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SteelSeries Arctis Nova 7 brings hi-fi audio for under $200

The SteelSeries Arctis Nova 7 gaming headset is now available as a multisystem peripheral with several high-quality audio features and a fairly decent price.

As a midrange follow-up to the popular SteelSeries Arctis 7 and the SteelSeries Arctis Nova Pro, the headset sells for $180 at SteelSeries.com and various global retailers in PC-, PlayStation-, and Xbox-specific models.

The Arctis Nova 7 counts 360-degree spatial audio boosted by its Sonar Audio Software Suite among its primary features. SteelSeries claims the high-fidelity audio allows you to hear the finite details other gaming headsets wouldn’t. The headset’s noise cancellation is powered by second-generation ClearCast AI. It also features a bidirectional microphone, which helps reduce background noises, such as keyboard tapping and other distractions.

Further promoting top-notch auto quality are high-fidelity speaker drivers and 2.4GHz and Bluetooth wireless connectivity. This allows you to listen to two audio streams simultaneously and switch between systems, including PC, Mac, PlayStation, and Nintendo Switch, via USB-C.

You can enjoy a 38-hour wireless battery on the headset, in addition to fast charging, which adds six hours of power in 15 minutes.

Design-wise, the Arctis Nova 7 features AirWeave memory foam cushions in its earcups and has ComfortMax adjustability for ideal fitting. The headset also includes a 3.5mm audio jack and comes in black and white color options.

The SteelSeries Arctis Nova 7, Nova 3, and Nova 1 sell for $180, $100, and $60 respectively.

Accompanying the SteelSeries Arctis Nova 7 are the Arctis Nova 3 and Arctis Nova 1 headsets, which are available for $100 and $60 respectively. They also feature high-fidelity speaker drivers, 360-degree spatial audio, and the Sonar Audio Software Suite while targeting different users.

The Arctis Nova 3 includes a PrismSync RGB design with 16.8 million customizable colors as a highlight feature. Audio is enhanced through AI algorithms, while its microphone supports noise cancellation. The headset also features multiplatform support, including PC, PlayStation, Mac, Nintendo Switch, mobile devices, and iPad, in addition to the ComfortMax adjustment feature.

The Arctis Nova 1 includes the AirWeave memory foam cushions and ComfortMax adjustment feature, as well as a 3.5mm audio jack. It is available in black or white color options and is offered in PC, PlayStation, and Xbox-specific models. The headset also features multiplatform support, including PC, PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo Switch, and mobile devices. Finally, it has a noise-cancelling microphone.

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Polk’s Reserve R200 is budget hi-fi greatness

Polk Audio, the American speaker company known for making hi-fi speakers at non-absurd prices, announced the Reserve series back in March. Shortly thereafter reviews flooded the web singing the speakers’ praises, particularly their bang for your buck.

Naturally, I had to get my hands on a pair myself to see what all the hype was about — and put the speaker through the test bench. I chose the Reserve R200, the $700/pair bookshelf model with a 6.5-inch woofer. While $700 may not sound all that cheap to people who aren’t into speakers, it’s basically a budget speaker when you consider most of the really good options retail for closer to $2000.

As TNW’s resident audio nerd, I need to see the data behind a speaker before I’m confident making a recommendation. If you’ve read my post on why speaker measurements matter, then you know that listening impressions can be fickle things, easily affected by biases and expectations. Having been an audiophile for a decade or so now, I know that reviews tend to become more positive in proportion to a speaker’s price. Unfortunately, sound quality and price barely have any correlation.

That’s why I’m always excited to see a speaker that punches well above its price class, and the R200 does just that. The R200’s measured performance shows excellent performance by almost any standard, easily going head-to-head with speakers two or three times its price.

It isn’t flawless — few speakers are — but the R200 is a prime example of sensible design decisions to maximize sound quality at a reasonable price. You won’t find crazy newfangled technology or materials here, just carefully thought out engineering.

This isn’t going to be your typical speaker review. Rather than spending 10,000 words describing different facets of the sound — there are plenty of reviewers more eloquent than me out there — I’m going to mainly focus on the data. Still, I should give you a summary of my thoughts before we jump in.

What does it sound like?

I spent about a week listening to the Reserve R200 before I measured them, and my overwhelming impression was that they pretty much disappeared — that they were nearly transparent. It may be the most neutral 6.5-inch bookshelf speaker I’ve heard under $1,000.

They also have a solid bass extension for their size, and their soundstage is pretty great too. It’s not too narrow, not too wide— vocals snap to the center but the speaker throws out a sizeable soundstage without sounding too diffuse. Dynamics are excellent for a bookshelf speaker too, and the R200 can handle volumes louder than I’m comfortable with without a hitch.

It’s just a really good speaker. The R200 isn’t just competing against other sub-$1000 bookshelf speakers; I think its performance is fully comparable to top-of-the-line $2,000-ish speakers like the KEF R3 and JBL HDI-1600 — and it’s certainly the better value. My benchmark for performance-per-dollar has long been the $1000/€700 Focal Chora 806, but the R200 gives that a run for its money too.

Sound aside, I also appreciate the understated, fairly minimalistic design. The matte black review unit I received is perhaps a little plain, but the white and wood finishes look classy and a bit more modern. Keep in mind the speaker is quite deeper than it looks in photos, about 14 inches.

What, that’s it?

Yep, that’s pretty much all you need to know. Although we reviewers often like to shower compliments on speakers we like, I’ve increasingly found the best speakers aren’t the ones worth the most praise, but rather the ones that have the fewest flaws.

The R200 has very few flaws that I could hear in my setup. But sure, I can nitpick a bit.

The R200 might sound a little bright if you aim it right at your ears, especially if you’re young and still have all your hearing left. It also can be slightly more finicky about positioning than some of the very best speakers I’ve tested, as the sound can change fairly noticeably depending on how the speaker is angled. But aim the tweeter at ear height and slightly away from your listening position — about 10-20 degrees off-axis, perhaps pointing straight forward — and you’re good to go.

The speaker might also sound ever so slightly forward with some vocals, but I personally like the effect on most tracks. And though it has a bit more bass extension than average, it’s nothing like you might find on a DSP-enabled speaker like the (much more expensive but similarly sized) Buchardt A500. As always, you might have to experiment with positioning to find the best bass balance in your room, or better yet, use a subwoofer and Room EQ.

But again, that’s all quite nitpicky.

Alright, get to the graphs already. I know you want to.

If you want to make a speaker that will sound great to most people, there are two things you really need to optimize: frequency response and directivity. The frequency response tells us the basic tonal balance of a speaker before the influence of reflections, and it should be mostly flat. The directivity tells us how that frequency response changes in different directions; the speaker should change smoothly as you move off-axis.

The directivity is important because the reflections off your walls, floor, and ceiling all contribute to the final sound you hear in your room. If you want a speaker to sound really good — to create that realistic soundstage that makes it feel like you’re watching a live performance — then the reflections off your wall should be similar to the direct sound.

We can figure all that stuff out by creating a graph called a spinorama. I capture the speaker’s response at 70 (not a typo) horizontal and vertical angles and combine all that information into one graph. Behold:

 

I explain what all of this means in the spinorama section of my measurements guide, but we can focus on a few key things here.

See the white and green lines above? Those represent the frequency response of the ‘direct’ sound — before reflections — with the green line being the ‘on-axis’ response and the white being the ‘listening window.’

The on-axis line shows off what the speaker sounds like when the speaker is aimed exactly at you (in this case, at tweeter height). The listening window gives us a small average of a few horizontal and vertical angles to account for the fact that people don’t sit perfectly centered in front of a speaker all the time, and that you might not aim the speakers directly at your listening position. It is usually the more representative curve for what you hear in a living room setup, so that’s what I tend to focus on.

Here the R200 shines: it is ridiculously flat. The listening window is one of the flattest I’ve measured, especially for a speaker without any kind of DSP processing to help it out.

It’s the type of performance you’d expect from a high-end studio monitor, not a $700 pair of speakers from a fairly mainstream audio company. The rise in the last bit of the on-axis does tell us that the R200 may sound a little bright when listened to head-on, but you can simply point the speakers slightly away from you — about 10-20 degrees seems optimal — to balance out the sound.

Next, we can look at the purple line. This is the ‘predicted in-room response.’ It applies different weights to each of the 70 angles measured to estimate what the speaker’s response will be like in a typical living room (yes, living rooms vary a lot, but it’s still a surprisingly good metric).

We want this line to be flattish too, except with a downward tilt:

 

Here the R200 also shows very good performance. There’s a bit of a dip around the 3 kHz crossover —where the woofer hands off the sound to the tweeter — but this is common among speakers with separate woofers and tweeters. The R200 performs almost as good as any speaker I’ve measured on this metric as well.

With just these two lines, we know the R200 is very likely going to have a neutral, largely balanced tonality in most rooms. It’s good stuff.

The bottom red (directivity index or DI) and blue (early reflections directivity index or ERDI) curves summarize the speaker’s directivity. These would ideally be a smooth rising line, so they are not exactly great on the R200.

However, they consider both a speaker’s vertical and horizontal response. While the R200 has a flawed vertical response (again, like most speakers), it has a good horizontal response, which is far more important for creating a good soundstage. The yellow line above isolates just the horizontal portion of the ERDI, and we can see this line is much smoother. That tells us that the speaker will likely have a good soundstage even though its vertical response may be finicky.

This spinorama also tells us that the R200 appears to be mostly free of major resonances that color the sound; this would show up as a bump that stands out in each of the top curves, and can contribute to a speaker sounding boomy or having a grating sound at specific frequencies. Knowing for sure would require an anechoic chamber or advanced tools I don’t have access to, but within the resolution of my system, the R200 performs admirably.

For comparison, here’s how the $1,800 JBL HDI-1600 performs:

While the JBL has a bit better overall directivity, its response is also less linear than the R200’s.

The spinorama gives us the big picture, but we can get a bit more granular using. For example, we can further break down the horizontal response by checking out what the reflections off the walls in front, to the sides, and behind the speaker might look like:

There’s a little bunching around 3-5kHz for the sidewall reflections, which may be why I found vocals to sound a tad forward, but you can see the total horizontal reflections balance out nicely to a linear response in the dotted yellow line.

Breaking things down further, we can see how the R200’s response changes in 10-degree increments horizontally:

In this graph, you can see how by 10-20 degrees off-axis, that little bit of brightness at the top of the speaker’s response has largely flatted out; if you want the flattest response, you should probably listen about 15 degrees off-axis. You can also see that above 6kHz, the tweeter’s response drops off steeply, which may be why the speaker can be a bit sensitive about positioning. On the other hand, it also means you can ‘tune’ the speaker’s brightness to your taste with positioning.

This isn’t the cleanest horizontal directivity I’ve ever seen, but the vast majority of the speakers that perform better have a narrower soundstage. There’s usually a trade-off between soundstage width and precision, and the R200 toes the line expertly. Among wider directivity speakers I’ve tested, only the Focal Chora 806 performs better.

Now we turn to the biggest flaw on the R200 (and most other speakers): its vertical response. First, we can see that the speaker is quite sensitive to being at the perfect ear height.

Ideally, the tweeter should be at just about ear height, within ±5 degrees. Being 10 degrees above or below the tweeter may noticeably alter the sound. That shouldn’t be an issue for most setups, but it’s worth noting if you can’t set your speakers up at ear height or if you listen to the speakers from less than 2m or 6 feet.

Next we can look at the estimated vertical reflections.

We can see some vertical dips, as is typical for speakers with separate tweeters and woofers. This is the portion that messes up the speaker’s response the most. Luckily, the vertical response doesn’t have a major effect on the soundstage, and despite these results, the end result is still very balanced, as shown with the predicted in-room response, so I wouldn’t worry about these anomalies too much.

That said, it does mean that the R200’s sound might vary a little more from room to room than speakers with better-controlled verticals. Whhile hear the presence bump as forward vocals, you might hear a recession where the response dips. Polk might’ve been able to improve the vertical response by using a larger waveguide that would allow for a smoother transition between the woofer and tweeter, but that might’ve had the sometimes negative effect of narrowing the soundstage too. While the vertical response is a notable flaw, it’s unlikely to be a major issue in most setups.

All these words are just to reiterate the headline; the Polk Reserve R200 is not just a fantastic deal — it’s a really solid speaker at almost any price. Though no one can guarantee you’ll like a speaker, I can at least tell you that you’re getting more than your money’s worth with the R200. Its refreshing to see such thoughtful engineering on a speaker in this price range.

And yes, I’d bet that you probably will like it. A lot. It has my fullest recommendation — especially considering it probably won’t burn a hole in your wallet.

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New AirPods and Apple Music HiFi may arrive next week (but don’t bet on it)

Now the AirTags are finally out, we need new unreleased Apple products to obsess over. So, please make some noise for the new AirPods and HiFi Apple Music!

Here’s the meat: a YouTuber with no real leaking history has said Apple will release the aforementioned products on May 18 via a press release. Should you believe this? Umm, kinda?

We know for certain that Apple’s going to release new AirPods at some point. I mean, the true wireless earbuds are so successful they outstrip the earnings of entire companies:

There’s literally no way on earth that Apple wouldn’t release a new model. Plus, there have already been a shit ton of leaks. New AirPods are definitely happening. We just don’t know when.

The thing is, an actual reliable Apple leaker and analyst (shout out Ming-Chi Kuo!) has claimed new AirPods won’t enter mass production until Q3. This makes sense, as the headphones would be the Christmas gift of 2021.

Still, it’s very possible Apple will announce them soon, but next week? I have my doubts. It just doesn’t seem neat.

Let’s move onto Apple Music HiFi. Effectively, this is a rumour that Apple’s going to release a hi-res version of its streaming service, something Spotify did recently.

Now, the source of is from a dubious site called Hits Daily Double. The article also claims that Apple Music HiFi will cost the same as the regular subscription ($9.99). This doesn’t fill me with confidence of its veracity.

Apple’s own headphones are literally incapable of streaming hi-res audio (thanks, AAC Bluetooth codec), so to make this leap now seems a bit bizarre.

Of course, you can listen to Apple Music with different headphones — and I can see how offering this quality music at a lower price than its competitors could be successful — it just feels like a stretch.

So… can we expect to see new AirPods and Apple Music HiFi released on May 18? A few weeks before WWDC 2021? I wouldn’t hold my breath. But it is fun to talk about. FEED ME MORE RUMORS.

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Ex-Apple designer’s ‘triphonic’ speaker may be the hi-fi HomePod we deserve

Say what you will about Apple’s original HomePod, but it was actually a really solid speaker by technical standards. So when Apple discontinued it, we wondered what might eventually replace it.

Although there are currently rumors of a HomePod with a screen and camera, it’s now looking like one of the best alternatives may actually come from an ex-Apple designer and his new company, Syng. Well, it’s more of an ‘upgrade’ than an alternative, considering it costs $1,799.

Christopher Stringer, who worked at Apple for 21 years and was Jony Ive’s first hire, and Damon Way of DC Shoes and Incase fame, teamed up to create a futuristic speaker called the Cell Alpha.

It somewhat resembles the HomePod in that it features a round body with an omnidirectional acoustical design, which theoretically means the speaker will sound the same no matter what angle you listen to it from. There are a pair of force-canceling woofers on the top and bottom, and three tweeters with wide waveguides arranged around the speaker’s circumference.

But more than that, it uses something the company calls ‘triphonic’ audio to offer users “full control” of sounds with “precise placement and localization.” According to Syng:

You can put sound wherever you want, shrink it, move it, magnify it, and layer it. Or let the Cell handle everything – with Triphonic audio, it’s able to virtualize any speaker array and accurately spatialize sound for your room. When sound is all around you, it’s intimate, totally enveloping and unlike anything you’ve ever heard.

Syng’s speaker is using beamforming — a technique that essentially allows you to ‘aim’ soundwaves — to be able to adjust the spatial qualities of the resultant sound field.

The company claims that just one speaker is able to create a realistic, room-filling stereo sound and that a pair of speakers can work without needing to arrange the speakers in a traditional equilateral-ish triangle.

Three speakers are the “fullest expression” of the system, able to create what Syng says is a completely immersive sound field. You can then use Syng’s app to change the location and size of the sound field.

That sounds cool, but it’s worth taking any claims about spatial audio with a grain of salt. Most speakers that claim to provide fully immersive audio without a full surround setup tend to be underwhelming in my experience. The ones that do provide decent spatial effects sometimes do so at the expense of sound quality.

But the technology has improved over time, and at $1,799, I hope the Cell Alpha ends up being more than a gimmick. Current attempts have had mixed results, but beamforming does feel like the next big leap in home audio.

The Cell Alpha’s design and futuristic technology resemble something Apple might make, which is no surprise given the talent behind it. It’s what I would’ve liked to see if Apple ever decided to take the hi-fi speaker route.

Unfortunately for Apple, the original HomePod didn’t sell well, forcing Apple to discontinue it. The company is apparently still having trouble getting rid of inventory.

I can’t help but feel a big reason for that is that Apple’s walled-garden approach failed it, for once. The speaker could only stream via Apple Music if you intended to use Siri, and AirPlay support for other streaming platforms like Spotify was sometimes unreliable.

It also means that you were completely out of luck if you wanted to stream music from an Android phone or Windows device (at least without significant workarounds).

Here Syng has a welcome advantage; it supports AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, USB audio in (via two USB-C ports), and HDMI eARC (through an upcoming adapter). It’s launching with just an iOS app, but an Android one is coming soon.

If the acoustic technology pans out, the company could be onto something. We’ll let you know what we think when we get our hands on one ourselves.

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Apple Music HiFi lossless audio details found in latest Android app beta

It seems that Apple is gearing up to launch a lossless audio plan for its Apple Music streaming service, and a new app teardown reveals some new details about this unannounced lossless option. The hints were found in a teardown of the Apple Music 3.6.0 Beta app, including warnings about how much data it will take to stream lossless music when not connected to WiFi.

The new details come from 9to5Google, which found them in the newly updated Apple Music Beta app for Android. The discovery indicates that Apple will bring its lossless audio option to Android, too, while revealing the nature of this offering.

Of note, Apple’s explanation about how much data it will take to stream lossless audio over cellular data reveals that there may be two different HiFi options: lossless audio at up to 24-bit/48kHz and high-resolution lossless at up to 24-bit/192kHz.

Both of these lossless options will utilize Apple’s ALAC codec; it’s unclear whether the HiFi option will be split into two plans or if there will be one plan with both lossless streaming options. These will join Apple Music’s existing high-quality and data-saving compressed audio options.

The previous leak from 9to5Mac found references to both Dolby Audio and Dolby Atmos for the iOS version of Apple Music, but 9to5Google notes that such references are missing from its Android sibling. Many details are still missing at this time, including how much Apple Music’s HiFi plan will cost and when the offering will launch.

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Apple Music HiFi plan seems more likely than ever with new leaks

It sure looks like Apple is planning to introduce its own HiFi music plan, giving audiophiles a higher quality streaming option to go with their pricey hardware while taking on competing services like Spotify’s and Deezer’s high-fidelity audio options. A couple of new leaks reinforce the potential, while one teases a particularly tantalizing perk not offered by other services.

We saw the first leak surface yesterday and, well, it wasn’t terribly reassuring. The report came from Hits Daily Double, which claimed that Apple will soon announce a new Apple Music HiFi plan alongside its next-generation AirPods — and, the leak alleges, this new high-fidelity option will come at the same $9.99 price as the existing service.

While that may be too good to be true, it seems there is some substance to the leak, with 9to5Mac detailing a new discovery in the iOS 14.6 beta 1 build that hints at future Apple Music high-fidelity audio support.

The code, which isn’t found in subsequent builds, allegedly includes mention of Dolby Audio and Dolby Atmos, as well as the term ‘lossless.’ Assuming this was the accidental reveal of a big upcoming change, it’ll mark the first time Apple Music has supported the Dolby offerings.

A lossless audio option will give subscribers who, for example, have high-end headphones the opportunity to maximize their listening experience by streaming audio that doesn’t have lossy compression. Whether Apple will actually launch this new option in the coming weeks — and at the same price — is yet to be seen.

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Cambridge Audio’s Evo is a stunning streaming amp for your hi-fi setup

Cambridge Audio is an old name in audio, known for making high-quality amplifiers and components for your hi-fi system. The company this week announced its most forward-looking product yet, a compact all-in-one stereo amplifier with support for a variety of streaming options.

The Cambridge Audio Evo comes in two models that vary in power output. The Evo 75 offers 75W($2,250) per channel, while the Evo 150 ($3,000) outputs up to 150 watts per channel.

It’s using Hyper NCore Class D amplifier modules; if that sounds like gibberish to you, suffice to say these are some of the highest quality amplifiers on the market, especially among what you can get in a compact form factor like this. If Cambridge Audio has nailed the integration, you should have excellent sound quality.

The Evo supports a boatload of inputs. On the wireless front, there’s Chromecast, Bluetooth AptX HD, AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, Tidal Connect, Qobuz, Roon, and internet radio.

Streaming can be managed through Cambridge Audio’s StreamMagic mobile app, although you can also use the included remote or the massive dual-concentric rotary dial. Your music is displayed on a large 6.8-inch LCD panel, although it does not appear to be a touchscreen.

You also have optical, RCA, USB, XLR, turntable, and coaxial inputs, as well as HDMI with ARC for a direct link to your TV. Outputs include a 3.5mm headphone jack, Bluetooth Aptx HD, as well as a subwoofer out for that extra bass.

 

The Evo’s wood trim is inspired by Cambridge Audio’s first amplifier, the P40. But the panels are actually removable and can be replaced with a black wavy side panel made from Richlite, a material made from recycled paper.

As enticing as the design is, and as much as I’ve been impressed by Cambridge Audio products in the past, I can’t help but wish it also offered some form of room correction, such as the excellent Dirac system found in the NAD M10.

Messy interactions between speakers and your room in the bass and lower mids is one of the primary flaws in most hi-fi setups. Addressing this is one of the most dramatic improvements you can make to your sound system.

But if you don’t care about room correction or can handle that through another component, the Cambridge Audio Evo looks like it could be a gorgeous addition to your hi-fi system — and one that will hopefully deliver on the sound quality front too.

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Published April 9, 2021 — 01:21 UTC



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Polk’s Reserve speakers promise hi-fi sound at affordable prices

Polk Audio built its reputation on providing hi-fi sound to a wider audience, typically dealing at reasonable prices rather than the sticker shock many hi-fi manufacturers are known for. In that spirit, the company today announced its Reserve series of speakers. Although the company positions them as a ‘premium’ line just below its Legend series, the Reserve bookshelf speakers start at just $600.

Notably, Polk is using the very same woofers and tweeters it developed for the flagship Legend series — speakers I enjoyed in my own listening tests and which offered solid measured performance. Not only that, but Polk has also added a few more tricks, since the Legend line including a new ‘X-port’ filter in the rear, as well as new cabinet construction with internal bracing techniques in order to minimize resonances — artifacts that can color a speaker’s sound.

Indeed, a few resonances were one of the few issues I had testing the Legend L200, so if the new series is actually better behaved in this regard, it would be an impressive achievement for the company.

I also appreciate the wide line-up of speakers which should be flexible enough to fit most home theater needs. The lineup consists of:

  • R100: a small bookshelf speaker – $599/pair
  • R200: a large bookshelf – $699/pair
  • R300: a compact ‘normal’ center channel – $399
  • R350: a long and slim center channel – $549
  • R400: a large center channel – $599
  • R500: a small tower speaker – $599 each
  • R600: a medium tower – $799 each
  • R700: a large tower – $999 each
  • R900: a height module for Dolby Atmos- $599/pair 

That’s a lot of speakers, but the variety means you should be able to find a combination that works for your own audio or home theater setup.

Despite being cheaper than its flagship line, Polk says not to call the series ‘Legend-light.’ Indeed, it almost seems like the company is cannibalizing its own flagships, considering the Reserve series offers the same drivers for much less (the legend L100 started at $1,199). But I’ve got to appreciate that the company doesn’t appear to be skimping on R&D for its more mainstream series. Not only that, but I personally much prefer the more minimalist look of the new series as well.

There’s a lot to like here, but of course, the proof is in the pudding. Hopefully, I’ll be able to put one of the Reserve speakers through the test bench soon.

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Published March 24, 2021 — 02:22 UTC



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Before you pay for Spotify HiFi, try to pass this lossless audio test

Spotify yesterday announced a ‘HiFi’ upgrade tier for its streaming service that provides lossless audio, promising music free of compression artefacts. Although it won’t be available until later this year, Spotify HiFi promises “CD-quality” audio and aims to steer audiophiles away from other lossless streaming competition like Tidal and Deezer.

But even if you consider yourself an audiophile, you probably don’t need to pay extra for lossless music.

It’s true that most music streaming services compress audio in one way or another in order to minimize data usage, almost always leading to some lost information. There are ways of compressing music losslessly, but they generally can’t reduce file size as much as a decent lossy compression.

It’s unsurpriging, then, that most services turn to lossy compression. After all, the vast majority of listeners do not have the hearing ability to tell the difference between lossless audio and music that is compressed at a high enough quality.

Spotify Premium (the existing, $9.99 ad-free tier) already streams at a maximum of 320 kbps (256 kbps on the web) if you’ve enabled this in the app’s settings. Although at low bitrates the differences between lossy and lossless audio can be quite obvious, I’m willing to bet most people can’t tell apart a lossless file from a 256 kbps MP3 one — let alone a file compressed with the more modern Ogg codec that Spotify uses.

Our hearing is subject to a whole lot of placebo. Simply believing that a certain upgrade or key specification will make your speakers or headphones sound better is often more likely to cause to an ‘improvement’ than any actual change. Still, many golden-eared audiophiles will swear they can hear a difference without evidence.

So before you get your wallet out for the promise of higher quality audio, why don’t you actually put your hearing to the test?

Test your hearing

There are plenty of blind tests out there to help you compare lossless audio with ‘lossy’ audio formats, but I like the Digital Feed ABX test, initially created to test whether listeners could tell the difference between Tidal’s lossless audio and lossy compressed music.

The link above compares Spotify’s 320 kbps streaming against a lossless file, so it should be equivalent to comparing Spotify’s Premium and HiFi tiers. In this test, the goal is to match one of two clips (A or B) to a reference clip (X). They’re randomized, and you don’t know which clips are lossless or not; you just have to pick whether A or B is identical to X.

There are five tracks, for each of which you’ll have to complete 5, 10, or 20 trials, depending on how much time you have to kill. The more trials you do, the more statistically significant your results are. I’d recommend starting with 5 repetitions, as the test can get quite time consuming as you switch between tracks obsessing over tiny differences.

If you are like most audio enthusiasts — let alone most regular people — you probably won’t be able to hear the difference. I just took the test with some $400 headphones and failed.

But I’ve also passed the test before. Problem is, doing so involves a kind of extreme scrutiny that virtually never applies to normal listening or even “critical” listening.

In my case, passing this comparison means making my home as quiet as possible, using the best gear I have, and repeating a two or three-second portion over and over again in hopes of hearing the tiniest bit of extra detail or a subtle change at a specific moment. Moreover, I’ve done this type in multiple iterations hundreds of times and know what to look for.

Perhaps even more importantly, being able to identify which tracks match doesn’t mean you can tell which track was more realistic — i.e., which track was actually the lossless one.

I’m reminded of a survey performed by audio blogger Archimago several years ago, in which 151 participants were asked choose between two sets of samples — one lossy set, and one lossless. 30% thought the lossless tracks sounded better. 18% said there was no audible difference. A whopping 52% actually preferred the lossy track over the lossless one (there are a few possible explanations for this beyond the scope of the article).

Mind you, it’s fair to assume these participants were mostly audio enthusiasnts too; 60% of them reported using audio systems costing $1,000 or more. And this is just one of numerous examples around the web.

So what’s the point of lossless?

The fact most people can’t tell the difference between lossless and high-bitrate lossy audio doesn’t mean lossless streaming is completely pointless. Some reasons you might want to try it include:

  • Peace of mind, so you don’t get the itch of knowing there’s something better out there.
  • If the placebo effect makes you think your music sounds better, then in a way it kind of does sound better?
  • You want the best possible rendition of the music for some sense of musical ‘purity.’
  • You’re a statistical anomaly with platinum hearing abilities.
  • There’s a very hypothetical argument that we need extended listening in order to truly hear small differences in sound quality.
  • Spotify could include other perks with the HiFi tier.
  • You’re holding out hope one day audio gear will be good enough to make the difference more obvious.

There’s also the matter of price: Spotify hasn’t announced pricing for the HiFi tier yet, but you can bet it’ll be more expensive than regular-old Premium. Just make sure the added monthly investment — and it definitely adds up over the years —  is worth it before you shell out your hard earned-money.

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Published February 24, 2021 — 05:29 UTC



Repost: Original Source and Author Link