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Portable hi-fi has progressed so much that I would prefer it to a traditional system

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There would have been a few notable nominees for “Most Improved Player” in the audio industry over the past decade: wireless headphones, music streamers and what my personal vote would go for: hi-tech electronics. portable fi.

During the pandemic, a change in living conditions forced me to pack my hi-fi system (consisting of a CD player, music streamer, vinyl turntable, integrated amplifier and stands) , put it in a storage container, and just turn to portable audio. to satisfy my appetite for sound. With access to What Hi-Fi? Also limited in testing rooms due to UK travel and office restrictions, I emotionally braced myself for months of musical malnutrition.

Before you start looking around to see where you put your smallest violin, let me tell you that my initial cynicism was in vain. Because portable audio can be the crème de la crème of hi-fi. In many ways, it can be considered the preferred route to sound reverie.

The rise of portable hi-fi

The portable hi-fi system – defined by battery-powered digital-to-analog converters, music players and phones, and of course headphones – has, as a collective, exploded in terms of accessibility, popularity and sound quality over the past decade. . Headphones have naturally been a natural part of the hi-fi arena for a long time, but the portability and compactness of digital electronics to hook them up in an on-the-fly scenario has matured so much that the replacement of speakers with headphones or systems based on each, has never looked so appealing.

For that, you can give a lot of thanks to the revolutionary advancements in DAC designs from (and quite frankly the vision of) Chord Electronics, as well as the sonic competitiveness, practicality and affordability of those from iFi and AudioQuest, not to mention the presence and Astell & Kern’s innovation, in particular in the music player market.

The fact that nowadays we can be on a plane and pull out a Chord Mojo DAC, Chord Poly streamer, a pair of headphones, and a phone if we so choose – together, a bit physically awkward compared to an arrangement phone / headset upright but very comfortably in the hand baggage allowance and the footprint of a table top – and be treated for this High quality sound, on the go and for several hours before something is recharged, really is something. Think back to ten years ago (that’s easy for me, considering the * sip * that wasn’t long before I joined What Hi-Fi?) and, as gem portable USB DACs such as the AudioQuest DragonFlys began to emerge to improve the audio quality of PCs and laptops (in a 2013 review of such a product, we called it “the new “it” kit from the hi-fi world), it will be a few more years before we see a commitment to this company for phones.

AudioQuest

AudioQuest’s DragonFly Cobalt DAC as a sound-enhancing intermediary between a phone and a wired headset (Image credit: AudioQuest)

Lower perceived value, higher sound value

The ratio of perceived value to real value for a portable system like this may echo that of the width-to-height of the Empire State Building – the exasperated “that costs two. grandiose?! “(or similar) the reaction to the Chord Hugo DAC has not been a single incident over the years, and the perceived value naturally is usually higher in hi-fi systems with kilograms of wooden cabinetry. and aluminum enclosures behind them, but in terms of sonic value you can often get more detailed performance with a headphone-based system (desktop or portable) than with a similarly priced speaker system.

Now an iPhone and a pair of AirPods Max don’t quite live up to my beloved hi-fi system (by the way, not far from five digits), but a combination of Apple MacBook Pro, Chord Hugo headphones. 2 DAC and Grado Statement Series is really great. alternative. It was a good reminder, in those weeks and months of playing with portable audio far more than I normally would, that even a portable system with a combined demand charge of about a quarter of that ( such as an Astell & Kern Kann Alpha player and Austrian Audio Hi-X55 headphones, or laptop / headphones paired with AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt infill) really provide an excellent sound standard for digital music playback. This is where I would put my money, if I had only one authorized system.

And look how far wireless earbuds have come – the AirPods Max, arguably the benchmark in its class now, aren’t cheap for bluetooth headphones by any means, but just paired with an iPhone via bluetooth, the quality. reading is way beyond what was possible with such a simple and ultra-portable partnership a few years ago.

Goodbye, room problems

And it’s not just the increase in the quality and availability of the portable hi-fi system; helmet configurations inherently have certain advantages. Because what does a traditional hi-fi system constantly struggle with, whatever its caliber? The very room he’s in. The composition of a room has a huge influence on a system’s performance, with its size, materials of construction, and furnishings impacting how sound bounces around and what frequencies are absorbed and reflected. Yes, room correction technology such as that developed by Dirac is increasingly advanced to help overcome room impressions and make “sound” spaces more neutral, but this – as is usually the case. with DSP – often introduces its own issues, such as the impact on the rhythmic integrity of a system’s performance. So take one piece out of the equation, as you naturally do with headphones listening, and that problem is gone.

The fact that your headphones are attached to your head, directing the sound directly into your ears, means that listening is not affected by sitting, as is the case with speaker systems. You are always in the “sweet spot” – never out of the way or far away from the conductors who sing your music.

Speakers, mind you, counter by producing a strong stereo image that headphones do not by nature. You get imagery in the headphones of course, as the sounds move through the left and right (headphones) channels, but you don’t get the wide spread of sound right in front of you that the soundstages of the speakers provide – even though switchable the cross-feed processing in some DAC trials, with a random effect, can help simulate a more speaker-like presentation between your ears.

Focal

(Image credit: Focal)

Its intimate and integrated

Perhaps the most obvious attraction of headphone systems: their privacy. Listen to your favorite singers through headphones and there’s a tangibility and frankness of closing and listening that just can’t be matched when listening through speakers. When I hear Nina Simone defiantly like anything say, “I hexed you because you’re mine”, or Kate Bush sadly say “If they find me running with white horses, they won’t take me for a buoy ”, through my Grados, it’s as if they were singing in my brain! Although I have been fortunate enough to lift my jaw off the ground time and again by allowing demonstrations of high-end hi-fi systems at shows and during What Hi-Fi? test, one of my most memorable music playing experiences was with open back headphones (very high end). Such was the detail and the clarity, it momentarily made me physically nauseous (in a good way, I think). For me, listening through headphones is truly transporting like no other form of reading is.

Just because all headphone drivers are more transparent than all speaker drivers, of course; you literally hear more music because you don’t lose any part of it in the room. And since all headphones, to some extent, physically block out external noise, there is less chance that you will be distracted by events around you when wearing them. You get an intensely secluded and intimate experience. Finally, the fact that headphones usually only have one driver means that they also don’t have the crossover issues (as with phase) inherent in speakers (multi-driver, multi-channel).

So has portable audio peaked?

More and more people are looking for portability, whether for preference or for practicality, and the hardware market is there for that, both with established hi-fi brands (your Chords, your Audiolabs , your Cyruses, etc.) and newer names dedicated only to portable audio, such as Zorloo. Such is the burgeoning attraction of the once niche market these days, that earlier this year THX released a portable DAC as the very first consumer electronics product.

Portable audio is everywhere – in our phones and headphones, in our battery-powered Bluetooth speakers, in our music streaming services – and has been for decades. The Sony Walkman and Bluetooth technology are popular for this. but portable Hifi stereo is a newer and rapidly growing phenomenon, and the ease with which it can now deliver such high-quality musical experiences has made it, in some cases, a decent alternative to a traditional hi-fi system. As long as high-quality digital music streaming remains readily available, and especially if Bluetooth quality improves across the board, I believe the trajectory of digital wearable product quality and consumer demand will continue as a result. increase in the years to come. And I would be the first to say, so be it.

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