by James Wallace Harris, 6/19/21
I’m afraid I totally confused my friend Annie when she asked me to help her upgrade her music system to play her iTunes playlists simultaneously in multiple rooms. I made the mistake of excitedly telling her about Apple’s new Lossless Music. Explaining Hi-Res Music to your friends won’t be easy. Later, I realized I had forced poor Annie down a rabbit hole of abstraction and technology standards she really didn’t want to know.
All Annie wanted was to buy speakers that would work in a whole house configuration, and she thought she wanted them made by Bose. The speaker she loved was a Bose dock for her first iPhone. Regrettably, it became useless a few years ago when she upgraded her iPhone with a lightning connector. She still laments its loss. Her son bought her a bluetooth soundbar. It actually sounds better than her old Bose dock, but connecting to it hasn’t always been smooth. She had seen an ad for Bose speakers that could be bought for each room of the house and would play in unison, which became her dream music goal.
I should have said, “Sure, go get those Bose 300 or 500 speakers.” Instead I told her they wouldn’t work with Apple’s new Lossless Music. “Why is that?” she ask. I tried to tell her. I even demoed bluetooth, AirPlay, Spotify Connect, and Tidal Connect to illustrate the different ways to stream music and how they would be used. I also demoed compressed, lossless, and Hi-Res music. She was impressed with what she heard, and said she wanted to get a whole house speaker system that could do Hi-Res.
I really should have said right then, forget Hi-Res Music and just buy the Bose or Sonos speakers. Her son recommended Sonos. I like Bose and have a pair of 301s for my computer room, and Rtings.com gives the Bose 300 a slight edge over the Sonos One. See their recommendations for all home speakers. In this group they prefer the Sonos Move first, and Bose 500 second.
That’s when we fell into Alice’s Wonderland of configuring a Lossless system that she could play from her iPhone. I had to explain why bluetooth was out, and at a minimum she’d need equipment that supports AirPlay2, and even then it would only be CD quality at best, that the higher levels of Hi-Res and Dolby Atmos wouldn’t be possible with Bose or Sonos currently.
I also realized I might have falsely advertised what she could hear when I demoed everything on my Bluesound Powernode 2i and Klipsch floorstanding speakers. So I got my Amazon Echo Studio from my bedroom to show how it compared to the Klipsch/Bluesound performance. The Sonos One and Echo Studio are roughly comparable, although most reviewers rate the Sonos better. I bought the Echo Studio to try out Hi-Res and 3D music. I told Annie the Echo Studio with Amazon Music HD could play Hi-Res and 3D spatial music if she subscribe to Amazon Music Unlimited ($7.99 since she’s a Prime Member), and it would work in a whole house configuration with other Echo speakers. But again, this might be a distraction.
Actually, I was surprised by how well the Echo Studio sounded in my den. In my bedroom it sounds pretty good, especially paired with a second Echo Studio, but not nearly as great as a single Echo Studio in the den. Evidently, the den has great acoustics. Annie was very impressed with the Echo Studio.
It was here that I tried to explain that speakers sound different according to placement. And there’s a good chance she and I (we both turn 70 this year) won’t be able to hear the difference between MP3, CD, and Hi-Res music files. I, myself, have been chasing the Hi-Res dream for years, always thinking I’d find that Nirvana where Hi-Res music sounded as different as night and day over CD sound quality. I’ve never found this audio El Dorado. There have been times when I listened very intently and thought I was hearing things on SACD or with MQA that I hadn’t heard before, but I’ve never been sure if I wasn’t just hearing things I never previously heard because I hadn’t paid attention to it before.
I’m trying to convince Annie that the things that count are subscribing to a streaming music service, getting good speakers, finding the best place to put them, and playing music loud enough to hear the details. I believe Spotify is a better deal right now than Apple Music, Tidal, or Amazon HD because it’s interface is better, because of Spotify Connect, and Spotify is used so widely that articles about music often link to Spotify playlists. Plus selfishly, I want my friends to have Spotify so we can share our playlists. Spotify Connect support is almost universal, and that does away with the whole iPhone to music system connecting protocols like bluetooth and AirPlay. I have three streaming music systems in my house, and all three work with Spotify Connect. Only two work with AirPlay, and just one with MQA.
On the other hand, Annie has many years of songs purchased on iTunes. To switch to Spotify would require rebuilding all her playlists, and committing to $9.99 a month. I pointed out that the Amazon Echo Studios would work with Spotify, or if she wanted get Amazon Music Unlimited for $7.99 a month. However, iTunes doesn’t work with the Echo Studio.
Probably, the best thing for Annie would be the Bose 300 or 500 like she thought she wanted at first, or the Sonos. Then if she wanted now or later, subscribe to Apple Music for $9.99 a month. I’m guessing Apple will eventually offer something like Apple Connect, or AirPlay Connect and Sonos and other speaker makers will support Apple Lossless, but that means waiting to buy future products, or replacing her sound system again. And I think that’s probably a chimera now and in the future.
Apple Lossless Music is a great deal since it’s free with Apple Music, but only for people who have the DACs to support it. For most people, buying a portable DAC like a Audioquest Dragonfly or Helm Bolt DAC/AMP and a pair of good open back headphones would be the cheapest route to testing Hi-Res music. Many audiophiles already have this equipment, but for newbies, moving to Hi-Res Music will require a lot effort and money, and I’m not sure it’s worth it.
[Sorry, Annie, for all the confusion I caused.]