The current home entertainment landscape is evolving at a breakneck pace. The advent of streaming and Ultra HD Blu-ray 4K HDR content—combined with comparatively affordable TVs that can play this content—brings commercial cinema quality into people’s living rooms. Meanwhile, when it comes to music, people are able to play almost anything, anytime, anywhere. These trends disrupted both the dedicated home theater industry and the high-end 2-channel audio industry. This article is about lifestyle audio and how the fidelity available to mainstream consumers is constantly improving.
One of the most common complaints I hear from folks in the home theater and 2-channel audio industries is that consumers don’t know what they are missing. The premise is that if only people would expose themselves to exceptional gear and the fidelity it offers, they’d give up on their lifestyle-friendly wireless audio systems and stop streaming movies on Netflix. I believe it’s too late for that, and the reason is that mainstream AV gear is getting better at a rapid pace while streaming audio quality is constantly improving and has already reached the standard set by CDs.
History has shown that people crave convenience and variety as much or more than ultimate fidelity. However, it may be that we’ve finally reached a point of convergence between lifestyle friendly and high fidelity AV experiences. On the visual side this manifests as affordable next-generation TVs (OLED and quantum dot LCD) and for audio it’s all about soundbars, headphones, and wireless networked speakers. While there is plenty of mediocrity out there, the surprise is that some lifestyle friendly audio offerings possess fidelity previously associated with component systems and standalone speakers.
There are seemingly countless products that speak to this burgeoning market for high performance lifestyle friendly audio, here are some I’ve experienced:
Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot have proven immensely popular for the convenience they offer music lovers. Yes, you can ask Alexa to hail an Uber, set an alarm, and tell you what the weather is in Wisconsin. But for many people—including me—the coolest capability it offers is how it lets you order up music by speaking. Just say “Alexa, play some Snoop Dogg” and you get what you want. Plus, it sounds great.
Google’s Chromecast Audio is a near-miraculous little device that brings networked high fidelity audio to existing systems for 35 bucks. Each one supports either analog or digital optical audio output and by grouping them you can create a multi-room networked audio system using practically any speaker or stereo or soundbar. It truly democratizes lifestyle audio but make no mistake it also sounds great
Signs of this convergence include products such as KEF’s LS50 Wireless speakers ($2200) that offer audiophile quality as well as modern connectivity in a stylish package. Size, price, and good looks put them in the lifestyle segment, and yet performance-wise these speakers provide a true audiophile experience. Add a truly competent subwoofer like KEF’s ultra-compact R400b ($1500) and an LS50 Wireless system leaves nothing on the table for under 4 grand. I checked ’em out while in Vegas for CES and they sounded great.
At CES I was wowed by Klipsch’s The Fifteen speakers that are self-powered and include wireless connectivity. They may be huge, but they’re connected and gorgeous. The real wood finish cabinets are made here in the US. Plus, the 2-way design with a 15-inch woofer and a compression-driver horn tweeter means the 200 watts of active amplification (per speaker) will go a long way. A pair may cost $3000, but they represent the very essence of a lifestyle and Hi-Fi convergence.
The Sonos Play:5 brings notably good fidelity and foolproof app-based operation to the party in a modern, rounded, minimalist package. I recently reminded myself of what got me so excited about it when I reviewed a pair as a 2-channel system—even at a thousand bucks per pair, performance is excellent for speakers their size.
Speaking of Sonos, right now I’m using one of its Connect:Amp networked amplifiers to power a pair of Klipsch RP-160M speakers on my desktop. This system includes a subwoofer, namely an SVS SB13-Ultra. It sounds great and it syncs up nicely with several other Sonos speakers I have throughout the house.
DTS Play-Fi serves as the networked audio foundation for Paradigm’s PW Amp. In this device, I found a fantastic combination of excellent amplification and in-depth room correction courtesy of Anthem Room Correction—with fine tunable bass management—that had me thinking more 2-channel systems could use that sort of DSP magic. By adding a competent subwoofer, I achieved effectively flat response from the infrasonic realm up to frequencies that only a dog (or a microphone) can hear.
Vizio’s Crave 360 surprised me when I reviewed it due to its robust fidelity as well as its excellent build quality. It’s a Google Cast compatible speaker and showed up on my network along with my multiple Chromecast Audio devices. Unfortunately, an important feature missing from the Google Cast ecosystem is that you can’t assign two standalone networked speakers as a stereo pair. Nevertheless, if you want to put together a flexible multi-room networked audio system and you are on a tight budget, Vizio has you covered. Oh, and these speakers are cordless, too.
Roku and Apple TV deserve slots in this list, even though the platforms have been around for a while. While they are certainly video centric devices, both can deliver audio experiences. With voice search, the latest editions of these platforms make finding something to listen to easier than ever and HDMI connectivity ensures high fidelity digital sound.
Since I was a paperboy back in the mid-1980s I’ve been walking around with a portable music players of some sort and wired headphones. In 2016 I got my first pair of wireless headphones, Samsung’s Level On Pro, which promise 24-bit uncompressed fidelity when used with select phones such as my Galaxy S7 Edge. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the uncolored, flat response they offer. And if you want to add some bass boost, it’s just a button press away in the app.
I’ve quickly become addicted to the Level On Pro’s touch control—located on the earcup—that’s used for skipping tracks, pause, play, as well as volume adjustment. Also, I appreciate the effective noise reduction as well as the built-in mic. Importantly, when it comes to audio fidelity, there’s nothing missing; I have plenty of other less lifestyle-oriented headphones to compare them to and see no reason to give up the modern conveniences. The sound quality is already there, I’m a bit shocked by how good they are.
Bluesound has been around and competes with Sonos with its take on multi-room networked audio. It’s a very capable system that focuses on fidelity. For one thing, it supports high resolution audio, and compatible products are engineered with input from sister brands NAD and PSB. If you’re looking for a deluxe, evolved, intuitive streaming audio system and are willing to pay a bit of a premium for it, then take a look and listen to a product like the Bluesound Node 2, which can act as the streaming nerve center of a high-end two channel system.
The Bluesound Pulse Soundbar and Pulse Sub combo I heard at CES 2017 showed how far the fidelity of lifestyle-friendly soundbar systems has progressed. Just look at the specifications, the sub and soundbar combo gets you +/-1 dB response from 30 Hz to 20 kHz! You’ll be hard pressed to find speakers capable of such anechoically flat output.
One of the most fascinating convergences of lifestyle audio and high fidelity comes from Yamaha. Its MusicCast system even supports a piano! That’s right, a Disklavier Enspire player piano—which I saw and heard at CEDIA 2016—can reproduce live performances in your living room while streaming the same music to the rest of your home. If you are into piano music, it’s hard to get realer than that.
Lots of soundbars now offer networked audio capabilities. Another example is the HEOS HomeCinema from Denon that I reviewed. It sounds very good, handles high-res audio as well as HDMI, and offers app-based multi-room streaming audio connectivity. And I’ll never forget my first soundbar review for AVS Forum, it was a 5.1 system featuring a Sonos PlayBar, a pair of Sonos Play:1 speakers, and a Sonos Sub. That system convinced me to follow the progress of both wireless networked audio systems and soundbars, which brings us to where we are today.
Now, I’m not saying that dedicated separates-based stereo and surround systems don’t offer a better, more dynamic, more immersive experience. If you spend the money and dedicate the space to it, you’ll obviously blow away any soundbar you can buy. But, the amazing thing is how a $35 Chromecast audio, a $50 Amazon Echo Dot, a $180 Klipsch Gate, a $350 Sonos Connect, or a $500 Bluesound Node 2, can open up a world of high-fidelity audio playback. Many systems support Tidal Hi-Fi streaming, for true CD-quality music on-demand.
It’s an embarrassment of riches for audio lovers these days. You can hear almost anything by just asking for it, and even if you use wireless speakers or headphones there’s a good chance what you hear will sound surprisingly good. There are many paths to audio nirvana; a stroll through lifestyle audio’s garden of convenient delights is a worthwhile diversion, even for dedicated audiophiles.
This is just a portion of the lifestyle audio products I’ve had hands-on (and ears-on) experience with. Time and again, I am surprised by the fidelity that’s available in today’s decor friendly, convenient, networked audio products. Please share any experiences you have had with the convergence of lifestyle audio and high fidelity sound.