In the past several weeks, I've moved relatively slowly through this series on audiophile basics, describing in painstaking detail the starting point of a well-appointed music playback chain and the music itself.
Now that we know the potential of digital music's sound and delivery — and we've identified which elements characterize excellent, "audiophile" recordings — we can move along to the actual devices that play the music back and the new ways in which they're doing it.
Here is where it starts getting fun. Medium-less music — that is, music that doesn't physically take up space in your house, your car or your life — is the new reality, and it is interesting.
On the one hand, like I mentioned last week, we can occasionally find ourselves out of range and likewise out of music.
But the benefits of streaming outweigh that downside, and home entertainment device manufacturers have produced a multitude of products to take advantage of the new tech.
For example, Spotify's new Connect feature is flawless in its smooth, quick operation and excellent sound. Spotify Connect is a software function that can connect the streaming service to an AV receiver, Sonos box, Squeezebox, Bluesound Node, etc. For our purposes, it's a way to get your music piped into your main stereo or home theater system — a sizable step up in performance for the most popular streaming service.
The key with Connect though, is that your phone isn't actually sending or receiving the music, like it is when you connect it to a Bluetooth speaker. Bluetooth is quick and easy, but it's a local, in-the-same-room kind of affair. And the sound quality of most Bluetooth devices is compromised in several ways.
Which is fine, of course. Bluetooth speakers are awesome for what they do. But we're in pursuit of music playback excellence here. And what Spotify Connect does is truly excellent.
When you use Spotify Connect, your phone tells a remote server to play a song, and it's "streamed" to your home device via the Internet. That remote server recognizes your streaming device because your device is connected to the internet and has a unique IP address.
In Spotify Connect-enabled devices like some of the above mentioned, the ability to bring audio in through a physical hard-wired Ethernet connection or a Wifi connection means that extra-high sound quality can be attained.
I don't want to spend too long on this, but Ethernet audio transmission is the best-sounding digital stream we've come up with, and we're now in a technical age where its ubiquity along with its lighter-footed cousin Wi-Fi certainly appears possible.
Until now, a computer connected via USB allowed the highest quality music to pipe into your big stereo or home theater. But that was ridiculous — visible cables and a laptop near the entertainment center doesn't jibe with most design motifs.
Sonos led the charge toward internet-sourced audio for the mainstream audience, but the same connectivity can now be found in a host of new devices, and the bar for excellence has certainly been raised.