Friday, 7 October 2016

An opinion about Audio & MQA by "Agitater"... (And a few words on DACs sounding similar.)




I suspect many of you hang out at the usual audio/audiophile message forum "watering holes" as I do. Among the chatter, every once awhile though, I run across something that a thoughtful poster obviously took time to compose and express such that I cannot but wish the message could be shared in a broader context beyond the individuals visiting the thread.

Last weekend, as I was reading the latest on Steve Hoffman's forum, I came across this opinion piece by "Agitater", a fellow Canadian out east in Toronto (I'm here in Vancouver on the west coast). Therefore, with permission to reproduce here, a comment from a fellow audiophile taken from a discussion on MQA (see page 12), but clearly going beyond into his views of the audiophile hobby and current state of affairs. So, in response to a comment about a recent article in The Absolute Sound and someone saying that Robert Harley (Editor-in-chief) is "one of the best in the industry", Agitater had this to add...


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I subscribe (to The Absolute Sound) as well. I agree with you about Harley. I'd personally go further, and say that Harley and a lot of his confreres in the audiophile writing dodge have been pandering to the mainstream part of the gear manufacturing industry for so many years, pandering to the makers of junk-science accessories for so long, and pandering to most monied exhibitors at shows for so long that nothing they write can be trusted to be anything other than purely subjective pandering. Their publishers use the 'excuse' of separately measured technical specifications to somehow try to balance the over-the-top pandering that's written into almost every single product reviewed by Harley and others. 
I've seen Harley and his ilk at shows and exhibitions. They're treated like minor celebrities by the exhibitors and manufacturers because they've helped the exhibitors and manufacturers make a lot of money over the years. That's the take-away for me. In TAS, Stereophile and HiFi+, in bizarrely over-the-top pander palaces like ToneAudio, and in verbal diarrhea fests like 6Moons, the mags' writers offer no objective writing, no truly objective comparative testing and never a bad review of even obviously questionable products. To me, that all amounts to entertainment writing, not reviewing. 
The only relief for consumers of all kinds is mainly that the majority of manufacturers are making good products the majority of the time. I mean that, in a given price range for a given quality point, it's hard to find a bad product. It's more likely that a buyer will find a range of products, at least one of which will suit his ears and needs. But four pages of babbling about an interconnect? Three pages of utter tripe about a pair of speaker cables? A page and a half of veiled suggestions that the reviewer somehow has superior hearing and can therefore detect differences that target consumers have to dupe themselves into believing? Harley and most of his confreres have been driven by a difficult industry and a difficult publishing game into pandering. Consumers are not well served anymore, and haven't been for many, many years. 
At a time when TIDAL continues to bleed money, Spotify is barely in the black, Apple Music continues to feed the largest possible consumer base with average quality, and other streaming services go for track quantity over track quality, who among the denizens of the Steve Hoffman forums thinks that there's money and time and staff to convert files using the MQA algorithm? 
The subtleties of MQA processing are just that - subtle (if they're audible at all to most music lovers). My own experience with MQA files (purchased from 2L) is far from confirmatory. In my own listening room (background noise floor of 35dB), any perceptible improvement subtleties of anything beyond 24/192 are incontrovertibly inaudible. I've had friends with wonderful hearing sit down and enjoy themselves and I've presented good CDs, good 16/44 files, good 24/192 files, good DSD files (direct, as well as converted to PCM) and, recently, MQA files. Whatever differences anybody claimed to be able to hear turned out to be purely psychological, because when I switched files or when I deliberately misidentified files or when I simply didn't announced what file would be played next, nobody could reliably identifying which file was which beyond 24/192. Even then - between a good CD and its 24/192 studio/label sourced download version from Acoustic Sounds or HD Tracks or ProStudioMasters - identification was only slightly better than a coin flip. 
Switching to a good friend's purpose-built, dedicated listening room (with it's cathedral-like/reference library-like 28dB background noise floor), the differences between 16/44 and originally sourced (from the studio) DSD files was audible. The difference between 16/44 and originally sourced 24/192 files was subtler still, but audible nonetheless. As for the MQA files - aside from the current difficulty in finding a sufficient number of files to compare in competing formats/rates - we were still straining to hear differences. What's more, after the listening sessions, we got into a long conversation about whether or not we had talked ourselves into any subtle differences we thought we'd heard. 
So what is everybody considering preparing for when it comes to MQA? Bluesound (the consortium formed by Lenbrook - NAD/PSB) updated the Node2 for MQA compatibility, but there aren't any actual mainstream MQA-processed music files or streams out there beyond a few outlying suppliers such as 2L. Most of Meridian's own products are MQA compatible now. Other suppliers have announced that MQA compatible firmware is "coming soon". Harley devoted pages and pages to MQA, as have other mainstream audiophile writers. Big deal. The writers get the gear for free (not to mention the MQA files) or on long term loan (which amounts to nearly the same thing), so it stands to reason why the vast majority of the writers rave positively and over the top about MQA. 
More important, who among us has a sufficiently quiet listening room, electronics and speakers that are capable of producing sufficient detail and resolution, not to mention hearing that is good enough to hear the occasional subtleties that MQA might or might not provide given all the physical variables and all the outright BS (propounded by Harley and so many other writers) surrounding MQA?
I'm happy with my listening room. It's by no means the quietest one I've ever had, but it's comfortable, versatile and it suits my lifestyle. I live in the heart of downtown Toronto - not a quiet place - but general listening sessions, Saturday night scotch & music sessions, personal music & reading sessions and a lot of other music listening is thoroughly enjoyable. I believe that most people are no better off (for music listening) than me. More than that, I own the room - the whole place actually - with nobody to tell me where I can or cannot place speakers, turntables or anything else. That means I also have speakers positioned for best dispersion, imaging and detail reproduction. But after all of that, and after a regular, once every-three-years full range hearing test (I've got very good hearing according to my audiologist and according to my GP), and after years of paying attention to composers and musicians and recording engineers who taught me what to listen for when making assessments, MQA still escapes me. 
Maybe if I put something north of $200,000 into a listening room, electronics and speakers, MQA will suddenly blossom into full life for me? No thanks. 
MQA was announced a long time ago. We've all seen seasonal product cycles come and go since the announcement, changes (amalgamations and takeovers) in the music business since the announcement, increasingly intense competition between the large selection of streaming services, Apple has stepped full-bore into streaming music services, TIDAL has received two rounds of capital investment, streaming services pricing is aggressive (at the expense of downward pressure on the royalty incomes of the artists who actually compose and record the music in the first place), but MQA doesn't seem to be any further ahead than it was in the first few months after it was announced. There's been no groundswell of demand from music-loving consumers. I'd say the reason is mainly that by the time you get to a recording remastered at 24/192 in a reasonably good listening room with properly positioned speakers and an acceptable low background noise floor, there's not much more to hear aside from buying tickets to the next live performance of the soloist or group or band or orchestra that you happen to be listening to.

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When asked what gear was used for the MQA evaluation:

We used a bunch of gear combinations.  
System 1: The Bluesound Node2 (w/MQA firmware upgrade) feeding MQA files, 24/192 files, 24/96 and 16/44 files to a Naim Supernait 2 driving Kudos Cardea Super 10 standmounts and, alternately, a pair of Harbeth P3ESR.
System 2: The Bluesound Node2 (w/MQA firmware upgrade) feeding MQA files, 24/192 files, 24/96 and 16/44 files to a Simaudio Moon Neo 250i driving Spendor A5r floorstanders. 
System 3: The Bluesound Node2 (w/MQA firmware upgrade) feeding MQA files, 24/192 files, 24/96 and 16/44 files to a Synthesis Flame (EL34-based) integrated driving the Kudos, the Harbeths and a pair of Bryston Mini-T standmounts. 
System 4: The Bluesound Node2 (w/MQA firmware upgrade) feeding MQA files, 24/192 files, 24/96 and 16/44 files to an Audio Research (forget the model number, but it's superb) preamp feeding a Jeff Rowland power amp driving a pair of Ethera Vitae standmounts supported by a JL Audio Fathom 110v2 subwoofer. 
System 5: The Meridian 8o8v6 CD player feeding MQA files, 24/192 files, 24/96 and 16/44 files to the above noted Audio Research/Jeff Rowland combo and the Ethera/JL Audio combo. 
Systems 4 & 5 belong to a good friend (who has ridiculously expensive gear and a very quiet and well-laid-out listening room). The first three systems are combinations of my gear. 
We also horsed around with a Meridian Explorer2 with the MQA firmware upgrade feeding most of the same music files to a pair of Fostex TH900 headphones and a pair of Grado GS 1000e headphones.
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Wow... Now *that* is an interesting, well reasoned testimony expressed in detail, with passion, and obviously with much knowledge and experience! Thanks for sharing and thanks for the opportunity to quote it here, Agitater... The conversation does continue on the thread so worth checking it out!

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Finally to end this week's post, I wanted to mention an interesting comment on Stereophile's review of the T+A Elektroakustik DAC 8 recently placed online about the sound of DACs.



"They're so damn hard to tell apart!"


Damn right, boys! And I find it mildly shocking to see the admission despite the obviousness of this truth which in itself is evidenced in objective measurements. Even more so because the quote is coming from someone comparing the Ayre Codex with a similarly priced DAC the person has "owned for a couple years" (why not tell us what this is so people can compare?!).
 
You see, the reason why this is significant is because the Codex uses a minimum phase, very low-ringing digital filter like the PonoPlayer measured previously. Assuming the older DAC has a more typical (safe to presume likely linear phase, steep) digital filter, the admission of minimal audible differences means that for this person, the likelihood of digital filters having audible significance is essentially nil! It also means that the ability for this person to hear the high frequency roll-off with standard 44.1kHz material through the Codex is minimal...
 
Realize this is all to be expected. As we get older, higher frequency acuity drops. And as I expressed previously, unless a digital filter is really extreme in the results it achieves (eg. severe frequency response anomalies), then one should not expect major differences; and essentially no difference when it comes to high samplerate material beyond 44/48kHz of course.
 
Good that a major audiophile publication can express the truth about this. And certainly I don't see why anyone should be surprised other than those who didn't question the claims over the years in the first place!
 
Have a great Canadian Thanksgiving to the Canucks :-). Have a great week ahead everyone!
   

13 comments:

  1. I share your doubts about MQA, its conceptual fuzziness, and its uncertain usefulness, but I also have mixed feelings about Agitator’s post. I respect all of his admirable DIY effort to give it a fair shot and am unsurprised by his conclusions. Meanwhile, I’ve grown bone-weary of the unnecessarily unpleasant rhetoric of audio skeptics like Agitator, and the glossary of contemptuousness that skeptics see to invariably deploy — all the stuff about snake oil, bullshit, nonsense, and fraud. Here the rhetoric takes the form of accusations of “pandering,” a depiction of Robert Harley and his posses strutting around hi-fi shows like little kings striking corrupt bargains with advertisers, sliming Tone Audio (whose proprietor is an energetic participant at the Steve Hoffman forums), calling audiophile websites “verbal diarrhea fests,” and so on. This kind of invective and nasty tone saturates a huge swath of the skeptical audio tech community, and to me it’s sad and pathetic that discussions of how to achieve the most pleasurable audio reproduction of music — *music*, with all of its power to be inspiring and uplifting and conducive to fellowship and celebration — turns into a subjective-objective holy war. I could enumerate plenty of infuriating and shameless sins on the part of the subjective audiophiles, but meanwhile, I wish the opposition could ease up on all the over-torqued debunking and mean-girl insults. Give peace (and the healing spell of music) a chance.

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    1. I really enjoyed reading Agitator's post and happy to see that well informed music lovers are starting to call out the audiophile press for what it is - a marketing machine for high end audio manufacturers, and nothing else.

      I wasn't familiar with Tone Audio before reading the above post so just checked it out. Here's a great review:

      http://www.tonepublications.com/review/tellurium-q-silver-diamond-speaker-cables/

      $7500 speaker cables, and the author is suggesting buying them instead of other hardware upgrades. Right. Whether it's Robert Harley at TAS, Michael Lavorgna at Audiostream, or virtually any other writer at the high end audiophile publications, readers are not getting helpful information on how to better enjoy listening to music. Instead, they are getting misinformation, FUD, and bogus reasons to purchase equipment from their advertisers. $1000 ethernet cables, $3500 power cables. It's almost comical, but there's still a lot of audiophiles believing every word they read from these guys.

      I trust this blog, and enjoy reading Mark Waldrep's blog. Beyond that, I have the same faith in objective, truthful writing from the audiophile press as much as I believe Fox News is "Fair & Balanced".

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    2. Hi Hal and Jim.

      Good discussion guys. It is perhaps in the nature of humanity that we so quickly can take sides in arguments of philosophy, religion, and politics. It speaks to be subjectivity of the matter and the more passionate we become about it, I think the more likely it is that we express ourselves with greater force...

      I see Agitater's post as a good example of the frustration many of us must feel with the "mainstream" media. At the risk of bringing politics into this, seeing the election circus in the US, or the Brexit referendum results, it's not hard to see the "societal mood" and partisanship not just in audiophilia, but in the loss of faith so many have in the "System".

      At least in the audiophile world, we can choose an objective stance and quite easily, honestly, and realistically acknowledge that audio devices have no magical properties. They are the result of engineering and as such, fidelity can be expressed based on engineering principles. Leave it to engineering to tell us what is good or good enough, and people and their opinions to tell us the esthetics of the enclosure, usability of the remote control, reliability in daily use, and of course testimony of preference with the realization that it's just an opinion.

      Obviously, accepting of the above objective stance is a threat to the status quo and how they have operated for years... Not just in the writing style but also in questioning what "master" they serve. Is it to the advertisers as an branch of the sales arm of a company? Is it to the companies who loaned equipment despite the reality that certain things like cables should never really demand four figures? Is it to related friendships and "loyalty" with the Industry built over the years whether in trade shows of personal/social interactions?

      It is good IMO that experienced audiophiles like Agitater speak up. I believe that no matter whether the Industry likes it or not, audiophiles are moving on and seeing the Industry for what it is. There's no point in audiophile magazine or blog writers lamenting the gradual death of the industry, or how to revitalize the industry with young people, because in many circumstances (and with much of the products they peddle), it is themselves who are contributing to the loss of faith and ultimate decline by serving the wrong "master" IMO.

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    3. OMG, I've never heard the true spoken so simply and directly! Thanks Archimago! Also thanks to Agitater for his shining some light into the darkness that is today's High End marketing machine.

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  2. Audiophiles can be a spiky bunch; I think there's some sort of neurosis that either drives them, or accommodates many of them. I haven't looked at Stereophile; TAS; HiFi+ or 6Moons in a long, long time (not even quick glances in the newsagent).

    Here's a thing: for the past few months I've been having all sorts of issues with my internet connection. I live in Australia, which partly explains things. I've been plagued with download speeds ranging from less than 1Mbps to in excess of 10 Mbps. Things now seem stable at around 9Mbps (for which I have to pay $60 per month). I can stream HD video on YouTube which looks okay on my 60" UHD TV, but I can't stream Tidal. Tidal support tried really hard to help me out; my ISP tried really hard too, but I simply can't get any more than a few seconds of any one track on Tidal. Nearby houses which have cable internet have no problem with Tidal. I changed ISP as well, and am now using a fixed 4G system, it beats my ADSL connection hands down.

    I have now signed up for Spotify, and am thoroughly enjoying it. Spotify Premium offers tunes at 320 Mbps, but I don't care. I now find myself hunting down and playing music like I never could before, and I'm enjoying it lots. Does Tidal sound better? Not if you can only get a snatch of a song at a time. Even if I could compare them side by side, I'm not sure how much it matters. I'm realising more and more, that it's the enjoyment that the music gives me that matters most, not the relentless pursuit over other people's ideas of what make a good hi-fi system.

    Back to the Tidal thing; even on the lower quality settings Tidal stutters and stops. Amongst other things, I've tried port forwarding, port triggering and have tried different computers with and without firewall / antivirus software) Spotify, at the same bit rate, works perfectly. It seems to offer more of what I like too.

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    1. Interesting perspective 24bitbob.

      First, sorry to hear of the slow internet speeds. That sucks but 9Mbps at a stable pace is not unreasonable for most things. I guess no 4K YouTube streaming to that UHD-TV?

      You bring up an important comment about Tidal which I have heard elsewhere also... Lossless CD resolution is something like 700-1000kbps compared to the 320kbps of Spotify's MP3 so it's no surprise that drop outs and stutters could be a problem if the internet stability and latency are not up to the task. Also, for those with capped monthly data plans, it might be an issue if one streams lots of music.

      In any event, I think comments like yours are important to keep in mind. Sure, lossless CD quality like Tidal might be closer to the ideal of music streaming, but when we consider the potential processing involved (like changes in fidelity if ReplayGain-like techniques are used, or other compression is added to the stream), we just should not get too neurotic about high bitrate MP3/AAC when it already sounds great and are unlikely to be noticeable except through direct A/B listening...

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  3. archimago - I like to get in touch via email - is there a way I can send you one?

    thx

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    1. Hello Gimme Names. You can PM me through Computer Audiophile or Squeezebox Forum. Too many E-mails as it stands currently in my inbox!

      Cheers!

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    2. wonderful! will do this weekend most likely.

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  4. The appearance of Agitater's comments about questionable standards at TAS and other high-end audio publications was particularly timely for me because I just had a dismal experience with a review of my product by TAS. There were several problems with the review, but the biggest was that the reviewer, Andrew Quint, discussed the review with a competitor, John Mingo, the CEO of Baetis Audio, during the time he was reviewing my product. I know this because John Mingo responded at his web site to some of the concerns I raised in a confidential email to the editor-in-chief of TAS, Robert Harley. I knew that Quint and Mingo were friends because another friend of Quint's, who owns a Wax Box, told me in June that the three of them were about to spend a long weekend in Montana fly fishing together. I was naive enough to believe that Quint would set aside that friendship to write a fair review of my product. The lack of ethical standards at these publications is a disgrace.

    If you are interested, you can read more about this episode at my web site:

    www.3beez.com/comparison/gloves_off.html

    Archimago's blog is a welcome oasis from the turpitude of the mainstream press.

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    1. Hello Jeffrey.
      I read your interview with Mark Waldrep recently and I think it's a great idea that you're emphasizing on an oft-neglected part of a healthy music library - ease of metadata management - beyond the usual hardware/software components.

      Sorry to hear of the experience with TAS recently. No doubt it would be highly unethical for reviewers to allow themselves to be biased against a company or be influenced by a special relationship with a competitor. All the more so for a small industry like this one where the opinion of a few can have a substantial influence.

      I wish you and your business venture well...

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    2. A bit more on this in the next blog post...

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