In recent months there have been some significant changes in the world of High-End Audio. In particular, the latest version of Bluetooth technology, known as Bluetooth 5, is dramatically improving speeds, range, and best of all, audio quality. So if you thought that Bluetooth speakers were just a convenience because they were wireless, now they are enabling manufacturers to come up with quality audio products that rival wired speaker systems.
There have been other changes in the audio landscape. Industry support continues to grow for Hi-Res audio, with more devices now capable of playing lossless music files, which have far better fidelity than heavily compressed MP3s. If you are wondering whether a device supports Hi-Res, just look for one of the variants of the black and yellow Hi-Res logo. We’ve seen headphones, receivers, and speakers that all support Hi-Res. And we’ve seen a growing collection of Hi-Res portable players led by such names as Sony and Astell&Kern. Another factor now popularizing Hi-Res is the advent of Hi-Res streaming services led by Tidal. You can find a good discussion of Hi-Res audio and a list of streaming services here.
A third factor in the improvement of audio is the development of voice-assisted speakers equipped with Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Voice Assistant. In recent months we’ve seen new products like Sony’s S500G Smart Speaker move the focus from simply being voice-enabled to being voice-enabled with better quality.
We’ve also seen improvements in what has often been the kludgy process of connecting a music player to speakers using your home Wi-Fi network instead of Bluetooth. Before the latest iterations of Bluetooth, this meant a much better quality connection, but in many cases getting there was not half the fun. Or any of the fun. The first in the space to master the process was Sonos, which still focuses more on ease of setup and connectivity than it does on music quality.
Finally, these days so many of us are immersed in the entertainment experience surrounding our big screen televisions. While standalone home entertainment speaker systems are still around, increasingly folks are opting for a high-quality soundbar either with or without a sub-woofer. In recent years, Dolby Labs created a technology called Atmos which makes huge advances in the projection of surround sound. When they first hit the market, the price of these Atmos systems was jaw-dropping. Newer models are still pretty pricey, but you won’t need to take out a second mortgage to buy one.
Portable Hi-Res Music Player
Fiio 7X Mark II As more people discover the joys of Hi-Res or lossless music files, they’re making the move from MP3 players to portable Digital Audio Players (DAP). The space has been dominated by Astell&Kern and Sony. But other players are moving in, and not just with entry-level players. China-based Fiio has been in the market with some entry-level players for several years, but with the Fiio 7X Mark II it’s taking aim at the big players with a high-quality player that’s a fraction of the price of some of the higher-priced spreads. The X7 comes with 64GB of internal memory along with two micro-SD card slots (the slots are more like smartphone SIM holders that are protected from the elements). The X7 has some features we’ve not generally seen elsewhere including both optical and coax outputs. It also has separate headphone jacks for both 3.5mm and balanced 2.5mm outputs.
It will play just about all of the current crop of lossless formats but is not able to reproduce the highest quality MQA streams (possibly in a future firmware update).
The device is made from a block of CNC aluminum and has a rock-solid feel and very attractive industrial design. Controls are intuitive. The system is built on Android, so you can get apps from the Google Play Store that will be useful in connecting to other devices. There are a number of audio adjustments and enhancements available including a built-in graphic equalizer. You can further customize the sound with VIPER additions, some of which are including others, like super-bass, are in-app purchases for a few pennies.
The Fiio 7X Mark II comes with both a clear case and a faux-leather case. A screen protector is factory-applied.
Sound quality is terrific, and frankly, rivals the quality we’ve heard from devices three times the price. And, oh yes, the price is just about $650 at Amazon.com. Not cheap, but we think well worth it.
Noise Cancelling Hi-Res Wireless Headphones
Sony WH-1000XM2 Sony was one of the first companies to figure out how to combine noise canceling with Hi-Res. Not an easy task since the two technologies sometimes appear at odds. The previous version of these phones, the MDR 1000X won the Tech50+ Boomie Award for best headphones. We think the newer model may follow suit. Among the new features: An app that will let you adjust many of the features including noise canceling levels and adaptive sound control, improved sensitivity for making adjustments by swiping the outside of the earcups, adaptive sound that will adjust based on your activity and outside ambient noise levels, and the ability to adjust the phones so you can hear things like airport announcements even as you listen to music. They do a good job of reproducing lossless tracks, despite the noise cancellation, and provide a good balance between solid audio playback and noise canceling technology. Price from Sony is almost $350. Amazon price is only about $2 cheaper.
JBL Everest Elite 750NC Wireless Noise Canceling Headphones These headphones feature up to 20 hours of listening on a single charge, a little less in Adaptive Noise Cancelling (ANC) mode. A 3-hour quick recharge, an echo canceling microphone for hands-free calls, compact hard carrying case and flat-fold design make these a good traveling companion. They come in a choice of three metallic finishes and colors. The “My JBL Headphones App” features include over-the-air updates that future-proof these headphones, and TruNote™ Auto Sound Calibration that personalizes the audio performance based on ear cup fit. The sound tends toward the bass but overall these are good phones, that are less expensive than top-end models from Sony or Bose. They are available from either JBL or Amazon for $229.95.
Audio-Technica QuietPoint 40BT Wireless Noise Cancelling Earbuds These wireless headphones reduce distracting background noise by up to 90% while delivering solid sound reproduction. The Bluetooth functionality, coupled with an in-line mic and controls, lets you operate hands-free, wirelessly answering/ending calls, controlling music playback and adjusting the volume on Bluetooth enabled devices. The headphones can be wirelessly connected to two devices simultaneously, allowing you to shift seamlessly between your phone and tablet, phone and laptop or any other pair of Bluetooth enabled devices. The cable connecting the headphones loops from ear to ear around the back of your neck so you don’t have to deal with any dangling cords. However, the headphones also come with a detachable 1.2 m (3.9′) cable with 3.5 mm stereo mini-plug that can be used to create a standard wired connection – helpful in areas where Bluetooth wireless operation is prohibited or for when the power from the internal DC3.7 lithium polymer battery gets low. However, fully charged these will provide up to 13 hours of playback. These are a good solution for travelers who may not want the bulk of traditional over-the-ear headphones. Price at Amazon is $128.
Cambridge Audio SE-1 In-Ear Headphones These in-ear headphones, which the rest of us might call earbuds, don’t offer noise cancellation. They don’t offer Bluetooth. But they do offer great sound at a reasonable price in a very creative package. Cambridge set out to make the SE1’s small, compact, lightweight and comfortable. Cambridge has included seven pairs of buds, some rubber, and some foam, to ensure a snug fit. The company touts its use of beryllium in the diaphragms of the SE-1’s 8mm drivers, a rare material it says is lighter than aluminum but stiffer than titanium. In terms of sound quality, unlike many other earbuds, the SE-1s are pretty much colorless, allowing you to hear the music the way it was recorded. If you want to alter it, you can always use the equalizer on your playback device. Price is just about $85 at Cambridge Audio.
Wireless Music Systems / Speakers
It wasn’t all that long ago that almost no one would have considered comparing wireless speaker systems with traditional wired models. Sonos took the first major step by making it easy to set up a wireless system building on your home’s Wi-Fi network instead of Bluetooth. But now the sound quality for Bluetooth has improved and so has the ease with which you can to connect to wi-fi. We looked at three different systems that have larger and smaller versions. And one that stands on its own.
Como Audio Internet Radios – Como Duetto Como Audio is the latest project from legendary audio designer Tom DeVesto who has spent a lifetime creating classic designs harkening back to the iconic KLH line. At its heart, the Duetto represents some of the best of retro-styling coupled with rich sound, and the latest technology. It begins with a 30-watt-per-channel amplifier driving a pair of 19mm soft dome tweeters and two 3-inch long-throw woofers. The list of features is impressive. Well, actually overwhelming. Here is just a sampling:
- Analog clock display: Time/date will update automatically.
- Large TFT color display (3.2″ for Duetto, 2.8″ for Solo): Reproduces DAB and Spotify album art and station logos from Internet radio and DAB stations.
- Remote control: Controls many major functions yet remains compact.
- Free iOS & Android app: Use your phone or tablet to change volume, source, presets, equalization, tune stations, and control multi-room functions.
- Internet Radio (20,000+ free stations and podcasts from around the world).
- Multi-room capable: Allows you to place Como products throughout your home and control them all with their app. Have up to 5 units per zone (number of zones depends on user’s Wi-Fi network).
- Bluetooth 4.1 A2DP with aptX audio: Bluetooth allows wireless music streaming, displaying artist and song information, while aptX provides CD-like sound quality over Bluetooth (from enabled devices).
- NFC: Eliminates the need for traditional Bluetooth pairing and connecting (using enabled devices).
- Spotify Connect: Allows Spotify’s 30+ million worldwide premium subscribers to stream from 30+ million songs directly from Spotify’s servers, not from a phone or tablet, resulting in uninterrupted music and maximizing battery time.
- Music player allows easy navigation and playback through a USB or network-shared library of music files including AAC+, MP3, WMA, WAV, FLAC, and ALAC.
- USB input: For music playback from a USB flash drive and other mass storage devices.
- Wirelessly stream music from your computer via your existing Wi-Fi network without the need for separate bridges or modules.
- An optical hi-res input to connect audio from a TV resulting in superior sound over your TV speakers.
- Two high res audio auxiliary inputs support up to 24 bit/192KHz.
And yes, it is a clock radio with two alarms. It’s available in four different cabinet finishes for $399 either direct from Como Audio or through Amazon.com.
Just as with the Duetto, this has a huge feature set, complete with a telescoping antenna so you can hear local FM radio (sorry, no AM unless it’s on the Internet as well.
Price is the same as that for the Duetto, $399 from Como Audio.
Riva Audio Wand and Arena and Festival Music Systems If the products from Como are all about a rich elegance, that’s at home in the bedroom. The Festival from Riva reflects the in-your-face big sound of founder Rikki Farr, rock producer and promoter and audio designer for rock groups like The Who. I first heard the Riva Wand in a big hotel suite in Manhattan, where I couldn’t believe how the sound from this one speaker made me feel like I was in the middle of a live concert. You can read our review of the Riva Wand Festival here. Just to clear up any confusion Riva Audio is the creator of the products. The product line is called Riva Wand. The big speaker system is the Festival. Its kid brother is the Arena.
At the heart of the Festival is a patented technology called Trillium which makes it sound like a single speaker is really a complete stereo system. Sounds like magic? That may be why they call it the Wand. You can add more units to the mix for either a huge sound in a single room or sound throughout the house. It has a ton of connection options. It will play just about any format, but I was very impressed with how well it did with live Hi-Res recordings, blasting out 200 watts of power. You will want to get the Riva Wand app (Android and iOS) which acts as a remote control and facilitates easy set up of wi-fi and other options. Price is $499 at Amazon. But really, this is not your father’s Bluetooth speaker. Unless of course, your father was a rock promoter.
Riva Wand Arena The Arena has many of the same functions and features as the Festival. It’s more compact and has an optional battery pack that’s good for 20 hours of music playback. It has the same Trillium technology that creates a stereo sound from a single speaker. It has about a quarter of the power of the Festival, 50 watts. You can also make the Arena part of a multi-room music system. Price at Amazon is $249.
Cambridge Audio YoYo Speakers Cambridge is a British nameplate best known for high-end speakers, receivers, network streaming players, and generally big and relatively high-priced hardware. With its two YoYo speakers, the (S) and the YoYo (M), the company is coming into the entry-level market with the message that these aren’t just Bluetooth speakers; they are Bluetooth speakers designed by audio engineers. The YoYo (M) is sold as a stereo pair for $349. You can read our complete review here. We found these speakers to be a real snap to set up and pair with our iPhone and with a Sony Hi-Res Walkman. The sound is much bigger than its size would lead you to expect, and sound quality was rich across the entire audio spectrum with no discernible distortion. The speakers feature a built-in rechargeable battery that’s good for 20 hours of playback. And one of the things about which Cambridge is most proud is the custom fabric used as the covering for the speakers made by Marton Mills which are acoustically-transparent and treated to repel dirt, water and unnecessary wear and tear.
Cambridge YoYo (S) The (S) stands for small, but despite its stature, it delivers a broad sound. Like the YoYo (M) it is covered with a worsted wool fabric from Yorkshire weavers Marton Mills, giving it a bit of a classy look. It has a rechargeable battery that’s good for 14 hours of playback time. The controls are on the top panel, including gesture control for volume and switching tracks. Between the stain repellant fabric and the gesture control, this speaker will feel at home in the kitchen, relatively safe from smudges and smears. It comes in four different colors. Price is just about $180 at Amazon, making it a very reasonable purchase.
Princeton Audio Site:1 We try very hard to avoid hyperbole in our product reviews and descriptions. But I can’t find any other word other than “unique” to describe the Site:1 speakers from Princeton Audio of Princeton, Wisconsin, not Princeton, New Jersey. When I first took them out of the box my impression was that they would have been right at home with “Flash Gordon,” a retro look in rich wood with controls that remind me of a 1930’s movie version of a spaceship. The magnetic grill echoes that, as well as the somewhat quirky (not necessarily a bad thing) control wheel that regulates pairing, play mode, and volume, all signaled by an attractive array of LEDs. The wheel takes a little bit of learning. But it’s a fun experience. The only other control is the on/off switch in the back of the cabinet. Princeton makes the speakers with solid wood cabinets, delivering the kind of rich sound you might expect from such solidly crafted beginning. They come in cherry, black walnut, mahogany, and maple. The company says each wood offers its own sound. This is designed for Bluetooth connectivity. You can easily pair two of them for stereo, though I was pretty pleased with the sound from just one. It also has a 3.5mm audio input so you can connect to a smartphone headphone jack (sorry Apple). Depending on your choice of wood prices range from $359 to $399 direct from Princeton Audio.
The Video Experience
Many of us consume much of our audio while also consuming video. Big Screen televisions are enticing. But television speakers have often left something to be desired: good sound. Surround sound systems with 5 or more speakers are one solution. But they are not always easy to set up. Soundbars give you much of the gain without very much pain. And they’ve been getting better all the time.
ZVOX – SB500 43.9″ Soundbar with built-in subwoofers – At more than 3 1/2 feet long this soundbar delivers a lot of sound. Some systems come with a subwoofer that is often difficult to place. But the ZVOX SB500 has subwoofers already built-in. Among its broad array of features:
- Works well with TVs from 50”- 90”.
- Can be wall-mounted, placed upright on furniture, or placed “flat” on furniture.
- Room-filling 3D sound from a single aluminum cabinet.
- AccuVoice® feature uses hearing aid technology to deliver ultra-clear dialogue.
- Bluetooth wireless music streaming from your phone or tablet.
- Dual built-in subwoofers produce great bass without external subwoofer.
- Works with your current remote control.
Many reviewers think this is the best sounding soundbar for the money, delivering a solid bass response in a slim package.
As we age many of us have trouble making out dialog while watching television. The ZVOX SB500 has AccuVoice technology, the same technology used in hearing aids to help make the dialog sound clearer and less muffled. For the 50+ generation, this alone helps set this model apart. It’s available on Amazon for $376.71.
JBL Bar 3.1 with wireless subwoofer – This soundbar offers a dedicated center channel aimed at improving the quality of dialog. It offers room-filling sound in an attractive package that can be wall-mounted. It does Bluetooth streaming and is specifically geared to the UHD/4K experience with three HDMI inputs so you can connect all your 4K devices. It has a separate subwoofer and is wireless so you don’t have to worry about stringing unsightly wires. Available on Amazon for $499.95
Sometimes you may not want to fill the room with sound while you’re watching television. Sometimes your spouse, children, or others may not want you to do it. One solution is to use headphones with a wireless transmitter attached to the audio output of your television. We’ve tried a number and found they don’t always deliver a great sounding experience. Sennheiser has developed a “bring-your-own headphones” solution. The Sennheiser Flex 5000 system comes with a high-quality wireless transmitter and a receiver that fits in the palm of your hand and connects with your favorite headphones. Sennheiser provides earbuds and does offer matching headphones. But I’m really fond of some of my headphones and now I can use them to get great quality while watching television, without bothering anyone else. The system also provides adjustable settings for your own personal dialog and ambient noise preferences. You can read our complete review here. Price on Amazon is $199.95