DAR’s favourite bits of 2014 (Part 2: 5 – 1)


DAR_bestof2014Concluding the countdown of my Top 10 favourite audiophile moments of 2014. You can find spots 10 through 6 here.

5. AudioQuest Ethernet cables
Easily the most controversial topic I’ve touched on this year. I used not to review cables at all but I’ve relaxed that policy for when special circumstances present, particularly if accusations of ‘snake-oil’ sit just around the corner. I’ll leave you to decide if that’s trolling or not. Sometimes I like the challenge of the debate and sometimes I just wish those who would claim that what I’ve heard simply isn’t possible would just go listen for themselves. If you don’t hear it, then by all means run at me, but please, listen first. At $25 for the Pearl accessibility shouldn’t be an issue.

I’ve heard several AudioQuest Ethernet cables in numerous systems during 2014. An audible difference was heard by all present on each occasion,. This was as true for the Squeezebox Touch at home as it was for a multi-thou MSB setup at a pal’s place in Melbourne. Then there were the show demos in Munich and Denver. Am I hearing things all the time, all over the world? Not a chance. My coverage of the Pearl, Carbon and Vodka has one more article left in it, before which I hope to plug the guys at AudioQuest for greater technical information on what’s going on and why their cables sound superior to the Blue Jeans equivalent that ships with a measurement certificate confirming its status as being within spec.

4. Tokyo
The Japanese take seem to take audio far more seriously than any other nation that I’ve visited to date. High-end two channel gear is positively bountiful in the big department stores: Bic Camera and Yodobashi Camera. You would not believe the range of gear that the Japanese have access to. I can’t even begin to tell you how much incredible gear awaits visitors to Dynamic Audio in Akihabara – that place is six floors of some of the finest audio gear on the planet. Actually, not some of it, but ALL of it!

What about headphone? A two minute stroll from Dynamic Audio is e-earphone. Their store is dedicated entirely to headphone listening and even with it being tucked away on the 5th floor in an anonymous, side-street building, business is booming. So much so that a few months back e-earphone opened a second store that sells – get this – only custom IEMs. Like I said, the Japanese are serious audio connoisseurs.


And nowhere is their passion for headphone listening more apparent than at the bi-annual headphone festival put on the by the other big Tokyo headphone store, Fujiya-Avic. Running each Spring and Autumn at the Nakano Sun Plaza, the headphone festival is extremely well attended. I noted a demographic some 10-15 years younger than that of a typical US regional show. And the Japanese aren’t afraid to carry multi-box headphone listening rigs and in numerous cases calling them portable would be a stretch.

I’m a big fan of simplicity – a single device and that’s it. Call me fussy or precious if you like but if it doesn’t fit comfortably in a front jeans pocket, it’s a no go. Perhaps my attitude is more aligned with Western head-fiers but if you want to get a flavour of what’s possible or what’ll be arriving in the USA, Europe or Oceania down the line, Tokyo is the number one place to go.

3. Pono player
Talking of singularity with portable audio, no greater DAP-induced wow arrived in my life this year than Neil Young’s PonoPlayer. An even greater achievement when you consider this is also the year that gave us sumptuous second-generation Astell&Kern players and the cloud-connected Sony NWZ-ZX1.

Putting aside doubts about mainstream acceptance, this is the finest sounding portable player I’ve heard to date. Maybe it’s because the man behind the circuit, Ayre Acoustics’ Charles Hansen, has been designing amplifiers for over twenty years. Hansen designed the audio circuitry. Perhaps his fully discrete (no op-amps!), zero feedback take on I/V conversion and output buffering is why the PonoPlayer sounds so nicely balanced.

Since my review was published on Christmas Day, Hansen and I have bounced several emails back and forth. He’s somewhat determined that I let readers know about its balance output mode – connect one pair of headphones to each of the two 3.5mm output sockets and bingo, you’re up and running with 4x the single-ended power output. That’s good news for owners of higher-end cans.


Hansen is also at pains to point out that the output impedance issue is a non-issue: “Specifications have zero, nothing, nada, zip to do with sound quality. That is why neither Ayre, nor Pono, nor (get this!) Bose publishes any specification for any of our products except for the ones that matter”, he says. The 5 Ohm output impedance figure was apparently “erroneously leaked out by an unknowing intern” and that “The production unit are significantly lower, but I refuse to say how much lower”.

My advice with the PonoPlayer, as with everything else detailed here: suck it and see. For US$399 I doubt you’ll come away unimpressed with its sound quality, particularly against the backdrop of the AK100 II’s asking price.

2. Xiaomi Piston 2
An IEM one of China’s biggest companies – and the world’s 3rd largest smartphone distributor – could easily be dismissed as a throwaway consideration. Made for use with Android phones, its remote control is fully functional with a Samsung Galaxy S5. That in itself would be newsworthy in a world dominated by iOS-centric in-line remotes but the Piston 2’s fairly nondescript aesthetics give up few clues as to the sonic satisfaction that awaits anyone prepared to give them a go.

Unpacking them for the first time it’d be easy to conclude that all the money has gone into the packaging; popping open the plastic box reveals a rubber mould that houses the earphones themselves, beneath which sits a selection of tips to (hopefully) meet most ear canal sizes.

The earpiece is cut as a single piece of aluminium and houses a beryllium alloy driver. Despite being rear-vented there’s very little sound leakage to speak of. The cable, Kevlar sheathed below the Y-split and PTE above, shows very few signs of microphony. The Piston 2 are just as suitable for a run around the block as they are the office or the bus.


In the context of their asking price, the sound quality is outstanding: nicely judged tonality without glare or dryness up top, shades of wet-warmth and a plump bottom end. The Piston 2 scale well too: hooking them into the Chord Hugo sees them dig even further into the lower frequency for a fuller, weightier presentation. What more could you ask for at $30?

In 2014, I listened to music through the Xiaomi Piston 2 more than any other transducer. I’ve taken them almost everywhere: to the gym, to work and to the pub. I don’t fret about losing them (as I would the custom Ultimate Ears) and I don’t worry about damaging them each time I shove them into a pocket. I think I even ran them through the washing machine in September and they survived just fine. Like a cockroach, they’re hard to destroy.

A couple of non-audiophile mates have dropped their own cash on the Xiaomi IEMs on my recommendation and have come away suitable wow-d. These are earphones to kickstart an audio journey, to move you a step up from the bottom rung of stock earbuds, proving that you don’t have to spend a great deal of money to get better sound. Grab your own pair from eBay.

1. Tidal
A lot of audiophiles – Neil Young included – would have you believe that hi-res is where it’s at and that CD-quality audio is yesterday’s news. Even if we humour the marketing spiel that high-resolution audio sounds better than its Redbook counterpart, the corresponding of catalogue is vanishingly small and it’s expensive to own.

We must steel ourselves against seeing hi-res as anything other than bleeding edge. It’s a display of what’s possible for those who care to take things to the limit but it’s far from mainstream-ready. If the music isn’t there, interest soon fades. Meridian’s MQA hi-res encoding origami threatens hi-res streaming application. That’s exciting because streaming is how the majority of folk access music nowadays. Downloads are on the decline.

Regular readers will know that I don’t listen to a lot of hi-res audio when conducting reviews. Why not? The number of CD-rips that comprise my audio library dwarfs the hi-res content. Of the releases I do own, some sound great – the 24-bit/96kHz Pono version of Beck’s Mutations is just sublime – whilst others are rendered redundant by less than stellar mastering – I’m looking at you The Hold Steady.

Try this on for size: think of your top 10 favourite albums of 2014 and then see if you can get them from HDTracks, Qobuz or Neil Young’s PonoMusic store. You’d probably be lucky to score more than one or two. Now imagine that you could score all ten. How much is that going to cost you? 10 x $20 per album = $200. Yikes, that’s a lot of dough for something intangible.

And there’s the rub: $200 would buy you almost a year’s worth of a Tidal HiFi subscription – a streaming service that delivers audio in CD quality. It’s for those who wanna feed their ears something more nourishing than McSpotify or Beats King.


Neil Young tried to kickstart an audiophile revolution with Pono but his idealism, that hi-res is the be-all and end-all, will ultimately alienate your average Joe. Joe doesn’t necessarily have the gear to appreciate its (alleged!) more nuanced delivery and he certainly doesn’t like the idea of having to Pono up the cash for his favourite albums yet again.

Tidal gives back to US and UK-based listeners all that was eroded through the slow march toward a de facto lossy standard. This streaming service returns us to what we enjoyed so much throughout the 1990s: CD quality audio. And it does so for US$20/month. At over 25 million songs Tidal’s catalogue goes deep enough that I have to try very hard to trip it up. You can’t say that about HDTracks or PonoMusic.

And Tidal provides better sound quality without forcing users to take a hit on convenience. The interface isn’t as slick as Spotify but it’s far from unusable. You can listen via Google Chrome on ANY computer or use one of the bespoke apps that exist for Windows, OS X, iOS and Android. So far, so standard. But the Tidal guys aren’t stopping there. The Norwegians have already locked down integration with all manner of devices: Sonos, LINN, Bluesound, Auralic, Mirage and Squeezebox. The latter is how I choose to listen. A detailing of the ICKstream setup procedure can be read here.

So my number one pick of 2014 goes to a service and not a product because it has brought better sound to more people than anything else this year. That’s a revolution done right.

See you again in 2015!


Written by John H. Darko

John lives in the NOW + HERE = NOWHERE. He derives an income from the ad revenues of DAR. John is also an occasional staff writer for Stereophile, 6moons and TONEAudio.

Twitter: DarkoAudio
Instagram: DarkoAudio
Facebook: DAR


Leave a Reply
  1. Happy New Year John!

    Must say I agree with your thoughts on the cheap little $25 Xiaomi Piston 2’s. I’ve been sporting a pair of these for a few months now and really digging them! Just goes to show the real fun can be had at the more honest end of the market. I’ve just ordered a second set as a spare. I like them that much.

    Good luck with that AudioQuest ethernet cable journey, you’ve really opened up a can of worms there! Whilst I have not personally tried the AudioQuest cables you speak of, I have tried just about every brand of Cat5/6/7 cable out there and personally, cannot tell the difference between any of them. Except for one which failed to work at all. I do admit to having modest equipment. Perhaps one day AudioQuest might be able to explain in themselves one day, who knows, stranger things have happened!

    Really surprised you are somewhat sitting on the fence as to the merits of hi-res. I for one cannot tell the difference. I have quite a few HDTRACKS and similar files and fail to determine any real differences to the 16/44 material. Again, perhaps it my equipment, and/or ears. Perhaps I need AudioQuest ethernet cables! (Sorry had to slip that one in!) However I’m sure Hi-Res will be a dead duck, just like SACD and DVD-A failed before them. The people have spoken. People do tend to know when they are being had or when the performance of something cannot be appreciated. Hi-Res is the same stuff packaged in a different box. It was not wanted then, it isn’t now.

    All the best for 2015 John. I do enjoy reading your material, you have a great way with words.

    • Thanks Chaz – and happy New Year to you. It’s not that I’m sitting on the fence with hi-res. It’s just that it’s such a mixed bag where the listening experience nearly always hinges on what the mastering engineer intended. “What the artist intended” is just company PR talking.

    • Chaz,

      Do you think it is possible your listening environment does not have significant sources of noise that interfere with Ethernet cabling? Don’t look for problems when there may not be any. Most shows are in places that have a lot of sources Ethernet noise. Your home may not have these and properly functioning Ethernet cable will be all you need.

      As for AudioQuest providing John with information, well they couldn’t explain why their LiveWire Lutz Green speaker cable worked well for me in the eighties. What I knew about the cable I learned myself. I can’t wait for Part of Three of the Ethernet Series because I’m a “Silver Bear”. I didn’t like silver in cables when I listened and tested in the eighties, nineties, 2004 and 2013. It will be interesting see what reasons John comes up with for reasons why silver works in Ethernet cables.

  2. Tidal is the future now. This streaming service should only improve. Big heavy component stacks are so yesterday and svelte is in. Devialet and others are proving high end sound can come from small, lighter components. LP play has staged a rebound of sorts, of which turntable and cartridge makers are capitalizing on frantically while they can cash in), but the writing is on the wall, and with time digital will conjure all.

  3. Just signed for Tidal since streaming is obviously the future as evidenced by the continuing decline in physical media and download sales, and the crazy growth we’ve seen with Pandora over the past several years.

    So let’s get down to some technicals here… do you prefer the SQ of the native MacOS app or via Google Chrome?

    And what’s the deal with the default volume level (~60%)? Leave it here or crank it to 11 and adjust with my MacOS system / ESS DAC volume control? Already set the output format to 16/44.1 in MIDI Audio Set-up. Any other tips or tricks? Thanks mate!

  4. John

    Thxs to your article on how to stream TIDAL on the Squeexebox Touch via Ickstream, I am now a TIDAL customer as a result! Plus I use the iPhone app via iFi DSD Micro.

    I have to agree that TIDAL would be your ‘product’ of the year. Simply put, I am listening to more artists as a result of TIDAL.

    For years I’ve captured screen prints from my iphone when streaming internet radio thinking I would later explore those artists. I never did however. Far easier to do now. Also, I can more easily explore music guys like you use when reviewing gear!

    I also download TIDAL offline and listen on the go via apple ear buds (even though I have Etty H2’s) while working out. Even w stock earbuds, the sound quality is better.

    Game on

  5. Happy New Year All!

    Somehow I’ve managed to get Tidal’s player on my Mac with full functionality and I have to say it’s amazing. Agree 100% with John.
    I’m firmly in the ‘mid-fi’ range with my system and the music is smoother, more life-like, and most importantly more….musical. The streaming isn’t 100 % stable yet and I don’t know if that’s a symptom of Tidal not officially being in Australia yet, my router, or ADSL line (typically downloads at 9 MBps).

    John (or anyone) what are your thoughts on getting the best out of streaming quality?
    My current setup is:
    Macbook pro> Apple Air> PS Audio Perfect Wave 1 (via optical)

  6. Happy new year John and thankd for an excellent 2014.

    Is there a possible launch date for tidal in Aus as yet? Sometime 2015 I hope.
    Tidal via an aries into a La Scalla mk 11 sounds an nteresting combo.

    • Hey Damo – I met with Tidal last night and they tell me they are still working on an Aussie launch date. Sorry to be vague.