Tag Archives: audyssey

Boom time for audio?

The hi-fi industry is on its knees, or so I had thought. That may be true for traditional home stereos; but at a gadget briefing for UK press yesterday I saw more audio stands and stands highlighting audio products than I can recall. The themes: headgear (both headphones and earbuds) and wireless speakers.

As an example, Cygnett was highlighting its noise cancelling headphones and various earbuds, and told me that this is a fast-growing market.

I enjoyed the exotic things more of course, like the Edifier Spinnaker Bluetooth speakers – that little round thing is a wireless remote.

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Even more striking are the Opalum wall speakers, like this FLOW.4810 model, with an array of 48 1″ drivers in each active speaker.

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You can hang them on your wall like this:

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At the other end of the scale, BoomBotix showed its Boombot2 Bluetooth mini attached to the handlebars of a bike; a good way to make yourself unpopular, perhaps, but fun to see.

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Canadian speaker company PSB was showing its high-end M4U noise cancelling headphones

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I had a quick listen and they sounded good, though it is always hard to tell for sure in a crowded room. Neat feature: a press-button remote on the cable enables an external microphone so you can hear someone talking to you without removing the headphones.

Audyssey was there with its excellent powered speakers and docks; search this site for some reviews.

Another company with striking designs was Libratone, showing its Zipp AirPlay portable wireless speakers.

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One thing I did not see much of: old-style iPhone / iPod speaker docks that charge while you play. One exhibitor told me that users will think twice about buying docks with physical connectors now that Apple has changed the design and made everything incompatible without an adapter. In any case, wireless is more stylish. Bluetooth seems most favoured, since it is widely compatible; Android is making its mark and Apple-specific devices are becoming less attractive.

Also worth a mention is Urbanista, which showed its stylish headphones and earbuds, though the focus seems more on fashion than sound; like the London earbuds designed, I was told, to look like cuff links.

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The home stereo may be dead; but there is still innovation in audio. One factor is that almost any portable device – whether dedicated music player, smartphone or tablet – is capable of producing a high quality signal. Connect to the right headphones or active speakers and the magic begins.

Review: Audyssey Lower East Side Audio Dock Air for Apple AirPlay

Based in Los Angeles, Audyssey specialises in audio processing software. This is used in home theatre equipment such as multi-channel receivers, and also finds its way into TVs, mobile devices and cars. In 2010 Audyssey started making its own audio accessories, with an iPhone/iPod dock which I reviewed here. I was surprised how good they sounded. Since then I have kept a close eye (or ear) on the company’s small range of products. This is a company which cares about sound quality, and whose secret sauce is applying software to solve the problem of getting big, accurate sound from small enclosures.

The Lower East Side Audio Dock Air is an active loudspeaker system for Apple’s AirPlay wireless streaming protocol. It also has a standard 3.5mm input for wired connection to MP3 players or other devices. Using AirPlay, you can play music and control the volume from a Mac or PC running iTunes, or from iOS devices including iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch.

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What you get in the box is the Audio Dock Air, an external power supply, a 3.5mm jack connector, and a Quick Start Guide that unlike many others is actually rather good.

The styling of the Dock Air is distinctive with its speaker systems firing left and right, though if you check out the internal shots later on you will see that the tweeters are actually directed more forwards than sideways.

Plug in the power and you can get started. For set up, you press and hold a pairing button on back, which lets you connect to the Dock over Wi-Fi. You than browse to a small web application on the Dock, where you complete the set up by connecting to your home Wi-Fi network. You can also rename the device, which could be particularly useful if you have several Dock Airs in different rooms.

Once fully connected, you can go to iTunes and click on the AirPlay button at bottom right of the iTunes window. There you can select the Dock Air, using whatever name you assigned during setup:

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Even more convenient is to download the Remote app for iOS. This lets you use your iOS device to control iTunes on the Mac or PC.

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You can also play music directly from iOS.

The sound

The sound quality is excellent as I have come to expect from Audyssey. There are a few points to note though. The first thing you notice is the bass extension, which is remarkable for a unit of this size. Drums have real thump, and bass guitar sounds like bass guitar. If you are used to the anaemic bass of most small speakers, hearing this from a small box is pleasing and unexpected. That said, the sound is not dominated by the bass. The treble is sharp and clear too; and I was struck by how easy it is to follow different strands in the music and to notice small details.

Playing Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain, for example, you can easily hear the whispered “Son of a gun” right at the start of the track. Karajan’s Beethoven’s 9th sounds dramatic and powerful; a little lightweight compared to a full-range home stereo, but superb from a compact dock. Mika’s Billy Brown, a simple arrangement with a forward vocal, is conveyed with drama and deep bass from the accompaniment, with just a trace of confusion at the bottom end compared to my monitor reference speakers.

Given that this is a single box, you should not expect the best stereo image. You do get some limited stereo effect. The unit goes loud enough for most listening at home, but not for parties or neighbour-annoying rock out sessions,

I made a comparison with the Audyssey South of Market dock, which is just a little larger but a similar design. The older dock does not go quite so deep, though the sound is a shade cleaner; the Dock Air is slightly softer in tone though if you had your eyes closed you would guess it is larger, not smaller, than its predecessor. On Sade’s bass-heavy song By Your Side, the South of Market keeps a firmer grip than the Dock Air, though this is a difficult song to reproduce. Some listeners might find the bass in the Dock Air excessive, though it is not to my ears. I doubt anyone would think that of the South of Market dock. Both sound very good.

The not so good

Audyssey has a strong grip on audio technology, but less so with its manufacturing quality. It is not bad but could be better. The rotary volume control is slightly out of true on the review unit, for example. These are products that you have to hear to appreciate, and my guess that a little more investment in fit, finish and design would win more customers, bearing in mind the relatively high prices.

The responsiveness of the Dock Air can be laggy, both from iTunes and even more when used with the iOS Remote app. Some of this is down to the iTunes/AirPlay system, and no doubt some audio buffering in the Dock Air, but it can be annoying.

Switches and ports

The Dock Air is fairly minimalist when it comes to switches and ports. On the top of the unit is a rotary volume control and status LEDs.

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You can also control volume remotely, which you will probably do more often. The volume control is also a mute button; press down to mute, and again to unmute.

On the front is a headphone socket along with what looks like an infra-red receptor though if so it is undocumented.

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At the rear is the power, aux input, and pairing button. No on/off switch. I recommend turning off at the socket, connecting, and then switching on, presuming your mains sockets have switches.

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Underneath is a USB port, which Audyssey says is solely for future firmware updates.

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The technology

Audyssey does not give much away in its specifications for the Dock Air. It does state:

  • 3/4” tweeters
  • 3” woofers
  • 4” Passive bass radiator
  • Audyssey EQ
  • Audyssey BassXT
  • Audyssey Dynamic EQ

Of these, the last are the most interesting. What are they?

Audyssey EQ is not much documented, but in the context of another product I read that it corrects time and frequency response imperfections caused by the loudspeaker and cabinets.

BassXT “dynamically monitors the low frequency signals and constantly pushes the speaker to its maximum capability.” The over-simplification would be that it boosts the bass signal to compensate for the drop off in the frequency response of the woofer.

Dynamic EQ is a more sophisticated form of the “loudness” switch that you see on old hi-fi equipment. As Audyssey says, “It will preserve the and octave-to-octave balance of the content as you turn down the volume to make up for the changes that happen in human hearing at lower listening levels.”

Purists may feel that this is too much tinkering with the signal. My view is that the high quality results successfully validate the approach. With Audyssey products, it is a large part of what you are paying for.

Internals

The Dock Air is not designed to have its grilles or panels removed; however we had a quick look inside for this review. This shows one side of the unit with its 3” woofer and passive bass radiator.

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If you look carefully you can also see the tweeter at top left. Note that this points more towards the front than to the sides, though it is at an angle.

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Internally Audyssey has taken a lot of trouble with acoustic damping foam so that the sound is clean even at high volume. I was also impressed by the size of the loudspeaker magnets, which are bigger than I have seen on speakers many times larger.

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Conclusion

With rumours that Apple is redesigning its dock connector, thus threatening the compatibility of products like the South of Market dock, wireless is the future. If you value high sound quality and need an AirPlay speaker system, you will like the Lower East Side Audio Dock Air. Note that there is no Bluetooth support, so if you want to use non-Apple devices this is not suitable. A bit more attention to design and manufacturing quality would be welcome. But I do not know any other company that can get such great wide-range sound out of small boxes.

 

Audyssey Lower East Side speakers: remarkable sound quality in a compact package complete with DAC

Audyssey is a US company best known for its audio processing technology, as found in high-end home cinema receivers and the like. Recently the company has turned its attention to home audio, and now has a range with a couple of iPod/iPhone audio docks and these powered speakers, engagingly named “Lower East Side” (LSE), this being a tribute to a Manhattan neighbourhood which Audyssey says is “the stomping ground for bands propelling cutting-edge music at venues like CBGB, ABC No Rio and Arlene’s Grocery.”

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Audyssey is a company with attitude. You can expect that:

  • Audio quality will be high
  • Design will be individualistic but clean and uncomplicated
  • Products are for the modern listener equipped with Apple devices and the like, no CD player in sight
  • Prices will be at the premium end of the market

On that last point: do not write these off as too expensive until you have heard them. Yes, they are expensive compared to say a pair of Creative Inspire T10s (about 20% of the price) or Gigaworks T20 (about one third the price). Bear in mind though that the LESs have a built-in DAC and sound good enough than with something like a Mac Mini and nothing more you have a respectable and very compact home audio system.

What’s in the box

Inside the sturdy box you will find two powered speakers with integrated metal stands, each around 23cm (9 in) high and 12.4 cm (4.9in) wide including the stand. There is also a chunky power supply, a 3.5mm audio cable, a further cable that connects the two speakers, and a quick-start manual.

Connections are simple. The right-hand speaker has both optical and analogue audio inputs, plus a power socket. It also has a speaker output which you connect to the left-hand speaker with the supplied cable.

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Now attach a device with an audio output, and play.

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On the front of the right-hand speaker you will find a volume control which also switches the unit between standby and on. You do this by depressing the control, so when you turn it back on the volume remains as it was last set – a thoughtful detail.

Sound quality

The sound quality is remarkable. The aspect that is most surprising is the bass: put simply, these speakers sound much larger than they really are. The bass is not bloated or boomy though, especially if you use the digital input which I recommend.

I played Sade’s song By Your Side from Lover’s Rock. This song is characterised by deep bass which contrasts with Sade Adu’s silky clear vocals. On lesser systems the whole thing turns to mush, but this sounds great on the LESs. So does Prodigy’s Voodoo People, which depends on pounding bass for its potency.

The Miles Davis classic Kind of Blue is well conveyed, with piano that sounds like piano, the bass melodies easy to follow, and breathy trumpet that transports you back to the fifties studio where it was recorded (I seldom hear modern recordings that sound as good).

Any flaws? Well, you need to be realistic about the absolute volume level you can get from these things. They go loud enough for most listening, but you really want to rock out or party, look elsewhere. I would also worry about the longevity of the units if you max them out for long periods; though those fears may be unfounded.

The bass is prominent but not excessive in my view, unless you site them in a corner that further emphasises the bass, in which case you may find it too much.

I compared the LESs to a more expensive separates system with full-range floorstanding speakers. The LESs survived the comparison with credit; but you can hear how the vocals sound small and boxy relative to the large setup.

That said, when I was playing the LESs someone who came into the room was not sure whether the small or the large system was on; they are that good.

I compared the sound of the digital versus the line-in input. It goes without saying: if you use the line-in, then the quality is constrained by the quality of the DAC and pre-amplifier which precedes it. Attach a smartphone or MP3 player, for example, and it will probably be less good than the DAC in the LESs. Then again, most of these devices do not have a digital output so you have to make the best of it.

I used the Squeezebox Touch, which has a high quality DAC of its own, for a fairer comparison. It is hard to be sure, but to my ears the line-in option was slightly less clear than the digital, and slightly more bass-strong. My preference is for the digital connection.

Technical details

The supplied leaflet does not tell you much about the specifications. There are more details on the box:

  • Two silk-dome tweeters
  • Two 3.5” woofers
  • Two 4” passive bass radiators

These bass radiators are the secret of the LES’s extended bass. They occupy a large part of the back panel on each speaker:

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Note that these are not active speakers; they are correctly described as powered speakers because they have a built-in amplifier but the crossovers are passive, and the left-hand speaker receives an amplified signal from the right.

That said, in the hands of audio engineers a design like this has some of the advantages associated with an active loudspeaker. In particular, the amplifier can be designed specifically for the transducers, whereas a separate amplifier has to be designed to work with whatever speakers happen to be connected. This is especially true if you use the built-in DAC, allowing the integrated electronics to handle the entire analogue chain.

Audyssey revealed a few further details on its web site:

The LES speakers have passive crossovers.  We don’t list the amplifier power because it is meaningless in a powered speaker–it only has meaning in stand-alone amplifier.  The speakers are rated to produce 95 dB SPL at 1 m listening distance.  The optical input accepts PCM signals up to 24 bits/48 kHz.  Audyssey Smart Speaker technology is used to design the speaker driver, enclosure, and amplifier in conjunction with Audyssey EQ, Dynamic EQ and BassXT technologies.

I was interested in the remarks about high resolution PCM input. What about the common 24/96 format? I tried a 24/96 signal and the good news is that it played fine. Whether that means that the DAC actually fully supports 24/96, or whether it is played at 24/48 resolution, I do not know. I doubt that the difference would be audible.

Worth noting: both inputs are active all the time. This can be a good thing, if for example you want two sources plugged in, but only if you are careful not to play them both at once!

Annoyances

There are a few. One is that the speakers have an auto-standby feature, which kicks in if you stop playing music for a while. There is no auto-on though, so you have to get up and turn them on: fine if they are on your desk, but irritating if you are sitting at the other end of the room.

A remote volume control would be nice (and would deal with the standby problem too). That said, in most cases you have a volume control on the input that you can adjust remotely, but this is not always the case.

The line-in needs a relatively high signal level in order to make use of the full volume of which the speakers are capable.

The power supply is not universal. This means you cannot buy these in the USA but use them in the UK, for example, unless you get a new power supply or step-down transformer. The power supply is also rather bulky, for which there may be good audio reasons, but it detracts from the compactness of the design.

Conclusions

Despite a few niggles, the sound quality on offer is extraordinary for the size of these speakers; they are the best speakers of this type which I have heard. If you want something to sit on your desk plugged into a Mac or PC, but without compromising sound quality, these are ideal. They also make a great companion to a Squeezebox Touch or similar: all your music, in good quality with little clutter.

 

Review: Audyssey iPhone Audio Dock South of Market Edition

How good can a dock for an Apple iPod or iPhone sound? Pretty good, as this high-end South of Market Audio Dock from Audyssey demonstrates. If you think all iPod docks have thin, tinny bass, think again. It also turns out to be a neat speakerphone.

The dock has a distinctive bulbous shape, measuring around 24cm (9.5”) square on its largest side, with the dock mounted on the front edge. The unit is designed to sit on a desk or table and is surprisingly heavy for its size – probably an encouraging sign. Viewed from the front it looks tall and compact.

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The side view though shows that the speakers do have some room to breathe.

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As you can see, the speakers are firing more or less sideways. This is not ideal for stereo imaging, but in practice the dock delivers a wider image than you might expect.

Here is what you get out of the box: the dock, a remote with a battery, a USB cable, and two 3.5mm audio cables.

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Getting started is just a matter of putting the battery in the remote (slightly fiddly), plugging in the power cable, docking your iPod or iPhone, and playing some music. There is also an app you can download that provides some additional settings.

Before going into more detail about what this dock is capable of, let me say immediately that the sound quality is excellent. Words that come to mind are crisp, deep, rich, smooth and powerful. Vocals have real presence. The dock successfully conveyed the drama of a Mahler symphony, the growl of Tom Waits, the complex rhythms and pace of Santana, and the tender emotion of English folk singer Sandy Denny. Once I started playing music, I did not want to stop.

The secret of this high quality is twofold. First, the electronics follows high-end principles. There are four speakers – two 4-inch woofers, two .75 inch tweeters – which are powered by four separate amplifiers controlled by an active crossover. By contrast, a typical home hi-fi would have two amplifiers driving speakers with passive crossovers. Active crossovers mean that the musical signal is divided into the optimum frequencies for each speaker driver at a low level, introducing less distortion and improving control.

Audyssey takes further advantage of this, by using software processing to mitigate the limitations of the speaker drivers. That’s no surprise, since Audyssey specialises in audio processing technology for other manufacturers, which gets incorporated into home theatre and in-car equipment.

According to the specification, there are several techniques implemented in this dock. BassXT extends the bass response by boosting the signal dynamically to flatten the frequency response at a point when it would normally be dropping off. Audyssey EQ corrects “time and frequency response” imperfections introduced by the loudspeakers and cabinets. Dynamic EQ performs frequency response correction to preserve a flat response as volume changes. Dynamic Volume evens out the volume level to compensate for differences in the volume of the source.

Some of these features can be controlled or disabled by a companion iOS app, free to install. Specifically, you can disable Dynamic Volume or set it to optimize for Background Listening; you can apply tone controls including a single tone control called Tilt or traditional bass and treble; or you can set your own custom EQ.

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I admit that seems a lot of processing; and it would not have surprised me if the results were worse than pure straight-through audio reproduction. That is not the case though; the unit sounds very good indeed. Given the challenge of getting high quality sound from a relatively small enclosure, taking advantage of digital processing makes sense to me, provided it is carefully implemented at it is here.

Controlling playback

Once you have docked an iPhone and set it playing, you can control it either from the iPhone itself, or from the supplied remote, or pause and play by tapping an illuminated icon on top of the unit (It is not obvious that this is a button, but once you discover it, it is a handy feature; it also has some other functions including answering phone calls and showing Bluetooth status).

The remote has buttons for volume up/down, pause/play, and skip forward or back.

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The Audyssey dock supports Bluetooth and for full features you should pair your iPhone with it and keep Bluetooth on. Now you can stream music from an iPhone even when it is not docked. This can be handy, since the iPhone is easier to use in your hand then when docked. Using Bluetooth, you can undock it with only brief interruption in playback, for example for selecting music. Range seems good, and I was able to detach the iPhone, walk through the door of my study and into the corridor, and the music kept playing – though note that the audio quality will not be as good. I found the quality acceptable though noticeably inferior.

When docked, the iPhone will charge provided the dock is not in standby mode.

There are also buttons on the remote intended for the dock’s speakerphone feature, which deserves its own paragraph.

Audyssey as conferencing speakerphone

The most intriguing feature of the Audyssey South of Market dock is its speakerphone feature. For this to work, you must have Bluetooth enabled.

Scenario: you are enjoying music, when a call comes in. At this point the music pauses, the iPhone invites you to decline or answer the call, and a ring sounds through the dock’s loudspeakers. Tap the phone icon on the remote and you can answer the call while using the dock as a speakerphone.

It turns out the Audyssey dock makes a rather good speakerphone. It performs microphone array processing and echo cancellation to improve voice quality, using front and rear microphones, and in my testing this worked well.

You can also wire up the dock to a computer, using its line in and mic out connections. This lets you use it as a speakerphone with Skype or other Voice over IP providers. Nice idea, though my guess it that this is too inconvenient for most users. Working with the iPhone is more compelling.

Connections

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This is the back panel, showing the microphone output, line in, and USB port. Above the panel is a button for pairing a Bluetooth device. If you connect the USB port to a computer, the docked iPhone will sync with iTunes, though auto-sync can be a nuisance if you frequently dock and undock the device.

Annoyances

Not that many. However, I would like some way to select music from my seat when the iPhone is docked, beyond the simple track skip on the remote. Of course you can do this using Bluetooth streaming, though sound quality may be compromised.

Even with Bluetooth set up, I find that removing the iPhone from the dock pauses the music. I have to tap play to resume it. Re-docking the iPhone interrupts the music briefly but it resumes automatically.

Considering the cost of the device though, it’s a shame that Audyssey does not supply a proper manual; there is an excellent one online [pdf], but the one in the box is just safety warnings and limited warranty, pleasing for the lawyers but not for users.

The stereo separation is good considering it is a single box, but poor compared to two speakers set apart in the normal way.

Summary

The Audyssey South of Market Dock costs more than most iPod/iPhone docks, but in return it delivers superb sound quality along with some well thought-out speakerphone features.

The B&W Zeppelin makes an interesting comparison. The Zeppelin is a little more expensive but has better stereo separation thanks to its 640mm (25.2 in) width, and has a sub-woofer for extended bass. On the other hand, the Audyssey is more compact and could be considered less intrusive depending on what you think of the Zeppelin’s distinctive styling, and the Zeppelin has no Bluetooth streaming.

In the USA it is an easy decision. The Audyssey dock at around $400 is better value than a Zeppelin at around $600. In the UK the fact that B&W is a UK company whereas Audyssey is based in Los Angeles seems to bring the prices closer together: £400 for a Zeppelin versus £350 for the Audyssey dock. Try to hear them both; but the Audyssey dock is not shamed and is still well worth considering.

Compatibility

The South of Market Audio Dock fits:

  • iPhone 4
  • iPhone 3 and 3GS
  • iPod Touch
  • iPod Nano (4th and 5th generation)
  • iPod classic

Price and availability

The Audyssey South of Market Dock costs around $399.00. You should find it at Apple stores among other retailers.

Amazon.co.uk is advertising this dock for availability from 15th January 2011, at £349.99