Arcam rBlink review

Pros

  • Makes Bluetooth audio sound great
  • Supports apt-X and AAC
  • Beautifully built
  • Simple to setup

Cons

  • It's not cheap

Last year I reviewed the Arcam rPac and was so impressed with it that I bought the review sample. The rPac is a pretty simple piece of kit on paper – it’s an external DAC and headphone amp that connects to your computer via USB – but the difference it makes to the sound quality is significant. Now Arcam is looking to weave its magic again, with the rBlink set to revolutionise Bluetooth audio streaming quality.

The rBlink is another high-quality external DAC, but this time it pulls its digital data from the air. With the rBlink, you can send music from any Bluetooth device and pump it out through the audio kit of your choice. While there are plenty of Bluetooth audio streaming options, most of them are more about wireless convenience than audio quality.

The rBlink looks much like the rPAC and is constructed similarly, with a solid aluminium case and a thick, damped rubber base. At one end of the rBlink are the outputs – a set of stereo phono connectors and a coaxial SPDIF. At the other end you’ll find the connector for the wireless antenna, an input for the power supply and the Bluetooth pairing button.

It’s slightly disappointing that the power connector couldn’t have been fitted to the same end as the outputs, since there’s no way to position the rBlink without a visible cable protruding from it. Of course you don’t need to see it at all, and it can happily hide behind your amp or Hi-Fi system, but that’s a bit of a shame since it’s such a well built and good looking hunk of tech.

Setting up the rBlink is simple, hook it up to your amp, plug in the power supply and press the pairing button. The light on the rBlink will then, well, blink – this means that it’s ready for pairing – then just search for a new Bluetooth device on your phone, tablet, laptop etc. Once your device is connected to the rBlink any audio you play will be sent directly to it.

To show the rBlink off to best effect I plugged it into an Arcam FMJ A19 amplifier, which is itself a lovely piece of audio kit. I then hooked up a pair of Dali Mentor Menuet speakers. The result being a pretty impressive Hi-Fi setup that would in no way limit the audio performance from the rBlink.

On the surface it seems like a strange direction for Arcam to move in, since Bluetooth audio is generally considered to be poor quality. The reason for this is that the standard A2DP stereo Bluetooth streaming standard is in fact pretty poor.

That said, even the standard SBC 128kbps Bluetooth codec is much improved through the rBlink, which means that any and all Bluetooth media devices you have can benefit. This isn’t particularly surprising when you factor in that the rBlink uses the same, high-quality DAC as the rPAC, which literally transforms every note and melody output by your computer.

Of course Arcam wasn’t satisfied with the standard SBC codec, so the rBlink also supports native AAC streaming at 256kbps from Apple mobile devices running iOS6. The difference in quality from the standard Bluetooth streaming is significant, and it’s a safe bet that most listeners wouldn’t even suspect that the source material was coming from a mobile device via Bluetooth.

But the rBlink can raise the quality bar even higher thanks to its support for the apt-X codec, which will stream audio over Bluetooth at an incredible 380kbps. The problem with apt-X is that there’s a limited number of devices that support it, and most of those devices are Android based.

All is not lost if you’re an Apple user though, since OS X does support apt-X. So if you have an Apple laptop or desktop you’ll be able to stream your music to the rBlink in the highest possible quality. I connected my MacBook Pro Retina laptop to the rBlink and the results were very impressive indeed. Using high-quality audio files, the sound that flowed forth from the rBlink, A19 amp and Dali speakers was sublime.

I spent a significant amount of time streaming a worryingly large portion of my music library to the rBlink and after every track I just wanted to listen to another one. Christy Baron’s rendition of Ain’t No Sunshine sounded delicate, intimate and downright wonderful, while Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack to Inception was conveyed with all the intrigue and urgency of the film itself. Mike Oldfield’s original Tubular Bells was also reproduced with all the intricacy and subtlety that is sometimes lost when streaming it to wireless devices.

Of course part of the incredible performance comes down to the Arcam A19 amp and the Dali Mentor Menuet speakers, which are both simply wonderful. But the quality of the supporting components just compounds how good the rBlink is, since they would have clearly highlighted any weaknesses in Arcam’s new wireless DAC.

As good as the DAC inside the rBlink is, Arcam is well aware that some of its customers may have even more accomplished digital to analogue conversion kit at their disposal. That’s where the coaxial SPDIF output comes in. Assuming you have a high-end external DAC, you can send your audio wirelessly to the rBlink, then output the wireless bit-stream to your DAC and let it weave its magic before sending it on to your amp. Arcam really has covered all the bases with its latest, diminutive box of tricks.

You wouldn’t expect a high-end audio device to be cheap, and the rBlink certainly couldn’t be described as so. At £160 the rBlink is considerably more expensive than most Bluetooth streaming solutions, but it’s also considerably better. When you factor in the apt-X and AAC support, along with the high-quality integrated DAC, the rBlink is a great option for anyone who wants wireless convenience without having to compromise on sound quality.

Verdict

Like the rPAC before it, the Arcam rBlink is something of a revelation. If you’ve always considered Bluetooth audio to be an abomination, think again. Arcam has managed to marry wireless convenience with great sound quality, something many will consider to be the Holy Grail.

Yes the rBlink is expensive, but if you’re looking to stream music wirelessly over Bluetooth and you care about sound quality, it’s worth every penny.