Pseudo-Review: Pennies From Heaven Where Cents Make Great Audio

First. The newest Raspberry Pi was kinda hard to get till I happened across it. I’m worst-guessing this is due to limited supply, heavy demand. Some online shops were taking orders of the Pi but then not indicating delivery dates. Second. I bow humbly to #Hifiberry and their new Amp2 and the fact that I just happened to see they had new Pi’s available when I was gawking at maybe getting another of their audio boards–on account I’ve been so tickled with their DAC+ Pro board. Btw, I wasn’t interested in the RPI3B+ to even go with the new Amp2. I was ordering the Amp2 to put on my RPi3–which would give me two potential audio sources in my house. The RPi3B+ was a just because purchase. Here’s a rundown of my current Pi setup:

  • RPi2B – with Hifiberry Dac+ Pro (more on that here); currently being used as a Plex Client (RasPlex)
  • RPi3B – this one I’m now using with the Hifiberry Amp2 (more on that below)
  • RPi3B+ – just because–and to test if the newest Pi is finally a viable desktop alternative (it’s not quite there yet); also testing for NAS use (so far so good but I’m not ready to replace my old MacPro with it yet)

Now on to a pseudo-review of Hifiberry’s Amp2.

Wow! I was blown away with the first sound that came out of the Amp2. Using Volumio, I’ve been testing this little audio miracle on three different speakers (see pic above). The great news is, it doesn’t matter what speaker I was using. The Amp2 drives them all till a smile rolls off my geezer and curls back ’round into my ears. Of the three speakers I own, my favourites are the Pioneer BS-22–which I lugged across the Atlantic (on account I couldn’t buy them in Germany) in early March. And although my B&W 305s are currently being stored in my basement, I hooked them up just see if the Amp2 could power my ageing low-end towers. It powered them with gusto! Of course, the smallest speakers I own are the Audioengine P4s–which were, I thought at the time, the best deal I had ever made on speakers–but then I got the BS-22s. Nomatter. I’m a cheap-o pseudo-audiophile and I don’t mind admitting to it–especially considering the cost of some of those fancy speakers from Apple, Sonos, etc., which also limit your listening experience through stupid transcoding. So let’s move on.

My only gripe with the Amp2 right now is software, specifically Volumio. I run a Mac home network and Volumio cannot access Mac shares. Nor can it access Mac SMB shares. I’ve been reading forums, posting questions to support sites, reading more krapp, and to save my life I cannot get Volumio to access my 2010 headless MacPro which is a iTunes server, a Plex Media Server and, of course, a file server for a small household of multiple Macs and iOS devices. I’ve given up on networking with Volumio since I have a few old spinning 3.5″ HDDs lying around. So I bought a UBS external powered case and let the RPi/Amp2 access music files that way. Works great.

The Amp2 is nothing short of a little miracle audio board. It’s rated at 60w of power and I can say that it easily produces sound as good as my TEAC A-H01 amp. In fact, it’s better than my TEAC in that, when used with Volumio, I no longer have to get up to change the volume. Another gripe I have with the Amp2 is that when controlling it with Rasplex or Volumio, neither has an output/driver setting specifically for it. According to the Hifiberry website, you’re supposed to choose the Hifberry DAC+ driver because “the Amp2 is basically a DAC+ with an integrated power stage.” After fiddling with the DAC+Pro (on my RPi2) for a while, I realised that the biggest issue with this type of audio device is definitely the power source. I’ve since purchased two 5v 3amp micro USB power source/cables for my other Pis. Fortunately Hifiberry sells a small power brick separately so I went ahead and bought that for this setup. So far, the brick is the best way to power the RPi and Hifiberry. In fact, considering the flimsy-ness of the micro-USB in the RPi, I’m really digging the Amp2’s way of powering things.

After a few weeks of testing, the Amp2 works so well that I’ve actually replaced my living-room Rasplex client with it. My living-room TV now only serves as a monitor for my ageing AppleTV3, which we rarely use. In fact, the only time we use our TV is as a screen/monitor for Apple Photos slideshows via the AppleTV3. We’re no longer TV gawkers so we don’t miss NOT having a TV as part of music play. And to be honest, I’m really digging controlling all our audio needs with my iPhone. Besides, when my better-half watches her German TV stuff she does on her iPad. And so… why the hell am I worst-writing about how we watch/use a TV? Nomatter. I listen to music when cooking, when worst-blogging, and especially when I’m cuddling with Beckett the killer pug on the couch. If you can get through the minor hassle of the Amp2 not having a decent case (yet) or having to fix speaker wires to it, this is one heck of a purest audio device that can be easily hid in a shrank, book shelf, or even under a couch, etc. All you need to control it is a home network, a smartphone and a bunch audio files.

Brilliant cheap audio!

Rant on.

-T

Pseudo Review: Audio On The Cheap, Refurbised Used Speakers, Raspberry Pi HifiBerry Galore And Happy As A Pig In…

First pseudo-review of this sort of stuff here.

Been fiddling around with audio for a few years now. About a decade ago, well into my forties, I made the mistake of purchasing a surround sound system. It was some ginormous thirty-pound, seven channel, only God knows how to setup system and after a few years the only thing I got out of it was hate. I hated having to run some fancy automated sound test with a microphone to set up the speakers. Once setup I never had the feeling that the super fancy microphone that came with it even did the right job. I hated the crossover between the speakers and the amp, especially when it came to the seven-hundred watt subwoofer that I had attached to it. And don’t get me started on the hate I have for audio encoding whether multichannel, DTS, Dolby, HD, blah, blah, blah. All in all, I was glad to finally get rid of that thing, practically giving it away after only three people bid on it. The one thing I did get out of dealing with that krapp for a few years: I love stereo. I missed plain old fashion music coming out of two speakers. Indeed. Listening to great audio doesn’t have to be a big deal–and it doesn’t have to be expensive either.

Although there was a bit of a struggle for a short while regarding whether or not my future listening needs would be analog or digital, I quickly came to realise that I didn’t care about either. The only thing I was sure about was that I no longer wanted multi-channel and I don’t want to use headphones. That’s right. There’s only one other type of sound I hate more than multi-channel sound. I hate listening to music through headphones. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that headphone don’t sound great. I’ve heard them here or there. Some of them are mind-blowing. It’s just that the immediate connection between ear and source has always bothered me. There’s just something wrong with having my ear-drums so close to the source. I mean, when I’m at a concert I don’t put my ear up to the stage or even the amps. But there’s no reason to nitpick. I get it why some Das Volk love headphones. As far as I’m concerned, more power to y’all!

Btw, when I say analog or digital I’m referring mostly to amplification and media storage. With that in mind, I did side with the digital world even though I discarded my ageing CD player when I got rid of my multi-channel AV system. I consider myself digital because, well, I’m not getting a vinyl player or going back to cassettes anytime soon. And so… As long as I can rip CDs or download purchased music, I have no need for physical or analog media. (Wow. I hope I’ve gotten that right!) On the other hand, I haven’t bought any new music in years. Seriously. In the last five or so years, I think I’ve purchased three albums on Amazon. Otherwise, my music collection is basically ripped new, used, traded CDs from when I was young. The music is served with Plex and sometimes (my wife) iTunes.

Almost a speaker review.

This worst-post, i.e. this pseudo-review, is supposed to be about having purchased a set of Pioneer SP-BS22-LR Andrew Jones speakers–but it’s also about having achieved my dream audio system… ON THE F’N CHEAP. According to the Interwebnets, the BS22’s are some of the best speakers you can buy for the least amount of money. And the Interwebnets ain’t wrong! The only problem with these speakers is they are not for sale in Europe. And I didn’t want to have them sent to The Old Country thereby taxing the heck out of ’em. After all these years of living in Germania and having to deal with import taxes, customs, etc, I never order anything from abroad anymore. It’s just a hassle galore, don’t you know. Since I frequently travel to The Homeland…

Full stop. Can you believe the US has a government agency named Homeland? I mean, Orwell anyone?

After reading about these speakers and their specs, measurments, etc., I thought I could easily transport them back to The Old Country on a return flight. And guess what? It was easy-peesy to do just that. I made sure I traveled with the largest suitcase I own, though, because these speakers are a bit bigger than I thought–especially when you first see the box they are delivered in. But after opening them, giving them a feel and hug, I realised discarding the original packaging and getting them in my luggage wrapped in the cushion of my dirty underwear and rotting socks, they should be fine. In fact, other than a very slight dent in the fake wood vinyl covering on one of the speaker’s edges that is barely noticeable, they made it without a scratch. Needless to say I was tickled to hear them for the first time when I got back to my expat home. That’s right, dear worst-reader. I had no way to test them in the US. But hey. For a set of refurbished speakers from you-know-who online, what the hell.

Speakers in use by worst-writer.

  • B&W 305 towers – I’ve had them for about ten years. Althoug I probably should, I can’t get rid of them. In the right room with a decent amp and when properly placed in front of me while I sit in a comfy chair with cup of tea, they are magnificant low-cost, entry-way audiophile speakers. I think I paid €250 for them used. Until I get the right room for them, they’re mostly in the basement and unused due to wife-approval issues.
  • Bose Companion 20 – Although I’m not a fan of most of Bose’s stuff on account of their arbitrary (i.e., Apple-like) product over-pricing, I got these powered speakers as a gift a long time ago. They really are very good if/when connected via audio-jack to a laptop and used on a desk–or used as ersatz TV speakers.
  • Audioengine P4 – I bought them via you-know-who warehouse deal at almost half-price which saved me from having to get a sound-bar or using the Bose speakers to replace krappy TV speakers. They are powered with a SMSL Q5 Pro mini amp and a standard, old fashion audio-jack from the TV to the amp, which lets my wife control volume using the TV’s remote. The TV gets audio via HDMI from a second Raspberry PI (model 3) w/ RasPlex and/or an AppleTV(3). These are fantastic speakers–but NOT worth their full retail price!

The Pioneer SP-BS22-LR speakers are cheap. I paid $90 for them plus tax. For that kind of money they are twice as good as the Audioengine P4’s and are a tick better than my ageing B&W 305s towers. I even have the feeling that the little Pioneers are better at bass than the much taller, beefier B&Ws that have six inch woofers. But then again, I’m not a bass fan.

As you can see in the pic above, the BS22’s are attached to a TEAC A-H01 amp. The amp drives the speakers beautifully no matter what the source. In my case I use either USB (PC), fibre-optic (Apple TV) or analog cinch (Pi). Which brings me to the other magic of this low cost audio system. Although the TEAC does have a USB DAC and I can easly attache my MacBook to it, my main audio delivery system is a Raspberry Pi (model 2 B) and a HifiBerry DAC+Pro with analog cinch cables streaming via Ethernet from a Plex server.

I stream music from a Plex server in my basement via ethernet. After sorting out the power needs of the Pi–problem solved with a dedicated 5v 3amp micro USB power source–these new speakers have given me a feeling of closer for this system. Although I have plans of fiddling more with HifiBerry’s and cheap Class-T amps in the future, this setup in my work room (also my main listening room) is now my audio galore dream come true.

Total cost of work-room audio system dream come true for a small office or bedroom.

  • TEAC A-H01: €300 (warehouse deal; no longer available)
  • BS22 speakers: €100 (warehouse deal; available cheaper in the US if/when on sale)
  • Raspberry Pi 2 B: €60 (including micro-SD card, dedicated micro USB power, steel case)
  • Hifiberry Dac+Pro: €45
  • Cables: €50
  • Plex Media Server, RasPlex client: free!

And so… Listen closely to Miles’ lips on that trumpet.

Rant on.

-T