When video rides shotgun

I was planning one of my occasional long drives, for music and photography. I had scheduled two nights in Nashville, so I asked around: Where should I go for live music after a dinner of Hattie B's hot chicken? Art Dudley recommended the Station Inn, perhaps the world's best venue for live bluegrass music. You can read about my experience there in the November 2019 Stereophile. The Station Inn has now added a streaming service. For $8.99/month or $99/year, you get between 10 and 20 live-streamed performances every month plus access to the archives. If you're a bluegrass fan or merely bluegrass-curious, I encourage you to check it out. It's not as good as being there, but it's still good.

During the pandemic, many live-music venues have started offering online performances of live shows. In jazz, there's the Village Vanguard, Smoke, Smalls, and others. (Smalls has been live-streaming for years.) Classical music organizations and venues that live-stream socially distanced concerts are too numerous to mention.

It's not just streaming: An ever-increasing quantity of musical content is web-based, and most of it has video attached—which is slightly awkward for Stereophile, a hard-core audio magazine that doesn't cover video. What should we do when more great music comes with video attached?

I want the best-sounding music I can afford, but I care little about video. I don't want a giant video screen cluttering up my listening room and reflecting sound. I've been known to watch movies and sporting events on my 13" MacBook Pro. Often.

Yet, if an online opera or jazz live-stream includes video, I do want to see it, even if only on the small screen. How can I make that work, with decent quality, with little effort or expense? If the approaches outlined in this essay seem low-rent and obvious—well, that's exactly the point.

The key (wired) technology that supports both audio and video is HDMI, which is why HDMI is ubiquitous in home theater. Unfortunately, in the hi-fi world, HDMI support is rare. If your hi-fi DAC has an HDMI input, it's probably a proprietary I2S interface and not true HDMI (but see below). So how do I get those livestreams (and other web-based audio) into my hi-fi system?

The first thing I tried was obvious: Connect my laptop, sitting in my lap, to my DAC's USB input with a 3m cable and a USB-C–to–USB-A adapter. Even with a long cable—3m is the practical limit for USB—I had to move my listening chair forward. This worked, but I wasn't happy: It moved me out of my sweet spot, and the cable stretched across the room caused me stress. I needed a wireless solution.

Today's best Bluetooth codecs are capable of very good sound, but latency—time delay—can be a problem. Newer codecs exist that address latency but at a cost in sound quality: Qualcomm's new aptX Low Latency codec achieves its low latency "through efficient population of packets": ie, lossy compression. And few devices support that codec yet—none that I have on hand.

Not long ago, I bought a Bluesound Node 2i ($549)—unheard—because I was impressed by its feature set. It sends and receives both Bluetooth (aptX HD, which sounds very good but has some latency) and AirPlay 2.

AirPlay 2 worked best. Both sounded fine, but with AirPlay, the audio delay (relative to the video on my lap-top laptop screen) was just noticeable, slight enough that I got used to it.

AirPlay 2, then, is my preferred solution for laptop-in-the-lap streaming.

A few weeks ago, I set up a second two-channel system in a spare bedroom, assembled from sidelined hi-fi equipment, a pair of AudioNote speakers, and a good 4K TV. My laptop is still the streaming source, but now I'm watching on the big screen, so I don't need my laptop on my lap. Wired connections are fine. The core problem still exists though: What's the best way to get audio data to my hi-fi DAC, which doesn't have HDMI?

I connected an HDMI cable to my computer with an inexpensive adapter (by Anker, $12.95 at Amazon) and into one of the television's several HDMI inputs. If your TV has a TosLink output, you can connect that to your DAC's TosLink input—problem solved. My TV doesn't have a TosLink output, so I set up my computer to output audio to my USB DAC via a USB cable connected to a different Thunderbolt port, with a second adapter, USB-C to USB-A. For most glitch-free performance, I preferred a wired Ethernet connection—adapter #3. Plug the computer in to power, and all four Thunderbolt ports are in use; my little 13" laptop looks like some kind of bizarre science experiment, wires hanging out all over, but hey, it worked.

An alternative is to extract digital audio from the HDMI signal with a device like the GeerFab D.BOB ($995). (I tried a cheap audio extractor from Amazon, but it didn't work.) I don't have a D.BOB here, but GeerFab's Eric Geer tried it, at my request; he assures me it works.

Another option would be to replace my DAC with one with HDMI. I'm aware of only one current, HDMI-enabled two-channel DAC: the Bryston BDA-3 (3.14 with streaming). You could also use a multichannel, HDMI-enabled DAC—no one says you have to use all the channels—but there aren't many of those to choose from, either. Kal Rubinson recently reviewed the affordable Essence Evolve II-4K ($299), which can also be used as an audio extractor, like the D.BOB.

What's your solution? Let us know via stletters@stereophile.com.

COMMENTS
Jack L's picture

...... your DAC's TosLink input—problem solved." quoted Jim Austin.

That's exactly what I've been doing when I bought my RCA 50" 4KUHD WiFi TV for a dirt cheap Black Friday price 2 years back. It comes with a TosLink optical output which feeds TV music into my HiFi via a DAC.
No hassle !

First off, I've decided the quality of any digital music programme from CD, BLu-ray, DAC etc, are of lesser priority than high quality music from my vinyl collection.

So I did not spend any serious money for any brandname DACs. Why should I?? I just bought a no-name basic DAC (with both TosLink & coaxial 1nputs) & L/R unbalanced RCA jack outputs from a no-name web vendor for a dirt cheap price with a bonus optical cable !!! So the DAC is hooked up to my tube phono-preamp (passive linestage), with TV music signals fed from my 4K TV via the optical cable. Quick & easy !

So everything said & done with no hassle for dirt dirt cheap money, I already start streaming numberless up-to-date (mainly) classical music performances worldwide through YouTube whenever convenient to me - FREE !!!!

Needless to say the WiFi HD picture quality is good without any disrupting glitches common in using cellphones or even labtops.
What pleasantly surprised me is the pretty good quality sound processed by the cheapie basic DAC fed by my HD TV !!

Pretty analytical in terms of music instrument positioning & soundstaging. I just can't complain considering WiFi music is only for for my music access convenience. Only vinyl music is for serious enjoyment, IMO.

Jack L

PS: I always 'conceal' up my 50" TV with a soft fabric cover to reduce undue sound reflection when TV is not in use.

JoethePop's picture

Some of the manufacturers that are big in the AVR segment have started making 2 channel receivers like the Denon DRA-800H. I myself don't watch much TV, but I have the optical output of my small TV (32") going to a pair of SVS Prime Wireless speakers for when I watch a live stream of a musical performance.

Kal Rubinson's picture

In the interest of compulsive completeness and despite my not having any need for an HDMI solution, here goes.
1. The Essence Evolve II-4K is not just a DAC but will also output S/PDIF to the DAC of one's choice.
2. A more elegant solution for stereo and up to 8 channels is a Meridian HD621 which provides 4 S/PDIF (actually AES3) outputs to the DAC or DACs of your choice. It is available used and the newer UHD722 model (supports UHD video) is still current.
3. There are numerous variants on eBay and AliExpress of an HDMI to S/PDIF-TOSlink-I2S audio extractor and multiple reports about it on other audio forums. It comes as a PCB or in a tidy little chassis.
www.ebay.com/itm/HDMI-MHL-to-IIS-I2S-HDMI-IIS-I2S-Audio-Separate-Extract-I2S-DSD-Optical-Coaxial-/392894431556

ilader's picture

I think I've been waiting for this article for a decade. THANK YOU! Of course, it is just the beginning of a discussion on the subject of how to arrange a system in our real world. Now I'd love reviewers to start evaluating which real world arrangements sound better, and which work better. Perhaps even which measure better. I've gone the Toslink-from-the-TV route, with some likely points of imperfection. There is a computer with a CD and streaming Met Opera and Idagio over HDMI, and an Amazon Fire (HDMI), and broadcast TV. It is satisfactory. I do not hear that I lose much from the multiple digital conversions in comparison with a more direct input to my amplifier using an iPhone's stored music. It is complex enough that I had to stop and think while writing this letter. And I haven't even mentioned my analog sources...

Jack L's picture

Hi.

Well, maybe my ears were too 'fussy'! I can't tolerate any cellphones or even large TVs earphone jack music hooked up direct to my audio rig. Way way too Lo-Fi for me !

Maybe I've been spoiled by my vinyl music 'overdose' !!

Jack L

thethanimal's picture

Thankfully Samsung left a TOSLINK output on my model of the Frame TV, which connects to the combined analog/mini-TOSLINK input on my Bluesound Node 2i. The TV has an app for YouTube and a browser, in addition to Netflix, et. al. The sound quality from streaming is certainly inferior to streaming direct from the Node or from a Blu-ray connected to the TV via HDMI (and then out to the Node over the same TOSLINK connection), but it’s how we watch everything these days. I think it’s the best option short of using a AV pre/pro — too bad they don’t make stereo pre/pro’s like they make some stereo AVRs.

thethanimal's picture

ETA: other than the $10k Trinnov Amethyst!

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