Russound MBX-PRE review: Yes, Virginia, there really were multi-room audio systems before Sonos

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Russound MBX-PRE review: Yes, Virginia, there really were multi-room audio systems before Sonos

Countless stereo systems could get a supercharge from a Russound MBX-PRE wireless streaming media player. Boasting fine sound, major content partners, and all manner of connectivity, this little black box will carry your treasured vintage stereo equipment into the online-everything age. Multiples of them can bring music into every room in your home. Just bring your own amp and speakers.

In that regard, the MBX-PRE is a lot like the Sonos Connect (since replaced by the Sonos Port, which I reviewed in June). But Russound is no copycat; in fact, the company is one of the pioneers of whole-home audio, having got its start 45 years ago when every speaker pair in every room had to be hardwired to an in-wall volume control harnessed in turn to a matrix switcher or a multi-zone amplifier. Russound still recommends hiring a professional installer to set up its systems, but the company doesn’t freeze DIYers out (I’ll get deeper into that later). You will, however, need to purchase its gear from an authorized dealer (and Amazon is not in that club).

Unlike Sonos’ offering, the MBX-PRE is a Hi-Res Audio certified player that supports audio files encoded with up to 24-bit resolution and at sampling rates as high as 192kHz. The player doesn’t support MQA files, but it can handle AAC and AAC+ (up to 24-bit/192kHz), FLAC (8- and 16-bit), WAV (8- and 16-bit), OGG Vorbis, and MP3 (CBR and VBR) files. Russound recommends connecting its hardware to a UPnP server running on a NAS box (such as the QNAP TS-253D TechHive recently reviewed), but I had great experiences streaming 16-bit/44kHz FLAC files from Tidal and Deezer. They compared very favorably to the CD versions I spun on an Oppo BDP-103 disc player.

russound sonos side by side Jonathat Takiff / IDG

Measuring 1.75 x 8.25 x 7 inches (HxWxD), the Russound MBX-PRE is much larger than the newer Sonos Port, but Russound provides user-friendly controls on its enclosure.

Russound sent over two of its $400 MBX-PRE units for this evaluation. With one installed per stereo system and floor, I got the house rocking in stellar synchronized rhythm, blasting content from subscription streaming services including Spotify Connect, Tidal, Deezer, Napster, and SiriusXM (SiriusXM Business for commercial applications is also supported). This streamer also supports a threesome of internet radio aggregators—TuneIn, VTuner, and Airable—to deliver the best-sounding and most interesting stations from every genre and global locale, all for free. (Don’t miss our two-part guide to internet radio.)

You can also stream music from Android and iOS devices via Bluetooth, Apple AirPlay (AirPlay 2 support is still in the works), and Chromecast. And you can control the system with voice commands spoken to a Google Assistant-compatible smart speaker (I tested it with a first-gen Google Home, a Nest Home Mini, and the recently reviewed JBL Link Music). Training the system to respond to Amazon Alexa commands is also possible, but that software isn’t as baked in.

Russound also offers a version of this streamer with an integrated amplifier (the MBX-AMP), but as this unit’s name implies, the MBX-PRE is a pre-amplifier component. As such, it features a full complement of inputs and outputs, including 3.5mm analog and Toslink optical digital audio inputs; and RCA analog and Toslink digital audio outputs. The absence of coaxial digital audio ports is a little surprising, given Russound’s focus on the custom-installer market, but Sonos doesn’t put any digital audio input on its Port. You’ll find a 12-volt trigger output on both devices for signaling a compatible outboard amp or receiver.

mbx series stacked Russound

Russound’s MBX-PRE (top) and MBX-AMP have all the inputs and outputs you could want (save perhaps coaxial digital).

Shoot-out at the streamer corral

MBX-PRE versus Sonos Port comparisons—conducted with Tidal and Deezer-sourced FLAC content played through my Yamaha Aventage receiver and Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus speakers—were also telling. Carefully matching the variable-level analog output signals of both units, I almost invariably preferred the digital-to-analog processing going on inside the Russound.

The differences were subtle but discernable, with the MBX-PRE serving clearer, brighter tambourine rattles, sweeter-toned electric bass notes, more reverberant (and personable) piano and hollow-body guitar voicings on material I know well, including the hits collection Showbiz Kids: The Steely Dan Story (1972-1980), and a newly issued set of Grateful Dead rehearsal takes, Workingman’s Dead: The Angel’s Share, that opens up individual player’s parts for vivid inspection.

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