While conducting my review of the SVS Prime Wireless Pro, a powered speaker system that uses DTS Play-Fi multi-room audio technology, I encountered – and eventually found my way around – some of the limitations of that music streaming platform.
If you’re not familiar with it, DTS Play-Fi is a networking standard designed for whole-home and TV audio that’s been around for over a decade. You’ll find it on 39 mainstream to high-end home entertainment brands, including Anthem, Definitive Technology, Dish, McIntosh, Onkyo, Philips, Sonus Faber, and – of course – SVS. Play-Fi can handle up to 32 “works with Play-Fi” products from any of those brands in up to 16 zones in your home.
Play-Fi was originally designed to be a turnkey streaming system and app for speakers that don’t have many onboard smarts. Therefore, it has allowed a large number of manufacturers to jump quickly into the world of audio streaming, without putting much of their own money into R&D efforts, servers and technical support.
In the early years of Play-Fi, that also meant that manufacturers didn’t have to integrate expensive on-board processing with those speakers and receivers. Play-Fi instead works by offloading much of the signal processing and data traffic management to the Play-Fi app, depending in turn on the processor power of the smartphone, tablet or Windows PC running the app. run on it.
Here’s how it works: When you use the app to request streaming content, the app sends a message through your home network to the cloud. Digital audio from the cloud then streams back to your home network, from there to whatever device is running the Play-Fi app (your smartphone, tablet or computer), and from there to one or more of your Play-Fi devices. The whole process happens – from “play this” to hearing it on your home audio system in just two to five seconds with high-speed broadband.
Play-Fi can certainly be set up, but new users may experience occasional conflicts when a phone call comes in on a smartphone connected to music streaming. Or when you’re multitasking on the phone, ask it to deliver music and grab a web page that is rich in graphics. Those things can’t happen at the same time without a little user intervention. Otherwise, the music streaming will be automatically paused when the call or file comes in. If you’re lucky, the music will stop again when the call ends or the file transfer is complete. With my iPhone 12 Pro, the music comes back about four times out of five.
Strangely enough, Apple’s AirPlay wireless streaming technology too it turns your phone into a music server, but manages to avoid this music-stopping issue.
Fixing the holes in Play-Fi
Don’t have a heart attack. There are solutions to the stop-and-go problems that affect music. The simplest solution? Don’t use the same smart device to take calls (or surf the web) and stream music with Play-Fi. Instead, give that ultimate mission to an otherwise idle tablet. You can do the same thing with a computer, but it will consume much more electricity.
If you can’t do that, try taking advantage of a new Play-Fi feature called Transfer Playback. This will direct the incoming digital audio stream from your router directly to your Play-Fi audio device(s), neatly eliminating the middleman and avoiding unwanted interruptions to your listening sessions. However, there are some major drawbacks to using this solution, which I’ll explain in a moment.
To activate Transfer Playback, tap the icon in the Play-Fi app that has a curved arrow inside a box; you’ll find it in the upper right corner of the “now playing” screen (see screenshot below). The signal switcheroo takes only a few seconds, after which your music, phone calls and web surfing operations will work independently, eliminating the worry of “interrupted chat”.
Now for the drawbacks I mentioned earlier: When Playback Switches are active, the Play-Fi app becomes limited to starting and stopping music, skipping tracks, and adjusting the volume. You will no longer be able to view a list of selected album tracks, nor will you be able to find individual songs by name or track number.
Additionally, you cannot stream that music to more than one Play-Fi product at the same time while Archive Transfer is in progress. In addition to all that, Transfer Playback is still active for one music selection. Fortunately, that selection can be an entire album or an entire playlist, you’re not limited to just individual tracks. But to keep it going, you need to tap that icon each time you start streaming an alternative. It is annoying, but you will quickly learn the drill.
You’ll need to tap dance like the Play-Fi app to play high-resolution music (up to 24-bit / 192kHz) to Play-Fi devices that can handle high-resolution and sample-rate streams. To unlock this feature, you’ll need to activate Critical Listening Mode by clicking the Hi-Res toggle you’ll find above the list of speakers on the Play-Fi app’s home page (see screenshot below).
And once again, there’s a trade-off: Critical Listening Mode can send a high-resolution stream to a single speaker or to a single stereo pair of speakers at a time. Try to connect to more than one – or send high-res audio to an older Play-Fi speaker that can’t handle it – and the system will downsample the stream to CD quality: 16-bit / 44.1 kHz or 16 – bit/48kHz. Those are the upper limits that Play-Fi was originally designed to support.
The good news is that once Critical Listening Mode is activated, it will continue to serve high-resolution streams – you won’t have to re-enable it every time you start a stream. But to be honest, the default CD-quality streams provide plenty of pizzazz for anyone other than the golden-eared crowd listening to high-end gear.
Finally, let’s discuss Play-Fi Headphone, which was added to the standard in 2018. Selecting this setting in the Play-Fi app mutes whatever networked audio device was playing and redirects the stream to the headphone jack on the Play-Fi device app is running. On an iPhone, the connection is made through the phone’s Lightning port, and you’ll need a Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter for your headphones.
Headphone Play-Fi is limited to physically connected headphones, it does not work over Bluetooth connections. I also found that I could not use Play-Fi Headphone to stream music from online music services or internet radio stations to my wired headphones, it would only play music from sources connected to inputs analog or digital of the SVS Prime Wireless Pro: HDMI, Toslink, or analog RCA.
Did I mention…?
Sorry, one last sore point: The Play-Fi people need to come up with a cure for the smartphone locks I’ve experienced a few times when using the Play-Fi app on my iPhone 12 Pro to access the gazillion internet radio options which are supported to surf. at the streaming radio service vTuner (but not billed for it). My phone has frozen several times when I tap to connect to a station – Jamaica JamRockOne, for example—which appears on a channel menu but is not actually functioning. Or when the station is switched to a codec the system does not support.
Instead of announcing to the listener “this channel is no longer available” and letting you move on, the Play-Fi app will freeze and display a spinning wheel. You can sometimes unfreeze things by closing the app and relaunching it, but there have been other times when I’ve had to power and restart the phone. DTS and vTuner need to collaborate on a solution if they want to keep listeners fishing in the new waters of streaming radio.