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Jason Bovberg on Digital Music in the Home

A year and a half ago, I wrote a column about solutions for streaming music in a whole-house audio solution (“3 Ways to Stream Whole-House Audio from the Cloud”).

A year and a half ago, I wrote a column about solutions for streaming music in a whole-house audio solution. That article focused on Sonos-style networked solutions for multiple zones in the home. They were solutions that stressed ease-of-use but could add up in cost and, in the end, were actually a bit onerous to set up.

For years, I’ve yearned for a solution in which I could simply stream the music from my MP3 player to my home stereo system in as lossless and simple a way as possible. I only wanted this for one room—the living room. I envisioned a component to which I could easily attach my device (for charging) or simply connect via Bluetooth to play whatever music I wanted—whenever I wanted—from either my device or my hard disk. That’s all I wanted: lossless music from my digital collection to my high-end audio setup.

My wife had different goals, it turns out. She preferred the notion of a more mobile solution, and for her needs, a Bluetooth-enabled speaker system would work just fine. After all, those speakers have become increasingly powerful and capable. But are we really at a place where we can get optimum sound quality in these kinds of solutions? Let’s see what worked best for the both of us.

A Preference for Mobility

Not content with a solution that would be anchored to our living-room stereo setup, my wife wanted a solution that she could take with her. Her wish was to have a good-enough-sounding Bluetooth speaker system that she could carry to her workout area, her craft room, or the kitchen, or wherever else she wanted—then power it on and listen to the digital music stored on her MP3 player.

There are several terrific options in this space, not least of which is the popular Bose Soundlink Mini. Bose has come a long way in sound quality, particularly in its smaller devices such as headphones and Bluetooth speaker systems. The Soundlink Mini is consistently rated one of the best options in this market.

We also looked at the JBL Charge, an interesting, well-reviewed system that offered the ability to charge the MP3 device (via USB) while playing. The benefits of the JBL Charge are that it promises strong bass, especially when compared with Bose’s typical flat (but accurate) sound field.

The system my wife landed on is the Fugoo Style Bluetooth Speaker. Ultra-portable and boasting 40 hours of battery life, the Fugoo produces great sound for its size and heft: clear and punchy. The Fugoo’s Core-X technology claims to offer a better digital path for music to the amplifier, to avoid the kind of interference that reportedly plagues the JBL Charge. The unit doesn’t charge the device as it plays, but after some consideration, my wife decided that chargeability wasn’t a huge priority. She wouldn’t often be away from an AC outlet when using the device.

All three of these options are nice, but they’re (by nature) limiting in terms of sound quality. You’re just not going to get pristine wireless audio over Bluetooth from a digitally converted analog source. Audiophiles will notice harsh highs and limited bass and murky sound fields. Compared with simply running a wire to the device, these solutions suffer. So what are the best options for those with a more discerning ear?

A More Permanent Solution

Much as I’ve been frustrated with the way millions of consumers have shrugged off the rather obscene audio-quality tradeoffs that digital music and MP3 players have brought to the experience of music, I’m sad about the mass acceptance of low-fidelity audio from in-home audio solutions that involve these devices. I knew there had to be a better way to enjoy high-fidelity music with the ubiquitous digital solutions that rule the world.

My first purchase toward the dream of higher-quality sound from my iPod to my home stereo was the Icon IDO DAC and headphone amp. This little amp has the excellent ability to pass the iPod’s digital audio through to another external digital audio converter (DAC)—say, a high-end receiver or amplifier—and thereby increase the depth, precision, and breadth of the soundstage. (The iPod’s DAC is decent, but it’s definitely not audiophile quality.) After a simple hookup of the Icon via coax cable, I had attained vastly improved sound through a direct wired connection, as well as the ability to keep the iPod charged. The Icon is proving to be an excellent solution. (It’s also a top-notch headphone amplifier for those of us with high-end, power-hungry headsets, enhancing performance by leaps and bounds.)

But there’s more to my dream of digital living-room music than this basic, wired solution. I still envision a future in which I can access my music collection from either my iPod or iTunes (on a tablet) and play it seamlessly on my home stereo—in high quality. And for that, Apple Airplay is still the best way to go. As much as I still despise iTunes, Apple Airplay offers an admittedly great solution to play lossless audio over a wide-range home network. It easily bests lossy Bluetooth in terms of sound quality and network availability. But as with any Apple solution, it comes with the distinct, annoying disadvantage of being proprietary (and often expensive).

Still, it’s probably the future of my setup. Many of today’s AV receivers come with Airplay built in, from such top-tier vendors as Denon, Marantz, Onkyo, Pioneer, Sony, and Yamaha. Whereas you once had to set up a rather wonky Airplay network with a specialized device, you can now plug-and-play a new receiver, walk through simple installation steps, and your experience of a lossless music collection is good to go, networked from your device.

What’s Your Solution?

I want to hear how you’re delivering digital music in your home. Have you opted for lower-quality, portable, wireless solution such as a Bluetooth speaker? Or have you set up something more elaborate and higher-end? Do you have your music collection streaming through your home stereo? Or are you primarily an earbuds-while-exercising consumer of music? Are other vendors offering the dream of lossless audio the way Apple has succeeded? Let me know what’s working for you.

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