Based on the way most laptops sound, I'd venture a guess that audio is the last thing engineers think about when they design laptops. In fact, I'd go one step further to speculate that marketing efforts drive most laptop builders' decisions to collaborate with audio companies. But I won't lump Samsung's 2014 ATIV Book 9 in that crowd, because it sounds absolutely divine — especially with headphones.
The Samsung ATIV Book 9 is a beautiful, elegantly thin laptop that will turn heads when you pull it out of your designer messenger bag. It's the thinnest, sexiest notebook we've reviewed this year. But it's much more pedestrian under the hood — with one exception. It's equipped with a Wolfson WM5102 audio CODEC (encoder/decoder). If you're an audio enthusiast, your ears just pricked up. Wolfson produces some of the world's finest DACs (digital-to-analog converters).
But it's not entirely accurate to describe the ATIV Book 9 as being equipped with a Wolfson DAC. I don't mean to split hairs, but that description might lead you to think that this laptop is equipped with the same type of audio subsystem found in high-end outboard DACs such as the Channel Islands Transient MKII or the Lindeman USB-DAC 24/192. Wolfson's WM5102 was designed for smartphones. It does have a DAC, but this one chip also integrates a host of other functions that are handled by discrete processors in top-shelf audio gear like the components I just mentioned.
Now before Samsung gets its panties in a bunch, let me say that the ATIV Book 9 is by far the best-sounding laptop I've ever listened to. The DAC inside the WM5102 can convert audio tracks with up to 24-bit resolution and sample rates up to 192kHz and deliver them to its headphone jack at an exceptionally high signal-to-noise ratio of 113dB (this according to Wolfson's data sheet). I don't have the measurement gear to verify that claim, but I can tell you that my ears definitely enjoyed the experience (aided by a pair of JH Audio JH-13 Pro earbuds).
I automatically installed Foobar2000 (free, donations accepted) on the ATIV Book 9, because I've never encountered a fresh-from-the-factory Windows computer than could handle FLAC files (especially not the 24-bit/48kHz tracks I've purchased from the Bowers & Wilkins Society of Sound music service over the years).
But then I found ArcSoft's S Player+ on the ATIV Book 9. This audio/video player is exceedingly basic, but when you use it to play losslessly encoded audio tracks — it supports FLAC and Apple's lossless audio codec, ALAC — it gives you the option to play them in "lossless music mode" through the headphone jack. And for a while, I thought that this was the only way to tap the Wolfson WM5102, because the tracks didn't sound nearly as good when I played them using Foobar2000.
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