Author Archives: Thomas Nielsen

Ecosystems And Switching Costs

When you reach a certain level in hi-fi or, as it is the case in particular with multi room systems, you are bound by a high level of inter equipment compatibility, your investment is certain to be substantial. This is not really new. What is new, however, is a coupling with so-called digital ecosystems that is so tight that it very quickly becomes a problem.

Let’s for the sake of argument take a house with 5 rooms, or more in line with the zone-term, areas where you listen to music. If some of these areas conjoin or overlap, you need devices in those areas to be in perfect synch. This de facto means that they need to be of the same brand and model family. In areas further from each other, where sound is not likely to spill across, this is less important but still we have come to enjoy a certain level of remoteness; the ability to turn off the bedroom music while cooking in the kitchen. This does not require the same level of compatibility but it does require the devices to abide by the same protocols which pretty much means either the same brand or DLNA conformance. Very few audio systems are strictly DLNA. Most have features that are not specified in the standard or features that the vendor feel should operate differently and are distanced from existing standards.

There are two levels of ecosystems at play here. First there are the compatibility matrix formed by the devices themselves. Very few devices can operate optimally in a mixed environment. A Bluesound cannot tell a Marantz amplifier to power on or switch input, just like a Technics amplifier cannot tell a Sonos system to pause a queue or switch off the Play:5 in the bedroom. The devices are blissfully unaware of each other and as thick as a Jethro Tull record. Surely this is not a catastrophe but it certainly is inconvenient. This means that, out of convenience, we tend to bind ourselves to one ecosystem and by that put our proverbial eggs in one basket. The day Simple Audio was shut down they left their community with entire sound systems starting a death roll. And the thing is that the eggs in this modern basket are much more fragile than, say, a turntable. When the ecosystem dies, the product effectively degrades and ultimately turns to dust. If our 5 rooms had 5 different brands of devices and one brand kicks the bucket or removes an indispensable feature, you can remove that one device at a reasonable loss instead of having to replace the entire system at a considerable cost.

Another ecosystem domain to reckon with these days is the controller operating system. Consider again our fantasy system. Let’s equip our 5 rooms with the same brand of audio streamer and sprinkle in a few extras; some amps and a TV. The amplifier and TV run DLNA for which there are an abundance of more or less reliable apps for iOS, Android, Mac and Windows. The streamers have their own app, which is not available for one of the phone OSes and is incredibly slow on another, excluding two controller types. Unfortunately it is one one of these excluded phones that we find the best DLNA client. Suddenly we find ourselves using two different controllers plus an abundance of old fashioned remote controls. Then one day the OS on our preferred controller device gets a change in conditions preventing the DLNA app from running. The conflicts are legio. I am not mentioning any names. Suffice it to say that this is not entirely grabbed from thin air.

Both ecosystems have a very short life span. It is really quite incredible that nobody protests. I can understand that companies producing equipment are reluctant, unilaterally making their devices compatible with the competition but that doesn’t discount the fact that consumers are the ones carrying the loss here. And to make matters worse, a whole new ecosystem is on its way into the game. Home automation. Very few hi-fi devices allow themselves to be operated from home automation systems. Most that do are only working due to tenacious communities dissecting the protocols used. Not because companies divulge the information freely or comply with available standards. Logitech, or more accurately Slim Devices, tried when they open sourced their Squeezebox software. An open and active ecosystem disregarding the original devices left more or less in a limbo state without software updates.

As with the ability to remotely control devices from afar, we have come to enjoy the pervasive experience audio in every room gives us. The days of yore where we had a stereo in the living room and a transistor radio in the kitchen are long gone. The demand in quality in ambient sound has become increased for most music consumers, while strangely the opposite is true for the central stereo. The main device has become less important. For a great many people even less capable than household stereos were 25 years ago. More people have relatively good ambient sound while very few have barely adequate detail listening devices. High-end audio is probably on the same level as always, and equally frowned upon. But that is a topic for another article.

Naim Uniti in Flow Over From Mu-So

uniti-starWhen Naim released the Mu-So product line, they had the audiophiles pretty much convinced that multi-room audio could be done the autonomous-speaker-way hitherto personified by Sonos, without the transistor-radio-sonority personified by not only Sonos but their competitors as well, was actually feasible. Now they have brought some of the design decisions from Mu-So over to the Uniti line of products and, by the looks of it, become a serious contestant of the Linn throne. Even the Mu-So button has spawned.

The new Uniti comes in four flavors. The Atom, Star and Nova on the front end of things and the Core at the back. The Atom, Star and Nova are streamers with rudimentary external storage options with a capacity of 20,000 tracks and a 40W, 70W and 80W amplifier respectively. The Star and the Core have built-in CD transport and accompanying ripping facilities. The Core has an internal storage of up to 8TB and room for 100,000 tracks. Whether more Uniti Core units can be addressed simultaneously remains unknown at this point. After all, 100,000 tracks is only 5-6000 CDs.

The new Uniti devices are compatible with the the existing Uniti range.

Audio Stream Offers Extensive Computer Audio 101

Digital audio specialists Audio Stream are offering an easy to grasp insight into computer audio with their new article series Computer Audio 101. The articles span most issues one might have without getting overly detailed or nerdy.

Bowers & Wilkins In a Fibrillating Fairy Tale Sale

EVA AutomationLoudspeaker high-ender Bowers & Wilkins have left their 1965 roots in an acquisition from ex-Facebook CFO Gideon Yu and his company EVA Automation. In these circles it’s a bit of a tic inducing piece of news. Now what? What do rich guys know about music? Well, for starters only rich people could afford the high-end products to begin with and there is nothing genetically music hating about being rich, so perhaps it is a need for capital no one knew existed. Welcome, Gideon Yu, to a spot in the world where words do truly buzz and products are given the love so many products surely miss.

Sonos is Shrinking, Hopefully Not Shrivelling

In a blog post today, Sonos CEO john Macfarlane says that Sonos will be laying off an unspecified number of employees in a strategic move towards streaming rather than locally stored music. Staff reduction is serious enough in and of itself but the move they make towards streaming music may well be a serious blow to certain parts of the user base, namely those who listen to classical music and those who have many rare recordings. Try and find Eric Burdon’s Last Drive on a streaming service or even one of Solti’s Ring Cycle recordings. Sonos has always been problematic when playing back classical music, or any compound pieces for that matter, following this strategy things are not exactly looking like it will change. So, will we be seeing Sonos turning into a voice controlled transistor radio? I hope not but it certainly does look awfully lot like it will. The fact that Mr. Macfarlane refers to what we must assume are those who support local media as “laggards” doesn’t exactly help.

A Star Extinguished

blackstarA star burned out today. Perhaps not the one shining the brightest but arguably the firmamentally most prominent of stars. A man of artistic integrity to the point where it almost broke him followed by a restored artist balancing arts with the personal integrity he then lacked. Eventually the mark he left on the world is unequivocal and his latest album a worthy swansong,  as it so tragically turns out. It would have been just like him to do that deliberately, wouldn’t it?

Honey, I Shrunk Our Mu-So

Naim Mu-SoNaim managed to shrink the Naim Mu-So into a cube of 20cm3 and called it… wait for it… Qb. No ill feat on the shrinking side. Slightly off their rocker on the naming ditto. Specs are roughly the same as usual albeit given the smaller form factor having smaller speakers and with less to drive, a smaller set of amps. The high and mid drivers are positioned in an X-Y configuration for compactness and the subs appear to be push-pull. The mother Mu-So is stunning to behold already. With these little babies dispersed around the house, you are likely to win an award in your local interior decoration magazine and sound good winning it. Multi room sound took another leap today.
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Meridian’s MQA is Gaining Traction

Among the first news tidbits from CES in Las Vegas, a few drops of MQA support color the hi-res waters. Among mainstream audio product vendors Bluesound announces an upcoming update to support MQA, Tidal have already shown it and now HTC announces MQA support on their One A9 Android phone. Norwegian audiophile record company 2L as well, will be supporting MQA.

Sonos Turning The Decks

sonosplay5Sonos are turning the decks yet again and reissues the Play:5 in a new guise. This time with the long anticipated TruePlay room correction. With it comes TruePlay support on all other units except the PlayBar. When high rollers [and brothers in dissimilarity] B&O, Lyngdorff and Bose, to name a couple, use room correction and today almost all surround sound receivers offer the same, it is odd to leave the PlayBar out of the game. But there you have it.

sonosnew52The Play:5 is completely redesigned and should be a refreshing whiff both visually and sonically. It shows a glimpse of what we have coming down the road. The speaker has an accelerometer driven orientation detection, automatically disabling speaker elements in horisontal dual speaker mode. Layout of speaker drivers has been optimised as has the actual cabinet construction. No word yet as to whether there are changes in the amplifier but it would be a natural move.

Yamaha MusicCast

Yamaha Restio ISX-80Boasting compatibility with Bluetooth Audio, Apple Airplay and the prevalent streaming services, there is no shortage on Yamaha MusicCast on the connection side of things. At the other end of the cable, the system permeates almost the entire audio infrastructure of Yamaha, covering A/V receivers, active network speakers, stereos and soundbars. You can play music from a CD and stream it anywhere, as well as, of course, ubiquitous network stored bits and pieces. It appears to even support Dolby Atmos. Now, that’s a first. Supported file types include Flac, Aiff and DSD (on A/V receivers and audio equipment that can read the discs), in resolutions up to 192KHz/24-bit.

What Hi-fi? just released an almost painfully happy mini review of the system. Do go and have a look. What they zoom in on, are things like being able to not only feed all MusicCast components from a Bluetooth source separately, you can even attach Bluetooth players to them, for instance a pair of Bluetooth headphones.

Finally someone who stands up to B&O and their decades old and wonderfully future proven Beolink. Sonos and their comrades (you know who you are) could definitely learn something here. Definitely.

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