Friday, 15 March 2019

POLL: Do you subscribe to a music streaming service? And a Wilson Sasha DAW, dCS, Audio Research listening session @ The Sound Room, Vancouver.


Alright guys, first off, I'm trying out a quick poll here since I was interested in how many of you are currently streaming music off a subscription site... No doubt we are seeing the shift towards the streaming, subscription model for music delivery and consumption.

It's interesting to see this article recently about the music industry's revenue growth in these last few years on account of streaming. Considering the decades of decline, I'm sure the music industry is interested in promoting any system that nets a profit. We will need to see however whether the rate of adoption in streaming wanes in the years ahead as warned by Forbes recently.

You'll see the poll below. I think I've included enough options to satisfy the various combinations of users. I made a decision to put Tidal HiFi in a separate category because while it's primarily a "LOSSLESS" streaming service, MQA encoding muddles things up. Regardless of the marketing message, I don't really consider MQA to be true "high-resolution" for various obvious reasons on account of it being a lossy system as well.

It will be great to see what you guys are doing! Might even affect the articles I write or what I focus on in some ways. Note that if you have multiple streaming accounts used regularly, feel free to vote for more than one option (maximum 3). For example, if I have a "freebie" Amazon Prime Music account and pay for Tidal HiFi, then certainly vote for both the "FREE" option and "PAID LOSSLESS Tidal" options.

Also, notice I have a final option of "CONSIDERING a PAID service". So for example, one could currently have a "FREE" Spotify account and also click on that "CONSIDERING" option if one is thinking about jumping on the paid subscription model.

Don't forget to also check out the ongoing, more formalized "INTERNET BLIND TEST: Do digital audio players sound different? (Playing 16/44.1 music.)" survey open until the end of April. I'll likely close this "music streaming" poll at around the same time for a 6-week reader snapshot.

[Originally I had put the poll here but the JavaScript messed up the look of the blog post after voting! See the poll at the end...]

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Every once awhile it is fun to visit the local audiophile dealerships. Thankfully there are still a few brick and mortar stores here in Vancouver with some good "high-end" gear to check out... Over the summer last year, I visited Liquid Sound, a few years back I talked about HiFi Centre, there's also Commercial Electronics not far from home.

On March 9th (2019), there was a demo night at The Sound Room where patrons were invited out to have a listen to Wilson Audio's latest Sasha DAW speakers, check out the dCS Bartók DAC, powered by some Audio Research preamp and monoblock amps. Here's the system:


Let's see... We have the Wilson Sasha DAW speakers of course. An update of the previous Sasha and Sasha Series 2 models. These are traditional 3-way dynamic speakers - 1" silk dome, 7" midrange, 2x8" woofers per speaker. This has been the general driver arrangement since the venerable Wilson WATT/Puppy. It looks like the midrange and woofers are treated paper cones. Nice shiny finish, weighing in at 236lbs each.


The analogue end is provided by an Audio Research REF 6 preamp feeding the two REF160M monoblocks (140W presumably into 8-ohms, 1% THD). Audio Research uses tubes throughout their line of devices. The 160M's power meters by the way looked very nice with the transparent glass front piece allowing one to look into the device and the glowing tubes - pretty (pictures not doing justice to the look):


Digital-to-analogue conversion was provided by dCS's Bartók and we also see the Rossini Player transport/DAC underneath which was not used during the demo. As usual, the dCS system converts digital to analogue through their "Ring DAC" which is 5-bit 2.8MHz or 3.07MHz arrangement (depending on whether the base rate is 44.1 or 48kHz, the same as DSD64 samplerate). The Bartók accepts up to PCM 24/384 and DSD128 input.


This turned out to be a very nice by-invitation evening of listening hosted by The Sound Room's proprietor Mark Macdonald. I would say the attendance was very good; standing room only in fact for much of the evening...


The guys out this evening represented a good age range, probably from 40's to 70's. Even a few women as well. Not sure if these were partners or independently interested female audiophiles. Good selection of hors d'oeuvres, nice local wines and beer available to enhance the merriment ;-).

A few words if I may about the age range out at an audiophile event like this. Let's face it, audiophiles who are interested in expensive DACs, full-range speakers, and monoblock amps are generally going to be in their 40's and above. I think this is normal. When I was in my 20's, I was finishing off university, either lived at home or had a small apartment, and my bookshelf Tannoys sounded great. My dad had his tower speakers and amps which I played with when at home. My emphasis back in those days was just to collect my favourite music, and while curious about the audio hardware, an expensive sound system was just not on the radar. In my early 30's, I saved up and bought my first pair of full-range floor standers, around that time I had enough saved for a down payment and bought my "starter" detached house after getting married as well. Before moving to my house, I had the large speakers in a rental apartment for a few months and faced my share of unreasonable neighbors complaining of the music during the day (not that I played offensive music nor did I play very loud IMO!).

Once my kids came, the system had to be relegated to a small basement room which took away much of the joy of appreciating sound quality since the room itself became a major limiting factor. I started collecting headphones during this phase of life - small, practical and not too expensive. It wasn't until around 40 years old that I could afford and upgrade to more than the "starter home" where I could have a dedicated listening room. My kids were old enough by then that they were not going to be feeding sandwiches to the SACD player or take a Crayola marker to my woofers. At least there's no need to lock up the room any more (unless their friends come to visit :-).

I suspect such is the trajectory for many of us audiophiles. Perhaps things are even worse these days with the cost of living and home ownership for the younger generations. You cannot expect many 20 or 30-year-olds without their financial foundations in place to seriously hang out at an audiophile event - whether a night like this or the various audio shows. The Wilson/Audio Research/dCS on display have a combined asking price of something like US$100,000 excluding the system rack, cables, and power conditioners.

Let's face it, these toys were meant to be for those with disposable income with a decent sized home to properly enjoy the devices in. Most music lovers / audiophiles willing and able to put money down on something like this probably have collected a few grey hairs negotiating the stresses of life and building a career before they're ready to part with some of the fruits of their labour. The more expensive the gear, the older and more affluent the average customer of these devices will likely be. (Sure, there will be a few young multimillionaires in their 20's and 30's in this world wandering the halls of "high end" audio...)

While we've all heard extreme stories over the years (suggested by this Steve Guttenberg video), I think it's important to remember that the "crazy rich audiophile" is far from the majority. In my experience, the wealthy among us are not idiots ready to throw away $1000 on cables and questionable products. If audio stores and the audiophile press think that talking about insane products (especially crazy cables and meaningless "accessories") is somehow important or beneficial, I think they need to recognize that those interested are already few, and I hope diminishing in numbers with education and rationality.

On this night, there were the obligatory talks from dCS, Wilson Audio, and Audio Research introducing the product lines. On the whole, I thought these were very reasonable presentations without appeals to pseudoscience, little focus on cables, power conditioners, and no strange audiophile accessories. If anyone is wondering, they were Kimber Kables and I think I saw some Shunyata Denali something-or-others :-).

As you see in the picture above, Peter McGrath of Wilson is standing up front on the right facing the audience. Although Mr. McGrath has been promoting MQA over the years, he certainly has some excellent sounding recordings and as you can see on the display of the dCS Bartók above, he was indeed playing some MQA-encoded stuff along with commercially-available recordings...

Nobody said a word about MQA during the presentations that evening. Mr. McGrath did not even mention that his samples were MQA-encoded. Maybe Wilson/dCS/Sound Room figured this wouldn't play well among the Vancouver crowd :-). In fact, there was little focus at all on whether demo tracks were CD-quality, hi-res, off Tidal, etc.

The music demo was streamed off what looked like a MacBook over Roon. As usual, it's hard to judge sound quality in an unfamiliar space with bodies all around and some folks chatting in the hallway. Later in the evening I stuck around and had a chance to sit "front and center" to listen to some of the demo material. No complaints as the system sounded great. The tube Audio Research pre/amp were very quiet - no hum when preamp volume pushed up all the way although the ambient SPL in the room wasn't particularly low. The Wilson speakers did a great job on the dynamics whether of modern tracks or classical. Bass extension was good though you'd still need a subwoofer if you want to experience a kick in the chest from strong sub-40Hz content. High frequencies were sweet and non-glaring. Hopefully there will be speaker measurements for these at some point. I'm curious if there has been much change to the impedance curve and whether off-axis response changed much compared to the Stereophile measurements of the first-gen Sasha as a reflection of the evolution over the years. We also know that the dCS gear historically perform well (eg. dCS Vivaldi measurements from 2014); given what I heard, I expect the trend to continue if objectively assessed.

While quite a number of Peter McGrath's demo tracks were from his collection / non-commercially available, here are a few songs and albums he used for those who want to try out some non-Diana-Krall, not-too-esoteric, audiophile demo material:

- Esperanza Spalding - "Little Fly" from Chamber Music Society
- Christian McBride Big Band - "Gettin' To It" from Bringin' It
- Malia & Boris Blank - "Celestial Echo" from Convergence
- Klapa Sinj - "An Empty Cradle On An Islet" from Lipo Ime
- Leonard Cohen - "Darkness" from Old Ideas
- Tom Jones - "Dimming of the Day" from Spirit In The Room
- Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer - "Fugue No. 18 in E Minor, BWV 548" from Bach: Trios
- Quercus (June Tabor, Huw Warren, Iain Ballamy) - "Auld Lang Syne" from Nightfall
- DubXanne - "Roxanne" from The Police in Dub
- Ziggy Marley - "Blowin' In The Wind" from Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan

Interesting choices; I certainly was not expecting the dubstep reggae Police tribute! :-)

All in all, a great evening out and I think a successful event for The Sound Room and Mark Macdonald. Nice gear, interesting folks, and of course a good amount of emphasis spent on some gorgeous music.

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In other news, Apple iOS devices can now decode MQA streams to 88.2 and 96kHz. Android support has been out since CES2019 in January. Yay?

Of course considering that iPhones and iPads don't have anything better than 24/48 DACs inside, plus the Lightning dongle can't do hi-res, there's no use for this so-called "Master" decoding unless you have a low-power DAC like a Dragonfly attached or you tether it to a hi-res DAC. IMO a rather cumbersome situation that's not exactly practical when on the move catching buses and subways. At least some Android phones even back to my Samsung Note 5 in 2015 could handle 24/192 playback.


As you can see in the image above, indeed the iPhone can decode MQA and send a 24/88.2 stream to the Mytek Brooklyn DAC.

The funny thing is that the "Master" indicator shows up even when you're listening with the headphone jack or even worse streaming lossy to your Bluetooth headphone/speaker! In these situations, there is no "hi-res" capability at all! So what does "Master" quality or "studio sound" mean? Why should anyone waste bandwidth on 24/44.1 or 24/48 MQA when at best the decoded MQA stream is 16/48 resolution under the vast majority of situations with an iOS device?

If they were to be honest, the "Master" indicator should only show up when the iPhone/Pad is connected to a USB DAC that can handle 88.2/96+kHz digital output. Anything less is obviously not decoded "authenticated" sound and it would be false advertising to suggest otherwise. All-in-all, MQA represents a terrible scheme with all kinds of half-truths, compromises, poorly conceived ideas, hype and unclear "gotcha" situations. A rather sad joke from the perspective of audiophiles who want the best audio quality and have had access to lossless high resolution audio for around 2 decades by this point. Losslessly compressed hi-res streamed over typical broadband is easily done in 2019 without wasting more time on the hassles of a proprietary codec like this.

Okay guys, I'm off overseas for some R&R in the tropical sun.

Remember to listen to those blind test tracks and give me your responses when you have the time. We'll chat after Spring Break - I hope everyone's enjoying the music and the hardware (just be careful not to drink too much Kool-Aid :-) !


Do you currently use a music streaming service? (Choose up to 3 options)
No, I do not subscribe to a streaming service. [I'm an analog (wo)man, physical CD dude, digital downloader, radio listener...]0%
Yes, I have a FREE account (eg. Spotify, also include Amazon Prime here).0%
Yes, I use a PAID LOSSY service (eg. Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Unlimited, Qobuz Premium, Tidal Premium, Deezer...)0%
Yes, I use a PAID LOSSLESS STANDARD RESOLUTION service (eg. Qobuz Hi-Fi, Deezer HiFi).0%
Yes, I use a PAID LOSSLESS service, specifically Tidal HiFi with "HI-RES" MQA.0%
Yes, I use a PAID LOSSLESS with HI-RES service (eg. Qobuz Studio).0%
I am currently CONSIDERING to subscribe to a PAID service (lossy or lossless).0%

30 comments:

  1. Dear Arch,
    Thank you for another interesting post. You've gone beyond the usual event reporting by adding insights other than just the events. I agree about the life path of many audiophiles. It takes time to build up equity before considering these 4/5 figure sound systems. We don't hear much of this truth.

    Jonathan in Vegas

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the note Jonathan!

      I find often these days reading online reviews of luxury goods (not just hi-fi!), I often lose the context and perspective from where the writers are coming from. This is why I thought to include some personal background.

      Some writers I'm sure come from a position where they've built up their equity such as to afford and own these devices over the years of work. As subjective reviewers, I respect these guys the most because they've probably acquired their experience not just of sound quality but also through thoughtful consideration for value.

      However, I certainly have difficulty "feeling" that same level of appreciation from other writers who as far as I can tell, may genuinely love music and sound, but I'm just not sure they see "value" through the same lens as I.

      Honestly, I don't think there's anything wrong in pointing out that if a man's career is such that he would not ever be able to afford a $100,000 pair of speakers, but could be offered one to use as a "longterm loan" or sold at discount, or even just to have for a few months and make money off the "clicks" he receives off his web page, would that reviewer not be at least swayed? To have been given the good fortune and in kind show his gratitude with a positive review?

      I suspect this dynamic is obvious to everyone... But probably not pointed out as often as it should.

      Delete
  2. I doubt it matters but... I lied and selected "Yes, I use a PAID LOSSLESS STANDARD RESOLUTION service" even though I use Tidal. That's because I do not decode MQA and subscribe solely to move up from LOSSY to LOSSLESS STANDARD RESOLUTION. And it sounds great.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sounds fine to me Mark :-).

      I'll make a note of that... I believe in the Tidal app, they have an ability to prioritize content? For example, if I want lossless FLAC and an album is available as both "standard" FLAC and MQA, could it show the lossless version higher up than the MQA?

      Delete
  3. It's unfortunate though that as we go through this life path of being able to afford, accommodate and appreciate high fidelity, our hearing has degraded significantly since our late teens/early twenties. As they say, youth is wasted on the young.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So true Prep.

      Deteriorating hearing, blurry eyes, slower reflexes... Certainly by the time we hit our late 40's and 50's when hopefully life gets good with some freedom. if we have kids at the "usual" age, at least they're somewhat independent by this point, and career income peaks around this time as well (peak income for men typically about 48-55).

      Oh to be young again and perchance hear up to 20kHz :-).

      Delete
  4. I don't subscribe to any of the mentioned streaming services but I should mention that here in Canada, I get free access to Stingray Music with my cable provider (so I guess it's not free...) It's lossy but I find the sound excellent and regularly listen to the jazz and baroque streams either on my computer with headphones or through my TV connected to my hifi setup.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Gilles,
      That's an interesting situation. If you use it frequently, I suppose I would probably suggest voting as a "FREE account" since it's a bit like Amazon Prime Music. It's a "freebie" for being the cable provider's patron.

      Glad to hear it sounds good! I wonder what bitrate it's being streamed as?

      Delete
  5. Can't vote twice since I already placed myself in the first category...The published bitrate is only 192 kbps MP3 (as the sharp dip at 16 kHz proves) but I assure you the sound is really sharp, clean and with ample transients and low bass, and of course no digital artifact that I can detect, and I'm quite sensible to that. They may have an exceptionally good encoder or do some post-processing like a mild dynamic compression that does not affect the sound. I can't hear over 16 kHz any more so that limit does not bother me, but of course younger audiophiles might object.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Gilles,
      Yeah, I turned on the "one vote per computer" setting for the poll so I didn't get spammed. Lately, I've noticed a lot of bots making the rounds on the blog page dropping all kinds of ads in the messages section as well. Hopefully marking them as "spam" for Blogger takes care of the source. Unfortunately, like whack-a-mole, they pop back up.

      Thanks for the note about Stingray. I think I might even have it through my Shaw account :-). Once I get home I'll have to try downloading the app and see!

      Delete
  6. Funny, I just stumbled upon a poll with the exact same subject on Slashdot...
    https://slashdot.org/poll/3112/how-do-you-listen-to-music

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the link.

      Interesting poll and results. I see that my poll here is targeting more to the varieties of streaming services and I hope to also gets a sense of the interest in people curious about signing up to services.

      One thing I noticed when I just voted right now for that poll is that there's only 1 choice!

      I voted for "streaming" but the poll doesn't differentiate what kind of streaming. This has been a limitation I've seen with a lot of polls when it comes to audiophile uses. Computer audio "streaming" is a big thing these days for audiophiles. But "streaming" can be either of one's collection or over the Internet through a subscription service. That poll would not differentiate the two; much less help us understand whether lossy vs. lossless vs. hi-res is a significant factor...

      Thanks everyone so far for adding your voice to the results!

      Delete
  7. Fascinating poll. My (albeit limited) experience on internet forums is that streaming is all everyone talks about these days. Indeed on two forums I was actually laughed at for not using any streaming services, and on one of those it went further, I was laughed at for not having a 'receiver' with an HDMI input, after all, it is 2019! But then I suppose people will laugh at me for not using a smartphone. It's not that I'm old, I'm only in my early 50's! Yes, I prefer to own my music than rent it, and yes I love browsing my shelves for CD's or LP's I may have forgotten about. Years ago, when people started offloading their record collections at bargain basement prices I bought bought bought. Same now that people are offloading their CD collections. I've never been happier! I have no need of streaming services. It's nice to see 29% of respondents agreeing with me!

    I remember not too long ago reading a Stereophile article reviewing a mega expensive DAC. Only the USB input was tested. One of the comments complained (rightly IMO) that the least the reviewer could have done, given the cost of the product, was plug in a CD transport and had a quick listen! Same with Amir on ASR, more often than not all he's interested in is testing the DAC USB input and frequently totally ignores the S/Pdif coax or Toslink input. So thank you for your poll, it's nice to know I'm not an oddball.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, I like Amir's site, but if you aren't interested in USB you're out of luck most of the time.

      I prefer CDs as well. Time was I could go out on a date, and while I was waiting for her to get ready, I would browse her books and CDs and get a good idea if she and I were going to mesh or not. And whenever I went to someone's home for the first time I would always check out the books and music.

      These days, nobody hangs anything on the wall (they whip out their phone to show me their pictures), nobody has actual music ("streaming's great!"), and nobody buys physical books. If it wasn't for necessary furniture and the honkin' flat screen, these homes would be totally empty. Well, except for the overpriced kitchenware.

      Not an improvement. I also find that such people have very little to talk about that I care to hear.

      Delete
  8. P.s. I still listen to cassettes, including the many hundreds from the charts that I recorded off the radio back in the 80's, like we all did back then. People these days have no idea about the joyful experience of hovering ones finger above the pause key during the chart shows. And probably no idea why that pause key was so important!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey there Ali!
      Thanks for the comment. Yes, I fondly remember the late 80's and early 90's perfecting the "double-finger-record" and timely "pause/unpause" radio-taking era :-).

      Well, in saying this, you've inspired me to dig through the bags of cassette tapes in the basement to see if I can digitize some of that when I have some time!

      Indeed, it does look like here in early 2019, a substantial portion of readers are still not into streaming from music sites. To be honest I'm not surprised... The "subscription" model isn't for everyone. Let's see how this poll goes over the next few weeks.

      I agree with you that despite USB being a major interface these days, DAC testing should also be done when appropriate for S/PDIF. While it's an older interface and much more prone to jitter (not necessarily audible of course), S/PDIF still plays a large role in consumer digital audio. While many DACs can handle asynchronous USB well and cheaply these days, it's good to double check that S/PDIF remains qualitatively competitive!

      Delete
    2. I still use my HiFi Cassette deck from time to time, as my cassette collection includes a lot of music that I don't own in digital format. Getting used again to the easily to notice wow & flutter, and even more the high amount of noise (even with Dolby B active) takes some time. The better the music the less disturbing these are ;)

      Delete
    3. Speaking of cassettes, I remember when I was in high school and purchasing music from the local K-Mart :-). Other than noise and wow & flutter were also the occasional replication errors like drop-outs that would happen.

      To this day, when I hear Eric Carmen's "Hungry Eyes" on the radio, I still remember that little imperfection in my copy of the cassette and anticipate when it arrives :-).

      Ahhhh... The analogue days were memorable...

      Delete
    4. Streaming subscriptions have been dropping. The business thinks streaming has passed its peak.

      There has not been a corresponding increase in CD sales, though. The only thing growing is vinyl. And I'm not surprised - I've met quite a few people who swear LP is more accurate and resolving. They are usually not people who grew up with vinyl. Those are not very long conversations...

      Delete
    5. Could certainly be the case Jeff,
      Yeah, even though vinyl sales might be growing, I think there are signs that that's also stabilizing. I highly doubt year-upon-year growth can be sustainable for vinyl much longer; some kind of plateau I think is reasonable.

      Ultimately, I still think it's a bit of a novelty for those who didn't grow up with LP's and at some point the majority of listeners will realize the sound is compromised and very inconvenient once they get past the novelty factor.

      In a world where "information" is plentiful including a plethora of artists out there with easier tools to produce music and numerous ways of releasing their music, "art" as a whole (apart from collectables which includes some vinyl) has become cheaper to consume. Just a natural consequence of supply and demand. Huge number of new artists/indie acts and infinitely digitally replicable supply!

      Delete
  9. I digitized some of my old casettes in 24/4 format two years ago. The results were pretty good. Worth doing, especially if you have unique recordings/compilations/mastering on them.
    Cassettes had their problems but when played on deck in good condition, they provide decent analog quality and they do not crack and pop as used or dirty vinyl :-)

    ReplyDelete
  10. Replies
    1. Hey Honza,
      I'm gonna have to look around for a good quality restored cassette deck, I think. Yeah 24/48 would be great... I'd probably just dither down to 16-bits.

      Delete
    2. Yes, dithering to 16 bits seems tempting, because casettes have higher noise level than CDs. But in my experience, especially noise shaped dithering still colorizes a bit the sound compared to 24 bit flat transfer. Nothing significant, though.

      Delete
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