Kevin Hunt - The Electronic Jungle
The Electronic Jungle
10:30 AM EDT, October 17, 2013
I owe you an apology, Bluetooth. After all these years of disrespecting your sad-sack, short-range audio — oops, there I go again — I now know you're actually flush with potential.
I've seen it, and heard it, with the Mass Fidelity Relay Hi-Fi wireless receiver. It's the first product from an Ontario company that has noted the burgeoning demand for, and the limitations of, streaming-music products that use Bluetooth.
A familiar Bluetooth delivery is from smartphone or tablet to a Bluetooth-enabled portable speaker, quick and easy wireless music with a 30-foot range, indoors or outside. The Relay is definitely a homebody: a little box designed to connect to an audio system, receive a Bluetooth signal from a paired smartphone or tablet and make it sound more like a CD.
This is not the compressed, low-resolution music usually ladled out via Bluetooth. The emerging aptX audio coding technology showing up more frequently in Android devices might be a signal that Bluetooth audio is due for a jolt. (For a list of aptX-compatible devices, csr.com.) Apple, alas, still has not adopted the technology that brings higher-resolution streaming to mobile devices.
So who wants CD-quality music delivered via Bluetooth when you can get the same thing, also wirelessly, over the much wider range of a home network using Apple's $99 Airport Express? (The Relay costs $249.)
Enough people, perhaps, with a home network that doesn't reach every corner of the house or maybe the tech-averse who have neither a home network nor a modem but desire the convenience of high-quality wireless music.
The Relay, in truth, goes slightly beyond the CD-level (16-bit, 44.1-kilohertz) streaming of the Airport Express. But it must have streamable CD-level-or-better music files on a smartphone or tablet. It can't turn an MP3 or low-bit AAC file into something glorious. It needs Apple Lossless, WAV or other CD-quality files.
Though the Relay isn't much bigger than a couple of Roku boxes or Apple TVs stacked on top of each other, its quality is quickly apparent with a machined-aluminum chassis. Otherwise, it's just another box with a pair of RCA connections, a screw-on Bluetooth antenna, power-supply connector and an on-off button on the back panel and a tiny LED on top.
The Relay targets the audio connoisseur. Yes, those RCAs serve as analog connections to a nearby audio system. Mass Fidelity inexplicably doesn't mention it in the manual, but those analog RCA connections also handle a digital signal. Just push and press the on/off button until the LED turns orange.
When used with a digital cable, the signal remains digital as it emerges from the Relay — untouched by the device's Burr-Brown digital-to-analog converter chip — so it can be connected to the digital input of an audio-video receiver or a stand-alone digital-to-analog converter.
The Relay, no matter how I used it, never failed to impress. And this all-Apple household did not have access to an Android device with aptX. But Bluetooth's A2DP profile can still stream uncompressed CD-or-better-quality from a non-Android device.
In a small office system with an under-$100 FiiO Class D amplifier and under-$100 Pioneer SP-BS21-LR speakers, the Relay sounded almost as good as music delivered to the same system via an Airport Express. The Express produced slightly deeper bass and added some presence to vocals, but they were very close. Both offered plausible, CD-like reproduction.
Inserted into a more elaborate system, the Relay sounded better, through an analog connection, than any Bluetooth I've heard. That best-ever lasted only until I switched the Relay to digital and connected it to a Peachtree digital-to-analog converter. The music moved even closer to CD reproduction, with a quieter, "darker" background.
Then I listened to the same music, direct wired, with a Macbook feeding the Peachtree DAC files stored on an external hard drive. Now, still listening to the Elina Duni Quartet, I suddenly could hear the sound of Duni's lips as she enunciated.
For a dose of music realism, there's nothing like fully wired audio. Mass Fidelity, however, will change the way anyone serious about music reproduction thinks about Bluetooth.
Mass Fidelity Relay
Hi-Fi wireless receiver
Good: Closer-to-CD-quality music from Bluetooth; well-built, analog-digital RCA connections.
Not so good: Expensive; somewhat limited demand for higher-resolution Bluetooth.
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