A Marriage of High-End Audio and iTunes
Audio manufacturers from across the board are finding ways to beef up the sound quality of low-res music.
January 11, 2011 by Lisa Montgomery

I’m no audiophile. I admit it. In fact, it wasn’t all that long ago that the only music I listened to was what happened to be broadcast by our one and only local rock station during my 10 minute commute into town. It’s not that I don’t like music; I love it, and I have the CDs to prove it—like about 300 of them—all neatly packed away in boxes.

The packing away of music is a fairly recent development.

Last year, I received as a gift from one of my home control manufacturer friends an iTouch. I started downloading, and downloading and downloading—music I grew up with; songs on the Top 40, and new stuff that until then had been completely off my radar screen. And here’s the really good part. I started listening again. A lot. So much so, that my 11- and 13-year old kids started complaining. Ear buds became a part of my daily dress code. And when I wasn’t wearing those buds I’d park my touch on a dock and hit play. Sure, the sound quality was pretty lousy, but I really didn’t care. My music—all of it—was right there at my fingertips. And if I wanted more, I just hit the iTunes icon and presto, another addition to my growing collection of pop, rock, hip hop, alternative, and yes, even a some classical stuff.

It’s now time to take the next step: Invest in a good quality pair of speakers. Why didn’t I do it sooner? Price had a lot to do with it. High-performance gear was way beyond my budget. Besides, the manufacturers seemed perfectly happy catering to their audiophile clientele. They’d sooner cut off their left arm than let an iTunes song play over heir pristine systems.

That’s all changing, though, as demonstrated by several manufacturers at the recent Consumer Electronics Show. They’ve embraced Apple and its legion of easy, fun and affordable technology by creating products that fuse the new, modern world of downloadable music with the high-end world of audio systems. Denon and Marantz, for example, both now offer AirPlay music streaming capability on select audio/video components. In a nutshell, it allows you to stream songs directly from the iTunes library on your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch right to their A/V receivers. The upgrade is just $50. Nice!

Other manufacturers, like Bryston, have developed products that leverage the growing list of high-res digital music sites. The company’s BDP-1 digital music player features a USB port. You download high-res 24-bit music onto a thumbdrive, plug it into the port, and play the music. There’s even an app that lets you navigate and control the music via an iPad or iPhone.

Wadia is doing something similar, with its 171 iTransport system, which works like an iPod dock on steroids. You plug your iPhone (maybe an iPad in the future?) into the dock and the system’s high-quality audiophile grade outputs do their thing. “We’ve taken our expensive technology and distilled into a product for the younger generation of listeners,” says Wadia president John Schaffer. I’m no spring chicken and I still loved it.

Paradigm was crowing about “the new generation of music listeners,” as well. The company unveiled a new brand of products targeted at iPod, iPad and iPod touch users and gamers. The company’s new A2 powered bookshelf speakers features a built-in interface for Airport Express.

One of the big benefits of having your music in a mobile device is being able to take it with you wherever you go. Speaker manufacturers are keying in on the appeal of “portability” by developing pint-sized speakers that are easy to reposition and move. This doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned their high-performance audio roots. Polk’s Blackstone TL250 speaker system is an example of delivering “big speaker sound without the big speaker,” says Polk audio line manager Al Baron. “By using many of the same driver elements found in Polk’s reference LSi series, our engineers created palm-of-the-hand sized speakers with performance that belies its size of price tag.” ($749.95 for four satellite speakers and once center-channel speaker.)

But who really sold my on the idea of small speakers was Focal. The company’s new Bird loudspeaker system ($995) sounds amazing. The speakers are tiny, just under 8 inches high and 5 inches wide. They connect to the Power Bird, which functions as an amplifier, DAC and subwoofer… and with the supplied wireless dongle, interfaces seamlessly with an iPhone, iTouch and iPad.

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Lisa Montgomery - Contributing Writer
Lisa Montgomery has been writing about home technology for 15 years, with a focus on the impact of electronics on a modern lifestyle.

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