While the phone has overtaken the conventional media player, those of us with special needs and high resolution audio are embracing a new generation of media devices, and Acoustic Research’s AR-M2 is in one of the more interesting models out there.
What is it?
Apple’s iPod may have changed the world and moved everyone from the tried and trusted compact disc players, but the digital music revolution didn’t stop at MP3s and M4As.
No, better formats are out there, because as good as the old MP3 is, it’s still compressed and lossy, as bits of the file are dropped in order to get the size down.
These days, size constraints aren’t quite as big of a deal, especially as storage is cheap (relatively so, anyway), so if you want to keep the file in tact and not lose out on bits you might not here, there are options.
High-resolution audio or “high-definition audio” (as some like to call it) gets around this, lettering you hear the entirety of the track and keeping as much in as humanly possible by producing a lossless file.
That is to say parts that you may not be able to hear are not dropped, and while it’s debatable whether you may be able to hear them, the whole file is there waiting for your ears instead of not giving you the option.
This special type of format isn’t as special as you might think, though, and several formats exist for this type of music. You’ll find the classic “WAV” or Waveform Audio Format, the slightly older “AIFF” or Audio Interchange File Format, and then the recent ones such as “FLAC” (Free Lossless Audio Codec) and “ALAC” (Apple Lossless Audio Codec).
There’s even one more for people who like the audio straight from the recording studio floor, found in the form of “DSD” or Direct Stream Digital, which is about as close to a recording master as you get.
While the file formats are fairly numerous for these lossless formats, they all share at least one thing in common: large file sizes for pristine audio.
One other thing they have in common, however, is the need for a different type of media player, because while some devices will play lossless files, your standard iPhone or other smartphone will not.
Some smartphones will, that said, and this includes pretty much any flagship phone from the past couple of years including Samsung’s Galaxy S6 and S7 series, as well as Sony’s Xperia Z phones and LG’s G-series devices, but most won’t touch the high-resolution music, and so you need to turn to something else.
Acoustic Research’s M2 is one of these, bringing support for the all the aforementioned media formats, as well as APE (Monkey’s Audio) and DXD (Digital Extreme Definition), making it about as high-end as you could possibly want if you’re a lossless audio buff. And hey, MP3 is also supported, ideal if you have a bunch of those too, which you probably do.
Built more like a smartphone, the M2 features a 5 inch high-definition display atop what looks like it could be a smartphone and yet isn’t, delivering a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor, 64GB storage, and Google’s Android 4.3 “Jelly Bean”. Storage can be upgraded, too, with a microSD slot behind a slide-up door on the right edge.
Connection options on the M2 include WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n and microUSB — no Bluetooth here, interestingly — with a 3.5mm headset jack at the very bottom and a line-out port the only ways to get sound out of this box.
And a box it is, with the M2 arriving with a leather wrap built into the body to protect the screen and the entire thing clocking in at 245 grams, heavier than pretty much every smartphone out there.
A Burr-Brown DAC can be found in this player (PCM1794a) as well as a 4000mAh battery, the latter of which we suspect makes up the bulk of the weight, though the metal housing certainly adds something to it.
Buttons can be found on this player, because even the ARM2 appears to be based on a smartphone, media players still need buttons for pause, and skipping tracks back and forth, with all three of these catered below a power button on the right edge. A manual volume dial is also include on the top right corner.
It’s pretty clear that Acoustic Research isn’t channeling a lot of design inspiration in this one, but that’s ok because being a media player, it probably doesn’t need to.
Simply put, the ARM2 is like every other Android you’ve seen in the past, at least from how it looks: it’s a 5 inch screen on a block body ready to play your sounds.
Granted, AR has tried to make this basic body a little more elegant, and given the $2K price, that’s probably a good thing, so you’ll find a flip cover case built into the body that protects the screen, and that’s good because now you don’t have the impossible task of finding a screen protector or a specialised case.
From here, however, the design is very minimalist with Acoustic Research offering what is almost a trapezoid of a box, with enough weight to know that you won’t leave it anywhere because it would quite obviously burn a quarter of a kilo weight in your pocket.
As in “why do my pants suddenly weigh so much less”, and the obvious amazement resulting from that point.
At least the buttons are simple, with four circles on the right edge and a very retro manual volume dial on the top right corner, the latter making it feel super accurate when you want volume to go up and down just a smidgeon, not an entire bar.