Category Archives: audio

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Yamaha’s vinyl revival on display at IFA in Berlin including GT-5000 turntable

At IFA in Berlin, Europe’s biggest consumer electronics show, there is no doubting that the vinyl revival is real.

At times it did feel like going back in time. On the Teac stand there were posters for Led Zeppelin and The Who, records by Deep Purple and the Velvet Underground, and of course lots of turntables.

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Why all the interest in vinyl? Nostalgia is a factor but there is a little more to it. A record satisfies a psychological urge to collect, to own, to hold a piece of music that you admire, and streaming or downloading does not meet that need.

There is also the sound. At its best, records have an organic realism that digital audio rarely matches. Sometimes that is because of the freedom digital audio gives to mastering engineers to crush all the dynamics out of music in a quest to make everything as LOUD as possible. Other factors are the possibility of euphonic distortion in vinyl playback, or that excessive digital processing damages the purity of the sound. Records also have plenty of drawbacks, including vulnerability to physical damage, dust which collects on the needle, geometric issues which means that the arm is (most of the time) not exactly parallel to the groove, and the fact that he quality of reproduction drops near the centre of the record, where the speed is slower.

Somehow all these annoyances have not prevented vinyl sales from increasing, and audio companies are taking advantage. It is a gift for them, some slight relief from the trend towards smartphones, streaming, earbuds and wireless speakers in place of traditional hi-fi systems.

One of the craziest things I saw at IFA was Crosley’s RDS3, a miniature turntable too small even for a 7” single. It plays one-sided 3” records of which there are hardly any available to buy.Luckily it is not very expensive, and is typically sold on Record Store Day complete with a collectible 3” record which you can play again and again.

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Moving from the ridiculous to the sublime, I was also intrigued by Yamaha’s GT-5000. It is a high-end turntable which is not yet in full production. I was told there are only three in existence at the moment, one on the stand at IFA, one in a listening room at IFA, and one at Yamaha’s head office in Japan.

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Before you ask, price will be around €7000, complete with arm. A lot, but in the world of high-end audio, not completely unaffordable.

There was a Yamaha GT-2000 turntable back in the eighties, the GT standing for “Gigantic and Tremendous”. Yamaha told me that engineers in retirement were consulted on this revived design.

The GT-5000 is part of a recently introduced 5000 series, including amplifier and loudspeakers, which takes a 100% analogue approach. The turntable is belt drive, and features a very heavy two-piece platter. The brass inner platter weights 2kg and the aluminium outer platter, 5.2kg. The high mass of the platter stabilises the rotation. The straight tonearm features a copper-plated aluminium inner tube and a carbon outer tube. The headshell is cut aluminium and is replaceable. You can adjust the speed ±1.5% in 0.1% increments. Output is via XLR balanced terminals or unbalanced RCA. Yamaha do not supply a cartridge but recommend the Ortofon Cadenza Black.

Partnering the GT-5000 is C-5000 pre-amplifier, the M-5000 100w per channel stereo power amplifier, and NS-5000 three-way loudspeakers. Both amplifiers have balanced connections and Yamaha has implemented what it calls “floating and balanced technology”:

Floating and balanced power amplifier technology delivers fully balanced amplification, with all amplifier circuitry including the power supply ‘floating’ from the electrical ground … one of the main goals of C-5000 development was to have completely balanced transmission of phono equaliser output, including the MC (moving coil) head amp … balanced transmission is well-known to be less susceptible to external noise, and these qualities are especially dramatic for minute signals between the phono cartridge and pre-amplifier.

In practice I suspect many buyers will partner the GT-5000 with their own choice of amplifier, but I do like the pure analogue approach which Yamaha has adopted. If you are going to pretend that digital audio does not exist you might as well do so consistently (I use Naim amplifiers from the eighties with my own turntable setup).

I did get a brief chance to hear the GT-5000 in the listening room at IFA. I was not familiar with the recording and cannot make meaningful comment except to say that yes, it sounded good, though perhaps slightly bright. I would need longer and to play some of my own familiar records to form a considered opinion.

What I do know is that if you want to play records, it really is worth investing in a high quality turntable, arm and cartridge; and that the pre-amplifier as well is critically important because of the low output, especially from moving coil cartridges.

GT-5000 arm geometry

There is one controversial aspect to the GT-5000 which is its arm geometry. All tonearms are a compromise. The ideal tonearm has zero friction, perfect rigidity, and parallel tracking at all points, unfortunately impossible to achieve. The GT-5000 has a short, straight arm, whereas most arms have an angled headshell and slightly overhang the centre of the platter. The problem with a short, straight arm is that it has a higher deviation from parallel than with a longer arm and angled headshell, so much so that it may only be suitable for a conical stylus. On the other hand, it does not require any bias adjustment, simplifying the design. With a straight arm, it would be geometrically preferable to have a very long arm but that may tend to resonate more as well as requiring a large plinth. I am inclined the give the GT-5000 the benefit of the doubt; it will be interesting to see detailed listening and performance tests in due course.

More information on the GT-5000 is here.

The decline of high end audio at CES and what it says about the audiophile market

I am not a regular at CES, the huge trade consumer technology fair in Las Vegas, but well recall my last visit, in 2014. I did the usual round of press conferences from various technology vendors, but reserved some time towards the end of my stay for the high-end audio rooms at the Venetian, one of the more civilized hotels in Vegas despite the fake canals.

There was plenty of activity there, floor upon floor of exhibitors showing all kinds of audio exotica, from cables thicker than your arm to amplifiers that would test the strength of your flooring. Of course there was plenty of audio on the main CES exhibits as well, but my observation at the time was that while the mainstream manufacturers like B&W and Sony had good sounds at relatively affordable prices, the crazy folk in the Venetian did achieve the best sonics, if you closed your eyes to the wild theories and bank-busting prices.

I was ushered into a room to hear a preview of Naim’s Statement amplifiers and heard a sound that was “muscular, etched and authoritative”, no less than it should be at £150,000 for a set.

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It appears that memories will now be all we have of the these great days in the Venetian. Last year CEPro reported:

Maybe the writing was on the wall last year at CES 2017 when two of the suites in the high-performance area were occupied by AARP and Serta Mattress. The running joke among attendees was the elderly audiophiles there could take a nap and check in on their retirement status while listening to audio …. “This is the end of high-performance audio at CES,” said one exhibitor bluntly.

This year it has played out more or less as expected:

The impact of the high-fidelity corner of CES was certainly diminished by any standard. Actual listening rooms were reduced to a single hallway, with some stragglers to be found a few floors upward.

says AudioStream.

The word is that High-End Munich has replaced CES to some extent; but this is not just a matter of which industry show is more fashionable. You only have to look around you at a hi-fi shows to note that these enthusiasts are mostly an older generation. The future does not look good.

There is no decline in music appreciation, so what is wrong? There are several factors which come to mind.

The first and most important is that technology has made high quality audio cheap and ubiquitous. Plug a decent pair of headphones into the smartphone you already have, and the quality is already more than satisfactory for most listeners. Spend a bit on powered wireless speakers and you can get superb sound. In other words, the excellent performance of mainstream audio has pushed the high-end market into a smaller and smaller niche.

The industry has also harmed itself by seemingly embracing every opportunity for hype, regardless of what science and engineering tell us. Exotic cables, digital resolutions beyond anything that human ears can hear, unwarranted fuss about jitter or mysterious timing issues (MQA anyone?), and more.

In the meantime, the music companies have done their best to make high resolution audio even more pointless by excessive dynamic range compression engineered into the music they release, wasting the fantastic dynamic range that is now possible and even on occasion introducing audible distortion.

I became an audio enthusiast when I heard how much I was missing by using mainstream budget equipment. I recall listening sessions in hi-fi shops where I was stunned by the realism, musicality and detail that was to be heard from familiar records when played back on high-end systems.

Such experiences are less likely today.

Just one snag with Bang & Olufsen’s beautiful new Edge speaker system: it is mono

Bang & Olufsen (B&O) has a long history of innovative design; it has always been the brand to look for if you want an audio system that looks beautiful as well as delivering decent sound quality.

When I arrived at the B&O booth here at IFA in berlin the unusual Shape wall speakers caught my eye. This is as much art as audio and would be a talking point in any living room.

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Shape is not new though. The press briefing began with a cloth draped over something in the middle of the floor.

The something turned out to be the Beosound Edge, a new design inspired, apparently, by the UK £1.00 coin. The presenter helpfully placed one of these alongside the speaker system. Of course we have now changed the design of our coin so it is no longer round, but never mind!

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The Edge is intended to be placed on the floor in the middle of a room, or it can be wall mounted.

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Inside the aluminium circle are 5 drivers: a 10" dual-coil woofer, two 4" midrange drivers, and two tweeters. These are driven by an active system, with an internal power amplifier providing 2 X 200w for the woofer and 4 x 100w for the midrange and tweeters.

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The midrange and tweeters are mounted back to back, so that sound emerges from both sides.

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It is an intriguing design, thanks to what B&O calls an Active Bass Port. The idea is that at low volumes the speaker behaves like a sealed box unit, which B&O says gives a more precise sound. At higher volumes, a motorised flap in the port gradually opens, so it becomes a ported system. The image below catches the Active Bass Port in action.

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There are a few other smarts in the system. B&O has integrated the speaker with Google Assistant and Amazon Echo so you can do voice control if you feel so inclined. It also supports Google Chromecast, Bluetooth streaming, and DLNA DMR  (Digital Media Player).

You can also control the volume by rocking the speaker, one way to increase, the other to decrease.

A Directional Sound Control allows you to tailor the sound coming out of each side. I am not 100% clear how this works, but you can for example designate one side for active listening, and the other for background listening.

As you can imagine, a busy show floor is no place to evaluate hi-fi. However it still sounded great. When I first saw the Edge I imagined it would be bass-shy because of the relatively small dimensions of the cabinet, but this proved not to be the case.

There is one thing that surprised me though. You cannot buy two of these and have stereo. Only a single speaker is supported, though B&O talks about “360 degree room filling sound”.

The reason, I was told, is that all the electronic processing and feedback makes it difficult to synchronize the timing of two systems to obtain an accurate stereo image. This is being worked on though, and an automatic firmware update is planned which will enable stereo at some future date.

You will be able to buy an Edge from mid-November this year.

I am not sure that this is the best sound you can get for $3,500 but what I love about it is the combination of good sound, good looks, and innovation. Value cannot be judged on sound quality alone.

More info here.

Specifications

The speaker measures 50.2cm diameter and 13cm width.

Ethernet port

Analogue line-in

Digital input

Wi-fi
Chromecast
Bluetooth 4.2 and audio streaming
DLNA – DMR

€3,250 or $3,500. Available mid-November 2018.

Audirvana Plus for Windows review: a music player which combines convenience and no-compromise audio

Audirvana Plus, an audiophile music player for the Mac, has now been released for Windows.

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Audirvana was developed in France by Damien Plisson, originally as an open source project (you can still get this here but it has not been updated since 2012). The description there still applies: “No equalizer, no trendy special effects, just the music”.  Both Mac and Windows come with music players bundled with the operating system – in Apple’s case the mighty iTunes – but the issue which Audirvana addresses is that these players are about convenience and features as well as sound quality.

Another problem is that the sound system in a modern operating system is complex and needs to support every kind of application while from the user’s perspective it should “just work”; and this can mean compromises, such as resampling or normalizing the audio. This does not matter in most circumstances, but if you want the best possible sound and spend money on high-res downloads or streaming, for example, you want bit-perfect sound.

This perhaps is a good reason not to play music directly from a PC or Mac; but the counter-argument is that using your existing computer reduces the box-count (and expense) of streaming, and that the flexibility and processing power of desktop computer is handy too.

So what does Audirvana offer? The Windows version is still to some extent work in progress and not yet as full-featured as the Mac version; however the developers are promising to add the missing pieces later. However the product is already a capable player with the following key features:

1. Wide range of supported formats including AIFF, WAVE, AAC, MP3, FLAC, Monkey Audio APE, WavPack, Apple Lossless, DSD (DSDIFF including DST compressed, DSF, and SACD ISO images).

DSD support works whether or not you have a DSD DAC. If you have a DSD DAC, you get full native DSD. If you do not, Audirvana will convert to hi-res PCM and it still sounds good. You can control how the DSD is converted in settings, such as the amount of gain to apply (without it, DSD files will sound quiet).

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Here is a DSD file playing on a non-DSD DAC:

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2. MQA unfolding whether or not you have an MQA DAC. The way this works is similar to DSD. If you have an MQA DAC, the decoding will take place in hardware. If you do not, Audirvana will process the MQA track in software. For example, I have a 16-bit, 44.1 kHz MQA-encoded FLAC that plays in Foobar 2000 as a 16/44 file, downloaded from here. In Audirvana though, the same file claims to be 24-bit/352.8 kHz track.

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That resolution is not  genuine; but what matters is that MQA decoding is taking place. If the file is played through an MQA-capable DAC like the Meridian Explorer 2, I get a green light indicating MQA decoding on the DAC. If I play the “original resolution” version, I get a blue light indicating “MQA Studio”. WASAPI and ASIO support. WASAPI is the native Windows standard which enables bit-perfect output and is aimed at professional audio engineers. ASIO is a standard with similar features developed by Steinberg.

3. A library manager which performs well with large numbers of tracks. I tried it with over 50,000 tracks and it was perfectly responsive. It uses the open source SQLITE database manager.

4. Hi-res streaming via Qobuz, HIRESAUDIO or Tidal. There is no support for the likes of Spotify or Apple Music; I guess these are not the target market because they use lossy compression.

Not available yet, but coming, is a remote app for iOS (iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch), audio effects via VST plugins, and kernel streaming output.

The Audirvana User Interface

Audirvana is delivered as a download though it is a click-once application which means it updates semi-automatically, prompting you to update if an update is available. The user interface is, from the point of view of a Windows user, rather quirky. There is no menu or ribbon, but by clicking around you can find what you need. Some of the settings are accessed by clicking a gearwheel icon, others (such as the per-device options shown in the illustration above) by clicking an arrow to the right of the device name. There is also a compact view, obtained by clicking a symbol at top left, designed for playback once you have lined up the tracks you want.

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The current version seems unreliable when it comes to showing cover art in the library. Sometimes cover art shows up in the mini view, but not the full view.

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Searching the library is quick, but because the user interface is fairly blocky, you do not see many results on a page. An option just to show details in a list would be good (or perhaps it exists but I have not clicked in the right place yet).

I can forgive all this since despite a few annoyances the user interface is responsive, the search fast, and playback itself works well.

Sound quality

How much impact does the music player have on sound quality? This is difficult to answer definitively. On the one hand, the amount of distortion introduced by a sub-optimal player should be negligible compared to other sources of distortion. On the other hand, if you have gone to the trouble and expense of investing in hi-res downloads, streaming or DSD, it must be worth ensuring that every link in the chain does justice to those sources.

It is true that on Windows, with its enthusiastic technical audiophile community, most of what Audirvana does can be achieved with free players such as Foobar 2000 or VLC. There is also the excellent JRiver as an alternative paid-for player, though this lacks software MQA decoding (appreciating that not everyone likes or needs this).

That said, the uncomplicated user interface of Audirvana Plus is great for audio enthusiasts who would rather not spend too much time fiddling with settings or plugins. Support for the iOS remote app is an unfortunate missing piece at present, and Android users miss out too.

The Windows version needs a bit more work then (I also encounted some unpleasant noises when trying to adjust the volume within the application), but it does enough right to justify its relatively modest cost, and the bugs will fixed. Head over to the Audirvana site for a free trial.

The Scalford Hi-Fi show is dead – long live the Kegworth “Europe’s biggest Hi-Fi enthusiasts show”?

It was March 2009 when I took part in an unusual Hi-Fi show, variously known as the Scalford, Wigwam, Wam or Pie Show (Pie show because Scalford is near Melton Mowbray, home of the Pork Pie, and Pie rhymes with Hi-Fi). Wigwam was and is a Hi-Fi enthusiasts forum and the idea was to put on a show where the kit on show was not the latest stuff from big brands, but rather actual systems in use by enthusiasts. Without the normal income from commercial exhibitors, the cost of the hotel booking was met by the entrance fee (£10 as I recall). Exhibitor rooms were free other than a small contribution to public liability insurance. The early shows were run by audio show specialists Chester who did it, they said, as a community building exercise.

Scalford Hall is an English country hotel which must once have been a grand country residence. it is beautiful, rambling and impractical, but full of atmosphere.

The show was an extraordinary success. There was a vastly greater variety of gear on show than at commercial shows, ranging from conventional and modern to old and home-made. The exhibitors were enthusiasts who loved to talk about their systems, and the sound achieved was in general rather better than most. A few pictures, not from the first show:

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Personally I had a great time at Scalford and exhibited 8 years in succession (starting with the first). Hmm let me see:

2009: plain Squeezebox, Naim 32.5/Hicap/250 and Kans 

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2010: Ergo speakers designed by James at another HiFi forum, Pink Fish Media,  loaned to me for the event. Same source and amplification.

2011: Active Speakers AVI ADM 9 with BK subwoofer

2012: Linn Kaber loudspeakers with Naim amplification; my least successful room I feel. I thought the Naim amplifier would get the Kabers sounding at their best but the sound was average and I was not sure how to fix it. 

2013: Active Speakers Behringer B3031A. The theme here was how to get a great sound on a small budget, and the Behringer active speakers offer a lot for the price.

2014: Amplifier comparison Naim as above vs Yamaha AS500

This was fascinating; a modern budget amplifier compared to a classic pre-power combination loved by many but also considered coloured. Most thought both sounded great and were not sure which was which.

2015: DSD vs PCM comparison using Teac DSD DAC 

2016: Raspberry Pi system no separate amplifier

Some of these events have separate write-ups on this blog.

My goal was not to have the best sounding system but to do something interesting and enjoyable.

Enjoyable it was, but also hard work – at first I didn’t bother booking a room for the night as I lived within 45 minute drive, but I gradually realised that staying over worked better both for access to the room and for hearing other rooms the night before.

Heaving equipment around is no fun even though I didn’t have the heaviest stuff, even so amplifiers, subs and speaker stands are hefty enough. Some of my stuff got a bit bashed about too, though scratches rather than real damage.

The earliest events were run supposedly at break-even or thereabouts by Chester. The only commercial presence in the early shows was a record shop in the lobby.

I was personally fine with everything as we were doing something a bit different that would not otherwise be possible.

Gradually more commercial rooms appeared and it became harder and harder to secure good rooms. My room in year 1 was brilliant and sounded great as a result. Many of the rooms though were small hotel bedrooms in an extension rather than the older part of the building, with poor sound insulation. It was hard to get a good sound in these rooms.

I also began (speaking personally) to feel a bit unappreciated as it was the exhibitors who made the event worth going to, but we paid for the privilege and if someone managed to make some money (as I believe the organisers did in some years) none of it came to us not even a free beer or two. After the first couple of shows the organisation passed to the owners of the WigWam forum, which itself changed hands a few times. In 2017 my heart was no longer in it and I did not exhibit.

The trend towards greater commercialism continues and the WigWam’s current owners now promote the event as "Europe’s Biggest HiFi Enthusiasts Show". The cost for exhibitors has increased and now starts at £85. I have fond recollections of the show and hope it goes from strength to strength, but last year felt it was no longer for me.

Scalford was a wonderful venue, quirky and romantic, visitors could still be surprised to open a door or ascend a stairway and find a corridor of rooms they had somehow missed. Of course it was also a bit impractical and the catering rather ho-hum but it wasn’t a big deal for me.

The show is now moving to Kegworth, just off the M1 near Nottingham. The move to a hotel handy for the motorway and airport is another step away from the atmosphere and culture of the initial concept.

That said, I have no doubt that it will remain a remarkable and unusual event and hope it continues to be a great success.

Fixing Logitech Media Server for Microsoft Edge – and playing DSD

I run Logitech Media Server (LMS) on a Synology NAS. It works very well, better than when I used a Windows VM.

There is an annoyance though. Synology has been slow to keep its LMS package up to date and the official release is still 7.7.6. There are a few issues with this release, but I lived with it, until I discovered that LMS 9.x can play DSD files, using a DSDPlayer plugin that adds DoP (DSD over PCM) support. This means you can output native DSD provided you have a DSD DAC (and some DSD files to play). DSD is the format used by SACD and some audiophiles swear it sounds better than PCM.

I then discovered that Synology is showing signs of updating LMS and has a beta release of LMS 9.0. You enable beta versions in the Package Center and it will offer to update.

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I installed, then added DSDPlayer and, hmm, I could see the DSD files but they did not play.

I found a fix for the DSD issue. A user has updated the plugin, and if you add the following plugin repository:

http://server.pinkdot.nl/dsdplayer/repo.xml

you can update DSDPlayer and it works. 

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Now I can play native DSF files through Squeezebox Touch (you also need the EDO modification) and a Teac DSD DAC. Great.

However, I then discovered that the LMS 9.0 UI does not work in Microsoft Edge, if you have the Creators Update. The links are not clickable.

There is a fix described here. I found the commit on GitHub here. However this does not update the Synology package. I logged into the Synology over SSH and made the change manually in @appstore/SqueezeCenter/HTML/Default/slimserver.css.

It works. I’m glad because I have LMS on the Edge favourites bar, and the alternative (opening LMS in IE or another browser) is less convenient.

And yes, I use Edge, in part to keep in touch with what it is like, in part because I’m resistant to a Google Chrome monoculture, and in part because it’s pretty good now (the initial Edge release was hardly usable).

There is still a problem though. The LMS Settings page does not work in Edge. I can live with that (open in Internet Explorer) but would like to find a fix.

Update: I fixed the settings issue by installing the latest LMS 9.0 with this patch. Many thanks to LMS user pinkdot on the LMS forums. However I still needed the manual fix for slimserver.css.

More on MQA and Tidal: a few observations

I have signed up for a trial of the Tidal subscription service and have been listening to a few of the MQA-encoded albums that are available. You can find a list here. Most of the albums are from Warner, which is in the process of MQA-encoding all of its catalogue.

From my point of view, having familiar material available to test is a huge advantage. Previous MQA samples have all sounded good, but with no point of reference it is hard to draw conclusions about the value of the technology.

I have used both the software decoding available in the Tidal desktop app (running on Windows), and the external Meridian Explorer 2 DAC which is an affordable solution if you want something approaching the full MQA experience.

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Note that on Windows you have to set Exclusive mode for MQA to work correctly. When using an MQA-capable DAC, you should also set Passthrough MQA. The Explorer 2 has a blue light which shows when MQA is on and working.

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For these tests, I used the Talking Heads album Remain in Light, which I know well.

The Tidal master is different from any of my CDs. Here is the song Born under Punches in Adobe Audition (after analogue capture):

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Here is my remastered CD:

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This is pretty ugly; it’s compressed for extra loudness at the expense of dynamic range.

Here is my older CD:

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This is nicely done in terms of dynamic range, which is why some seek out older masterings, despite perhaps using inferior source tapes or ADC.

This image shows three variants of the track streamed by Tidal and captured via ADC into a digital recorder at 24-bit/96 kHz.

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The first is the track with full MQA enabled and decoded by the Explorer 2. The second is the “Hi-Fi” version as delivered by Tidal, essentially CD quality. The third is the “Master” version, in other words the same source as the first, but with Exclusive mode turned off in Tidal, which prevents MQA from working.

You can see at a glance that MQA is doing what it says it does and extending the frequency response. The CD quality output has a maximum frequency response of 22 kHz whereas the MQA output extends this to 48 kHz at least as captured by my 24-bit / 96 kHz (the theoretical maximum frequency response is half the sampling rate).

Do they sound different though, bearing in mind that we cannot hear much above 20 kHz at best, and less than that as we age? I have been round this hi-res loop many times and concluded that for most of us there is not much benefit to hi-res as a delivery format. See here for some tests, for example.

MQA is not just extended frequency response though; it also claims to fix timing issues. However my captured samples are not really MQA; they are the output from MQA after a further ADC step. Of course this is not optimal but the alternative is to capture the digital output, which I am not set up to do.

An interesting question is whether the captured MQA output, after a second ADC/DAC conversion, can easily be distinguished from the direct MQA output. My subjective impression is, maybe. The first 30 seconds of Born Under Punches is a sort of collage of sounds including some vocal whoops, before David Byrne starts singing. What I notice listening to the Tidal stream with MQA enabled is that the different instruments sound more distinct from each other making the music more three-dimensional and dramatic. The vocals sound more natural. It is the best I have heard this track.

That said, I have not yet been able to set up any sort of blind test between the true MQA stream and my copy, which would be interesting, since what I have captured is plain old PCM.

There is a key point to note though, which is that mastering offered by Tidal is better than any of the CD versions I have heard; the old Eighties mastering is more dynamic but sounds harsher to my ears.

With or without MQA; you might want to subscribe to Tidal just to get these superior digital transfers.

Update: it seems that the Tidal stream for Remain in Light (both MQA and Hi-Fi) is a different mix, possibly a fold-down from the 5.1 release. So it is not surprising that it sounds different from the CD. The question of whether the MQA decoded version sounds different still applies though.

The MQA enigma: audio breakthrough or another false dawn?

The big news in the audio world currently, announced at CES in Las Vegas, is that music streaming service Tidal has signed up to use MQA (Master Quality Authenticated), under the brand name Tidal Masters. MQA is a technology developed by Bob Stuart of Meridian Audio, based in Cambridge in the UK, though MQA seems to have its own identity despite sharing the same address as Meridian.

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What is MQA? The question is easy but the answer is not. Here is the official short description:

Conventional audio formats discard parts of the sound to keep file size down, but part of this lost detail is the subtle timing information that allows us to build a realistic 3D soundscape in our minds. … With MQA, we go all the way back to the original master recording and capture the missing timing detail. We then use advanced digital processing to deliver it in a form that’s small enough to download or stream.

At first sight it looks like another format for lossless audio, and the description on MQA’s site confuses matters by making a comparison with MP3:

MP3 brings you just 10% of what was recorded in the studio. Everything else is lost to fit the music into a conveniently small file. MQA brings you the missing 90%.

There are two problems with this statement. One is that MP3 (or its successor AAC) actually sounds very close to the original, such that in tests most cannot tell the difference; and the other is that audiophiles tend not to use MP3 anyway, preferring formats like FLAC or ALAC (Apple’s version) which are lossless.

There is more to it than that though. There are three core aspects to MQA:

1. “Audio origami”: MQA achieves higher resolution than CD (16-bit/44.1MHz) by storing extra information in audio files that is otherwise wasted, as it stores audio that is below the noise floor (ie normally inaudible). There is a bit of double-think here as removing unnecessary parts of audio files is the sort of thing that MP3 and AAC do, which the MQA folk have told us is bad because we are not getting 100%.

This is also similar in concept to HDCD (High Definition Compatible Digital), a technology developed by Pacific Microsonics in the Eighties and acquired by Microsoft. Of course MQA says its technology is quite different!

Note that you need an MQA decoder to benefit from this extra resolution, and there is a nagging worry that without it the music will actually sound worse (HDCD has the same issue).

2. Authentication. MQA verifies that the digital stream is not tampered with, for example by audio features that convert or enhance the sound with digital processing. This can be an issue particularly with PCs or Macs where the built-in audio processing will do this by default, unless configured otherwise.

3. Audio “de-blurring”. According to MQA’s team:

There’s a problem with digital – it’s called blurring. Unlike analogue transmission, digital is non-degrading. So we don’t have pops and crackles, but we do have another problem – pre- and post-ringing. When a sound is processed back and forth through a digital converter the time resolution is impaired – causing ‘ringing’ before and after the event. This blurs the sound so we can’t tell exactly where it is in 3D space. MQA reduces this ringing by over 10 times compared to a 24/192 recording.

If this is an issue, it is not a well-known one, at least, not outside the niche of audiophiles and hi-fi vendors who historically have come up with all sorts of theories about improving audio which do not always stand up to scientific scrutiny.

So is MQA solving a non-problem? That’s certainly possible; but I do find it interesting that MQA has received a generally warm reception from listeners.

Here’s one audiophile’s reaction:

Have never really “done” digital before. 16/44 has always sounded ghastly to my ears right from the start and still now. MQA did indeed “fix” the various forms of distortion that I could hear present in everything where the sampling rate was taken down to just 44. … My findings – those of an improved sense of solidity in the stereo image and the lack of that horrendous crystalline glassy edge to things, especially on the fade, seem to be being mirrored in what people are hearing. It doesn’t have that thing I describe as a “choppy sense of truncation” which I suspect others mean by “transients”.
Basically, per the post above, it’s a bit like “good analogue”. Digital can finally hold its head up high against an analog from master-to vinyl performance. And not only that, hopefully, walk all over it and give us something genuinely new.

If this history of audio has shown us anything, it is that subjective judgements about what makes something sound better (and whether it is better) are desperately unreliable. Further, it is often hard to make true comparisons because to do requires so much careful preparation: identical source material, exactly matched volume, and the ability to switch between sources without knowing which is which, to avoid our clever brains from intervening and telling us we are hearing differences which our ears alone cannot detect.

We should be sceptical then; and even possibly depressed at the prospect of a proprietary format spoiling the freedom we have enjoyed since the removal of DRM from most downloadable audio files.

Still … is it possible that MQA has come up with a technology that really does make digital audio better? Of course we should allow for that possibility too.

I have signed up for Tidal’s trial and will report back shortly.

Ripping vinyl with the Plato home entertainment system

I am a tad conflicted when it comes to vinyl records. On the one hand, I have not seen convincing scientific evidence, or a properly conducted blind test, that demonstrates any reason why record replay is superior to digital, while there is plenty of evidence for the reverse. On the other hand, I put on a well-mastered record, and it is like magic, I am transported into the music in a way that my digital sources rarely achieve. Plus the sleeves are beautiful, and in the case of older recordings, a sense that this is the real thing and subsequent formats mere copies (even if they do sound better). Finally, sometimes missing or damaged master tapes, or the bad habits of the recording industry in compressing CD audio so that it is uniformly LOUD, mean that records sometimes really do sound better, despite the limitations of the format.

If you like the sound of records but the convenience and security against damage that digital offers, you might want to rip them. I have done this but would not describe it as easy. You have to play the record in the closest to ideal conditions you can manage – clean record, no dust accumulated on the stylus, high quality turntable and phono stage – while also recording the output through an analogue to digital converter (ADC). Then when done, you have to break the result into separate tracks and tag it correctly. There is software to assist this whole process, like Channel D’s Pure Vinyl, but it is never that quick and easy. There is also the question of how much to tinker with the results in the hope of improving it, via click removal and the like. Personally I tend to the view that most things risk making the sound worse, but there is certainly a case for it, especially with particularly intrusive scratches.

Last week I went to a demo of Plato, a system for ripping vinyl combined with an all-in-one home media playback solution. It comes from the Derby-based company Convert Technologies, formerly known as Entotem. The company has also launched the Red Dot recording service, through which you can get them to rip vinyl or even CDs on your behalf.

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The company showed me its top of the range unit, which is an all-in-one box for storing digital media as well as playing it, and includes a power amplifier which delivers, they say, 25W Class A amplification or 50W Class B. The idea of Class A/B amplification is not new so I am not sure whether there is any secret sauce in the Plato design; however the company also offers a Class B version at a considerably lower price.

The system runs Android customised for the purpose, with a touch screen. There is also a controller app which works best on Android but is also available for Apple iOS with “approx 70% of the functionality”. It includes an ESS Sabre 32 DAC and ADC. Inside is a beefy toroidal tranformer powering the various boards. Around the back is a generous set of inputs and outputs, including MM/MC phono input, 3 additional line inputs, 1 coax and 3 optical digital inputs, 2 optical digital outputs, 1 HDMI output, and 3 USB 2.0 ports.

The digital format can be set up to 24-bit/192 kHz.

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You can pay extra for SSD storage which is pretty pointless from a technical point of view (SSD is much faster, but a conventional hard drive easily fast enough for audio recordign and playback) but would lower the noise level slightly, though the fan is likely to be louder in any case.

Having all the controls functions driven by software enables plenty of features. You can change the phono input from moving coil to moving magnet, vary the capacitance and resistance,  and apply a rumble filter, for example.

Ripping vinyl is a matter of pressing a red button (hence the name of the ripping service). When the audio is played, there is an analogue chain for listening, I was told, but also a “parallel digital path” which captures a sample of the audio and sends it to Gracenote, an online tagging service, for recognition. If you are lucky, you will get the metadata and album artwork automatically retrieved. The system will also separate the tracks for you, taking most of the drudgery out of the ripping process. 

The system does not attempt any click or noise reduction. “We have looked at it, because we write all the software, but most people said ‘don’t do it’,” said Pete Eason, Customer Experience Manager. “It’s not a priority”.

You can export the files to USB storage, so you could do your own additional processing if you wanted. However there is an annoyance: the agreement with Gracenote prohibits the export of the album art. So if you export your files for playback on a phone, for example, you don’t get the art. That’s irritating and there is talk of switching to another metadata supplier to fix it.

The system will stream music from attached USB storage, or over the network using UPnP. I am not a fan of UPnP because it seems less amenable to search, and less reliable, than other systems such as Logitech Media Server, but it should work OK. Internet radio is also provided, via the TuneIn service.

However you cannot access Plato’s storage directly over the network. This makes me wonder if Plato’s engineers would have been better off using Linux rather than Android for their embedded OS, as that would make this trivial to implement.

There is no support for Spotify Connect, which is a shame. You can of course stream to the unit from a phone or laptop using a device such as Google ChromeCast but that is not the same thing, since the quality and consistency of the signal is limited by your phone.

The Red Dot ripping service sounds good for those with plenty of money and little time, especially as it includes a cleaning service, but it is expensive at £10.00 per album and a minimum quantity of 25. Note you could buy the CD for less in many cases.

There is also a limitation in terms of the playback equipment used. It would be too expensive to use a true high-end cartridge and stylus. Red Dot uses “a really decent Pro-Ject Debut Carbon turntable and Ortofon stylus,” according to the FAQ, though they talked about other possible turntables, but always mid-range. That may not equal the equipment you have at home.

I got to ask some awkward questions. Why would anyone want to rip their vinyl, when with Spotify or Apple Music you could just play it from internet?

“There’s a quality issue there,” said marketing guy Ben Timberley. Eason added, “and also you can backup your vinyl. It’s always going to be a pristine original.”

Well, it will not always be a pristine original, but it will always be the same as when it was ripped.

I asked a hypothetical question. Let’s say I submit my rather beaten-up copy of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, and as it happens Red Dot had just ripped someone else’s pristine copy of exactly the same album. Would they rip my scratched copy, or simply give me their existing rip? I would get my crackly one back, I was told. The other copy “belongs to someone else. We are sticking firmly on the side of the law on this one.”

I am not personally convinced that the law is so clear-cut. My records all say “unauthorised … copying of this record prohibited” and “all rights reserved”. On the one hand, there is the question of whether even personal format conversion of a record is strictly legal (though I cannot imagine anyone being pursued for it). On the other hand, since the record represents a personal license to enjoy that particular recording, I am not sure that whether you get back a copy of your record or someone else’s makes any difference.

Red Dot also offers to rip CDs, and here the argument seems even more ridiculous. Since ripping a CD with identical mastering results in an identical file, it would be absurd to re-rip when you already have the file in question. Are LPs any different, even though the imperfections of the format mean that every rip will vary slightly?

Next question: is there a paradox at the heart of this operation, which is that people who love records believe that the analogue chain sounds better than digital, so they are unlikely to want a digital copy? And if they do, why not just buy the digital version?

I got a somewhat garbled response. “That’s one argument but then this is essentially lossless, isn’t it?” said Eason. “You’re getting all the pops, the clicks, the whistles.”

“We’ve got the best DAC in the industry, which is the Sabre DAC,” added Timberley. “If you are going to convert it we’ve got the best piece of kit to do it.” Though I think he meant ADC rather than DAC.

I also suggested that retailers might prefer to buy their own Plato and offer a ripping service, rather than resell Red Dot. Dealers are “too busy” said Timberley, though they might look a a licensing restriction if it became an issue.

What I think

This is not a review and I have not had a chance to try this at home. If you seriously want to rip your vinyl (and I do think there could be good reasons, as I stated above, though hearing pristine pops and clicks is not one of them), then Plato looks like a convenient though expensive choice.

As an all-in-one hi-fi (just add speakers) Plato might also be good, though it looks expensive compared to, say, a NAS, a Raspberry Pi with a DAC, and a decent amplifier. It is hard to value these things without trying them out though.

In the end though, my instinct is that the best way to play records is to play records. I haven’t found record wear much of a problem, especially when you have a large collection.

So I am not sure that Plato is for me, though it does look nice and easy to use.

Table of recommended retail prices (including VAT)

  Vinyl ripping Phono Stage Pre Amp Power Amp
Class B
Power Amp
Class A
Price with
1TB HDD
Price with
2TB HDD
Price with
1TB SSD
Plato Lite Yes (with external
Phono stage)
No Yes No No £1899 £1999 £2539
Plato Pre Yes Yes Yes No No   £2400 £2940
Plato
Class B
Yes Yes Yes Yes No   £2999 £3539
Plato Class A Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes   £3999 £4539

Review: Libratone Zipp Mini

I am quite taken with this Libratone wireless speaker, though I had a few setup hassles. The device comes in a distinctive cylindrical box with a nightingale image on the top. Unpack it and you get a medium-size desktop (or table or shelf) speaker, around 22cm high, with a colourful cover that looks zipped on and a carry strap. There is also a power supply with UK and European adaptors, and a very brief instruction leaflet.

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Plug in, and the device starts charging. The leaflet says to download the app (for iOS or Android) and “set up and play”. It was not quite so easy for me, using Android. The app is over-designed, by which I mean it looks great but does not always work intuitively. It did not find the speaker automatically, insisted that a wi-fi connection was better than Bluetooth, but gave me no help connecting.

After tinkering for a bit I went to the website and followed the steps for manual wi-fi setup. Essentially you temporarily disconnect https://www.itwriting.com/blog your normal Wi-fi connection, connect your wi-fi directly to the Zipp, go to 192.168.1.1 in the browser, select your home wi-fi network, enter the password, and you are done.

Everything worked perfectly after that. I fired up Spotify, played some music, selected the Zipp under Spotify Connect, and it sounded great. For some Android apps you may need a Bluetooth connection though, or you can use DLNA. The beauty of Spotify Connect is that the connection is direct https://www.itwriting.com/blog the speaker to the internet, it does not depend on the app running, so you can switch off your phone and it still plays. It is actually a better solution than Apple Airplay for internet streaming.

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The Nightingale button

Control is either via the app, or through the Nightingale button on the top of the speaker. The button works really well. Tap to pause or resume. Slide finger clockwise or anti-clockwise for volume. Skip forward or back by tapping the right or left edge. Then there is a neat “hush” feature: place your hand over the button and it mutes temporarily.

A bit more about the sound. Although this is the smaller Zipp Mini, you can tell that Libratone has taken trouble to make it sound good, and it is impressively rich and full considering the size of the unit. You are getting your money’s worth, despite what seems a high price.

I spent some time comparing the Zipp with Squeezebox Radio, another (but sadly discontinued) wireless audio device I rate highly. Both are mono, both sound good. I did notice that the Zipp has deeper bass and a slightly softer more recessed treble. I cannot decide for sure which sounds better, but I am slightly inclined towards the Libratone, which is actually high praise.

One lovely feature of the Zipp is internet radio, which comes via Vtuner. This is hidden in the feature called Favourites. You select favourite radio stations in the app, with the default being BBC stations and Classic FM. You can change your favourites by tapping the Nightingale icon in the app (another hidden, over-designed feature) and tapping My Radio.

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Once set up, tap the heart button on the Nightingale button on the device to switch to radio. Tap twice to skip to the next station. Internet radio does not depend on having the app running, it works directly https://www.itwriting.com/blog the Zipp.

The Zipp has a power button, press and hold to power on or off, tap to show remaining battery. It also has an aux jack socket, for wired playback https://www.itwriting.com/blog any source, and a USB socket which you can use either for charging a phone, or for playback https://www.itwriting.com/blog music files on USB storage (I did not try this, but a wide range of formats are supported, including MP3, WAV, FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, WMA, AAC, AIFF and ALAC). You can also use USB for wired playback https://www.itwriting.com/blog iOS, but not https://www.itwriting.com/blog other devices.

Apple Airplay is supported and worked great when I tried it with an iPad. One thing to note: there is currently no iPad app, so you have to search for the iPhone app, which does also work on the iPad.

This very flexible device also supports Bluetooth 4.1 and you can use it as a speaker phone, just tap the Nightingale button to answer a call, so yes it has a microphone too. It also supports DLNA which means you can “play to” the device on some applications, such as Windows Media Player.

If you have more than one Zipp you can connect them for multi-speaker playback. You can select Stereo if you have two speakers or more, but Libratone recommend something they call FullRoom, which means leave it to their digital signal processing (DSP).

Sadly I only have one Zipp, but there are a few options in the app to set DSP optimization for things like Outdoor, Shelf and Floor. I did not notice a huge difference.

You can get different colour covers, and I tried removing mine. It is a bit fiddly, and the current Zipp Mini does not quite match the explanation on the Libratone site. The handle on this Zipp does not come off; you unzip the cover, twist to disconnect the zip, then feed the handle through the hole. Not something you are likely to do often.

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The device naked

Finally, if you are curious like me, here are some specifications:

  • Class D amplifier
  • 1 x 3” woofer, 1 x 1” tweeter 2 x 3.5” low frequency radiators
  • Frequency response 60-20,000 Hz (no dB range specified)
  • Maximum volume 96 dB SPL/1m
  • 2400 mAhs battery
  • Bluetooth 4.1
  • 10 hours of playback approx.

Conclusion? I really like the Zipp Mini. It sounds great, supports a wide range of standards, and works well for Internet radio. I like the appearance, the Nightingale button is elegant, and you can expand it with more speakers if needed. This or the larger Zipp model might be all the hi-fi you need.

Caveats: many of the features are a bit hidden, initial setup I found fiddly, the supplied instructions are hopelessly inadequate, and with all those choices it can get confusing.

No matter, it is a lovely device.

More information on the vendor’s site here.