When video rides shotgun

I was planning one of my occasional long drives, for music and photography. I had scheduled two nights in Nashville, so I asked around: Where should I go for live music after a dinner of Hattie B’s hot chicken? Art Dudley recommended the Station Inn, perhaps the world’s best venue for live bluegrass music. You can read about my experience there in the November 2019 Stereophile. The Station Inn has now added a streaming service. For $8.99/month or $99/year, you get between 10 and 20 live-streamed performances every month plus access to the archives. If you’re a bluegrass fan or merely bluegrass-curious, I encourage you to check it out. It’s not as good as being there, but it’s still good.

During the pandemic, many live-music venues have started offering online performances of live shows. In jazz, there’s the Village Vanguard, Smoke, Smalls, and others. (Smalls has been live-streaming for years.) Classical music organizations and venues that live-stream socially distanced concerts are too numerous to mention.

It’s not just streaming: An ever-increasing quantity of musical content is web-based, and most of it has video attached—which is slightly awkward for Stereophile, a hard-core audio magazine that doesn’t cover video. What should we do when more great music comes with video attached?

I want the best-sounding music I can afford, but I care little about video. I don’t want a giant video screen cluttering up my listening room and reflecting sound. I’ve been known to watch movies and sporting events on my 13″ MacBook Pro. Often.

Yet, if an online opera or jazz live-stream includes video, I do want to see it, even if only on the small screen. How can I make that work, with decent quality, with little effort or expense? If the approaches outlined in this essay seem low-rent and obvious—well, that’s exactly the point.

The key (wired) technology that supports both audio and video is HDMI, which is why HDMI is ubiquitous in home theater. Unfortunately, in the hi-fi world, HDMI support is rare. If your hi-fi DAC has an HDMI input, it’s probably a proprietary I2S interface and not true HDMI (but see below). So how do I get those livestreams (and other web-based audio) into my hi-fi system?

The first thing I tried was obvious: Connect my laptop, sitting in my lap, to my DAC’s USB input with a 3m cable and a USB-C–to–USB-A adapter. Even with a long cable—3m is the practical limit for USB—I had to move my listening chair forward. This worked, but I wasn’t happy: It moved me out of my sweet spot, and the cable stretched across the room caused me stress. I needed a wireless solution.

Today’s best Bluetooth codecs are capable of very good sound, but latency—time delay—can be a problem. Newer codecs exist that address latency but at a cost in sound quality: Qualcomm’s new aptX Low Latency codec achieves its low latency “through efficient population of packets”: ie, lossy compression. And few devices support that codec yet—none that I have on hand.

Not long ago, I bought a Bluesound Node 2i ($549)—unheard—because I was impressed by its feature set. It sends and receives both Bluetooth (aptX HD, which sounds very good but has some latency) and AirPlay 2.

AirPlay 2 worked best. Both sounded fine, but with AirPlay, the audio delay (relative to the video on my lap-top laptop screen) was just noticeable, slight enough that I got used to it.

AirPlay 2, then, is my preferred solution for laptop-in-the-lap streaming.

A few weeks ago, I set up a second two-channel system in a spare bedroom, assembled from sidelined hi-fi equipment, a pair of AudioNote speakers, and a good 4K TV. My laptop is still the streaming source, but now I’m watching on the big screen, so I don’t need my laptop on my lap. Wired connections are fine. The core problem still exists though: What’s the best way to get audio data to my hi-fi DAC, which doesn’t have HDMI?

I connected an HDMI cable to my computer with an inexpensive adapter (by Anker, $12.95 at Amazon) and into one of the television’s several HDMI inputs. If your TV has a TosLink output, you can connect that to your DAC’s TosLink input—problem solved. My TV doesn’t have a TosLink output, so I set up my computer to output audio to my USB DAC via a USB cable connected to a different Thunderbolt port, with a second adapter, USB-C to USB-A. For most glitch-free performance, I preferred a wired Ethernet connection—adapter #3. Plug the computer in to power, and all four Thunderbolt ports are in use; my little 13″ laptop looks like some kind of bizarre science experiment, wires hanging out all over, but hey, it worked.

An alternative is to extract digital audio from the HDMI signal with a device like the GeerFab D.BOB ($995). (I tried a cheap audio extractor from Amazon, but it didn’t work.) I don’t have a D.BOB here, but GeerFab’s Eric Geer tried it, at my request; he assures me it works.

Another option would be to replace my DAC with one with HDMI. I’m aware of only one current, HDMI-enabled two-channel DAC: the Bryston BDA-3 (3.14 with streaming). You could also use a multichannel, HDMI-enabled DAC—no one says you have to use all the channels—but there aren’t many of those to choose from, either. Kal Rubinson recently reviewed the affordable Essence Evolve II-4K ($299), which can also be used as an audio extractor, like the D.BOB.

What’s your solution? Let us know via stletters@stereophile.com.

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