I haven’t touched a camera in a while. Not much interest to be honest – although the arrival of a jammie (jam jar = car) has enabled me to travel more, which I plan to do real soon now.
Lockdown-enabled, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand why I should no longer buy CDs, or music files from iTunes. I have also been perilously close to a £2k audio buy (a Naim Infiniti Atom) which will do all sorts of streaming and listening things for me, but… On the eve of purchase, I remembered my late father’s Mac Mini which came over from Cape Town with me last year. I’d intended to use it as a video server, but gave up on seeing the ubiquity and ease of access of Amazon Prime TV, Netflix etc.
Out it came last weekend. I added a cheapo 1Tb USB external drive to house my existing music library, loaded a demo of the Roon app (I call it a centraliser), made it log into both free demos of both Tidal and Qobuz I’d been offered and hey presto! When the demos expire and for less than I’ve been spending on iTunes, I now have an unlimited music library. It works seamlessly as a client on my MacBook Pro, iPhone and my wireless KEF LSX, which have their own Roon capability. It’s damned fricking clever. It also understands the new MQA encoding, said to deliver even better sound.
Coupled with one of these and the music I’m listening to has come alive: DragonFly Series · AudioQuest. That’s analogue/digital technology which is hardly new, but almost unique at such a small scale and degree of usability. It also unfolds (decodes) the new MQA encoding Tidal/Qobuz and Roon offer.
If you’re drowning in unknowns, don’t be surprised. It’s taken me a while to begin to master the terminology, understand the nomenclature and stop the whole damned thing constantly stopping the music playback and re-buffering.
These regular momentary and sometimes system-stopping sound drops outs were driving me nuts. Roon’s FAQs weren’t much use and it was only a 2 a.m. blinding flash of the obvious that made me check the MacMini’s DNS setting, to discover it was still using a DNS server in South Africa. A quick change to Google’s ever available DNS servers (at either 188.8.131.52 and 184.108.40.206) and I now have better, but not seamless music yet.
First there were singles and LPs, which quickly disappeared in the early ‘80s, giving way to CDs, which most of us were delighted with. Great sound, no clicks and pops, no 20 minute sides and less real estate wasted in one’s lounge or listening area.
Yes, the covers were far from those of the LPs they replaced. But over time, as we began to accept the new format, we also came to understand that the digital waveform from our new spinning disks wasn’t quite as good as we were used to. Many of us spent a great deal trying to get it back.
Like me, most other hi-fi mavens have spent years trying to overcome digital audio’s shortcomings and in many situations, succeeded. What they could’t overcome was the use of compression to make the output bigger and louder, at the expense of clarity and a lot of critically important frequency response.
Of course, if you’re listening to your music of choice on an iPhone, USB or wireless speaker, sound clarity hardly matters as long as the bass thumps like wet cardboard and it’s as loud as possible.
For the listener, it’s been pretty miserable – there’s been lots of work on compression, but it still destroys so much music and it’s appreciation.
Meanwhile, yet more compression arrived with MP3; able to reduce audio file sizes by as much as 90% at a time when disk space was still quite expensive. It was a huge step forward. It also enabled an MP3 file to be added to an e-mail without your ISP’s servers declining to send it because it was so large.
And who the hell cared if the sound was flat and unexciting?
In no particular order, MP4, WAV, FLAC and many others followed. All promising much, but delivering not much.
Doubtless, most of us have read about music streaming. Once again, lots of startups, but really only one made any kind of impression; Spotify. Available free if you could tolerate the randomly placed ads, Spotify did what all the streamers since are still struggling with; they made a dent, which has grown into a service worth subscribing to.
Initially, I threw up my hands at Spotify’s playlists; its choices of music for me to listen to. It was only after several weeks of pretty savage favouriting and deleting music I couldn’t tolerate that I started to hear new and interesting tracks, almost completely free from rap, hip hop and the dreary and monosyllabic modern R&B.
I’ve written elsewhere about buying my KEF LSX speakers. Coupled with Spotify, I now had a good music source, with just about unlimited access to tracks of my choice. The trouble is, I don’t have much listening room just now and the KEFs are better than that, a shortcoming underscored by listening on some new Sony noise suppressing wireless headphones. Both delivered what Spotify sent, but the excitement wasn’t really there.
Committing some cash to a solution, the DAC (digital analogue converter) DragonFly Series · AudioQuest (Cobalt) arrived and transformed the sound from my headphones in a heartbeat. Sadly, it also means being accompanied by way more cable and donglery than I find convenient. Still, it’s still a small price to pay.
The KEFs have their own on-board DACs, but seemed to also benefit from the DragonFly in their audio loop.
By transforming the digital audio stream approximation of a curve into the real analogue thing, the DAC fills out the audio spectrum and restores much of the listening pleasure lost to digitisation.
Still, I was either tied to Spotify, or my own music library (mainly MP4 files ripped from my own CDs or purchased from iTunes over a lengthy period).
It didn’t take much digging to find a software app called Roon. Both fellow-DS-er Steve and I played with it some months ago and then abandoned the idea – it’s a kind of aggregator and requires both a subscription to a streaming service or two, plus access to one’s own music library.
From this it blends all manner of listening, chooses some really good new music to discover alongside your existing library. Where available, Roon offers current and past recordings rendered with MQA encoding.
But not Spotify. I think it’s because Spotify’s audience isn’t so much listeners as consumers. High resolution audio files are much bigger than FLAC, MP3s and MP4s, so for now, they don’t offer a premier audio streaming option. Pity that.
Principle Roon streaming-favoured services are Tidal and Qobuz. The former was originally a Norwegian product, but latterly is owned by Jay-Z. I feared it might prioritise the aforementioned rap, hip hop and the dreary and monosyllabic modern R&B, but not so. Most of the music I choose to listen to is there, the algorithms that build automated playlist suggestions are pretty good and for the few pounds (£) a month it costs, represents good value.
Oddly named Qobuz is a French service and varies little from Tidal, save that some of the older music I look for is more often found here than on Tidal.
Of the other streaming services available, the most obvious is Apple’s Music. I tried that, but when I saw it was going to start re-organising my own music library, I stopped it and haven’t been back since.
So, I don’t need both Tidal and Qobuz and as the current 30 day trial periods expire, I’ll doubtless shed one or the other.
But it doesn’t end there.
MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) has been developed by the UK’s Meridian Audio. I can barely understand the words, but if you want to read more, here’s the place: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Master_Quality_Authenticated
Once again, enter the DragonFly Series · AudioQuest. This tiny device contains the technology to “unwrap” an MQA stream coming from Tidal or Qobuz. Once it detects an MQA encoded stream, it’s LED turns a delightful and very satisfying purple and it delivers better audio imaging, placement of artists and instruments and a significantly wider soundstage. It’s seriously impressive.
Oh yes. MQA and its owners/developers is being criticised for wanting to corner the licensing of music. Nothing new there as far as I can see.
I play music all day long, often just as a background. It was easy to wonder then just how much the peripherals like Naim’s aforementioned Uniti Atom really impact the sound and how much better (or worse) that might be in comparison to my several year old MacMini. Like the DNS issue, the reality is that for as long as the music is no more than a bitstream there can be little to no difference in the audio quality, because at that stage it isn’t audio.
Only when that digital signal leaves the streamer – or in my case, computer – that the different audio technologies might be
encountered heard. The streamer manufacturers disagree and argue that the noise generated by the device, bus, ports and just about anything else they can think of is such that a specialised streamer is best and a computer, very sub-optimal.
Might be, but I can’t hear it.
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