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Keeping music playing in iTunes I moved the MacBook Pro to the next room. When I sat in front of the Opal-air4 I listened hard to scan for signal loss and interference noise. I couldn’t hear any. Music was still playing smoothly. Perhaps the drywall was not thick enough to shunt the signal off track? Taking the wireless sound source one floor up proved to be too ambitious. The audio signal cracked up and music was no longer listenable, be it iTunes radio or ripped music files from CDs. Within line of sight would seem to be safest. Two Windows systems worked just as seamlessly. My Acer 5810T with XP instantly recognized the transmitter as did my daughter’s Asus G55V running Win7. It’s ironic that iTunes AAC files beat Windows Media Player WMA files hands down and in all aspects. At first WMA seemed more musical when I played some Pop on my daughter’s My Music folder. But on further listening through my classical library I definitely preferred AAC for more subtleties and articulation, more tonal layers and dynamics.

Setting the volume of the playback software also had bearings on the performance. I found iTunes to be most accommodating, offering best consistent results regardless of whether the volume slider was set to 50 or 75%. The best result was all the way up to 100%. Of course I had to readjust the volume of the Opal-air4 accordingly. The Windows Media Players experienced a slight shrinkage of the soundstage and traded down in resolution with the reduction of volume below 80% or more. I also tried FLAC files downloaded from the 2L label to the VLC media player. Here the 24/96 advantage was bottle-necked by the Air DAC’s 16/44.1 limits. Somehow here the sound quality was least desirable from among the three players. It sounded grainy and coarse if I set the volume to max which was a whopping 200%. Setting that back to 90% was acceptable but still inferior to Windows Media Player, compromising resolution as well as micro dynamics.

iPad + iTX.
Switching to an iDevice with an iTX transmitter kindly loaned by Jason Lim of NuForce proved to be an even more delightful musical interface. Once the iTX was plugged in and the iPad turned on, I heard a crisp ‘handshake’ sound. They needed no other introduction. Album selection and song cueing were carried out at my fingertip all from the comfort of my seat. This was one of those moments I felt so pampered by modern technologies and grateful to I have lived long enough to experience it. I pondered what next. There are bound to be more technological breakthroughs but this was cool enough for this old fart. Perhaps the only negative was feeling tempted to tap my fingertip over the list of songs too soon too often. Well, a new toy for a worn-out audiophile. Who’s to blame?

When the novelty factor wore off, my two favorite albums from 2L Quiet Winter Night [2L-087-PABD] and La Voie Triomphale [2L-086-SABD] had me frozen in my chair savoring every track from top to bottom. Knowing that I’ve been spoiled by the same titles in pure audio Blu-ray DTS-HD MA 24/192 5.1 format on my Mark & Daniel Sapphire/Topaz system, I was surprised that I actually enjoyed every musical phrase reinterpreted in 16/44.1 Redbook quality. It’s only when I wrote this that I made any mental comparison of resolution figures. When I listened I was totally swept away by the enchanting moods of the Norwegian wonderland and the grandiose glory of French nationalism. Math was forgotten and only musical notes sank deep into the mind. Am I suggesting that 24/192 is a mere sonic gimmick? Absolutely not. The benefit of hi-res is beyond doubt. Period. But as a serious music admirer I am always willing to let go of audiophile adamancy and open my heart to the music. The Opal-air4 and NuForce Air DAC have the candor or fidelity to present an excellent recording in a pristine way. Think of a beautiful girl without makeup. That’s closest to what I mean.

Opal-air4 vs. Sapphire.
At this point I had to let the Opal-air4 stand next to the Sapphire for a comparison side by side. Digital source feeding the Opal-air4 remained the iPad 2 with iTX transmitter. The Sapphires were bi-amped with a pair of Winsome Lab Mouse with my new Oppo BDP-105 digital source feeding into a Restek Sector preamp. I gave the Sapphires another unfair advantage of DIY speaker stands and OCOS speaker cables. The Opal-air4s just plopped on the credenza which houses the electronics. Mind you I wasn’t too lazy to take the matching Mark & Daniel stands upstairs. I did this on purpose to see if a less than ideal placement would penalize the Opal’s performance. Most users of powered speakers place them directly on a desktop or mixing console after all.

Overall I am happy to report that despite lack of dedicated spiked stands and probably being placed too close to the back wall (<2 feet), the Opal-air4 delivered the unmistakable Mark & Daniel clarity, energy and density which few bookshelf monitors match. The soundstage was open and spacious with an illusionary depth extending well beyond the drywall behind them. My ears or rather musical sense detected no obvious penalty of premature reflective sounds from the wall that could muddy up resolution or foreshorten the soundstage. The responsive dynamics and well-controlled diaphragm movements were clearly intact, attesting that the potency of the Mark & Daniel drivers hadn't been compromised.