- Amazing sound quality besting systems at double the price
- Superior build quality
- Wireless Internet can “talk” to 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz system
- Internal component quality and architecture is derived from Technics’ $6,000 system
- No subwoofer output
- No CD Text capability
- The use of non-standard binding posts which accepts only spade connectors or bare wires
- Cryptic initial set up procedure and start-up guide
What is Hi-Res Music?
The definition of high-resolution audio isn’t set in stone. Unlike high-definition video, which has to meet certain criteria to earn the name, there’s no universal standard for high-res audio. But it typically refers to audio that has a higher sampling frequency and bit depth than CD, which is 16-bit/44.1kHz. High-resolution audio files usually use a sampling frequency of 96kHz or 192kHz at 24bits, but you can have 88.2kHz and 176.4kHz files, too. On the other hand, CD quality lossless files can also be considered HiRes Audio.
That being said, The Digital Entertainment Group, Consumer Technology Association (CTA; formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Association), and The Recording Academy have, together with record labels, come up with a formal definition for high-res audio to help clarify the term: “Lossless audio that is capable of reproducing the full range of sound from recordings that have been mastered from better-than-CD quality music sources.”
There are several high-resolution audio file formats to choose from, all of which support the above sampling rates and bit depths. They include FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) and ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec), both of which are compressed but in such a way that (in theory) no information is lost. Other formats include WAV, AIFF and DSD, the format used for Super Audio CDs. The relative merits of these formats can be argued, but most crucial will be compatibility with your particular system. FLAC tends to be the most popular, scoring points over WAV for better meta-data support, ensuring your tracks have artist and title information.
Of course, as well as downloading your music in one of these superior formats, and now streaming, you can (and should) also rip your existing music library in these higher-quality file formats. I still prefer WAV as it’s the only format that is bit perfect 1:1 ratio extraction from a CD master.
The Technics Tracks HiRes Audio Online Store
Sadly, most HiRes Audio online stores arguably sell music that caters to very specific tastes, and often appeal more to the older generation. You’ll find various versions of Stravinsky’s Firebird, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, or Diana Krall and even more Diana Krall. Don’t get me wrong: I love those songs. I own those songs and albums. But they are not what I consider content that the new generation of music listeners will gravitate towards. We need something that covers a wider selection of genres. I want my Selena Gomez, Daft Punk, Lana Del Rey, Kylie Minogue, Metallica, Michael Jackson, and yes, even Britney Spears.
Thanks to Panasonic’s Technics Tracks online store, I can find such artists easily. Either in true HiRes or remastered “CD quality.” I was able to verify that the 16-bit/44.1kHz files were remastered by comparing the original CD release against the FLAC files purchased from Technics Tracks using my computer. Checking their respective frequency response waterfall graphs, I could visually detect the changes made in equalization (at the very least) to a completely audible different level of instruments being mixed into the song.
Of the 40 or so tracks I purchased from Technics Tracks, only one is identical to the original CD. The rest sounds (subjectively, of course) better. No harsh treble, and better dynamic range than the original release. Best of all, there is no DRM (Digital Rights Management), so after you purchase and download the tunes, they can be played on any device that supports FLAC files. Furthermore, Technics Tracks claims to offer “hundreds of thousands” of 24-bit/192kHz tracks, and ‘hundreds of thousands’ of 24-bit tracks. From my personal observation, an extensive collection of 16-bit/44.1kHz, CD-quality tracks are also available alongside the high-resolution content from Top 100 tracks to previous-decade music.
The store was custom-built by open digital music platform operator 7digital. Music purchased through the service is stored in a cloud locker, allowing you to download the tunes to more than one device, which is handy for those with both home and portable systems. Depending on the copyright agreement, you can re-download the songs you’ve purchased anywhere from five to 10 times. Even more exciting, you can also pre-purchase upcoming albums, as I did with Kylie Minogue Christmas. Once the album is released, you will receive an e-mail reminder that it’s ready for download.
The price of a song starts as low as $1, but most are around $1.29, and an entire album sells for about $16. You could get a similar selection of CD-quality tracks through streaming services like TIDAL, but they require a monthly subscription, which means you only “own” your songs as long as you are paying your monthly dues. Technics Tracks is akin to the iTunes Music Store, but with much higher sound quality at the same price.
Panasonic SC-PMX100S HiRes System
All the hoopla around bringing HiRes Audio into the mainstream means nothing if the playback system is not within reach of the average consumer’s budget. The most affordable HiRes systems that can reproduce sound quality considered acceptable to my discerning ears tend to be in the $1,200 price range and higher. While there are many systems that can play back HiRes files, that doesn’t mean they have the capability to produce HiRes sound quality.
The SC-PMX100S breaks that price barrier. At just $600 MSRP, its sound quality surpasses many micro systems that sell for twice as much. This is achieved through digital signal correction. By using various DSPs, the SC-PMX100S adjusts the frequency and phase response of the supplied speakers. This technology is derived from Technics’ Load Adaptive Phase Calibration, whereby the built-in amplifier’s frequency amplitude-phase characteristics are synchronized with the speakers’ impedance to achieve the ideal impulse response for the supplied speaker.
To combat jitter, the SC-PMX100S uses a battery-driven source and DAC clock generator, which entirely isolates the clock from any noise or fluctuations in the mains supply. Virtual Battery Operation is also used to remove any noise generated by the power supply circuit. A super capacitor is used to fulfill the function of the battery. During playback, this capacitor provides the power, taking the charging system out of the circuit and preventing supply noise mixing into the audio signal. For the latter, I tested it by running the SC-PMX100S parallel with an old power supply that always generates hum to audio products when connected into the same power splitter. With the SC-PMX100S, I couldn’t hear any hum at all.
Of course, this all means nothing if the listening experience is not satisfactory. Surprisingly, despite the low price, the SC-PMX100S exceeded my expectations in the sound department. Regardless of what I fed into it, be it USB, network radio, FM radio (yes, that’s still included), NAS, or CD, they all fared better than anticipated. Even when I did an A/B comparison with my bedroom system, which consists of a NAD digital integrated amp, Marantz CD player, and a pair of Chario speakers, the SC-PMX100S performed favourably. I played a number of popular tunes from artists like Frank Sinatra, Kylie Minogue, Enrique Iglesias, Gloria Estefan, Daft Punk, Giorgio Moroder, and Britney Spears.
There are, however, some limitations with the system. First is the inability to accept banana plugs. At this price, having non-standard binding posts is unacceptable in my book. As a result, I had to remove my speaker cables’ banana plugs in order to use them for this system. The lack of CD Text is disappointing, especially since it is a network-based system that could easily find the CD Text from CD Database (CDDB) via the Internet, or at least display the CD Text embedded in the metadata when available. Also, there’s no subwoofer output. Sure, purists won’t be using a subwoofer. But consider that, in the price range, the device won’t only appeal to purists, but also casual listeners who might want to connect it to the audio output of their cable TV. Although I applaud Panasonic’s choice of having both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz Wi-Fi connection options, first-time network and system setup is not intuitive, requiring use of the equally cryptic manual throughout the process.
Despite these quibbles about setup and connectivity, the end result is what really matters. And the SC-PMX100S trumps any system I’ve tried at its price, or even double its price. During the three-week period when I was reviewing this system, several guests visited, many of whom ended up buying the system after hearing it. As far as content, I’ll be using Technics Tracks exclusively. Its ease of use, extensive library and uncompromised sound quality makes it a perfect companion to a HiRes ecosystem.