Bluetooth has come a very long way from a system designed to offer a wireless alternative to RS232 cables (something which nearly twenty years after the first working prototype was unveiled it has still yet to completely replace). As well as allowing Jack Bauer to stay in contact with CTU through ever more outlandish scenarios, Bluetooth has been evolving continuously over the years and the latest Apt-X version is now capable of handling lossless audio without throttling the bandwidth. Outside of the Apple ecosystem (and even on some occasions, within it) Bluetooth is the most effective local wireless system there is.
As a result of this Bluetooth is being fitted as an integral input to a number of new devices and is being taken more seriously than a simple convenience feature. Equally, many pieces of equipment are not being fitted with Bluetooth and if you own an older amp, it is not going to be so equipped either. Into this breach steps Arcam. The Cambridge concern has been expanding their affordable range of ‘r’ components and the latest arrival in the family is the rBlink. This little black box is designed to add Apt-X Bluetooth functionality to anything that accepts a digital or analogue input. The idea is a good one but how does it work in practice?
The ‘r’ components that Arcam have been bringing to market over the last year or so are effectively single function devices that are designed to bolt in to existing system in an inconspicuous way. To this end, the rBlink is virtually identical to the rLink that I reviewed in October. To this end, the rBlink is a small metal chassis with a rubberised underside. To keep the size down, the power supply is external and the basic design of the ‘r’ series is done in such a way that adds to the simplicity by making them ‘straight through.’ Power and signal is sent in one end of the chassis and a digital and analogue signal is made available out the other.
The reason for this is that the rBlink is designed to sit out of sight among your cabling and get on with what it does without actually featuring as a visible part of it. That said, like the rLink, the rBlink (this is going to get confusing before too long) is finished to a high standard and if you wanted to have it on view, you wouldn’t have to make excuses for it. The nature of the design with connnections coming into either end does mean that the Arcam will always look a bit curious used in this manner though.
As you might imagine, the Arcam is a simple piece of equipment in terms of connections and controls but it doesn’t really need any additional complexity. Like other members of the range, the rBlink communicates the status of the device via a single LED on the top. This will go red, blue or a rather fetching purple depending on whether the Arcam is paired, unpaired or idle. Unlike the very straightforward rLink, the rBlink would probably benefit from being visible to the user as you will be more dependent on the status light and being able to hit the pairing button from time to time. The connected aerial does mean that the rBlink is slightly bulkier than some of the other members of the range but not unduly so and I found no difference between having the aerial ‘raised’ or simply pointing straight out of the chassis.The rBlink uses that same Texas Instruments PCM 5102 DAC that is fitted to the rLink. This technically offers 24/192 capability but this is limited to roughly 16/48 as the maximum bandwidth of Apt-X Bluetooth. Limiting or not, it is still good enough to handle lossless FLAC without reducing the signal and anything compressed is going to be no problem at all. As befits an open regulated standard, the Arcam is able to connect with older versions of Bluetooth although this will restrict the bandwidth somewhat. One interesting (and very welcome) decision that Arcam has taken with the design of the rBlink is to fit a digital output alongside the analogue connections. This means that if you have a decent DAC to hand already, you can use the rBlink as a receiver without having to double up the decoding stages. As many AV receivers are often rather shorthanded with regards to analogue inputs, this is a useful fitment for convenience too.
Getting the Arcam talking to a Bluetooth source for the first time is a simple business of pressing the pair button on the device and selecting it when it appears in the menu of the unit you want to connect. The Arcam will make the highest quality connection it can automatically and work from there. I found the connection between an iPad and the rBlink was pretty much unconditionally stable while the connection to the laptop was a bit more variable, it is sufficiently new that I’m prepared to give the Arcam the benefit of the doubt and say that it is likely to be the computer that broke the connection rather than the rBlink. Once paired, the Arcam can be selected from your list of devices and will spring almost instantly into life.
My criticisms of the design are pretty slight. Like other members of the range, the rBlink benefits from being used with short interconnects that don’t have too much tension in them as it tends to move around based on where the cables want to go although at least the rubberised base avoids marking any unit it is placed on. Arcam does supply an interconnect in the box which is usefully pliant although rather long. The power supply doesn’t exactly feel like a hand crafted masterpiece but the voltage requirements of the rBlink are so negligible that it would be pointless to include a higher specification one simply because it felt better. If I was being really picky, I’d also point to the travel in the Bluetooth button being a little limited- it is hard to tell when you’ve actually pushed it to start pairing.
I used the Arcam with three different amps, none of which are Bluetooth equipped themselves. It was initially connected to a Cambridge Audio 751R and used in my multichannel setup. It then went upstairs and was used via the coaxial connection to a Naim Supernait integrated amplifier and then- more out of curiosity than anything else- connected it to a Copland CTA405 valve amp that is in for other purposes.
Source equipment included an iPhone 4 and iPad 3 neither of which is Apt-X capable and my new Lenovo ThinkPad which thankfully is. Material played included lossless FLAC and AIFF via jRiver and compressed audio via Spotify on both the laptop and the mobile devices. I also tried using iPlayer and TuneIn Radio for a bit of variety.
The first impression that the rBlink generates after a bit of time listening to it is that it is very similar in behaviour to the rLink. This is at the same time no surprise at all given how similar they are under the hood and really quite surprising when you think of the reputation that Bluetooth has (or rather doesn’t have) as an audio format. The rBlink is good enough to do one important thing very quickly which is that you stop thinking about it or making allowances for it as a Bluetooth device and simply judge it for how it behaves as an audio device.
Judged under these conditions, there is a lot to like about the rBlink. The Arcam is an elegant demonstration that high quality digital is available for extremely reasonable prices. Connected via the analogue connection, the Arcam has a sonic balance that is ever so slightly on the warm side of neutral but only so much that it seems to have been set up to forgive the worst excesses of compressed music (which, Apt-X or not is something it is likely to have to deal with in use) and it is extremely hard to provoke it into sounding anything other than full, controlled and refined. The detail retrieval of the Arcam is very good as well but the presentation is sufficiently unforced that it doesn’t really seem to be in your face or unnatural. This rather effortless presentation makes it very easy to listen to the rBlink for long periods of time.
An area where the Arcam genuinely excels is the bass response. I stand by my earlier comments about it sounding the same as the rLink although I don’t really remember the DAC grabbing me like the Bluetooth device does. I can only attribute it to using different source equipment with the rLink that may not always benefit from having something as capable as the rLink to play it back. Bass is not only deep and powerful but has impressive detail retrieval as well. What can easily be a big slab of low end energy with some affordable digital has shape and separation on the Arcam that helps it sound believable.
The general tonality of the rBlink as a whole is good too although like many other devices that are designed to work with compressed audio, the Arcam can only work with what it has. With an AIFF version of the Kings of Leon’s Come around Sundown, the Arcam presents vocals and supporting guitars with believable scale and positioning. Most of this survives on the Spotify premium version which remains perfectly listenable but by the time that you are listening to the free Spotify version, it sounds softer with much less definition than the ‘full fat’ version. This is not the fault of the rBlink- far from it- but Arcam has seemingly decided to ensure that the rBlink really shines when given lossless audio and because of this, it highlights problem with more compressed material comparatively quickly. Provided that you don’t use very compressed audio routinely, you should not have a huge issue though.
Where the rBlink is perhaps less capable across the board and pretty much the only area where I can find anything other than good things to say about it is the soundstage. The Arcam tends to produce a performance that is very much contained between the speakers rather than something that extends out beyond them. The placement of musicians and objects in this space is good but large scale pieces can feel robbed of some of their scale. The sense of height in a stereo soundstage is an illusion but side by side comparisons with something like the Cambridge Audio DacMagic 100 is slightly better at creating this illusion than the Arcam is.
The counter to this is that if you connect the Arcam to the digital input of the Cambridge Audio- or anything else- it is completely and utterly transparent. Used into the digital inputs of my Naim Supernait, it is simply a Bluetooth extension of that input. If you have a digital device you already like the sound of and it has spare inputs, the rBlink puts nothing of itself into the signal- you have simply given that input Bluetooth capability. This is an absolute boon for anyone leaving the Apple ecosystem and wanting to connect Android or Blackberry devices to units that are only licensed for Apple. This is extremely impressive and a welcome addition to the rBlink’s abilities at the asking price. Arcam would have been well within their rights to fit either the digital or analogue output only and leave it at that. That they haven’t is to be applauded.
- Refined, detailed and enjoyable sound
- Very keenly priced
- Apt-X functionality gives useful performance boost
- Slightly limited soundstage
- Can't work miracles with very compressed material
- Pairing button is a little fiddly
Arcam rBlink Bluetooth DAC
When I tested the rLink last year, I felt it was a clever unit that was arriving at the right time. I made the proviso that as it only did one thing, it did face competition from DAC’s that cost a little bit more that had more in the way of inputs and connectivity. The rBlink arrives with an even more useful ability at no less a useful time and avoids the same issue of more expensive units being available that offer more functionality because at the time of writing, there really isn’t much out there which offers a suitable alternative to the rBlink.
As a result you have a well built, easy to use and well specified device that adds real world convenience to systems with a spare input- digital or analogue. The ease of use and clever design complements the improvements in performance to Bluetooth that make it a credible means of streaming lossless audio. The Arcam is a brilliantly thought out device that should appeal to a wide variety of users. By my reckoning, that makes it a Best Buy. Now- when do we get the AirPlay version?
Ease of Use
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