Since portable phones replaced iPods, Creative Zens, and (heh) Zunes, one might assume that portable music players have been relegated to the technological trash bin of electronics history. However, much like the revival of vinyl as a listening medium, the portable music player has found its niche as well; and that niche is high-end audio playback.
Much like enthusiastic gamers need the most powerful graphics processors and the quickest-refreshing monitors, so to do the audiophiles out there have their technology must-haves, like higher-end digital-to-analog converter (DAC) chips, the ability to play lossless file formats, and connections to services like Tidal’s Hi-Fi streaming. While contemporary smartphone technology gets people part of the way there, that’s not enough for audio geeks. And so, there’s a small, but robust (and generally expensive) market for portable high-quality music players.
Which brings us to the Activo CT10. This is a device with 16GB of on-board storage that plays music through plugged-in headphones or Bluetooth. What makes it worth $299, when you can get the same basic function from a device that costs less than $30? Is it worth $299?
The short answer to the second question is yes. The long answer to the first question is a laundry list of excellent capabilities and features that were obviously designed by people who understand how to deliver really good audio in a highly-functional way. To whit:
- The Activo CT10 will play every significant file format, especially the high-res, lossless formats like FLAC, ALAC, DSD, OGG, and WAV, at up to 24-bit/192kHz resolution
- The audio brains of the CT10, including the DAC and amp, comes from Astell & Kern, a company that produces similar devices that cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars more, and is highly respected in the audiophile community
- It has Bluetooth for easy headphone and speaker connectivity, but as most audiophiles know, regular Bluetooth is a poor choice for music delivery because it uses it’s own compression algorithms to reduce bandwidth, which degrades the sound; the CT10 supports aptX HD, which kicks the Bluetooth up to 24-bit/48hHz resolution/sampling rate, which is basically CD-quality
- It also has wi-fi connectivity, which opens the world up; you can set up a computer on the same network as a server and stream to the CT10. You can also connect to services like Tidal, which offers a Hi-Fi subscription that delivers music in the lossless formats that sound so much better.
- You can plug the CT10 into your computer via USB, and it will be recognized as an external DAC, so you can use its higher quality conversion for the files on your hard drive.
- While it only has 16GB on-board storage, the CT10 has a micro-SD card slot, which will recognize up to 400GB cards, allowing you to carry many, many songs, even in the fatter high-quality file formats.
- It can also handle most headphones you’re likely to throw at it. In my case, I’ve been using my Massdrop x Sennheiser HD 6XXs which carry a 300ohm impedance. If I use them with my phone or laptop, it’s usually best to go through an external headphone amp. Not so with the CT10; it drives the confidently.
There’s plenty more to day, too. The CT10 really packs features in that quality audio lovers will appreciate. It also has a gorgeous color screen, and a well-organized interface. Perhaps the only challenge is when you have to type on the very tiny virtual keyboard for things like wi-fi or streaming passwords, but that’s a niggle.
The bottom line is that this is a powerful little machine that knows its audience, and will make them happy with its features and price point. If you have someone in your life who loves good audio, the Activo CT10 would make an excellent holiday gift.
Note: GeekDad was sent a unit for the purpose of this review.