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- Written by Doug Schneider Doug Schneider
- Category: Monthly Column Monthly Column
- Created: 01 August 2017 01 August 2017
According to Statista.com, 122.32 million smartphones were sold in 2007, the year the first iPhone was released. In 2016, almost 1.5 billion smartphones were sold, and there’s no reason to believe this growth will stop anytime soon. According to a January 12, 2017 article by the Pew Research Center, 77% of Americans own a smartphone, up from 35% in 2011.
Technically, smartphones are advancing more rapidly than laptop and desktop computers, because the potential markets for them are so large and varied. Look at Apple. They’ve put a little more focus on their computers this year in response to criticism for letting their computer technologies fall behind, but few have noticed -- what’s on everyone’s mind is the forthcoming iPhone 8. Samsung makes laptops, but you’d hardly know it -- the vanguard of their brand is their phones.
The popularity, power, and omnipresence of smartphones inspired me to post this on my Facebook wall on July 6, 2017:
In the late ’90s, I quit my corporate day job to concentrate on SoundStage! because I knew that online publishing would overtake print publishing in not too long of a time. It proved to be a good move. Today, online publishing rules over print -- but now the rules for it are changing rapidly. Whereas before it was mostly text in online publications, now, and more so in the future, electronic text has to mesh seamlessly and share its space with digital videography and photography. Online publishing offers so many more ways to disseminate information. As relevant today are the dominant reading devices. In the ’90s, it was the desktop. In the 2000s, desktops took a back seat to laptops, then, for a time, it seemed like tablets would be the big things. They weren’t -- phones are. Whether we like it or not, the future of media distribution is in the palms of our hands and, I think, over the next two to four years the smartphone will have as big of an impact on publishing as the explosion of the Internet did in the 1990s.
That message had mostly to do with what’s in store for SoundStage! -- in particular, what our publications need to do to adapt to the needs of the ever-increasing number of not only our readers who use smartphones, but our readers who use only smartphones, and don’t own any sort of computer. Although I couldn’t find current statistics about the numbers of smartphone-only users, in April 2015 Comscore.com published an article, “Number of Mobile-Only Internet Users Now Exceeds Desktop-Only in the U.S.” The figures then: 11.3% of Internet users used only mobile devices, and 10.6% used only desktop computers. I think those percentages must now be, respectively, much higher and much lower. I applaud Wired’s Christina Bonnington for getting the jump on this topic -- in February 2015, she wrote the article “In Less Than Two Years, a Smartphone Could Be Your Only Computer,” in which she correctly pointed out that the increasing power of smartphones would allow them to take the place of laptops and other types of computers.
Here is the question I now pose to audiophiles: Is it so farfetched to think that the smartphone could become the main digital source of high-resolution recordings to play through our high-end hi-fi systems, replacing today’s laptops and standalone music servers? I’m not talking about the lo-rez Bluetooth streaming often associated with phones, but about using our phones for most or even all of the uses that we now put computers to. Of course, I have an answer to that rhetorical question: It’s not implausible at all. It’s already happening, and for good reasons.
First, today’s phones have so much computing power that they’ve already replaced traditional computers for certain tasks. They’ll soon be even more powerful, and do all the tasks laptops do today. Their storage capacities are also growing. My new Samsung S8 phone has more internal storage than my Samsung Ultrabook laptop did five years ago, and I suspect that the phones available five years from now will have more storage than my Asus Ultrabook laptop does today. In fact, smartphone no longer adequately describes these devices; they’re really high-powered, handheld computers.
Second, an increasing number of music listeners, including audiophiles, are moving from locally stored music files to streaming services such as Qobuz, Spotify, and Tidal. As a result, many no longer need the terabytes of hard-drive space required for a locally stored music collection -- even a collection of audiophile recordings. SoundStage! writers discussed this when we gathered at High End 2017, in May. Right now, all of us stream music -- for some of us, it’s our primary source. Furthermore, while only a few years ago almost all of us, including me, were ripping hundreds if not thousands of CDs to hard drives, this year not one of us had ripped more than a handful. This is because none of us is buying CDs as we used to -- not when we can get all the latest music in CD resolution from a streaming service. Of those who still have large collections of locally stored music, most, like me, don’t keep those files directly on music-serving computers; instead, they’re stored on external hard drives of network-attached storage (NAS) devices. So even if smartphone storage doesn’t increase to current computer capacities anytime soon, it doesn’t matter -- external storage takes care of those needs.
Because the trends of streaming and the use of handheld devices as main music sources are already in progress, it’s no surprise that some companies have gotten a jump on it, and the French company Devialet always seems farthest ahead of the hi-fi tech curve. In late 2014, their Phantom and Silver Phantom loudspeakers were launched with Devialet’s Spark control app, which can be downloaded to a computer or phone. If you run a single Phantom, you can stream music directly via Spark running on your phone with no additional hardware -- you can use a computer, but it’s not required. If you want to run two to as many as 24 Phantoms, you can still use your phone as the source, but then you must use the Dialog, a hardware component that connects to your network as the Phantom does. The Dialog isn’t a music server, or anything that resembles a computer; it just allows the Phantoms to talk to each other and to Spark, basically serving as a router directing music streams to the speakers.
Having used the Gold Phantoms and Spark for several months in preparation for reviewing them, I’ve become familiar with the Devialet system’s strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, Spark operates fast on phones, even my four-year-old Samsung S5, and using it with streaming services is highly intuitive. The first time I opened Spark on my phone, I configured the Phantoms and Tidal, my only streaming service, and in less than two minutes was playing music. Couldn’t have been easier. I even wirelessly played CD-resolution files stored on my phone through this setup, also without a hiccup.
Configuring a NAS device wasn’t so simple. The Devialet system creates its own network, wired or wireless, alongside your home network -- you end up with two networks running independently. Because one of these networks can’t automatically “see” devices on the other, Spark couldn’t find the NAS on my regular home network. Compounding the issue was that, even if you want to insert a NAS in the Devialet network of Spark, Dialog, and Phantoms, the network won’t be able to access that device.
Although I could stream music without a computer, and even play files from my phone, I wound up having to install Spark on a computer that’s on my network and can access the NAS, then use that computer as a bridge to the Devialet network. So a complete phone-based solution it isn’t. Despite that limitation, these days when I want to stream music, there’s nothing simpler than picking up my phone, opening Spark, choosing the music I want to listen to, and pushing Play -- a kind of setup I prefer over a music server or laptop any day. And if Devialet finds a way to better integrate a NAS into their network, I’ll be in music-playing heaven.
Most relevant to most audiophiles right now is Roon. Unlike Devialet’s system, which works only with their Phantom speakers, Roon can be used with pretty much any hi-fi rig. It also sets the standard for audiophile music-server software with its sharp-looking, intuitive user interface, full feature set, support for high-resolution formats up to 24-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD256, and its seamlessness in the way it displays stored music files -- such as on a computer or NAS device -- with streaming services.
Roon is based on the Core, the system’s main music-serving software. On their website, Roon describes the Core this way: “The Core manages your music collection from many sources, and builds an interconnected digital library using enhanced information from Roon.” Right now, the Core must run on a computer running a Macintosh or Windows OS (I use Windows), or on a dedicated music server running Roon Server (some 20 makers of servers include this feature). Roon recently released the Roon Optimized Core Kit (ROCK), a specialized version of Core designed to run on computers such as Intel’s NUC -- a tiny, high-powered computer, measuring only about 4”W x 2.5”H x 4”D, that can take the place of a laptop or desktop. There are also Roon Ready components -- these aren’t full Core or even ROCK components, but have parts of the Roon system built in, and can work with Core and its control app (see below).
Core’s requirement of some sort of standalone computer remains because their system is complex and needs a lot of processing power -- it integrates streamed music with locally stored files, supports numerous hi-rez formats, and can up- or downsample on the fly. But considering the leaps in processing power and functionality that smartphones are making, I’d be surprised if Roon isn’t already working on a version of Core that will run directly on your phone -- ROCK for Android or iOS -- and negate the need for a separate computer or server. The fly in the ointment would be how quickly all that processing would drain a phone’s battery. Still, the way phones are improving, I expect batteries will as well.
While Roon still requires a computer or dedicated server, once you have that in place, everything can be controlled with your phone via a Roon app, which puts the entire system’s power and functionality in the palm of your hand. With Roon in my main system and the phone app installed, I found I had to sacrifice nothing -- I have access to all of Roon’s features, more music than ever before, and no compromise in sound quality, whether I play music from a service that offers uncompressed streams, such as Tidal, or files locally stored on my NAS.
I can hear it now: I don’t want to control my audio system with a phone. We heard the same sort of thing when computers began invading audiophiles’ systems: they didn’t want a desktop or laptop to play such a dominant role. I understand that -- it’s nice when hi-fi gear looks chic and cool and not like a computer -- like Aurender’s A10 music server, which Uday Reddy reviews this month. In addition to being a music server, the A10 adds features I don’t see appearing on a smartphone anytime soon -- it’s also a high-quality digital-to-analog converter and can act as a preamplifier. But like it or not, computers have made their way into many audiophiles’ hi-fi systems -- either as laptops or desktops or as dedicated music servers, the last being nothing more than stripped-down, purpose-built computers, usually running the Linux OS, in a box that looks like an audio component -- so if you feel that way about smartphones, don’t shoot this messenger. Love it, like it, or hate it, I think that in two years, the main digital music source for audiophiles will be a smartphone.
. . . Doug Schneider