Streaming streaming everywhere. Not all but most of the products reviewed in this issue are able to stream music and/or movies in some way or other. Not that they all do it the same way, or with equal ability. With the choice or combination of Bluetooth, AirPlay, DLNA/UPnP, internet streaming plus other proprietary solutions, that ‘some way or other’ can be considered as either richly or confusingly diverse, depending on your technical prowess. Certainly if you’re after a streaming music system, you don’t want to be walking into a chain store with no idea what to buy — there are simply too many options now, and probably not enough knowledgeable advice in there to point you in the right direction. We continue to recommend specialist dealers for their expertise, experience and sonic sensibilities, whether you’re after a big system or a $500 wireless solution.
Why are there so many possibilities? Because every manufacturer is rushing a wireless speaker (or five) to market — it is the X Factor du jour. Though really, if it’s taken this long for a company to get their first wireless speaker to market, they may have missed the boat, unless delivering something truly exceptional. Three years ago was the time to grab a share of the market with upmarket headphones, two years ago with soundbars, last year with wireless speakers. Enter now and you’re competing against the whole world of established brands and a million cheap non-brand items. Manufacturers may feel they can’t ignore a rapidly growing market, of course, but by the time they’ve identified such growth and developed a product for it, that market is likely to be saturated. They need to spot the next big thing, next year’s X Factor, not the current one.
But on the other side of the coin, we consumers benefit from such a heavily populated sector, with prices kept keen and a variety of designs so that we should be able to find just the thing for our needs. Hopefully the many reviews in this issue will sort the suitable and capable from the weak and wearisome.
Bringing up the rear on the format front, the vinyl revival continues — I’ve been closeted away for many hours with the first three Led Zeppelin album remasters, each with its new “companion” album of out-takes and rough mixes. Being a dedicated Zep fanboy, I bought the box sets (a shout-out here to my local record shop Sandy’s Music, which went beyond the call of duty to get these for me when the record company was able to deliver only a third of orders made, apparently). These box sets have the CDs, high-res audio downloads at 24-bit/96kHz, and also the vinyl. I have been playing the vinyl almost exclusively, perhaps because that’s the sound I grew up with for these albums. It’s a successful remaster, by the way, correcting the channel reversals and overloudness of the previous 'Mothership' versions.
One man bestriding both digital and analogue camps at present is Neil Young, ploughing on with his Pono high-res player and delivery concept (which will use FLAC files, pleasingly, as its format of choice). But the other album I bought this month was his new LP 'A Letter Home'. This was recorded in Jack White’s refurbished 1947 Voice-o-Graph record booth, and, as you can imagine, the result is ironically low-fi for someone promoting high-res audio — Stephen Dawson sent me the frequency graph shown here, showing the tail-off from about 3.5kHz, and that’s without considering the grinding noise and ‘wow’ from the mechanical recording process. It takes a few tracks to listen ‘through’ this noise and enjoy Young’s performance… I wouldn’t exactly recommend it, but I’m glad I have it!
So what advice would I give, beyond the reviews in the magazine, when heading off to buy hi-fi? Certainly start with the basics. How do you listen to music. Where is your music? Where would you like to play it? Do you want to discover more or just play the music you have?
If you go into the right shop, they will ask you these questions. If they don’t, then it may not be the right shop — they won’t sell you the solution you need, just things they like, or on which they make the best margin. But you’re halfway there by having this magazine in your hands. See what you like the look of, then go and have a listen and a play. (And if you can’t listen, again, you’re in the wrong shop.)
Because as we never tire of saying, it’s all about you, your music, and how you like your music to sound. Me, I like my Zeppelin on vinyl, and loud. But I can stream it all over the house digitally too, or suck it down from the internet, if only to delight the missus with endless wall-to-wall Zeppelin. She loves it. No really. OK, not really. But she can stream murder shows to the media player while I’m upstairs with the vinyl, so it’s all good. Fine audio and high-quality AV make everything good.
Jez Ford, Editor