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.
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.
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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