A random Weblog


The Rialto 400 and Sonos Connect – a near perfect marriage.

Sonos owners know that the Sonos Connect is the tool to plug into your existing hifi.  Basically it absorbs the Sonos audio (wirelessly or via Ethernet) and sends it into your existing stereo – voilà, a simple and effective way to extend your Sonos system and use the good equipment you’ve already invested in.

Sonos describe the Connect as follows:

Turn your stereo or home theatre into a music streaming system

  • Stream all the music on earth to your stereo
  • Wireless, easy to set up music player
  • Play alone, or link to other Sonos music players in your home
  • Control from anywhere with your smart phone or tablet

They also have the Sonos Connect Amp which (surprise surprise) includes a built-in amp, so all you need to do is add your own speakers.  But my guess is that the Connect is likely more appealing as a lot of us own existing stereo’s.

So, a Connect entered my life.

In mere moments the easy set-up that Sonos is famous for had things up and running.  And the sound? Well it was good but not super great.  Nevertheless, it was a welcome addition to my system.

Sonos users know that turning the devices on and off is simply a matter of starting or stopping the music via the app on their phone or tablet – but with the Connect there’s the added step of turning on your amp (and turning it off when done).  It’s not a problem, but strangely clunky when the rest of the system is so seamless.

This led me to do some more research – and in doing this I came across the Rialto 400 – an integrated amp from a company called Audio Control. The Rialto 400 is designed to partner with Sonos and it includes input triggers that allow it to start and enter standby based on whether it’s getting a signal from the Connect or not.  Perfect, now the home stereo replicates the behaviour of the entire system (i.e on/off via the Sonos app)

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Better still, the Rialto packs some serious pedigree inside.  From the AudioControl web site:

The AudioControl Rialto 400, is a compact, high-powered amplifier with a built-in audiophile-grade DAC (digital to analog converter) designed specifically to provide greater performance and higher sound quality for all analog and digital systems, including Sonos® home entertainment systems.

The Rialto 400’s amplifier delivers over 100 watts of power per channel into 8 ohms and 200 watts per channel into 4 ohm loads. Features a built-in high-performance Wolfson® DAC that drastically improves audio quality, digital and analog audio-systems can perform with better speakers across the home. This choice of an audiophile-quality DAC allows connected digital audio sources such as Apple TV, Pandora® and Spotify® to provide higher quality acoustics with clearer, more accurate analog signals during playback.

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Introducing the Rialto was no placebo, I could immediately hear an improvement over my prior amp – so this enthused me to keep looking at ways to tweak things some more.  FYI,  the DAC in the Rialto will take 44.1-192k with the only exception being 176.4, which Wolfson specifically states is not supported (a very uncommon sample rate).

A friend told me about his “Cullen Modified Sonos Connect”, so he brought it over to try with my Rialto.  Once again, a positive step that was particularly noticeable when I was playing music off my NAS.

The Cullen Mod is described as follows:

This version of the Connect has been modified to improve sound quality, using Rick Cullen’s modifications – this is achieved by re-clocking the digital data and upsampling it and thereby both reducing jitter markedly and offering higher resolution. This of course results in smoother texture in the high frequencies, better definition overall, and more spacious soundstage – in short a more complete and improved rendition of everything! Provided you’re using a good DAC, and feeding it from the coaxial output of the Cullen, you’re going to get extremely good sound

So, with a Cullen Modified Connect, partnered with the Rialto 400, you’re really getting some impressive quality out of a Sonos system.  I was convinced enough to replace my Connect with the Cullen version – and a final tweak may be to wire it to the Sonos Bridge via Ethernet, as I’m getting the odd audio drop out and I’m sure it’s related to the wireless.  At first I thought it was the Rialto overheating (I have it inside a cabinet, but it’s pretty well ventilated in there and doesn’t get overly warm)

All up, I’ve become a Sonos fanboy thanks to the easy set up, quality experience, and shockingly huge range of music options (even the alarm function is awesome – waking to new audio sources every day of the week is great) but now the Cullen modified Connect coupled with the Rialto 400 have raised the bar to a level I wasn’t anticipating – as a bit of a hifi nut I feel I have achieved a lot here.  I’m sure a higher bandwidth system such as those offered by Naim or Linn (and others) would sound better, but the Sonos app and it’s connections to the outside world of music trump any arguments about the finer points in top few percent of the signal. Right now my system is blasting me with some quality audio – in fact our house has heard more music in the last month than in the last two years.  A Sonos system will do that to you.

If you’re in the market for a wireless music system you have a number of choices. I opted NOT to use Airplay or Wifi for many reasons, and I’m pleased about that – but the secret sauce with Sonos is their app and it’s offerings.  And if you’re an audio junkie, it will allow you to add folders from a NAS (and even if not, you can still point the app to your iTunes library as another source).

If you already own a Sonos, think about the Cullen Modified Connect and the Rialto 400 amp.  For me, money happily spent – this has been, and continues to be, incredibly enjoyable, it has made a significant difference in the house – what’s not to like about that?

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Having trouble logging onto B&W’s “Society of Sound”?
January 2, 2012, 7:47 am
Filed under: Music | Tags: , , , , , , ,

B&W speakers have a great download service called “Society of Sound.” For a modest subscription fee you can download high quality audio files from some great artists.

But there’s a potential bug for some users. The download manager uses Adobe Air, and on some combinations of computer/browswer/OS, it can refuse to load properly. After a bit of online searching, I found the strangest of fixes – but it works. Just download the Firefox web browser (if not already installed) and then have Firefox open and running before you attempt to open the B&W Download Manager. For some dumb-ass reason, this will allow Adobe Air to run properly. I don’t know why either.

Someone posted this as a fix for an Abode Air hang-up (thank you!) as it worked for them and it worked for me too, so if you’re having a similar problem, it’s worth a try (a quick Google search shows a lot of user issues with Adobe Air, so I suspect this solution may help more than those stuck with the B&W download manager)



Tweeter fingers (or “think carefully before committing to B&W”)
December 24, 2011, 11:32 am
Filed under: Media, Music | Tags: , , , , ,


B&W’s Diamond tweeter range of speakers are amazing, likewise the new PM1 – pictured above (which was really, really impressive when I auditioned it). I was heading down the B&W way for an overdue speaker upgrade, and was really pleased with what I had learnt and heard about this brand – and the in-store audition was fantastic. But then a final question about the nautilus style tweeter on the top – “I understand the grill cap on the tweeter is held on by small magnets, so it’s readily removed – but can you fix it in place if you wish?”

The salesman rolled his eyes. Long story short, no you can’t, and he confirmed the tweeter is a “kid magnet” with the ones in-store frequently being grabbed by children coming in with their parents. They are readily damaged and as a result, after a recent product refresh, the store contacted B&W to order replacement tweeters to repair their demo stock – but there was a three month delay as stores all over the world were doing the same.

Sadly, this is a knock-out for me. Your circumstances may vary of course, but its something to consider for sure. A shame the grill can’t somehow be locked on as an option, as these speakers are great value, the technology is impressive, and they sound absolutely beautiful.



Miniwatt N3 tube amp review
March 27, 2010, 4:51 pm
Filed under: Music, Technology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Somehow in my web travels I came across an enthusiastic review for the Miniwatt S1 amplifier.  Which led me to another, and then another.  I wasn’t really looking for an amplifier, yet this diminutive beast seemed to be drawing “OMG” type comments from some seriously nerdy Hi-fi types.  Something was up. While none of the reviews were saying it was the best thing since sliced bread, they were all noting the S1’s surprisingly high quality – surprising because it costs a mere US $229.  These expert reviewers seemed gob-smacked, so now I was really interested.

The Miniwatt sounded like a sweet way to power some desktop speakers for the office – after all, I thought, a tube amp would add some warmth to the slightly cool feel of digital audio, so that might even things out nicely.

In swapping emails with the good people at Miniwatt in Hong Kong, I learned of the N3, a slightly bigger and better spec’d model which, at the time, was about to be launched.

Cut to two weeks later and the N3 is on my desk.  Sporting three tubes instead of the S1’s four, up from 2 watts per channel to 3.5, and with options for 4, 6 or 8-ohm speakers (the S1 is confined to 8 ohm), this single input amp is quite something.

The S1 is billed as, “the worlds smallest 4-tube integrated amp”, and looking at the slightly larger N3, it might be that this is “the world’s smallest 3-tube integrated amp”?  Honestly this thing is small.

While waiting for the amp to arrive I got some Kimber 8TC speaker cable

for my AudioEngine P4 speakers…

…and a DevilSound USB DAC – figuring my computer soundcard wasn’t going to do justice to the rest of the set-up.

My N3 was shipped from Hong Kong to Australia via UPS in two days. It was well packed in high-density foam and was quickly unboxed.  There is no manual, but frankly adding a manual would be as redundant as when the airline shows you how to fasten your seat belt.

I connected the DAC to a USB port on my computer, added the speakers and then plugged the N3 in to the mains (you need to supply your own power cord, and like the S1, the N3 can handle universal voltage).  I switched on, waited a short while to let it warm up and then played a familiar CD to see what I thought.

Well the first song was less than a minute in when two colleagues came into my office to see what was going on.  I had hardly turned the volume up so it was not very loud at all, but they could tell something was up. “Are these new speakers?” (Yes), “Is that little thing the amp?” (Yes), “How come it sounds so good?” (Don’t know), “Where did you get it?” (Online), “How much was the amp?” ($378), “Wow!”

I let the disc play on, and gradually raised the volume some more. Oh yes, this was sounding good.  Very good…  I remembered reading some old marketing material from LINN, and their advice was to ignore the spec.  Simply, if it sounds better to you, then it is better. Wise words that came back to me as the CD played on.

The MiniWatt runs quite warm, but this is considered normal so I wasn’t alarmed, I did feel a little sad as I turned it off later in the day though.

The next day I did some more critical listening.  I am no audiophile so don’t worry I’m not going to rave on with some specialist vocabulary, and besides there are several elements at play here – from the source to the speakers – and a proper evaluation would swap out the MiniWatt  amp for “something else” if I were to try and isolate it’s contribution.  But here’s my point – the whole set up sounds fantastic.  3.5 watts is plenty loud enough for the office, and all up I’ve likely spent the same or a bit less than some of the “main street” audio gear that just isn’t going to come close to this for listening pleasure.

I’ve been amazed at the clarity of the music, there’s no obvious noise (no doubt some, but not hearing it in my office environment), and there seems to be a wide dynamic range – the little speakers are obviously going to be modest when it comes to bass, but even here I was not disappointed – everything just seems, well, balanced I guess.

I have been wondering about a cost effective power cable, something up from the spare computer one I am using now, but I am wary of these – are they snake oil, or do they help? (Comments welcome!)

The Miniwatt is the star player for me in all this though; it was cheaper than the speaker cables but fractionally more than the speakers and DAC.  Those with more knowledge may criticize my seemingly random choice of components, but the whole lot plays nicely together, it sounds awesome to me.  I thank Miniwatt for putting so much quality into a small, low-cost, no BS package.  Talk about putting a capital “V” on Value. That’s heroic.

You can buy your MiniWatt N3 (or limited stocks of the S1) from MiniWatt in Hong Kong, or in the US from ALO Audio

The DevilSound DAC (which I hardly touched on, but clearly adds to the sound chain in a positive way) is detailed here

A review of the AudioEngine P4 speakers is here and you can learn more about Kimber cable here

I will add to this review as I become more familiar with the set-up.

Specifications of the Miniwatt N3
Tubes: TungSol 12AX7 + 2 x Sovtek Matched Pair EL84
Input: RCA
Input Impedance: 50Kohm
Output: Banana Jacks
Output Impedance: 8/6/4 ohms (Japan Z11-EI48*24 Output Transformers)
Output Power: 3.5W + 3.5W
Frequency Response: 30-25Khz (+-1db)
Residual Noise < 0.8mVac
AC Input: 100-250Vac
AC Socket: Standard IEC Jack with Fuse protection (2A Fuse)
Dimensions: 130 (W) x 130mm (D) x 130mm (H)

The original S1 and newer N3 side by side

 

Update – May 2nd 2013.  This post has consistently been the “most read” on my site.  Clearly the Miniwatt intrigues a wide audience. Well some three years later I can report that this little system continues to prove highly enjoyable. I have not changed a thing, and use it nearly every day.  In therms of bang for the buck, it was always good, but I think this underlines that it’s been a no-regrets purchase for me.