Slim Devices Threatens High End Audio Establishment

I am a streaming, losslessly compressed, digital audio playback evangelist. I believe you can improve upon the data that's trapped on your CD collection by ripping it to a hard drive and then playing it back through an affordable remote network device, like the Apple Airport Express or the Slim Devices Squeezebox 3. My advocacy for this method of musical enjoyment is tame and assertive when compared to Slim Devices' forum.

Slim Devices Forum poster "joncourage" makes the accusation that high end manufacturers and the publications that review their components are resisting and discounting the networked audio device movement, respectively. Excerpt from "Effects of the SB on the 'Hi-End' Audio Industry":

Reception of the SB amongst the hi-end community has been lukewarm, reviews have been good-to-excellent, but always with reservation (often ambiguous); a kind of "sure kid, you're good, but not ready for the major leagues, go practice some more". I don't know, I'm far from an expert. But I read, a lot. And I read between the lines. The SB is a paradigm shift, and paradigm shifts are rarely easily embraced, particularly by the Old Guard. It doesn't look like a hi-end component, it's not heavy enough, it's not expensive. Maybe the Transporter will shake things up a bit. Something about the lukewarm reception has been striking me as off though. Like there's a generally positive opinion, but mixed feelings, something being held back, unsaid. "D" ratings where the content of the rating process, the results, the enthusiasm of the reviewer, suggest higher. So easy to speculate on why – magazine advertisers influence, feelings of "no way we'll admit this $300 thing is so close to the source I spent $5000 for three years ago that I can barely tell the difference" (and maybe couldn't under double-blind testing).

Last summer Hi-Fi Choice the "Hi-Fi Choice Industry Forum" with major UK electronics manufacturers. Neil Wilson from NAD had this to say about music servers:

Neil Wilson: There's a problem with hard disks: to operate most reliably they either like to run all the time or to sit stationary. Hard-disk devices are never going to be wholly reliable until we overcome this basic limitation inherent to the technology. Tim Bowern [Hi-Fi Choice Editor]: Do you envisage your companies producing music servers and internet-enabled devices in the not-too-distant future? Neil Wilson: Yes, because I think we'll all be forced to do that.

Now, I'm sure he's basing his claim on experiments he's run at the NAD headquarters under scientific conditions. You have to wonder why he thinks a hard disk has to act like a turntable or CD player. The music servers we are talking about hear stream and cache the data before it is transformed into PCM.

The Slim Devices audiophile fans consider the following the pinnacle of digital audio performance:

  1. Rip your CD collection to a networked hard drive using Exact Audio Copy to a lossless file format like FLAC or Apple Lossless
  2. Play the ripped tracks on a networked (wired or wireless) D/A device connected to your hi-fi kit with a local remote control interface like the Squeezebox 3 or Airport Express and a Sony PSP remote
  3. The sonics can be improved by running the networked units' digital output into a high end DAC like the Benchmark DAC 1 or Musical Fidelity X-DAC v3 instead of using the analog connections
  4. For the tweakers out there (with deep pockets) you can mod the SB 3's power supply plus other mods from Boulder Cable. Empirical Audio has used the wireless guts from an Airport Express to create their USB Offramp and Freeway series of audiophile D/A hubs

Despite the conspiracy theories, Stereophile's John Atkinson and Wes Phillips are very excited about this new playback method for digital audio. Stereophile has covered and reviewed the Airport Express, Squeezebox 3, Sonos and Olive Symphony in recent newsletters and print issues. This coverage is encouraging for such a young and growing playback technology from small electronics companies with no high end reputation. Ayre, Arcam, Wadia, Opus, Meridian should take note that devices as low as a tenth of the cheapest CD player in that grouping can compete in the same class (when paired with a $1000 DAC, heh).

I'm excited to see this new transport technology grow as it's bringing convenience and joy back into hi-fi. "joncourage" adds: "So, hi-end people, next time you want to overlook the little giant killer, I'd suggest you look at him as the best friend the giants ever had. He may just end up being the medicine that keeps the giants alive and kickin."

2 thoughts on “Slim Devices Threatens High End Audio Establishment

  • April 24, 2007 at 7:49 pm

    The best quality will come from a firewire DA outboard box, next wirelessly to an Airport Express (my favorite), Toslink out to a DAC or AV receiver, and analog out.


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