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 the whole industry itself.

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Dynamic Duo Part 2

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dragonfly-series-MQAHow do the Dynamic Duo 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:

Figure-2-hd

Here is what MQA does with the requirement for bandwidth:

Figure-6-hd

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 encoded information 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 if 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 user 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.

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.