A Holistic Approach To The Convergence Of Cabled and WiFi Networked Audio
Worlds Of Research
Welcome to my world of what I’ve come to call CABLED & WIRELESS AUDIO CONVERGENCE (CWAC). During the past 21+ years I have been steeped in the sonic pleasures of the highest resolution digital audio. Before that an even greater number of years submerged in vinyl, cassette and R2R with limited and reluctant but expanded exposure to the inevitable CD Red Book media format with lossy derivatives (MP3, AAC) used online in the early Internet years where I first participated as a musician.
As a recording musician and as a trained data and communications software designer and integration expert extending back into the early 1980’s I have aligned and continued to hone my love of music with my technical backgrounds and hi-res audio experiences evolving as digital from the earliest analog like Direct Stream Digital (DSD) and DVD-A at the turn of the millenium.
Having worked directly with CD studio recording tech and self-releasing my first DIY album discs ’96, ’97, ’98, 2000, I had an urgent need to find a better quality sonic path for my commercial recording releases. DSD proved insanely capable of achieving analog like quality in a permanent digital format with simple and still very good sounding migrations to more commonly used formats in the PCM world.
I was fortunate and able to release higher resolution recordings as hybrid multichannel SACDs in 2004 and 2006 and numerous download DSD albums since then beginning 2009. My music then became part of the MQA improved small footprint (file size/bandwidth for full resolution), more natural sounding PCM audio download and streaming delivery as hi-res beginning in 2016.
Both highest sound quality goals and reaching new ears have always been the cornerstones of my recording projects. My way has been no single perfect one way, but has evolved with the industry and innovation, always trusting my ears first regardless of the media encoding or equipment used.
In another world and at the same time as my hi-res learning and productions, I participated hands on from Silicon Valley in the eruptive and disruptive Internet and Data Network Communications aspects of the convergence of Voice and Data Networks (VoIP) beginning in the late 90’s.
Today I recognize that all wireless computer audio, including today’s streaming subscription services like Spotify, Apple Music, Qobuz and TIDAL is on its own convergent path with networked or dedicated amplified integrated speakers.
This exists today in pockets of usually proprietary integrations such as HEOS, Sonos, Bluesound/BluOS, SoundTouch, Echo, each requiring their own products to integrate and extend single and multi-room listening. The upside is that many of these are WiFi oriented systems and not constrained in quality or distance by Bluetooth. The downside is that they are closed systems and either not easy or not possible to integrate with other manufacturers’ products. One common factor is they are free of separate amplifiers with speaker cables though in my opinion may lack the benefits of a properly staged preamplification.
On another common ground that’s easy to find and use are the conduits to Ethernet and WiFi streaming music on local networks as Apple’s AirPlay 2 and Google’s Chromecast. These two protocols are included with many of today’s smartphones apps, along with access from computers, and other types of hosted players. They allow us to pipe audio from an iPhone or Samsung phone or computer or other music player to a receiving DLNA/UPnP server on the local area network, or to any other receiving network compatible server/service on the local network used to decode and broadcast the music.
These audio connections are being passed over the TCP/IP network as fast data streams with no audio signal degradation (no information loss). This accomplishes the two large categories of barriers we all deal with in our own ways: Network Distance/Coverage limitations including bandwidth/speed, and Sound Quality as Lossless/Bit Perfect vs Lossy.
The point here is that if the music receiver is open to UPnP/DLNA via AirPlay and Chromecast or other protocol communications from any music sender, and that receiver has a simple one cable analog or digital connection to any amplified stereo speaker pair, then the scope of the playable source music material available to the listener is endless.
The listener’s music library is then extending beyond the local network to remote cloud servers and the Internet’s subscription services or other radio and audio streams. It is not a compromised delivery of the audio which originates from a source server (public or private), and transmits as bit perfect audio to the listener’s player app. It is then routed over the LAN via WiFi or Ethernet or USB to the receiver/filter/remastering/decoder/preamp. This is then a streaming solution of the highest integrity for sound quality.
With the proper treatment of the audio stream, this lossless integrated wireless (WiFi and wired network) audiophile grade sound quality satisfies the specs and most importantly the ears of any music lover.
Equally important to the disruptive qualities of this convergence is the removal of retail price barriers enabling equal access to the highest sound quality at affordable prices.
This integration can now be achieved with an absolute minimal number of no more than three components consisting of a stereo speaker pair, a Filter/Remaster/DAC/Preamp/Streaming Receiver, and a single audio interconnect cable. In today’s energy conscious climate it also importantly has low AC power demands and can even run efficiently off-grid on Solar PV as required.
Equally and I believe decisively important is the simplicity and ease of setup harnessing the sonic benefits of the most advanced audio technologies and delivering sound that any caliber of ears appreciate with vocal exclamations often starting with the word “Holy”….
In Search Of The Holy…
What I began to realize over a year ago in January 2020 and wrote about then on my blog, which was published at Positive Feedback, was that technology designed to allow full network wireless integrations of the superior digital audio being released had a potentially convergent path with the emergence of sophisticated and power efficient audiophile quality amplified speakers. Please read that again.
What continually bugged me to no end in the past 5+ years (or has it been 10?) has been the music industry’s ongoing reinforcement of a limited distance path that is easily obstructed, easily compressed, and endlessly frustrating use of Bluetooth for home entertainment and studio use. Why all this Bluetooth for home/studio audio for all these years when all along the WiFi path to excellent high resolution lossless audio had already been paved? Don’t get me wrong, Bluetooth has a place in music appreciation, it just isn’t here as the backbone of a full on stationary entertainment/studio system.
WiFi Ethernet standards 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/ax are well supported ubiquitous backward compatible protocols for cross platform integrations and user access (computers, smartphones, servers, other devices), This is much simpler and more efficient (speed, reliability) than the evolving Bluetooth standards (v1.x, v2.x, v3.x, v4.x, v5.x), profiles (HSP, HFP, A2DP, AVRCP) with sometimes proprietary Codecs (UHQaudio, LDAC, SBC, AAC, aptX).
Bluetooth is a near field standard created to pass data between electronic devices, not particularly high quality audio devices. In 2019 there were some 6 billion IoT devices using Bluetooth planet wide. Bluetooth to me is more like a highly localized data messaging system. It sends data from smart wristwatches to computers, from keyboards to computers, and can transport data between devices in close proximity for everything from phones, computers, tablets and refrigerators to microwave ovens and hot water heaters and light switches. Oh and it can conveniently transport music too up to 2mbps.
Think of it this way. Security cameras I’ve worked with at different installations all use WiFi/Ethernet to transport their video and audio data to either local servers or directly to cloud servers. They too require high bandwidth continuous streams without errors. They rarely use Bluetooth and if they do are limited in scope in ways similar to audio.
Bluetooth at its best moves data at 2mbps compared to WiFi over 2.4GHz today may provide you somewhere between 30mbps and 60mbps. If you are using a 5GHz router your effective throughput speed could be in the 300mbps range. WiFi range extenders are cheap and easy to add supporting both router frequencies. With WiFi I can control the music playlist from any online streaming service or from my entire JRiver library (DSD, MQA, Hi-Res, CD using JRemote app) from my iPhone anywhere I am indoors or outdoors.
Pro iDSD today supports 2.4GHz routers only. This signal strength reaches further than 5GHz which can be helpful to a few hundred feet without line of sight. If you can connect other streams (TV, computer/smartphone data) to a 5GHz path in the same or a different router, you free up the bandwidth available for your streaming audio receiver, the Pro iDSD. Also consider changing your router’s channel from any default value to avoid neighboring router channel bottlenecks.
Data messages between devices like keyboards, smartphones and computers are sporadic and short in length. Music and video are continuous streams that need to arrive quickly 100% intact 100% of the time. WiFi and Wired Ethernet depend on this data integrity ability 100% of the time with low latency, whereas Bluetooth in some of its common non-musical and non-video applications does not.
I wanted a way away from cables forever. But I did not want to sacrifice quality of sound nor limit myself to a fictitious and usually error prone 30 foot limit with no walls in the way to carry Bluetooth signals to a speaker that may not receve them lossless anyway. I wanted this ubiquitous 802.x wireless solution to handle all music media formats from the lowest MP3 to the highest DSD512 and MQA 352/384k with preamplification and headphone support.
Cabled & Wireless Audio Convergence (CWAC)
Enter the world of cabled and wireless audio convergence. Convergence here is a hybrid approach to what just a couple years ago wasn’t possible in an open non-partisan product market to achieve the very highest quality music reproduction levels available anywhere today.
The market I’m addressing is not exclusively for audiophiles. These are products in the consumer and prosumer markets readily available to all at some fraction of the cost of traditional top shelf audio classes of products. The point is they can satisfy ears of any genre of listener at prices most can afford.
In 2021 I made the realization that the right products may in fact exist to accomplish this hi-res integration and I set about to prove it to myself.
What was necessary as requirements were support for all of these things:
- Full Integration Of Highest Quality Digital Audio With WiFi Connected Computers and Smartphones on Local Area Networks. Support AirPlay and Chromecast to allow any streaming service (Spotify, Apple Music, TIDAL, Qobuz…) to be received and routed as audio streams reliably and lossless over Ethernet/WiFi.
- UPnP and DLNA support for networked audio across varieties of manufacturer products allowing wide choices of music players beyond smartphones (Roon, JRiver, Audirvana, Amarra, Foobar2000) to integrate with music servers and DACs/Preamps for broadcast.
- Full Support of all static music media storage (SSD, USB External and Thumbdrive, Micro SDHC, NAS/UPnP, Cloud Storage, Library LAN/WAN Server). This allows computer audio playback of any user library through any of the popular music server and player products such as Roon, JRiver, Audirvana, Amarra, Foobar2000, Apple Music/iTunes.
- Full Support of all Cloud Streaming services including radio, streaming subscriptions (Spotify, Apple Music, Qobuz, Deezer, TIDAL, 7Digital) as well as YouTube, Nugs (audio), and any other music a Smartphone, Smart TV or computer might want to play online.
- Full Support of all common digital media transport (Toslink optical, Coaxial/BNC, Ethernet RJ45) to provide audio path connections to other entertainment gear including LED TV’s as needed. Yes these are additional interconnect cables, but not required for the unlimited supply of listening pleasure from home and cloud sources.
- Full Support of all digital hi-res formats including the highest DSD256 and DSD512 as well as MQA 24/352.8k and 24/384k with full MQA decoding to allow the DAC alone to accomplish all levels of unfolding as needed (i.e., does not need first unfold to be handled by player software such as TIDAL, Audirvana, Amarra, etc.).
At the same time what was needed were all these things to be finally free of:
- Full Release From Obligations To Expensive Amplifier Speaker Cables With Inherent Signal Loss, Connector Issues And Potential For Radio Frequency and Electromagnetic Interference (RFI, EMI), and Phase Distortion. I refer to this as Cable Controversies, Cost and Clutter (CCCC). The entire price of this holistic system could be spent on a single speaker cable not more than 3 feet in length. In this system no amplifier to speaker cables are required.
- Full Release From Obligations To Cramped Perimeters imposed by Bluetooth coupled with frequent Stutter, Signal Loss, Signal Compression, Aggravating Device Control.
- Full Release From The Model Requiring Module After Module of Audio Gear to be added to accomplish top shelf performance and quality for DAC uses and filtering (all formats including DSD512 and MQA full decoding), Preamp (preferably analog tube to further support natural sounding results), Network WiFi Streaming through most common computer/tablet/smartphone player apps.
- Full Release of congested AC power hungry gangs of components. Instead desire an AC efficient off-grid capable solution for any use (on-grid or off-grid) in our carbon and methane saturated planet. This addresses the real ongoing electricity cost issues as well.
Added to the clutter, incompatibilities, inconsistencies, complex setups and integrations typically required to accomplish these things and their associated high AC power requirements of seeming endless chains of power cables, power strips, and interconnect wires between modules were then endless hours of time over months and years spent perpetually fine tuning the design to best support various flows of digital audio into the system for amplification and speaker delivery.
The ultimate results are usually racks or at least stacks of gear that cannot be moved happily or easily. My goal was to get out of that viscous, expensive, AC power hungry cycle.
In January 2020 I found a single component that artfully and skillfully accomplished all of the digital music conversion to analog tasks with analog preamplification. It also solved the non-Bluetooth wireless (ie, WiFi) requirement for roaming free lossless transmission of any audio source on local network or in the cloud. It is the iFi Audio Pro iDSD. I wrote about it on my art-of-listening.com music blog and published here on Positive Feedback.
I then coupled that discovery of a fully integrated audio media refactoring vending machine (Pro iDSD) with another single idea of:
Full Integration Of Highest Quality Speakers With Amplification in a reasonable size enclosure that is not too heavy to lift and move as needed and is also aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Efficient use of AC power is also required preferring an evolved Class D amplifier over Class A/B.
I found exactly this in the Starke Sound VLOT series that comes with a few other perfectly integrated features including varied input sources, low frequency reach to 45Hz requiring no subwoofer though it is supported, and is something beyond desktop and bookshelf which require tables/stands, all without being overbearing in a small to medium size room.
VLOT’s Class D amplifier drives 3 speaker cones per cabinet (2 x 4″ mid to low 45Hz, 1 x 1″ high to 25kHz) at 150W RMS per channel @ 4 ohms. The maximum SPL is 108dB at 1 meter. The control speaker (Left) weighs 25 lbs., the companion (Right) just 20 lbs. At normal to loud listening levels I measured 20W to 30W power utilization. My loudest tests with driving bass lines used up to 41W but not higher. This is the combined power draw of both VLOT and Pro iDSD operating in sync. At >91dB I could barely be in 20′ x 24′ room.
Typical listening in a 20 x 24′ central room with full sound heard in adjacent rooms and outside through windows on lanai used about 20W which is a preferred efficient use of my PV Solar generated electricity. Loud music peaked at 91 to 94 dB (1 to 2 meters) with average play between 82 and 85 dB which is about half the volume of the loudest peaks I measured (i.e., my ears could take). Wood floors (maple) and peaked ceiling (12 ft T&G white pine) are warm and spacious to the speaker deliveries positioned center room facing a half wall (sheetrock) 11 feet away from speaker firing directions.
Headroom was plentiful throughout with VLOT volume control (V+, V-) at least a click or two from top limit and Pro iDSD analog volume knob never above 2 to 2:30 o’clock at the 0dB preamp gain dB output level (see diagram below) vs. its two other 9dB and 18dB options.
VLOT speakers are exactly 3 feet tall and perfectly accomodate being placed on each side of an LED 48″ TV on a low couch height table. The VLOT enclosure ABS Finish is a hard acrylic with non-removable non-fabric grilles. All this is perfectly suited to the warm to temperate and often very humid climate here in Hawaii. Mold resistant, well- sealed speakers will protect electronics and components, and appear impervious to our normal climate in Hawaii.
I recently reviewed VLOT from Starke Sound, Gardena, California in my blog here. It is published on Positive Feedback here.
Photo courtesy of Starke Sound
WELCOME TO THE HOLSTIC WONDERFUL WORLD OF CABLED & WIRELESS AUDIO CONVERGENCE
Only one single high quality RCA cable 18″ in length (provided with Pro iDSD) is required with this optimally configured convergent system. Aside from the provided 2 AC cords and the flat speaker wire connecting Left and Right, the rest is wireless and 100% lossless and fast and continuous without range limits or stutter. The sound results are stunning.
The scope of music played from any source in the highest resolution with this configuration is literally unlimited in a perpetually online world.
This achieves what my well used and critically trained ears hear as the very finest complete spectrum of audio I have listened to across the hugely wide universe of media from MP3 to AAC to FLAC to DSD to MQA and originating anywhere (ANYWHERE) on the planet, be it from my personal music libaries at home and in the cloud or from other cloud subscription (Spotify, Apple Music) and free services like radio including YouTube (audio).
In addition to its support of world wide music libraries, the same setup (use Pro iDSD Input S/SPDIF instead of App) can receive any video soundtrack from a Smart TV’s Toslink optical output and apply the same PCM filtering (GTO or others) before remastering as DSD1024. Netflix, Nugs, YouTube, Hulu and the rest become pro quality audio through VLOT’s delivery to the room. The single S/PDIF input connector supports both Toslink optical and Coaxial BNC.
The setup is completely impartial to the music source. Yet it produces excellent, nearly homogenized (similarly spectacular) results regardless. Think about that.
It applies to the widest spectrum of audio samples (i.e., all audio codec and encoding formats) because there are incredible (hard to believe until you hear) improvements made on the lowest resolution recordings (MP3-192 or even lower).
The setup here provides the seamless conversion of non-MQA source streams as Remastered DSD1024 (45mHz or 49mHz, 1-bit) to analog, then using an analog tube preamplifier to stage the sound for a set of fully responsive speakers (read my review here) with excellent headroom.
Could anyone find an equal or better sounding integrated audio system at a good price? Of course. But here’s a finished solution that tilts all meters for total price, performance and simplicity. It’s a complex problem to solve with, for many of us, too many product choices, prices and configuration options to even get to a baseline idea of the right solution for our personal needs.
I’ve been surrounded by and immersed in this challenge for a few decades. Here I have found an “any input source” solution in a highly integrated fashion with no trade offs for sound quality. In fact many sound quality barriers are broken and evaporated with this converged solution. It’s simply the best solution to the wide complex problem my ears have heard at these prices I can afford.
We have finally entered a CWAC world offering the highest quality audio reproduction delivered at prices most music lovers can afford.
The first commercial VoIP/IP PBX’s then Unified Communications (UC) began to hit the market about 1998. It took barely a decade (late 90’s to 2008 or so) for the previously separately competing and iconic Voice Networks (PBX, telecom) and Data Networks (TCP/IP) to converge onto a single transport platform. Data won of course.
Will the convergence of highly integrated wireless hi-res audio systems with WiFi/Ethernet transport and cable free powered speakers follow a similar timeline with a similar scope of holistically integrated price and performance benefits?
CWAC = ( [Lossy & Lossless PCM|DXD, DSD512, MQA 352|384] + Filter ==> (DSD1024 | DXDx2 | MQA 352|384 ) * Preamp)) / ( [UPnP, DLNA, Airplay, Chromecast] ==> 802.x )
HOLISTIC: Incorporating the concept of holism, or the idea that the whole is more than merely the sum of its parts, in theory or practice. (Dictionary.com)
~ David Elias, March 2021
PS – Room For Vinyl: My setup includes an alternate analog input to the VLOT room delivery backbone that supports a turntable (Fluance RT85), phono stage/EQ (iPhono3-BL, read review here), tube preamp (iTube2) to deliver the analog signal over 14′ RCA unbalanced cables. I am using the excellently silent CIAudio PC•4 MKII Passive Controller to allow simple switching between the Pro iDSD music sources and LP’s playing as the VLOT RCA input with analog volume control. Yes more wires. Yes it’s worth it. There are and will be new wireless solutions to this type of added music source (analog vinyl/cassette/R2R). Looking forward to that next challenge.
- I discovered a condition where VLOT loses audio signal to the right channel (speaker). This occurs when the analog RCA audio path input to VLOT is is disrupted during an active connection (White color function indicator) by removing one or more of the RCA cables from either end. This is not a good idea anyway as it will cause loud pops/ground to come through the speaker depending on its volume setting. Still, restoring the unbalanced RCA connections at either end results in no audio in the right speaker. I thought I had cable or turntable wiring issues but that was not the case. Instead the correction I found was to just toggle the VLOT input choices through all options (Red/Toslink, Green/Coax, Blue/Bluetooth, back to White (RCA)) by pressing the “F” button. Audio playback then resumes through both speakers in stereo. This was reported to Starke Sound.
- Numerous posts online have been written about difficulties creating the WiFi connection for the Pro iDSD (set to Input “App”) to the local network. Many of today’s routers use WPS which is then a simple button (sometimes with PIN code) pressed on both the Pro iDSD (see #4 in diagram) and the router. This can establish a fast WiFi connection between the devices. Lacking WPS I found I could connect Pro iDSD to my 2.4GHz router frequency using the free Muzo app. I have better experience using the mConnect app for playback.
Even easier is to make use of Airplay on the iPhone directly from a streaming app. I use Spotify and find that even though it presents me with the Pro iDSD WiFi SSID on the first screen, I need to first select the “Bluetooth or Airplay” option below and then select the Pro iDSD by name. This quickly get a connection from the iPhone to the DAC/preamp and works seamless and allows easy connections from the iPhone. In JRiver (Win 10 x64) I see the Pro iDSD (set to Input “App”) as a DLNA server and select it with a single click to route playback there. I have no problem streaming DSD64 or any of my MQA or other PCM tracks to 24/192. Your WiFi congestion may vary.
All my streaming MP3-320 Spotify albums and playlists (“very high” music quality setting) is then GTO filtered and remastered for DSD1024 before output to headphones or amp/speakers. I found from Spotify support that they actually use OGG Vorbis which compresses better than MP3 (faster streaming) with, according to some, better sound than MP3
- Many of the technical details of the Pro iDSD are well presented here (a sales page I am not affiliated with): https://www.thecableco.com/components/digital/pro-idsd-headphone-amplifier.html
- I have had numerous delays with full operation of the Pro iDSD in the past requiring firmware updates (USB B connection from computer required) as well as a full motherboard replacement at no charge under warranty. Currently no errant issues are outstanding. Original unit did not ship with the infra red remote volume control but one was provided at no charge upon request.
Amplified Speakers (Stereo)
Starke Sound – VLOT
150W RMS/channel @ 4 ohm
Bluetooth 5.0, Coax, Toslink
Analog RCA Input
3 feet high x 6 inches
45Hz to 25kHz
Flat Speaker Wire Provided
iFi Audio – Pro iDSD
Simple RCA Connection to VLOT
Analog Tube / Solid State Preamp
DSD1024 Remastering All Audio
MQA to 24/352k and 24/384k
DXD and DXD x 2 to 768k
WiFi with DLNA/UPnP
The Quick Hookup
Unbox VLOT, attach Bluetooth antenna, Power On bottom switch, Press and Hold lighted power indicator on Left Speaker Top Panel. Begin to listen to extraordinary audio reproduction through the Starke Sound VLOT stereo pair over its Bluetooth 5.0 access from Smartphone or computer.
This is not an end result this is just the beginning, as described above. For best sound quality use the analog or digital audio inputs to VLOT connected to Pro iDSD or other hi-res DAC/Preamp.
Pro iDSD Recommended Setup
Contact David Elias for info and instructions on how to setup the Pro iDSD for optimal integration with Starke Sound VLOT or other speaker and amplifier combinations.