A few months back we published an article called ‘Don’t Junk Your Hi-Fi’, which tried to make the point that the new breed of wireless multiroom music systems don’t have to replace your existing hi-fi, they can augment it. The leading platforms — HEOS here, Sonos, Bluesound, MusicCast, DTS Play-Fi — each offer a relatively simple ‘receiver’ unit (we call them ‘squirters’) which has all the wireless and streaming capabilities of the platform and can deliver them into a spare input on any hi-fi system. Then the many other units — wireless speakers of various sizes — can be used to expand your music around the home, all under app control.
That first choice of receiver unit, then, is an important one, as it defines how your system can expand. This HEOS Link is Denon’s version of this squirter-type receiver unit, and it comes now in ‘HS2’ (Mark II) form, bringing new abilities to HEOS.
HEOS went a little weirdly angular with its initial designs, but has subtly tweaked the front lines for this second generation, and in the hand the weighty HS2 unit looks more businesslike than the pictures may suggest. So the new Link looks much like the old at first glance, but there are important advances. There is now built-in Bluetooth, which breaks HEOS out of the constrains of its own app, since with Bluetooth you can enjoy direct streaming from any app on any device. When you have multiple HEOS units around the home, the Bluetooth stream to one can be played on them all, using the HEOS party mode.
The second advance with HEOS HS2 is at the other end of the quality scale — high-res audio support. You can now use the HEOS app to stream high-res files from USB or over your network via DLNA, with support for WAV, ALAC and FLAC up to 24-bit/192kHz. Support for DSD and AIFF is promised soon.
That’s the new stuff, which is added to the already considerable HEOS offering. From the HEOS app you can access free online music from Pandora, TuneIn internet radio and SoundCloud, and subscription music available from Spotify, Tidal, Deezer. Of course with Bluetooth now available you can use any app to access any service offering free or subscription music.
The volume and mute buttons are still on the side, and the back panel is unchanged — two analogue inputs (minijack and RCAs), one optical digital input and one USB-A slot, all of which can be shared through your home network to other HEOS units. There’s Ethernet for that network but also dual-band a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, then for outputs you have the analogue pre-outs which would go into your hi-fi system, but also digital outputs on optical or coaxial if you have a DAC or digitally-equipped amplifier that you reckon might be better than the Link’s own conversion.
There’s a good selection of cables included — Ethernet, two signal cables, and trigger cables and an IR emitter to assist if using the Link with Denon (or other triggerable) amps or AV receivers.
Finally on the back are two small press studs, one to ‘Connect’, one for Bluetooth pairing.
We gave the Link the easiest of connections — mains power, Ethernet to the network, analogue audio into our system. By the time we had downloaded the iOS HEOS app, the Link’s front light had gone solid blue, indicating a network connection, and sure enough the app skipped any set-up and went straight to the main HEOS screen, ready to control the Link. It then offered a software update (you can leave it thereafter to auto-update) and flashed orange during the five minutes this took.
The main HEOS screen (see image at the top) puts everything at your fingertips. Using any of the streaming services requires you set up a HEOS account, and that account links to all your subscription accounts. As a previous HEOS user, we had only to enter our HEOS account to have all our Pandora, TuneIn and Tidal accounts and favourites up, synced and running.
The beauty of the HEOS app is simplicity and clarity — we don’t know an easier app to find your way around, with all sources and inputs on the home page, sensible progression thereafter, and three buttons that remain always at the bottom (except when you’re in settings) to get you easily back home.
We played with assorted music services, shuffling our many Pandora artist stations to get a continuous stream of our favourites, delving into SoundCloud to stream some of our own files as well as its ever-expanding offerings of music, talk and radio.
The only service that throws you out of the HEOS app is Spotify, which uses Spotify Connect, handing the streaming duties to the Link itself, rather than through your device itself, which you then use just to control things. But this does require a premium subscription. Now that the Link has Bluetooth, you could instead use a laptop to play Spotify free and send that via Bluetooth — the downside being ads and a lower quality stream. But hey, free.
For network stream you select ‘Music Server’, which shows DLNA shares on your network (it also picked up the Bose SoundTouch music server, offering a possible path to iTunes libraries, as described on p24). Through DLNA it seemed just a little slow at pulling information when browsing by folder, but was quick to play. Tracks are added to a queue, one track or an album at a time, so you can set up playlists (including tracks from different sources) — and these can be saved for later use, appearing under the ‘Playlist’ tab of the main HEOS screen
And yes, all formats worked precisely as advertised — DSD and AIFF tracks shown but yielding playback errors, everything else fine, playing FLAC, WAV up to 24-bit/192kHz and Apple Lossless to 24/96.Nor did we have any streaming issues even with the highest of these, remembering we were using the Ethernet link. Wi-Fi success will depend on your network. Artwork was handled well and displayed when available.
The conversion and audio circuits on the back of all this streaming sounded to be of excellent quality, as you’d hope from an audio manufacturer of Denon’s calibre, so using the digital outputs rather than analogue is really a matter of convenience rather than need — unless you happen to have a simply superb DAC to hand. Try it and compare; you have nothing to lose. Many of the streaming sources are below CD quality, of course, but Tidal offers CD quality. If you have some preference for changing tone, there are bass and treble controls in the HEOS app, alongside track names in the Now Playing screen.
When we reviewed the original HEOS system, we liked it enough to make it our Sound+Image Multiroom System of the Year, noting its few omissions as being the lack of high-res audio support, no AirPlay, and being tied to the HEOS app since there was no desktop software or Bluetooth to enable the use of third-party sources. HEOS remains entirely dependent on the use of your smart device — there’s no physical remote control, so you can’t just come home and switch it on — but HEOS HS2 has fixed most other niggles, augmenting its ease of use and class-leading synchronisation to make the HEOS platform a leading contender for anyone looking to bring this vast world of music to their existing hi-fi, and beyond to a full home of wireless multiroom audio.
+ High quality wireless multiroom audio system
+ Now with Bluetooth
+ Now with high-res support
- No physical remote
- No AirPlay