After putting our digital streamer article to bed a few week ago, we took delivery of two brand new products that offer very different approaches to the product category. The HiFi Rose RS 201E media player ($1,799.99) sits closer to the Naim Uniti Atom and offers a one-box solution for those looking for something to connect to a pair of loudspeakers. The Andover Audio Songbird offers high-resolution digital audio playback for a paltry sum of $129; making it one of the least expensive digital streamers available. Both products deliver very different levels of performance – but it’s certainly a good thing for the category when the less expensive product delivers a lot more than you would expect.
With some experimentation, we discovered that the Songbird might be only scratching at the surface of its capabilities.
The Songbird isn’t aimed at audiophiles.
Andover Audio is being very smart about this and clearly aiming for Spotify users who are probably curious about high-res streaming, but have yet to sign up for Tidal or Qobuz (which actually offer high-res streaming…minor detail).
Audiophiles who lift their noses at the mere mention of Spotify are not getting it.
We know Spotify isn’t high-res; and the forthcoming Spotify HiFi won’t be anything more than lossless 16-bit/44.1kHz either.
The mass market doesn’t care. Most of the music people listen to isn’t high-res so the Songbird’s ability to stream at 24-bit/192kHz is a special bonus gift to those of us who actually care about better sound quality, or who actually plan on connecting the Songbird to a better quality DAC. We’ve discovered one technical issue that was not originally mentioned to us in the literature. The digital output of the Songbird is limited to 16-bit/44.1kHz so it will not pass 24-bit or higher to an external DAC.
(Updated on 21/07/2021)
I did that with a few DACs that I have at home and the performance of the Songbird did improve – although I wish the digital output wasn’t limited to a single Optical Toslink connection.
Cost clearly influenced that decision and it’s understandable.
If you expect a $129 streamer to offer Toslink, USB, and coaxial digital outputs, you’ve been reading audiophile magazines for far too long. Go outside and chop some wood. Or strike up a conversation with a neighbor – remember to wear a mask.
Another useful addition to the Songbird is the Optical digital input which users can connect to something like a Roku streaming box.
The digital output also allowed me to connect the Songbird to the Sennheiser AMBEO soundbar and stream music from Qobuz and Tidal in the living room. It sounded better than the wireless stream from my iPhone directly to the soundbar. Not a big surprise there.
The Songbird will offer gapless playback with Tidal and Qobuz in Q4 2021. Andover Audio is working on an update.
Wireless connectivity includes support for AirPlay and Bluetooth.
When I first opened the box, I smirked at the inclusion of Velcro strips.
The reality is that when you connect the power cable, Ethernet cable, Toslink digital cable or a 3.5mm to RCA cable to the analog output – the Songbird is going to move around. It is not a heavy component.
Velcro is good in this situation.
We Have Both Kinds of Music…We Have Country and Western
The Songbird spent most of its time running directly into the NAD C 316BEE, Cambridge Audio AXA35, and Naim NAIT 5si integrated amplifiers. I also injected the Schiit Audio Modi Multibit, Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M, and Topping D50s DACs into the systems to see how that influenced the sound quality.
The NAD C 316BEE gets a lot of use in my dining room system (19 x 13 x 9) and I’ve grown very attached to how it makes the Q Acoustics 3050i ($799/pr at Amazon) come alive; it’s an excellent pairing worth exploring if your budget for amp/speaker is under $1,500.
I have an ethernet connection in the room (home office is directly below in the basement) which made it easy to connect the Songbird to our ASUS router.
Pairing the Songbird requires pressing a button on the front panel and listening for audio confirmation.
Andover Audio has created an app for the Songbird which allows you to stream from Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz, Napster, iHeart Radio, Deezer, and Tune-In. More stations will be added to the supported list in the near future.
You can also connect to the Songbird through your laptop and stream directly from Tidal, Spotify, or Qobuz.
You Can’t Lie to a Nun…
Having spent a lot of time with some excellent and much more expensive streamers in 2020 and 2021, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the $129 Songbird.
Its closest competitors would be something like the Bluesound Node or the Allo USBridge Signature Player ($400 with power supply) which are both excellent streamers.
I’ve spent enough time with the older Node 2i and brand new Node to consider them both category leaders; connectivity, streaming options, and sound quality.
The Node is $400 more than the Songbird and the difference in sound quality does justify the price difference. Throw in hi-res support, a much better control app, and access to almost every major streaming platform on the planet which only widens the gap between them.
The Songbird (from its 3.5mm analog output) is remarkably good. So good that I dug out a custom 3.5mm/stereo adapter that I had machined many years ago so that I could try it later with the Acoustic Energy AE1 active loudspeakers that are under review in my office system.
Daft Punk’s “Giorgio by Moroder” (Random Access Memories, Qobuz, 24-bit/88.2kHz) can really energize a room with the right amplifier and loudspeaker. The C 316BEE/3050i pairing isn’t the last word in low end response (the 3050i need something far more robust with greater control to show what they can do), so I wasn’t expecting the Songbird to turn this particular track into a room shaking monster.
Because everything about 2020 & 2021 has been upside down, the Songbird delivered the rather energetic track with some attitude; and also exposed a few things about its capabilities that remained consistent throughout.
This is not a forward sounding source. I would even go as far as calling it somewhat subdued.
Natalie Merchant’s Tigerlily (Edition Studio Master, Qobuz, 24-bit/96kHz) has enormous presence with some digital gear and I often find that the warmth behind her beautiful voice is stripped away for the sake of detail, and a perspective that is way too close.
Not so with the Songbird that left the weight of her voice on “San Andreas Fault,” and “Beloved Wife” completely intact.
Qobuz offers an incredible library of jazz albums, and combined with Roon, I find myself discovering new music on a daily basis. Coleman Hawkins’ Coleman Hawkins and His Confres (Verve Reissues, Qobuz, 24-bit/192kHz) is a soulful collaboration between Hawkins and Ben Webster and the Songbird conveyed it all with ample color, pace, and more than enough bite on top.
The laid-back presentation of the Songbird should not be misconstrued as boring. It’s never that.
In Part II of this review, we’re going to explore the capabilities of this affordable streamer with three inexpensive DACs and see just how far we can take its performance.
For now, I have to give this $129 streamer a very solid recommendation.
It avoids doing some of the things that I hate about certain digital products; too much detail and far too little flesh and bones.
As each day goes by, the more I like it. It doesn’t grab you by the throat and try to drag into the music kicking and screaming. It’s also very good on the pace side; music has a genuine sense of flow that makes you want to engage.
If Naim made an affordable streamer for under $1,000, it would have the “bounce” of the Andover Audio Songbird.
It can be a tad fuzzy around the edges and it doesn’t carve out an enormous soundstage like the best products in the category, but it most certainly gets your feet tapping on the floor and makes you want to listen for hours.
Where to buy: $129 at AndoverAudio.com