Under the Radar

Modernize a Vintage Hi-Fi With the Mass Fidelity Relay

The Mass Fidelity Relay Hi-Fi Bluetooth DAC is a fantastic solution for anyone who'd like to stream music from a computer, tablet or smartphone but doesn't want to replace their current audio system with a Sonos or other wireless speaker or even "upgrade" their vintage receiver or preamp to a new one with AirPlay or Bluetooth built in.

The Relay promises a one-minute setup and it delivers: you take it out of the box, screw the antenna into the back, plug in the power cord and plug the RCA jacks into an open slot on your receiver or preamp. Hit the power button, pair with your device and you're playing music. It's a $249 addition to your system, but look at it this way: that's a lot less expensive than a top-end wireless speaker and definitely cheaper than a new receiver that you might not want anyway.

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Everything about the Relay screams quality. The packaging is beautiful. The machined aluminum case feels great in your hand. The vinyl cover on the antenna is the good stuff and not the cheap plastic that covers most handles these days. And the power button feels great when you press it. The status light is on the top front of the unit, so it's not visible unless you're looking down on the Relay from above.

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The real secret here is the Burr-Brown 5102 DAC (digital analog converter) that's in the box. It's the DAC that's the key component in a high-end compact disc player and it's what separates the most expensive wireless speakers from their lower-priced competition.

The Mass Fidelity Relay sounds fantastic. It blows away an Airport Express hooked up to the same stereo. I used it on two different systems: one with a 1990s NAD silver S100 preamp/NAD 2400 amp/Bowers & Wilkins P-5 speakers and the other featuring the new Wharfedale Diamond 10.2 speakers and an SMSL S5o amp. Neither of these is exactly a high-end setup, but they're both really good. The difference between the Relay and the AirPlay was immediately apparent each time I switched the unit between the two systems.

Of course, part of the attraction with Apple's AirPlay is that any device connected to the same wifi network can use the device without any special setup. Bluetooth requires pairing and a receiver can only pair with one device at a time, but Mass Fidelity has made an effort to make the technology less painful. The "PartyPlay" feature allows the Relay to connect to a new device once you turn off the Bluetooth on the currently connected device, which means you never have to cross the room to press a "pairing" button. It also features TurboPairing where the Relay remembers the last six devices that connected and automatically pairs with the closest one when you turn the device back on. Both of these features significantly reduces the pain built into the technology.

If you already own a DAC that you like (or one's built into you receiver), you can switch the Relay's output to digital and bypass its built-in DAC converter. Of course, that turns the Relay into a pretty expensive Bluetooth interface. You can always compare and use the DAC that sounds best to you.

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One last test: I'll admit to buying the new super deluxe box set edition of Led Zeppelin IV that comes with remastered CD, vinyl and a high definition (96kHz/24 bit) FLAC audio download. I compared them all by playing "Black Dog," streaming the FLAC from my computer via the Relay and also streaming the song from Spotify via the Relay. Yeah, the CD sounds best but even the Spotify stream is pretty close to CD quality, so close that you're not making a very big sacrifice for the convenience of streaming music from your phone.

Are there audiophiles who will be horrified and/or offended by that last paragraph? Sure, but Mass Fidelity has made a device that improves sound quality in the real world. If you have a specially constructed sound chamber and require your family to get permission before they enter your sanctuary, this product isn't for you. If you've got a really good stereo setup that you enjoy and aren't looking to change it out, this is one hell of a way to modernize your listening.

So, $250. Sure you can buy a Bluetooth receiver for as little as $20, but you're not going to get the DAC experience that makes the Relay so special. Mass Fidelity offers a 30-day money back guarantee if you buy direct. For anyone who's even slightly interested after reading this review, I really can't recommend the Relay enough.

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