A friend recently wrote me to help another friend who is interested in getting a mobile music setup. Quality is important meaning “Sound Quality” or SQ… Price is important, meaning “Cost”… Mobility is important meaning “Something that travels with good sound but also sounds good in a room when you get there”…
Here is what I am mostly using lately and can go anywhere with full utility… I have been at this Mobile HRA (High Resolution Audio) as I came to call it, since 2014 when the first DSD USB DACs started pouring out of many manufacturers doors making it easier and cheaper and better sounding to find something that traveled well as both a DAC and a Headphone Amplifier.
These products still are everywhere from DragonFly (AudioQuest) to iFi Audio to Chord to Audiolab to OPPO to FiiO to….m-a-n-y-o-t-h-e-r-s.
I have carried OPPO, iFi Audio, Geek Out, DragonFly and other DACs to different continents on airplanes, so I know how to travel with a battery backed USB DSD/MQA/PCM DAC that can work with both a Windows laptop and an iPhone with the powered camera attachment.
BUT… I’m bucking my own personal trend this past year! For the most part I have heard very good sound but it is not even CD lossless delivery of the audio data. This is something I never thought I’d like! My ears didn’t get worse, just my expectations relaxed enough to try things I never had before. If anything, my ears got a bit better doing these comparisons (sound to sound, not spec to spec).
I don’t need to travel with a DAC at all right now, or even a laptop computer for music. I just need an iPhone, some killer Noise Cancelling Bluetooth (or wired) headphones and a very good portable Bluetooth (or wired) speaker for when I get there…
For these reasons I am still going to call the music covered in this blog post Mobile HRA. It is not hi-res digital audio being delivered, but it is still in my Mobile HRA category for very good sound and very good mobility.
The simplest and best portable stereo I can name straight off is this:
#1 THE MUSIC PLAYER
– Any smartphone (iPhone or Android with Spotify app added see next item). You don’t need more than the smartphone because the storage for all the sound is going to come from the cloud…read on…
#2 THE MUSIC SOURCE – AN INFINITE LIBRARY
– Spotify 3-month Premium trial. Now you are subscribed to a music library of everything you ever had plus a few million songs you never had. Search by Artist, Songs, Podcasts, Playlists, Albums (limited only by your imagination — I hate when I hear that).
For Spotify, sign up with Visa/MC/PayPal then immediately cancel to avoid $9.99 in 3 months unless you want to continue. Best delivery of CD quality music. MP3-320 is indistinguishable from Red Book CD and even better in some cases depending on the CD master quality, an old experiment from late 90’s verified by me and others with even better ears… same true for MP3-256. While many things in life are not black and white, this one is: Any sample rate below MP3-256 sounds sketchy bad to awful (192, 128 and 64). If you are listening to a service with any of these MP3 sample rates you should really try something different or change the configuration you are using to a higher rate.
Spotify actually uses the Ogg Vorbis codec, not MP3 so it compresses a bit better (streams quicker) without losing quality. Spotify lets you save albums, songs, and playlists in your library for full access anywhere. If/when you start paying $9.99 again (just turn it back on in your account) you resume from where you were. It never goes away unless you Delete your Account.
There is a Download option on any of these 3 categories lets you hear what you save anytime later without cell or WiFi service, like on the airplane. Playlists are easily shared and posted (a huge plus!). Spotify’s Genius/Genome suggestions to me are by far and away the best I’ve ever seen from any service since Pandora in the late 90’s started that idea. Through Spotify’s suggestions I have discovered many artists and playlists that I add to my library and listen to regularly. most of these are in different genres of music that I always have liked but never had much time to explore. Now they come to me with a lot of “Yes” from my ears.
Here’s Why Spotify (lossy $9.99/mo.) and Not TIDAL (lossless and MQA, $19.99/mo.)…
I have subscribed to TIDAL and I love MQA for PCM remasters. The TIDAL catalog with hi-res up to MQA decoded 24/384 (but typically 24/96 or 192) is amazing and continues to grow. So I love the TIDAL MQA sound (the CD sound is a different comparison with Spotify as I mentioned earlier) and now the TIDAL software player makes MQA come alive with no other hardware (MQA DAC) attached up to 24/96. I mostly hate wires, but battery is an issue with the USB DACs as is just carrying it in your jeans jacket pocket or …. ??? along with all the rest.
But TIDAL can’t stay connected… I mean it’s really bad. East Hawaii is a bad place to test connectivity of cell data services (4G, LTE, 5G) if you want to succeed in not being disconnected. So TIDAL fails over and over and over and then I quit trying and use something else. But don’t hold East Hawaii totally responsible because I had similar problems in the East Bay in San Francisco Bay Area (population 10+ million last I knew) where an AT&T DSL connection couldn’t hack TIDAL either but was fine with Spotify and even Qobuz (CD and Hi-Res now in the US). Heck I even have TIDAL Masters of some of my own albums (Crossing (Remastered), The Window (Remastered), others…) online there that decode up to 24/352.8. It sounds great but if you can’t play the song all the way through…..
On the other hand, Spotify can’t be defeated by poor connections as long as you have any cell data or WiFi connection of any kind. It even buffers the song somehow without the long delays up front like other services to play through short lapses in service that occur like when I’m driving. (My guess is that TIDAL’s server buffering and response to latency is either too server/bandwidth over-tasked or poor algorithms or both.)
No kidding it’s very hard for Spotify to stutter, dropout, pause or just quit playing and need app restarts (like TIDAL). So I have MP3 (they actually use Ogg Vorbis!) streaming with the same sound quality as CD and zero headaches and zero limits on the catalog I can choose from. Not bad and I’m into my 2nd year of digging it at this point. Just one more arrow of proof in the quiver of “don’t buy based on specs, just use your ears“.
#3 – THE WIRELESS HEADPHONES
– Bose QC35 II – best over-ear Noise Cancelling headphone value I’ve heard in the <$500 range and I shopped it with my ears in the SF Bay Area. Found it today still online at Rakuten for $257 (list as $349) — I’ve had mine over 6 months they are outrageous for travel as well as quiet home time (the coquis in East Hawaii are deafening all night in most elevations, not to mention dogs, leaf blowers, mowers, weed whackers, chain saws, Excavator hammers busting rock, bulldozers, occasional guns fired). These have a very good battery (8-10hrs), hugely comfortable over ear and over head fit, and sound much better than they should for that price. None of the in-ear monitor products I use compare and the quiet they provide as background is just that within reasonable expectations (you might not hear a pin drop).
#4 – THE SPEAKER FOR THE ROOM
– KEF MUO Bluetooth or Wired – best value for BT with 3-Unidriver speakers, line/wire-in option, 6-8 hrs battery, also discounted on Rakuten from $349 to $257. Not the lightest speaker for travel (aluminum casing, 3 speaker drivers) but small and tough enough to pack without cracking, and dead on with the sound it delivers. Easy to carry in a day pack with the Bose and maybe a small tablet/laptop (not for music) — my typical rig.
The KEF MUO is a full sounding speaker that plays very well at low volumes as well as turns up (caution it can be overdriven). It has limits but a nice wide range of sweet sounds with lows and highs well represented. I like to put it near a corner of the room to take advantage of the even better bottom that comes into the room.
I even use this speaker inside when I am outside with some windows slightly open and still hear the music fine. Of course I could take it outside with me, but no need to usually. The only thing irritating about the MUO is that it powers down automatically after it detects a not-so-long absence of music, even when it is plugged into AC. There may be a KEF control for this that I didn’t bother to look for yet but I end up having to turn it back on a lot.
THE WHOLE PACKAGE MOBILE HRA IS NOW EASY PEASY
For me the Mobile HRA got simpler without carrying the DAC, also no computer required (I always have 1TB SSD but don’t need it for my daily listening now), just travel with my iPhone. Spotify can find Bluetooth and WiFi speakers (through Apple Talk on the iPhone, Chromecast on Android) and the sound quality (MP3-320 == “Very High” or “Extreme”) is perfectly fine trade off for the lightness of travel and completeness of library. The Bose Noise Cancelling is something I had no idea that I would instantly come to rely on in an airplane or other noisy places including even home sometimes, just to be able to hear only the music and no other sounds. Bose gets high marks from others on their superior NC technology as I and others have compared. (I always thought NC was just kind of as sell-job…it’s NOT). I have used Bose for PA and other speaker gear for a long time so I know how well they do their research but in the end it just sounds great. I preferred the QC35 II sound to their next model the 700 ($399).
Mobile HRA got better since 2014 and barely existed for my ears before that. Well, it just didn’t really exist as a mobile solution. Now I use it for huge amounts of hours every day into the night as well as when I travel.
Here are some of my Spotify playlists…
My Ace in the Hole for all the lossy business…
One last mention of my home setup these past months has to do with what I feed the Spotify Ogg Voris lossy stream to that changes everything: The iFi Audio Pro iDSD PCM/MQA & DSD DAC + GTO Filter + DSD1024 Upsample + analog preamp out to any speaker or stereo setup. I wrote about this recently in a post here and called this miracle box The ultimate media refactoring vending machine. It takes the stream from Spotify and delivers it ultimately as 1-bit 45 – 49mHz DSD1024 that gets converted to analog and warmed by the tube preamp. You wouldn’t believe how good that sounds until you’ve heard it.