Best Practice: Extending Hi-Res Audio to Portable Devices

By Peter Aylett, Archimedia Middle East. I have written before about the need for our industry to evolve beyond the home and into curating our customers’ digital lifestyles wherever they happen to be. As the mobile phone has evolved into the smartphone’, so our customers have been taking more and more of their digital lives with them in their pockets wherever they go. A massive part of this trend is people listening to music from their phones. This is born out when you look at the huge range of very profitable headphones on show at airport shops throughout the world. I recently attended the CanJam London 2015’ show which was organised by the online community. This was a show dedicated to all things headphones, IEMs (In Ear Monitors), and portable audio that showed a business opportunity way beyond the mediocrity of Beats headphones that have permeated the public psyche. There is more to mobile audio than MP3s. Much of the headphone market is dominated by bass-heavy models designed to smooth over the sound of poor quality files. There is, however, now a huge choice of headphones that bucks this trend and reveals CD quality and hi-res sources in all their glory. High quality streaming services such as Deezer and Tidal have revolutionised the mobile audio market by bringing much higher quality files to mobile devices. Unfortunately, the debate still rages whether these services are worth it’ in terms of sound quality but I wonder if most of the people who cannot hear a difference are simply listening on equipment that cannot resolve the higher quality. [caption id="attachment_10360" align="aligncenter" width="590"] Onkyo's HF Player App allows Hi Resolution content to be played on an iOS device.[/caption] As in any audio reproduction system, the sound will only be as good as the weakest link. The in-home music and audio distribution that you install probably now has the capability to stream content from one or more of the CD quality services discussed above. Extending this functionality and content onto your customer’s mobile devices is a great first step in curating their out-of-home digital experience. If you have a client who cares about audio quality, you may have already implemented high resolution content that is better than CD quality. Again, why restrict this to the home? Headphone amplifiers, DACs and DAPs The DAC (Digital to Analogue Converter) inside a smartphone or tablet is built down to a price. Whilst OK for a bit of casual listening, this hardware does not come close to releasing the potential of CD quality or above, music files. To help with this, consider an external DAC/Amp. The smartphone still holds or streams the content and provides the UI (User Interface) but the external DAC/Amp takes digital audio (via Lightning on an Apple iOS device, or USB on an Android device) and does a far better job of decoding and amplifying the signal. The OPPO HA-2 is a beautiful sounding example of one of these with a design and form factor created to complement a similarly sized phone. Combine this with Onkyo’s HF Player App and the humble iPhone becomes a Hi-Res audio capable device. [caption id="attachment_10361" align="alignleft" width="400"] The HA-2 from OPPO will greatly improve the sound quality from a smartphone.[/caption] The other option for taking high quality music on the road is to use a DAP (Digital Audio Player). These broadly come in two flavours. Ones that run on their own operating system that do not support streaming services, and ones that run on Android that do. The choice really depends on how your customer’s music collection is structured. If they have a large collection of music files that they have from either ripped CD or downloaded then a non-streaming capable DAP may be suitable. An example of these is the fantastic sounding and beautifully designed Questyle QP1r. If they need access to streaming services then a DAP running Android is the answer, then capable of running all Android compatible music apps. Headphones Headphones are classified as either open or closed back. Open back headphones generally give a better sense of space but both leak sound into the room, as well as allowing background noise from the room into the listener’s ears. This makes them only really suitable for at home listening. Closed back headphones seal over or around the ears to isolate them from the surroundings. Headphones targeted at airport and retail sales tend to have accentuated bass and poor resolution of details in order to cover up poor recordings. To get the best out of audio on the go, some manufacturers are now producing headphones that buck the Basshead’ trend to give a far more accurate and satisfying insight into the recording. OPPO’s PM3 and Audeze’s EL-8 Closed are examples of superb closed headphones that are suitable for portable use. Combine these with one of the DACs or DAPs mentioned above and you will be exposing your customers to a level of audio quality way beyond what is possible with the throw away ear buds’ supplied with most tablets and smartphones. [caption id="attachment_10364" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Audeze's EL-8 closed headphones are perfect for high quality listening on the move.[/caption] IEMs (In Ear Monitors) IEMs differ from the Ear Buds’ supplied with mobile devices as they fit into the ear rather than just sitting loosely in them. This means they provide excellent isolation from environmental noise. IEMs are available as either universal fit (where the tip can be changed to give the best in-ear fit) or custom fit (which are made for a specific individual using ear impressions taken by an audiologist). Again, the IEMs available at low cost in airports tend to be tuned for excessive bass. Companies such as Noble Audio and JH Audio make both universal and custom IEMs. Both these companies started out making IEMs for stage use by musicians but their products are now much coveted by anyone wanting exceptionally high quality music reproduction. One you have listened to a really high quality IEM driven from a decent source, it is difficult to ever listen to a pair of those throw away ear buds again! Conclusion The above is just the tip of the iceberg and a very brief introduction to the world of high-quality mobile audio. Whilst not an obvious product category for a custom integration company to offer, it is a great opportunity for you to start exposing your customers to exceptional audio quality wherever they are, and as an extension of the home system you have worked so hard to engineer. Even if you do not want to sell the hardware, a combination of you setting up your customer’s content so it is available on portable devices, with advising them on mobile audio hardware choices, will truly enhance their overall experience of a fully integrated entertainment experience. Peter Aylett is a world-renowned speaker and lecturer in residential technology, and the Technical Director at Archimedia, a multinational high-end residential integrator in The Middle East. He is also currently Chair of CEDIA’s International Technology Council Applied Content Action Team, and a regular contributor to HiddenWires.  

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