Most HiFi manufacturers license certain technologies from other companies to enhance their products. These manufacturers either don't have the in-house engineering capability or they'd rather not reinvent the wheel, when it can be purchased for a moderate fee. This has never been more apparent than now, with the rise of computer audio. HiFi manufacturers started licensing Gordon Rankin's Streamlength(™) asynchronous USB code, StreamUnlimited's and ConversDigital's network modules as soon as computer based digital gained a foothold.
One technology that has gained more market share in HiFi lately is DTS Play-Fi. Several manufacturers have licensed Play-Fi as the core of their network audio offerings. The Play-Fi Products page lists a who's who of manufacturers from small to enormous. Play-Fi appears to offer quite a bit to manufacturers and their customers, such as network connectivity, and services such as Spotify, Tidal, Pandora, Amazon Music, SiriusXM, and DLNA. In addition, each manufacturer can offer customers a custom version of the mobile app for iOS and Android. To most end users these apps appear to come directly from the manufacturer rather than something the manufacturer licensed and logo'd. What's not to like?
I hate to be the bearer of bad news or the dream crusher, but once in awhile something irks me and feel compelled to write about it. I'm writing this article in an effort to both educate potential consumers and hopefully nudge DTS into making some adjustments. Given the size of its business, I don't think DTS really cares much about CA, but at least we can try.
First, the good things about DTS Play-Fi. The platform supports many services, both large and small. It also supports interoperability between manufacturers. For example, a single iOS app can stream music to Pioneer, Polk, and Paradigm speakers all at once. This is great for most consumers who like to mix and match components or pick up whatever is on sale at the local BestBuy. If it has a Play-Fi logo, it'll work with one's existing Play-Fi components. Play-Fi also supports lossless audio and high resolution playback. It will play up through 24/96 bit perfect. When streaming higher sample rates it will downsample on the fly. This is actually nice, given that Sonos won't even play music at rates higher than 44.1.
Now for the items that everyone should consider before purchasing a Play-Fi enabled device.
1. All music, with the exception of Spotify, must stream through the device on which the app is located.
2. DTS lists the DLNA logo on its site and writes that Play-Fi is compatible with DLNA, but the devil is in the details. I can see a politician saying Play-Fi works with DLNA, but DTS should put a very large asterisk next to the DLNA logo on its website.
Music Through Mobile
DTS requires that all audio sent to a Play-Fi device route through the mobile device controlling playback. For example, when using a Play-Fi iOS application from any manufacturer and streaming music from Tidal, Pandora, Deezer, SiriusXM, etc... all the music must first stream from the Internet to the iOS device, then from the iOS device to the Play-Fi device. The only exceptions are Spotify and the Play-Fi desktop application.
Think about that for a second. It's like we are back in 2008 when Apple's AirPlay was the only option. By the way, Apple's AirPlay works just like Play-Fi. Not only is this subpar for most novice music lovers, it's unacceptable for technically inclined audiophiles.
The one device in a home that requires batteries, doubles as a flashlight, is used to notify the authorities when there's a fire or a prowler, receives frequent interrupting SMS messages and calls, is also the single device that all DTS Play-Fi audio must route through.
Even if the music originates from within one's home network, on a DLNA server, the audio still must route through the mobile device. Imagine if televisions routed all DVD, Blu-ray, and cable TV service through the remote control. Talk about showstopper. This would never happen.
Compare DTS Play-Fi to Google's $30 Chromecast Audio device. Chromecast Audio doesn't route a single song through the mobile device. It communicates directly with the cloud. Start playing music and shut off your phone. Nothing happens to the music. Try that with a Play-Fi device. The party stops along with the phone.
I see this as a problem for all users of the DTS Play-Fi platform. Many times I'm disappointed by technology, but I chalk it up to my own strange edge cases. Play-Fi is different in that it's in millions of consumer devices and all mobile phones suffer from battery life issues, text message interruptions, and phone calls.
DLNA (Except When It Isn't)
My other big complaint with DTS Play-Fi is it's DLNA support. All over the Play-Fi website and knowledge base, DTS claims DLNA support for all Play-Fi devices. This is borderline fake news. The only way to use DLNA with Play-Fi, is to use a DLNA server, stream the audio through the mobile device running a Play-Fi app, and on to a Play-Fi certified piece of hardware. This is antithetical to how DLNA is supposed to work. Sure, DLNA is the most nonstandard standard and it has issues, but come on DTS. This isn't even close to DLNA support.
True DLNA requires three components. 1) A DLNA server, 2) DLNA control point, and 3) DLNA renderer. Any of these three devices can be from any manufacturer and serve audio to any other DLNA device. At home I have a Synology NAS (DLNA capable) that sends audio directly to a DLNA capable dCS Network Bridge, all controlled by a DLNA capable app on my iPad from Linn. Any of these three components can be replaced by another DLNA device or app from any manufacturer.
If Play-Fi was a true DLNA technology, one could stream from a Synology NAS directly to a Play-Fi certified piece of hardware, while controlling playback from the Linn application. Also, the music wouldn't route through the iPad or other mobile device.
The only way Play-Fi works with DLNA is when using a DLNA capable server such as one from Synology or JRiver or QNAP, and using a Play-Fi iOS or Android app and a Play-Fi certified piece of hardware. Did I mention that the audio must route through the mobile device? Oh yeah, a couple times.
Note: The Play-Fi audio devices appear on one's network as true DLNA devices. Apps such as JRiver can see the Play-Fi devices, but can't send audio to them. This ads even more confusion to the mix and will only serve to frustrate consumers.
Consumers should educate themselves on DTS Play-Fi before purchasing a Play-Fi capable component. The platform may be a perfect fit for one's lifestyle and needs. Or, it may be a nightmare with hidden problems that are really there by design. Other platforms have been streaming directly from the cloud to a playback device or from a DLNA server to a DLNA renderer for many years. Requiring a battery operated mobile device to be the audio traffic cop, is nothing short of silly, inconvenient, and counterintuitive.