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.
More devices need dials like this.
The awesomeness of that dial pops up when you start using the M2, and that’s because gone is the clunkiness of a smartphone volume dial, offering up a more manual approach to audio with tiny increments on a short dial.
Turn in the volume you want with a more old school feeling and play your music, because that’s really what the M2 is good at.
In fact, once you’ve moved your files to the player either by plugging the M2 into a computer and dragging and dropping, or sticking a memory card inside and loading the files off that.
Testing the sound, you simply plug in a pair of headphones and hit play, with the audio represented beautifully provided the headphones you’ve opted for are made for great quality audio. In fact, you can’t actually hit play until a pair of headphones are plugged in, so once they’re in and you have some music on the device, you are good to go.
We tested FLAC, AIFF, and DSD through the Acoustic Research player, and all were loaded without any dramas, making it ideal for any music you have laying around provided you’ve started to collect lossless sound.
One area where we get a little surprised by the performance of the M2 media player is in the screen, and that’s because for two thousand schmackos, it’s a display that doesn’t quite live up to the price tag.
We’re not talking the sort of screen you might expect to find on a budget phone, but it still doesn’t feel as spesh, though we suspect this low end screen is here not because Acoustic Research has cheapened out, but rather because it will likely result in better battery life and lower hardware noise for the media player side of things.
“But a better screen makes for a better device,” you might say, “especially since it runs Android!”
And while we’d normally agree with you, the version of Android Acoustic Research has gone with is a little, well, different than you might otherwise see.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the Acoustic Research media player is its use of Android, because it is only here to provide an easy to use operating system for moving files to the media player.
Strangely, it’s about the most cut down version of Android we’ve ever seen, with no account access, no ability to grab apps, and nothing that makes Android, well, Android.
Simply put, Android appears to be here to make it easier to browse the device and not devise an operating system just for the point of playing back audio and moving files to and from the product.
There’s no access to Google’s Play Store, nor is there anything that would make this an Android device outside the OS existing.
Forget running anything Android typically runs here, because all you get is a basic web browser, a file explorer, a clock, a calculator, and a gallery. You don’t even get the ability to put in your web or email accounts, as Acoustic Research has ripped that well and truly out of the installation of Android found on this device.
Basically, Android is here only to let you move your files to and from the phone easily.
While that’s a noble concept and one we don’t have a problem with initially, if you have a massive file collection on your network that you’d like to access, it means you can’t install a single app to get into it, and will have to resort to moving those files by hand using a computer, which in this day of modern wireless computing is a bit of a shock.
And what if you want a better music player on Android to play those lossless music files?
If you sit in that category, we wouldn’t blame you, as the app AR has made for music playback is pretty limited and doesn’t look amazing. Heaven forbid you want to use a different media player, say PowerAmp, BlackPlayer, or AIMP, or even access Google Play Music or Spotify on the one device.
In all of those situations, you won’t be able to with the AR M2 as it is just that much locked down.
With Android barely being here at all, it does make the $1999 price seem a little curious, or even just something close to outrageous.
Audio quality not withstanding — and it is quite excellent — two thousand dollars is a lot of money to spend on a media player that only does one purpose, and that’s the strangest part about the Acoustic Research M2: it only serves as a media player.
For that sort of money, we’re surprised by this, and even though the specs don’t exactly scream “best in class” and there’s no phone capabilities or even a decent screen, the intentional cutting down of what Android can do is mighty surprising, and even a little shocking.
There isn’t even a bit of Bluetooth, so you have to stay wired to the device. While the insides are fairly modern, the whole package doesn’t feel like the entire thing actually comes together as a modern music player, and the reduced Android only adds to this.
In some ways, we can’t help but feel it would have been better to have a non-standard totally unusual operating system installed instead of Android, because at least then we wouldn’t feel like we were being teased or taunted with an OS that can do so much more.
Imagine if Acoustic Research allowed the M2 to function as more a media player with a great operating system than just a file transfer system. While you may end up buying a $2K media player for the playback of high-end lossless audio, access to the entirety of Google would mean you could listen to streaming audio services and properly compare the audio qualities between lossy and lossless, as well as read the news or get a different player if you’re not a fan of the one Acoustic Research has built.
And that’s just naming a couple of the things you could do if Acoustic Research had provided a little bit of flexibility.
But you can’t, not the way AR has set things up on the M2. It is merely an audio player.
Sure, it’s a pretty good audio player, and a very solid one, but its potential to be something more is lost in translation, and that makes it hard to see its two-thousand-clam price tag as totally worth it.
The high-resolution media player world is a little harder to gauge than that of the iPhone and Android phone, and that tends to come back to what buyers of these gadgets are looking for.
Simply put, they’re looking for high-end sound deserving of high-end dollars, and for that the Acoustic Research M2 media player certainly delivers. Where it fails, however, is with a price that doesn’t totally feel justified by what the media player could have done.
It could have been an amazing do-everything media player that grabbed apps, emails, and maybe took a SIM card. Or it could have been a media player that did a little more than just used Acoustic Research’s software.
But that’s all it is: a media player that does one thing and one thing only, playing music using the AR software.
That makes the ARM2 a master of one thing, which in an era of convergence is a total surprise, and closer to a shock.
If you love that philosophy and live by it, there’s a good chance you’ll be into what Acoustic Research is selling, but at $2K, we think we’ll shop around.