This crowdfunded touchscreen may be the one hi-res audio unit to rule them all.

Business Insider

The age of streaming music has enormous benefits. Massive catalogues and hi-res audio at your fingertips, every household member able to listen to what they love in their own zone, and portability.

But for one reason or another, one of the most beloved aspects of home audio has slipped by the wayside – the loungeroom stereo.

Everyone these days has a player, or a PC, or a tablet, and there’s usually ample, varied speakers dotted around the house. But while it’s obviously a smoother system than rifling through a CD rack or stack of LPs, somehow… it isn’t.

Savvy users may have set up something dedicated, which they spent a bit of time and money on.

The rest of us struggle at dinner and parties with who’s got the Bluetooth connection to the speaker, why does it keep dropping out, phone call interruptions and constant, lengthy breaks as the master controller scrolls through Spotify or Apple Music for the next playlist or album.

Now, to make things more confusing, hi-res audio is on the rise. We’ve got a much more detailed explanation, but in a nutshell, hi-res audio happens now because technology allows us the storage capacity to record and play digital tracks with much more information squeezed in.

Hi-res audio has plenty of sceptics, who say human ears can’t appreciate anything above CD quality, and it’s all just an excuse to get us to shell out more cash for the same sound.

The cheapest entry point is a digital audio player such as Neil Young’s Pono for $400, through Sony’s hi-res Walkman ($1000) right up to the high-end Astell & Kern players which soar above $3000. (Although it does have a popular Jnr version for $600-$700.)

If you want it in your home, add a couple of decent harmon/kardon speakers, which will set you back $400 each, or something like the Sonos kit, which while excellent, can add up into the thousands if you get carried away. It will all function beautifully, but at the end of all that parting with cash, you’re still looking at an unsatisfying little box on the shelf, with fiddly controls and missing half the streaming catalogue on your phone.

But the Nativ promises not to be in that class. It’s a hi-res music system and touchscreen control that recently blew past its crowdfunding goal on Indiegogo.

If that sparked a tiny hallelujah in your mind, you’ll understand why Nativ is already such a crowdfunding success with a month left to run.

Yes, you can achieve the same thing with a cheap tablet and some speakers. And yes, if you want to go hi-res, there are shelf unit options. You’ll pay $1300 for a basic media player, or up to $3300 for a system including speakers and amp such as Sony’s RSX-2.

That’s a lot of kit, though – and you’ll still need a hi-res player.

The Nativ isn’t cheap. When it rolls out in October (and because it’s crowdfunded, let’s be generous and say by Christmas), the touchscreen unit will start at a touch over $1,600 and up to $2,200 with extra storage and that elegant stand. Support for all the major streaming services is built in, as well as more than 40,000 internet radio stations.

It seems to be do-everything hi-res audio unit missing from loungerooms since Dad told you to never touch the Kenwood. And while it’s co-founder, Michael Li, says that’s exactly what Nativ is aimed at, he was still surprised at how rapidly the crowdfunding market responded.

“We were indeed surprised a bit about the short time it took us to get to the campaign goal, but we were confident that we would reach our goal due to the tremendous value that the product offers at the campaign price,” he said. “We believe it is a combination of offering convenient access to all music in the world, and playing it in audiophile sound quality.”

That price is a smart move. $US1998 for a full set of Nativ components – there are three – certainly looks like incredible value, but as Li noted, it’s a campaign price. The same package will be at least double that after the campaign orders are gone. That’s when Li and his campaign team will know if they’ve really hit a sweet spot.

The audiophile hook is still for a niche market, although it is undoubtably growing. But there’s also this morsel from Nativ – it’s based on an open platform it says will be “perfect for amazing third party apps”. It will provide a free software development kit and fully expects to see the base unit Nativ Vita supporting this kind of thing in homes soon enough.

What you don’t get at that price is a digital-to-analog converter (DAC), which is where the Nativ deal starts to heat up your back pocket. It’s not essential, but a DAC connects your digital player to an amp or A/V receiver to power up your sound. A decent hi-res player with DAC should start around the $2000 mark.

You’ll still have to send tunes to it from your player, tablet, PC or phone though. And it won’t control your air-con or lighting.

If you want a DAC for your Nativ Vita, you have to shell out another $2300 for the Nativ Wave fully balanced DAC and headphone amp (or you can get the super early bird perk with all 3 components at $1,998, which is selling out quickly) .

As mentioned, it’s not essential, but to be honest, the real beauty of hi-res audio is the way it lets you crank the volume up as far as your speakers can handle it with virtually no distortion. At all.

And the quality Nativ is promising is at Ludicrous levels. It will play all the regular hi-res files, such as FLAC, AIFF, WAV and ALAC at 32bit/384kHz. (Good luck actually buying anything higher than 24-bit/192kHz.)

And there’s a new player on the block too – Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) tracks. Nativ says it plans to support that, but Li says they have no plans to create a music store through which to sell hi-res tracks. And yes, Li is definitely in the “human ears can hear it” camp.

“It is indeed a contentious topic,” he says, “however there is plenty of research that shows that high-resolution is perceived differently by listeners.

“And it doesn’t even have to be high-res audio either; CD quality music already makes a big difference if reproduced correctly.”

While we’re on that, here’s the third price point – the Nativ Pulse, which puts us into serious audiophile territory. The Pulse is a linear power supply. It’s only goal is to reduce dirty noise polluting your music from a regular power supply by using separate power supplies for different audio stages. It’s all to do with magnets and electroshields and “25 separate low-noise linear regulators”. Check the Indiegogo campaign page if you want the full run-down.

As for speakers, Li admits he’s a wired fan.

“There are plenty of great wireless speakers out there that deliver an amazing sound experience,” he said, “but for top-of-the-line audiophile sound, I believe you still need to go ‘wired’.”

A Nativ Vita and Wave will set you back close to $5000 (full retail price, but $1998 at the campaign price). For that, Nativ will throw in Pulse, but even at that price, Nativ reckon it’s worth three times as much compared with what’s on the market. It’s hard to argue with, if only because nothing similar seems to exist right now.

If that turns out to be true, audiophile faith is about to be sorely tested, because as many have learnt in the past, betting on crowdfunded products is a gamble, and this is an expensive punt.

Li doesn’t come across as having anything to fear from the often maligned “crowdfunded-to-production” process. He’s got 25 years experience in the storage, semiconductor and networking space for Western Digital, Marvell and Network Appliance, and his team spent nearly two years developing the product before asking Indiegogo for help to get the Nativ actually built.

The team is “located less than a 2-hour drive away from all key manufacturers”.

“We only limit the quantity of the special promotions,” he said. “Our suppliers have a capacity to build large volumes so we do not see any reason for capping the overall volume.

“And yes, we are confident we can meet the October deadline.”

 


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