Wireless docks and speakers are understandably popular these days. We all carry our music collections (or at least a portion of them) around with us on our smartphone or tablet, and it's inconvenient to have to use a cable or physically dock the device to play music from it.
However, most hi-fi systems and older docks don't have any wireless capabilities. That's where Arcam's rBlink comes in. This dinky Bluetooth receiver lets you add wireless streaming to practically any speaker system with an audio input.
It supports aptX, which is the better quality of the two main Bluetooth standards, so if your device also has aptX support, you'll get the benefit of the 380Kbps streaming. Few smartphones do, though, with limited models from Samsung and HTC being compatible.
The good news for iPhone and iPad owners, who don't yet have the luxury of aptX support, is that the rBlink offers native AAC streaming at 256Kbps (but your device must be running iOS 6).
If neither of these applies, you'll have to make do with the standard Bluetooth codec, which offers MP3-like quality at 128Kbps.
Arcam rBlink: design and build
The rBlink has stereo phono and coaxial digital outputs on one end, and a power socket (for the external power supply), pairing button and aerial at the other. It's a shame the connections aren't all on one side, as there's no easy way to install the rBlink neatly. The external aerial also seems unnecessary and means you can't put the rBlink on a shallow shelf unless the antenna points sideways.
The rBlink isn't something you can really hide away unless you want to make it very awkward to pair any new devices, such as when friends and family visit.
Still, the metal box with its rubber base is sturdily built - helping to justify that high price.
It's simple to pair your device with the rBlink, although the tiny pairing button is hard to press with a finger. It isn't particularly easy to switch between devices, though.
We found the only reliable way was to turn Bluetooth off on the last device that was connected, and then turn it on on the device that next wants to connect. An LED on the rBlink lets you know whether it's currently connected, and glows red when it isn't.
Arcam rBlink: performance
Bluetooth isn't exactly renowned for its audio quality, and you be forgiven for expecting nothing less than excellence for this price. Fortunately, thanks to the use of he latest CSR Blue Core 7 chipset, which has much lower noise and distortion than before, the rBlink delivers 30dB of extra headroom and hugely lower distortion than normal Bluetooth.
Essentially, it means the rBlink is capable of very good quality.
Listening to a lossless version of Eric Clapton's Old Love playing through iTunes on a MacBook Air (which supports aptX), there was clear separation between instruments and a good, wide soundstage. Vocals had depth and there was no hint of compression at all. Virtually everyone bar the hardest-to-please audiophile wouldn't know they were listening to audio wirelessly.
The TI PCM5012 DAC is of course part of the equation, and all of our test tracks sounded rich, whether low, mid or high tones.
By contrast, when we played the same track from an iPhone 4, it sounded a little thinner and flatter. Still, the quality is markedly better than other standard Bluetooth systems and while it won't please anyone that demands the best, as a convenient alternative to using a cable, it's remarkably good.
It's noticeably better than the £45 Bayan Audio StreamPort, which also supports aptX. The rBlink's range is also better - so that external aerial serves a purpose. The StreamPort's internal antenna meant pops and click in the sound at half the distance the rBlink could manage (a maximum of around 10m).
Arcam rBlink: bottom line
Given the quality on offer, £160 doesn't sound quite so bad, but it's still a heck of a lot to pay if you're merely connecting it to a mid-range speaker system or dock that doesn't have Bluetooth.
If on the other hand you have a high-end hi-fi system (the rBlink plays particularly nicely with the FMJ A19, and can even be powered by it) it begins to make more sense. That is, of course, if your playback device supports aptX.
The list is growing, but there are still precious few laptops, tablets and smartphones which do.
As we've said, iPads and iPhones currently don't have aptX support, and if you have one, you're better off buying an Airport Express for half the price as it supports lossless AirPlay. With an AirPort Express, you can also stream music from a NAS.
The rBlink will work with any Bluetooth device, which arguably makes it more flexible, albeit with the caveat that most of those devices won't take advantage of aptX.
One small gripe is that there's no phono to minijack cable included, so you'll need to provide your own if your speaker system doesn't have a phono input or coaxial SPDIF.
Of course, it's worth bearing in mind that you'll get better audio quality from a simple phono or minijack audio cable that costs a couple of quid, but if you're determined that you need wireless, the rBlink is the best Bluetooth receiver we know of.