Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Thanks to globalization and the powers of sophisticated overseas manufacturing, we’ve gotten to the point where we can cheaply and reliably manufacture complex physical devices. Not long ago, it was normal for new LCD monitors to have a pixel or two DOA, and other physical defects were common. Consumers were more tolerant, and retailers were generally willing to exchange a product that wasn’t perfect for one that was. Today, though, everything is pretty much perfect. Even knockoffs of name-brand products are often nearly indistinguishable from the originals. Sure, there’s still improvement to be had, and greater value to be found, but by and large, quality hardware and electronics are available to people at nearly all levels of income.

This means that, in our interactions with technology and with one another, hardware is becoming effectively transparent. A recent article in The Atlantic laid bare some interesting and potentially worrying statistics about how post-millennials interact with one another. It should come as no surprise that smartphones equipped with text, Instagram, and Snapchat are becoming the dominant conduit through which kids hang out.

Hans Wetzel

Beyond social trends, smartphones have established themselves as pure necessities of daily functioning in modern America, and the reason for it is not hardware but powerful software. I can remotely set my house’s alarm system, check my bank balances, manage my stock portfolio, watch a live European soccer game, and order a sandwich, all while on a ten-minute walk to pick up said sandwich. Now that bulletproof hardware and the required infrastructure are ubiquitous, software is what makes my life tick.

It has led to an interesting state of affairs: We no longer tolerate imperfection in our software. I want to set fire to my smart TV when streaming video buffers, or write a scathing review when an app repeatedly quits (because, boy, will that ever show those careless, indolent developers). I can’t be alone there. We don’t merely expect perfection, we demand it, and anything that doesn’t rise to that level is grounds for a scorched-earth policy.

Obviously, lovers of LPs and CDs don’t run into this sort of thing, but for those who wirelessly stream their music it’s a big problem. As SoundStage! Network publisher Doug Schneider recently wrote, the primary challenge is one of architecture: how do I want to organize my music? I could have a central server for my local media and simply use Tidal’s iOS app, but that’s not centralized. I could -- and do -- use Roon, but that’s clearly a stopgap solution during this penumbral time when audiophiles are caught between storing their music locally and either storing it remotely or using only a streaming music service.

Some manufacturers’ products are Roon Ready, and include built-in support for Tidal, Spotify, and others, leaving the software headaches to others. This approach carries challenges, however. The manufacturer must license these functionalities, and then the product experience is inherently fragmented and potentially exclusionary. Companies and consumers are then at the mercy of not just one but several pieces of software, each with its own set of strengths and weaknesses.

The alternative, of course, is for big manufacturers to design their own software front end, but that path can be treacherous. I speak from experience. My brother, fellow writer Erich Wetzel, and I frequently joke about how electronics manufacturers seem to pay so little attention to remote controls for their products, as if they were a burdensome afterthought that users care little for. And yet in many cases, the remote control is what a listener will interact with the most. An integrated amplifier with a pretty faceplate and buttons is nice, but a cheap and unreliable remote will quickly undo whatever good will I may have felt toward the product. The same can be said of the bespoke software that accompanies some of today’s digital products and higher-end wireless loudspeakers.

Take Oppo Digital’s Sonica digital-to-analog converter ($799), which I recently reviewed. While the DAC itself is excellent, what most endeared me to the Sonica was that its operating software is so fluid, reliable, and transparent. It allowed me to wirelessly interact with the Sonica with nearly the same ease as getting up off my sofa to work the DAC’s front-mounted controls. Whether the Sonica was connected to my network through Ethernet or Wi-Fi, whether I streamed iTunes content from my phone or Tidal through Oppo’s own app, whether I last used the app ten minutes or two weeks ago, the outcome was the same: It just worked.

Oppo Digital Sonica

That’s a big deal. I’ve used many other software interfaces that can’t be paid the same compliment. It’s difficult to get a piece of software to work equally well across a multitude of phones, tablets, and home networks. Integrating local content from (say) a NAS device with Tidal content and local content on a phone, all with similar graphical user interfaces with similar levels of responsiveness -- it’s tough to get it right. That’s to say nothing of getting a volume control to be buttery smooth in action and instantly responsive to command. There are a multitude of potential pitfalls a hi-fi hardware manufacturer must traverse to appease extremely demanding end-users like you and me. A couple years ago, a bug-infested app would not have been fatal to an otherwise top-shelf product because expectations were then lower. No longer.

I mention all this because I’m finishing up a review of a stupendous product. Its outstanding build quality and outright performance should make it a shoo-in for a Reviewers’ Choice award. But it didn’t take me long to discover that its app sucks, and that significantly colored my view of the entire product. And why not? It’s a cautionary tale for the makers of the next generation of wireless hi-fi gear. There is no excuse for shipping a product with immature software. We’re not your beta testers, and we live in a world in which there’s so much competition for our money and attention that if your software doesn’t work seamlessly, we’ll take our credit cards elsewhere.

. . . Hans Wetzel