A streaming dilemma – hi-fi used to be so easy!

Musings on a week of listening, watching and the rest of it. This week GARY STEEL auditions a streaming preamp and loses his self-confidence.

I spent a lot of time last week straining to find wee slabs of time to audition a streamer/preamp that a local dealer wanted me to check out. I can see why he was keen, as it’s the same brand as the rather lovely power amp he sold me last year, and it’s also an almost perfect match, visually if not sonically.

I’d actually had it sitting gathering dust for months. The thing is, I had no idea how to get it up and running. German audiophile company AVM make quality, precision products but their instruction manuals aren’t exactly laced with easy to understand, intuitive language. And the thing is, with old-fashioned stereos and their analogue inputs and outputs I can more or less figure out what goes where, if I get out my handy torch to blaze a light on the dark side of the gear and squint hard enough with my failing eyes. But all this digital malarky just defeats me.

 

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I did try. Several times over the past few months, in fact. And I just couldn’t figure it out. This left me feeling rather depressed and hopeless. It ate away at my self-confidence. Could it really be that hard?

Well, I’ve just never used Coax and Optical cables before. And although I knew I needed a network cable (otherwise known as Ethernet) and that I needed to find a super long one to extend from the streamer all the way around my wall to my router on the other side of the room, I had no idea where exactly to connect it. As it turned out, I needed to plug it into my Mesh extender, not the router. Who knew?!

Luckily, I had a hi-fi saviour in the form of local Northland hi-fi enthusiast Mark Loveridge, who runs the Hi-Fi Downunder Facebook page. The niggling peculiarities of the AVM Evolution SD 3.2 preamp/dac/streamer defeated even Mark on his first visit, but with more time on his hands he got all the fundamentals going within an hour or so. As the unit had previously been used in someone’s HT system and one of the analogue outputs was set to full volume, Mark had to figure out how to fix this potentially speaker-damaging anomaly. It turned out to be a simple reset but it was quite the effort to find the relevant instruction. There’s still one output that just won’t work but at least the thing is singing now, at last. Music! Non-stop! Techno-pop! (Or something).

Over the next couple of hours Mark mostly perused hi-res streaming service Qobuz for tracks that would show up the streamer’s abilities and whether the system was working nicely together. For some reason (another odd anomaly) we couldn’t get the streamer to play files any higher than FLAC, but that didn’t seem to matter much – the real bravura audiophile tracks sounded incredible regardless.

For me, one of the most fun things in the world is to listen to good music on a good stereo with some mates, preferably ones who don’t chatter away incessantly and are happy to just enjoy the company while deep-listening to the music. Some of Mark’s selections weren’t to my personal taste, but that didn’t matter. Over my 40 years of reviewing albums I’ve developed an interest in listening to music that I don’t especially like, and I enjoy putting myself in someone else’s mindset. Often, I can find things to enjoy in music that isn’t necessarily my cup of tea. On the other hand, some of it really stroked my aural erogenous zones, and as so often happens at sessions with other hi-fi freaks, there were a few tracks that I enjoyed so much that I now want to hear more by those artists.

I have to confess that most of the time I’m a beat freak when it comes to music, and tend to gravitate towards music with either great (organic) percussion, or beautifully programmed beats. So it was an unexpected pleasure to have Mark select a bunch of beatless and often acoustic tracks where the timbre and texture and overall soundscape was freed to do its thing. Note to self: listen to more acoustic and ambient music! Which isn’t to say that the selections were all “soft”. Mark loves it loud, as I do, and even many of the acoustic-oriented selections sounded wonderful with the volume cranked up. We also listened to some pounding electronic selections that really tested out the bass abilities of my Martin Logan Summit speakers. I tend to forget my own sense of what’s too loud and often get gun-shy when I’m on my own, but Mark showed me that I really shouldn’t be timid when it comes to volume, and that the system can take a lot more punishment than I would imagine. A lot more punishment than my 64-year-old ears, as it happens.

The streamer/preamp? Well, in the week I’ve been using it, as a preamp I’ve found that it does some things incredibly well but that there are things I don’t like about it. It has a very tight, controlled bottom end and loads of detail in the mids and highs, regardless of whether I’m pumping Qobuz or my trusty Yamaha SACD player through it. At times, I’m hearing so much new content in my music that it almost feels like a remix! In contrast, my trusted Rotel preamp has a bit of flab on its bottom end and at times I feel it could use a little more detail in the mids and highs. On the other hand, the Rotel has a beautifully transparent top and is very pleasant and spacious to listen to. On some selections, the AVM’s treble is so sharp and hard that I can feel it tweaking the nerve-endings that cause my tinnitus. Some things benefit from this boost in treble: for instance, guitar-mangling can sound really mean (in a good way) and in-yer-face. Other things don’t sound so good. I’ve found that male voices (in the tenor range) can sometimes have a metallic-sounding edge to them. For some time I owned a Bel Canto D-Class power amp that was gorgeous but lacked edge. I’ve found that replacing it with the AVM power amp I’ve got just the right amount of treble energy and dynamics, so I’m tempted to stick with what I’ve got. But of course, that leaves me without the convenience of a streamer. Oh, the woes of modern living!

A few examples of what I’ve listened to and how the selections sounded, then. The mastering of Jeff Buckley’s seminal Grace album is a little bit flinty but generally sounds dynamic and his voice is just incredible. ‘Lover, You Should Have Come Over’ is a great example of how he can build up the drama of a song along with a fine supportive performance by his band. But for my ears, when he’s really putting the throttle down, the sound of his voice had a slightly piercing, metallic sheen through the AVM.

In contrast, Monolake’s ‘Perpetuum’ – a classic slice of German high-gloss techno/electronica – sounded incredible whizzing from speaker to speaker and everywhere between and behind and way to the sides as well.

The more I listened to more bamboozled I became, not trusting my own ears. So I got the wife in for a second pair of ears. First, we listened to one of her prized Holly Cole albums, Romantically Helpless.  An accomplished jazz interpreter of great songs, her recordings are always beautifully engineered. The detail was incredible and the acoustic bass sounded luscious and natural on ‘One Trick Pony’. But we’re both used to hearing her deep, throaty voice sounding big and without a hint of digital brightness. On the AVM her voice took on a certain edginess; nothing too alarming but it sounded a little thinner than through the Rotel.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJfj-0RoyTo

For a bit of classic rock I pulled out the fabulous remaster of King Crimson’s 1969 progressive masterpiece, In The Court Of The Crimson King. ‘Epitaph’ is useful for its canny combination of fingerpicked acoustic guitar, incredible drumming and fabulously dynamic, swelling Mellotron. Once again, it sounded great, but when the Mellotron reached its fever pitch, it was all just a bit too sharp and intense for my ears.

A Certain Ratio’s ‘Flight’ has long been a favourite of mine, with its beautiful, haunting, spacious recording. Released in 1980 on 12-inch, it’s a record I always come back to. But oddly, the Qobuz stream I chose sounded terrible. It was just all edge and no bass. So instead, I played the CD version as well as my original 12-inch, and they both sounded lovely, with the cavernous ambience all present and correct along with the deep bass and rolling drums. The only hint of harshness came from the sharp jabs of the rhythm guitar.

Finally, for a dash of 21st Century R&B, we pumped up the volume to Janet Jackson’s sorely underrated Discipline album, a record with heaps of slam, punishing booty bass and real vocals (albeit a bit processed and very layered). ‘Feedback’ is a great example and it once again sounded exactly like it should, just a bit more shiny and sharp around the edges, but not too much so. But on this selection, I wanted to keep on turning up the volume.

Could it just be that my ears have become too sensitive over time? Does my room need some acoustic treatment? Or is the AVM streamer/DAC just a bit too toppy for my taste, on some tracks, despite having a lot to recommend it?

The thing about hi-fi is that a lot of it does come down to one’s own preferences. We literally do hear slightly different things when we hear a track, just as a competing team of wine tasters will be relying on their very individual taste buds.

But I suspect that – while the two AVM components probably work very well together – that the brittle top-end I’m hearing might sound perfectly fine on a more mellow pair of conventional speakers, rather than a pair of acutely analytical electrostatics. Or it could be that with two young children exposing me to loud high frequency screaming, my ears have become a little sensitive to “the top end”.

Regardless of my ultimate verdict on the AVM, I’m enjoying having an excuse to play some favourite tracks that I haven’t heard for a while, and occasionally, I’ve intended to listen to only one song, and ended up playing a whole album. (The terrific self-titled 1971 debut by Emerson Lake & Palmer still smashes it!)

My difficulty in setting up the streamer does make me wonder, however. Do most people find this stuff easy? Or is the complexity of setting up (and maintaining/altering settings) a real barrier to the general public getting into 21st century hi-fi? Admittedly, I’m probably the most technically deficient hi-fi reviewer in the known universe. But even using the app is a bit of a chore. Unlike the trusty old remote control, the streamer uses an app on your phone or tablet, and while you can choose and play Qobuz from the app, it’s quite horrible to use. (There is an optional remote, a huge ungainly thing with TINY buttons that is virtually impossible to use in low-light conditions.) What hi-fi buffs tend to do is buy a subscription to Roon, a service that effectively manages your selections and sets them up in a nice way, whether they’re on a streaming service or a hard drive. So that’s an extra cost, and you’ve then got to organise a server to use Roon effectively. Even thinking about it exhausts me!

 

  • Musings on a week of listening, watching and the rest of it is an occasional diaristic blog by Gary Steel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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