PSP + Airtunes + Coverbuddy = Dance Party – Listening Test

Toddler_o_Geek and I danced until bedtime on Sunday night.

We started with Gnarls Barkley (he didn’t make us move) and quickly switched to Futureheads. I hit, my daughter stomped. I made the mistake of going towards her instead of just side to side, then we went into full chase mode – she was still dancing (a series of jerky kicks, waving her arms and jumping like a frog) and she screamed across the room so fast as you can browse the furniture. We finished with “Alms” before bath time (I was scaring her with my expert lip syncing at this point).

I can have fun dancing because I don’t have to wonder if the music sounds good or not. I don’t have to go upstairs to find a new CD in my cabinet and then eject the CD that’s playing and load the new one. My musical wishes are answered by pressing left, up, right, down and X. I control my entire music collection through my Sony PSP and Coverbuddy on my Mac Mini. Comfort and fun outshine audiophilia and fit. My initial experience with this music server was not that fun.

I mentioned in the last wiring post that my Taddeo Digital Antidote, while excellent for CD playback, mutated the Airtunes signal. At first I thought the Airtunes streaming had fundamental flaws (we are dealing with MP3 and AAC playback on a hi-fi system). Then I was lucky enough to hear one of Steve Albini’s best designed albums, Bedhead’s Transaction De Novo. The first track, “Exhume”, begins with long, buzzing electric bass notes. As I have listened to the song many times through headphones and original CD, I knew the notes should decay smoothly. With the Taddeo in the signal path, the bass drop was oscillating. This obvious aberration in the song forced me to pull the Taddeo out of the signal path, resulting in a direct link between my Onkyo AV receiver and my Rogue preamp. Without the Taddeo the bass line cleared up along with the rest of the instruments and vocals.

Now sure of the cleanest path from Airtunes to my listening room speakers, I got down to business.

I ripped At Action Park from Shellac to Apple Lossless (I had to rename the album so the songs wouldn’t mix with my previous AAC MP4 files from the same album). I listened to “My Black Ass” first through Airtunes with Apple Lossless, AAC and then through my CD player, a Pioneer DV47ai.
What I heard:

* Apple Lossless: tight bass, good imaging depth, instrument separation, eye-catching cymbals, no wheezing, could follow the bass line, Steve Albini’s guitar annoying effect (his words) does not fatigue

* AAC 128: Slightly more monotonous, like bass voice and flat drums in the same picture space, more controlled cymbals and less live, muted kick, some sibilance

* CD: Better separation of instruments – vocals and guitar well in front of drums with the bass behind to the right; no noticeable wheezing, safe and real, cymbals appear in image space as 3D cymbals when hit by drumsticks, kick drum kicks

The differences may have more to do with my CD player’s DAC (Burr Brown 192k Chip) versus Onkyo’s WRAT DAC than with the differences between the original CD and Apple Lossless. (This album still sounds better on vinyl.)

I would hate for the Airtunes signal to outperform my CD signal, the latter is a much bigger investment. It is amazing that it comes so close. The neck and neck race makes you wonder what determines the music that reaches your ears: DAC, jitter, wires, static, wobbly records. The CD drawbacks reported by the tweaker drag it towards the music server’s sound quality.

Convenience is the biggest benefit of a music server system. Once set up properly (hopefully you’ve got a good idea by now), the Airtunes run through rocks of high-end electronics.

If you want your music server to output the highest quality signal, rip all of your best-recorded CDs to Apple Lossless, buy a nice DAC (like Musical Fidelity’s X-DAC v3, or become whatever you have in your digital processor) and relax at your right place.

If you want to dance the night away with your wife and daughter, use your AAC and MP3, Sony PSP / Coverbuddy remote control in hand.

The first is a lonely experience. The family had more fun with the latter.

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