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Don’t let its small size and $129 price tag fool you: Andover Audio’s Songbird music streamer flies high and sings almost as sweetly as competitors that cost three or four times more. The Songbird also offers near best-in-class ease of use and connectivity.
Nurtured by Boston audio community vets, Songbird is targeted primarily to the gazillions of people who bought nice sound rigs in the pre-internet age: Built-tough, classically styled stereo gear still functioning quite well, thank you, though maybe gathering dust because the vinyl, tape, and CD content it was designed for seems like dark-ages stuff from the times of Tower Records and Sam Goody.
Rejoice! Songbird can get you and that rig humming again, with instant access to hundreds of thousands of fresh, free, streaming radio stations and podcasts, plus tens of millions of on-demand music selections—old and new—that can be summoned in an instant for about the cost of one album a month.
Barely larger than a tin of breath mints at 3.25 x 3 x 1 inches (WxDxH) and nesting in a nondescript plastic case, Songbird is intentionally made small and light and supplied with short-run cables so it can easily be stashed behind your receiver. That low-budget exterior allowed a healthier percentage of manufacturing moolah to be spent on the guts inside, where it counts.
Andover’s director of engineering and product development, Bob Hazelwood, told me he was inspired by a low-cost NAD receiver from the 1970s “that wasn’t much to look at but had great sound.” And also by a legendary audio guy he met while working at Cambridge Soundworks—co-founder Henry Kloss—who championed the cause of affordable, everyman hi-fi rather than sky-high-priced esoteric stuff.
The Songbird really delivers once connected to your home network via ethernet or Wi-Fi (2.4GHz only). The iOS/Android streaming app—licensed from Linkplay Technology—is stable, responsive, intuitive to operate, and nice to look at. I love the rotating album covers that spin as the music plays. The streaming platform, also from Linkplay, currently supports the high-res music services Qobuz and Tidal (although not the latter’s MQA-encoded Masters tier), as well as the more plebian services Spotify, Napster, TuneIn Radio, iHeart Radio, and Amazon Music.
While the app doesn’t provide any visual confirmation that I’m getting the bumped-up Amazon HD content I’m paying extra for, the software team promises I’m receiving CD-quality streams from that source, and that support for Amazon’s ultra high-res content is coming soon.
Linkplay also is contemplating Andover’s request to add onboard app access for Pandora, SiriusXM, and Apple Music. To land those services on Songbird today, you’ll need to throw them to the player via Bluetooth (2.1 + EDR) or Airplay (version 1) from your mobile device or computer. Chromecast is not supported.
Andover’s expertise comes to the fore in the selection of components—and the tweaking thereof—that process those incoming streams. This includes a Cirrus Logic DAC that can convert up to 24-bit/192kHz digital audio to a full-throated analog rendering through the Songbird’s RCA stereo outputs. With the aid of a clean power supply and a good output buffer, I had no problem at all detecting the difference between 320Kbps Napster streams and the dramatically richer, livelier, CD-quality or better renderings of the same material from Qobuz and Tidal.
This included well-recorded new releases by Lake Street Dive (Obviously) and Willie Nelson (That’s Life), which I didn’t mind hearing multiple times over. That pick-me-up differential even proved potent when I compared the streams playing on a 15-year-old Bose Acoustic Wave Music System II and a pre-digital-age Sansui RZ-9500AV receiver (connected to ADS and Niles Audio in-wall speakers). And for good measure, I also auditioned this sweet little box with a recent-vintage high-end Yamaha RX-A3060 A/V receiver playing through big-bubba Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus 803 floor-standing speakers.
This little bird also tweets sweet when plugged into self-powered headphones, such as the recently reviewed Bose QC 35 II. The combo makes for a great little personal audio system useable wherever Wi-Fi and AC power are available.
How does Songbird compare to Sonos?
I performed A/B comparisons of this and several competing streamers with the Yamaha/B&W rig, switching first between the Songbird and the likewise connected Sonos Port ($449), and then the higher-striving Russound MBX-PRE ($399) and Bluesound Node 2i ($549). All were whistling the same happy tunes through their internal DACs and analog outputs. I listened to Keith Jarrett’s revealing My Song set (my reference standby); Dua Lipa’s pop smash Future Nostalgia; Kings of Leon’s newbie When You See Yourself; and a sterling set of high-res Beethoven and Brahms: Violin Concertos, spotlighting Gil Shaham and the Brooklyn-based ensemble The Knights.
The Songbird held up quite well against these much more expensive competitors. It has a slightly harder-edged tone than the Sonos Port, though I’d say it’s within a hair’s breadth of matching it in terms of overall dynamics, sensitivity, and clarity. The Russound and Bluesound units delivered a shade more vocal warmth and presence, a fuller rounding out of instrumental sounds, and better overall depth of field (i.e., an airy spaciousness) to my hyper-critical ears.
But the differences weren’t apples and oranges; more like clementines versus tangerines. If you’re not doing a direct and obsessive comparison, I’d wager you’d never notice the Songbird’s sonically inconsequential shortcomings and would be fully satisfied with it. I certainly am, at least when this lovey’s the only one I’m with.
Why does the Songbird down-sample?
I was less impressed with the Songbird’s down-sampling of higher-res digital signals to 16-bit/44.1kHz for output to its Toslink optical digital audio output. The product’s designers put that in place so the data stream would be fully compatible with both older receivers limited to accepting 16-bit streams and newer receivers that max out at 24/96 streams. Resampling is also performed to facilitate networked multi-room deployments.
Songbird provides the user with variable level control over the digital output signal, which is a blessing if you don’t have a remote for your receiver; you can control the volume from the Songbird app. Altering the output of a digital signal, however, is fraught with danger because it involves step-down processing with the potential to make music sound flattened and compressed.
I ran into the same problem when reviewing the Sonos Port, which does a more brutal job than Songbird at scaling down the volume-related bits. But at least the Port gives users the option to switch to a fixed-level digital output that’s free from those problems; this first-generation Songbird does not offer such an accommodation. The Russound and Bluesound streamers, meanwhile, avoid the problem altogether by only offering fixed-level optical digital audio outs.
The good news is that the Songbird’s onboard DAC puts out such terrific analog sound that there’s really no reason to connect the streamer’s digital output to an outboard DAC. And no damage is done to the analog signal when you raise and lower its volume. By the way, when I voiced my concerns about all this to Andover’s Hazelwood, he said the Songbird’s optical digital audio output performs best when left at 100-percent volume, so that all volume adjustments are performed on your receiver or amp.
Less problematic to my ears is the fact that the Songbird offers the user menu options to step up or step down the maximum resolution of incoming digital signals from 24 bits (with sampling rates of either 96- or 192kHz) to 16/44.1 or even down to MP3 at 320Kbps. That’s helpful for reducing bandwidth-induced signal dropouts when more than one Songbird is flying on your home Wi-Fi network. Andover suggests up to five Songbirds can coexist with synchronized or standalone streaming on the average Wi-Fi system. Interestingly, this data-download level adjustment is done in the cloud: The Songbird just sends out a message that it’s ready to synch at a specified rate.
Is the Songbird a plug-and-play streamer?
I can’t emphasize enough how easy the Songbird is to set up and use. Voice prompts help you connect to the internet and audibly acknowledge when you’ve changed source. In addition to streaming sources, the box has both 3.5mm analog and Toslink digital inputs for plugging in other audio sources. With just the tap of the line-in icon on the Songbird app, I was able to switch from a streaming station to an Ivan Lins tribute disc spinning on a Sony CD Walkman, with the tune emerging from a UE Boom powered portable speaker plugged into the Songbird’s aux out.
If I had two or more Songbirds on my network with speakers connected, I’d be able to enjoy the same balmy Brazilian tunes playing in multiple rooms. Alternatively, I’d be able to direct the left and right channels of the recording to separate Songbirds and speakers for a wide stereo effect. There’s also an ethernet port for a wired network connection, with gapless playback if you use Airplay or DLNA. But sorry, there was no room or budget for a USB port on this product. Guess we’ll have to wait for a second-generation Songbird for that.
I was also impressed with how quickly the Songbird boots up, which is a great feature when you decide to decamp and move your listening session to another room. The Songbird app on my iPhone 12 Pro and iPad were equally speedy and resilient in adjusting to such changes, which is more than I can say of some of the Songbird’s higher-priced and more finicky rivals.
There’s plenty to like about Andover Audio’s Songbird, a network music streamer offering oodles of connectivity and sourcing options for a very affordable price. While some will balk at the notion of the Songbird down-sampling a high-res music stream to 16/44.1 before routing it to its optical outputs or sending it over a network, less particular listeners will just enjoy the music—and the savings.