Issue 247 November 2014
The Best Of Both Worlds
Editorial By Robert Harley
We live in a world of astonishing technological advancements, but one aspect of this landscape that doesn't get much attention paid is just how easily humans adapt to, and even take for granted, startling technologies that only a short time before would have been the stuff of science fiction. We casually incorporate into our daily lives each successive innovation as though it were in the natural order of things. But once in a rare while, something shocks our tacit sense of acceptance and causes us to take a step back and think about just how fantastical the world has become.
That shock for me happened by chance yesterday. I walked over to the Devialet 200, which had just been decoding digital files and driving my loudspeakers, and was startled to see nothing connected to it but an AC cord and a pair of speaker cables—no input cables. Of course, I knew that my MacBook Pro was streaming music wirelessly to the Devialet, but that visual image jolted me into a fresh perspective.
Listening to high-res audio with amazing clarity from this laptop-sized component and seeing no connections but speaker cables brought home the fact that audio technology has changed dramatically in just the past five years. Moments before, I had been in the listening seat with an iPad; any piece of music in my library was no further away than a finger tap. I controlled the Devialet via the iPad app's volume-knob graphic interface. The high-resolution music files had been previously transmitted over the Internet, and were now stored on a Network Attached Storage drive. And Alvin Toffler thought Future Shock had arrived in 1970.
The Devialet itself defies classification by traditional component categories. It's more of a general-purpose audio-hardware platform that can be programmed by software to fit your specific needs. Devialet's Web site shows the unit's rear-panel input and output jacks. Clicking on the jack brings up a screen that, for example, allows you to change a line input to a phono input, and to select the cartridge gain, loading, and even equalization curve. An RCA jack that's nominally a digital output can become a subwoofer output, complete with a low-pass filter offering selectable crossover frequency and even slope. Save your configurations to an SD card, insert the card into the Devialet, and seconds later you have a completely different audio component. Oh, I forgot to mention that the 200Wpc Devialet 200 review sample arrived as a 170Wpc Devialet 170; a firmware update increased the unit's output power and simultaneously lowered the chassis temperature.
Another technological marvel is the Astell&Kern AK240 portable player. Smaller than a pack of playing cards, the AK240 lets you carry a library of high-res audio in any format—including double-DSD—anywhere you go. With its wireless connectivity, you can stream music from the device to your music server, or access any music anywhere on your network. The AK240's digital-to-analog converter chips are the same as those found in some multi-thousand-dollar DACs, and its analog stages are built like high-end components in miniature. When it is coupled with a headphone like the Audeze LCD-X, you have a stereo system complete with a music server that can deliver portable sound quality unimaginable just a few years ago.
It's not just the capabilities of audio components that are undergoing this radical transformation—the form factors are changing as well. The big, square, heavy chassis that have been with us since the dawn of audio are giving way to sleek new designs that challenge the paradigm of a rack of boxes between the loudspeakers. The products from Auralic are good examples; its Gemini 2000 DAC/headphone amplifier looks like a piece of sculpture. The company's Aries converts any DAC into a wireless streamer in a chassis that looks nothing like a traditional audio component. And did I mention that the Devialet 200 can be mounted vertically on a wall?
And then there are the unprecedented new ways of accessing music. Streaming services offer tens of millions of pieces of music on demand for a monthly fee. Once relegated to low bit-rates and compromised fidelity, streaming services are beginning to offer lossless CD quality. The European lossless subscription service WiMP just announced that it's now available in the U.S. market (under the new name TIDAL).
But despite the proliferation of such futuristic new audio technologies and our embrace of them, sales of tubed electronics, vinyl records, and LP-playback gear have never been stronger. We integrate the technology innovations, each more startling that the last, into our daily lives, yet still long for the simplicity, sound quality, tactility—and yes, ritual—of audio's foundational technologies. Fortunately, there's no reason why we can't enjoy the best of both worlds.
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