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Positive Feedback ISSUE 54
The Apple TV
as reviewed by Dan Dzuban
One of my tricks is to find unintended uses for products; often you can "unlock" a lot of performance in ways manufacturers never intended. One example is Apple's Apple TV. As long as you could live with just a few caveats, you very nearly had a perfect no-brainer recommendation and one of the best deals in all of high-end audio. However, Apple recently added one big caveat that may put an end to this gravy train, so you may want to read on and guide yourself accordingly.
Apple TV is a device that has not lived up to expectations for Apple. Developed to be a streaming video player, with a small hard drive to locally store video programming in a "queue" for later viewing, Apple hoped that it could create an entire new market for video consumption, one where cable companies and video rentals would be bypassed in favor of on-demand, a la carte movie or television program purchases. As a hedge for inconsistent download performance, Apple decided to add a hard drive to the mix so that if you chose multiple programs, you could store some of them for later viewing. Apple further sweetened the pot for consumers by adding the ability to sync with computers in your home—specifically to sync photos and…music. As you may gather, "Music" is the key word here. Apple TV's 160 GB hard drive is paltry for video, but more than fine for music. And there we have it; if you ignore the video and photo functions, you have a music server that will sync with your iTunes collection on your computer.
For barely over 2 bills, I thought it would be the perfect chance to dip my toes into this music server phenomenon. Sure, you can stream via many different products on the market. But I don't want my computer turned on when I listen to music. My computer sits in my listening room, and it is a badass, custom-built rig; overclocked and optimized for serious computer gaming. With its eight fans, it sounds like a wind tunnel when running, and it is covered in blue LEDs for an otherworldly glow. But with the old Apple TV's 160 GB hard drive, I simply imported my music into iTunes on my computer, and then whatever is in iTunes is wirelessly synced to Apple TV. I get a kick out of folks who pay big bucks for USB cables or USB to SPDIF converters to connect their music server to their high end rig—you have no such worries with the ~$200 Apple TV. You simply plug its TOSLINK digital out into your DAC of choice and away you go. One way of looking at this is that for the price of some dubious tweak, you get a hassle-free, minimal-fuss means of getting into the music server party. Money VERY well spent.
Some in high-end circles claim that computer CD-ROM or server-based devices sound better than pure CD players (or transports) because they have an entirely different laser playback mechanism and accordingly, have much lower jitter. I bought the Apple TV because of the convenience of having all my music at my fingertips. And convenient it is.
I will never go back to using a CD player to play single CDs, one at a time. Do you appreciate being able to remotely search through tracks on a CD player via remote control, in contrast with getting up to physically move a record player tone arm to the next track? Well a music server gives you a magnitude greater dose of that feeling.
A few months back, I read a column in one of our favorite high-end magazines, where the writer talked about the resurgence of vinyl and how the younger generations are trending back to it in lieu of CD. I don't think so; certainly not for ME at least. They may be trending away from CDs, but that is because CDs are not nearly as convenient as intangible music—and vinyl is actually on the opposite end of the spectrum in that regard. Younger generations with shorter and shorter attention spans will never give up the convenience and joy of "music surfing" through their collections. I know I won't.
Now beyond convenience, there was one huge benefit that I wasn't quite expecting—that the music server folks were right. Digital via the Apple TV sounded dramatically better than digital via the digital output of a CD player. The server crowd isn't lying—within seconds it was starkly easy to hear how much better the music sounded. For simplicity, I am going to assume it is the lack of jitter (as they claim), but whatever it was, the soundstage immediately broadened and deepened and the music sounded smoother—not rolled off, but rather more as though it was missing some jagged distortion that previously went unrecognized. Kind of like my previous epiphany regarding differences in CD player sound, I was shocked at the difference. There were simply no caveats or tradeoffs in that regard—only superior music playback. Call me converted. Music server folks claim to never want to go back to spinning physical CDs. I know I won't.
Now there are a few caveats to Apple TV ownership of course. First, once again, Apple TV was designed for TV and movies, so Apple assumes you will have a monitor of some sort connected to it. In fact, you MUST have a monitor of some sort connected in order to navigate the user interface. I found a used DVI monitor on eBay for $30, then after connecting it via a DVI to HDMI cable, I was in business. Second, you have to buy into the whole iTunes ecosystem. I don't mind it, but some folks are put off by Apple's totalitarian (arrogant?) attitude that it knows best about what you want, and that it will force you into such constructs. I don't think that Apple knows my preferences (case in point: using an Apple TV with ZERO interest in ever using it for TV or movies), but I am not otherwise bothered by their choices in iTunes. Third, iTunes will only output 16 bit/44.1 kHz signals, so you cannot use Apple TV for higher resolution content. I don't own any currently, and there is nothing out there that I care to own, so it is not an issue for me. In fact, my entire music collection is now encoded in Apple Lossless encoding, which cuts data storage requirements in half. Fourth, you have to be willing to rip your CD collection into iTunes (which could take days of full-time ripping). This includes having to remember to fire up the computer and rip each new CD to your collection the same way. Finally, Apple decided that the current version of Apple TV will not have internal storage, and won't have any provision for external storage. So in other words, you have to find an older Apple TV or otherwise you will have to stream your music from a computer like everyone else. Or maybe you will have to find another syncing/internal storing/serving product on the market. Hmmm—sounds like another topic for another day….
Apple TVs were $225 in 2010, before Apple "updated" it by removing its internal hard drive. You should be able to snag one for a lot less than that now that it is "old technology." The new one is $99, and it still has a TOSLINK digital audio out, so it might be worth trying. If we are REALLY lucky, someone will figure out to add support for outboard storage via the Apple TV's USB connector. But I wouldn't hold your breath for Apple to do it, since they know best what we want.
The jury is not out for the new model, but the old model is a perfect True Factoring component; it likely sounds better than dedicated audio transports that may have cost several thousands of dollars a few short years ago. It does not detract from your system's performance in any way, but rather is nothing but an unequivocal sonic improvement, all the while bringing a whole new world of enjoyment and convenience—as long as you can live with its few caveats.
Bottom line: grab an older Apple TV if you can still find one—it will change how you listen to music and it will change your feelings about servers vs. dedicated CD players. Dan Dzuban
Apple TV 160GB