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PAR Opinion: High Resolution Audio (HRA) Gear Market Grows

Lend me your ear, and I’ll tell you a well-known secret: You don’t have to have your ear to the ground to realize that headphones, headphone amps and compact digital audio converters are a hot industry sector for companies of all sizes. Now, you have to separate the wheat from the chaff. I could talk your ear off about the pitfalls of lifestyle audio accessories, but I’d rather say this: If you have an ear for quality, there’s never been a better time to record, mix and/or listen via laptop.

While we’re waiting to see what Neil Young’s Pono download service/format/player entails, at least there are HDtracks and Acoustic Sounds Super HiRez, among others, helping proliferate high-resolution DRM-free albums. And while we can’t directly hear the benefits of “Mastered for iTunes” releases under all the compression, at least Apple’s requirement to deliver uncompressed tracks in 24-bit/96 kHz is promoting higher fidelity sessions (and hopefully the distribution of more advanced bit-rate masters at a later date, whether via download or Blu-ray). In early September 2013 the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) even threw its support behind the promotion of high-resolution audio (HRA) hardware, which it expects to be a trend at retail in 2014.

Laptops and personal digital audio players (DAPs) are increasingly more powerful, more capable of full-fidelity playback, and storage continues to go down in price. While no signal chain can fully compensate for garbage in, garbage out, there are more and more ways to assure you have a compact monitoring set-up that won’t trash your signal, break your bank or require you to remain tethered to a traditional mix station. It’s not too late to get ahead of the HRA trend, because gear to monitor mixes for and from the perspective of this more dynamic range-focused audience is already here.

I first realized nontraditional should be my new tradition when I ran across the OPPO Digital Inc. BDP-105, a $1,199 universal Blu-ray disc player and future-proofed digital audio hub. California-based OPPO Digital first carved out a niche in the home theater market as a producer of value-added universal players for A/V enthusiasts. As disc-based formats developed, so did each generation of OPPO’s players, which remain part of an increasingly small pool to support such legacy platters as HDCD, Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio. With the BDP-105, however, OPPO eclipses its consumer roots to deliver versatile reference-class analog audio output for stereo, multichannel and headphone playback of sources up to 24-bit/192 kHz.

From the front the BDP-105 doesn’t exhibit any of the hallmarks of commercial-grade audio components; there are no toggles, no meters, no potentiometers. The brushed aluminum faceplate, adorned with video-oriented logos, belies little of the unit’s usefulness in a project or professional studio setting. Turn the hefty steel chassis around, however, and not only will it reveal its solid build, but also it will expose I/O including an asynchronous USB 2.0 DAC, coaxial/optical and HDMI input, as well as WiFi/DLNA-compatible digital media server support.

As for outputs, there’s coaxial/optical, HDMI, plus one eight-channel ESS Sabre32 Reference ES9018 chip is devoted to the 7.1 analog channels, while a separate output section board assigns two channels to balanced XLR connectors, two to single-ended RCA connections, plus four to a headphone jack. Essentially a mini-patch bay, the BDP-105 can easily integrate into a project studio or larger facility to decode and/or route audio from discs as well as datastreams, including PCM via USB and S/PDIF plus such internally recognized formats as WAV, FLAC, ALAC, DSD (DFF/DSF), AIFF and more (lossy MP3, AAC, etc.).

Equipped with QDEO by Marvell video processing and comprehensive Dolby/DTS bitstream decoding, the BDP-105 can anchor a screening room/multichannel array in a postproduction facility or for professionals authoring concert video/music video compilation discs. And in a control room/at a project studio console, the BDP-105 can pair with powered monitors and/or headphones as a preamp, simplifying a personal stereo playback/test pressing preview station that rejects noise and honors fidelity. Jitter, crosstalk, THD+N and signal-to-noise ratio measurements all set benchmarks against which other similar products can be judged. In addition, the BDP-105 is equipped with a convention-cooled, fanless architecture for no extraneous noise to be picked up by sensitive mics. The one caveat is that because of the wealth of inputs/formats supported, a small video monitor is needed to navigate all menus.

If you can spare the space, though, the BDP-105 truly shines as a convenient transport for mobile production. It can provide a compact station where laptops can be tethered and mixdowns can be previewed off disc or a standalone drive without pollution in the signal chain. For instance, I have used the BDP-105 with a 13-inch 2.0 GHz i7 MacBook Air with 8 GB RAM and 256 SSD, AudioQuest interlinks (including a 5m Carbon USB, 3m Vodka OptiLink, 2m Victoria 3.5mm-to-RCA and Evergreen RCA-to-RCA cables), a pair of KRK VXT8 active studio monitors with Pro Co Excellines XLR cables, plus several top-tier headphones. And I’ve been totally pleased with the playback, whether from disc, off a USB 3.0 flash drive or outputting 24/96 and 24/192 FLAC downloads from HDtracks, as well as raw stems/virtual instruments from various DAW software via USB.

Listening primarily to the KRK monitors directly off the XLR outputs, I found the BDP-105 delivers an honest sonic profile that leans just slightly more forgiving than it does edgy. However, this forgiving presentation does not seem to dull the impact of individual instruments. Its lack of harshness and exaggeration is why the BDP-105 may benefit budget mixing/mastering tasks.

As for the headphone jack (which mutes the other outputs when engaged), its stacked DAC channels result in an intimate, tactile experience. Dedicated headphone amps can provide more high-powered, authoritative drive, but even at lower volume levels, the BDP-105 delivers extended nuances, down to the subtlest, lingering decays with no noise floor intruding. Unless you’re using the upper echelon of power-hungry headphones, or you prefer valve-fed tone, you’ll have no issue with the direct, accurate built-in output.

I tested the BDP-105 with several headphones, including the recently released AKG K712, a $499 entry in the dynamic open-back monitoring market that builds on a lineage with strengths in soundstage and instrument separation. With the K712, however, AKG has increased comfort and bass response by 3 dB in comparison to the K702.

Recently I’ve been doing much of my listening with the thoroughly impressive Jerry Harvey Audio JH13 Pro, a custom IEM with a slight bass emphasis to assure that it doesn’t neglect the “fun” in functional. The K712 has been engineered with a similar reasoning: respect the immediate, immersive qualities in a mix without masking subtle spatial cues or collapsing the virtual space, because that’s what a mix engineer needs to set levels and L/R balance with confidence. The K712 improves on musicality while remaining very transparent, really allowing any harshness in a track to be identified (especially in the 2 kHz – 8 kHz range). AKG headphones, unlike the aforementioned JH13 Pro, aren’t really intended for the most upfront to bottom heavy of genres (EDM, hip-hop, heavy rock), but they can excel when needing to check the realism of tone.

Of course, headphones like the K712 can sometimes demand just a little more juice to deliver every ounce of resolution and articulation, and the BDP-105 is capable of compensating for this thanks to its routing options. It can be used primarily as a transport fed into an external DAC and/or headphone amp, options I explored via several configurations. Schiit Audio (a company much more serious about affordable sound quality than its name) has recently updated the optional asynchronous USB and discrete analog output stages of its modular, upgradable Bifrost 24/192 DAC ($599 as tested with “USB Gen 2” and “Uber Analog” boards), which I paired with the $449 Lyr 6 watt dynamically adaptive hybrid amplifier and the AKG K712—though the amp’s tube stage goes against a neutrality doctrine.

For those no longer interested in physical media (CD, DVD, Blu-ray), Schiit Audio’s Bifrost/Lyr combo could be the bridge between laptop, headphones and RCA-plug speakers, though the BDP-105 still offers more versatility in both input and output options. And the BDP-105 isn’t the only prosumer convergence device of a sort that I’ve recently discovered in my quest for compact, versatile monitoring chains. South Korean company iriver has released two rechargeable battery-powered DAPs that cater to the advanced-resolution sector. The Astell&Kern family, featuring the $699 AK100 and $1,299 AK120, promotes the ability to provide “studio mastering quality sound” in a diminutive, cleanly machined aluminum block equipped with a small touchscreen, a rotary volume knob and two microSD slots (supporting 96 GB of storage).

Performing “bit-to-bit” decoding duties is one Wolfson WM8740 24-bit DAC chip in the AK100, offering low THD + Noise, 110 dB signal-to-noise, well-isolated L/R channels. And there are two of these DACs in the AK120 (one per channel, improving crosstalk, jitter reduction and SNR specs). Playback formats supported go far beyond an iDevice (though not beyond a laptop), including 16/44.1 to 24/196 WAV, FLAC, AIFF, ALAC, plus WMA, APE, MP3, OGG and AAC (as well as 64x DSD on the AK120). So, if a bunch of 24/96 mixdowns have been made for consideration, they can be carried to trial or shared through various headphones and/or desktop set-ups (both Astell&Kern players offer optical out).

The final handy function is the ability for either DAP to function as a DAC through both USB and mini Toslink, allowing you to play mixed-down files from the laptop or a CD transport at enhanced resolution without having to transfer them, or letting you monitor a DAW session through a more high-quality headphone jack. The AK100 output is actually aimed at reference-quality full-sized headphones of 40 – 300 Ohms, not low-impedance portable/in-ear monitor (IEM) options, while the AK120 reduces the potential for impedance-induced frequency shelving with multiple balanced armature custom IEMs. However, there are exceptions to the rule on both ends of the spectrum (the company’s site suggests some gear-matching examples from Audio-Technica, beyerdynamic, Denon and Shure).

As for the actual sound, having auditioned the AK100 I can say it properly conveys the sound source, though it may err a bit on the clinical side. What’s given up in ergonomics compared to an iDevice in made up for in I/O versatility, linear response and respectable headroom. Thanks to that mini Toslink, users can always use the AK100 as just a transport, feeding a set-up like the Bifrost/Lyr combo that allows for more fluid, detail-revealing headphones and speakers, though the player’s core strength is in offering a condensed bridge between high-resolution audio and portable monitoring.

OPPO and iriver are offering just two of many mobile-friendly multifunction solutions that allow professionals to preview what both critics and consumers will hear, and I love the capability to experience more bits using less kit.