Provenance: the Foundation of Musical Pleasure

Regency TR-1 transistor radio, the first commercial transistor radio, which debuted October 18, 1954. Designed by Texas Instruments and IDEA, the TR-1 had a superheterodyne circuit with only 4 transistors: a combined local oscillator/mixer, two IF amplifiers, and one audio amplifier. Within one year of release, TR-1 sales approached 100,000. The transistor radio was the most popular communications device in history, with billions manufactured during the 1960s and 1970s. Courtesy of Steve Kushman. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transistor_radio.

Regency TR-1 transistor radio, the first commercial transistor radio, which debuted October 18, 1954. Designed by Texas Instruments and IDEA, the TR-1 had a superheterodyne circuit with only 4 transistors: a combined local oscillator/mixer, two IF amplifiers, and one audio amplifier. Within one year of release, TR-1 sales approached 100,000. The transistor radio was the most popular communications device in history, with billions manufactured during the 1960s and 1970s. Courtesy of Steve Kushman. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transistor_radio.

What does it take to make fabulous-sounding music flow through your life? That is a fundamental question if you're a music lover who wants a preferred sound track for your daily story. The answer is not so simple any more because there are so many possible approaches that could work, whatever genres you prefer to listen to.

Narrowing things down gets far easier when you leverage the powerful concept of provenance -- how something originates and becomes developed. The provenance of a radish, for a random example, includes everything that happens to it, starting from ancestry. Its DNA comes together long before the moment the seed sprouts and then continues onward until that fateful first chomp on that spicy, round, red root. Understanding the provenance that shapes music as it flows from its sources leads to insights for a best-possible music solution that's tailored to your preferences.

Consider the steps and states that a piece of music goes through before it lands on your plate. These factors are subject to your control through your choices:

  1. Composition -- how artfully was the music conceived and written?
  2. Performance -- how skillful were the performers and how acoustically excellent the venue?
  3. Recording -- how well was the performance captured?
  4. Production -- how well did the sound engineers craft the version that was distributed?
  5. Distribution -- what media were chosen and how did that limit sonic accuracy?
  6. Playback -- do the recording's quality and realism satisfy you in the listening?

Provenance may be the single most important concept an audio lover could use to filter the field of possibilities. The path a musical note takes on its way to your eardrums is a long and winding road with many possible pitfalls. Each of the main steps also have sub-factors. For example, playback breaks down into data being reconverted into sound waves and all that entails. The music quality you hear is necessarily the sum of its provenance's influences including everything in the room where it's played.

The shortest, simplest path may have the least chance of corruption and may likely lead to the best-sounding music. I once inherited a copy of John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High" that had literally traveled around the world via bootleg mix tapes, being re-recorded repeatedly along the way. You could make out the song if you knew what you were hearing but it sounded worse than an original transistor radio -- comically smeared, noisy, and distorted. All that remained recognizable were basic melody and rhythm.

On the other hand, modern digital technologies contribute greatly to a pure provenance by avoiding corruption of the musical data regardless of how long the path may be in either distance or time. I was in Korea in 1970 when I heard that John Denver tape. If that music had reached me via internet transfer of even a 16/44.1 digital file yesterday -- what I hear today could sound stellar on my present test system and indistinguishable from the source recording.

A streamed Ogg Vorbis MP3 from Spotify would sound slightly less realistic. If it was on a vinyl LP, it could be filled with cracks, pops, and skips unless that LP had been meticulously protected, stored and handled through the years. On analog tape, CD, or other physical medium, the format could impart characteristic faults. Though not totally immune, digital music is far more impervious.

Digital music is based on data capture, storage, and readout that perform close to the inherent quality limits of a well-selected and properly set up, high quality audio system. The medium is no longer a weak link. Digital formats, media, distribution, and playback  hold promise of the best practical provenance through steps 3 to 6 above. If you want a gigantic selection of fresh and natural-sounding music that's new to you, go digital to stoke the soundtrack for your life.

This is not to say that, if you get a kick out of collecting old vinyl LPs, or CDs, or even cassette tapes, you "shouldn't" listen to those media. I hope you listen to whatever excites you. The other day I came upon a perfectly preserved, two-tone 1954 Dodge Royal Sport Coupe in a parking lot. It was fascinating and wonderful to see. I ached to drive it around for a bit. Then I climbed back into a 300 HP, 1998 Lexus GS 400 and drove off. Before I left the lot, I got over the historic Dodge. Such is the influence of technology through its powerful and positive effect on musical provenance.

What is the best-sounding high performance audio stream you can muster given your budget and any other limiting factors or circumstances? I suspect the answer pivots on digital technology as the vehicle on its path to your ears. These days, most music is recorded and mastered digitally. You only need a miniscule 2 or 3-component audio system to bring it to life playing media that stores in a space that's microscopic by comparison to past libraries of physical media.

Musically speaking, we live in interesting times. The previous 3 posts in this blog provide a way for your own, select sound track to come together easily and more affordably than at any previous time in history.

Enjoy Your Music

-- Joseph Riden

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JustBoom Plays Beautiful Music

There's a headphone amp included on the DAC HAT board

There's a headphone amp included on the DAC HAT board

After extensive critical listening, I've concluded that the new JustBoom music player is the highest-value audio component I've encountered since starting to seriously listen to music in the mid-1960s. This tiny player device renders a natural and dynamic musical performance as accurate as any I have found so far. I added this little black box to upgrade the best-sounding home audio system I have put together so far. It will reside in my test system into the indefinite future. JustBoom's audio gear first appeared in the iHi-Fi blog this past January 11. This article is third in a series about this British startup and their accomplishments.

As the first step, I followed online documentation to assemble the JustBoom DAC HAT Kit plus their Amp Board. Three boards go together as a stack, including a Raspberry Pi 3B computer board. Circuit board and mechanical build quality, fitment, and cosmetics are top-notch and the latest technology. The outboard power supply is in-line. A shiny, piano-black, polymer case gives the finished device a handsome look.

Once assembled and provided with code, this player needs local digital audio files from any USB memory device to play up to 24/192 resolution and beyond or Spotify to stream lower-resolution music from the web. As 16-bit streaming is incorporated into the many available OS distribution choices, support for 16-bit audio streaming is already built into the hardware. Such developments make this is an exciting time to be reporting on audio's evolution.

Assembly was straightforward and trouble-free, including the download and installation of a custom Linux operating system (OS) distribution to control the electronics. The debut of Raspberry Pi audio hardware like this device is driving code development for a surprising number of feature-rich possibilities. This player hardware will run a growing array of OS distributions. I chose the first of many that are becoming available: free Volumio.

JustBoom DAC HAT Kit

JustBoom DAC HAT Kit

Volumio seems adequate but Spartan as a player app. It's a significant value for a free OS even though it's balky at times on my Samsung S7 smartphone. The Roon Labs distribution is said to have hooks to TIDAL for those of us who look forward to streaming 16-bit music. I will definitely implement higher-resolution streaming now that I've listened to many 16-bit albums from locally-connected memory devices.

I'm an eclectic listener, always looking for outstanding new selections across several genres. For this article, I've sampled Pop, Rock, Folk, Classical, World Music, Electronic, and Jazz selections including some of the best-provenance recordings I've acquired. It's difficult to imagine music of any type sounding significantly better than it now does via this player. To improve music farther, I would have to upgrade my speakers at a far higher cost and any improvement would most likely be marginal.

I'm happy to report stellar musical performance using Volumio with this JustBoom device. Given the Audioengine A5+ Speakers' amplification in my medium-sized, neutral-sounding room, I've been hearing new things on very familiar recordings. That's a sure sign of a jump in musical fidelity.

Signal-to-noise ratio is outstanding. As a test, I turn up the volume to maximum, with nothing playing, to detect any systemic background noise. I was reminded how important it is to assure that only one volume control acts as a master when two or more volume controls are stacked, as happens with a player app feeding a system that has another volume control somewhere, perhaps in a preamp or powered speakers, or both.

At first, I neglected to set the variable Volumio output to 100% and use only the final volume control of the A5+ Powered Speakers to set the listening level. I was dismayed to hear background noise until this oversight was corrected. With my present setup properly adjusted, it's still dead silence at maximum volume with nothing playing. All I hear is deep, black silence at idle, and no background artifact during playback from any source I tried.

The more I listen, the better I appreciate this JustBoom player's articulation. This is not surprising given the DAC chip developers chose for this design: the Burr-Brown / Texas Instruments PCM5122. Higher resolutions sound natural, accurate, and life-like, regardless of musical density, from fully orchestral, symphonic performances to notes intimately whispered, delicately bent, or agonizingly blue, in either male or female Jazz or Blues vocals.

High piano notes don't break up into fuzz or crackles as may happen when a system's articulation falls short. Delicate instrumental timbres of cello, harp, French horn, vibes, and even the humble kalimba, hang drum, and harmonica sound full and rich. Percussion is highly detailed with complex overtones of drums, cymbals or vibes. Nothing is lost or smeared: from Frank Sinatra to Keb' Mo', from Loreena McKennitt to Nora Jones, singers sound as I have experienced in live performance. The illusion of musical reality is consistently pure and beautifully vivid as what is nascent in a recording blooms into my spaces.

JustBoom DAC HAT Case. yes, 3 boards fit into this tiny box that sits in your hand.

JustBoom DAC HAT Case. yes, 3 boards fit into this tiny box that sits in your hand.

Suggested music selections include the following albums that helped reveal how this player sounds:

  • The Modern Jazz Quartet -- Blues at Carnegie Hall
  • Espen Ericksen Trio -- What Took You So Long?
  • Pete Kuzma -- Equilibrium
  • Praful -- The Silent Side of Satie
  • Mike Mainieri -- Man Behind Bars
  • Fabrizio Paterlini -- Fragments Found
  • Adam Hurst -- Elegy
  • Norah Jones -- Come Away With Me
  • Bob Dylan -- Fallen Angels
  • Kilowatts -- Seven Succulents

Conveniences the JustBoom player brings to listening include these:

  • Ability to control music from anywhere in the house using any Android smartphone or tablet
  • Simultaneous availability of all your music files
  • Only a few taps to hear playlists of locally stored or streamed music
  • Playback of many established and emerging file formats
  • Computer re-boots and phone notifications don't interrupt your music.
  • Tiny physical footprint that easily fits into a home audio system
  • Ability to drive either powered or efficient passive speakers
  • Playback of most popular digital file formats
  • Spouse-friendly size and appearance

This test audio system configuration is very compact:

  • JustBoom Audio Player -- DAC HAT Kit and Amp Board housed in the DAC Hat Case (it all fits, including a Raspberry Pi 3)
  • USB Memory Stick
  • iFi Audio Tube Buffer
  • Audioengine A5+ Powered Speakers

Note that the Amp board was not used yet. Further testing with passive speakers is planned. Also, for both streaming and control, the system depends on a fast internet connection and a capable home Wi-Fi network.

The new generation of audio gear based on the Raspberry Pi not only sounds fabulous, its cost is astoundingly affordable given the performance it delivers. Low cost completes the simple equation for high value that heads up the iHi-Fi Blog: V = R+F/C (audio system Value = Realism + Features / Cost.) I listened to this system playing from 16/44.1 up to 24/192 digital files and also Spotify tracks featuring the suggested test music above and much more.

These are exciting times to be a music lover and home audio enthusiast. Without exaggeration, the debut of Raspberry Pi-based audio is the most significant advancement to come along since the digital audio revolution began. We have a new generation of forward-thinking young music aficionados taking over. Companies like JustBoom and Audioengine are breaking the sales paradigm that has frozen the music industry in stasis for decades, thereby paving the road to a new era in audio enjoyment.

My hope is that finally, reliance on snob appeal to sell false prestige based on hyped-up audio components will die out. New generations of digital devices are transforming music listening. By ripple effect, the whole music industry can follow this lead and prosper once again. Now twelve hundred bucks buys a whole home audio system (including speakers) that sounds as good as what cost me twelve grand only ten years ago and this new setup is more advanced, powerful, versatile, convenient, and way smaller.

In my mind, all this sums up to a very good thing.

Enjoy Your Music,

-- Joseph Riden

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Building a JustBoom Audio Player

the footprint of the justboom audio player is only a fraction of an inch more than a credit card outline.

I used to wonder if smartphones will replace music players. One can, in theory, play digital music directly from my Samsung Android phone. However, it's awkward because a special adapter is required to connect the USB music signal to any downstream audio devices. This adapter interferes with a phone's armor which forces me to remove the case for each listening session and then replace it. If I tolerate that much inconvenience, then any incoming calls or notifications interrupt the music. That's like having public announcements during music listening which should be intimate and private. Thus, I was rudely reminded you can't do everything with a smartphone.

A dedicated Hi-Fi audio player perfects a computer audio system setup. Avid listeners who have substantial collections and an appetite for several musical genres, from different digital sources, won't tolerate much fumbling. So I'm delighted to find the little Raspberry Pi computer board that was designed as an educational tool has become very inexpensive and popular. The Pi's audio applications are improving computer audio profoundly for the better, not only through fantastic musical fidelity but also through easier and more convenient access to digital libraries and streams. This post describes what it was like to get a Raspberry Pi-based audio player up and running.

Good News

JustBoom, the British startup mentioned in my previous blog post, is now offering a diverse Raspberry Pi audio product line. They produce an assemble-yourself, true high fidelity audio player kit that sounds fabulous with the components I already have. My Audioengine A5+N (Bamboo) speakers sound as good as ever connected to this player's variable Line-Out. Closer comparative listening may reveal if this new component brings better musical realism across the board.

I didn't have a dedicated computer audio player before discovering JustBoom. I was complacent with using my computer or iPad 3 to source music and to control playback. Now that I've experienced the great ease and convenience a headless, dedicated digital audio player brings to the listening experience, I would not want to give up control from any device and from anywhere in the house. I'm also happy to find the available choices are capable at the low end of cost. There's no need to dig deep to buy a Mac Mini and an audio operating system. Now the computing hardware and audio devices are inexpensive and some available custom Linux-based OS distributions are free.

As long as you have the following bare essentials, JustBoom offers a path to get your digital music playing. You need to have only the following minimum of components:            

  • A control device (Mac or PC computer and/ or any smartphone or tablet that runs a web browser.)
  • A Wi-Fi enabled local data network with an available Ethernet tap on the router.
  • Stereo speakers (preferably 4 Ohm Impedance and/or very efficient, if passive.)

I like a player with diverse capability that's not limited to either powered or passive speakers. In some cases, I must work around limitation to the 30 W RMS power capacity of the JustBoom power amplifier board. Therefore, I configured a JustBoom DAC HAT board along with an Amp board to maximize the player's flexibility and cover all speakers, even if another amplifier is required.

The Build

This section describes the procedure but please don't contact me for support with your own assembly process. Support is included with your purchase. If you need help, contact JustBoom via their website if their copious help content does not resolve an issue.

The following items are essential.

Tools:

  • Anti-static mat and wrist strap (not necessarily required)
  • #0 Phillips Screwdriver
  • #1 flat-blade screwdriver or similar tool
  • Tweezers or Needle-nose Pliers

  Audio Components:

  • JustBoom DAC HAT Kit, which includes:
    • Raspberry Pi 3B PC Board
    • JustBoom DAC HAT PC Board
    • Power Supply (outboard)
    • Case for DAC HAT (an added Amp PCB also fits into this Case)
    • A Micro SD memory card for the OS code
    • Required screws, spacers, and RCA interconnects
  • JustBoom Amp Board, 30 WPC Stereo, with onboard DAC chip 

Physical Hardware Assembly

I slowly worked through the online documentation to assemble the JustBoom hardware. It only took a few hours to get the whole system playing. Everything physically fit well and went together without mishap. Though picky about quality, I was pleasantly impressed with the build of the boards, cables, and the case, which are top-notch, equal to any electronics I have worked with in my engineering specialties in electromechanical systems design and product design. All the latest circuitry technology is apparent.

It is easy to followed the hardware Assembly Process that is fully documented on JustBoom.com:                                   

  • Stack the Boards
  • Insert the Board stack into the Case
  • Verify the Power Supply selection

Finishing up the physical configuration, I connected a Wi-Fi Router via Ethernet cable to the Raspberry Pi board. I also plugged a memory stick into a Raspberry Pi USB slot. This makes a portable collection if digital files available. There are six USB ports and an Ethernet port on the Pi board. That's plenty of connectivity for music library on various memory devices. SD cards or memory sticks can hold a virtually unlimited library. Or you may connect a NAS drive in your network. Online streaming is also available.

I downloaded the Volumio OS image file to my laptop and used a USB SD card flash device (bought from Amazon) to write the Linux OS distribution image onto a Micro SD card. I burned the custom OS to a Micro SD Card following Volumio's instructions:

  • Download -- retrieve the software image from Volumio.com
  • Flash the Micro SD card -- using downloadable Etcher software and a Micro SD USB burner

I plugged the programmed Micro SD card into the slot under the Raspberry Pi Board.

Listening

The JustBoom audio player is "headless," meaning it has no display or keyboard. You control the shiny little piano-black box either from a computer, a smartphone, or any other device with Wi-Fi that can run a browser. Spotify now works with the Volumio player app and it sounds as good as ever. When you go to the IP address of the player using a browser in your "head" device, it connects via Wi-Fi and puts you in control.

 When Volumio's player app comes up online, some player configuration settings were required. I saved the player's IP address so I can log in via my smartphone. Volumio turns your phone into anther, pocket-sized music controller, a role more suited to its nature.

Volumio has all the essential controls. Aside from being rather slow to respond at times, it left little to be desired as a basic player. However, I do miss the full functionality of the excellent Spotify user interface. No worries, though. Numerous sources are developing many more versions of control software so we'll have many options.

To listen, I pick a music source from either a memory device plugged into the Raspberry Pi or an online streaming source. Spotify is the only option, presently. I look forward to TIDAL access and to listening to my 16-bit playlist library there. It's coming, JustBoom tells me. I'm confident that TIDAL will become a viable streaming option at some point.

I have a good selection of FLAC files. Also, FindHDMusic.com offers a many reference digital files that are often used to benchmark audio setups. There's actually quite a bit of high-res music available free online. Use the big black button ("Free Digital Music Files") at the top of the right sidebar on iHi-Fi.com.

I love this JustBoom audio player. The main thrill so far has been re-listening to my Spotify library. I easily hear new details on several very familiar selections even though the resolution is still only MP3 via Ogg Vorbis format.

Now I'm curious to explore JustBoom's truly tiny version, based on the newer, much smaller Pi Zero board. That's another upcoming project, although the footprint of this "full-sized" player is only a fraction of an inch larger than a standard credit card outline.

A Few Tips

 Be sure to carefully analyze your many options on the JustBoom Product Guide page. Find the setup that does just what you need to expand your audio system for least cost. If you only need 30 W RMS power for your speakers, you won't necessarily need to get the DAC HAT Board or a standalone DAC because the Amp Board has the same DAC chip on it as the DAC HAT Board. So does the AMP HAT board.

If you stream from online, and you're using powered speakers or an outboard amp, you have two variable volume controls. One is inside your player app. The other controls your amplifier's gain locally. Be sure to set the control inside the app, pegged at 100%, to the highest possible setting. This gives you the strongest variable line input signal with the best noise floor. If you set it lower, you may hear background noise that would otherwise not be audible. Then control your final listening volume from the external (other) volume control. You still have the full range available there.

Summing Up

So far, the apparent net gain is been one of great convenience in accessing and controlling music rather than another giant leap in musical fidelity, in my case. Musical realism had been pretty much tapped out in my system already. But I can connect a lot more local storage now via USB. My phone, iPad, and laptop computer are freed up from music serving. In listening, I definitely notice what more convenience does to enhance the whole listening experience. I'm grateful to enjoy the music even more with less distraction around music availability, selection, and no "announcements" during playback.

On the whole, my listening experience has never been better. Everything about the music sounds at least as good as before I started with JustBoom. The realism is superb and I still lose my sense of place shortly after I close my eyes and let the music carry me away to scenes found only in imagination.

I believe the DAC chip in the DAC HAT may sound a cut above the one I have become most accustomed to. The JustBoom player has much broader format acceptance than formerly available to me. How do the more extreme resolutions sound via this player? I'll keep listening and report more details and some music quality comparisons in the next post here on iHi-Fi.com.

-- Joseph Riden

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Go to JustBoom HERE.