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 crummyand from the same station? Classical New Englandnow re-rebranded as WCRB in order to show its real share in the ratingsbroadcasts 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 signalfewer dropoutsbetter 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.