When Is Audio Less Musical More?

Audioengine HD6. Add a source device with Bluetooth aptX, or connect several other ways as well, for stunning music. See the text for details.

Audioengine HD6. Add a source device with Bluetooth aptX, or connect several other ways as well, for stunning music. See the text for details.

Since the beginning of Hi-Fi music listening back in the 1950's, the emphasis on listener experience has all been about audio component performance. The rationale has been that if you want to hear better music in your space, the only available option is to get new and better audio components. This keeps listeners involved in a loop where they have to keep reinvesting to keep component manufacturers flush.

That's good for manufacturing and media distribution but a losing proposition for listeners and it's obsolete as a market position. As sound recording and reproduction technologies relentlessly improved through five decades, the "need" for new components and better media has never lacked false backing.

Until now. The current truth is that only some audio fidelity is achievable through component upgrades and that's an expensive way to go that produces temporary, and at best partial, results. Well, duh. Component replacement is the way the audio industry has made a good profit for a long time. Addiction to component replacement and hard media is a co-condition held deeply by both the industry and the consumers it serves. No wonder, given the advertising related to music quality has harped on the constant message that we need new and better components and media. We don't, really. At least not how the marketing tries to make us believe we do.

At the same time, the focus on components keeps consumers unaware of how much they can accomplish without adding or changing ever more audio components. Holding a component configuration constant and working on other factors can provide a dramatic music quality improvement with little to no cost to the consumer. In fact, removing most of the components in a system—paring it down to two components only—is part of getting the very best possible results with the very longest lifecycle before obsolescence.

This concept is radical: stop adding and replacing audio components and enhance the other factors that matter, like room acoustics, vibration damping, system maintenance, and power quality. All are addressed in my iHi-Fi Audio Setup Guide.

What would be the two-component optimum system? You probably own at least one of them already, either a smartphone or a personal computer. You may not yet have the other magic ingredient: a speaker system that can receive the raw, high-resolution music code from your digital device wirelessly and convert that signal to analog and play it, faithfully to the original performance. I listen to such a system every day. I'm listening to it right now. This is attainable for well under $500 one time, plus a $20 per month subscription if you have the right conditions and you probably do.

HD3 serves well on a desktop (note the headphone jack) or as room speakers in up to a medium sized space. The Bluetooth aptX wireless sounds fabulous.

HD3 serves well on a desktop (note the headphone jack) or as room speakers in up to a medium sized space. The Bluetooth aptX wireless sounds fabulous.

My current favorite audio system is a set of Audioengine HD3 speakers and S8 powered subwoofer, all being driven over Bluetooth aptX (24-bit resolution) by my digital devices—sometimes a MacBook Pro 2015, sometimes a Samsung Galaxy 7 smartphone. There are no physical media, yet I have access to a far larger preferred music library than I ever achieved when my only music sources were hard media and related players or digital files. For this, I liquidated an almost new tube amp and preamp, a media server component and NAS drive, a CD player, and a set of passive two-way speakers and another powered subwoofer. I came away with money in the bank.

I mostly listen to TIDAL now because that's where the leading edge is sharpest in the industry changeover to a media-less world. Since the inception of iHi-Fi.com, I have been predicting this situation that is now being realized in the audio market. The first blog post is dated May 30, 2013. A few years later, consumer high fidelity has achieved a fantastic new peak of audio pleasure that can be accessed for less cost and with fewer components than ever before.

The good news: the future of audio has arrived and it sounds wonderful for twenty bucks a month plus the outlay for the speakers, $399. That gets me up to MQA-quality listening if I stick to the growing collection of MQA-quality recordings on Tidal.com. Across the whole collection, I get to hear the best that the available music streams can achieve, even if only slightly less than MQA brilliance, I get 24/96 digital files converted back into music inside the speakers and played back through the best price-performance "audio engine" I've ever heard.

I'm still waiting and hoping for a set of HD6 speakers to audition for any improvement they might provide. I believe I'll have to listen long and hard to hear much difference in this room. I suspect the difference will come down to greater power and higher volume which I don't need, in a 12 x 15 x 9 foot room, given that most non-component-dependent factors of audio quality are already optimized here. If I turn off the S8 sub, that will make a bigger difference in the low bass in favor of HD6.

If you'd like to try out what I'm doing and you then decide it's audibly better and you want to step into the brave new world of HD digital audio, you may have a dilemma if you're heavily invested in a multi-component system with 5 or 8 different audio components and a giant library of CDs and LPs and digital files. Some listeners have invested significant sums in lots of spiffy separate audio components and hard media that they are now loathe to abandon. No sweat, those guys can simply add a little more and get the benefits of digital audio fidelity while retaining everything they already have.

Your solution may well be to recoup as much of your investment as possible by selling off your fancy components—at a loss, of course—on Audiogon.com. Any good component in excellent condition will probably bring back half of the purchase price or more when sold on the used-component market. Lots of willing buyers are still stuck in the past. Many old-fart audiophiles will die that way. 

This was my experience when I committed to a system that is as lean as possible without sacrificing any audio excellence: my listening has only gotten better as my component count fell. It got well-optimized when there was only one last component (powered speakers) other than my digital source device. The internal electronics of the HD series from Audioengine integrate all the wireless communication, conversion, and amplification functions required and the speakers also handle the last step, transduction back into sound, and all done fabulously well.

That's the bad news and the good news both, at the same time. The question is, what kind of opportunity do you see in this state of affairs? To make a change, my advice is to listen to the future first, while risking no more than the cost of shipping a set of speakers after your money-back audition.

Try a set of Audioengine HD3 or HD6 speakers for 30 days HERE. Keep them if you like or ship them back within that period, if you prefer, for a full refund of the purchase price. These are Bluetooth aptX-enabled wireless, powered speakers.

If you decide to upgrade an older, multi-component audio system you already have, to make it Tidal-ready, you can get a B1 Bluetooth Receiver and integrate it like a preamp or DAC into your analog, component-based system. Note well: your source device must have the aptX or aptX-HD level of Bluetooth inside to get Hi-Fi music over Bluetooth. Both my S7 smartphone and my MacBook laptop have this feature. Check with the manufacturer of yours.

If you want the stunning fidelity but you don't have or don't want to acquire, Bluetooth aptX in your digital device, go with a D2 Wireless DAC to transport your music to the speakers and use the analog audio input on the speakers. More cost, another component, but equivalent audio results. There's more good news: the cost of your conversion, even with a D2, may amount to less than you would recoup by selling off outmoded components.

In any case, you get a free 90-day trial subscription to Tidal at master quality (on the MQA recordings) or at least at Hi-Fi quality. As a bonus, if you've been curious to hear how MQA sounds, this is your ticket to that experience, as well, given that Tidal is converting a lot of music to MQA. It's accessible, at no additional cost, if you have the Hi-Fi level subscription. MQA is destined to become a new standard in audio quality. It is that good.

What else could you be waiting for if you want to audition and acquire the best sounding audio ever heard from a consumer audio system? Here is the link to my Audioengine Store page again.

Any questions? Please comment on this post HERE or email me at your leisure HERE.