Sunday, 1 September 2013

Firestone Audio BlueKey Review

Firestone Audio BlueKey Review

Thanks to Firestone Audio for the sample.

First Impressions:  So isn’t it an odd looking little do dah.  I must confess on my first looking at it I thought what do I do with this.  Given my not having really paid attention to what it was I just assumed DAC but it is not.  What it is, is a USB to coaxial digital out or DDC.  Now I realised I don’t have much in the way of things with digital in bar my big old receiver so it looks like it’s going to be getting a bit of a work out then.  Not sure why it’s USB key shaped then, I can’t see it being something you’re removing all the time and you’ll just loose the cap for it.   To me I’m thinking maybe more for a desktop replacement laptop that occasionally moves from being hooked up to a DAC/amp. 

Plugging it in, windows doesn’t seem so keen on it.  Not installing drivers (both win 7 and 8) as it doesn’t seem available yet you can’t download the drivers.  A little email soon had them sent to me.  So firing it up and I notice that this thing supports all the way up to 24 bit / 192kHz resolution.  That’s VERY high, to emphasise this, the normal FLAC version of Nora Jones, Come Away With Me hits 257MB.  That’s the lossless CD quality equivalent (16bit 44.1kHz.)  The 24/192 copy of the same album clocks in at 1.81GB!  I’m sure you’ll agree that’s a notable difference.

Setup:  Computer > BlueKey > Yamaha RX-667 > either speakers or its HP out.

Okay, this is the first time I have ever had a go at reviewing a USB to coax converter and I’m not sure how to go about it exactly. So this may get rambly.

Right off the bat I think this product isn’t aimed at the likes of me.  I’m a chap who has two primary audio set ups in the living room.  One is the 5.1 AV system that is predominantly run off a windows 8 PC.  It’s a full sized desktop PC (lays over on its side like a giant set top box) and it has lots of outputs.  I have a separate sound card in there, it’s got coaxial out, toslink out, and I think 5 or 7.1 3.5mm jack outs.  Then the motherboard has 5.1 jacks too and another toslink spdif out.  Oh and I can output audio though HDMI too if I feel like it.  Adding in the BlueKey gives me nothing but a jump up in the bitrate available.  Well I agree higher bit rates are always good to have the simple fact is the receiver I use while nice, isn’t really good enough to make best use of that higher bit rate.  Now don’t mistake my comments for anything negative about its sound.  It sounded great but I really am not convinced I could hear any difference between the 24/192k and the 16/44k versions. 

My second and most used for audio set up, consists of my laptop, to the E7/E9 combo and then into the A1 amp.  It’s a USB only DAC in there so for me, the BlueKey hasn’t got a place in there.  However not everyone has a setup like mine.

If I was to use a mini PC or a laptop as my media centre then odds are it will have USB but it’s not going to have a separate sound card and may very well not have coax out. The other user group is those who have a rather higher end setup than I do.  Many high quality DAC’s will have a coax input on them and not USB.  They aren’t really intended to be hooked up to a computer and using the BlueKey would let you play back super high res files on your fancy and very expensive system.

The BlueKey to my mind is a bridge device. It’s there to link a computer to proper audio equipment that hasn’t been made with a computer in mind.  Indeed even some of those that have included a USB input it’s very common that it will not support the same data rates as over coax.  If you’re someone who has spent several thousand if not many tens of thousands on a proper HiFi then why not make use of higher res files?  If you have paid a fortune to be able to hear the differences between them why not add in the BlueKey? 

I am not sure that the number of people that this product will appeal to is huge but given what it does is just like the RedKey form Firestone Audio but with a much upgraded data rate capacity.  I can only imagine that the RedKey was a success as why else would you bother making an enhanced version? 

Sound:  As I have mentioned on the set up I had I couldn’t really be sure of any acoustic differences using normal FLAC or super high res files.  The one thing I did notice, but couldn’t actually prove in A/B’ing was that the super high res files seemed to have a blacker background.  These seemed to be a greater range and separation between the background silence and the music / vocals but try as a might to A/B this I couldn’t.  Still I certainly “felt” that it was so, take that for what you will.  That was the only difference I got from using the Bluekey with my meagre setup and other digital in.

Build:  Seems nice, though why the lid?  I don’t know.

Value:  If you need a DDC then it is vastly, and I mean vastly cheaper than the other DDC’s that up with a quick google.  As I’m sure you all know, some audiophile aimed at products can be insanely priced, this isn’t.   I am told that its RRP is coming at US$160 so that’s about £103 right now.  Well plus VAT so almost £124.

Conclusion:  I think if you’re someone that has a pretty decent DAC that you use that accepts coax in and you’d like to use a computer then it’s something you should consider.  Even if your DAC already has USB odds are if it has coax it will support better rates than over USB.  If that set up is you then it seems like a bit of a no brainer to at least try one of these.  Looking around at different proper HiFi DAC’s I’ve found that it is often the case that if it has USB inputs they just don’t support the same high bitrates as they do for coax in.  Certainly the BlueKey is a vastly cheaper upgrade than replacing your big chunky DAC in the HiFi rack.

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