These were part of the multiroom trend where you can have music systems located in different rooms  There was even a seminar on the multiroom audio trend and this highlighted the arrival of the home network and online media as key drivers of this technology.

Naim mu-so wireless speaker

Naim mu-so wireless speaker

But they highlighted the fact that different companies, including chipset and technology vendors, are working on their own solution to permit audio content to be delivered to many speakers via a packet-based network like the typical Wi-FI or Bluetooth network in sync without jittering or packet loss. This was to open up paths for situations like 2 wireless speakers being set up to work as a true stereo pair with proper separation or “party-streaming” setups with multiple speakers and sound systems. At the moment, most of these systems can only work with equipment that implements the same technology and I am not sure whether these systems can work properly on a multiple-access-point setup such as with a wireless range extender or traditional setup with access points connected via an Ethernet or HomePlug AV wired backbone.

Denon HEOS wireless speakers

Denon HEOS wireless speakers

Denon had exhibited their HEOS Multiroom setup consisting of three different single-piece wireless speakers while Definitive Technologies used Room 320 for showing a highly-complete wireless audio system. This one consisted of a few different single-piece speakers, a soundbar, a wireless amplifier and an “on-ramp / off-ramp” audio adaptor module for their PlayFi-based system which uses a small Wi-Fi network as its carrier. Polk also made us aware of their wireless multiroom system which was based on one of the existing synchronisation technologies.

Definitive Technologies W-Series soundbar - as part of their multiroom setu[p

Definitive Technologies W-Series soundbar – as part of their multiroom setu[p

Ruark Audio had surfaced this year with a collection of table radios and music systems. This was headed by the R7 Radiogram which has a CD player, FM/DAB/Internet radio, Bluetooth playback, DLNA MediaRenderer functionality and access to online services. Here, it is styled in a form similar to the archetypal “radiogram” or “console stereo” that served as the main household music system for most people through the 1950s and 1960s and is something that is pitched at the “baby-boomer” generation.

Definitive Technologies Adapt "on-ramp / off-ramp" for the W-Series multiroom setup

Definitive Technologies Adapt “on-ramp / off-ramp” for the W-Series multiroom setup

Naim also came to the fore with a single-piece wireless speaker called the mu-so. This could pull up content from a DLNA server or online content services (think Spotify or Internet radio), AirPlay, Bluetooth A2DP with aptX amongst other sources. It is primarily controlled through Naim’s mobile app and works tightly with their multiroom streaming setup. But this uses a 3-way speaker arrangement for each channel with each driver having its own amplifier and it also implements DSP technology which Naim implemented in the sound system used in the newer Bentley cars.

Ruark R7 Radiogram - the up-to-date take on an old classic form factor

Ruark R7 Radiogram – the up-to-date take on an old classic form factor

The Headzone still appeared, representing the increased role that headphones and earphones played in the personal AV life. The theme here still was to listen to music or video content through the headphones rather than have them available to hear the other party of a phone conversation or hear the sound effects associated with computer games played on our mobile devices. But I would see these still play a strong role with VoIP or mobile communications services that implement “HD Voice” or newer telephony-audio technologies which sound as good as AM radio, if not better.

They still are important for the connected life as we use them to be able to listen to music, video and games effects from our computing devices privately. Most of the premium sets were demoed with dedicated headphone amplifiers but some of the headphones were either connected to regular integrated amplifiers or the headphone outputs on some CD players, or simply available for us to plug our mobile devices in to.

It is also worth being aware of the efficiency that particular headphones show up, especially if you are targeting them for portable use with battery-operated equipment. Here, I had discovered this for myself with the Sony MDR-10RC headphones I previously reviewed and a pair of newer portable-focused headphones I am using as my regular set and tried both of them on the Sony SBH-52 Bluetooth adaptor associated with my Samsung smartphone. I ran the Bluetooth adaptor at the same volume setting on both headphones and the portable-focused headphones sounded louder but not as clear compared to the MDR-10RC set. The fact that one pair may sound louder at the same volume level compared to another, thus being more efficient, may be of benefit with that battery-operated device because you are not “running the device hard” for the same volume level, thus not drawing on the batteries more.

Speaker technology

An example of one of the many systems that were demonstrated with bookshelf speakers yet yield the bass

An example of one of the many systems that were demonstrated with bookshelf speakers yet yield the bass

A lot of the hi-fi systems were demonstrated with the conventional-architecture speakers, some of which were the traditional floor-standing types or most of which were the bookshelf speakers that were set up on speaker stands. These still yielded strong unassisted bass response with the amplifiers at “ideal listening volume”.

On the other hand, another firm were exhibiting a surround-sound setup which used flat-panel speakers in a traditional quadraphonic layout but these required the use of a subwoofer to convey the bass response.

Conclusion

What the last few iterations of the Australian Audio And AV Show have underscored was the fact that recorded-music reproduction has taken many methods and has improved on the methods. The signal path from the content source, being a vinyl record, optical disc or a file held on a computer or network-attached storage, to the speakers will under a continual path of innovation and even the medium itself will under a path of innovation.

I have provided a Spotify playlist of some of the songs that have heen played here.

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Australian Audio & AV Show 2013

IMG_1174This past weekend I had visited the Australian Audio & AV Show which was hosted at the Intercontinental Melbourne The Rialto hotel in Collins Street, Melbourne. This is one of the hotel-based hi-fi shows where, in addition to most if not all the banquet rooms at the hotel being used, at least two, if not three floors of guest-rooms are block-booked with the beds removed out of most, if not all of the rooms. Here, these rooms serve as demonstration rooms with the aesthetics and sound qualities comparable to most living rooms, music rooms or home theatres.

This show underscored particular audio and AV trends, especially the use of network-based digital audio setups. This is more so as the file-based “download-to-own” audio services and the subscription-driven “cyber jukeboxes” like Spotify mature and gain real traction. Of course, it wasn’t feasible to demonstrate the online services from the equipment involved due to the common situation where public-access wireless networks such as what exists at this hotel implement that browser-based authentication routine which doesn’t work with consumer electronics.

One concept that was underscored through this show is that all the good quality recording and playback equipment in the world can show up the poor recording or remastering techniques that can occur in the studio. It doesn’t matter whether the recording had been worked up to a 24 bit 192 kbz master file or turned out as a “new-cut” vinyl record or digital-remaster CD.

Preservation of Media and Technology Comfort Zones

Linn Sondek LP12

Linn Sondek LP12 – the 40-year-old turntable keeps on as a legend

There was an effort to preserve media and technology comfort zones with a few demonstration systems playing from vinyl or regular CDs and some of the systems in “full flight” were based on valve (tube) amplification. An example of this was McIntosh, an American hi-fi legend, showing one of their valve power amplifiers while some other companies even ran with amplifiers that implemented valve/solid-state hybrid construction.

One company even played a “new-cut” vinyl pressing of “Blood Sweat And Tears” which sounded so clear on their demonstration equipment. As well, the distributer for Harman and JBL had a setup which was based on a regular CD player playing through JBL floor-standing speakers and I had played Genesis’s “Many Too Many” off my CD copy of “And Then There Were Three” through this setup.

Yamaha and a few others even ran demonstration systems where a turntable, CD player and network audio player were connected to the system’s amplifier to show that these sources had an equal chance of yielding high-quality sound when fed good recordings no matter the medium. Similarly, Linn demonstrated their legendary Sondek LP12 turntable which was celebrating the 40th anniversary of this classic’s design and presented a record which was a compilation of choice cuts from their record library while they put the way forward with file-based digital audio with their DSM network media players.

Wirelessly-networked audio setups

I had watched a presentation by Cambridge Audio about the direction for wirelessly-networked audio setups and they mentioned that Bluetooth and Wi-Fi were on a level footing.

Arcam rBlink Bluetooth DAC adaptor

Arcam rBlink does a very good job of linking your Bluetooth phone to your stereo

There has been a message that, even though vinyl has been making its steady return, convenience-based AV technologies aren’t undermining the sound quality. This is similar to how I saw the cassette format “earn its stripes” and become respected through the late 70s and the early 80s, what with Dolby noise reduction, better tape formulations like chrome dioxide, Dolby HX recording-improvement technology along with those high-grade musicassettes issued through the mid 80s.

Pure Jongo T6 wireless speaker

Pure Jongo T6 wireless speaker playing from my phone

Here, the aptX codec was introduced in to Bluetooth A2DP setups to provide high-grade audio quality when you use Bluetooth headsets or speakers as I had noticed when I played “You And I” by Delegation from my Samsung Galaxy Note II through a pair of Aktimate Blue Bluetooth speakers and they yielded that punchy bass and clear treble.

The DLNA / UPnP AV technology had been highlighted by Cambridge Audio as enabling high-quality open-frame audio distribution over Wi-Fi and Ethernet home networks. This technology allowed equipment that was able to play 24-bit audio content to discover and play this content off a NAS or similar media server.

USB speakers with a laptop

USB-driven hi-fi speakers rais the bar for laptop sound and bring through audiophile quality

The idea of one-source multiple-speaker wireless audio setups is not perfect due to the use of packet-based technologies implemented with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. This typically requires the implementation of a “master device” which keeps all the devices in sync when it comes to what they are playing and Pure implemented this with one of their Jongo devices being considered a “master devices”. This network was simply served by an ordinary wireless router that served as an access point and DHCP server to cover that room where the speakers were shown. Their solution allowed for “party-streaming” from multiple speakers and  a pair of the same-model speakers to operate as a stereo pair for wider separation.  Dynaudio demonstrated a wireless speaker setup that worked on their own wireless-distribution technology which was primarily circuit-based rather than packet-based.

Stronger foothold for file-based audio distribution

This leads me to the fact that there is a stronger foothold in file-based audio distribution in the hi-fi space. In this show, a lot of companies were demonstrating music that was played either through a room-wide DLNA Home Media Network or a laptop that was connected to a USB digital-analogue converter.

The USB digital-analogue converters that were used in this show typically presented themselves to Macintosh OS X or Windows as another “sound card” according to USB Audio specifications. Some of these devices were components that were connected to existing amplifiers or were part of a control amplifier, integrated amplifier or powered speakers.

Netgear ReadyNAS

A NAS like this ReadyNAS or the ripping NAS nearby is as much a hi-fi component

On the other hand, the more popular method for file-based audio distribution was the UPnP AV / DLNA Home Media Network. A significant number of the rooms were running these networks that comprised of a NAS full of music and one or more components or systems capable of audio playback from a network, typically a Wi-Fi wireless network. A typical router served as the “glue” to hold each room’s network together.

With these setups, it was feasible to run content presented as 24-bit FLAC or similar files or regular PCM-format WAV files to allow the hi-fi equipment to perform at its best. Some of these networks used a heterogenous mix of devices with only the exhibitor’s brand being highly positioned.

Cocktail X30 music server

Cocktail X30 full-width music server and receiver

Cocktail X10 music server

Cocktail X10 music server which is a stereo system

I had also seen on show the Cocktail Audio X10 and X30 network media servers which are themselves capable of being the heart of a 3-piece music system or working with another sound system. I had previously covered the X10 on this site but the newly-previewed X30 full-width unit has more inputs, an FM radio tuner, and a highly-powerful amplifier with proper binding-post speaker connections. These units can be DLNA music servers for a home network or be capable of pulling up content on a network-attached storage this way,

Rise of Spotify and similar online services

There is the rise of the online service, especially Spotify which been perceived as the “online jukebox”. It still works on the three tiers with a free ad-based setup, an “unlimited” desktop-only setup as well as a premium setup with desktop and mobile ad-free listening. Some markets have a “mobile free” listening service but it will be rolled out to all of the markets. The mobile services provide content download to the local storage on the mobile device while the desktop service is primarily about streaming the content.

Naim NDS network audio player

Naim NDS network audio player

The Spotify Connect feature that was just launched is more about “passing” content playback directions to equipment that supports this service via the home network. This has been more about “freeing up” a smartphone or tablet that is the Spotify control surface to be able to be used for communications or game playing.

Denon DNP-F109 network audio player

Denon DNP-F109 network audio player

Similarly, Spotify is working with vehicle builders to provide an integrated experience for drivers. Ford’s AppSync variant is focused on the app in the mobile device doing the heavy lifting and the dashboard working as a remote control surface and AUX input.

High-quality lifestyle audio

A class of audio-playback equipment that tends to be forgotten about in the hi-fi sphere is “lifestyle audio” or “lifestyle-centric audio”, This represents the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi speakers along with the CD receivers or network media receivers that are the hub of a three-piece music system. Traditional hi-fi enthusiasts find that if you don’t have the component-driven setup with individual pieces of equipment in separate boxes doing their job, you are not leading to good sound but the “lifestyle” equipment that was shown here was about equipment that can yield high-quality sound yet be in a compact enclosure that is still aesthetically pleasing.

As I said in my review of the Rotel RCX-1500 CD receiver, I touched on the music centres and casseivers (receivers with integrated cassette deck) of the late 1970s where mid-priced and high-end variants had the expectations of a good component-based hi-fi system in one piece. Then Bang & Olufsen kept the flag going with their Beocenter and Beosound products like the legendary Beocenter 7000 series through the 80s until the likes of Bose and Proton drew back this class of system as a high-quality “lifestyle” product.

Naim UnitiQute 2 on dressing table

The Naim Uniti!Qute 2 – a high-quality network-connected music system for that small room

A system that demonstrated this concept very well was a Naim UnitiQute 2 network media receiver that was connected to a pair of Totem DreamCatcher bookshelf speakers and presented on a dressing table in one of the hotel’s Club Junior Suite rooms. This conveyed to me an image of something that would fit in well in an elegant master bedroom or the kitchen where you show off your gourmet cooking skills.

Cyrus's latest CD receiver

Cyrus’s latest CD receiver

There has been an increased number of full-width slimline CD receivers which have Wi-Fi DLNA home-network connectivity including an advance-sample preview of Cyrus’s first CD receiver. This unit was demonstrated through a pair of floorstanding speakers which show up how flexible these systems were. Here, it could play CDs, receive FM or DAB+ broadcast radio, stream from a Bluetooth smartphone or pull in network or Internet hosted content with an integrated Wi-Fi module. Other examples included Arcam’s Solo Neo and Naim’s Uniti 2.

Arcam Solo Neo CD receiver

Arcam Solo Neo CD receiver

One lifestyle system, the Elipson Planet series, which had speakers shaped like spheres and a centre unit shaped like a cylinder implements the Bang & Olufsen icePower power-amplification technology for its power amplifiers. This system’s industrial design along with the use of B&O icePower technology could be seen as “Clayton’s” B&O music system – a B&O when you don’t have a B&O.

Elipson Planet music system

Elipson Planet music system – the B&O when you don’t have a B&O

These three-piece systems are being considered because of their relevance to the “downsized home”, which is becoming more real with baby-boomer couples moving to smaller homes as their children grow their feathers and fly the nest. Similarly, the look towards the minimalist interior design is underscoring the need for these systems as is the concept of some of these systems offering “primary-system” capability and quality in a package suited to a secondary music system.

At the same time, there has been an increased number of wireless speakers that work with Bluetooth or Wi-Fi wireless networks with Pure launching a good range of the “Jongo” speakers which are able to exploit a Wi-Fi segment as a self-sustaining synchronised multi-speaker network. Cambridge Audio also used this to launch a range of Bluetooth / Wi-Fi speakers that work with Spotify Connect.

Speaker technology

JBL speakers

These classic speaker designs still hang on in the hi-fi conscience

There were some manufacturers and distributors showing the traditional floor-standing speakers with Harman and VAF showing some that would be considered “furniture pieces”. The ones that Harman showed were a pair of JBLs that would be considered par for the course with a 1970s receiver and had the large horns for the tweeters while VAF presented a speaker with wallpaper on the outside and 50s-style spindle legs, calling it “Maximising Spousal Acceptance Factor”.

But many manufacturers were demonstrating small traditional-arrangement bookshelf speakers that could put up a very punchy sound. With these speakers, it could be easy to doubt whether they are working by themselves or whether people who are demonstrating them are using a subwoofer as part of the setup.

Aktimate bookshelf active speakers

Aktimate bookshelf active speakers do punch out the music

As well, there has been an increased number of active speakers which have integrated amplifiers. This class of speaker was being given ore thought in the hi-fi world and not just thought of as computer speakers, lifestyle speakers (B&O, Bose) or as PA speakers. This is even though at the early stages of hi-fi, audiophiles used public-address amplifiers that they tuned to drive their custom-built speakers.

One company used another of the Club Junior Suites to demonstrate a set of floor-standing active speakers which used two power amplifiers per cabinet and line-level crossovers, thus proving that you can have a decent-sounding hi-fi in full flight based around this technology. Another regular-sized hotel room was used to demonstrate the Aktimate speakers which are bookshelf speakers that have an integrated stereo amplifier

I also see this as providing for high-grade right-sized sound-reinforcement setups where you can create an all-active-speaker sound system around JBL EON PA speakers for a large room full of people or an outdoor setting while these hi-fi active speakers could satisfy a smaller room where extra sound quality comes in to play,

To the same extent, Linn improved on what Philips started on in the early 1990s by refining a high-quality digital speaker system fit for the 24-bit studio master recording. This system, known as the Exakt is set around a digital sound path to just before the actual speaker driver with the Exakt speakers implementing a digital crossover and one digital amplifier for each driver. This implements a proprietary “Exakt Link” from the controller which is the Klimax Exakt DSM to these speakers.

Headphones

There was a special section of this show dedicated to headphone technology and you may think that this is to be taken up by exotic audiophile headphones. But these headphones also shared the HeadZone space with headphones that are capable of delivering high-quality sound from your smartphone, tablet or laptop while you are on the train for a reasonable price.  This increased show space underscored the reality that the role of “cans” as part of our AV equipment is increasingly important with out portable entertainment gadgets rather than just as accessories.

As well Denon and Sennheiser used space in their banquet rooms to show off their headphones that suited most user needs. Oh yeah, I had compared a pair of the higher-grade UrbanRaver AH-D400s against the Urban Raver AH-D320 “cans” that I had reviewed and the ‘D400s had the stronger punch in the sound. Yet I still consider the D320s as the value option that still does justice to rock and pop.

Conclusion

Here, the Australian Audio And AV Show 2013 had exemplified that the digital audio that is hosted via a home network or the Internet is the way forward. This includes using a smartphone or tablet with a Bluetooth link to play music either to a wireless speaker or to a high-quality Bluetooth adaptor plugged in to your favourite hi-fi system’s digital or line input.

In some ways, you could even create a music system around top-notch equipment and speakers that is ready to play vinyl, CD and/or network-hosted media.

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Australian Audio & AV Show 2011

I had visited the Australian Audio & AV Show 2011 which was held at the Marriott Hotel in Melbourne over two days. Here I had noticed certain trends being marked out as far as hi-fi and home-theatre technology went.

Valve (tube) amplifiers - the old school of hi-fi continues

The old-school of hi-fi lives on with these valve (tube) amps

There was interest in orthodox hi-fi setups where vinyl records or CDs were the main medium of choice. These still appeal to the music listeners who prefer to make a point out of listening to their favourite recordings. Here, there was a large number of amplifiers that were driven by valve (tube) technology which appealed to audiophiles who placed value on the “valve and vinyl” style of hi-fi enjoyment. It even showed that there was still life in the “old girl” that was the classic vinyl record, This was more so with the arrival of newly-issued recordings on what I call “boutique vinyl” i.e. records that were cut for best dynamic range and pressed on heavier discs that were made of new material; with the ability for the purchaser to download MP3s of the same recordings for free.

Marantz CR603 CD receiver

Marantz CR603 CD receiver

Of course, I had seen the return of Luxman to the hi-fi scene, with their efforts on high-grade CD players and stereo amplifiers, with one of their amplifiers being modelled on a 1970s-era classic of theirs.

Network audio

But the main focus of the show was the use of computer equipment and home networks to play out music through hi-fi systems.

Network setups

Netgear ReadyNAS - the music server of the connected home

A router and DLNA-enabled ReadyNAS is what this show is about

Most manufacturers which were demonstrating network-based hi-fi setups had a small network in their hotel rooms. This typically had a wireless router that was fit for home or small-business use at the “edge” of each of these network and working as the DHCP server; the same as what would be expected for a home network. As well, a lot of the manufacturers hooked a network-attached storage unit like the ReadyNAS to these networks to demonstrate their network-audio equipment.

In some cases, some of the suppliers used computers running DLNA-compliant media server software on the network rather than a NAS. An example of this was NAD who linked a MacBook Pro running Elgato EyeConnect as a media server for their C446 Digital Media Tuner.

Network-audio equipment

NAD C446 Media Tuner

NAD c446 Network Media Tuner

Most of the equipment shown was network-audio adaptors which were known by names as “media tuners”, “Internet tuners”, “network media receivers” and similar names. These were components that were connected to existing amplifiers through a line-level connection and could play content on a DLNA media server, USB memory key or Internet-radio services. Some of the units could connect to and control an iPod attached to their USB port.

Some of these are devices that I have cited in a previous article on this site about top-shelf hi-fi names using DLNA as their preferred network-audio infrastructure. Here, I had mentioned about them using this established technology and the high-grade codecs like FLAC so they can concentrate on high-quality clear sound.

 

Linn Majik DS network preamplifier

Linn Majik DS network preamplifier

Linn had a handful of these devices which worked as control amplifiers for use with power amplifiers or active speakers. These Akurate, Majik and Klimax units could also stream line-level signals or, as I have seen, the output of a turntable (Linn Sondek LP12) playing a record to other Linn network media adaptors.

As well, some of the manufacturers were offering receivers and CD-receiver systems that had DLNA media playback and Internet media access as part of their function set. This included the Rotel RCX-1500 CD receiver that I have previously reviewed on this site. Speaking of which, Rotel’s Australian distributors, International Dynamics are introducing more network-enabled kit from Pro-ject, in the form of another network media adaptor.

Denon even promoted their network-enabled home-theatre receivers a “everyhing”-ceivers because of the multiple functions that they could offer through the home network.

Denon networked home-theatre receiver and Blu-ray player

Denon's "everything"-ceiver

All of these setups were based around UPnP AV / DLNA Home Media Networks with Denon, Marantz and B&W demonstrating Apple AirPlay-compliant setups. The sales representatives for most of the various manufacturers had described the UPnP AV / DLNA network setup as an open setup where everyone can “come to the party”. A lot of the setups were controlled using various UPnP AV control points that were running on iPads owned by the various demonstration staff. Some of the control-point apps were branded and optimised for particular manufacturers’ equipment, usually offering control functionality that worked peculiarly with that equipment.

Naim Uniti network CD receiver

Naim Uniti network CD receiver with Naim's distinct CD-loading tray

Naim and used this show to exhibit their Uniti CD receiver; as well as the UnitiQute network media / FM receiver and the UnitiServer which is their “ripping NAS”. This is a class of NAS which uses an integrated optical drive and software for ripping CDs to the hard disk.

One interesting point that I had noticed was that Loewe had used this event to launch their MediaCenter network-enabled music system. This was equipped with a hard disk and software that allowed you to “rip” the currently-inserted CD to that hard disk, a practice that I had observed with some Philips and other hard-disk-equipped music systems. But this unit was able to share the contents of its hard disk to other UPnP AV client devices as well as become a UPnP AV client device for devices like those NAS units.

How is this becoming relevant to “real” hi-fi?

Loewe MediaCenter

Loewe Mediacenter media server and player

One reason this is happening is that other Websites, fronted by audiophile recording labels, are offering their recordings for purchase and download as high-bitrate FLAC or, in some cases, WMA files. In some cases, these are copies of the studio-master recordings rather than producer-tuned masters for CD and iTunes distribution.

Here, you could load these files on to a NAS and share them through your network with network media clients of this calibre. Or you could use media-management software to transcode to MP3 for use on most portable players and smartphones or prepare CDs of these files for playback on regular CD players.

Conclusion

What I see of this Australian Audio & AV Show this past weekend is that the home network as a system for storing and playing audio content has earned its stripes as far as high-quality sound reproduction is concerned. This is definitely underpinned through the use of the UPnP AV / DLNA standard for discovering and presenting available media content in these networks.

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