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Small talk

Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Financial interests: click here
Source: Shanling M3 Ultra; DAC/pre/headfi: iFi Audio iDSD Pro Signature; Active speakers: DMAX SC5; Phones: Meze 109 Pro

I do shuffle a lot of hardware. Some combos don't work out. Others no sane person would replicate. Those get no mention. My office desktop currently hosts €13.6K/pr monitors and a €6.5K amplifier. That's a bit nutty. It's very salty and loaded in oils like roasted peanuts. Yummy but a fatty heart attack in waiting. Meanwhile my small bedroom rig is a posterchild for keeping it stupidly simple. It's a dual-purpose headfi/speaker system. A Shanling M3 Ultra loaded with a maxed-out 256GB microSD card serves up tunes through its USB-C output. That digital stream is caught by an iFi iDSD Pro Signature 3-in-one. Its XLR outputs feed the external power amp of DMAX's DSP-corrected SC5 oaken cube speakers. Its headphone output powers Meze 109 Pro. If I want to catch some rays in the yard to watch our lazy Shannon river, I unplug the Forza USB cable and take the Shanling/Meze duo outside. Were the Super Cubes classic actives which built their electronics into the speaker cab/s, we wouldn't see the 'For Fox Sake' black box. This mini rig would be even simpler. If I want to play my bigger upstairs system, I move the Shanling, smartphone stand and USB cable over to the Soundaware D300Ref. That then forwards I²S or AES/EBU 6 meters down to whatever DAC works between/behind those speakers.

Having small stand tall is today's missive. Know what you need. Multi-task. The first refuses overkill which could be size, power, box count or expense. The second accounts for numerous scenarios, in this case phoning it in with on-ears; doing the nearfield off-ear thing; going walkabout with IEM or over-ears; or fronting another system. Refusing overkill because we know our requirements means speakers no bigger than SPL, sitting distance and boundary gain justify. Going actively DSP milks bandwidth and linearity from a smaller box without spending on excess external power. Accounting for headfi opens listening opportunities when significant others are asleep or wish no noise pollution wafting down a corridor like the stench of cow shit. Putting days worth of 24/7 tunes on an SD card smaller than a postage stamp eliminates a costly disc transport, WiFi, Internet access, a computer or audiophile streamer and all the sound-optimizing bits and bobs that accompany premium LAN streaming. Running our mini streamer off battery power eliminates sonic changes with varying AC loads throughout the day. That we must recharge it over night is no more complicated than turning our system off for the night and back on the following morning. Just get a long-enough USB cable so the DAP can sit right next to your chair. Now its touchscreen gives you instant access to your hosted library. As that grows, load a new memory card; or get one of larger capacity.

I do shuffle a lot of hardware. Some combos don't work out. Others work like a charm. Today's is a charmer. It's not expensive. The iFi is its most loaded ingredient. That could get swapped for a cheaper still multi-tasking DAC. If you headfi exclusively by DAP, your DAC no longer needs a headphone socket. If your headphones are prêt-à-porta meaning of optimized Ω/sensitivity for portable kit, you don't need an über DAP. In transport mode fronting your stationary system, you'll bypass its analog output stage altogether. No need to splash out on a beefy Astell&Kern beast where the extra coin goes to a larger battery for a 'louder' amplifier that will bench-press unreasonable loads. In pure transport mode we're just interested in our player's music OS like Android 10, its processor for speed of library navigation, search parameters, playlist assembly ease, display sharpness and more. Add sufficient power to airlift our chosen headphones. Now a DAP catalogue's entry or next-up model could be all we need or want. Many active speakers include a DAC. That neatly eliminates my iFi. Some even add a headphone output. Whilst my sample system is minimalist already, it could get even more so. Small talk usually implies superficialities. This small talk only talks small on complexity and expense. Sonics are anything but. That's also because nearfield listening eliminates more of the room, suffers less distance losses and thus comes closer to headfi resolution which eliminates the room entirely.

Small talk. It needn't mean idle chit-chat at all!