New Fidelity

On a recent visit to my local hi-fi emporium, it has become increasingly clear that the state of hi fidelity audio systems is in the midst of an identity crisis. It use to be that you would bring your favorite recording media with you and experiment with this music until you found what you were looking for. While auditioning a number of candidate speaker replacements, my cell phone served as the audio source and it was connected to various systems using differing techniques.

The prominence of media-less entertainment has decamped traditional hi-fidelity transports and we are entering what can be considered New-Fidelity. If you are putting together a system for music only, something like the Goldmund Logos Tower might be all you need. The absence of a media transport device (CD, SACD, etc.) is in fact the normal configuration for a new home stereo, and this will eventually be the case for all of your entertainment including multi-channel audio sources.

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Perhaps the greatest hurdle is standardizing on a wireless audio transmission format that doesn’t annihilate the fidelity of the original source. Assuming you have lossless digital copies of your collection, as soon as you retransmit that music over the popular Bluetooth format there is an audible degradation as a result of the compression techniques required by the Bluetooth format. Some systems support the AptX Lossless codec over Bluetooth, which can increase the fidelity of your media, but this is not widely supported.

Apple provides a reasonable solution with AirPlay, this format relies on a wireless network and allows you to stream ALAC (Apple Lossless) but actual playback is limited to CD quality (16-bit at 44kHz). There are external kits like the V-Moda Vamp that can improve your fidelity with a superior DAC but these are not wireless solutions and require a direct connection to your iOS device. ARCAM now provides a network addressable AirPlay/UPnP device called the AirDAC, and with the right software you can get to 24 bit / 96kHz resolution using UPnP.

Much to my chagrine, most of the source systems were only able to communicate with my sample audio using the headphone jack on my cell phone. While this is generally acceptable, it is limited by the DAC in my phone as well as the cable and analog connector required for the plug. As a long term solution this has a number of fidelity issues that are beyond the scope of this discussion.

The problem remains; the lack of wireless digital audio standards are limiting the audio experience. As different vendors arrive at different solutions, consumers are caught having to select appropriate hardware that can work with these emerging standards.

Many of the predominant players in the audio space have been complacent and are happy to adopt Bluetooth and AirPlay. We desperately need a new digital audio transmission standard, one that is both lossless and ubiquitous so that portable audio devices can easily interoperate with them.