When Is Audio Less Musical More?

Audioengine HD6. Add a source device with Bluetooth aptX, or connect several other ways as well, for stunning music. See the text for details.

Audioengine HD6. Add a source device with Bluetooth aptX, or connect several other ways as well, for stunning music. See the text for details.

Since the beginning of Hi-Fi music listening back in the 1950's, the emphasis on listener experience has all been about audio component performance. The rationale has been that if you want to hear better music in your space, the only available option is to get new and better audio components. This keeps listeners involved in a loop where they have to keep reinvesting to keep component manufacturers flush.

That's good for manufacturing and media distribution but a losing proposition for listeners and it's obsolete as a market position. As sound recording and reproduction technologies relentlessly improved through five decades, the "need" for new components and better media has never lacked false backing.

Until now. The current truth is that only some audio fidelity is achievable through component upgrades and that's an expensive way to go that produces temporary, and at best partial, results. Well, duh. Component replacement is the way the audio industry has made a good profit for a long time. Addiction to component replacement and hard media is a co-condition held deeply by both the industry and the consumers it serves. No wonder, given the advertising related to music quality has harped on the constant message that we need new and better components and media. We don't, really. At least not how the marketing tries to make us believe we do.

At the same time, the focus on components keeps consumers unaware of how much they can accomplish without adding or changing ever more audio components. Holding a component configuration constant and working on other factors can provide a dramatic music quality improvement with little to no cost to the consumer. In fact, removing most of the components in a system—paring it down to two components only—is part of getting the very best possible results with the very longest lifecycle before obsolescence.

This concept is radical: stop adding and replacing audio components and enhance the other factors that matter, like room acoustics, vibration damping, system maintenance, and power quality. All are addressed in my iHi-Fi Audio Setup Guide.

What would be the two-component optimum system? You probably own at least one of them already, either a smartphone or a personal computer. You may not yet have the other magic ingredient: a speaker system that can receive the raw, high-resolution music code from your digital device wirelessly and convert that signal to analog and play it, faithfully to the original performance. I listen to such a system every day. I'm listening to it right now. This is attainable for well under $500 one time, plus a $20 per month subscription if you have the right conditions and you probably do.

HD3 serves well on a desktop (note the headphone jack) or as room speakers in up to a medium sized space. The Bluetooth aptX wireless sounds fabulous.

HD3 serves well on a desktop (note the headphone jack) or as room speakers in up to a medium sized space. The Bluetooth aptX wireless sounds fabulous.

My current favorite audio system is a set of Audioengine HD3 speakers and S8 powered subwoofer, all being driven over Bluetooth aptX (24-bit resolution) by my digital devices—sometimes a MacBook Pro 2015, sometimes a Samsung Galaxy 7 smartphone. There are no physical media, yet I have access to a far larger preferred music library than I ever achieved when my only music sources were hard media and related players or digital files. For this, I liquidated an almost new tube amp and preamp, a media server component and NAS drive, a CD player, and a set of passive two-way speakers and another powered subwoofer. I came away with money in the bank.

I mostly listen to TIDAL now because that's where the leading edge is sharpest in the industry changeover to a media-less world. Since the inception of iHi-Fi.com, I have been predicting this situation that is now being realized in the audio market. The first blog post is dated May 30, 2013. A few years later, consumer high fidelity has achieved a fantastic new peak of audio pleasure that can be accessed for less cost and with fewer components than ever before.

The good news: the future of audio has arrived and it sounds wonderful for twenty bucks a month plus the outlay for the speakers, $399. That gets me up to MQA-quality listening if I stick to the growing collection of MQA-quality recordings on Tidal.com. Across the whole collection, I get to hear the best that the available music streams can achieve, even if only slightly less than MQA brilliance, I get 24/96 digital files converted back into music inside the speakers and played back through the best price-performance "audio engine" I've ever heard.

I'm still waiting and hoping for a set of HD6 speakers to audition for any improvement they might provide. I believe I'll have to listen long and hard to hear much difference in this room. I suspect the difference will come down to greater power and higher volume which I don't need, in a 12 x 15 x 9 foot room, given that most non-component-dependent factors of audio quality are already optimized here. If I turn off the S8 sub, that will make a bigger difference in the low bass in favor of HD6.

If you'd like to try out what I'm doing and you then decide it's audibly better and you want to step into the brave new world of HD digital audio, you may have a dilemma if you're heavily invested in a multi-component system with 5 or 8 different audio components and a giant library of CDs and LPs and digital files. Some listeners have invested significant sums in lots of spiffy separate audio components and hard media that they are now loathe to abandon. No sweat, those guys can simply add a little more and get the benefits of digital audio fidelity while retaining everything they already have.

Your solution may well be to recoup as much of your investment as possible by selling off your fancy components—at a loss, of course—on Audiogon.com. Any good component in excellent condition will probably bring back half of the purchase price or more when sold on the used-component market. Lots of willing buyers are still stuck in the past. Many old-fart audiophiles will die that way. 

This was my experience when I committed to a system that is as lean as possible without sacrificing any audio excellence: my listening has only gotten better as my component count fell. It got well-optimized when there was only one last component (powered speakers) other than my digital source device. The internal electronics of the HD series from Audioengine integrate all the wireless communication, conversion, and amplification functions required and the speakers also handle the last step, transduction back into sound, and all done fabulously well.

That's the bad news and the good news both, at the same time. The question is, what kind of opportunity do you see in this state of affairs? To make a change, my advice is to listen to the future first, while risking no more than the cost of shipping a set of speakers after your money-back audition.

Try a set of Audioengine HD3 or HD6 speakers for 30 days HERE. Keep them if you like or ship them back within that period, if you prefer, for a full refund of the purchase price. These are Bluetooth aptX-enabled wireless, powered speakers.

If you decide to upgrade an older, multi-component audio system you already have, to make it Tidal-ready, you can get a B1 Bluetooth Receiver and integrate it like a preamp or DAC into your analog, component-based system. Note well: your source device must have the aptX or aptX-HD level of Bluetooth inside to get Hi-Fi music over Bluetooth. Both my S7 smartphone and my MacBook laptop have this feature. Check with the manufacturer of yours.

If you want the stunning fidelity but you don't have or don't want to acquire, Bluetooth aptX in your digital device, go with a D2 Wireless DAC to transport your music to the speakers and use the analog audio input on the speakers. More cost, another component, but equivalent audio results. There's more good news: the cost of your conversion, even with a D2, may amount to less than you would recoup by selling off outmoded components.

In any case, you get a free 90-day trial subscription to Tidal at master quality (on the MQA recordings) or at least at Hi-Fi quality. As a bonus, if you've been curious to hear how MQA sounds, this is your ticket to that experience, as well, given that Tidal is converting a lot of music to MQA. It's accessible, at no additional cost, if you have the Hi-Fi level subscription. MQA is destined to become a new standard in audio quality. It is that good.

What else could you be waiting for if you want to audition and acquire the best sounding audio ever heard from a consumer audio system? Here is the link to my Audioengine Store page again.

Any questions? Please comment on this post HERE or email me at your leisure HERE.

The Audioengine HD3 Experience

listen at your desk or drive the whole room with wireless ease, without penalty

listen at your desk or drive the whole room with wireless ease, without penalty

I've been listening to Audioengine's new HD3 Wireless Speakers for several days now. I'm pleased to report they exceed all expectations. I'll cut straight to the chase: to my eyes,  these appear to be attractive, desktop-size powered speakers but to my ears, this highly compact, complete music system changes the game in it's league. The traditional stereo system based on separate audio components seems obsolete compared to a speaker system like this. The HD3 is a perfect example of how the present digital sea change moves forward best in the audio industry by genuine innovation, not simply by cosmetic tweaks.

A couple weeks ago, I offered  to review Audioengine's high-value product line here on the iHi-Fi blog. Brady Bargenquast sent me their new HD3 to start things off. To my ears, it's clear the HD3's musical performance lives up to Audioengine's marketing claim that it's "the ultimate mini music system." The music quality is astonishing, exceeding any music system I'm aware of at the $399 price point. Audioengine takes a stance as a soft-spoken but subversive market leader in the computer audio revolution and not only in words, but in their works. The HD3, and probably the HD6 as well, are taking the digital revolution right into the palace of high end music.

As an industrial designer, I'm partial to the HD3's visual presentation. The "retro-forward" treatment is carried off ever so precisely in manufacturing. The faultless build speaks quality all around. The Cherry-finished model they sent is much less red than it looks in a web browser. In the flesh, it's more a chocolaty brown with a strong red tint. This is likely to blend well with most décors. The black, magnetically-attached grill cloths impart a more neatly-finished look to HD models, as compared to the bare-chested motif of the previous A-model and P-type speakers from Audioengine. Also, the aspect ratio of the speaker enclosures is significantly taller than the onsite photos reveal, which lends a less squatty-looking and more stately impression.

Speakers-out looks cool and manly. By contrast, the HD models dress in a classier, more spouse-pleasing design. The small size, lack of any other external components, and minimal wiring will also look better with other furnishings. No separate system rack is needed though substantial speaker stands undoubtedly add to the performance quality. Right down to the deeply engraved brand on silvery metal, the visuals are spare and as handsome as George Clooney in a thousand-dollar business suit.

The HD3 is far more than a set of powered speakers. It's a complete, wireless, miniaturized and optimized, two-channel, desktop or room stereo system with power enough for a medium-sized room. It's a snap to set up given its generously versatile connectivity. The HD3 will accept the usual audio line-level input from any stereo gear you may already have but you don't need additional hardware beyond this speaker system and a computer.

I use the term "computer" loosely. Any USB device that streams music will connect, including an Android smartphone or tablet, or a USB turntable. Any analog device with a line output will also connect. So will a lowly earphone jack, in a pinch. But the big attraction is the built-in wireless over Bluetooth, and that's at aptX quality, if you have it. This system really will play music from just about any device you have. Any way you connect will sound uncommonly good but the aptX HD quality and convenience are especially seductive after the HD3 upsamples the bitstream to 24-bit/96KHz.

The aptX hookup is enabled by internal circuitry much like the Audioengine B1 Bluetooth Receiver.  Conveniently, all inputs are active so you hear whatever is connected and playing. Your input of choice feeds a 24-bit, upsampling PCM 5102 DAC from circuits similar to Audioengine's D1 desktop standalone DAC. The resulting analog decode enters dual monoblock power amps. Just like in the architecture of those big-amp audiophile systems that look so sexy and sound so good, the Right and Left channels each have separate signal paths. This partly explains the HD3's extraordinary cost-to-fidelity ratio. 

Audition with money-back guarantee for 30 days when purchased on ihi-fi and receive a 90-day TIDAL free trial.

Audition with money-back guarantee for 30 days when purchased on ihi-fi and receive a 90-day TIDAL free trial.

All this super-compact audio system functionality is housed in the left enclosure. It ultimately powers the highly articulate drivers in both stereo channel speakers. How they do all this for the posted asking price baffles me, even after a career in electro-mechanical design. This little system is an evolutionary leap in Hi-Fi gear, eliminating any other separate component but the source devices, which, in all probability, you already have. All system parts are tuned to play nice together. Other speakers may come with internal power amps, and maybe a DAC as well, but this is the first speaker setup I've seen with an entire, wireless audio system inside: wireless receiver, DAC, amps and all.

Expect to be wowed shortly after unboxing if your smartphone has aptX Bluetooth and a TIDAL app with the Hi-Fi quality option, or another 16-bit stream, or a collection of 16-bit (or higher resolution) local files. Although 16 bits may go into the system, 24 bits always get decoded. The resampling may not be fully equivalent to native 24-bit recordings but it sounds much better than a 16-bit original. Non-aptX Bluetooth also works but personally, I'm interested in the highest available fidelity. This means natural-sounding, noise-free audio much like live performances, when your selections have been well-recorded and skillfully mixed. That's what I'm hearing from the HD3 while running through my favorite playlists: realistic, natural-sounding, articulate music with all the details and ambience that make music sound wonderful.

As I play a wide variety of genres, the HD3 handles every task with grace. It's beautiful to look at, easy on the bank account, and best of all, it delivers the musical goods: accurate, delightfully dynamic, detailed audio. My TIDAL Hi-Fi playlists have never sounded better. The same is true for 24-bit/96Khz, upsampled albums that I ripped from CDs. Once again, I'm hearing new things that I never heard before in music that I've listened to analytically a lot, with new delight in each discovery. I'm like, "Oh. So that's what this piece of music really sounds like." My daily workhorse music system is an Audioengine A5+N. If the goal was to exceed the previous star's performance, well done. My guess is the last 5% of excellence comes harder than the rest.

Audioengine is clearly on a mission to bring high end music to the consumer audio markets. Right now, the Russian State Choir is giving me chills and raising some body hair. When I close my eyes, I'm transported to a cathedral near the Kremlin. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Characteristic instrumental timbres remain separate and distinct rather than mushing together. Each instrument and voice occupies its own sonic space, with right-sounding signature and credible apparent position in an immense, holographic soundstage. I hear no particular coloration unless it's on the recording. As typical with computer audio systems, media-specific artifacts like clicks, pops, ticks, wow, flutter, stutter, timing error, and the rest, are all absent unless present in the source data. Nor do I detect any digital artifacts. The background remains clean and black, a void.

Despite the HD3's smallish speaker driver size (2.75 inch woofers) the bass drive has good presence, considering a 65Hz lower rolloff. I do prefer to include my S8 subwoofer, though. So I switch the bass cut feature on to let the S8 do its stuff from 100Hz down to 27 Hz. This markedly improves very low bass in music that has it, but I might not miss a sub in music that lacks bass, like chamber music. If you're a perfectionist about music, I do recommend a powered sub that allows you to tailor the response like the Audioengine S8 does. This also frees up the HD3 from some heavy lifting so its drivers can dance better to the midrange and highs.

The 60W total peak power is surprising in a package this small. It easily provides enough acoustic drive to fill my 18 X 12 X 8 foot (1728 cubic ft.,) softer listening room. I can't stand to peg the volume for long with Creedence, Buddy Holly, or Little Feat. However, you might want more power in a larger, or softer room. For harder-to-drive rooms, Audioengine has the HD6 waiting in the wings. I can't wait to hear this big brother render my test playlists but the HD3 has power enough for my room, which is fully carpeted and has some cushy furniture, so it's a bit soft in spite of 30% glass surface area on the front wall.

I didn't start this HD3 listening binge by connecting via Bluetooth. Although these speakers are billed as a desktop show, I set them up as wired, room speakers, eight feet apart, driven by an Audioengine D2, because I never work sitting at a desk. Then I got attuned to hearing this initial setup using the audio line input and I was wowed, as stated above. I also routinely add polymeric vibration isolators under each speaker that help the best performance emerge. See Herbie's Audio Lab for the kind you need. They work and are worth the cost.

I was so prejudiced against Bluetooth as a wireless audio link that I have assumed I would always connect via wire or equivalent-sounding wireless, using Wi-Fi-like protocols, through the Audioengine W3 or D2 wireless DACs. Of course, being Mister Curious, I had to try aptX with the HD3. So I looked into out how to acquire aptX HERE.

Having never bothered to check into aptX previously, I got a Samsung Galaxy S7 smartphone last September. Just now, I discovered this phone came with aptX Bluetooth, as do a lot of other Android devices these days. With the arrival of the HD3, I was finally enabled to check out this somewhat mysterious, proprietary CODEC for myself. I only discovered its excellence by dumb luck after the HD3 arrived.

I'm astounded by how good aptX Bluetooth sounds. Jalan Jalan is wonderful to hear across this wireless connection. Indonesian gamelan performances, on both albums they have on TIDAL, bring rich and exotic timbres across treble and midrange with occasional excursions into bass. I also recommend all three albums Green Isac has on TIDAL for the feast of timbral richness and good workout it provides. Praful on The Silent Side of Satie brings wonderful harp and flutes with a sense of being at the recital. I also listened to Dustin O'Halloran's two Piano Solo albums yet again and Adam Hurst's Festivale album. If piano sounds that great on a setup, usually everything else does, also. Now we can have our Bluetooth aptX convenience cake and eat the richness too, of natural-sounding music.

Speakers-out view of HD3. Put the grills back on, and this is the entire audio system except for the digital source device, which you undoubtedly already have.

Speakers-out view of HD3. Put the grills back on, and this is the entire audio system except for the digital source device, which you undoubtedly already have.

My TIDAL playlists have jumped to a new level that sounds uniformly better than pre-HD3 and yes, equal to a wired hookup, as Qualcomm claims. I'm eating a little crow now about Bluetooth audio quality but cut me some slack because aptX has finally become practical, given how many HD consumer devices are available with it now. When I was dismayed with Bluetooth, there were very few ways to actually implement aptX in high end home listening. This CODEC is the fruit of some clever work. How the heck do they get music to sound this good coming through that skinny a pipe?

After a few days of listening, it's clear I can forget about needing a high-end portable music player because I already have one: my Samsung S7 with aptX also has interchangeable SD cards. Think infinite collection. It's not unthinkable to haul along the little HD3 System on trips when I have more than one suitcase. I don't even need a portable laptop DAC except in very constrained situations where I can't set up the HD3. If I want to play music loud, or late into the night, the HD3 also includes a built-in high fidelity headphone amp. As stated, it is a complete audio system.

At $399, I'd say the musical performance and superb usability that preserves music quality are worth more than the cost for these HD3 Wireless Speakers. Given they come with dual stereo channel amps and a headphone amp is built in, plus the functionality of Audioengine's B1 Bluetooth receiver ($189 separately) and their D1 desktop DAC ($169 separately,) the total capability of the HD3 clearly exceeds the selling price of equivalent, separate components. The HD3 Speakers' price/performance makes this system a no-brainer best buy. If you listen at a desk you may reclaim some desktop work space as you acquire a music upgrade.

My remaining defensible prejudice is this: to derive the best experience, a music listener must know well how to listen critically and make honest, accurate evaluations. In the end, there's only one valid way to answer your audio-lovin' curiosity: first, become skilled enough in critical listening to rely on your own judgment rather than wishing some outer authority could settle all your burning questions. Then, listen for yourself. A straightforward, rough guide to listening for beginners is available HERE.

In addition to the suggestions above, I also offer the following recordings on TIDAL to hear the HD3 shine when you audition one:

Bass Dreams by Mo Foster

My Green Isac playlist on TIDAL-- HERE

Anything recorded by Adam Hurst, maybe The Secret

Something recent from Leonard Cohen

Anything by Norah Jones

My Eko Archive playlist on TIDAL, HERE -- for dance-able happy-music

Consider this: with 16-bit streaming and an upsampling Burr-Brown DAC, the need to collect 24-bit files may be over unless you are into rare recordings you can't find otherwise. If you're new to Hi-Fi listening or thinking of a major system upgrade, the good news is, you can have HD quality music by the system-in-a-speaker approach and control it all with a smartphone, wirelessly. My phone manages the HD3 easily from any room in this spacious home. Once you find the courage to make the technology leap, you may even be able to sell your older gear and break even or make a profit. More about that in my next blog post.

The age of revolutionary high fidelity at consumer pricing is upon us. Make the most of your opportunities if you love listening to great-sounding music. How does  a 30-day HD3 audition sound, along with a 90-day free trial of TIDAL? I would be glad to help you make it happen right here on iHi-Fi.

iHi-Fi offers the HD3 with a 30-day audition and money-back, satisfaction guarantee HERE. And you get the TIDAL trial subscription free with any Audioengine component purchase on iHi-Fi. Then you can check out all the titles I suggested above and of course, lots of music you already love, and much more you will come to love, in TIDAL's humongous catalog. And rumor has it that Spotify may also go Hi-Fi soon.

Please feel free to comment HERE.

Happy Listening,

Joseph Riden

Click to Audition HD3 

HD3 System with 30 days in-home audition, money-back guarantee. 90-day TIDAL trial free. Lowest legal price, standard warranty. Authorized Audioengine Dealer.

Computer Audio Brings High Value Hi-Fi

JustBoom DAC/Amp stack fits into one case as an Audio Player Component

JustBoom DAC/Amp stack fits into one case as an Audio Player Component

Computer audio enables music lovers to maximize enjoyment of their passion while also optimizing value in music listening. You can set up a stereo with digital sources that achieves high-end playback for an unprecedented low budget, compared to old-school, analog-only approaches. Computer (or digital) audio can be implemented in so many ways that you can hold the cost to nearly any budget and successfully transform bits into bravos. It can be as modest as simply listening to streaming music on your smartphone or as grandiose as a roomful of advanced electronics. You probably already have a good start based on today's widespread computer and cellular technologies.

Optimizing your audio system's price/performance depends on a curious, yet cautious thoughtfulness when you select and configure components to access high-resolution music. Skepticism about advertising rhetoric also helps. Listen critically and believe your own ears, rather than hype or hearsay, to stretch music budget and listening pleasure both together.

My example system is a cost-aware approach to creating a value-driven, high-performance music system. A virtual walk-through starts where the music data enters the hardware. My workhorse MacBook Pro laptop is often the source and control device, though with digital input, it makes little difference in the final sound quality which computer, tablet, player or smartphone hosts the application that controls the file library and musical bit stream, as long as you assure noise does not creep in to degrade the sound. A Samsung Galaxy S7 (Android) smartphone also sources this same system, with equivalent results.

The library includes locally-stored digital recordings and playlists of abundant, online streaming music from Spotify and TIDAL. Spotify distributes MP3 files in Ogg Vorbis format . . . but wait, hold those sneers for a moment. The suggested TIDAL subscription is their Hi-Fi option, streamed at 16/44.1 resolution (16-bit data depth at a 44.1 KHz sample rate.) This is already true CD quality and that resolution gets better with some tech magic. Much better, you'll discover, if you give this a try.

Spotify may be less precise musically but their player app's suggestion engine helps you discover more music you like. An insatiable music appetite drives me to develop playlists using Spotify, then transfer favorites to TIDAL, because I love to explore many genres at higher resolutions. Both sources get upsampled to 24-bit/96KHz in this test system, which greatly improves the sound of source recordings. The denser the original data, the better the results. This resampling trickery provides audibly better likenesses to live, original music than either MP3s or even CD-quality would imply. Still, it's impossible for me to listen to Andrea Bocelli for long with dry eyes.

An Audioengine D2 Wireless DAC (digital-to-analog converter,) which is a two-part audio component, transports music across the room to the rest of the system. The D2 Sender (D2S)unit accepts USB 2.0 data from the source device. The D2S upsamples the bit stream to 24/96 resolution and transmits the expanded digital music across a 12-foot space to the D2 Receiver (D2R) through a dedicated, Wi-Fi-like radio channel.

The D2 is a very capable DAC, as well as a wireless optical data link, but one purpose of this article is to test and report on a JustBoom DAC/Amp Player that I assembled. In this case, the D2S passes the digital music to this DAC for conversion to an analog signal that can be amplified.

The D2S not only up samples the bit stream, it also enables me to conveniently sit with the computer in the listening sweet spot, centered at a good distance from the speakers, without a wire trailing across the carpet to the system rack. The D2S is located beside my easy chair. Across the room, The D2R sits on the system rack behind the speakers, against the front wall. The D2R hands off the digital audio data from its optical (S/PDIF TOSLINK) output to this system's active DAC, which is not the D2 in this case, though the D2 has also served as the converter previously, and it will return for encores.

Presently, the active DAC is a JustBoom standalone DAC Board that receives the 24/96 digital music stream from the D2R and converts the digital bits into an analog, Line Out music signal through a Burr-Brown/Texas Instruments PCM5102A DAC chip.

Audioengine P4N Passive Speakers -- big sound from a small but handsome package.

Audioengine P4N Passive Speakers -- big sound from a small but handsome package.

     This line-level audio output goes to another JustBoom standalone printed circuit board, their Amplifier, that is stacked on top of the DAC Board. Both boards are housed inside a sleek, custom polymer DAC/Amp Case. These two, latest-tech PC boards interface through a clever inter-board connector to achieve an integrated DAC/Amp audio component.

A handsome set of Audioengine's bamboo composite, P4N Passive Speakers receive the amplified analog data and transduce it into audible music quite respectably. The stiffer bamboo housings have a slight performance edge over the MDF enclosures of the black and white P4 versions.

An S8 Powered Subwoofer, also from Audioengine, completes this setup. It fills in the lower bass below the 58 Hz rolloff at the bottom of the speakers' range. So this system is no wimp. Turned up loud, it can shake the house when music has powerful bass passages.

Both D2 housings, the JustBoom DAC/Amp component, and the P4 and S8 Speakers are all suspended on Herbie's Audio anti-vibration pucks. The pucks I selected are the types the Herbie's Audio website recommends for these applications. The materials are not rubber, which is far too resonant for vibration suppression. Anti-vibration with these proven, engineered-polymer discs is one of the best price/performance enhancers that small money can buy.

This spare assemblage of hardware is integrated into a modest room audio system with commodity interconnects, nothing costly or exotic. I have been listening to various genres with pure delight.

This system's compactness is obvious in shorthand:

Computer > D2S/D2R > DAC/Amp Player > P4 & S8 Speakers


Cases in red or black make a Player device of your DAC and Amp Board stack.

Cases in red or black make a Player device of your DAC and Amp Board stack.

 What you don't hear matters as much as what you listen for. Fewer artifacts spoil the pleasure when there are no spinning mechanisms to handle media or transduce physically encoded music data. This system needs no physical media at all, which means: no surface noise, clicks, pops or crackles; no hiss, wow, or flutter; and no hum lurks in the background. Playback is crystal-clear. The music stands out like an infinite star field in a clear, night sky against a velvet-black silence you can feel in the pauses.

Here are some selections that exploit and showcase the musical performance. These dynamic recordings demonstrate excellent fidelity due to their pure provenance. Some are streamed from online and some from my local disk storage:

  • Mike Mainieri, Man Behind Bars
  • Norah Jones, Come Away with Me
  • Bill Frisell, Gone, Just Like a Train
  • Mo Foster, Bass Themes and 50's and 60's Rock 'n' Roll
  • Fabrizio Paterlini, The Art of the Piano
  • Chuck Loeb, E-bop
  • Dustin O'Halloran, Piano Solos and Piano Solos Vol. 2
  • Oystein Sevag & Lakki Patey, Visual: an Ambient Experience
  • Céu, Céu
  • Jerry Douglas, Glide
  • Kilowatts, Seven Succulents
  • Adam Hurst, The Secret
  • Leonard Cohen, Live in London
  • Bob Dylan, Fallen Angels
  • Praful, The Silent Side of Satie
  • Harry Manx & Kevin Breit, In Good We Trust

These playlists cross several popular genres: Brazilian Pop; Electronic and Ambient; Jazz, including Female Vocals; Classical Piano and Cello; Rock; Bluegrass; and Male Vocals. I purposely choose an eclectic listening experience to hear an array of instruments played in different venues. Such range provides telling musical impressions. Eclecticism is helpful to characterize how a setup sounds; to reveal both virtues and faults. There is much to appreciate throughout this mix of masterful artists and composers who demonstrate outstanding musicianship and often, advanced virtuosity.

Access to variety makes a quantum jump when you include streaming sources in your music collection. Through TIDAL and Qobuz, we are experiencing a transition to 16-bit resolution in online streaming. This brings listeners increasing returns—–all the beauty of CD-quality music but without the plastic-disc downside.


Audioengine's S8 fills in the low bass below the P4's rolloff at 58Hz.

Audioengine's S8 fills in the low bass below the P4's rolloff at 58Hz.

Listening impressions of this system are favorable across the board. Hearing new things in familiar recordings alerts me to significantly increased musical fidelity. Then I listen closely to details. The stars of this show are JustBoom's DAC/Amp Player and Audioengine's P4 Speakers.

The sound of the JustBoom DAC/Amp Player through the extremely articulate P4N Passive Speakers is rich, full, well-balanced, natural, transparent, and highly realistic. This 11 by 15 by 9 foot room is filled beautifully as the P4s easily handle any listenable volume from the Amp Board, without noticeable distortion. The P4s are efficient enough to sound lifelike with only 25 WPC (Watts per channel, RMS) maximum power. Perfect for a small to medium-sized room. Also, I love the bamboo composite look even if that does add a little cost. The black or white versions could save you some cash.

The P4 speakers are front-ported. At first, I placed them too far out from the front wall. When I moved them back to a two-foot clearance, the soundstage shaped right up into a holographic presentation. Soundstage is natural and detached from the speakers, covering the whole room's width with instruments that appear spatially separated on all three room axes. In some recordings, instruments seem to float out beyond the extents of the speakers' lateral separation, with depth extending beyond a line between the speakers.

The D2 contributes in two ways to a natural sound: first, by up sampling all the selections to 24-bit/96 KHz resolution. The D2S resamples any file type, at any bit-depth and sample rate, before streaming to the D2R. This means that the D2R outputs audio at 24/96 resolution from its optical output, even from Spotify's MP3 source data. This split component elevates the listening experience appreciably. Try it out on your purist friends secretly. Maybe even blindfolded.

Up sampling improves noise floor. The curve-smoothing of expanded resolution also helps provide a more accurate representation that's closer to the music's native waveforms than the available input data. Without up sampling, the JustBoom DAC would be converting 16/44.1 data instead of 24/96. To my ears, 24/96 seems beyond the point of diminishing returns. I don't feel a pressing need to escalate resolution infinitely.

Audioengine's D2 is a clever innovation that uniquely resolves an inherent issue with digital streaming to room audio systems, which is: the computer that manages music is usually near the listener, who's located across the room from the speakers. With this test system's setup, the listener receives the benefit of good distance from the speakers with no wire needed to haul the bit stream to the conversion device.  

The JustBoom DAC/Amp is a notable value for a 25 Watt (RMS) digital music player. The parts went together easily, without a hitch, in an hour or so with no soldering. JustBoom offers a high-value product line targeted toward the maker movement. These guys are helping to revolutionize serious home audio. They have a lot to offer a music lover with a hobbyist inclination, some manual dexterity and a few common hand tools.

The bulk of cost for components in this system is rolled up below, assuming you already have a computer, high speed Internet access, a local library of digital music files and/or a Spotify or Hi-Fi-level TIDAL subscription.

The DAC/Amp Player assembled from JustBoom items comprises the following:

  • Standalone DAC Board: $55
  • Standalone Amplifier Board: $90
  • DAC/AMP Case: $16
  • Power Supply: Power Pax 3102D, estimated: $18

     Subtotal: about $179

The whole system is an excellent value even considering cost of the Audioengine D2 that is the key to required spatial arrangement:

  • D2 24-bit Wireless DAC & S/PDIF Converter: $399
  • P4N Passive Bookshelf Speakers: $325
  • S8 Powered Subwoofer: $349

      Subtotal: $1073

Grand Total: around $1252

Audioengine's D2 DAC / Wireless Optical Link plays a strong supporting role.

Audioengine's D2 DAC / Wireless Optical Link plays a strong supporting role.

Thinking through a desktop setup for this JustBoom Player did briefly give me pause. It only accepts either optical or coax input, so one can't connect this directly to a computer via USB. However, noise issues actually disqualify USB for the connection when a long cable run is needed. The USB 2.0 specification does allow cable length up to 15 feet but a USB cable that long (in a previous project) caused noisy results. Optical or coax are best for this bandwidth. Optical is best for noise isolation.

Desktop issues arise for this Player when a computer lacks an S/PDIF or coaxial PCM audio output. For room audio, the D2 resolves this issue neatly but its two-part architecture doesn't fit typical desktop real estate. The wireless design is intended for more distance. Audioengine offers their D1 DAC with USB input for more compact desktop applications. Or the JustBoom standalone DAC works well. I would use headphones for desktop, though, and this DAC conveniently includes a high-quality headphone amp and jack for close listening.

To set this Player up on a desktop with passive "computer speakers" flanking my 2011 MacBook Pro laptop, I could certainly use S/PDIF to connect directly from the laptop's headphone socket, which has a digital optical sender integrated into this 3.5mm analog audio jack. However, my personal preference is never to sit at a desk to write. "Desktop audio" is too near-field for me to to prefer when a whole room is available to develop the full acoustic bloom of recorded music.

Simply keep in mind that to implement this whole example system, you will need some way to connect your digital music player device to the JustBoom DAC/Amp Player component, either via coax/RCA or S/PDIF. If you include the Audioengine D2 Wireless DAC as your data link, that issue is resolved. I already had a D2 on hand because I have been using it as my demo DAC for quite some time.

The summary listening impressions are all positive. Across a wide variety of musical genres, P4 Passive Speakers sound wonderfully natural driven by the JustBoom DAC/Amp Player. I hear accurate instrument and vocal timbres and good balance throughout, with stunning realism, including the ambiences of the venues where recordings are captured. There's plenty of power to fill even this medium-sized, acoustically softer room where I work.

After many hours of listening, I like this system well enough to keep it going. This hardware performs well for the cost. It's a value star. I'm not waiting to revert to my previous system setup, which is Audioengine's internally-amplified A5+ Powered Speakers with their S8 Powered Subwoofer via the D2 Wireless 24-bit DAC. I'm content to keep listening to my collected music and to continue making new discoveries as-configured for this article. That says a lot in favor of the P4s with the JustBoom Player because I like my A5+ Powered Speakers very much.

But by all means, please decide for yourself. I'm always interested to know what you think. Please comment HERE, or drop me an email using the Contact page form in the navigation bar.

Enjoy the Listening,

Joseph Riden