Sci-Fi Hi-Fi Is Slowly Emerging

Dick Tracy had a personal communicator in 1946.

Dick Tracy had a personal communicator in 1946.

What will be the future sound and look of high-end Hi-Fi audio?  It’s tricky to predict time frames but science fiction often presages real innovations.  Some of us geezers recall the iconic Dick Tracy wristwatch radio -- a product concept introduced 68 years ago in Chester Gould’s classic comic strip.  Recently, Star Trek content includes communicators that immediately presaged mobile devices like the ones we all carry around in our pockets only a few years later.  These days, it’s hard to distinguish a portable music player from a cell phone without looking closely.  Both functions are often packaged in the same device.

In the iHi-Fi Manifesto on this website, I introduced a concept, the “Sci-fi Hi-Fi.”  It plays music that can’t be distinguished from original performances.  It offers infinite music choices.  Yet it’s nearly invisible in our environments.  I suggest that’s where audio is headed because that configuration best meets user wants and needs.  Evolving circuitry and speaker drivers shrink as memory capacity grows and gets cheaper. Music file resolutions become ever denser as the Internet spreads and speeds up.  Project that trend forward and soon the gear nearly disappears as music proliferates and becomes increasingly real and far more affordable for all.  With streaming HD music, one no longer needs to buy, own, store, and manage so many recording files.  A collection of special files may merit the effort and cost.

Captain James T. Kirk with Communicator.

Music distribution technology has moved beyond spinning plastic discs (vinyl LPs and CDs) and their related players but the business part of music distribution lags. We’ll be listening to future Hi-Fi audio systems before we know it if the music distribution industry’s business cramps don’t keep us tied to our present predicament – market stagnation due to over-controlled supply and unsustainable pricing excesses.  The audio industry will flourish when media moguls stop quivering about piracy, open up the supply chain, and put the pirates out of business by making them irrelevant.  But wait -- that’s a different blog post.

For now, consider a specific device, the FiiO X3 music player, starting with a disclaimer – I’m not reviewing or recommending this device or its performance here, simply using it as an example design.  The X3 is how one company developed their view of what was next.  It embodies a fine collection of design features but I can’t comment on how it performs yet.  I haven’t seen or heard it.  However, a link below provides a ton or review info. Also, Amazon.com is full of actual buyers’ comments.  Generally, people love it, though as usual with any complex audio product, many users would like more and better features.

Consider the technology convergence represented in this notable product, officially the FiiO X3 Mastering Quality Music Player, named to compete with snobby and overpriced competitors like Astell & Kern.  It’s the size of a cell phone and has that same look and feel.  It plays several popular music file formats at up to 24-bit/192 KHz resolution through its Wolfson WM 8740 DAC chip. 

FiiO X3 Mastering Quality Music Player

Three key features contribute to making this player design a pivotal audio product – aggressive price for an HD quality player, outboard DAC (digital-to-analog converter) capability, and unlimited memory storage.  It’s affordable for many, versatile enough to send decoded analog music to any audio system with an input, and SD cards give it unlimited storage capacity.  

Considering these factors in more detail --

Price – Most buyers love the X3.  It sells for $199 or less, only about 15% of the cost of of Astell & Kern’s AK 120 ($1,299) pocket player.  Yet it delivers about the same functionality and high-end playback.  It even costs only a fraction of the A&K player’s previous model (now $500-ish.)  It’s priced less than most, if not all, functionally similar players.  The X3 uses the same memory cards and DAC as the AK 120, yet this complete player is priced like many popular portable USB DACs that do not have storage and control functions.

Functionality – Beyond its role as a portable player, firmware enables the X3 to become an outboard DAC. In this mode, it converts USB digital music files from another source like your computer or network music server, to feed the analog section of your stereo or powered speakers.  This design approach is the opposite of the present trend toward device proliferation where manufacturers stick dedicated DAC chips into whatever they are trying to sell or they invent new functional boxes to sell us.  

Consider iFi Audio (no relation to this site,) with a line of 10 different component types available and more in development.  Going down a path like that, you may need to buy several devices before you achieve a system that does what you want well.  A truly well-conceived digital audio system needs at most a few devices to source fabulous music.  The fewer the packages the less the cost.

Storage – Interchangeable memory cards enable you to develop a single ultra-compact music file library that you can listen to everywhere.  There’s no need to convert your music files to lower resolution or maintain parallel libraries for portable and home listening.   You need 2 copies, one on hard disk and the other a subset you are listening to on memory cards.  With a few 64 GB SD cards you get huge portable capacity.

On the go, the player and the SD cards are all you need on hand.  With a capable enough portable player like the X3, a complete room audio system of great simplicity, capacity, versatility, and economy can be configured. At home, system configuration can be incredibly lean –

[Network Music Server >] X3-like Player/DAC > Powered Speakers

For the best results at home, add a reconditioned iPad 3 as digital music server and the TEAC DS-H01 Dock/DAC and your (digital) system is complete, including streaming online music from the iPad --

    Digital Files > X3-like Outboard DAC > |

             > Tube Buffer > A5+ Speakers

Online Streaming > iPad 3 > Dock/DAC > |

FiiO Connectivity.  Click for larger view.

When you connect an X3-like player to a set of Audioengine A5+ Powered Speakers (from $399 on iHi-Fi.com) and budget $400 for headphones and incidentals, you get both a portable and a home/office system for around $1000, not counting computers and network gear.  If the audio sounds “too digital,” consider one more item -- a tube buffer to warm and smooth the sound.  The Bravo Audio Ocean ($129 on iHi-Fi) handles this function economically and doubles as a superb headphone amp while providing another input jack for more connectivity.

Special Note -- be advised the next-generation Fiio X5 will be available soon so X3 prices may change. Be sure to check out the commentary in the Head-Fi forum (http://www.head-fi.org/t/671656/fiio-x3-review) before taking the plunge if you want one.

How would you be able to use an X3-like portable HD music player in daily life?  

  • Carry all the high res music files you can collect, on very compact memory cards
  • Play all your music on-the-go through ear buds or headphones or through speakers at home
  • Use one DAC and one library to collect and play all your digital music anywhere
  • Enjoy basic file management facilities

You can listen privately with headphones and when an audio system with a Line Input (or equivalent) capability is available, you can plug into it and share music through amplification and speakers in any space.  If your home system must still play music for someone else when your X3-like device travels, include a second player or a DAC.

Think what an improved, X3-like portable HD player design could do for you.  Beyond refinements, what basic functionality is left to be desired?  

  • Network or online connectivity to play music from streaming music sites
  • Advanced file organization and library management, maybe iTunes integration
  • Ability to play all common file formats
  • A much better DAC chip
  • Internal disk or solid state drive to reduce or eliminate memory card dependency
  • Optical I/O for better isolation and data transfer speed
  • DSD / DXD format capability

Dream on and share your thoughts if you want stuff like this to actually happen.  Watch the next generation Fiio X5’s upcoming release to see what actually materializes.  Look for other entries into this market and always, always, think big and think forward to what’s coming.