New Tab on the Block

Though I live in an apartment packed with LPs and CDs, my work as an audio reviewer sometimes requires me to access music from a mobile device, either directly from the device itself or streaming to an a/v receiver or wireless speaker(s). I use a tablet for that. Ideally, the tablet should hold a generous selection of music files, the higher-res the better, and make it easy to manage them. Unfortunately the tablets I've owned up to now have done neither of those things. So it's time for a new tablet. And it's not an iPad.

I love my iPads—except when I hate them. They are agreeable companions when I'm surfing, e-shopping, and wasting time on Facebook. They are less so when it's time to get music onto or off them. They hold 16 GB each and of course only a fraction of that is available. So when I started my tab hunt, my first goal was higher storage capacity.

My second goal was easier file management. Apple fanboys typecast Microsoft as the king of bloatware, but as a ThinkPad fanboy, I'm quick to retort that there is no more offensive mound of bloatware than the sainted iTunes. And you can't manage content on an iThing without going through iTunes. When I plug one of my Apple devices into a Windows 10 PC, the device shows up in the Windows file system but the music doesn't. Rather than use the cumbersome file import command in iTunes, I set up two windows side by side, the Windows File Explorer and iTunes, dragging files from one to the other. It's slow, but it works—most of the time. But I'd prefer a Windows-friendlier device that makes manual file management quicker and easier.

When the time came to semi-retire my older and slower iPad, I decided to look for a new tablet outside the Apple ecosystem and was happy with what I found. My new tablet is a Samsung Galaxy Tab A 10.1. It's the first Android device I've owned, so now I can run audio and music apps in that OS.

The Galaxy has solved my storage problem. True, it comes with the same 16 GB of storage that I find inadequate in my existing iPads. But unlike them, the Galaxy is not limited to onboard storage. It has a microSD card slot. That has enabled me to plug in a 128 GB card. Expenditure so far: $249 for the tablet, $45 for the microSD card, $11 for the case, total $305 plus tax. A roughly comparable iPad with a slightly smaller 9.7-inch screen and 128 GB of storage would start at $699 unless you resort to refurbs of 2013-14 models. I'm getting what I really want, for the first time, at less than half the cost.

As for file management, I just connect the Galaxy to my Windows 10 desktop PC, boot the Windows Explorer, then drag and drop. The files move as speedily as the card allows (and I paid a little extra for a high-speed card). The whole process is free of bloatware, unless you count Windows itself (which subjected me to an all-day update on the day I wrote this blog, forcing me to use another PC).

The Galaxy's HD display is a tad less fine-grained than my iPad mini retina but still a big improvement over my now-ancient iPad 2. The speakers are slightly tinnier, though of course I won't be using them for critical listening. There's some junkware, which either can't be deleted or gets reinstalled during software updates, though I have managed to reduce its visibility by concealing it in folders (one for Samsung junk, one for Microsoft junk, one for Google junk) and banishing the folders from the main home screen. After a few evenings of use I have become reasonably fluent in Android.

One thing I look forward to exploring is the use of outboard USB DACs with the Galaxy, essentially turning the tablet into a (potentially) high-res source component. Both current models of the AudioQuest DragonFly, the Red and the Black, have reduced power requirements, and that enables them to be used with tablets or phones. You would need either the Android OTG adapter or the Apple camera adapter.

Android makes this a little easier than iOS does. Surf Amazon for the OTG and the cheapest option costs $4.59; I bought two for $5.99. But the Apple camera adapter will run you $39 at the Apple Store or $29 on Amazon—ouch! There are generic versions, but they are plagued by iOS limitations, including lack of compatibility with older versions of iOS as well as with the most recent version, so read user reviews and proceed at your own risk. It's not a problem for me—I'm happy with my pair of three-dollar Android adapters. If I misplace one, I'll have a spare.

One advantage of Apple devices that I'm loath to give up is AirPlay. It supports 16/44.1 Apple Lossless transmission from iOS devices and I've ripped loads of CDs in that format. Bluetooth, in contrast, relies on compression of varying quality. AirPlay is not a native feature on Android devices but I'll be exploring software workarounds.

How much resolution I can get out of an Android tablet with Android software remains to be seen. This guide suggests the limit is 16 bits and 48 MHz. On the other hand, there are high-res audio players running on the Android platform that support up to 24/384 and MQA. That is another avenue of exploration. Got any tips for me?

Postscript: A few weeks after writing this blog I also upgraded my phone. And guess what? Like all my previous phones, it is not an iPhone. It's a Samsung Galaxy J3 and I got it free for signing up with a certain discount carrier. It has a few features banished from the Apple ecosystem, including a user-replaceable battery and an analog headphone jack that is compatible with all of my existing headphones. (Clumsy Lightning headphone adapter? None for me, thanks.) I've once again supplemented the 16 GB of internal memory with another 128 GB microSD card. Outlay: $0 plus $45 for the card (vs. $749 for a 128 GB iPhone 7 from the same carrier). Now I can access the same 88 GB of recent rips and downloads on a spare device. Or I might double my fun with different content. And there's a little room to grow on both devices. It's nice to have options.

Audio Editor Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems, available in both print and Kindle editions.

thehun's picture

is the name of the app in the Play store that can use your Wifi network to stream music to your Chromecast if you have one or planning get one. No it doesn't have to be the "audio" version, all CC will do fine here. Just plug it into your A/V receiver's HDMI input instead of any TV like Google like to promote it. The app can pull music from your Android device or from your computer if you have a Plex server. It does Hi-res 24/96 or even higher, and 16/44.1 gapeless in Flac or Wav. Welcome to Android.

Brown Sound's picture

I have had good luck with the paid version of Onkyo's player app. I was able to push hi-res, both PCM and DSD, via OTG to a iFi Nano iDSD DAC/Headphone amp with no issues. YMMV and have fun!