New amplifier and speakers

Last August I decided I wanted a better solution for music in my living room. Previously I used the Audioengine A2 speakers and my TV for this, but that setup was less than ideal. The speakers were connected to the TV through the headphone jack and I used the Deezer app on the TV to stream music. As a consequence I had to turn the TV on even if I only wanted to listen to music. I couldn’t control the volume of headphone jack volume with the remote. The Deezer app was the most frustrating because it crashed all the time.

So I started looking for a good amplifier which could stream music without the need for an extra device. That amplifier had to be controlled remotely through a smartphone. Streaming the music should be done by the amplifier itself through a WiFi connection. The TV had to profit from the better sound as well and had to be connected to the amplifier. Because the Audioengine A2 speakers are too small for a living room and are active (integrated amplifier) rather than passive speakers I decided to look for new speakers as well.

These criteria quickly excluded many solutions. Many music streaming devices do not include an amplifier, so they have to be connected to active speakers or an amplifier. Some of these only allow you to stream through Bluetooth from a smartphone. The disadvantage of Bluetooth is that the battery of that smartphone will be drained more quickly. The audio quality might also be compromised when it’s transferred through Bluetooth, depending on the compression. And usually they also require an extra app, separate from the app of the streaming service.

Then I discovered Spotify Connect. This feature of Spotify allows you to pair with a supported device in the Spotify app and then command that device to stream music. Because the device establishes its own WiFi connection to Spotify, your phone only acts as a remote. This way the audio quality is untainted and my phone’s battery life barely takes a hit. Previously I didn’t want to use Spotify because a credit card was required to pay for a subscription, but they solved that by offering iDEAL. As the name suggests, Spotify Connect is a proprietary standard used only by Spotify. I don’t like this and would prefer that all the streaming services create a shared standard, but so far I haven’t seen any alternative.

After evaluating amplifiers which support Spotify Connect, I started reading the reviews by What Hi-Fi?. The availability of products in physical stores close by further restricted the choices. Stephanie and I wanted to listen to our amplifier and speakers of choice before we were going to decide what to buy. We ended up going to Audiohuis Delft because they had both the amplifier and speakers available for a test.

We decided to buy the Cambridge Audio Minx Xi amplifier (actually called a music streamer) for € 650 and the Q Acoustics Concept 20 speakers for € 500. This is the price for two speakers, but apparently stores have a convention to list the price for just one speaker. The review by What HiFi? mentioned that the speakers perform best with the pricey stands for this particular model, so we decided to get those as well. This added another € 300 to the bill.

I believe the reviewer’s claim that these stands improve the sound quality, but I question if I my ears are good enough to notice the difference. Maybe I could notice the difference in a good listening test, but I doubt I would during daily use. I figured out later that the Q Acoustics 3050 floorstanding speakers would have been an alternative. These don’t need stands of course. I see two of these can be bought for prices between € 800 and € 1000. Had I known about these before, I would have probably bought these instead. Even so, I’m very satisfied with the Concept 20 speakers.

I’m equally satisfied with the Minx Xi. It has a good combination of sound quality with usability. It looks very stylish and is relatively small compared to the traditional bulky amplifiers. It doesn’t feature a huge amount of connections which I don’t use anyway. There are only two minor disadvantages I’ve noticed. It takes twenty seconds to start up and connect to my WiFi network, I’d like to see faster startup. A HDMI input or two might have been useful next to the optical, coaxial and analog inputs.

Finally a word of warning about the cables. Audiohuis Delft advised me to get cables from QED. For two pairs of QED XT40 2,5 meter analog speaker cables we paid € 139. For the QED Performance Audio Optical and QED Performance Audio Coaxial 1 meter cables we paid € 55 each. That was a hefty price tag for just cables! I didn’t investigate quality and normal prices for audio equipment cables so we went along with the advice. Advertising on the packages touting very positive reviews by What HiFi? contributed to that. When I asked around after the purchase, I was confirmed in my suspicion that such very expensive cables were unnecessary. You’re not going to hear a difference, especially over short distances.

The sound quality delivered by the Minx Xi in conjunction with the Q Acoustics Concept 20 is great. I don’t have much more to say about it, I’m not an audiophile and don’t have a point of reference to compare it to. I do want to emphasize the experience and the great usability of this solution. Turn it on, open Spotify on my phone and stream. With Spotify, the choice of music is almost endless for € 10 a month. Even though it’s normal now, it still amazes me how easy it is. Not too long ago we were still working with much more expensive CD’s which are now comparatively cumbersome.

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