While we could spend our disposable income on family holidays or outings to restaurants, we audiophiles have a habit of diverting unreserved funds toward new bits of hardware to enhance our listening pleasure. And it is usually only our listening pleasure: your other half probably doesn’t care about the extra detail and timing precision that the latest interconnect has brought to the sound. Fortunately, Electrocompaniet’s ECM 2 offers a solution for our inherent selfishness, as it’s designed to reward both the music lover and his family. The ECM 2 is a media player in the full sense of the word, as it streams both music and movies in high resolution, and can take pride of place in the living room without you having to feel a shred of guilt.
A full media player like the ECM 2 is commonplace in the ‘custom install’ world, but rare in audio circles. This is because the extra functionality requires a fair amount of specialst video know-how and hardware to achieve, without it degrading audio performance. The ECM 2 can stream audio in every uncompressed, lossless, or compressed format to 128x DSD, as well as both DTS-HD and Dolby True-HD, the audio formats used with Blu-ray video. The ECM 2 is supplied without storage as standard, but has space set aside for internal SSD or HDD drives, or you can leave the drive bays empty and use a separate NAS drive on the network.
The ECM 2 offers wired or wireless Ethernet network connections, four USB sockets, digital in and outputs and analogue output, via RCA phono or XLR. These features combined with onboard volume control means it might be all you need as a complete audio system, unless of course you have a turntable or other analogue sources.
The key to streaming devices is the user interface. Sonos didn’t achieve its dominant position in audio just by making Apple-esque white boxes; it designed an intuitive GUI that everyone could manage. To this end, Electrocompaniet has its own Android and iOS apps as well as an interface for attached screens, navigable from the supplied remote. The Apple oriented app requires the latest iOS 7 operating system, so it wouldn’t run on my ‘vintage’ iPad 1, but the functionally identical Android version proved good for simple operations (such as selecting and playing albums), but less useful for Internet radio or accessing the appealing YouTube streaming capability. These require the screen and handset combo. There’s full browsing functionality in the system for Internet radio, with a list of stations ranked by popularity, top genre, and country of origin. There are also search facilites, or even manual entry of the station’s URL for the terminally curmudgeonly. These functions are easily accessible by pressing the ‘group’ button and the ‘search’ button. These buttons are in many ways essential to the navigation of the system. They also allow one to easily search and navigate the music library.
Selecting music via the screen can also be a slow process at first, if you have a big library. This is because the ECM 2 scans the internet for additional metadata to build its library of information on your music files, and it does this as a background task until it’s completed. My recommendation is to leave the unit powered up continuiously, at least until it finishes its fact-checking exercise. Then, searching gets whizzy fast.
Build quality is appealingly high on the ECM 2, and its discreet appearance will likely prove popular for those who don’t want their media player lit up like a Christmas tree and detracting from the on-screen action. Furthermore, app operation means it needn’t be visible unless you need to use the volume control on the Android app. Also, the ECM 2’s on-board display is not required in day-to-day use, because the player is designed to be attached to a TV monitor for navigation and information purposes. A volume level indicator on the ECM 2 would be useful for audio-only users, but I suspect most of these devices will be hooked to TV screens.
Hooked up to a Townshend Allegri preamp, ATC P1 power amp and PMC fact.8 loudspeakers, the ECM 2 delivers a muscular, solid sound that has better than average timing. Being inquisitive, I scrolled through the music on its drive and dropped a few less familiar tracks. One I’d heard on a very impressive system the night before was Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’ from 21 [XL Records]. The ECM 2’s delivery surprised me by having greater pace and a less obviously compressed (see screechy) chorus than the other system, which excelled in dynamic range and so emphasised the change. It was an auspicious start to proceedings – one that also reinforced the view that the girl can sing. Next I found Beth Orton’s ‘She Cries Your Name’ on Trailer Park [Heavenly] as preferred by Phil Budd at Linn (see the Akubarik review this month). Orton’s voice was equally well projected and made me realise why there were so many female singers on the onboard drive.
There was also a good selection of electronica to sample and having heard good stuff from Infected Mushroom in the past, I gave them a spin. This also works well, the combination of decent pace and low end power making these pounding beats compelling without being bludgeoning (I guess at higher levels the latter might be the case but it sounded pretty clean with plenty of space in the mix). Moving on to music from my own collection on the Naim UnitiServe, I picked out Beck’s latest outing Morning Phase [Capitol], his most bucolic release to date, and reminiscent of Nick Drake. Both qualities are immediately evident through the ECM 2 and the player encourages further listening to an easily enjoyable album. Then, Yello took the stage with the album Touch [Polydor]. This reiterated a quality that had appeared to a lesser extent with earlier pieces: namely, the ability to produce a substantial soundstage that is wider and higher than the loudspeakers. Spatial dynamics would seem an apt description because on a heavily manipulated production like Touch, sounds appear all over the place and in this case, are rendered in a remarkably solid, three dimensional fashion.
I compared the ECM 2 with my Resolution Audio Cantata streamer, a more expensive piece, but one without any video streaming capabilities. The Cantata produced better leading edge definition and thus greater perceived speed, which suits tempo-strong material, but it also highlighted that the Electrocompaniet is very clean, revealing, relaxed and in fact pretty refined. Clearly the 24/192 DAC taken from the company’s ECD 2 standalone converter is beneficial to the end result. The ECM 2 also scores over streamers of the Cantata’s ilk thanks to its on-screen display, which shows cover art and has navigation pages for set up of storage alongside a variety of other functions. Companies like Linn and Naim offer a similar depth of information through apps, but none have the ability to directly stream video content from sites like YouTube. You’d think that with around 128 kbps at best a revealing piece of hardware like the Electrocompaniet might expose uncomfortable shortcomings in YouTube videos, but with the level kept sensible I was able to enjoy some clips of Zappa and the Mothers playing Montana in 1973. I wasn’t always so lucky though; some videos failed to stream, and it’s not obvious what differentiates them from those that did, but this is the stuff of software updates. However, that the ECM 2 streams YouTube clips is a real bonus for a high quality streamer, and given that streaming looks looks like it will supplement if not supplant downloading puts the ECM 2 in good stead for the future. I’m told that Nordic music streaming service Wimp is available in certain markets already, but as yet there are no definite plans to add popular services like Spotify or Napster.
Finally, let me return to a musical observation by way of bringing this review to a conclusion. I put on the Bobo Stenson Trio’s Cantando [ECM] and the sound of that album underscored how strong the Electrocompaniet ECM 2 is when it comes to image solidity. Honestly, the drums on Cantando might as well have been in the room. Importantly, the ECM 2 doesn’t just paint big pictures; it makes engaging music as well. If you can get the family to turn off the screen and just listen, they might discover that focussing one sense can be as thrilling as bombarding all of them, but don’t hold your breath…
- Upsampling rate: 192 kHz, 24 bit
- Digital/Analog conversion: 192 kHz, 24 bit
- Supported audio formats: all popular formats, including: WAV/WAVE, MP3, AAC+, Vorbis, AC3, DTS, ALAC, FLAC, APE, WMA, up to 192kHz/24bit, DSD,
up to DSD128 (5.6MHz)
- Supported video formats: all popular formats, including: MPEG-2, MPEG-4, H.263, MPEG-4 AVC (H.264), up to 1080p with HD 192kHz/24bit audio. Video: 1xHDMI ….Full HD 1080p Digital inputs: 2x COAX/ 2x TOSlink 192 kHz, 24 bit
- Network connection: Wi-Fi or LAN Internet-based sources: YouTube, Internet Radio
- Supported control interfaces: DLNA, UPnP, Android and iOS remote Internal storage: docking, self installation Playback method: memory-based with large buffer, asynchronous, gapless
- Dimensions HxWxD: 78 x 465 x 371mm
- Weight: 8.5kg
- Price: £3,950
Manufacturer: Electrocompaniet AS
- URL: www.electrocompaniet.com
- Telephone: 47 51741033
- Distributor: Hi Fi Network
- URL: www.hi-fi-network.com
- Telephone: 07873 416045
- Back to reviews http://hifiplus.com/reviews
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