Mass Fidelity is a relative newcomer on the digital scene. Based in Toronto, the company designs wireless speaker systems and the subject of the review, the Relay Hi-Fi Bluetooth DAC.
The words 'audiophile' and 'Bluetooth' are not usually found in the same sentence, at least in these pages. Sure, the online audio 'press', the ones that regurgitate press releases, primarily about the latest earbud or bass pounding headphones, publish lots of shiny pages. The look is first class, the content much less so.
But not so fast with the stereotypes. The folks at Mass Fidelity have taken their time to produce a simple, beautiful little silver box that contains the magic that good designers use to further the art. Bluetooth is for some a black magic art. A recent review of the new wireless Bluetooth Master & Dynamic MW60 Headphones by our own Karl Sigman includes a good précis:
‘Bluetooth uses radio waves encoded to ensure low-power wireless reception and transmission between two devices. The great advantage of Bluetooth over other wireless connections: No internet connection is required, no base stations are required; you are not tethered to any particular device, you can connect (pair) to any bluetooth enabled device on the fly (a computer with a mouse or keyboard, for example, or in the present application, a music server/iphone/computer with a pair of headphones).'
The Relay is milled from a solid billet of aluminum, measures only 4”W x 1”H x 4.5”D and weighs in at 13.4 oz. The build quality is superb. Only a tiny LED is visible on the top. The rear panel includes the power button, connection for DC and antenna, and two RCA jacks. Price is $249.
Mass Fidelity provides a set of RCA-to-RCA interconnects and one stereo RCA-to-3.5mm interconnect. The unit connects to your audio system via its stereo analog outputs, but can also be set to the output of an S/PDIF digital signal by holding down the power button for five seconds. The LED will change from white to orange. Orange indicates digital mode.
I used the Relay in as comfortable a lifestyle mode as possible. Ease of use and quality sound is what the Relay is about. As such, my connection to a Play:5 in my main living space's SONOS system (PlayBar, Sub, Play:5, Play:1 x 2) was simple and yet yielded a sophisticated, easy solution.
I will follow up with the Relay as used in my music room’s reference system. Setting it up was as easy as with the SONOS -- connect the provided RCA cables from the Relay’s analogue stereo output to an input on your preamp/integrated/receiver, while not forgetting the antenna (provided) and the power supply, press the power button, the LED changes from red to white, and you’re done.
I used my iPhone 6S Plus as the paired Bluetooth device. Connection was quick and effortless.
Mass Fidelity describes its DAC and decoding as: 'Relay is more than a Bluetooth receiver; it’s also a Digital to Analog Converter (DAC). Inside Relay is a legendary Burr-Brown 5102, a costly DAC usually found only in top shelf audiophile home audio and home theatre systems. Relay’s Cirrus microprocessor decodes aptX, a superior performance digital audio codec used in later-generation smart devices. This combination of advanced hardware and firmware preserves all the musical detail, dynamic range and full bandwidth response that elevate digital music from a mere collection of notes up to emotion-packed artistic expression.'
Truth in advertising?
Yes, and more. Just as I am surprised at the advancements in mobile audio, especially high end Portable Digital Audio Players (such as Astell & Kern and Questyle), I was also surprised at the musicality and solid connectivity of the Relay.
No matter the repertoire — and I tried the loud and the soft — the Relay’s connection was solid with no discernible dropout. Not that loud or soft should upset the unit’s advanced Bluetooth connection, but I was burned many times during the advent of the technology.
My go to test track [American Beauty Soundtrack by Thomas Newman, Track 1] throws the digital kitchen sink into the mix — bass from the abyss, a plethora of struck percussion (tuned and untuned) and multi layered highs. The SONOS speakers do a fine job of deciphering the complex orchestration and the Relay did not get in its way. As good as my reference system? Not even close, but with a total of $2500 compared to a $60,000 high end system, well matched kit and very good sound.
The Relay reclocks, too. The removal of jitter and the unit’s ability to upsample to 48-kHz/24-bit are reasons the unit sounds so good. The SONOS connection is a no brainer, but the ability to listen to Tidal Hi Fi streaming or a personal library on your device through your high end reference system is pretty special. But to be honest, I’m a little concerned about the follow up. High end systems usually don't take prisoners. If the file is crap (as so many are sourced from iTunes and the like), even the utility of the Relay’s upsampling may not help. Stay tuned.
When you think of the technology involved — akin to walking a tightrope without a net — that the Relay sounds so good is quite an achievement. We’re still in the early days of the technology; the codecs are going to get more and more reliable with the ability to retrieve even more information.
Musical information is what audiophiles are all about. Information at the source, during delivery and at the blunt end. The Relay’s delivery is a good step forward housed in a sexy little box. Recommended.
Further information: Mass Fidelity