Features and performance
Maybe it’s the rich, walnut finish on the outside, maybe it’s the FM radio antenna sprouting from its rear, or maybe it’s the fact that the Ruark Audio R4 has been around in some form since 2008, but there’s definitely something about this integrated ‘all-in-one’ audio system that makes it feel rather old-school.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because the R4 has been one of the finest, most versatile single-component music players around, and its low-profile, unobtrusive format means it will fit pretty comfortably in most homes. And, importantly, it’s been designed to be as simple to use as you could wish for. This makes it a great choice for the technophobe audio-junkie then, although maybe not so for the audiophile. While the Ruark Audio R4 Mk3 is definitely a premium-priced product, it doesn’t quite have high-end technical cojones to really nail the burgeoning Hi-Res Audio market.
That’s not to say the audio components inside that walnut chassis aren’t of a high quality. The R4 Mk3 has had a complete redesign from its previous incarnations, while still keeping that classic shape, and this includes the impressive Class A-B amplifier at its heart. On the facia of the low-profile, though deep, chassis are a pair of 3.5-inch drivers flanking the slot-loading CD drive, front audio connections, power button and the new OLED display – although if you’ve been all excited about Panasonic and LG’s latest OLED TV wonders, I wouldn’t get too amped up (tee-hee) about the basic readout on the front of the R4.
The underside of the chassis is where the R4’s punchy bass comes from, with an underslung 4-inch subwoofer and bass port perforating the base of the unit. So while the outside is all retro-chic, the internal components are more than capable of keeping the party rocking. On the top is Ruark’s tactile RotoDial controller. There’s a central dial which gives you finegrain control over the volume, as well as easy navigation through the various menus, aided by that OLED display. Arrayed around the dial are the rest of the playback and system controls.
These controls are mimicked by the new, diminutive remote control this Mk3 version comes with. There’s no actual RotoDial, but all the necessary buttons are in place and easily accessible. It’s a really intuitive system and, because of its choice of legacy audio sources, you can be up and running, and playing great-sounding music, within seconds of plugging the R4 Mk3 into the wall.
The CD drive supports your standard audio CDs as well as data discs with WMA, MP3 AAC, or WAV files layered on them. There’s also the super-old-school FM radio, but thankfully there’s also DAB, as well as DAB+, support to ensure compatibility with the future of radio. To bring some more modern sources into the mix the R4 Mk3 is also sporting a USB input in the rear of the unit, which will accept MP3, AAC and WMA playback.
This, however, is where the audiophile is going to start noticing that the Mk3’s premium status starts to hit some road bumps. There’s no support for Hi-Res Audio of any kind – that means no FLAC or ALAC file support, and you can forget about anything higher than that too. It is, at least, rocking the latest Bluetooth aptX chipset, enabling the wireless playback of CD-quality audio from a compatible source device. So your Tidal account is going to be able to make the most of its high-fidelity streaming. But there are no network connections to enable the R4 Mk3 to directly connect to your internet radio services – and that also means there’s no Spotify Connect built into the system. It feels like a bit of a miss in these always-connected times of ours.
The test of any audio device is always going to be about how it sounds, and the Ruark Audio R4 Mk3 has got some really impressive audio chops which belie that low-profile, walnut chassis – although in some ways that chassis has a lot to do with it. The R4’s cabinet has been designed, both materially and functionally, to deliver great acoustic performance, and the result is an impressively warm tinge to its audio. That doesn’t mean it’s in any way soft; the level of clarity is fantastic.
The aural detail is excellent without being overly harsh, making vocals especially stand out beautifully. And the detail is maintained even when you push more low-end, bass-heavy music through the cabinet too. It’s not as powerful as the gorgeous B&W Zeppelin I checked out recently, but it still manages to make electronic dance music pound without being overbearing. The bass is still accurate, and terminates without wobbling away into the room. And it produces an impressive soundscape too, with a 3D audio mode which really seems to fill the room. The only unfortunate side-effect of this is that at higher volume levels there’s a noticeable trace of distortion to the audio. But even so, at the lower end of the volume spectrum the R4 Mk3 still manages to maintain its otherwise impressive audio chops.
First and foremost I’ve been impressed with the audio quality of the R4 Mk3. And you can see why the cabinet has barely changed since 2008, when it’s capable of producing the sort of accurate, clean sound you get out of those twin 3.5-inch drivers. It’s also a relatively svelte, understated device. Where the Zeppelin aspires to taking pride of place somewhere in your home, the R4 Mk3 is happy to hide away on a bookcase or shelf. I like the level of source support it’s sporting too. The multi-format CD player is ideal for those who still have a large library of optical media they can’t give up, the DAB support offers a world of digital radio, and with the Bluetooth aptX wireless input it’s able to connect to a huge range of other services and devices too.
I have missed the network support. Either wired or wireless network connection would make the R4 Mk3 an even more fantastically versatile music player, especially when Spotify Connect is such a box-ticker feature on most of the competition. Being picky, I would have perhaps expected more format support on the USB input too. With Ruark proclaiming its use of high-end components “only found in prestige, high-value audio separates”, I did expect to see support for at least the FLAC lossless audio format. I had slight issues at really high volumes with the 3D sound feature as well. And I do have to talk about the price too. Sure, you are getting a lot of audio for your money, but when the excellent Zeppelin is offering its assured soundscape for £150 less you’ve got to wonder if CD playback and DAB is really worth the extra cash.
I’ve been really impressed with the Ruark Audio R4 Mk3’s aural performance, but as I said at the start, there is something very old-school about it. That might make it a bit of technological misstep for the audiophile crew, but does make it very appealing for everyone else. This is the sort of all-in-one system I’d happily recommend to my technophobe friends, or my mum and dad. That may sound slightly negative, but the ease with which the R4 Mk3 can be set up and operated makes it an incredibly unfussy device.
The OLED display has all your station or track information, and it can almost instantly pick up from whatever Bluetooth device and app you last plugged into it. There’s little here which will get in the way of your music-listening pleasure.