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.

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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.

images

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:

dvd-audio-vs-cd-audio

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!

Cost Effective Monitor Headphones

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The last time I reviewed headphones I limited myself to not going over $100. At that price I settled on the Grado SR 80e’s. They have an ultra smooth midrange with a very lively overall sound. But there were some drawbacks. Their top end could be a little fatiguing and their lower end did not go deep enough. See graph below:

frequency-response-graph

I have enjoyed using the Grado’s but I have been looking for a better alternative. To do so I have had to raise my price limit to $200. Fortunately, there are numerous candidates in this price range.

I have finally settled on a set of headphones within my budget range. The phones I have purchased fall more into a monitor headphone category than an euphoric one. (My euphoric set of phones is the Koss Porta Pro. It is very smooth, light weight, and portable. Perfect for casual listening.)

Here is the frequency response of the phones I settled on:

HE4XX Frequency ResponseVery nice response! Notice the extended bass and the smoother high frequencies. Of course, frequency response is not everything. This model is a planar magnetic one. It is quick, articulate, and very revealing. The top end is as lively as the Grado’s without as much listener fatigue.

Planar magnetic phones rival electrostatic ones for transparency and low distortion. (I have owned Koss and Stax electrostatic phones, but you cannot get very far away from the wall plug. Of course, they are a lot more expensive than my budget would allow. Planar magnetic ones make a nice close second.)

In each planar magnetic earpiece is a very thin, light membrane stretched between two magnetic grids. See photo below:

plsnsr mag. he 4XX

When the grids are magnetically charged the membrane vibrates between the two. Because the membrane has low mass it moves very quickly and produces excellent transient response. The sound is driven over a large area which maximizes low bass and reduces distortion. Moreover, the bass does not bleed into the midrange as on dynamic drivers on conventional headphones, which muddies up midband response.

What phones did I buy? Well, I cheated. I bought a pair of MassDrop phones – the MassDrop HE 4XX’s. Yes, they are pattered after the Hifiman HE 400i’s.

The Hifiman HE 400i’s are wonderful headphones, but they have been priced in the 300 and 400 dollar range. I bought my Massdrop phones for $169. But do my phones actually compare to the Hifiman standard version. I would say there is no compromise in sound. Their construction is solid and the ear cushions fit nicely. The headband is not as sophisticated as the standard version, but is is still very comfortable.

There are some drawbacks with my phones. They are not portable because they are very large, over the ear phones. They are not light weight compared to conventional phones, but for most planar magnetic phones they are light indeed. They do leak sound since they are open back headphones. All this is fine sense I did not buy them for their portability. The open back serves up a wide and deep soundstage. I use them for private listening at home, some distance away from others. It is a plus for me to be able to hear any alarms that might be going off.

These phones are more like monitor or studio phones. They tell you what is going on with the reproduced sound without the romantic overlay. They are more for critical listening than causal listening. They require a headphone amplifier to unlock their full potential, otherwise dynamic range will be limited. I use an AudioEngine D3 combined DAC and amplifier plugged into my MacBook Pro. Using the Audirvana Plus software, the sound is gorgeous.

But there is another drawback. These phones require an extended break-in period. Reviewing them right out of the box would be a big mistake. Over time. the top end smooths out and you begin to believe that you own a very expensive pair of electrostatic headphones with extended bass, The bass on these phones will reproduce the low C note of a pipe organ.

Buying on-line is often a risky business. I took a chance on Massdrop even though some of their products have had mixed reviews. What Massdrop does is lineup a fairly large number of customers in advance and then make a mass purchase from the manufacturer at a significant discount. Once the product is released they can be sold out in short order, depending upon how many items are made. As of now, the HE 4XX is sold out. It could be release again in the future.

I am sorry I did not alert anyone of this sale in advance. i had to give it a try first before i could recommend future Massdrop products. Based on my experience I would say that taking the risk is worth the price. Fortunately, recent price reductions have occurred on Hifiman products. The actual Hifiman HE-400i’s are now available for around $200, meeting my budget constraints. Even at this price the phones are a colossal bargain.