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Mu-so Qb: The Best Sound I’ve Ever Heard From an 8″ Cube

Mu-so QB Large
It’d look good on a Bond villain’s desk.

When I first set the Naim Audio Mu-so Qb up on the counter in our kitchen, and started playing the soundtrack from Tron: Legacy through it via AirPlay from my iPhone, my 17 year-old son walked into the room, paused to listen, then said “wow, that’s clear!” No sarcasm, just honest praise from a teenager. Oh my.

And it was. It was clear, it was strong, and it was – it is – impressive.

It’s also expensive, but this is one of those times when you get what you pay for.

Naim Audio is a high-end audio brand from the UK that makes very, very good speakers, amplifiers, and other audiophile-quality components. They also make sound systems for cars. But not just any cars. They make sound systems for Bentleys. Yeah, wow.

Naim’s wireless music system is called Mu-so, and it’s akin to the offerings from Bose or Sonos that are meant to deliver good sound to a room, and give you the option of having units in multiple rooms that you can network so you can have a whole-house audio experience. They have two devices, the larger Mu-so, and the unit they sent me, the Mu-so Qb (like a cube, get it?). And while there is a similarity between the intents of the various whole home audio products, comparing something like Bose to the Mu-so is like comparing a decent, mid-sized Toyota to, well, a Bentley. While both will get you from point A to point B in about the same amount of time, you’re going to enjoy riding in the Bentley a whole lot more.

Mu-so Qb Top
The top is a touch-screen controller.

The Qb is a cube, a little over 8″ on a side. The base is a thick slab of lucite, completely transparent save for the Naim logo etched in it, and when you power the unit up, a very cool white glow emanates. Seriously, this thing would look awesome in a Bond villain’s lair, or as a prop on Star Trek:TOS. It’s also VERY heavy for its size. That’s good, because with the bass this thing puts out, if it were any lighter, it’d probably walk off the table. But it doesn’t.  In fact, it doesn’t rattle, shake, shimmy, or do anything that cheaper speakers with more power than refinement often do.

You turn it up, and there’s no distortion. You turn it up some more, and still no distortion. The bass is clear, with impact, but it doesn’t get in the way of the total sound experience. Indeed, you hear the bass, you hear the mid-range, and you hear the highs, and each provide distinct voices that play together. In so many other small form-factor speakers, there’s just one actual speaker unit trying to do the whole job, so everything is mashed together, and the sound becomes mushy. You can still hear voices and instruments, but because the speaker is melding all the waveforms together, you’re getting a hybrid of the music.

The Qb has five speakers: two tweeters and two mid-range drivers that are focused away from each other to provide stereo separation, and each powered by a 50W amp. Then there’s a woofer, powered by a 100W amp, that disperses the low-end out the front, and out the sides with two passive radiators. All together, that’s 300W of power running some excellent hardware, and delivering distinct, balanced sound better than you’ve ever heard from 512 cubic inches. It’s plenty of power to drive really, really good sound in a large room or outdoor space.

Mu-so Qb Front

So, the sound is awesome, but what about the connectivity? Connectivity is everything in this day and age, and the Qb has it in spades. AirPlay? Check. Bluetooth? Check – and double check, as it uses the aptX audio codec when available to pull in CD-quality sound. Aux in? Check. But wait, there’s more.

How about USB in? Yeah, you can plug your iDevice into it via USB rather than headphone jack, and play the files digitally rather than in analog mode. And you can plug in a USB drive and play the files on it as well, because it supports UPnP (Universal Plug-n-Play).

Since it has Airplay, you know it already has wifi built in, but how about this: it has an ethernet port in back. You can hard-wire this machine to your network to avoid any kind of interference and, with that aforementioned UPnP, access all those CDs you ripped to the NAS on your home network.

And for the hardcore audiophiles, it even has optical audio in -Optical S/PDIF (TosLink) up to 96kHz which, if you understood that, is really, really cool.

Plus, with the connected app, you have easy access to the nearly limitless variety of internet radio stations. And built-in support for Spotify Connect and Tidal. Oh, and it’ll act as an alarm clock. There, I think that’s about it.

You might have gotten the impression by now that I love the Mu-so Qb. As I write this, the loaner unit Naim sent me is about 4 feet behind me, playing some awesome spaced-out ambient and mid-tempo electronics from Space Station Soma, and I’m happy. Well, I’m mostly happy, but a little sad, too, because I have to send the unit back. And, since a new one costs – gulp – $999, it’s going to be a while before I can get something that provides such a lovely listening experience again.

But here’s the thing: the Mu-so Qb isn’t overpriced. If you value high-quality audio in a versatile and attractive package, you expect to pay a premium, and for the price, the Qb is worth every penny.

You can get the Qb on Amazon, at select Apple stores or the Apple store online, or specialist audio retailers all over.

 

Note: while Naim Audio provided a review unit, it was a loaner, and the unit was shipped back. I miss it already.

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How Do We Stop Hollowing Out the Middle of America?

Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America - Patrick Carr & Maria Kefalas

Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America by Patrick Carr & Maria Kefalas

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that the majority of our readership doesn’t live in a rural area. I mean, the majority of America’s population doesn’t live in a rural area—that’s what makes it rural, right? Up until about two years ago, neither did I. But since moving to a small rural town in western Kansas (population: 800) just over two years ago, I’ve become very interested and involved in community development, and particularly in the issues surrounding youth and young adults. One significant issue that comes up again and again is this: Is there a solution to the “brain drain”—that is, the reality that the brightest kids often leave for bigger cities and don’t come back? Is the solution to attract more kids back after college, to improve the education of the kids who are planning to stay, or something else entirely?

And, for those of you who don’t live in rural America: does it matter?

Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas, a husband-and-wife team of sociologists, spent nearly seven years researching this topic. They lived for a time in a rural town in northeastern Iowa (which they’ve called “Ellis”) and interviewed hundreds of people, mostly focusing on the young adults who graduated from Ellis’ high school in the 1990s. What they found makes for a fascinating story about the “hollowing out” of middle America, and they argue unequivocally that, yes, it matters, whether you live in New York City or Tribune, Kansas.

The Four Types of Young Adults

They sorted their subjects into four basic categories: Achievers, Stayers, Seekers, and Returners. Achievers are the ones who show promise early on, the ones who are academically (or sometimes athletically) gifted, and typically leave their small communities for college, never to return. Stayers are those who take over the family business or get a job during high school and end up living out their adult lives in the same town. Seekers are those who can’t wait to leave but don’t have the grades or scholarships to do it; they often end up in the military as an escape. Returners are those who come back to their small town after leaving; sometimes out of a sense of responsibility and purpose but often because the outside world turned out to be less pleasant or more challenging than they expected.

The Root of the Problem

This is, of course, a vast oversimplification of the book. Carr and Kefalas devote an entire chapter to each of the four groups, outlining the reasons many of these young people make their respective decisions. Some of what they found is surprising, but a lot of it isn’t. Rural communities expend a disproportionate amount of effort, resources, and training on the very kids that aren’t likely to stay; and the ones who stay often get little attention. It’s a point of pride to be say you had a part in somebody’s success, of course, and it’s become an ingrained habit to send off promising young adults to make something of themselves. However, this inefficient practice is what has gutted so many small communities across the Midwest and it has had a devastating effect.

What troubles me the most is that when they talked to administrators at the Ellis high school, there was no surprise that their smartest kids were being put on a path to leave: it’s what they’d always done, and they knew they were doing it. The problem lies in the fact that decades-old behavior is very hard to change. After you spend ten years training a kid to think he’s “too good” for his small town, can you turn around and convince him that he should stay?

Why It Matters

This matters to me personally, because I struggle between two opinions: wanting to make my own community a place that thrives and attracts more young people; and wanting more for my own children (and the kids I meet here), for them to have experiences and encounter diversity that simply doesn’t exist here. (For instance, I am the only Asian male in the entire county.) Carr and Kefalas make a compelling argument for why the rural brain drain matters (both to the rural communities but also for the entire nation) and then offer some of their insight on possible solutions.

It’s a huge problem that will not be solved easily, and the authors aren’t selling a magic bullet that will address everything. Simply building amenities is not enough to attract young professionals if there aren’t jobs. Small towns have to find a way to give the academically gifted kids the best possible education while laying the foundation for them to return; at the same time, this needs to be balanced by programs that address the Stayers, giving them necessary job skills for the modern post-industrial economy and acknowledging their importance to the survival of small communities. Immigration is a touchy subject, but in many cases the influx of immigrants will play an important part in sustaining small-town economies; finding a way to integrate newcomers is crucial.

There aren’t a lot of easy answers, but Carr and Kefalas do a great job of digging into some of the causes of the hollowing out. I found the writing easy to read and a good mix of the anecdotal and statistical. I highly recommend Hollowing Out the Middle, particularly for those who live in small-town America, but even for those who don’t. This is not a problem that will be solved without support from the majority of the population that lives in metropolitan areas.

You can purchase Hollowing Out the Middle from Amazon or your favorite bookseller. Also, visit HollowingOutTheMiddle.com for more information, including a book trailer and the preface to the book.

Jonathan Liu reads as much as he possibly can. This is an edited version of his review on his books blog.