Saturday, 15 July 2017

INTERNET BLIND TEST: MQA Core Decoding vs. Standard Hi-Res Audio


Introduction:

Well my friends, the time has come... Yes, it's another Internet Blind Test!

As a "more objective" hobbyist blog, within these pages I try to demonstrate facts, figures, and opinions as best I can with the hopes that it educates the typical "audiophile" out there who loves music and wants to at the same time understand the hardware and technologies used in the world of high-fidelity. I do this for fun with the hopes that in time, as a group we can be "more rational", each of us better able to adjudicate what makes sense, what works, and what ultimately has either very little worth or should even be considered worthless "voodoo".

Over the last few years, as you've no doubt noticed, a number of my posts have been looking at MQA and the claims made. I'm not going to rehash much of that here (feel free to start on this page and check out the links at the bottom accumulated over time). As we've come closer to understanding details like the filters used and how the "Rendering" works, there is one very important piece that remains rather nebulous.

This last piece has to do with claims of time domain "de-blurring". The idea that some kind of DSP has been used to affect the sound quality, ultimately "improving the analogue-to-analogue performance" from the studio to one's own DAC output (ostensibly using various techniques including measuring and aligning impulse responses of the devices used in production and playback). How this works is of course proprietary and hidden in the encoding system which we as end-users have no access to.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

MEASUREMENTS: MQA Filters on Mytek Brooklyn & Thoughts on USB Doohickeys


Hey folks... It's summer and I'm in and out of town doing a bit of R&R mixed with the day job.

I sent my friend with the Mytek Brooklyn and Fireface ADC a package of the MQA "Render" tagged files for testing. As you can see above, that's what the MQA filters look like with the Mytek Brooklyn serving as "Renderer" for the impulse responses. If you look at the top row, we see that the Brooklyn's standard digital filter at 24/96 is the same as what MQA uses for playing back 96kHz "original" unfolded PCM. This is different from the Dragonfly Black DAC presented a couple weeks back where the standard filter at 24/96 is a much sharper one and would shift to the weaker MQA filter only when it detects the MQA Render tagged data.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

MEASUREMENTS: AudioQuest Dragonfly Black 1.5 - PART 2 (On "MQA Rendering")

AudioQuest Dragonfly Black - "rendering" MQA playback. Dragonfly logo turns purplish...
For those keeping track, the story of MQA has slowly evolved over the last few years. Initially, it was supposed to be just a technology incorporated into DACs that would take an encoded file (typically 24/44 or 24/48) and almost "magically" transform this data into the "original" high resolution (equivalent to 24/192+) sound while maintaining standard PCM playback compatibility. This was the case with the first products like the Meridian Explorer 2. Over the years, it appears that concessions have been made. Software decoding rather suddenly was introduced in early 2017 with TIDAL's support for MQA; branded as "MQA Core". At around the same time, DACs were classified as either "MQA Decoders" for components that can handle these 24/44 or 24/48 files start to finish (Meridian, Mytek DACs), and "MQA Renderers" which require the computer software perform initial "unfolding" to high-res samplerates (88 or 96kHz) followed by some kind of final processing to the sound performed by the DAC presumably to allow the sound to be more "accurate" to the studio production, or "authentic" (whatever that means).



With the recent firmware upgrade to version 1.06, the Dragonfly Black DAC now belongs to this latter category of "Renderer". As far as I am aware, it is the first of these kinds of devices to be released without "Decoding" capability.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

MEASUREMENTS: Audioquest Dragonfly Black 1.5 - PART 1 (General)

Four USB mini-DAC's (back to front): Light Harmonic Geek Out V2, Audioquest Dragonfly Black, SMSL iDEA, AudioEngine D3.
As I showed a couple weeks ago, I have in my possession one of the Audioquest Dragonfly Black DACs for testing. I'm actually borrowing it from a friend so it's not going to be in my possession for long... Long enough for me to listen and run some objective testing to see what the "deal" is.

I think it's useful to show these test results on the Dragonfly because AudioQuest clearly has a healthy advertising budget and promotes it quite heavily on audiophile sites with ads in magazines as well; as such it's a bit of a "standard" even though a number of other alternatives exist. For example, a few weeks back, I showed the measurements for the SMSL iDEA which I thought performed objectively amazingly well for such a small device although I had some issues with seamless connectivity to Linux / Android. As you can see in the image above, I have tested a few others of these kinds of  DACs already including the AudioEngine D3 measured in 2014, Light Harmonic Geek Out V2 in 2015, and also the previous revision Dragonfly v1.2 in 2014 which I don't have on hand any more (it was given as a gift to a friend).

Saturday, 10 June 2017

MEASUREMENTS: Oppo Sonica DAC (ESS Sabre ES9038Pro based device)

My Raspberry Pi 3 "Touch" on top of the Oppo Sonica DAC - notice the DAC can handle up to PCM 768kHz (and DSD512 / 22.4MHz).
A few weeks ago, I published the preview of the new Oppo Sonica DAC and noted some issues I ran into with unusual jitter and digital filter measurements. Thankfully, Oppo was able to correct the issues within a week with the beta firmware and I see that the official firmware incorporating the improvements is now out - Sonica-33-0511 on the support website (May 15, 2017 date).

With it becoming official, I figure it was time for me to run and post results of objective tests on the device. This should give us a taste of both the capabilities of this Oppo DAC as well as look at what the "latest and greatest" ESS Technology ES9038Pro 8-channel DAC chipset is capable of... Although I have not seen it specified anywhere, my assumption is that the stereo configuration in this device ties 4 of the DAC channels for each of the stereo pair.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

MUSINGS / MEASUREMENTS: Thoughts on Vinyl LP Fidelity... (And thoughts on Sgt. Pepper's 50th Anniversary Remix.)


Alright... Let's not get worked up about the cartoon :-).

I know, the debate between vinyl and CD (digital) remains one of the greatest "wars" of the audio world; not that it should be a big deal IMO... As usual in most audiophile conflicts, there are many words spilled about the topic, but it is rare to see "data" or actual direct comparisons. For example, look at Wikipedia's entry for "Comparison of analog and digital recording" and we see no actual illustration to demonstrate differences.

Years ago, I wrote a little about this here (and I think it's only fair that I have a digital-preferring Batman cartoon). As you know, over the years there are all kinds of vinyl evangelists going around touting the superiority of LPs over CDs and digital overall (and vice versa although I'm not sure the digital camp is as evangelistic). Here's a nice example of all the awesomeness that is vinyl based on someone's opinion.

As I've said before, I agree that there are some great qualities about having an LP collection. So long as you have the space for the non-biodegradable collection, the beauty of the artwork is wonderful. It's comforting and collectable memorabilia. And likewise the sound can be alluring in the same romantic way. For some, the ritualization of the playback process can bring with it that sense of security and physical engagement as well.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

MEASUREMENTS: SMSL iDEA USB DAC / Headphone Amp (ESS Sabre ES9018Q2C + XMOS XU208)

In 2015, ESS revealed its latest generation of DACs at the CES show. One of the interesting new products revealed was the SABRE9018Q2C, a tiny 5mm x 5mm SoC claiming very high audio quality out of an integrated DAC/headphone amp operating with low power along with the ability to decode a wide range of sample rates.

I was contacted by ZugZugOrc on Computer Audiophile to have a look at a recently released USB DAC he wanted to buy for some measurements based on the above chipset. So we made an arrangement where he sent the package to me to have a look at and subsequently after I'm done, I would send it off to him to use :-). Thanks Zug for the opportunity!

Here's the device - the SMSL iDEA (can be found on Amazon for ~US$86 currently), a mini USB powered "stick" based on the ES9018Q2C "audiophile-quality" mobile DAC capable of accepting up to 32/768 and DSD512!

SMSL stands for  "ShuangMuSanLin" Electronics Company based in Shenzhen, China. I was sent the black one, but the device is also available in red.



Saturday, 20 May 2017

MEASUREMENTS: Raspberry Pi 3 "Touch" music streamer

The music being played is the soundtrack from Japanese anime Your Name (Kimi No Na Wa). Saw it with the family last week - great flick!
A few weeks ago when I described the building of the Raspberry Pi 3-based music streamer with touchscreen (I'll just call it "Pi Touch" in this post), I promised that I was going to publish some measurement results.

Well... Let's have a look at those results! :-)

Saturday, 13 May 2017

MUSINGS: On Being an Audiophile, Rationality, and Respectability (Thoughts on the Hardware Audiophile Hobby)


For the post today, I thought it would be interesting to take a step back from my usual measurements and various objective explorations and spend some time thinking about the "audiophile" hobby; you know - the big picture.

For some, the idea of "rational audiophilia" as suggested in the image above might sound oxymoronic. After all, anyone who spends thousands of dollars and hours upon hours of time on audio toys in an obsessional fashion is at the very least "neurotic" and somewhat irrational. One could spend his/her time working hard to make more money, spend time with family, read a good book, enjoy a play, take a vacation, go exercising... All of which depending on the situation potentially more worthwhile and healthier.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

PREVIEW: Oppo Sonica DAC (Thanks Oppo for making it right... On the rationale for technical perfection.)

Usually, I don't post many "preview" type articles, preferring to give you guys "the goods" when I've had an adequate amount of time with a device (usually at least a month or so) including measurements and such. I'll discuss why I'm posting this earlier as we go along...

Well, this is what showed up at my door last week:

That's of course the recently released Oppo Sonica DAC. A "hi-fi" USB, S/PDIF, ethernet, WiFi, Bluetooth digital player with DLNA streaming capability, part of the Oppo Sonica "family" of audio devices. The only other device with this moniker currently being the Sonica Wi-Fi Speaker, capable of 24/192 streaming. Coming later this year apparently is the larger Sonica Grand.

Let's have a peek inside the box...

Saturday, 29 April 2017

MEASUREMENTS: Windows 10 Creators Update USB Audio Class 2 Driver. (And a request of Neil Young / XStream.)

 

It has arrived... Finally... Microsoft's USB Audio Class 2 (UAC2) native Windows driver has been released with the recent Windows 10 Creators Update ("CU", version 1703, build 15063.138). I updated my home theater PC and when I plugged in my TEAC UD-501 DAC to the USB port (with no TEAC driver installed), Windows detected it and proceeded with the device set-up automatically.

Considering that Mac OS X and Linux have had "native" drivers for years, I guess it's about time that Microsoft finally got the job done. Remember, "UAC2" has been out since 2009 as an evolution of the "UAC1" standard from 1998.

Of course, this doesn't mean the Windows world has been deprived of high quality sound... Companies have been releasing their own drivers since the beginning.

Monday, 17 April 2017

RETRO-MEASURE: 2002 Lynx L22 PCI audio card in a ~2008 Intel Q6600 Computer. (On "computers are noisy!" for audio)

As many of you probably know, Mitch "Mitchco" Barnett is a regular contributor to the Computer Audiophile website with his articles. He's also the author of the book Accurate Sound Reproduction Using DSP (now available in paperback). A great guy who has logged many hours back in the day in the audio production world!

The cool thing is that Mitch doesn't live far from where I am and last year, we met up at the Vancouver Audio Show 2016 (which by the way appears to be running again this year June 24-25, 2017). We chatted a bit before the show about various topics both in life and audio. From those discussions, one of the questions we wondered about was this whole notion about electrically "noisy" computers and just how "bad" the inside of a typical PC is for high-fidelity computer audio. After all, these days we see all kinds of products claiming the importance of "noise isolation" from USB cards to power supply upgrades.

At the Audio Show, Mitch kindly lent me an old computer audio card he had at home in storage which he was no longer using (in part because he's up to date with his computers and no longer runs a machine with PCI slots :-). Here it is:


Behold, the Lynx L22 24/192-capable PCI "digital audio interface" designed circa 2002. Back in the day, this package had an MSRP of US$749. It filters the power supply, is said to have very clean ground planes, and utilizes high quality components (here's a review from 2003). At a time when probably many of us were rockin' with Creative Soundblaster Live! type sound cards, this is something meant for home studios and maybe some DVD audio production... At 15 years now since the design of this device, we had to wonder - how does this sound card measure and sound sitting in a "noisy" old computer enclosure with components dating back to the era of conventional PCI (not PCIe) slots?