A Small Audio Saga – Part Two – The Winds of Change

A FEW MONTHS ago, as outlined in part one of this blog (here), I was doggedly entrenched in the “dock at all costs” mindset. With all the righteous anger of a puritan, I wanted good sound quality, virtually universal interchangeability, the ability to charge my phone and to still be able to listen to music. My Pro-Ject iPod dock did the job for me and that’s where my iPod and iPhone lived most of the time when I was listening to music that originated on my hard drives. At the time, I couldn’t quite get my head around why Samsung offered so many wireless ways to connect to its DA-E750 iPod dock. In my mind, the dock was the perfect connection, so we could all happily forget about the rest.

Then I got my grubby paws on Sony’s NS-510 (reviewed here) and Logitech’s Boombox (reviewed here). These reasonably priced wireless speaker systems prompted something of an epiphany in the way I listen to music. They weren’t exactly hi-fi in terms of their sound quality – a decent mini-system would teach them both a good lesson in that regard. But when it came to ease of use and the ability to partner them with a massive range of devices, they were all over the old-school dock.

WDF-PandoraThe real key to their effectiveness (and to the paradigm shift in my listening habits) is having the source in my hand, so it also becomes the remote control. With my phone connected to the NS-510 or the Boombox, I was free to explore the practically limitless selection of music stored on servers provided by Spotify, ShoutCAST and best of all, Pandora. I was also able to swap between them at will, either widely ranging through a genre or drilling down to a specific artist or a group of artists with a similar style of music.

Did I mention that this music is in most cases totally ad-free. It’s DJ free too, so listening to the boring yammering of the jocks or the unending commercials became a thing of the past. Believe me, once you’ve experienced ad-free radio for any length of time, you just can’t go back.

So as it turns out, I’m getting quite addicted to phone based internet radio. I’ve only played three or four CDs in the last two weeks purely for pleasure – I still spin them regularly for review purposes of course. I’ve barely used my iPod Classic or referred to the songs on my iPhone for a while, but my iPhone is locked on Pandora for hours and hours every day. I’m discovering artists that I’ve never heard of (how on earth did I miss O.A.R.?) and I’m hearing versions of songs that are amazing, particularly the many live versions of familiar tracks that are stored on a server in the cloud somewhere.

For example, I had Dave Matthews Radio on Pandora playing for about five hours today while I worked and didn’t need to skip a single track. The stream just segued between similar artists and kept me involved. Sometimes the next track is predictable, sometimes not. but the flow is always fun.

The last few artists were:
Tom Petty live
Dave Matthews Band
O.A.R. live
Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds live
Dave Matthews
Dave Matthews live
Mumford & Sons
Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds live
O.A.R. live
Counting Crows
Jack Johnson
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Pearl Jam live (a version of ‘Daughter’ I’ve never heard before)
Bob Marley
Sister Hazel acoustic live
Jack Johnson

I couldn’t buy all those CDs without becoming a bit too much of a Dave Matthews freak or breaking the bank, so Pandora is basically a gateway to hearing some cool music. When I find something I like, I just add it to the list on my phone for later purchase. All the artist information is right there in the App and Google is a few swipes away if I want to know more.

Best of all, Pandora runs a massive buffer on the audio stream. The music will keep playing for minutes even if the cellular or Wi-Fi connection is lost, so it plays without skipping as I drive around Auckland, even on Vodaphone’s very average 3G network. Plug the phone into my car stereo and hey presto! No more local stations playing the same old, same old and no more ads. It even streams perfectly in the local supermarket and at the gym.

The Pandora streams are very limited in terms of bitrate. As the company puts it: “Pandora on the Web plays 64k AAC+ for free listeners and 192k for Pandora One subscribers. All in-home devices play 128k audio, and mobile devices receive a variety of different rates depending on the capability of the device and the network they are on, but never more than 64k AAC+.”

So I’m running a 64kbps stream into a more than capable hi-fi system or into some very serious earphones (Sony’s XBA-4 or Logitech UE 900) but that doesn’t make me insane. Despite the low bitrates, the audio quality isn’t bad at all. I’m not settling down in reviewer mode, I’m just enjoying music and while there’s nowhere near as much top end sparkle, image depth or raw detail as there is on CD, this wonderfully diverse music is keeping me fully entertained.

QED uPlay Plus Bluetooth receiver
QED uPlay Plus Bluetooth receiver

Which brings us to one of the best little audio components I’ve ever had in my system, the key to my Bluetooth bliss – QED’s tasty uPlay Plus Bluetooth receiver. I’ll cover this gadget in more detail in part three of this series. ASHLEY KRAMER

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