FireConnect, powered by Blackfire, is a wireless multiroom technology gathering brands to its third-party platform. Pioneer and Onkyo both have FireConnect-equipped products, including Pioneer's new Fayola music systems.
Both companies have rolled out firmware updating everything from AV receivers to soundbar systems and network music players to allow some level of FireConnect wireless networking.
The excellent Harman Kardon Omni system also makes use of the technology, but it isn’t yet clear how compatible different brands of FireConnect systems may be — Onkyo has said, for example, that HK Omni products won’t operate with its receivers in a combined system, while Pioneer says “We do not guarantee that the AV receiver will support all devices incorporating FireConnect”.
Further, we note that the Harman Kardon Omni+ packing in Australia calls the streaming and multiroom platform technology simply 'Blackfire Research', comfusing the lines between platform, company and its other offering in this space, the upcoming Blackfire RED.
Blackfire Research Corp, USA is indeed the company behind FireConnect, a San Francisco based company that “believes everything should be connected, should be smart and should be wireless!” One crucial differentiator may prove to be that the system is anticipating streaming "HD video" between devices, as well as audio. The platform for this advance was unveiled in June 2017 as Blackfire RED - see information on this link.
The screenshot shown here shows Tidal streaming on Harman Kardon's Omni app, which we like very much, a good first sample of how FireConnect may operate. Blackfire lists Tidal, Spotify and Google Cast as key inclusions in the system.
So what are FireConnect’s stand-out features?
High-res and multichannel: Blackfire’s specs (though these may not be adopted by every Blackfire system) include streaming of up to 24-bit/192kHz audio, and multichannel 2.1, 5.1 or 7.1 audio. It operates on 2.4 or 5GHz Wi-Fi bands and supports I2S digital input/ output.
Lossy or lossless: It’s not clear whether you get the choice of lossy or lossless streaming, or whether FireConnect will adopt whatever is required to get the signal through. It promises traffic-independent synchronisation to 150 microsecond accuracy, not quite as tight as the industry leaders, but close enough for rock’n’roll, as they say.
Input forwarding: Auxiliary inputs and Bluetooth streams for one device will be available for others. We wait to see how many of an AV receiver’s inputs this might include. Onkyo's Feb/March 2017 FireConnect firmware updates appear not to include input forwarding, but it is promised as a future upgrade.
Grouping & control: It includes the usual grouping and control of multiple devices playing the same music, as well as each playing separately.
Widely compatible with IT systems: Blackfire works with hardware from many Wi-Fi chipset vendors including Broadcom, RealTek and Texas Instruments and others. It supports simultaneous operation on Linux, Android, iOS, Windows, Mac OS X, ThreadX and other RTOS operating systems. It aims to incorporate PCs, Macs, smart watches and other wearables and smart-home systems, as well as the usual multiroom audio ecosystems.
Video is part of the roadmap: We’ve long wondered when audio wireless systems would evolve to include video — FireConnect has it firmly on the roadmap, already claiming to “stream HD Video and lossless 24-bit/192kHz Studio Quality HD audio to any device”, though we've not yet seen this implemented. With AV receivers, this could, of course, be a game-changer. Blackfire RED seems the path to this advance - see here.
Google Cast included: Blackfire appears to include Google Cast (now Chrome Cast) capability as part of its specification, which may explain why Harman Kardon announced a Google Cast upgrade in January 2016 (though this doesn’t seem yet available on HK Omni systems in use in Australia; we are still awaiting the Mk 2 Omnis here in our distant land).
As for actual products, we are adding information from the Australian distributors as we receive it. The US got two compatible AV receiver models from Pioneer in 2016 — and they’re not the premium range-toppers either. The VSX-LX101 is a 7.2-channel networked AV receiver with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Ultra HD pass-through (with HDCP 2.2), MCACC room tuning and Dolby Atmos, at a “suggested” pre-tax price of US$500. The VSX-LX301 has similar abilities but more power (100W to the LX101’s 80W, or 70W versus 140W at lower criteria), with “suggested” pre-tax price of US$700.
Both models will include FireConnect and GoogleCast (now ChromeCast) abilities for audio — there is no mention yet of video via FireConnect on these receivers.
In December 2016 we reviewed, for Best Buys Audio & AV magazine, the Pioneer SC-LX501. This Australian model promises Fireconnect as a future upgrade, but sadly didn't yet have it when reviewed.
It's worth noting, however, that both Pioneer and Onkyo announced in September 2016 that they would also be adopting DTS PlayFi technology, a different third-party multiroom platform, which has been gathering a critical mass of brands in the last 12 months. It wasn't clear then whether they would continue to develop Blackfire products as well.
But in March 2017 Onkyo announced a firmware update to activate FireConnect wireless in a whole range of Onkyo AV and hi-fi components and systems, describing it as "a wireless protocol that’s fundamental to Onkyo’s Next Generation Network Audio concept".
That sounds pretty ongoing to us! The firmware will be available for the PR-RZ5100 high-end AV preamplifier, what looks like the whole AV receiver range (TX-RZ3100, TX-RZ1100, TX-RZ810, TX-RZ710, TX-NR656, TX-NR555), the HT-S7805 home theatre in a box package, the slimline receivers TX-L50 and TX-L20D, and right down to soundbar solutions, the LS7200 and LS5200. Stereo doesn't miss out, with the R-N855 stereo network receiver, the NS-6170 and NS-6130 network audio players all getting the upgrade. All these will then become interoperable using the Onkyo Connect app (pictured above).
Subsequent Onkyo updates will enable the sharing of sources connected to the master component’s external analogue audio inputs, something already available from most multiroom platforms, though not, we note, DTS Play-Fi.
Onkyo now has a dedicated page explaining its take on FireConnect powered by Blackfire here.
Pioneer is now delivering a wide range of updates along with new products including the HDMI-equipped Fayola systems, which can expand from stereo to surround operation with the addition of wireless rear speakers and an optional subwoofer.
We've reviewed the Pioneer SX-S30 smart amplifier here...
And we've reviewed the Pioneer Fayola FS-W50 wireless home theatre system here.
We’ve always thought third-party platforms could prove mighty powerful and a consumer benefit if products are compatible across brands — DTS Play-Fi’s platform has picked up its game enormously since the app’s redesign from the superbland original, and the technology has picked up prestige brands like MartinLogan and McIntosh recently in addition to early adopters Definitive Technology and Polk. Interestingly the page linked under the image above (fron Onkyo) seems to indicate that Onkyo is planning to include DTS Play-Fi in upcoming products as well as FireConnect, and built-in Chromecast too. Not sure how the apps would cross-fertilise, but it might create a new world of interoperability if they could pull it off. As noted above, FireConnect looks to have Chromecasting already part of its abilities anyway.
Pioneer and Onkyo's widespread adoption of FireConnect gives it a huge boost. If FireConnect really can go on to bring video into the multiroom equation, it will become one of the key platforms to watch.
For more on the tech, visit www.bfrx.com