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.
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.
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 :-) !