PSP + Airtunes + Coverbuddy = Dance Party – Listening Test

Toddler_o_Geek and I danced until bedtime Sunday night.

We started out with Gnarls Barkley (didn’t get us moving) and quickly switched to Futureheads. I pogoed, my daughter stomped. I made the mistake of pogoing toward her instead of just side to side, we then went into full chase mode—I was still dancing (a series of spastic kicks, arms flailing and hopping like a frog) and she screamed around the room as fast as she can navigate the furniture. We got through "Alms" before bathtime (I was freaking her out with my expert lip-synching at this point).

I can enjoy myself while dancing because I don’t have to wonder if the music sounds good or not. I don’t have to go upstairs to find a new CD in my armoire and then eject the playing CD and load the new one. My musical desires are answered by pressing left, up, right, down and X. I control my whole music collection through my Sony PSP and Coverbuddy on my Mac Mini. Convenience and fun overshadow audiophilia and tweaking. My initial experience with this music server wasn’t as fun.

I mentioned in the last wiring post that my Taddeo Digital Antidote, while great for CD playback, maimed the Airtunes signal. At first, I thought the Airtunes stream was fundamentally flawed (we are dealing with MP3 and AAC playback in a hi-fi system). Then I had the good fortune to listen to one of Steve Albini’s best engineered albums, Bedhead’s Transaction De Novo. The first track, "Exhume," begins with long, droning electric bass notes. As I have heard the song many times through headphones and original CD I knew the notes should decay smoothly. With the Taddeo in the signal path the bass decay oscillated. This obvious aberration in the song forced me to take the Taddeo out of the signal path, resulting in a direct link between my Onkyo AV Receiver and my Rogue preamp. Without the Taddeo the bass line cleared up along with the rest of the instruments and voices.

Now sure of the cleanest path from Airtunes to my listening room’s loudspeakers, I got down to serious listening.

I ripped Shellac’s At Action Park to Apple Lossless (I had to rename the album so the songs didn’t get mixed up with my previous AAC MP4 files of the same album). I listened to "My Black Ass" first through Airtunes with Apple Lossless, AAC and then through my CD player, a Pioneer DV47ai.

What I heard:

  • Apple Lossless: Tight bass, good image depth, separation of instruments, cymbals splashy, no sibilance, could follow bass line, Steve Albini’s annoying effect guitar (his words) not fatiguing
  • AAC 128: Slightly more monotone, like voice bass guitar and drum kit flat in smae image space, cymbals more controlled and less live, bass drum muted, some sibilance
  • CD: Best separation of instruments—voice and guitar well in front of drum kit with bass behind to the right; no noticeable sibilance, snare drum tight and real, cymbals appear in image space as 3D saucers when struck by drum sticks, bass drum kicks

The differences may have more to do with my CD player’s DAC (Burr Brown 192k Chip) versus the Onkyo’s WRAT DAC than differences between the original CD versus Apple Lossless. (This album still sounds best on vinyl.)

I would hate it if the Airtunes signal beat out my CD signal, the latter a much bigger investment. It’s amazing it comes so close. The neck and neck race makes you wonder what determines the music that gets to your ears—DAC, jitter, cables, static, wobbly discs? The tweaker’s reported drawbacks of CD drag it back toward the music server sound quality.

Convenience is the biggest benefit of a music server system. Once set up properly (hopefully you have good idea by now) Airtunes run through high end electronics rocks.

If you want your music server to output the highest quality signal, rip all your better recorded CDs to Apple Lossless, buy a nice DAC (like Musical Fidelity’s X-DAC v3 or get by with whatever is in your digital processor) and relax in your sweet spot.

If you want to dance the night away with your wife and daughter, hop around to your AACs and MP3s, Sony PSP/Coverbuddy remote control in hand.

The former is a lonely experience. The family had more fun with the latter.

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