SpeleoFool944,924 (562,465)Arizona

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Oct
10
Exotic Audio
Another blog, another update on home audio. Music has certainly been the dominant theme of my 2018.

I published my last big update on home audio gear nearly 6 months ago. Since then, things have only gotten crazier.

Nearly everything in that previous blog falls into a bucket that audiophiles have labeled "mid-fi." You could define "mid-fi" as "stuff that costs more than most reasonable people would be willing to pay for listening to music that happens to deliver massively better quality than the stuff most people buy for listening to music." Even casual listeners will generally be able to appreciate the better sound quality (it's fairly obvious at this level), although they may not care to pay for it. For people who are passionate about music, however, mid-fi gear represents a pretty good value.

But it's called "mid-fi" for a reason. Things in the world of HiFi scale into brain-melting awesomeness for heart-stopping prices. The best loudspeakers and amps can run into 6 figures. By that scale, the very best headphone and portable listening gear in the world is dirt cheap. Well, OK, maybe "paydirt cheap," lol.

As I've journeyed deeper down the rabbit hole, I can't help comparing ever-better audio equipment to the tiers of guns and gear in games like Borderlands and Destiny. I'm now venturing into the level of "Exotic" audio. In fact, I've been thinking about writing this blog for a while, and I wanted to cobble together some fake exotic profiles for my high-end stuff. Alas, laziness has won out, so you'll just have to use your imagination and this generic example:

Typical Exotic Weapon in <i>Destiny</i>Typical Exotic Weapon in Destiny


  • Astell&Kern AK380 Digital Audio Player
Astell&Kern AK380Astell&Kern AK380
At the end of my last audio gear blog I described the process of getting molds taken for my CIEMs (Custom In-Ear Monitors). One primary benefit of CIEMs over regular headphones is their extreme portability--they can go anywhere that earbuds go.

But now that I had invested $$$$$ in these CIEMs, I had a problem: the battery in my ancient iPod Classic no longer holds a charge. And it's full of MP3s. Honestly, it's probably not a good choice to drive something as nice as the Noble K10s. So, I started shopping for a high-end DAP (a.k.a., a [portable] Digital Audio Player).

Spend any amount of time researching high-end DAPs, and you'll trip over the name Astell&Kern time and again. A&K is a luxury brand from iRiver, a Korean company that offered MP3 players around the time that Apple cornered that market with the iPod. To survive, iRiver reinvented themselves and went after the high-end--a niche market they seem to dominate based on the observation that everyone seems to either praise their players or compare other brands and models to them.

The AK380 may not be the very best player in the world, but it's A&K's previous-generation flagship. And it's damn impressive. Massdrop ran a drop on this unit (of course they did), and I was one of a few people to jump on that deal. Some folks in Massdrop's forums derided that drop as a bad deal (mainly for A&K being "overpriced"), but now that I have spent some serious time with the AK380, I'm extremely skeptical of how good the other, cheaper players they recommended really are.

I've used the AK380 with a variety of headphones now, and I've used those same headphones on desktop amps like the Aune X1S, which I love for casual listening. But there's really no comparison. The AK380 delivers better audio than just about everything I own (not ready to declare it objectively better than the Stax), and it does so in a completely portable package. For the first time ever, I can take a true HiFi experience with me anywhere, which has led to my ambushing countless friends and family with impromptu forced listening sessions just to prove that I'm not insane and audiophiledom is real. music

  • Focal Utopia (Best Headphones in the World?)
Focal UtopiaFocal Utopia
Just as Astell&Kern is never out of the spotlight for their DAPs, the Focal Utopia seems to land on just about every (serious) list of the "World's Best Headphones." I happened to catch a fire sale on a pair just before a family reunion in August.

OMG. The hype is real.

Out of the AK380, the Utopias deliver the closest thing to perfect sound that I have experienced. They give the Stax a run for their money on absurd clarity, yet the overall presentation feels more balanced, with slightly better bass. Everything just sounds right. The fact that I can get this level of quality out of a portable setup is simply mind-blowing.

Listening to this pairing is why I can't take any of the criticisms of the AK380 seriously. The Utopias are hyper-resolving; I can immediately hear the quality drop when I go to other amps. Likewise, lesser headphones sound their best on the AK380, but their best may not be much better than how they perform with lesser amps. It's easy to understand how someone could find the AK380 to be overhyped and overpriced under certain conditions. Cheaper DAPs no doubt will perform similarly well for much less money with some headphones. But I have a hard time believing that those cheaper DAPs are as resolving as the AK380.

  • Noble K10 CIEMs
Kaiser 10 Custom In-Ear MonitorsKaiser 10 Custom In-Ear Monitors
They're here. I've had these for about six weeks now, and have gotten to know them well. They're definitely worthy of "exotic" classification, though what they have to offer is a bit more specialized than the AK380 or the Utopias. They're like that sniper rifle or shotgun that you don't want in your regular loadout, but for certain missions nothing else will do.

I wish I could say that the Noble K10s are as resolving as the Utopias, but they are not. They're not even quite in the same league, although by any other measure they are still excellent. Certainly worthy of their asking price. Where they truly shine is in comfort, portability and isolation.

I simply cannot overstate how amazingly comfortable CIEMs are. I expected "good," but these feel like wearing nothing at all. Every other pair of earbuds I've ever worn exerts some kind of pressure when you jam them in place, but these just belong there.

Portability, of course, is as good as it gets. Noble gave me a little Pelican case to protect them, so I can cart them around anywhere I go without fear of damaging them.

Finally, isolation: the perfect fit makes CIEMs the perfect earplugs. Unlike open-back headphones that demand a quiet listening environment to perform their best, CIEMs turn wherever you happen to be into the perfect listening environment. Listening to the K10s is like hitting the mute button on life and replacing it with a beautifully-rendered soundtrack of your choice. These will be absolute heaven next time I have to fly anywhere.

Another side-effect of the perfect seal is unbelievable bass response. Ever stand in front of a speaker and feel a heavy beat punch you in the chest? The K10s deliver a miniaturized version of that experience that's localized in your head. The first time I cranked up a bass-heavy tune ("Mambacore" by Infected Mushroom, BTW), it felt like my face was pulsing! shock

  • My Music is Rooned!
The last entry in today's blog is not hardware, but software. For several years, my main loudspeaker setup has been driven by a Mac Mini running iTunes. I used an iPad running iTunes Remote to select music to play.

This has been a great setup, but not without some flaws. For one, iTunes defers to the OS for playback rate, meaning I cannot configure all of the music in my collection to play at its native resolution (CDs are 44.1kHz, but some of my Hi-Res music is 96kHz). Also, Apple stubbornly clings to its own proprietary losseless codec (ALAC) despite the fact that it offers no real benefit over FLAC. Finally, the latest release of iTunes Remote is junk--it's cumbersome to jump back and forth between my library and the "Now Playing" queue, and unless I empty the queue, clicking on an album or song does nothing.

Enter Roon. The short version is that Roon does everything that iTunes did for me, only much better and with seamless compatibility across every phone, tablet and computer in my house.

The brains of Roon is a server called the "Roon Core." This can be any machine, but I built a dedicated Intel NUC running Roon's custom Linux OS that's streamlined to do nothing but Roon Core stuff. That includes streaming music to any endpoint for playback, and maintaining a ridiculously deep metadata database. Just point the Core to your music files, and it handles the rest.

The first thing I did after setting up my Roon server was to download Roon Remote onto my iPad. And the very next thing I did was to test something iTunes wouldn't let me do: stream music directly to the iPad. Sure enough, Alice in Chains Facelift began pouring out of my iPad speakers. Neat!

OK, so now onto the next problem: my laptop. My music library all lives on a NAS, but with my laptop I ran into an ugly catch-22. My laptop runs Windows 10, and Windows 10 will only mount network shares running Samba 2 or later. My NAS is older and only supports Samba 1. Getting my laptop to see Samba 1 shares would require enabling a feature that Windows has disabled as a "potential security risk." And enabling my NAS to export Samba 2 shares would require wiping all of the data on it and installing an unsupported OS that wasn't designed to run on the older hardware. Yikes!

With Roon, there was no problem. Install Roon software on the laptop. Configure the external DAC as a playback zone. My iPad immediately sees it. Play some Beatles. Moments later, I'm listening to Love on my headphones. And Alice in Chains is still playing on the iPad!

I ended up installing Roon on Autumn's tablet and phone, my tablet and phone, my laptop and my Mac Mini. We can use any of our phones and tablets to control playback on any computer. Roon even lets you migrate playback to different zones, so if I'm listening on my loudspeakers and Autumn needs some quiet, I can shift playback from the speakers on the Mac to my headphones on the PC. And I can do that from my phone, or my tablet, or from the PC with the headphones. Phenomenal!

And it just gets better. Roon's silly-deep metadata lets you browse your music collection in extremely flexible ways. For example, search for "Trent Reznor" and it will show me not only Nine Inch Nails, where Trent is the artist, but also stuff like Marilyn Manson content that he produced, soundtracks that he composed, and guest credits on tracks like "Past the Mission" by Tori Amos! Surfing through your music collection has never been more flexible or capable.

As if all of that wasn't enough, Roon also seamlessly integrates Tidal, so I can stream stuff I don't already own in high quality. To any device in the house. Well, almost any device. We really need a Roon app on XBox.

Like everything in the world of exotic audio, Roon doesn't come cheaply. But it does absolutely shame every other library management and playback software I've ever used. I've known about it for a while, but have been reluctant to dump a bunch of money into replacing free software that seemed to be doing the job. Silly me. Roon solved every audio playback problem I had, and then some, and it did it with style. It's worth every penny.
Posted by SpeleoFool on 10 October 18 at 01:25 | There are 2 comments on this blog post - Please log in to comment on this blog.

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Congrats on all of these completions! Looks like I am out of time. ;)

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