Miles Davis’ Tutu – MQA or Vinyl?

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I recently purchased a very fine album of historical and musical significance. It was actually an MQA file that I downloaded from Onkyo Music. The album is called Tutu, named after Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. It was the last major album recorded by Miles Davis. A combination of Fusion Jazz and Funk, some critics dismissed it at first. But like many of Mile’s albums it was a trendsetter. The music may seem a little dated now by some, with its use of various synthesizers, but Mile’s horn will probably never be dated. He won a Grammy for his performance on this album.

I very much like the music and the sound of the album. i wanted to have a copy with the high quality sound and was not disappointed with this MQA version.

Not long after purchasing Tutu I discovered that Amazon was now offering a remastered 180 gram deluxe vinyl version of Tutu.

I really did not need another copy of Tutu. The vinyl would cost $16 more that the MQA file. But I am afraid that temptation got the better of me. Which version would be the best sonically? Why not do a direct comparison?

There are some inherent problems with any comparison of this nature. Most albums, vinyl or otherwise, have been digitally recorded from the beginning of the 80’s onward. Albums released before 1980 by labels such as Mercury Living Presence and RCA Living Stereo are clearly superior sonically than any of the early CD’s. This is true for vinyl records which were released after 1980 as well.

Tutu was released in 1986. It was an vinyl, digitally recorded, album. MQA has processed the original recording with its own proprietary digital format. We will be listening downstream from all of this. But downstream it is! This is how we listen to much of our recordings these days.

What about playback equipment? A five-figure turntable, tonearm, phono cartridge will extract much more of the recorded sound from the grooves than a typical record playback system. The difference is quite audible. The question is how much we may want to spend or can afford to spend on our components.

On the digital side, there are expensive DAC’s which are often more capable than the cheaper ones. The critical conversion from digital back to analog sound is handled by the DAC and thus the quality of the DAC is important. Are we to employ just high end equipment in our comparison test?

I decided for this comparison test to use reasonably priced equipment that people just getting started in vinyl might have. I chose the $100 Audio Technica AT-LP60 belt driven turntable, which sounds very good for the money. On the digital side I used an AudioQuest DragonFly Red DAC which is an excellent DAC, but certainly not state-of-the-art.  My digital source was my downloaded MQA file of Tutu, running on my MacBook Pro laptop through Audirvana Plus (which is state-of-the-art for computer music players). If there is any inherent advantage here it would probably be on the digital side. The vinyl version of Tutu may hsve too much of a handicap to overcome. We shall see.

Amazon was out of stock, but finally may 180 gram vinyl copy of Tutu arrived. It was beautifully presented in quality record selves. A quick listen told me that the remastered recording was well done. It definitely sounded like a quality record. Miles was coming through with great clarity and the overall sound seemed balanced and transparent.

I liked the sound of the MQA version of Tutu very much. Let me say that Miles was in fine form. I liked the funky arrangements and the synths. Miles knew when and how to compliment beautifully all the other playing on the album. But I was not prepared for the what I heard when running a comparison test of the first track (Tutu) compared to the vinyl. A am going to spare you the audiophile talk, covering the frequency spectrum from bottom to top. I will say that the vinyl had more weight in the bass but was not quite as tight. (A state-of-the-art turntable, tonearm, and cartridge would most probably have eliminated any advantage that digital seemed to have here.

Let me just say that the vinyl was more alive. It was more engaging. It was more musical. It was more fun. It drew me in and I did not want to switch to anything else. Some will say that old-timers are just used to the sound of vinyl and that is why they like it. Maybe, except young people are now gravitating to vinyl. Over the years, listening to great playback, the ears become educated. They settle for a certain quality of sound and expect to hear that quality repeated. When it is not repeated a profound disappointment can set in.

I wanted the MQA to sound better. I was rooting for it. I like the convenience of digital. It does not excite me to clean my records and carefully take the albums out of the sleeves. I do enjoy the cover art and I do like looking back through old vinyl albums which bring back fond memories. Nevertheless, I want up to date quality sound. And vinyl is still king, my friends. I am a little sorry to have to report this.

Of course, not all vinyl pressings are good. Old vinyl that has not been properly cared for cannot compete. But I have some very old vinyl made before the digital age which has been properly cared for. Some of these recordings are selling for around five hundred dollars on eBay – not just because they are old and rare, but because they just sound good!

What does this say about MQA? Digital audio has been flawed from the beginning. MQA seems to correct some of the flaws and offers a way of avoiding them with future digital recordings. Nonetheless, apparently a rudimentary turntable, tonearm, and phone cartridge setup is able to extract more musical content out of a well-recorded vinyl record than MQA is able to pull out of digital recordings. The application of MQA may be a boon to streaming music because its reduced file size over other high definition formats. In terms of our overall musical enjoyment of digital recordings, more refinement may be required.

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The Frenchman’s Music Player

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There is music buried within many CD’s that would gladden the heart of many analog aficionados. Most of us now have an awareness of how bad the initially offered CD’s sounded. Great progress has been made in digital recording techniques since those days. Nevertheless, even the early CD’s were capable of better sound with more sophisticated hardware and software. Four and five figure CD players, transports, and DAC’s are capable of extracting much more from the CD’s than many thought possible.

Spinning a disc with recorded music on it presents problems. That is why we may need a separate CD transport from the DAC to ensure proper alignment and data reading before any attempt to decode the signal. The best workaround the spinning problem is not to spin at all. Just download digital files and store them to be read and decoded.

Decoding digital information and converting it to an analog signal is another matter. We need a very sophisticated DAC with enough processing power to do the job. The quality of the chip and the supporting circuitry is all important. What can revival these expensive DAC’s? A home computer often has more potential processing power than some of the chips and circuits within the DAC. Putting that processing power to proper use requires some very sophisticated computer software, however.

This is where the Frenchman comes in. Damien Plisson, Founder and CEO of Audirvana  has invented the software. His music player sounds miles ahead of other music players on Apple computers. Now it is also available for Windows 10. What does his program Audirvana Plus do? It merely extracts music from digital recordings. That may be an overstatement for some. Not for me. He has even made those iTunes AAC compressed files sound pleasant. In fact, they sound more than pleasant. Dare I say they begin to approach analog sound? Audirvana Plus will do wonders for AAC compressed files, but it is better to use Apple lossless music files for s more refined sound.

The other day I started listening to iTunes through my HiFiMan planar headphones. They sounded particularly good. I though: “Maybe they are finally breaking in along with my AudioQuest Dragonfly Red DAC.” Then I realized that the music seemed to be coming from outside my headphones. Perhaps I was actually listening to my AudioEngine A2+’s instead. The HiFiman are not closed back so that must be the explanation. The outside sound was simply bleeding through. I checked my setup. No, the sound was coming from the headphones. But the music had a wider and more open sound stage.

I had recently updated Audirvana Plus for free to version 3.2. A new ultra high quality upsampling algorithm, SoX, had been added. This algorithm produces magic sound. Some have complained that it is just too euphoric. What is wrong with euphoric music being extracted from digital files? I found that SoX needs to be fine tunes, however. It can produce some ringing, at least to my ears. Here is my setting for it, though computer system may require a different settings. It is best to experiment.

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Audirvana Plus handles DSD, PCM, flac, MQA, etc. It does a great job of decoding MQA along with the Dragonfly Red. More about that later.

Some have said that a computer is best used from casual listening. If you have very expensive state-of-the-art components, then perhaps a home computer is only a secondary consideration – a convenient story device for compressed music files. But if you want sound that rivals these expensive components at a fraction of their price, think about the power of your computer and the program Audirvana Plus. The raw processing power of a home computer, when controlled by superb software, might equal or exceed the power provided by of dedicated chips contained within audio playback equipment.

A computer does have shortcomings. It produces external noise, even jitter. Audirvana Plus works around this by passing the audio engine of your computer altogether and substituting its own. Moreover, it shuts off all outside computer functions which may interfere with the sound. So it is best not to attempt to do multitasking while listening to music with Audirvana Plus.

There are still may some unwanted influences that need to be addressed. The USB connecters on a computer are noisy in many cases. What to do? Buy an AudioQuest Jitterbug and place it between your USB connector and external DAC.

The Jitterbug can really clean up the sound even further and is a quite audible improvement to my ears. It works with both one’s computer or also a mobile device such as a smart phone.

The power of Audirvana Plus kicks in when playing high res files such as PCM, DSD, or MQA. The builtin DAC on a Mac laptop is not awful. It will not, however, render MQA files. Here is the setup that makes the most economical sense while still providing superb sound:

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Plug the combination of an AudioQuest DragonFly and Jitterbug into your computer or mobile device. The resulting sound is clean and transparent. Be sure to fully break-in the DragonFly for the best sound. It will play high impedance headphones quite well, such as the HiFiMan 400i, because it has an excellent builtin headphone amplifier.

How close does Audirvana Plus come to state-of-the-art sound? The Frenchman’s music player is state-of-the-art. It will produce a sound close enough to make a few audiophiles think twice about spending a fortune on high end audio components.

Introducing a Low Cost, High Res, Portable Music Player

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Most of us who have grown up in the early days of high fidelity components have always been interested in quality sound. There were no MP3’s. There was no steaming of music over the internet. There were not even CD’s. We were used to the hassle of playing vinyl, putting on one record at a time. We would not even think of stacking records on a record changing turntable. (Imagine what that would do to the vertical tracking angle of the phono cartridge.)

A generation of new audio enthusiasts have grown up with sharing their own music files ripped from CD’s. The first large peer-to-peer filesharing network, Napster, was launched in 1999. MP3’s provided an easy, low cost, and convenient way of listening and sharing. The ease of creating and sharing MP3s had some negative effects, however. To reduce file size the recordings were modified and compressed, which resulted in a loss of sonic quality. Also, this practice of sharing music with friends resulted in widespread copyright infringement in the minds of the musicians and record labels. .

We know the story, Steve Jobs took advantage of this situation by forming iTunes. He improved the sound of the recordings somewhat, but his major accomplishment was to convince the powers that be that, if they did not go his proposed solution, their businesses was going to die. Regardless of how we feel about iTunes it did provide a safe bridge to today’s music scene.

The net effect of MP3’s is that many people have gotten used to the convenience of playing their music easily, even on when on the go. Vinyl is a major inconvenience that is for sure. The loss in sound quality for many listeners is not all that big a deal. For them the sound is good enough. Others are perhaps not even aware of the loss of sound quality. They did not grow up with High Fidelity components.

But the times they are a changing. New means of providing convenient audio haves arrived, not just for casual listening, but for serious, concentrated, quality listening as well. Many young people are not buying or ripping their music. They are streaming their music over Spotify or Tidal, among others. Apple tried to play catchup with Apple Music, but they failed to see the new direction that streaming would be taking.

Tidal is streaming high resolution quality audio. Other streaming services are quickly coming on board. The breakthrough has been MQA. (See Paradigm Shift.) Many manufactures and some audio reviews are speaking out against MQA. Could it be a treat to their business model? What ever the reason is we end users will ultimately decide the fate of MQA. It does have some obvious advantages. It greatly reduces the size of high res audio files, making them more convenient and less costly in terms of the use of bandwidth. Moreover, the sound of MQA as at least as good and often times superior to other types of digital audio files. DSD and PCM files take up much more data space which rules them out for portable mobile players.

There have been obstacles to MQA adoption, however, more that the litany of complaints by the music industry. One is the cost of reproducing MQA files. An outboard DAC is needed for most smart phone and portable music players. These DAC’s are often bulky and have to be dangled to the portable devices, reducing their portability. The DAC’s which are compatible with MQA have been expensive.

A new device has arrived on the scene. It is a portable music player with everything builtin. What does it do? Here are some of its properties:

  • Continuous usage: up to 10 hours
  • Audio output: 3.5mm stereo + Line Out
  • Processor: Quad-Core
  • Memory: 16GB NAND + MircoSD slot up to 400GB
  • DAC: Cirrus Logic CS4398
  • THD+N: 0.0005%
  • SNR: 115dB
  • Decoding: up to 24-bit 192kHZ
  • File formats: WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF and MQA
  • Sample rates: FALC, WAV, ALAC, AIFF 8kHZ – 192kHZ (8/16/24-bits) DSD: 64/128/256 PCM – stereo)

IRIVER, the parent company of Astell& Kern has joined with Groovers, a Japan-based music streaming and downloading service to offer an alternative and relatively low cost product for the masses. Here it is: the Activo CT10, available in USA and Asia for $299.

I have not auditioned this little player but Forbes wrote a very favorable review of it. They liked the sound and they liked the way it accessed stored music without any hesitation. The quad-core processor was given credit for the responsive user interface.  Forbes said “the interface is a dream and the 3.4-inch color LCD screen is rich and vibrant plus it works well as a touchscreen. This affordable little player can handle WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF and MQA files. It’s fine with sample rates up to 24-bit 192kHz, so you’re pretty much covered with whatever files you throw at it.” Wonders of wonders this tiny little product (3.95oz or 112g) will also stream high res MQA files from Tidal all by itself.

What does this all mean to the future of high res audio when it is affordable and convenient. It is too early to say. But this product, if it sounds as good as Forbes says it does, could turn the whole portable high res audio on its head, if not digital audio itself.

Dynamic Duo Part 2

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dragonfly-series-MQAHow do the Dynamic Duo (DragonFly Red and Audirvana Plus) handle MQA files? Very well! But first we need to clear away some of the rumble, wow, and flutter surrounding MQA. There seems to be a lot of spin, misinformation, and even disinformation. Is journalism dying? Let ua begin with the category of just plain stupid. One engineer said that he could not measure any improvements with MQA so there must not be any. Where have we heard this before. This hearkens back to the days of Stereo Review when Julian Hirsch reported that there were no sonic differences between quality amplifiers  Luckily Gordon Holt came to the rescue and Stereophile became a trusted source of audio journalism.

This same engineer said that improvements could have been made to digital sound recordings without going to such elaborate lengths as did Bob Stuart. If it was so easy then why did you not do it? Perhaps you cannot or will not hear any differences with MQA so why would you bother making improvements? Remember: “Perfect sound forever?”

Moving on to the spin. A well-known audio reviewer said that sound engineers do not like what MQA has done to the sound of their master recordings. Well, no one has to buy MQA versions. The fact that some people want to may mean more sales for the recording. But who wants top make money? Duh! And by the way, MQA was invented to improve the quality control of digital recordings, not resurrect old recordings. It should be evident to most listeners who care about the quality of sound that quality control has been lacking in the past. Making an old recording sound better is a hit or miss proposition. There are just too many variables to in the recording process to adjust. It is amazing that MQA has been able to make any of these older recordings sound better. But a lot of people streaming Tidal think MQA has improved the sound. They all may be fooled but they are still willing to pay the higher prices for MQA streaming. Imagine what could be done if the whole recording process was tightly controlled from the beginning.

This sounds to me like disinformation. A quality audio electronics manufacturer has said that, with a higher resolution set of loudspeakers one could hear that MQA is inferior. Let me get this straight, a lower resolution audio system can reveal sonic improvements in the sound but a higher resolution will not. I am afraid it does not work that way. Experience tells us it is the the other way around.

The there is the dig that we do not need any new way to reduce the size of audio files for streaming. Bandwidth is plentiful in today’s internet world. Just pay higher prices for more bandwidth. “Let them eat cake.” We are not all rich. Here is what MQA does for the quality of sound, all the while reducing bandwidth:

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Here is what MQA does with the requirement for bandwidth:

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It reduces the cost considerably. Why is that not a good thing?

Manufactures are feeling threatened by MQA, apparently. Those who lose sight of bringing young people on board to the benefits and enjoyment of quality sound are going to be a part of a dying industry. It is already happening. Let this be a warning to Apple and audio component manufactures. Audio has been getting better and cost have been lowering. This is not going to stop. Time to figure out new business models

Back to MQA. The files are also hard to come by, but they do fall within the price range of most high-res files. A quick listen to these files streamed by Tidal should be convincing. They blow Apple Music out of the water. i once wrote an open letter to Eddie Cue asking him to make high-res files available along with the AAC mp3’s. The latter is acceptable for portable use, so I thought. On the go, with background noise and mostly casual listening AAC will do fine, so I thought. I was wrong. People want quality on the go.

I do not wish to stream music. I used Apple Music for a while. It was good at showcasing new music releases. It was exceptionally good at helping to build playlists where the music blended well together as in an album format. But it has been eclipsed by Tidal in terms of sonics. No doubt Apple will take steps to improve the sound of Apple Music. It has been forced to do so. But it is no longer at the forefront of either streaming or downloading music for portable devices.

I do not stream my music any more. My legacy recordings are all contained on vinyl. I have downloaded two MQA files, both new recordings, to see how they might stack up to vinyl and other high-res digital formats. The first one, The Quartet Four Season, was produced by an independent label called UNAMAS. I wrote about it briefly in my last blog entry. It was recorded by MQA at 24 bits/192 kHz. As you may realize, the DragonFly Red does not process digital files at this high sampling rate. It only goes to 96 kHz. However, the 192 kHz file is folded into the MQA envelope. it only takes 96 kHz to render it once it has been decoded by Audirvana Plus on the Mac. Is that cool or what?

As I have said before, just a beginning partial decoding by Audirvana Plus made the file sound very good. But a full decoding and rendering revealed a superb piece of music played with exceptional clarity and life. It should make most people stop short and take notice, except the ones that do not hear and do not want to hear.

My second downloaded file is Brahms Cello Sonatas and Hungarian Dances, produced on the ERATO label, owned by Warner Classics. This is also an exceptional recording. The celloist is one of my favorites, Jean-Guilien Queyras. This digital file was recorded at a sampling rate of 96 KHz. Nevertheless, it still sounds outstanding to me. It keeps getting better and sweeter as the DragonFly Red breaks-in. The playing was miked very closely so a great detail is available on the recording.

You may be wondering where the Rock music is. Right now it is on Tidal. How much of it will be available for download in the future is an unknown. That depends on how many people buy download files. All the major record labels are now onboard the MQA train. Will it succeed? The real question is whether or not it will be supported by the public. SACD sounded great but was ultimately not supported. It has become a niche product. The same could happen to MQA. There are powerful forces working against it.

In the meantime I am enjoying the music. The Dynamic Duo does one heck of a job even with iTunes files. Even lossless CD recordings sound better than the original recordings. This should not be possible, you say? Psycho-acoustics my friend, Psycho-acoustics.

Dynamic Duo Part 1

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I have not had this much fun with home audio since I first plugged in a Decca Mk V into my Formula 4 tonearm and listened through my Tympani 1’s amplified by Audio Research tubes. That was great sound. But in many ways the sound I heard today was better, and the gear playing it was certainly hugely less expensive. Today, I was not listening to any vinyl. There were no tube electronics. I just had a used MacBook Pro feeding downloaded music files to my AudioEngine A2+’s via the Audirvana Plus music player through a AudioQuest DragonFly Red DAC.

The DragonFly Red and Audirvana Plus play so well together that I am calling them the Dynamic Duo. Audirvana has such a pure sound no matter what you feed it. It even makes iTunes sound good. Add the DragonFly Red for greater options in playback files. Fortunately, the Red does not mess up the already great sound, provided the Red is thoroughly burned in. Just leave the Red in your computer’s USB socket for several days, whether you are playing music or not. Out of the box the Red is a bit nasty – too hot on top.

Audirvana Plus plays ALL file formats mentioned below:
WAVE, AIFF, Apple Lossless, M4A, MP3, FLAC, WavPack, APE, Cue Sheets, DSF, DSDIFF (including DST compressed), SACD ISO, and now also the brand new MQA (Master Quality Authenticated)!

Low-res audio files sound good because Audirvana Plus upsamples and dithers them. Had to make some minor adjustments to stop an occasional ringing. Most of the adjustment have already been made for you. Be sure to select “SoX” because it is a state-of-the-art converter.

When it comes to higher res. files, the DragonFly Red working with Audirvana Plus will work some real magic. Well recorded high res. files approach the sweetness of vinyl, especially the DSD 64‘s. When PCM files are done right they are a close second. I have never really enjoyed digital sound until now. Now I can do more than just tolerate it. Digital is convenient and it has gotten better over the years. But without Audirvana Plus it is still too cold and strident for me. The DragonFly Red will play files up to 24 bits 96 kHz sampling rate. I believe that will be sufficient for most peop le. Quad DSD is out of its range, but those files are very large and very rare to come by. They will require a much more expensive DAC to play them.

The DragonFly Red will also work with iPhone and Android phones for portable use. It requites significantly less power to run than the original Dragonfly. Not only that but its builtin headphone amplifier will power almost any set of headphones, even high impedance ones. I had no trouble using my Hifiman HE 400i’s. If you are using monitor headphones such as these you will definitely need to allow time for the to DragonFly Red break-in, otherwise the sound may cut your head off.

What about MQA files? The Dragonfly Red can handle them, but it needs the computing power of an actual computer to do the initial decoding. It is too small to be expected to do the heavy lifting. On my MacBookPro, Audirvana Plus facilitates that decoding. Then the Red does the rendering. It is a two step operation. Again, they work magic together. A larger and more expensive DAC would be needed to do the whole operation. However, I would hate to lose the sound quality of Audirvana Plus. This expensive DAC would have to sound really good. There are that would fill the bill. But I do not need to spend the money when I already have great sound at a very reasonable price.

How about about the sound of MQA? It is good – very good! The subject is controversial. More about MQA in part 2. Without MQA files, there is a world of enjoyment ahead for those who want to listen to file based audio from their computer, especially a Mac. Audirvana will soon come out with a Window’s version of its software which is not to be missed. Trust me!

There are some downsides to this Dynamic Duo combination. As I have said, it takes a rather lengthy break-in time for the DragonFly Red. The Red and Audirvana play well together, but iTunes and Audirvana do not. Avoid using iTunes as much as possible. Even though Audirvana Plus has a dual mode using iTunes as a browser, skip it. Use the Plus as a stand alone as much as possible. Make your own Audirvana Plus playlists. The Plus does a pretty good job a browsing your music files and displaying the metadata. A new interface for Audirvana Plus will be coming out shortly. Skip iTunes altogether when downloading high res files.

Audirvana Plus can be buggy, or is it that iTunes is buggy when used with Audirvana Plus. I do not know. I expect it is a little of both. With careful adjustments to Audirvana Plus the bugs can be overcome, as long as you stay clear of iTunes as much as possible. Then there is the matter of controlling your laptop by remote in order to play downloads or stream music, Audirvana does both. Just download a $10 iOS app from Apple to be used on your smart phone or iPad. It works better with the iPad because of the larger screen. It is quite easy to set up and once done, makes a very fine remote. Sometimes, however, the app has trouble recognizing the laptop you assigned to it. If is does, forget trying to fix it. Just dump the app and download it again. Then before trying to do the setup, go to the preference page on Audirvana Plus and erase the first setup.

Bitperfect works so well with iTunes, and it is a no hassle product. But its sound quality is far below Audirvana Plus, as just about every music player that I know of is inferior to it. Audirvana Plus and Dragonfly Red will cost your $274. Add on $250 speakers from AudioEngine and you have a complete audio system. You may not need a vinyl playback system if you do not have legacy recordings. Yes, add an inexpensive sub-woofer for good measure. We are still talking prices less than $700 dollars. This quality of sound was not available when I started out in audio many years ago. Even most high end systems did not sound this good.

I would only consider upgrading if I had a larger listening room. What would replace my system now? The new Magnepan four panels model and all David Berning electronics would do. If you are a Rock enthusiast then something from Magico might be your speakers.  We are talking five figures or more. Right now I have only tied up 3 figures and I am enjoying my music as much as ever, if not more.

Entry Level to Quality Audio

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My entry into quality audio came in 1969 when I returned home from the war. I had saved some money from my combat pay and I wanted to upgrade my audio system. At the time I was listening to early Dynaco solid state electronics which I built as kits.

I had been researching all the great products that Marantz made, and they were clearly superior to any of its competition. I wanted to go Marantz separate components but all I could afford was their Model 18 receiver. So I bought one on a military discount while I was still overseas, without ever having listened to it.

What a beautiful product it turned out to be. Fortunately it sounded as good as it looked. It was a combination between the Marantz Model 15 power amp and the Model 7T preamp. These products were Marantz’s first venture into solid state electronics. Though many people still prefered the Marantz tube version of these products, the Model 9’s and the Model 7C, these new solid state models were heads and shoulders above any competing solid state components at the time.

The Model 18 receiver had a FM multiplex processor builtin which was modeled after the one in the Marantz 10B tuner. The 10B was legendary for its sound and still is. To get just a taste of that sound at a reasonable, but not cheap, price was a joy. Of course, the Model 18 was solid state all the way through, unlike the famous high end tubed Marantz components. It was, however, state of the art solid state for its day. (Years later I would buy a used 10B and two Model 9 mono-block amps. Now that was listening bliss!)

Like the 10B the Model 18 had an oscilloscope builtin. The scope was smaller but still very functional. It was a great aid in tuning-in stations as well as evaluating such things as stereo separation and phase. I once called a well-known Boston radio station to tell them that they were broadcasting out of phase. At the time I was listening more to FM than playing records. FM radio stations at the time offered exceptionally sound quality and program material. (I had a Garrard Lab 80 turntable which was not that exceptional.)

The Model 18 brought me great joy. It was beautifully made and offered quality sound at a not too unreasonable price. This was the last product that Saul Marantz was personally involved in designing and making. He had to sell his company to help pay for the development of this product and recover some of the losses he experienced from having to sell the 10B at a price below what it actually cost him to make. Today, the Model 18 is considered a classic. Used ones in good condition, especially if the scope still works, will require a substantial investment.

Reflecting on the Model 18 made me think of young people just getting started in audio today. What should they buy? What is the entry level for them to the enjoyment of quality audio. Fortunately today, not everything is MP3. Vinyl has made a comeback. High resolution streaming is now on the scene. What is equally important is that the price of entry level has come down. I see two avenues: one vinyl and the other streaming or downloading digital music files. The vinyl path is a little more expensive, however. The Audio Technica AT-LP60 is an excellent turntable, but to get into a more emotionally involved sound would require a better turntable and preamp combination.

Let us start with the turntable, tonearm, and phono cartridge. The entry level product of choice is the $475 Rega Planar 1, which integrates all three components. Each component is exceptional. Not only that, but they have already been setup and optimized in advance. This combination offers an engaging and lively sound that outshines all of its peers. Other tables which might have more expensive phono cartridges do not have the precision bearings of the Rega. Rega spends money where it counts the most.

A separate phono preamp will be needed, however, since the Rega has no builtin preamp. A lot of money can be spent on a quality phono stage. Fortunately, the $129 Schiit Mani is more than adequate at providing superior phono amplification at a very reasonable price.

On the digital side, the route to take is MQA. It sounds great. We can stream music from Tidal for $20 a month with a pretty good selection of MQA files, or we can download the files. (See Time Smearing for further information on downloading.) What will be needed to fully unpack the MQA sound is a MQA compatible DAC.

The tiny but great $199 AudioQuest Dragonfly Red DAC will do just fine. Designed to plug into the USB outlet on one’s computer it will also work with smart phones as well. The Dragonfly Red will drive many high impedance headphones whereas the $100 Dragonfly Black does not have a sufficient output voltage supply. Moreover, the Red is an audible improvement over the Black.

One should also consider adding the $74 Audirvana Plus software in the equation as an added refinement. It only works with an Apple computer as of now.

We have some amazing options today for getting into good sound – not just good sound but very good sound. This will help introduce many young people to the quality of sound that, heretofore, could only be attained through very expensive audio components. If we do not bring young people in then great audio will just fade away because of the barrier of overpriced high end components that only rich people can afford.

Some of the high end speaker manufactures can almost justify their prices because of their expensive investments in R & D and the use of very exotic materials. (Fortunately the AudioEngine 2A+ loudspeakers coupled with a quality sub-woofer can hold their own against many of them.) But cables costing as much as automobiles? In some cases they do offer improved sound, but not that much improvement. Young people are not into buying products for vanity reasons. They are just too smart.

MQA on the Cheap?

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Maybe you do not want to spend your money on an expensive external DAC that is MQA compatible. Maybe you do not want to subscribe to Tidal. Maybe just want to try MQA by downloading a piece of music to see what all the fuss may be about. And maybe you just want to use Apple AirPlay to stream your MQA, without having to plug your MacBook Pro into your AudioEngine 2A+’s. In other words, you are lazy and you do not want to spend any money.

What file should you download? Well the selection is limited. It would be nice to have a non-MQA file of the same piece of music for comparisons. That would be difficult. But we need careful A/B comparisons, right. Nah. Let us just see if MQA can stand out enough on its own under less than ideal conditions. Not very scientific, perhaps, but  surely we should be able to detect the quality of sound of our downloaded file, at least at a rudimentary level.

The file I decided on for download came from HIGHRESAUDIO is the well regarded Quartet Four Seasons arrangement of Vivaldi’s Four Season, recorded in Japan by an outstanding mastering engineer Mick Sawaguchi. He used special microphone arrangements to capture the hall sound as well as the close intimacy of great musicians playing harmoniously together. I wanted to hear the hall sound and the separation of instruments.

What did I hear? I heard a great performance of a well-recorded piece of music by an exceptional mastering engineer. But what about the overall sound? The sound was very engaging. It was very articulate, but not fatiguing in any way. Was it like the sound of vinyl? No. It was different. It was clean and clear. It sounded like digital, but very good digital – very enjoyable digital. I did not know that listening to a digital recordings could bring this much joy.

I suspect the MQA is not totally dependent on high sampling rates to sound good. The file I downloaded was recorded in 24 bits with a 192 kHz sampling rate. Of course it was cut down to a much lower rate of 48 kHz by Audivrana Plus without the benefit of an external MQA compatible DAC. AirPlay cut it down further to about 44 kHz. Nonetheless, I believe MQA was still working some of its magic.

Your experience may be different. Maybe you are already streaming Tidal. But maybe you just want to put your toes in the water to see if it is all that refreshing?. Might be worth a try. It only cost me $24 and no effort at all. I did have to go to the Audirvana Plus preference page to let it know that it could be listening to MQA. (If you do not have Audirvana Plus by now then you are missing out on a whole new experience with iTunes. Your ripped CD’s and downloaded iTunes files will thank you for coming to their rescue.)

Back to MQA – is it too good to be true? There will be varying opinions, but the only opinions that really matter are the potential customers of MQA. No one is forcing anyone to use MQA. Time will tells us of its ultimate fate. In the meantime, I must say that I like what I hear.

Here is a little technical detail on The Quartet Four Seasons. It is a brilliant and beautiful recording.

ADDENDUM

I have discovered that, by using the app AirFoil for streaming to my Apple Airport Express instead of Apple AirPlay, the sound is significantly improved. I have been unable to get detailed specs on AirFoil to see why this is. Any one who has any experience on this matter please share with our readers.

Getting Back to the Source: Quad DSD

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I used to own Quad electrostatic loudspeakers – the original ESL 57’s. Although they had some significant shortcomings, they were, in their day, the most transparent set of speakers on the market. Quad’s motto was, and still is, “the closest approach to the original sound.
Ironically, today, that honor may still go to quad. Not the loudspeakers, but a recording technique called Quad DSD. What is it? It has to do with the way Super Audio Compact Disks SACD‘s were engineered. They used PDM (Pulse Density Modulation) which is now called Direct Stream Digital (DSD). PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) is used in regular CD’s. DSD produced a superior sound which relied on the ultra-fast sampling of a digital signal using one bit at a time rather that 16 bits in PCM.

But as we know, SACD failed to reach a significant level of acceptance by the buying public. What went wrong? The discs were more expensive, they had built-in copy protection , and they required special playback equipment which was more expensive. There was no backward compatibility and they were poorly marketed. In addition, as music downloads were taking off, and SACD was becoming obsolete. Moreover, the promising recording technology of DSD was not executed to its fullest potential.

Today DSD files which can be downloaded. These files are called DSD 64 files because they have a sampling rate that is 64 times faster than a CD. This rate is 2,800,000 times per second (2.8MHz), which was the original sampling rate of SACD when it was first introduced. This high sampling rare was thought to be so fast that it fool the ear into thinking it was listening to a analogue signal.

But the DSD recording process has moved on. Now files are available at twice that sampling rate of the original DSD. Why the higher rate? Well, some recording engineers still prefer the sound of PCM over DSD. DSD is only 1 bit, whereas CDs are 16 bit, DSD is actually noisier in the highest frequencies that PCM. This noise must be filtered out, but some people still here what is left over. This issue seems to go away if the sample rate is doubled to 5.6MHz. This higher rate is called DSD 128. The noise is moved up to a higher frequency that is undetectable for most listeners.

What if we double the sampling rate again? Apparently this opens up a whole new world of sound, at least as some engineers hear it. We are talking about Quad DSD or DSD 256 at a sampling rate of 11.2MHz. When a recording is mastered this way some professionals are saying they are getting the same sound that they are hearing in the studio or at the performance hall in the case of a live recording.

To get this type of performance, however, we need to stay with the DSD process from start to finish. Intermediate steps in the production may degrade the sound. (In many cases, DSD is transferred to PCM along the way because it is an easier format in which to mix and master.) The staring point in the recording process is also very crucial. If we are remastering previously recorded material, the quality of source material is paramount. For example, are we using master analogue tapes? They usually sound better than many of the earlier digital tape recordings. This may be one of the reason that vinyl can sound better than digital. (Another reason may be the way in which music was originally recorded in the analogue days. Fewer mics and less mixing captured more of the hall sound.)

Of course, analogue tapes have their own drawbacks. They deteriorate over time. They are noisy and must be filtered in the highest frequencies. This is why direct to disc vinyl recordings are potentially better sounding than those started with analogue tape. (I remember that in olden times a live Friday night broadcast from the Library of Congress heard over my Marantz 10B tuner was the closest approach to the original sound for me.)

But what may be of greater interest is the comparison of brand new Quad DSD recordings from start to finish to those started with master analogue tapes. Some engineers have said that these type of recordings surpass all others, including the ones using master analogue tapes. Could this be the future of quality recordings of Classical and Jazz music? Could this be the closest approach to the original sound?

Where does Quad DSD leave PCM and normal DSD downloads, and where does it leave MQA? Well the Quad DSD file size is about 8GB,  compared to a conventional DSD file of about 3GB and a double DSD of about 5GB. The size of the Quad DSD download file may be prohibited in many cases, especially in streaming audio and portable use. A MQA file is just 40MB. (For comparison a conventional CD has a file size of 600 MB., a 24-bit/96kHz FLAC file is 73 MB, and a 24-bit/192kHz version is 142 MB,) Here is a visual comparison:

Now it is time to let you in on a little secret. I may not be new to you but it has been to me. The quality of the mastering is still of overriding importance. There is more to a good album than just the final sampling rate. The key is to find something that is 1) Directly recorded to DSD, 2) Edited in DSD as opposed to PCM, 3) and output as DSD. Higher than standard DSD is preferable, but if these 3 requirements are not satisfied, then Quad DSD files are probably not going to sound any better that standard DVD files, if as well.

Case in point, mastered for iTunes files can sound exceptionally good even though they are ultimately presented in 256 kHz AAC. If they started out with higher quality formats we can still hear some of the advantages of that sound. Almost everything is recorded in a high resolution digital format today. Files submitted to Apple to be used in the “Mastered for iTunes” format must be of this higher resolution. Try Prime Cuts (The Columbia Years 1987-1999) Grover Washington Jr. as an example of how good AAC can sound, especially when processed by Audirvana Plus.

If you want to listen to Quad DSD you must have a compatible DAC. The wonderful Dragonfly Red is great for MQA and Flac files, but will not handle Quad DSD. You will need a more powerful DAC which handles higher sampling rates.

The CHORD Electronics Mojo ($529) will get you into Quad DSD at a fairly high sound quality level. The device is lightweight with a built-in chargeable battery. It was designed for portable use but it works well with a desktop system and is of sufficient quality to be used with any home audio system. It will play almost any audio file that you can find, up to 768kHz 32bit. Unfortunately, the Mojo is not compatible with MQA.

A lower price $200 alternative would be the Optoma NuForce uDAC5 USB DAC. Although this is a tiny DAC, as you can see, it will play very nicely with your computer and Quad DSD files.

review-nuforce-udac5-1300-605

Where to find Quad DSD releases? Go to Native DSD Music. The catalogue is not large, but it is just getting off the ground. You are probably going to see mostly Jazz and Classical music. No offense, but this quality of sound and price point is not going to be supported by many popular music enthusiasts alone. For many, MQA files or streaming should serve just fine. Nevertheless there will always be those who are looking for “the closest approach to the original sound.”

The Paradigm Shift?

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Something big is about to happen. It just may be happening. It is so big that the powers that be are working overtime with their disinformation campaign. What is at stake in the future of reproduced music, both in the home and on the go.

defines a paradigm shift as “an important change that happens when the usual way of thinking about or doing something is replaced by a new and different way.”A paradigm, simply put, is an accepted framework or pattern upon which there is a general agreement.

In the reproduction of recorded music, certain bombshell changes came along which made the audio industry, and then the consumer, look at things in a whole new way. My first recollection of this was the change from tubes to solid state equipment. I have owned Marantz tube equipment. They were clearly superior audibly to other competing audio playback devices in their day. But transistors became the big thing. There were technically superior to tubes in terms of certain measurements and their longevity. Eventually, even Marantz moved over to solid state.

The audio industry shifted to solid state. But some of the early solid state did not sound very good. In fact, and in short, it has taken years for solid state to come into its own sonically. Technical measurements did not tell the full tale. The ear was a more critical factor than the test equipment, because the ear could hear things like slew rate, for example, which was not initially part of the test procedures. Greater testing practices were needed, along with careful listening.

Then William Z. Johnson came along, and for a season, at least in the high-end of audio, shifted the paradigm back. This shift was gradual, at first. It hardly qualified as a shift at all. But as more and more people began listening critically to his products they had to conclude that his tubes did sound better. I had to give up my Crown DC 300 power amp, which was rated highly at the time, because William Z’s amps destroyed it. So eventually, in a way, tubes became a paradigm shift back. I purchased a set of used Marantz 9 power amps and an Marantz 10B. I loved listening to those old antiquated components.

Today, both quality tubes and solid state products are happily sharing the stage. It was almost a paradigm shift when the late, great, Arnie Nudell of Infinity fame, gave up his custom tube amplifiers when he heard the solid state Constellation power amp.

Then we had the vinyl to CD paradigm shift. CD’s were theoretically better, at least technically. Their promise was “perfect sound forever.” The CD had less noise and more dynamic range, and they were not going to get scratched. But is they did get scratched, they had a built-in error correction system which allowed the CD player to skip over that sort of thing. But the CD actually sounded bad – not to the masses – but to lovers of high fidelity music reproduction.

Today, digital audio has taken over. It can sound good when carefully mastered and played through quality CD transports and DAC’s. But even this movement has had its own William Z Johnson in the person of Michael Fremer of Analogue Planet. He never gave up on the sonic superiority of vinyl. He kept telling us that the emperor had no clothes. And eventually, a lot of people have followed him. Vinyl has made its own comeback. Vinyl is capable of offering a more engaging and enjoyable sound than that of many of our CD’s are digital files. Part of the problem is that the superiority of digital in terms of dynamic range have been crushed by all the compression done in the recording process. Many people play their popular music at one volume level – loud. Today, both quality vinyl and digital playback are happily sharing the stage.

Today, we are faced with a potentially new paradigm shift. In this case, the shift is not based merely on technical measurements. It is based on perceived quality of sound that, for many people, is audible. The ears coupled to the brain cannot be denied. They are sonic truth-tellers. Will the gatekeepers of the status quo be able to convince careful listeners otherwise? They may pick off some, but I doubt that they will pick off many of you, dear readers.

If you have not quests it by now, we are talking about MQA (Master Quality Authenticated). It was invented by that mad ingenuous scientist Bob Stuart, formerly of Meridian Audio fame.

The problem with Mr. Stuart is that he thinks out of the box. This is the very thing that can cause a paradigm shift, because a paradigm is the box.

Mr. Stuart understands that psycho-acoustics play are large part in the recording and playback process. This was not as well understood in 1928 when Harry Nyquist produced his sampling theorem of converting analogue to digital sound. His work is the theoretical basis for today’s CD. His theorem is, in fact, the paradigm for digital sound. But as we have seen, the solid ground below us has been known to shift.

A lot more could be said here, but probably only a very few people can explain what MQA has in the recording and mastering process. One of them would be Bob Stuart but he is probably not going to tell us. After all, an inventor should be allowed to make a profit on his invention should he not?

Not everyone wants to buy into MQA. Perhaps one of their reasons is that they do not want to buy anything. There are royalties to be paid when using MQA. The manufactures of high-end CD players and DAC’s have been charging premium prices for their devices because they actually sound better than run of the mill ones. Now lesser priced models may potentially sound as good, if not better. If so, this would be a serous threat to their profit margins.

And at least one famous audio manufacturer claims that, with a higher resolution, state of the art, audio system, one can easily hear the advantage of non MQA sound over that of MQA recordings. But how does that stack up against hearing sonic improvements over lesser audio systems? Usually, it takes better fidelity to hear any differences in the first place.

On the recording side, mastering engineers have complained that their original recordings should not be altered. We recall when Ted Turner wanted to colorize on black and white movies for his TV network. The directors and producers of those movies howled. Is this the same? Maybe, but not all of these pristine master recordings were up to the Fred Astaire standard.

Making people buy newer versions of legacy recordings is a real problem for the industry, some people say. That means that MQA could be making a profit by ripping off the work of what has already been sold once. Well, many of these legacy recordings have been remastered many times already. Furthermore, no one is forcing people to buy new versions of the old. If they do so simply because they want a better sounding recording, what is the harm of that?

Let us look at new recordings. Many mastering engineers are convinced that the sonic merits of MQA are real. They have heard improvements in the sound quality of their recordings. They want to sure that their customers will be able to hear, on the other end, what they are hearing in the recording studio. That is one of the potential advantages of MQA. Recording engineers and masters now have better control over the quality of whole recording and playback process.

An added advantage to MQA is that its file sizes can be compressed without altering the sound in any audible way. This allows for online streaming of high-resolution music with a smaller bandwidth at a lesser expense. This particular advantage could greatly impact upon the way people listen their music. Imagine, a whole new generation of people who are being educated to the joy of high quality sound at reasonable prices. This must be stopped now. Those bonehead audiophiles might multiply and we do not want that to happen, do we?

Time will tell for MQA. The size of the catalogue of MQA will have a lot to do with it. How quickly the record labels (if I may use that name for digital recordings) will embrace the new technologies is crucial. Universal Music Group, Sony Music, and the Warner Music Group are already on board. Tidal is now streaming MQA with very good reviews. Never mind the audiophiles like us, the potential raising of quality and the lowering of prices should be able to make reading Consumer’s Report exciting.

Time Smearing

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Time smearing is the enemy of quality audio sound. We are very sensitive to minute differences in arrival times of sound as it reaches one ear and then the other. We are talking about microsecond. The brain uses these differences to localize the source of the sound. If we want a realistic stereo image of the musical performance, pinpointing each player in space, we need to eliminate as much time smear as possible.

The great Raymond Cooke of KEF helped pioneer impulse testing of loudspeakers. KEF drivers were known for the quality of their individual drivers. They were used in BBC monitor speakers. These drivers were quite smooth from a frequency standpoint, but they had good impulse response as well. The impulse test is like plucking the string of a guitar and then allowing the natural decay of the vibration to stop the vibration and thus end the sound.

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In a speaker driver, however, we want the vibration to stop as quickly as possible. If it lingers then it smears the sound. The tiny differences in arrival time of the sound to the ears is lost, thus confusing the brain and ultimately the stereo image. BBC monitors were known for their stereo imaging, other speaker manufacturers followed suit with their own impulse testing.

Time smearing in our audio systems has many causes. One is speaker placement. Room reverberations can smear the sound. Careful placement of the speakers will help reduce inter-reaction with wall boundaries. In live recording of acoustical music we want to hear the hall ambiance. This information will be lost in the ambiance of our own listening rooms. And again, the separation of musical instruments will also be diminished with poor speaker placement.

In the early days of solid state amplifiers time smearing was not a concern, at least for some of the manufacturers. I owned a high-powered solid state amplifier which had great specs and was highly reviewed. A great deal of overall negative feedback was used in the design to lower the distortion ratings. But it sounded terrible on my Magneplanar Tympany 1’s. Then I heard one of David Berning’s prototype amps driving the Tympany 1’s. It was a night and day difference. With the Berning the music came alive and so did the stereo image. David’s amplifier used no negative feedback at all. Apparently this feedback messed up the timing of the reproduction. Others can explain it. The measurements sometimes have little to do with the perceived sound. The ears cannot be fooled.

Time smearing can be a problem with vinyl recordings as well. That is why people are will to pay large sums of money for rock steady turntables, vibration free toneams, and delicate, lightweight phono cartridges that are compliant, but properly damped. I loved the sound of my Decca Mk V but is sounded better when I put it in a damped tonearm. The Decca, itself, had practically no damping.

Now what about digital music? Timing is everything. The first CD’s and CD players had great specs. But the sound was just not right. It did not sound alive. Were was the hall ambiance? Timing. Jitter. Theoretically, a 44.1Khz was a high enough sampling rate to fool the ears into thinking that digital sound was actually analogue. But is was not, at least not in the beginning. There was little hall ambiance. Stereo imaging was not good. The sound seemed lifeless. What could go wrong? Bits are bits. We are just dealing with zero’s and one’s. Yes, but they had better be in the proper order. Time smearing occurs when they get out of sync so to speak.

High sampling rates, apparently, make it easier to keep the bits in line. The skeptics will say ask why should the sampling rate go out to 96 kHz or even 192 kHz. We can only hear frequencies to 20 kHz at best. Yes, but we are not talking about frequency response. We are talking about filtering out unwanted sound to that we can hear the sound that we want reproduced. It is easier to do the filtering at higher sampling rates. Not only do we want to eliminate unwanted artifacts from the analogue to digital conversion, we also want the timing of the bits to be correct. Low noise and low jitter. See the chart below:

We are looking at tiny differences, measured in microseconds. The ears can hear this difference. An impulse signal is sent through the system. The 96 kHz sampling rate rings longer and is less controlled than the 192 kHz sampling rate. This is a difference in the performance of the filtering.

The best performance, however, comes via MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) invented by John Robert (Bob) Stuart of Meridian Audio. It passes the input signal through but then it stops it short. Much of the unwanted ringing is removed which obscures the timing of the digital signal. In digital timing is everything.

More can be said about MQA. For now, suffice it to say that it has shown great promise in the converting an analogue through a digital time domain and then back to analogue. Ours ears want to hear analogue with as little time smearing as possible. Could this be the future of digital audio? We shall see. MQA music files are now being steamed over Tidal.

For me, the monthly streaming cost of $20 is too high. I would like to be able to download the files and keep them on my hard-drive. Fortunately there are some sites to do so: 2L Music Store , Onkyo Mussic, and HighResAudio. Now if only I could buy a reasonably priced compatible DAC. Wait, what about the Dragonfly Red? And Audirvana Plus is now compatible with MQA. Somebody stop me.

High-Res or False Advertising

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When CD’s came on the scene in 1982 this statement was made about their advantage over vinyl: “Perfect sound for ever.” Maybe this statement applies to their potential, but certainly does not apply to those first Compact Discs. For most part, they sounded terrible. Ironically, some of the same people who said this was true about CD’s are now saying that high resolution digital is just a marketing gimmick.

I started updating some my classical music repertoire with CD’s and quickly became discouraged. Then someone introduced my to Chesky RecordsDavid Chesky is an American pianist, composer, producer, arranger, and co-founder of the independent, audiophile label Chesky Records. David proved that CD’s could sound good, even in those horrible early days. He demonstrated that, with careful attention to the whole recording process, CD’s could be viable for the reproduction of musical performances. His early CD’s gave me hope that digital sound could sound good.

David Chesky is also co-founder and CEO of HDtracks, an online music store that sells high-resolution digital music. He is still proving that digital can sound better, especially with higher oversampling rates, through HDtracks downloads. Yet, HD Tracks has been criticized as selling overpriced junk. And why is this?

Firstly, it is because some people do not really listen, or refused to learn to listen, to music. To hear differences in the sound of music reproduction we first need to care about the music. Then we need to have a home audio system that has low distortion and enough dynamic range to mimic a live performance. We need to start with good recordings. Vinyl can sound bad and digital can sound good, if done right.

There are no shortages of amateur audio engineers who are certain that vinyl cannot sound good and digital cannot sound bad. After all, our ears just do not hear those higher frequencies. Sampling rates and higher musical frequencies are not the same thing. It has to do with resolution. Someone has said that picture is worth a thousand words:

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If we understand digital photography, we realize that the more megapixels a camera captures the better it is at resolving the photo image and producing greater clarity. The eye can detect this clarity and the ear can also detect this clarity. And with a little training, they can do even better.

But who wants great fidelity in their sound? Maybe we just want convenient audio on the go? And maybe all the dynamic range has been crushed out of the musical performance so that it will louder on our smart phones?

There is some legitimate confusion concerning the quality of high resolution downloads, however, What is of particular importance is the quality of the original master tape or file and/or whether are not we are actually copying from the original recording at all. Upsampling lousy copies of the original are just not going to offer any significantly improved sound. Often, this practice can be more of a degradation than an improvement.

HDTracks attempts to provide the best possible source material available. But they need the cooperation from the music labels. Do we need to get into a discussion about how the greed for prophet often trumps audio quality?

I buy from HDTracks and others, (Acoustic Sounds being one of them). I believe that they are trying to sell honest products. It does not hurt to ask around and do some comparative shopping. Why should audio be any different than shopping from other goods? Be a smart shopper. And take time to listen to and enjoy the music.

If you want double blind amateur scientific analysis, go elsewhere. I have been listening to great sound for many years and I know what it is. My wife can come into our living room, which is our listening room, and say: “What did you do to the sound?” I ask: “What do you mean?” And she says: “The music sounds better.” Now that is science!

Comparisons of Audio Sources Revisited

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Today I want us to compare the lovely Norah Jones album Come Away with Me from three sources: DSD download, 180 gram vinyl, and Apple iTunes AAC. We will process everything through Audirvana Plus and then finally listen to iTunes direct without any processing. This should be interesting. If you already know that everything will sound the same please go on your merry way.

I am assuming and hoping that all the files in question came from the same master tape, but I do not know this for a fact. The album is relatively new and was probably recorded using single bit DSD technology as are many contemporary albums. Barnes and Noble which sold me the vinyl, says they go back to the source as do Apple. Acoustic Sounds are know for their impeccable sourcing. See AcousticSounds.com

In the last comparison I used a 24/96 flac for high-resolution which relies on PCM (Pulse Code Modulation). Today I will be using DSD (Direct Stream Digital) for our high-resolution source. What is the difference between these two sources? A very simplistic technical explanation is that they are both using the same recording, but processing it differently.

CD’s sample or compare 16 bits at a time, oversampling them at 44.100 times per second (44.1KHz). Higher resolution flac files look at 24 bits of information at a time and oversample them at 88.2KHz or higher – out to 196 KHz.

DSD oversamples the bits one at a time, but at a very high rate of 2,800,000 times per second (2.8MHz). Theoretically, this is equivalent to analogue sound. Fast enough to fool the ears, right? Contemporary master tapes are processed this way initially, and, the argument goes they should be translated this way. SACD recordings are made this way. Nonetheless, pure DSD is not so pure because it is often edited and mixed in PCM because it is easier to do so. In the end, the files are transferred back to DSD.

Do DSD files sound better? Some would say so. In fact, PS Audio sells a very well respected DAC, the DirectStream. See photo below:

It, supposedly, converts all sources, regardless of what they are, to the highest resolution DSD. Here is how PS Audio markets it:

Astounding“, “Gave up vinyl finally“, “Never heard anything like it!” Product of the year in both Stereophile and TAS, Darko Knock Out award, Editor’s choice and Golden Ear awards. DirectStream is one of the most remarkable DACS ever built and the reviewers agree. Hand written, discrete, perfection based conversion that uncovers all the missing information hiding in your digital audio media. CD’s, high-resolution PCM or DSD based media are expertly upsampled in the DirectStream to twenty times DSD rate and output as pure analog directly into your amplifier or preamplifier.

We have no reason to doubt PS Audio’s sincerity. They make very fine products. No one would be buying a $5,999 DAC if it did not sound very good indeed. Giving up vinyl is another matter. We shall see.

We listened to all the sources mentioned above. There were differences in the sound we heard. We concentrated on Norah Jones’ voice for starters. She has a wonderful, beguiling voice, and the AudioEngine 2A+ speakers are excellent at reproducing voice. In addition, the Audirvana Plus music player does wonders with voice, no matter what the recording format is.

The best voice reproduced came from the vinyl recording. Norah’s voice was sweet, relaxed, and unstrained. The DSD file was a very close second. The straight iTunes version had too much edge, but when processed by Audirvana Plus it was much more listenable. Female voice is the acid test. We just do not want the voice to sound like acid to the ears!

Overall, my listening session was quite enjoyable, relegating the unprocessed Apple AAC to mostly casual listening. The vinyl and DSD versions made you feel that you were sitting in a real performance. Both were three-dimensional. The processed Apple AAC through Audirvana Plus was more two-dimensional but still enjoyable.

The vinyl had a little more bloom which made you think you were listening through a very good tube amplifier. (The class AB built-in amp in the left A2+ speaker is quite good, by the way.) Some might say this bloom is a form of distortion. It may be but I love this sound. It grabs you emotionally and brings you into the performance.

The DSD seemed to have a tighter bass response than the vinyl, though both were extended. (No doubt a five-figure turntable/tonearm combination would help close the gap.)

I liked the brush sound on the cymbals more on the vinyl. This is where AAC really failed. And for the female voice, vinyl is still king.

I clearly liked DSD. It is better than high-resolution flac. I am told that 24/192 PCM will give DSD some stiff competition. Have not tried this yet. If this has been your experience, please chime in. I would to hear about your listening tests.

As I have said before, there is more music in digital recordings than our CD’s have been revealing. What is the future of digital music? Some are saying that MQA recordings may be the answer. Politics and turf wars might trump what ultimately is decided.

But that has to be left for another time. It is interesting that Audirvana Plus will process MQA files now and that PS Audio has now provided such processing in its DirectStream DAC.

What is exciting for me is the relatively low-cost approach of DSD downloads and Audirvana Plus. Digital sound is getting better and the price of admission for the participation of the masses has been greatly reduced!