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.