Despite the rebirth of the LP in the past years driven by different ambitions and needs, the computer audio is clearly taking a strong place in the music landscape in the past 10 years. It is clearly accelerating with the growth of digital support and streaming, the cost down of the hardware streaming solutions, the availability of cost effective solution (computer, Raspberry Pi with additional boards,…) and by the fact that the world is now equiped with smartphone. The following article will focus on streamers or digital transports.
The “High End” audio market understood quite well this trend and the time where Slimdevice, and after Logitech, were pioneers with the well known LMS solution, is quite far now. Most of the well known companies on the market are extending their product portfolio to streamers besides the DAC and CD Players/Transports which used to be the first stones of the digital era. We can name Esoteric, Ayon, dCS, etc…as example.
The major issue that these well known brands are facing is that the evolution of the products nowadays is much more driven by software than by hardware. The acceleration of the trends is driven by new kind of standards or ways of streaming audio (Roon vs UPnP vs LMS), new formats (MQA..) etc… that are more linked to code lines and programming of CPU/FPGA than hardware evolution. For sure, hardware is the backbone of such software evolution, and we have numerous examples of very good hardware engineering/integration that enable evolutions for years through firmware. We can mention the famous Slimdevice/Logitec Squeezebox, Lumin streamers, Auralic, SOtM, Sonore, TotalDac, etc…
The capacity to follow the trends, driven by software, is linked to the initial stages of the product design : selection of components, outputs to connect to the DAC (as far as we are talking about transports)…And this is the point : how the historical players are able to understand the design of a streamer that is much more different than a digital converter or a CD Transport ?
Different options are on the table for the brands :
- Create a transport using OEM “bricks”. These bricks exist on the market and namely, the hifi brands can use for example Engineered (ex ABC PCB) or StreamUnlimited.
- Create a transport using partially some OEM brick like Belcanto is doing on the Refstream (Engineered NMR-MOD board) or more interesting the Sonore microrendu using “Cubox boards” in their boxes (yes you can use OS dedicated to cubox like archlinux on this product and you could be surprised by the sound performance). Or, directly like TotalDac, use a cubox.
- Create a transport from scratch with propriatary boards (Auralic, Lumin,…)
- Create a transport using a PC motherboard and optimizing some outputs, power supplies etc… like Amare Musica.
According to these different cases, let’s try to understand the different behaviours of the manufacturers through examples.
3DLab is integrating a full solution of Engineered (on top of the famous 3DLAB SRC board). 3Dlab is providing firmware updates quite often and synchronized with Engineered releases.
BelCanto, especially on the refstream is using a part of Engineered boards and made by themselves the full integration. Since the release of this product, and even if the product is working quite fine, no updates had been provided to the customers, and let’s be clear BelCanto does not care about that. The reasons could be numerous : lack of competencies, no customer centricity, etc…but this beahaviour is quite strange is such “accelerating environment”.
Other players, working on SBC (Single Board Computers) like Raspebby Pi/Cubox (Allo, TotalDac) are designing with more flexibility especially linked to the OS used (linux). It brings a lot of opportunities for evolutions from a software point of view (Real time kernels, new formats and supports like roon, UPnP, server functions, etc…). The signal by itself can be managed by other means (FPGA/CPU) in order to add filtering, conversion etc…
Let’s mention the special case of TotalDac who is proposing not only software evolution but also hardware evolution. This is possible, according to me, because of the design flexibility choosen by Vincent BRIENT.
Let’s have a look, as example to Amare Musica. The spirit is the same as Totaldac : work with a open platform on Linux (computer base), with dedicated power supplies for the different boards (Main, USB/SPDIF, screen, USB board…) and a dedicated USB board. In this case, the capacity to accelerate, to fit to the market is not in the hardware or software platform but more in the low customer centricity of this brand : poor interaction, not open to listen to customer. You even don’t know if there is some software updates.
Concerning fully integrated manufacturers (even at the application level) let’s say that it is what you can expect as the best service and potential evolution. Even if the starts of Lumin and Auralic were quite difficult let’s say that they are now mastering the evolution proposing continuous evolutions (Roon and MQA compatibility for example).
My knowledge and vision of the solutions of the market is not complete but what is interesting to see is that through all the examples i mentionned, none of the companies that are able to fit to the market in terms of acceleration are historial companies. All are players that grow with the digital computing and made a real business case study to understand how to drive their strategy with their customers.
Recently, dCS announced that they stopped supporting the development of the USB Audio output (more information HERE) to focus on other functionnalities like MQA. How a company known as a pioneer in digital domain can miss such functionnality as USB Audio (without talking about wifi integration) : lack of competencies ? Missed specification in order to access quicker to the market…
dCS, as mainly of the listed products above, offered a very good sound experience. dCS, 3dLab, BelCanto are working on integration providing special focus on power supply, EMI/RFI etc…but today is it really what we need to expect from such product ? I trully believe that functionnality and software evolution/flexibility is the key topic (outputs, formats, server function, streaming capabilities with external platforms,…) and i’m not sure that investing in high-end streamer (see Esoteric and APL as examples above 10k€) makes sense in terms of sonic performance/price ratio.
From my side, i will keep in mind three key take aways if i need to invest in such renderer in the future :
- focus in having the most flexible product as digital streamer/renderer : we are not only investing in a sound but also features,
- focus in having a company with strong supports, customer centricity and good view of the market,
- i really think that the major HiFi brands still do not understand what kind of competencies they need to support such digital trends (usb and ethernet isolation, USB integration, wifi integration, etc..). For sure they are going to react but while they are structuring around this trend, the new players are moving fast and now are coming to the historical playground of the digital historical players with amplifiers like Lumin and Auralic.
The near future will be a lot of fun.