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...
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.
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.