#1048. Streaming high end audio. You can’t be serious. Really? Part one.

By Paul Perton | Related Off Topic

Oct 14
Roon server running on my MacBook Pro (and Dell 27″ monitor) and KEF LSX

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 8.8.8.8 and 8.8.4.4) and I now have better, but not seamless music yet.

Rewind.

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.

Time passes.

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.

Longer term solution – see part 2 coming soon

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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  • pascaljappy says:

    Where do I start? Being French, I’ll kiss someone 😉

    K.I.S.S. is my main consideration for anything that is meant to be enjoyable. The idea of dealing with 6 different file formats, servers, ethernet cables, wifi, Roon without a maca, Qobuz (I used to be a subscriber but could never get the thing to work well with my Node 2i), and all the other services that cost a monthly limb, cables … when I can spin a CD or LP, well, no thanks.

    To make matters worse, I recenlty listenend to a fairly high-end Naim streamer and almost fell asleep, only to be woken up and smiled upon by the sound of a CD player. Even more recently, treated to an Aurender + Soulution + Magico audition, the same happened. After the initial “man, that’s detailed” reaction, boredom set in so abruptly that I painfully searched for excuses to get out of the shop before turning into sleeping beauty. That’s 60 grand I won’t be spending in a hurry.

    I’d banned streaming from my vocabulary, once and for all.

    But, as with all such unilateral points of view there’s a big flaw in my reasoning lurking behind the scenes. It turns out that my distaste for streaming is probably more a reflection on me than on the potential quality of the service …

    During my rare auditions of streamer-centric setups, modern recordings were the most common fodder. And it’s a sad and notorious fact that a vast majority of those are super low dynamic recordings, which probably goes a long way towards the sleep inducing monotony of the sound, however detailed.

    Also, the distinction between listening to known records and discovering new things (for which streaming services are great) translates into spinning old favourites VS listening on youtube, enjoying the platform’s recommendation engines four hours on end. The sound would probably be much better on Qobuz but then, there’s video on YT … And, very often, the live recordings on YT are a lot more fun than the studio version of the same work, so this discovery process never bridges to high-res listening on the main system.

    All of which leaves me in a seemingly permanent dichotomy between fun discovery of live concerts with headsets plugged into my Macbook and old faves, mostly classical or rock, played on my hifi.

    I just don’t see a spot for streaming in this scenario. Your cobalt gem, on the other hand, is rather tempting 😉

    Cheers

  • Jack says:

    Does this help with your images?

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    When you guys finish sorting all this out, let me know. I have NO interest in the electronics of it all. I am a total music freak and this stuff chills my blood.

    I have a brother who believes he knows absolutely everything about anything you are interested in, and knows you must be stupid because he’s the only person on the planet who ever agrees with him, and he worships 12 inch LPs. His sneering noises over CDs can be heard hundreds of miles away.

    I don’t give a tosh – I’m all in favour of CDs because there’s no surface hiss, you don’t have to clean the damn record half way through each side and descale the needle because there isn’t one, and you can actually sit back and LISTEN. Instead of fooling around with the toys all day long.

    But now the walls are closing in on me. Record shops are disappearing. The ones that still exist can’t source copies of the recordings I want copies of. The future seems to be downloads onto a computer, and feed your amps and speakers from there.

    VHS or Beta? – DVDs? – Blue Ray? – FoxTel? – NetFlix?

    And to go through it all over again? I am still cursing my father who refused to bid on my behalf, using my money, to buy my great aunt’s collection of Edison cylinder recordings and her Edison player – he thought it was just junk – WTF did he ever know about music or the history of recording it? Then 78s and gramophones – MPs – LPs – CDs – and now this.

    One fallout has been to improve my hours of practising on my piano. Of course that drives my wife out of the house. Solve one problem, create another. Sigh.

    • pascaljappy says:

      This all shows we place the needle at very different places on the convenience / quality spectrum 😉 I’ve with you on CDs, although it is true that a turntable can sound warmer and more soothing. Still, in my (Red) book, nothing trumps the absolute simplicity of tying up a CD player downstream with a simple cable (or pair thereof) and start listening.

      But, as you mention, the walls are closing in on us. I’ve added a Node 2i (on the recommendation of Pascal Ravach) to the system to be able to listen to ripped CDs and downloaded music. This simply plugs into the same DAC as the CD player. And, although early days weren’t without frustration-induced swearing of olympic proportions and although the feature set is far more geared towards streaming than playing downloaded music, it works OK and with very decent sound quality.

      There are all-in-one streamers from Naim, Innuos, NAD, Aurender, Auralic … that cost a lung and a butt cheek but elevate sound quality wrt the Node 2i without loosing much simplicity, but they just do not appeal to me.

      In fact my half-luddite, half-simplicity-zealot obsessions are now taking me to the one box dream of an ATC CD/DAC/preamp all-in-one followed by ATC active speakers.

      Of course, there’s an even better one-box system, which you own: a piano (or guitar or whatever instrument). But, wife-scaring notwithstanding, this requires a prior education I never received (by my fault alone), sadly. SO enjoy playing as much as you can 🙂

  • Dallas says:

    Great article Paul, I only wish I understood what you were talking about, its all double Dutch to me!!

  • Leonard says:

    Ah . . . the rationalizations fly about like so many mosquitos on a canoe trip up the Amazon.

    But as Jeff Goldblum wisely observes in The Big Chill: “Don’t knock rationalization; where would we be without it? I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex. . . Have you ever gone a week without a rationalization?”

  • yung persohn says:

    omg, guys. what % of readers over 60?

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