Arcam rBlink Bluetooth D/A processor

Am I the only one who values content and convenience over sound quality?

There. I've said it. I am not an audiophile; ie, someone who's in love with recorded sound for its own sake. The search for ideal sound can leave a person burned out and broke.

That might be why I love Internet radio via Bluetooth. So much content. So convenient, via smartphone or laptop. As for computer-audio downloads, they're too complicated, chaotic, and costly.

I might pay for streaming high-resolution audio, if the content and convenience are there. More than one computer guru has said that digital subscriptions are the future. Who wants to "own" and store physical media?

I love Musical Fidelity's M1SDAC with aptX Bluetooth (see "Sam's Space" in October), even though my iPhone 4, updated to iOS 7, doesn't support aptX.

The aptX codec is said to automatically optimize the Bluetooth receiving device for the best sound quality possible with each incoming aptX signal. I have it now, with my new (June 2013) Macbook Air.

Is aptX a big deal? Some say it's not. As my colleague Bob Deutsch says, "It depends on the implementation."

AptX is back-compatible with earlier Bluetooth codecs. It streams at up to 380kbps, but it can work with devices that stream at lower bitrates, including 128 and 256kbps.

When my iPhone 4 ran iOS4, Bluetooth streamed at 128kbps, if I'm not mistaken. Now, with iOS7 installed, it streams at 256kbps, with better sound: more resolution, more air, fewer dropouts, more there there. If you have an iPhone 4 or later, it's definitely worth installing iOS7.

I'll pass along a couple of iPhone tips.

If you no longer get a Bluetooth connection, or you keep losing it, you may have a dirty dock. Some folks online have recommended that you brush around the dock's connections with a clean, soft toothbrush. Or flatten the tip of a cotton swab with a pair of pliers, dip it in grain alcohol, and wiggle it around. (I didn't tell you to do this.) This worked for a while.

Then, a genius at a bar told me another secret: Keep fewer programs running in the background. That was like a visit to the dental hygienist. Bluetooth became Cleanteeth: brighter, cleaner, more refreshing, less stale. Now the difference between my iPhone 4 with iOS7 and my Macbook Air with Mountain Lion running aptX Bluetooth was less pronounced. Of course, if you really want aptX on your smartphone or tablet, you can look to Samsung.

The Musical Fidelity MS1DAC sounds very good indeed; it's a DAC, a headphone amp, a line stage, and a headphone amp, all in one. But if all you want is aptX Bluetooth, you might not want to pay $1499 for an MS1DAC. You may already have a DAC you like. There must be a cheaper way to do this.

Ho, ho, ho, there is. At $249.95, the Arcam rBlink seems expensive for a tiny black box measuring only 2.9" (75mm) wide by 1" (26mm) high by 3.9" (100mm) deep and weighing just 12oz (350gm). But it will put Internet radio wirelessly at your fingertips, from laptop, tablet, or smartphone.

Arcam describes the rBlink as a "high-performance Bluetooth audio receiver and digital-to-analog converter." It works well, whether or not you already own a DAC. The rBlink has its own digital-to-analog converter and left and right analog outputs. Just connect it to your integrated amplifier or preamp. Arcam even includes interconnects to get you up and running fast. (But consider getting better interconnects.)

Don't dis the rBlink's built-in DAC, which uses Burr-Brown's PCM5102 DAC chip. It's no slouch, as the Brits like to say. Don't feel you need buy a separate DAC.

On the other hand, if you already own a DAC, you can use the rBlink's S/PDIF coaxial output. I used my Musical Fidelity V-DACII, now replaced by the V90-DAC.

I ran the rBlink into the Croft Acoustics Phono Integrated amplifier, first using the rBlink's analog RCA outputs and a decent set of interconnects. I cackled when I heard the sound. Art Dudley and Stephen Mejias are right: The Croft is crazy good in musical rather than in audiophile terms. You can tell from its rich, full-bodied sound that it wasn't designed with test tones in mind.

In the blink of an eye, I had Internet radio in excellent sound, depending on the quality of the stream.

Why are some streams so crummy—and from the same station? Classical New England—now re-rebranded as WCRB in order to show its real share in the ratings—broadcasts live concerts from its Fraser Performance Studio, always in excellent sound. Yet when they broadcast from Boston's Symphony Hall or Tanglewood, the sound deteriorates.

The day after I received the rBlink, John DeVore, of DeVore Fidelity, drove up to my digs with his new beast: the Orangutan O/93 loudspeakers. John groused but didn't growl about the Bluetooth sound, but that was before I got the Macbook Air and upgraded my iPhone 4 to iOS7.

I didn't let on to John, but CDs do sound better than Bluetooth at the moment. But we can expect Bluetooth to evolve and improve. It's one good reason not to plop down more than $249.

I rattled the zookeeper's cage.

"The sound is fine by me," I told John. "I just DeVore it. It's all free. Swiss Radio Jazz. Nostalgie Jazz. BBC 3. Classic FM. France Musique. Symphonycast.com. Radio Dismuke, with music from the 1920s and '30s. If I want Perfect Sound Forever, I'll get off my butt and fetch a CD."

Which brings up a point: I never found the rBlink irritating. Well, I did with a few piss-poor streams, but these are easily avoided. The rBlink seemed to hold on to the signal—fewer dropouts—better with my Macbook Air than with my long-in-the-tooth iPhone, until I installed iOS7.

The rBlink has one oddity: To pair it with a Bluetooth device, you need to push in the pairing button with the tip of a pen. I have no blinking idea why Arcam doesn't provide a simple pushbutton. While pairing, the rBlink changes from steady red to blinking purple. Pairing completed, the purple light glows steadily. When the rBlink is connected to a Bluetooth device, the light glows a steady blue. I love this thing!

Since the Croft's measurements rattled John Atkinson in October, I tried my LFD LE IV integrated amplifier. I got the same excellent results. The aptX codec no longer mattered so much, although you might as well have it, if you can.

If you're looking for a gift idea, and Mom and Dad have Bluetooth devices, put an Arcam rBlink under the tree. While you're at it, get another for yourself. You can bring Bluetooth to just about any audio device, including a kitchen radio.

Highly recommended.

COMPANY INFO
Arcam
US distributor: American Audio & Video
4325 Executive Drive, Suite 300
Southaven, MS 38672
(866) 965-6050
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COMMENTS
deckeda's picture

John, I'd be interested to see Stereophile spill a little ink on Bluetooth solutions that handle AAC directly. The potential advantage is that the player can (and will) stream the file--unfettered--to the other end and the "Bluetoothness" aspect becomes irrelevant for those who buy music from the world's largest online music seller, or make the effort to choose AAC over some other lossy format before putting songs on their phone, regardless of brand or OS.

Azteca X's picture

Deckeda, that sounds cool but I'm not familiar with that possibility.  Can you link to some products that do so, or any technical writings or forum posts that point to this possibility?

On another note, though I am duly impressed with the rBlink, glad there is a Bluetooth receiver that has proper measurements and a digital out, etc. the elephant in the room is the Apple TV.  Using Airplay, you can use your wifi network (no pesky 25-foot rule - don't have to be on the same floor) and stream losslessly.  How do ya like them apples?  The obvious limitation is that you have to be using Apple devices, excluding a few workarounds.  But if you're using an iPhone/iPod touch, a Macbook Air or Pro or iMac or what have you, Airplay is there and it does 16/44.1 and 16/48 losslessly.  The Apple TV has an optical out and no analog out, so it's only for the DAC crowd, but it works great and has Ethernet and Wi-Fi.  It's also notable that is is only $99 new rather than $249.

Mr. Tellig, it appears you use an iPhone, so I'd love to see you try out an Apple TV.  Return it if you are not pleased!

All that said, I have a dead simple Bluetooth radio in my bedroom that I use plenty for listening to podcast while I clean up or send audio from JRiver to it using JRemote.  Choice is a beautiful thing.

deckeda's picture

I'm sorry but I don't know where I read it. This review got me researching aptX because I'd read the earlier hosanas about it here. That's when I learned all aptX transmissions require the transcode through the "aptX codec".

Somewhere in there is when I also read that AAC gets sent as-is (assuming an AAC file source) and decoded at the Bluetooth reciever.

I'm sure the devil's in the details and especially so with cheap transmitters and recievers.

**********

In my experience, AirPlaying music over to an AppleTV is a recipe for despair. All of them necessarily resample to 16/48 and likely, not terriby well. But 16/48 is ideal for most video sources, so there's that. More to the point, it's never sounded good to me for music, and not by a little bit. Could also be an issue with what happens when the audio gets sent out of the HDMI or TosLINK since ATVs lack their own DAC.

AirPlaying over to my Marantz receiver (built-in AirPlay) is just dandy, as is any AirPort Express, which keeps everything at 16/44.1 bit perfect. And by the way these comparisons were done on the same stereo system.

But I'm with you. If your source is 16/44.1 via either iTunes on a computer or iOS device, an AirPort Express is, and has remained for 10 years, the defacto no-brainer streaming solution for both ease of use and sound quality.

Azteca X's picture

Wow, thanks for the tip.  I had no idea.  Makes perfect sense for video but not good for audio.

Here is some objective verification (yes, measurements included) and details about the current Airport Express for you, Tellig, Atkinson or anyone else!  The SRC will downsample up to 24/96 to 16/44.1 - seems fair enough to me.  In my case I'm using an Oppo (and later a dedicated DAC) for DLNA with JRiver so this would be more for myself or my GF being able to play Spotify, podcasts, internet radio etc. quickly and easily without any extra fuss, sending the optical out to a DAC.

http://www.computeraudiophile.com/content/465-new-apple-airport-express-...

http://www.computeraudiophile.com/content/466-measurements-first-and-sec...

The summary:

 

  • 16 bit / 44.1 kHz music -> Bit Perfect
  • 16 bit / 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192 kHz -> Not Bit Perfect but does play through the AE at 16/44.1.
  • 24 bit / 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192 kHz -> Not Bit Perfect but does play through the AE at 16/44.1.
deckeda's picture

Howver, it's nothing new. The original AirPort Express, and 2nd gen (updated to 802.11n) behaved similarly: take most any PCM and give you 16/44.

Chris at Computer Audiophile noted why this is, despite the new AE having a 24/192 DAC. It's the AirPlay standard that limits audio to 16/44. Nothing higher ever leaves the sending computer or iDevice. Doesn't matter how you setup a computer. AirPlay stipulates a transcode on the fly to Apple Lossless 16/44 regardless of the file you're playing back.

You can get the original AE used, from eBay for $40 or less and it'll be just as good as the new one for audio. Windows users might be OK as-is. Mac users would need an OS no newer than 10.7 to configure it, or a script that lets later versions of OS X run AirPort Utility 5.6.1 (The second gen AE, also likely inexpensive now, can I think still be configured with AirPort Utility 6.3)

skris88's picture

Just avoid Bluetooth if you want to pick on it's limitations. 

You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

It's like putting wings on a car and saying it doesn't fly very well!

 

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