A New Era in Hi-Fi Value

a JustBoom digital audio player controlled by a  raspberry pi 3B (green) with DAC HAT and and amp pcbs stacked on top (red.) a very small, feature rich, versatile, and highly connective player device with an astoundingly low cost.

a JustBoom digital audio player controlled by a  raspberry pi 3B (green) with DAC HAT and and amp pcbs stacked on top (red.) a very small, feature rich, versatile, and highly connective player device with an astoundingly low cost.

Something wonderful is happening in the world of high fidelity music. A much-needed sea change in audio price/performance is now in progress. Throughout past decades, hungry competitors have consistently associated Hi-Fi music with artificially inflated (and often stratospheric) luxury pricing in response to the inevitable reset that digital technologies induce. Some companies are still using various marketing ploys to artificially shore up the downward trend that sank, transformed, or redirected many a sluggish corporation.

Many old-guard audio brands became addicted to levels of income that no longer reflect the shrinking costs of production so they resorted to posing high fidelity as a rare luxury. Yet in truth, we became technologically enabled to achieve better and better music despite shrinking costs as the years passed. Great-sounding audio does not have to be expensive. Hi-Fi is simply no longer legitimately characterized as a luxury item, per se.

Recently, a few younger, more forward-thinking companies turned downstream to ride the digital current rather than fighting it. I can't help believing this pragmatic approach is far more adaptive strategically. It certainly broadens the customer base and that helps sellers, customers, and the whole music industry, all at the same time. There's still plenty of profit for companies that know how greater volume offsets lower pricing and are willing to accordingly plan high-value product lines.

Lately, the great masses in developed countries are able to easily afford extremely accurate and beautifully detailed, higher resolution playback offered at affordable pricing. Consequently, broader demand for fabulous sounding music is catching on and being serviced through better-sounding, gigantic streaming music libraries. Once you've heard it, and you know you it has become affordable, there is no turning back if you love music and care how good it sounds.

Now a few customer-focused companies are disrupting, and will ultimately revolutionize, the music industry as they establish "the new normal" of high-value strategies: small components playing from digital music sources rather than bulky gear playing from fragile physical media. It is simply not necessary to degrade the whole listening experience by re-encoding digital masters onto physical formats to protect intellectual property rights. Digital rights management does it better. There's no need to foul distributed music so that nobody will want to steal the recordings, making every listener suffer intentional lossiness to avoid piracy. 

Companies that deploy current digital technologies are becoming ever more active. These innovators create a brighter future for Hi-Fi music. Trying to re-create a bygone era of "luxury audio" just for "audiophiles" positions the consumer as the fool in re-enactment of "The Emperor's New Clothes." Customers are catching on. They want a quality listening experience they deserve rather than membership in some country club of Hi-Fi based on empty pretense.

A few young companies have awakened to present audio market realities, shed all the price-supporting pretense about Hi-Fi, and embraced low cost high fidelity. These Makers of the music world are devising hardware and software based on the now-famous Raspberry Pi line of single-board computers. When I first heard of this developing trend, I shrugged it off in disbelief, assuming that an educational computer board named after an ingredient for jam you might spread on a toasted muffin couldn't be much more than a toy. But sweet to the ears it has proven to sound.

Recently, we passed a historically significant tipping point. It has become possible to enjoy up to 32 bit/192 KHz digital music (and beyond) with a superb-sounding, dedicated digital music player that includes built-in amplification for only $228 US, plus typical shipping and tax. This is a previously unheard-of value that has captured my attention for this blog's next series of articles.

Going forward, I'll focus on the diverse line of audio system hardware now available from one of these innovators: JustBoom, a group of passionate young Brits who recently awakened me to their latest developments. I'll be reviewing their product line right here on the iHi-Fi Blog, starting with a player configured from a commodity Raspberry Pi 3B board and JustBoom's DAC HAT Kit and Amplifier board. 

This setup accepts any typical digital or analog line-level input and drives either active or passive speakers. It's a do-it-all kind of player that sits in the palm of your hand. It will smoothly integrate with any set of audio gear, new or old, that uses standard I/O protocols. I found enough digital coax, S/PDIF, USB and even a few screw-terminal strips for all the necessary inputs, outputs, and speaker power signals.

 

The piano black case for the justboom configuration shown above gives the final assembly a finished look that goes well with any typical audio system.

The piano black case for the justboom configuration shown above gives the final assembly a finished look that goes well with any typical audio system.

After some delighted listening to familiar recordings, I couldn't be more pleased to discover the predicted trend is well under way. I can now realistically revise my assumptions about audio system price/performance. Add a pair of passive, Hi-Fi speakers (like P4 or HDP6 from Audioengine) and connect to local digital file storage and you can soon be listening to history-making, superbly high fidelity music in any genre you please. I am hoping that Tidal will soon have a player OS distribution. Because the DAC HAT provides line-level output to feed powered speakers, you might leave out the Amp board until such time as you may need it for passive speakers and subtract $60 from the cost. A versatile audio player of this top quality for under $200 is previously unheard of.

A configuration of the JustBoom Amplifier board with their DAC HAT board and a Raspberry Pi of latest vintage sells for the $228 figure mentioned above. The resulting player device can drive either passive or active speakers. It decodes and/or amplifies music with enough power to drive even a sizable room with efficient speakers, from any digital source.

There's a small catch, though thankfully, it's not a show-stopper: you receive modules that must be final-assembled into a working player. For many hobbyist listeners, assembling the high quality, beautifully-made boards into a working unit may even be a plus. You also have to select, configure, and install an operating system distribution that is tailored to the particular hardware configuration you build. The copious help available on the pages of the JustBoom website provide all the guidance you should need for putting your whole JustBoom player together.

I've been listening to this JustBoom player configuration with delight, using my workhorse Audioengine A5+ Powered Speakers, for a while now and I have much to report, starting in my next post here on the iHi-Fi blog.

-- Joseph Riden

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Check out Audioengine gear in the iHi-Fi Catalog HERE. 

To check out JustBoom gear, go HERE.