I thought for this post it might be good to talk about audiophile forums.
A couple weeks back, some of you expressed frustration with the Audio Science Review Forum, the opinions of the host there, and general MQA disagreement. Over the years, like probably many of you, I've had my share of participating in forums, disagreements with views expressed and the bickering at various venues. All in good fun however and nobody needs to get too perturbed... It's only a hobby, right?
I've read posters say that MQA is "the gift that keeps giving" :-). No doubt it's a topic that has provided for much discussion around here and elsewhere!
However future audiophile historians ultimately judge this time in our hobby, I think MQA will have its place as a controversy that divided the community deeply. I don't think this is a bad thing in that it has provided many opportunities for us to discuss and perhaps be enlightened by what is true vs. false, shown a divide between mainstream press with close industry ties vs. independents, objective vs. subjective testing, faith in (specifically one) authority of digital audio vs. skepticism. And this has played out publicly probably in its most dramatic fashion on audiophile forums these years.
On ForumsI don't think there is any question that the rise of public forums have revolutionized all hobbies. Whether it's audiophilia or cars or photography or computers, we can express our views in ways impossible even a decade or two ago (the interconnection goes even further and deeper with our virtual social networks). Furthermore, forums provide a level of freedom of expression beyond blogs like this one where I choose the topics but at least has an open, very lightly moderated comments section below (most of the time, all I'm doing is clearing out the multitudes of spam ads littered among actual reader comments).
It's nice to read well thought out responses on forums, especially those that contain factual content (of course there are various critiques one could make about ascertainment of said "facts"). But as in most human endeavours, there is always the element of perspective we must be mindful of. The atmosphere of a discussion forum shapes how content is viewed based on the personalities, values, and the intents of the host(s) and administrators that inhabit the place. Just as if one were to visit someone's home or join an administrative/leadership structure, the system will shape the culture of the "corporate body". Because forums are places where people can associate and dissociate freely (unlike say one's workplace where association is more viscous due to formal processes of employment and dismissal), over time the denizens (the "regulars") that stay do tend to take on the values of the leadership. Alternatively, I suspect if comments are primarily negative towards the views of the host, this is an unhealthy sign showing loss of respect and support.
There isn't (nor IMO should there be) absolute freedom of speech - hateful, threatening content should never be tolerated. At some level, all forums do need to be moderated. The best sites I've participated in are not heavy-handed around moderation. Some of the worst engage in active suppression of dissent. While it was never an open forum and more of a blog format, back in the day when AudioStream was more interesting, I thought it was the interactions in the comments section that provided much of the "food for thought". This was until Michael Lavorgna became intolerant of disagreements with his (IMO unhealthy) idiosyncratic perspectives.
As a participant in forums these days, I try to maintain the perspective of the "rational audiophile" who is to a large extent interested in achieving "transparency" as the audiophile goal. I think "truth" in audio, at least most of the stuff worth sharing, is arrived at primarily with objective means. Remember though that being "more objective" doesn't mean we discount all subjectivity; we should not in order to maintain the emotional and sensual elements of life as humans. There is a place for individual experiences and opinions as well. This balancing act is essential and part of appreciating the multitude of flavours of life. Subjective choices such as going beyond sonic neutrality, being OK with extravagance, and even eschewing what is considered "best practice" I think are acceptable so long as we are honest with ourselves, maintain a sense of humor as appropriate, and haven't lost insight into the effect of such choices on sound quality or perceived value. Within reason and one's budget, there's nothing wrong with acting in the service of our ego!
As public participants, when we go into a forum and discuss a topic, I trust that there is an expected bias for us to act civilly towards the host for his/her graciousness in providing the venue. Hosting the site and providing content does come at a cost to those running the forums and may need to be offset by selling advertising space, active promotion, or direct appeal to donations / Patreon / memberships.
If we look an specific examples these days, while I might disagree with Amir, the host of Audio Science Review in a number of ways, I do have respect for what he does. He has a very active role at ASR so obviously his personality and worldview will "color" the perspectives there (not necessarily a bad thing).
This same effect from hosts occur at other places; for example on the Steve Hoffman Forum, notice how sometimes posters will skirt around odd, vague comments or one-liners Mr. Hoffman might post. Perhaps ignore what looks like endorsement of Shakti stuff or pumping various cables. In any event, on the whole, I've appreciated the Hoffman Forum for being reasonably tolerant of skirmishes without being overly heavy-handed by the moderators. Plus the focus on the music itself in the "Music Corner" is a real smorgasbord of information to feast on!
There are forums where advertising clearly pays the bills. There's no value jumping into a Synergistic Research-sponsored forum to debate their beliefs in Tesla cables, ECTs, HFTs, UFOs, etc... :-) Not sure if there is such a place.
I value Chris Connaker's attitude and how he runs Audiophile Style and some of the writers he has on board. While I enjoy commenting on the "General Forum", it's good to see that he has clearly identified the sponsored forums as special "clubs" for those interested. I think we can all appreciate that in these sponsored areas, it would be rather poor etiquette to be rude.
I believe the rise of public discussion in general and audiophile forums specifically have been good for the hobby. I don't know what web traffic numbers look like these days comparing forums with major press-run sites but I would not be surprised if traffic on the whole continues to build in more independent places open to the public marketplace of ideas.
On MQA... Yet again...Coming back to MQA and how divisive this has been on forums (including apparently Amir's stance on MQA and "hi-res audio" in general), first, let's not forget the facts about MQA (laid out in my article more than a year ago) - to recap:
- MQA is not "lossless" high-resolution.
- The "deblur" claim appears to be without merit and the company seems to be distancing itself from using that terminology these days.
- The idea of needing to compress hi-res streams down to a 24/44.1 or 24/48 container is moot in the wake of Qobuz and Amazon HD capable of up to 24/192 FLAC.
- There is no rationale for why MQA-CD would sound "better" than regular CD as claimed by MQA. In fact, MQA-CD is anything but hi-res (worse than standard CD resolution) since the system robs bits and hence resolution from 16/44.1.
- When the MQA blue/green light/indicator goes on and the DAC says it's playing 176.4 / 192 / 352.8 / 384kHz, realize that this is not true 4X or 8X resolution. This is all upsampling from lossy reconstructed 88.2/96kHz.
- If we shave off lower bits of audio data, the DAC blue light would still turn on! "Authentication" is at best partial and hence compromised. If they can't guarantee that something is "authentic", then clearly the name "Master Quality
Authenticated" is a terrible misnomer.
- The digital filters used are questionable yet mandated for "full" MQA decoding.As adults with our own experiences and biases, what is more important in life and which drives debates is clearly not just "data", it's about how we understand and value something, then eventually expressing those thoughts. Although there are some simply disagreeable people online ("trolls"), more commonly, I think that most audiophiles are reasonable and that it is due to breakdowns in communication and inaccurate perceptions that rallies our emotions and triggers unpleasant agitation and disagreements. It is how the thoughts and personalities come across that make people angry.
When it comes to MQA, it's not the technical points that bother me as much as how the message and messengers were portrayed. If Bob Stuart and MQA came out with clear explanations of what they're doing, I don't think many of us would be too unhappy with it from the early days. There is nothing wrong with introducing a bit-reduced semi-lossless way to stream audio data. Rather, the Company tried to persuade by betting on Mr. Stuart's personal "celebrity power" rather than facts to try to convince audiophiles that this codec was some kind of essential breakthrough. They twisted the messages in the advertising material. Well-established terminology like "lossless" became something else. The cute idea of "origami folding" got played a bit too hard to be believable. IMO, this style of up-selling a questionable product is what created the dissent. Online forum unhappiness against MQA was a reaction of their own making.
I don't think it's a sign of health that mainstream audiophile magazines and editors got co-opted into endorsing something without apparently any deeper analysis into what was going on. Perhaps this too was part of the scheme at using "celebrities" of the audiophile world to promote the product. At one time, MQA even made claims that their files sounded better than the original master (you can read some of that echoed here). Then there's the sticky subject of whether MQA represents some kind of "stealth DRM" so that record labels knowingly did not have to release the full hi-res master (fearful of releasing their "crown jewels"). Surely, for enthusiastic, knowledgeable audiophiles, this was all more than a bit too much to swallow without expressing discontent...
If one is in a leadership position in the media with a large influence on readers and participants, in light of what we know these days about MQA, do you honestly think that this product is overall "good" for music lovers and will propel high-fidelity reproduction forward? If an audiophile magazine or website has a "mission statement", in what way is MQA resonating with that ethos beyond the profit motive and just trying to make a buck off a slightly different file format?
Admittedly, I'm not sure what Amir's position is with MQA as I haven't read all the threads about MQA on Audio Science Review; he's of course free to change his mind over the years. However, I would think that Amir would dislike MQA and what it represents. I'm certainly not suggesting he should be rabidly anti-MQA (each of us will have different emotional responses), but a dis-endorsement seems appropriate at least. From what I can tell, he's a champion for hi-res audio (the audibility of which a topic we might disagree on). He claims that he can provide "conclusive proof" that hi-res sounds different (using nothing more than laptop audio output and the Etymotic ER4P IEMs I might add!).
For the sake of discussion, lets accept his claim of a reported "watershed event" in the link above and hi-res does sound different and typically "better". So why would it be OK to lose some of that potential quality with MQA compression knowing that MQA is incapable of actual 24-bit resolution and the frequencies above 22.05/24kHz are all lossy reconstructed at a lower resolution? Furthermore, Amir's reviews champion products with excellent objective fidelity such as the Benchmark AHB2 amp with fantastic SNR and THD+N. Can MQA compression allow the end-user to take advantage of such levels of fidelity? Furthermore, when he reviews a very high quality DAC like the Matrix X-Sabre Pro MQA, examines the quality of the digital filter options available, and states "I would probably go with filter 3" which represents a clean and "steep" option (maybe even linear phase), then why should he not be unhappy with the filters that MQA imposes? Remember, MQA uses inherently "shallow", slow roll-off digital filters that allows imaging artifacts to seep through (plus they're universally minimum phase). This might be OK with 88.2/96kHz material, but even with 44.1/48kHz samplerate material like Beyoncé's Lemonade, there's a lot of imaging to be found on the Tidal MQA decode!
If the hardware can only ever reproduce sound at the quality of the material we can feed it, do we want our music to be affected like this? If MQA became the so-called "hi-res" streaming standard, and more of us switched to a streaming service exclusively, would it not be a shame if the "best" we could ever have access to is something like 17-bits of resolution even if we're the proud owners of 20-bit resolution DACs and high resolution amplifiers to match? Amir awards recommendations for objective excellence in hardware, so isn't it a bit dissonant to concede to such a compromised codec for the software side without at least some inherent disapproval?
I've also heard about Amir talking about "authorityhood" of some individuals. Something about Rob Harley being an "authority on who high-end audiophiles are" for example. Harley might be around awhile in the Industry, but I have concerns about his reality-testing ability and motivations. Let's agree to disagree on this one. As for Bob Stuart, nobody is disputing his education, or titles, or years in the audio industry. However, do these accolades and accomplishments ever ensure honest, unbiased "straight talk" when it comes to his own product? Of course not! Intellect and experience do not imply honesty and I think with MQA, we've witnessed first hand this lack of correlation.
Anyhow, I had a look at this recent MQA-related thread on ASR the other day and noticed that most of the comments seemed very reasonable, and suitably unimpressed with MQA and its claims.
Seek Meaning, not just FactsYou might have noticed that on the blog here, the topics I've addressed have changed over the years. No longer am I posting as many measurements of products unless something special comes up. I haven't bothered to test cables in years. Bit by bit, issues like "Do all lossless file formats sound the same?", noise from Ethernet, jitter effects, worries about file formats, difference between digital streamers, vinyl vs. digital, concerns around "bit perfect", have become less talked about because I've found my answers to these "issues". When on the forums, I'll just post a link to previous articles when questions arise and look for evidence otherwise.
To me as a hobbyist, objectifying and collecting every piece of data on every device out there for the sake of comparison isn't that satisfying. What's more important is considering whether the gear likely achieves a level of transparency which is for me the ultimate end-goal of the hardware side of this hobby. As I expressed before, does it really matter if I measure yet another DAC with THD+N <0.001% (-100dB)? No, not really although it is good to let readers know when a device performs well for those who are interested in purchasing one (and to discuss hyped-up products like the recent AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt). These facts, figures, and measurements, are simply the foundation we use to build an understand of the technology and these products we buy.
Remember to go beyond the data. Creating mental models about what is real allow us to "see the forest from the trees", then we can make rational choices and express opinions with insight built upon empirically-based testing. Depending on who we're discussing the issue with, being able to point at some measurements represents a great start to explain to the person why we take a certain position. For example, the proliferation of high quality, inexpensive DACs that measure beyond what is likely ever audible for me has been an insight gained through the late 2010's. And with that, rejoice, we now have achieved a level of high-fidelity digital reproduction that the vast majority can afford. Manufacturers who sell >$1000 DACs of course might want to argue with this, but do they then have evidence for their products being superior?
Remember too that it doesn't end with just the objective stuff or the intellect. Don't forget to listen, experience, and feel the quality of reproduction correlated with those objective results. Sometimes we might want to make subjective decisions at odds with objective fidelity such as recognizing that a bass boost sounds more pleasurable for ourselves than flat frequency response. Other times we might recognize that in fact we need to learn to appreciate a less colored sound and the beauty of a more natural tonality. Sometimes we need to change and recognize that the objective results are in fact correct and that our beliefs are biased! In a world where consumerism and the media may push us to think of "me first" narcissistic entitlements, this idea that one might need to readjust and build one's skills in listening, that our ears might not be "golden" after all, can seem at odds with a culture that is far from humble in accepting what is true.
While it is possible that some major "paradigm shift" could happen in the future, it is not unreasonable to expect that this is unlikely given that the physics of sound waves and electronics for audio frequency reproduction have been maturing for generations and decades!
The hardware audiophile hobby for me is about appreciation of the world as is, discovery of self and what we can change, and of course partaking in the joy of music. In doing so, this blog is about sharing with you the paths I've taken and the "data" that have shaped my thoughts. I'm of course happy to discuss feedback and comments in the hopes that major, foundational differences can be addressed while we can also agree to disagree on the smaller stuff. If you haven't guessed, the sharing and discussions have been a huge part of the fun in writing this blog!
Whither, audiophile forums?We go forward, of course!
The power of forums is that they represent many voices. Direct contact allows questioning and the hope of answers. News is disseminated much quicker - but the responsibility rests with the readers to weed out what is false and disinformation.
Unlike the days of decades past when there were the few voices in the official press, the marketplace of ideas has widened substantially. I believe this has taken some of the power away from the few and weakened the influence of Industry. Despite occasions when the "signal" appears to be drowned out by "noise" on forums, I do believe that the democratic nature of forums eventually provides a self-correcting mechanism whereby the most successful and best ideas likely are championed by multiple reasonable voices. Those forums (and websites) that end up being the "echochambers", closed to scrutiny, appealing to the fringe, lose relevance, eventually wither and virtually die.
One recent development about MQA. Their 2018 financial statement was released on October 23rd.
Let's see... For the year ending December 2018, they had around 21 employees. The company took in a gross amount of £350k, presumably from Tidal and hardware licensees. However, they spent almost £5M in "administrative expenses"; hence they lost £4.6M (~US$5.9M) for the financial year. See page 9 for their assets - a good amount of cash on hand (£4.6M), most of it borrowed money with a net amount of £459k in assets once you subtract out all future liabilities.
Interesting that one of the directors alone got paid £403k in 2018 (page 22). This is 15% more money than the company's gross profit that whole year. Kudos man (woman?), exceptional work!
Remember this report was up to end-of-year 2018. Back then, there was table pounding at RMAF 2018, they were pushing the "MQA Live" realtime streaming idea, and the start of an attempt into car audio (?! why bother). In comparison, MQA has been rather quiet through 2019 so far to the point where even a MQA listening demo at RMAF 2019 appeared to have been aborted.
[Here's something else new. On MQA's Facebook page, they have a few posts on demonstrating MQA with Japan's WOWOW pay-TV video service. When I looked at the WOWOW Facebook page, there's no mention of this MQA collaboration. I'm guessing the level of excitement is asymmetrical. Considering they broadcast movies, I wonder why they would not just stick with Dolby EAC3(-Atmos), TrueHD, or DTS(-HDMA, :X) codecs to retain multichannel capability and lossless quality when there's adequate bandwidth.]
Will be interesting to watch how this goes. I think I'm done with talking about MQA for awhile - I really hope!
To end off... I've been listening to this device in the last week on my main workstation:
After I came back from RMAF 2019, I was contacted by Ryan Redetzke of Redscape as I had missed visiting his booth in Denver at the "Headspace" ballroom. He was kind enough to send me the product to try out with my Sennheiser HD800 headphones.
Basically the Redscape (US$199) is a Windows-only device that consists of both software and hardware components. The software component creates a Windows virtual audio device that takes in up to 7.1 multichannel data and outputs to your headphones. The virtual audio device DSP will spatialize the data it receives for playback to 2-channels. The hardware component is a little USB box with head-tracking accelerometer and gyroscope (that little box strapped to the top of the headphone).
Think of this as "virtual reality for headphones". Through the combination of virtualization DSP and linking this to head movements, it creates an illusion of listening to speakers anchored in space in front and around you. For example, if you have 2-channel music playing, as you turn your head, you can virtually "look" towards where the right and left speakers are located. Multichannel 7.1 movie playback recreates the feeling of a virtual room with the various sources around side and back. This same effect can be experienced in 3D games.
It's an interesting psychological effect that takes the "surround sound" experience one step beyond other technologies like the Creative Super X-Fi I mentioned a few months back. As suggested above, it's like VR (discussed earlier this year) without the visual component.
I'll speak more about this device in another post.
Currently enjoying Cigarettes After Sex's just-released Cry (DR7, 2019). For those who like sweet, yet dark, moody ambient pop, it's quite enjoyable. With a DR7 and rather high noise level, absolutely no need to get the 24/96 hi-res.
Have a wonderful week everyone. Hope you're enjoying the music and takin' it easy on the forums :-).