The study, the bedroom, the home office – these are areas that have always been filled with background music, which has been shown to improve productivity by multiple international studies. At the beginning, there was the turntable/tuner – amp – speaker combination. The amp and turntable were big 40cm+ wide “Hi-Fi components” that took up their own shelf, while the “bookshelf” speakers were equally large to “match” the aesthetics of the system as a whole. Clearly the intention of a background music system is to be in the background, invisible, out of the way, but technology did not allow this vision to be realized back in the day.

As the decades went by, several key developments paved the way for the background audio vision to materialise. Amongst the most important of these are the high efficiency switch mode power supply, the high efficiency Class D audio amplifier, and the rise of digital audio sources, the combination of which enabled the slimming down of audio components into tiny silicon chips.

Today, the background music industry is a thriving maze of ambiguous choices and unclear differences. Just about every electronics brand is attempting to push some sort of “wireless music streaming speaker” into the hands of unsuspecting consumers, promising “unrivaled” ease of use and “great” sound quality. If you have a feeling that they cannot all be telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – well, you would be very much correct. The reality is, if you want to achieve balanced, clear, smooth and relaxing audio performance (which the studies mentioned prior have identified as a prerequisite of attaining the sought after productivity benefits), there are only a few practical pathways that will get you there, and today – we will discuss all three of them: the computer – DAC Amp – speakers pathway, the amplified streamer – speakers pathway, and the quality active streaming speaker pathway.

Lets start with my favourite, and the one that will get the best performance overall – the computer – DAC Amp – speakers route. From the outset, one may think such a notion is absurd – how can the computer – a jack of all trades and master of none multifunction workstation – be the solution to ultimate audio nirvana? The key here is to consciously restrict the role of the computer to only what it does well, which is the process of finding, accessing and decoding audio sources. The computer is the most compatible source – able to read just about anything either online or offline. Whether its a music video, MP3, CD, DVD, etc… the computer will be able to extract the audio portion someway or another. Its also a device that is both effectively free and takes up no space – simply because the computer workstation is the device the work is done on anyway. What the computer is not that great for is actually converting the audio streams or files into real sound. For this role, many of the experienced audio manufacturers have introduced DAC amps (e.g. Marantz PM6005, NAD D3020, Rotel RA-11) – quality traditional amplifiers with added builtin digital audio converters that take the digital audio data signal from the computer and produce pure, pristine audio at the speakers. The disadvantage of this setup is of course that the computer needs to be on and the user has to know how to use it – a non-issue for people already doing their work on the computer.

For those that consider the computer a deal breaker – there are proper standalone audio computers with integrated DACs and amplifiers (e.g. Sonos CONNECT:AMP, Bluesound Powernode, Marantz Melody) – these are controlled by either a mobile app or the builtin screen & IR remote combination. They are slightly less flexible (no support for music videos) but easier to use and more environmentally friendly (lower power consumption). Due to the potential limitations, the most important thing when choosing one of these solutions is to try the control interface and make sure the compromises made don’t affect your personal usage pattern.

The above two options do require a set of speakers – either on the desk or in the ceiling/wall. For most this is fine – a couple of speaker cables tucked away behind the desk never hurt anyone – but for some, the pursuit for minimalism (and maybe occasional portability) leads to the final category of high quality background audio device – the active streaming speaker. To appreciate just how hard it is to make a good active streaming speaker – do this experiment: put a pair of quality speakers on top of an amplifier, then try to lift it – you are looking at some 15kg of heft – way too much for a “portable” active speaker. The less reputable brands attempt to “solve” this dilemma by simply slimming down – smaller coils & magnets behind the speaker drivers, lower rating amps and power supplies. The result is either a hilariously tinny sound lacking in both character and substance, or an unnatural EQ driven concoction of distortion. There are very few properly engineered variants on the market – although they do exist (e.g. Sonos Play:5, Bluesound Pulse, B&W A7). These rare specimens feature specialised, high flux magnets, the most densely fabricated ICs and high tech enclosure polymers to pack in the required 50W+ of real sustained power necessary to deliver a satisfactory audio experience.

Webolution Competition Update – Our webolution competition has been extended to MAY 11th because we have had AMAZING entries. I have decided pretty much every decent entry (where people have made an effort) will be given a prize, and the 2 best ones will get the Harman Kardon AE earphones. If you do not know what the competition is please scroll below and have a look.