For a growing number of people, music is free, or virtually so. If you don't want to deal with ads, $9.99 a month buys you unlimited, ad-free access to millions of tracks. At least at present, streaming from services like Spotify, YouTube, and Pandora is where music consumption is headedand it's really all that most people want.
I eat bits for breakfast. Lunch is a simple bit-sized snack. And dinner is the analog to real food. This has been my routine these past four years as editor of AudioStream.com, where we digest all things computer audio.
In that time I've reviewed over 100 digital-to-analog converters, ranging in price from $60 to over $12,000. This adds up to roughly 150,000 words spilled on DACs. You'd think my pen would be running dryespecially if you feel, as some do, that all DACs sound pretty much the same. If that were the case, I could have written just one review, for that very first DAC, then cut and pasted it for all the rest. What was I thinking?
Unless something is broken, the bits from your computer will be delivered to your DAC intact; the claim behind three new products I recently listened through is that each can reduce noise within the DACnoise that could otherwise corrupt the analog signal and thus make our music less musical. This notion is not based on audiophool woo-woo, but on the basic electronics of mixed-signal systems: Although its input is digital data, a DAC's output is subject to all the noise problems of analog circuits.
It's not the pale moon that excites me / That thrills and delights me / Oh no, it's just the nearness of you."The Nearness of You," Ned Washington & Hoagy Carmichael
Despite what big-box stores and lossy streaming services want to sell you, listening to music at your desk does not have to suck. In fact, for not a lot of dough, you can easily build a desktop system that'll feed your head with music's goodnessor, for a few grand, assemble a setup that rivals the big rigs. Add the right app and streaming service, and you'll have access to an ever-expanding library of losslessly encoded music on top of the one you already own. The only caveat: Any of these systems will lead to musical distraction, which is a lovely place to be.
Back in the day, I owned a Sony Walkman cassette player. I loved it. I took it everywhere I went, listening to Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Neil Young (with and without Crosby, Stills & Nash), Miles, Coltrane, and more. Having music move around with me seemed a giant step into a more perfect future in which we could color our experiences with sound.
Hi-fi is serious businessat least, for the people whose business is hi-fi. For listeners, among whom I count myself at least some of the time, I'd say that the serious-business aspect of hi-fi is less so. Our sole job, after all, is to enjoy music. The deeper our enjoyment, the richer our experienceand the richer the experience, the deeper our enjoyment. Therein lies the quest: to deepen our enjoyment of music.
Everything these days has a computer inside it, but you wouldn't call a car a computer. Same goes for music streamerswhat we at AudioStream.com also call network players. While a network player has a computer inside, I don't consider it a computer because it's designed to do just one thing: play music.
A network player connects to your home network via Ethernet or WiFi, searches for network-attached storage (NAS), looks for the Internet to connect to streaming services, and serves up all of this music through an app that typically resides on a smartphone or tablet. The theory goes that, being purpose built, a dedicated network player should sound better than a full-blown computer, the latter's multitasking abilities degrading its ability to get us to dance, literally or figuratively.
Do you travel? Commute, perhaps? Just like to listen to music privately around the house? No matterthe Astell&Kern AK240 is the luxury choice in high-resolution portable music players (footnote 1). It even comes with a lovely leather case that beautifully cradles its angular beauty. The AK240 can play all of your PCM files, up to a resolution of 24-bit/192kHz, as well as DXD and single- and double-rate DSD, natively, and can do so from its internal storage, from a microSD card, or from your computer via WiFi or a wired connection. It can also function as a DAC or USB-to-TosLink converter. I'm not so sure there's much left wanting.
". . . seizing and incorporating . . . There is nothing about us which is more strongly primitive."Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power
I am a collector. Books, records, art, music, knickknacks, old blurry anonymous photos, and morehanging, sitting, standing, and shelved, they surround me where I sit and follow me around our home. In collecting, less is certainly not more, and I believe that part of its appeal is that our collections help define not only who we are but who we'd like to becomeor, perhaps, how things are and how we'd like them to be.
I'm the editor of AudioStream.com, Stereophile's sister website devoted to computer audio. We review all manner of hardware, software, and music related to file-based playback, and offer helpful (we hope) "How To" articles as well as interviews with industry peopleall designed to ease your journey to and through the world of computer audio. I envision my new Stereophile column, "Audio Streams," as an extension of this missionand the addition of that trailing, plural s gives me some leeway to explore a wider range of hi-fi topics.