Hi-Fi: 1999

I used to religiously watch a sci-fi TV show called Space 1999 when I was kid. Who would have guessed that four decades later it would help inform my take on the current state of wireless high fidelity.

The show only ran for two seasons from 1975-1977 – I was six years old at the time – and it was the coolest view of Earth’s future my small world had been exposed to up to that point. The fact that it still holds up today (OK, some of the special effects are a bit dated) bodes well for my then burgeoning taste in eclectic television and film.

The premise of the series was that the crew of Moon Base Alpha are constantly battling for survival following an explosion so huge that it cracks Luna from its orbit around Earth and launches it on a trajectory into the unknown of deep space.

At the time, this concept was so far-out it would literally blow my mind every week I watched an episode. I just couldn’t get over it – it was just so unthinkable that it could happen. I would sit there dropping silent F-Bombs as I watched. “The moon is blasted out of orbit with Earth!.” So it was the other day when I was considering writing this article that Space 1999 insinuated itself into my psyche as a metaphor for the current state of wireless high fidelity.

I mean, true, reference class hi-fi without cables (other than AC/mains). That’s as insane as… The moon being blasted out of orbit with Earth! Right?

Wrong.

Although it wasn’t that long ago you would have had a tough time convincing me that wireless hi-fi could be equivalent – from an audiophile sound-quality standpoint – with its wired counterpart, these days I feel that argument is losing its teeth.

Wired or wireless, it seems foolish to think that the gap hasn’t closed to a point of splitting hairs – especially in the sub $15,000 USD price category (which is a big chunk of hi-fi). Properly executed wireless is competitive with some of the best wired out there in my opinion if you’re not talking serious money. Yes, if you really want to rattle your cage with wireless, it still costs, but it’s becoming far more affordable. Whether it’s DSP, room compensation/correction software, true high-end bespoke construction of parts, internal RF shielding, sophisticated circuit architecture and ultra-short output pathway routing along with isolated power supplies, it is all adding up, making a huge differences in SQ. Add in the sonic leaps of the audio-compression algorithms themselves and critical mass is soon upon us. Since taking this gig I’ve had more time than ever before to spend with wireless-streaming digital systems and that’s got me reconsidering how long cabling will matter in this hobby come 2029.

Let me explain my reasoning.

One of the many things I’ve learned over the years in this hobby is that as digital technology gets better (in high-end audio we’re referencing SQ), the more mainstream that technology becomes. Albeit with a time delay for those who don’t want to shell out megabucks. (Who waited to upgrade their plasma flatscreen to OLED? Anyone?) What was considered cutting-edge tech with expensive R&D, tooling and circuit architecture three years ago – with a price tag reflecting that status – usually becomes available to manufacturers en masse and becomes embedded in equipment costing far less than the gear those early adopters – or pioneering electronics companies that invented and paid for the technology to begin with – originally put out three years previously.

Just think what that means for wireless streaming-audio technology, and the audiophiles who covet its convenience, three years from now. If you could have the same level of SQ in a digital-based, no-box setup (just powered, wireless speakers), rather than the plethora of separates and looms of cable you have now – regardless of the price of your current system – would you, or would you not prefer to run cable-less? To me, in the wired world which I live, cables make a huge difference, but that doesn't mean I don't think the day could come when only AC/Mains cables are helping us to get the most from our systems.

Right now the level of sound quality inherent to the digital-file protocols for wireless audio transmission – digital audio streaming – (AES, AirPlay, DTS Play-Fi, PurePath, Devialet AIR, etc.) is up to 24-bit/192kHz – 9,216 kbps – more than enough resolution for my ears based on what I’ve heard from those files to date. Even 24-bit/96kHz – 4,608 kbps – is an enormous leap from the highest mp3 bitrate of 320 kbps and well beyond CD/Redbook at 1,411 kbps.

Companies like Bang & Olufsen, Bowers & Wilkins, Devialet, Goldmund and KEF have an array of wi-fi active speaker systems at price points from $1,000 USD to $145,000 USD and while this is obviously an example of extremes in pricing (and scale, sonics, build quality – many other variables), it gives you an idea of what’s available out there presently at the leading edge of wi-fi or Bluetooth-enabled true wireless all-in-one or source-based systems.

Having personally spent time with wireless all-in-one setups (powered, active loudspeakers with built-in wi-fi, Bluetooth and driver-tailored amplification) ranging from the $1,000 USD KEF LSX to the $84,990 USD B&O Beolab 90, I can say that both of those extremes have deeply impressed me at their respective price points. The Beolab 90 leaving me twitchy to get them in my home and the LSX sounding far better than I thought such diminutive bookshelf monitors had any right to.

That leaves a wide swath of options in-between those two and I’m looking forward to hearing what other companies have on offer in that bandwidth moving forward. First up on these pages will be the newly launched Bowers & Wilkins Duo Formation wireless bookshelves, which I just received and am in the process of setting up. Stay tuned to this space for more on that very soon.

As for what we’re listening to over wi-fi, the ‘HD’ or ‘Ultra HD’ codec of choice for online streaming services like TIDAL, Qobuz, Amazon HD, etc., seems to be FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec). First introduced in 2001, it’s helping to open up a whole new world of high-end, high-resolution audio for enthusiasts. 24-bit digital audio has a theoretical resolution of 144dB (compared to around 96dB for CD’s 16-bit), so in my mind, considering how great Redbook sounds, there’s a lot of headroom available in higher bit depths.

In the not-so-distant future we may see current bandwidth limitations eclipsed as wireless protocols and the hardware to run it improves their resolution capabilities. Unlike the future which the Earth of the past faced on Space 1999, we should have a moon around when this occurs – which is good because between that show’s concept and the present high-tech/high-SQ state of wireless fidelity, I don’t think my mind can take being blown-up like that again.

COMMENTS
rt66indierock's picture

My actual maximum is 102 dB, 17 bits. Any louder would harm my hearing. And the last two concerts I've attended never reached 80 dB in volume.

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