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 Marantz 10B tuner. It was a solid state version of the tubed one in the 10B. Nonetheless, the Model 18 sounded amazingly good. Not only that, but the Model 18 had an oscilloscope builtin, as did the 10B tuner. 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. 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, toneare, 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 Audio Quest 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.

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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.

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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 Assurance). 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 Authenticate) 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 and HighResAudio being two. 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.