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Meridian’s MQA demo at Audio High in Mountain View, CA

IMG_9115On April 16th Audio High was the location for was the first publicly-hosted demonstration of Meridian’s MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) high-resolution digital audio format. There was lots of music, great food and drink, very comfortable surroundings and many friendly and knowledgeable people. Audio High and Meridian did an excellent job of making everyone feel at home. Personnel from AH and Meridian’s Ken Forsythe and Brad O’Toole mingled with the throng and answered questions throughout the evening.

In the introduction, MQA was explained by Ken Forsythe as a “new music ecosystem”: audio is encoded to MQA from the studio (or live) source, then “authenticated” by the artist or, presumably, the producer or engineer, and then marketed and distributed to digital providers — who then sell it to consumers as downloadable or streamable content.

Provenance was a word heard several times. At the root of the MQA concept is authentication. There’s a significant number of high-resolution files of questionable native resolution and sourcing being offered on certain high-res digital services; MQA aims to eliminate any such doubt.

The listener needs MQA software and/or hardware to play the files back as originally encoded, but they’re backward-compatible and will play at 16/44 or 48 on any device that can handle standard lossless formats — you don’t necessarily need a Meridian DAC or Meridian speakers to play the files (but, of course, Meridian wouldn’t object to that sort of thing).

Which brings us to the playback system used for the demo:

IMG_9103* A Meridian 818V3 preamp ($16,000) updated with two new processor boards and a beta version of the MQA decoder. If you’re an 818 owner, Meridian will make available (ETA June) an upgrade kit containing the necessary boards and firmware; it’ll also include Lipsync for video source audio latency and two-channel DSP room correction.

* Two Meridian DSP 8000SE speakers ($80,000). The enclosure includes a preamp/DSP module, and each drive array of the 3-way system has a dedicated DAC and 150-watt class A/B amp. An LED readout on the speakers’ front displays the format and resolution of the source.

And if you’re a bit hesitant due to the price, keep in mind that your 80 grand buys you these speakers in just about any color you like — as long as it’s in the 270-shade Meridian palette, of course.
IMG_9097
Music was delivered from the 818 to the speakers via Meridian’s SpeakerLink, a CAT5-based cable. Streaming was handled by the Meridian Control 15 ($7500). Files were sourced from a QNAP NAS. The Meridian Core Control interface was also running on an iPad that was being passed around.

As mentioned earlier, MQA playback isn’t hardware-dependent; the decoding can be done by software. There was talk of apps that would enable MQA files to be played back on an smartphones and tablets. There could also be, I assume, an MQA plug-in for JRiver Media Center and the like for home systems. And there’s already plans for Tidal to experiment with streaming MQA. Filesize is touted as one-fifth the size of that of an AIF or WAV file; this is certainly an advantage when it comes to streaming, especially via mobile broadband — where most consumers do their listening.

Back to the presentation. Robert Silverman was in attendance, introducing the MQA files of his recent studio performance of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Other demonstration tracks? Norah Jones, Diana Krall, will.i.am. (“That Power” featuring Justin Bieber), Blake Shelton, Dave Brubeck (guess which song?), Blood, Sweat and Tears “Spinning Wheel”, Elton John “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”.

Sooloos browser displaying MQA tracks.

Control 15 browser displaying MQA content.

How did MQA sound under these…controlled conditions?

I wanted it to be amazing.

It sounded good. Sometimes more-than-good. Bass-dominated tracks like the will.i.am tune had remarkable dynamic range and tight low-end slam. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” a song I could have comfortably never, ever heard again, suddenly sounded impressive. There was a preternatural space and air between the instruments that gave the song depth. During the playing of the Beethoven sonatas, Silverman’s piano sounded like a piano, and by that I mean it almost sounded like he was there playing it.

No doubt Meridian’s $110,000 system was showcasing MQA at its best. The presentation and the possibilities it afforded were intriguing, and, in the true show biz tradition, the demo left me wanting more:

* I’d like to experience music encoded in MQA in an intimate, near-field setting. Audio High’s showroom is excellent, but it’s a big, (roughly) square room with carpeting and pretty quilt-like wall hangings. I’d love to hear MQA in my living room, with all the space’s warts, acoustic-nightmare corners and oh, yeah, that problematic picture window constituting 75% of the back wall, too.

* I want to hear MQA played back through a more conventional amplifier/speaker combo. I trust that Meridian’s DSP8000 speakers are innovative. They certainly sound wonderful, especially those 3 side-firing woofers. The traditionalist in me, however, has reservations about mounting an amplifier (or amplifiers) within the speaker enclosure, for reasons of vibration and RFI/EMI, among other things. I admit to being bigoted regarding the ancient audiophile concept of “separates;” color me a Luddite in that respect.

* A nicely-unpacked, stable download is one thing, but I’m eager to hear music that I like and know well streaming Tidal-style through the above, as well as through a decent portable device (Pono?) with a good pair of headphones (Pono’s development team reportedly negotiated with Meridian before settling on Ayre for the innards of the final Pono design. Perhaps MQA was the reason Pono and Meridian diverged; I speculate that Pono wanted a more agnostic range of digital formats).

* I’d enjoy the opportunity to compare MQA side-by-side to DSD and high-res WAV/AIF.

(I’d also like a vacation home on the north shore of Kaua’i, if you’re taking notes. Beach access, some jungle acreage and an orchid shadehouse would be nice, too).

IMG_9098I asked Meridian’s Brad O’Toole about user-level encoding — would the consumer be able to transcode his or her own sources (such as an LP rip) or existing audio files to MQA, sort of like the way PS Audio’s Directstream transcodes to DSD on the fly? The answer was no. Ken Forsythe elaborated: “With MQA there is no transcode; the original lossless format is “encapsulated” or placed into the MQA box. This is a part of the compatibility aspect in that whatever format goes in come out.”

MQA really is a brilliant concept: vertically integrate and increase the value of Meridian’s existing hardware line using proprietary studio-level mastering/encoding, a delivery and distribution channel, and software for the end user. Apple would be proud of such synergy. If Meridian can market streaming high-res effectively and honestly, managing user expectations with a minimum (or complete absence of) hype — yes, I’m looking at you, Pono and Tidal — the future of MQA will be very interesting.

———-
More:

Stereophile: I’ve Heard the Future of Streaming: Meridian’s MQA by John Atkinson (December 2014)

The Absolute Sound: Robert Harley Listens to Meridian MQA (December 2014)

Amazon Cloud Drive

Amazon is offering a free three-month trial of its “unlimited” Cloud Drive service. I put that word in quotes because there always seems to be a catch down the road somewhere. My guess is the gotcha might come after your first three months are up and you shift to paying $60 for a year for your “Unlimited Everything” tier of service. Perhaps the user agreement might then shift from “unlimited” to “unlimited within reason“? Or “unlimited” until Comcast thinks you’re seeding BitTorrent 24/7 and clamps down on your bandwidth quota?

Not that that’s ever happened to me, mind you. But still.

Anyway. Last week I signed up for the three-month trial and began uploading the contents of a 2TB hard drive. By today I was up to “G” in my FLAC collection. It’s slow going.

There’s been a few glitches.

If your folders or filenames have slashes (/), tildes, accents or anything similar, they won’t upload. I had no idea there were so many folders with “24/96” in my collection. Since most file systems treat that slash as part of a directory path, those folder names won’t work; you’ll get a vague error message saying the upload of those files or folders failed. Be prepared to de-slash your file and folder names. For the tilde-accent-etc issue, the workaround is to duplicate the folders, then amend the names to exclude the forbidden characters and upload the altered folder — then delete the amended duplicate from your source drive.

Another annoying occurrence is an error message saying the folder or file already exists, and asking you if you want to quit the upload or overwrite it. This is nearly always a false error message, so I just ok the overrwrite and check the “apply to all” box.

Here’s another mystery message that hit me tonight:

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 8.55.30 PM

As with most Cloud uploads, it’s best to do a few folders at a time, not your whole hard drive. Otherwise, keeping up with the various error messages and reuploads is gonna be a bitch.

Far as I can tell you can’t use Cloud Drive to stream audio to the desktop. The iOS app seems to be mainly designed for photos, not audio. It appears that Cloud Drive is for storage only, not streaming.

I’m not sure if I’ll be ready to shell out $60 for a year of the service once my trial is up in late June. We’ll see how Cloud Drive behaves once all the audio is uploaded.

Monday Telecommute

TimmyTElecommute033015Timmy, 11 months old tomorrow, stakes out territory.

Tangerine Dream SACDs from Japan on Confessions of a Part-Time Audiophile

td_pta_screenshotI wrote something about something and Part-Time Audiophile went ahead and put it out there again.

The latest example of this is my review of four Tangerine Dream SACD reissues from Japan.

Busy

South TufaI’ve been doing stuff.

I went to Mono Lake for a four-day retreat earlier this month. Had a huge Eucalyptus cut down in the backyard last week. Trying to get plants to finally grow beneath where the Eucalyptus used to drop its toxic waste. Working the day job. Relaxing, or trying to. Catching up on The Soup and Alaska State Troopers. That sort of thing.

Coming soon:

* Reviews of four Japanese Tangerine Dream SACDs

* A new turntable!

* LP reviews (once the new turntable is dialed in)

Music Lovers SF Burglarized for Second Time This Month

Stereophile has details on the latest high-end audio store burglary in San Francisco. I shop at Music Lovers’ SF and Berkeley locations and have always found their selection and service amazing; they’re knowledgable, friendly people with a lot to offer the high-end community. Let’s hope they, AudioVision and Mountain View’s Audio High (also hit recently) benefit from beefed-up security and increased police patrols.

Burglary at Audeze — $250,000 Worth of Headphones Stolen

UPDATE 3/4/15 11pm: Audeze has set up a serial number checker.

UPDATE 3/1/15 12:55pm: Stereophile has posted more details about the Audeze caper and the burglary at AudioVision SF last week. There’s also security camera screencaps on Audeze’s Facebook page.
_________________________________________

From Audeze’s Facebook page:

Last night, February 28th, there was a break-in and robbery at Audeze. About $250,000 of headphones were stolen. We’re a relatively small company and this is a real blow. Audeze asks everyone to let us know if offered LCD headphones at a deal that’s too good to be true. You should be highly suspicious if anyone other than an Authorized Audeze dealer offers you our headphones for sale at a reduced price. We don’t allow our dealers to sell via Amazon, eBay, Craigslist etc., so deals on these sites should be carefully researched before purchase. You should also be very concerned if their headphones do not have a serial number, or the seller refuses to give you the serial number before purchase. All Audeze headphones have a serial number on the inside of the adjusting block. We’ll soon publish a list of all stolen products’ serial numbers. In addition, Audeze is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the thieves. If you have any information or questions, please write to: support@audeze.com. While it does not appear any EL-8s were stolen (they were in a different area of our warehouse), due to the police investigation and general disruption, you should expect a few days’ delay in EL-8 shipments.

Thanks, The Audeze Team

Further info at audeze.com.

Review: AKG K7XX (Massdrop first edition)

IMG_8626My pair showed up today. Massdrop quickly sold 1000 of them at $200. Ultimate retail price will be around $650.

I spent the afternoon and most of the evening playing a lot of CD-res FLACs from the iPad. The K7XXs sound excellent directly out of the box, but I assume they’ll benefit from a few more days’ break-in.

My experience with AKGs is that they need a headphone amp (and these definitely benefit from one), but with the volume on the iPad turned up all the way, the K7XX perform more than adequately. Sensitivity is 105 dB/V.

Apples-and-oranges-wise, the open-back design means the bass doesn’t have the ‘whomp’ I’m used to from the Mr. Speakers Alpha Primes I have at work, or the Audeze LCD-XCs at home. But the AKGs are a LOT more comfortable to wear for long periods of time than the Primes or XCs, partly because of the weight of the K7XXs (barely over 8 oz) and also because my head isn’t feeling….well, compressed by the sealed low frequencies of the Audezes or Primes. The leakage from the open design isn’t too loud, either, meaning these might play well in areas where the non-headphone-wearing ilk dwell. The guy sitting next to me on the train might not, um, dig them as much as I do, but people across the way in a busy office aren’t going to be shooting stink-eye in your direction (much).

The midrange and hi-mids are what really shine. There’s a clarity to vocals and guitars and keyboards that I can really get used to. These are great headphones for rock and electronic music. Female vocals sound pretty sweet, too.

Lisa Germano’s “Bad Attitude” and “Puppet” from Happiness (4AD UK CAD 4005 CD rip) were the first things I played through them. The latter has quite a bit of distorted guitar, and the track sizzles like mad on the AKGs. There’s some crackle (the good sort) on this CD that I’ve never heard before now.

photo 2After running a few songs through the iPad’s FLAC Player, I switched to my main office rig: a cheap old Creek headphone amp being fed by the PS Audio PerfectWave Mk II DAC and a Mac Pro running Decibel.

Synergy’s “Phobos and Deimos Go To Mars” from Cords (Chronicles US 314 558 044-2 CD rip) features frenetic fusillades of treated e-percussion (think “Kings Lead Hat”) and the AKGs did justice to the song’s multitude of phase and flange tweaks. The synthesized bass was right there with me, too. This is the perfect track for demoing the headphones for electronic music freaks.

If, like me, bass is your thing: I cued up Frank Zappa and the Mothers’ “Sofa No.1” and “No.2” from a 24/96 LP rip of an early US pressing of One Size Fits All and marveled. I don’t know who plays bass synth on these tracks (George Duke?) but man, what a thing of beauty these songs are. The K7XXs deliver it all in a deep, smooth and enveloping package.

When I got home I plugged them into the Cavalli Liquid Glass and powered up the PS Audio DirectStream with (newly factory-reset!) Bridge. I warmed up with a 24/96 LP rip of Steve Tibbetts’ “Climbing” (from Safe Journey ECM US 1-25002, ECM 1270). Marc Anderson’s burbling percussion perfectly complements Tibbetts’ guitar washes and kalimba plucks. The AKGs actually started sounding like an excellent set of speakers — I forgot I was wearing headphones. The effect was absorbing. Yes, chalk it up, at least partly, to the Cavalli’s hybrid tube goodness. But the headphones are the ultimate arbiter of those last couple feet of cable.

Michael Brooks’ “Ultramarine” from Cobalt Blue (24/96 FLAC from LP rip, 4AD UK CAD2007) remains my go-to track for new equipment. The percussive nature of Brooks’ guitarwork means the transients are fast, and the varying decay rates of his effects are a challenge to any resolving preamp / amp / transducer combo. This song really needs the reflections of a room to make it snap, but it sounded wonderful on the AKGs. I kept turning it louder (and LOUDER) and they didn’t complain. Neither did I.

The only words I can think that suit the K7XX is “neutral balance”. Highs, mids and bass aren’t tugging at one other; there’s a benevolent and beneficial truce among the three, and the only winner is the whatever you’re playing at the time. These headphones don’t seem to add or subtract anything from the songs I know best — they just let the tracks shine.

Build quality? It seems good. Leather headband. Memory foam earpads with velour covers. Detachable 3-meter cord. The earpads aren’t collapsable, and I wouldn’t want to go stuffing these into a backpack. They’re best left at home.

photo 3 copySennheiser and Audeze should be hearing footsteps; the K7XXs are definite contenders in the $500 to $1000 price range. I like them better than anything similarly priced, and better than a few more expensive headphones, too. They sound great with NO break-in, so I’m looking forward to hearing them perform over the next few days (and reserve the right to revise — or elaborate upon — my gushing praise at that later date). The possibilities are intriguing. How good can they sound with Pono? Will a cable upgrade make them shine even brighter? Time will reveal all.

An extraordinary value at $200 or $650.

Review: Acoustic Zen Crescendo Mark II speakers

I’d been enjoying Acoustic Zen speakers at California Audio Show rooms over the past 3 years. Adagios, Crescendos, and, more recently, the towering Maestros. Three years ago I wanted the Adagios. A year later I pined for Crescendos.

I had some serious ‘Zen envy.

Acoustic Zen Crescendo MkII

Late last year I finally resolved to exile my loyal pair of Paradigm Studio 100 v.5s to the home theater realm and upgrade the speakers in the main listening space. I knew that the Acoustic Zen Crescendo Mark II speakers sounded good in a hotel room. How would they perform in a 15 x 30 rectangular space consisting of a substantial picture window, troublesome corners, a marble coffee table, a glass and masonry corner table, a brick fireplace, and hardwood floors?

I wanted to audition them somewhere other than the Westin at SFO. I looked up AZ’s local dealers and began calling and emailing.

“We don’t have them in stock. We can special-order them, though.”

Any ideas where I could listen to them?

“No. I’m sure they’d sound great in your room, though.”

One dealer expressed doubt after I described the dimensions of the living room. “I think they may be too big for the space — both physically and in terms of sound.”

That was good to hear. Actually…well, I didn’t want to hear that, but at least the guy wasn’t assuring me I should share his blind faith in exchange for my credit card info. I respected that.

I plunged on. No luck. No one had demo models I could audition.

I found some pamphlets from last year’s CAS show and decided to throw a hail Mary. I emailed Acoustic Zen and mentioned that no Bay area dealers had the Crescendos in stock. I immediately received a gracious and detailed email from Robert Lee at Acoustic Zen. He offered to send me a pair of Crescendo Mark IIs for review, as well as speaker cables and XLR interconnects.

I said yes, please, thank you.

3155537239a411e3b9d822000ab5b45b_8On Christmas eve the speakers and cables arrived. The boxes were huge — we’re talking nearly coffin-sized. It took me about 45 minutes to unpack the speakers, ease them out of the boxes and remove the lovely drawstring fabric bags that encased the cabinets. I took a moment to catch my breath, then carefully tipped the speakers upright (probably should have had help doing that) and slid them on either side of the couch. After 10 more minutes I’d hooked up Acoustic Zen’s Absolute speaker cables, impressively-sheathed pieces of work roughly the diameter of a mid-sized firehose (and probably slightly less flexible). There was no slack in the cable to the left speaker; guess I should’ve gone for another foot or two…oh well.

I powered up the amp and put on a CD of Another Green World.

The music had just started and I was admiring the speakers’ glossy rosewood laminated finish when my better half walked in.

“They sound great out of the box, huh?”

“I didn’t know they were going to be so…big.”

“50 inches tall, if I don’t attach the spikes. They’re only a little bigger than the Paradigms…”

“They’re a LOT bigger! Can they be pushed back at all? They’re kind of blocking the way to the couch, and they’re gonna tower over people sitting there…”

“I didn’t get long enough speaker cables. There’s not enough slack. If you move the left speaker more than an inch or two back, it might disconnect. If that happens, I’m concerned it could short the amp out. I’ll ask Acoustic Zen if they’ll swap them for a longer pair of cables.”

She looked doubtful.

Reluctantly, I went on a week’s walkabout the next evening. In my absence, I asked my girlfriend to keep the amplifier on, with as much music as possible playing through the new speakers. The amp was still breaking in, too.

I returned just before New Year’s eve. I sat down with my new speakers and a very warm amplifier and piped a bunch of neato stuff through them:

Brian Eno Another Green World CD (Toshiba/EMI Japan “black triangle” 32VD-1114)
Michael Brook Cobalt Blue 24/96 FLAC (LP rip, 4AD UK CAD2007)
Sandy Bull Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo LP (Sutro Park SP1000)
Aragon Aragon CD (Invitation Japan VDR-77)
Janet Feder Songs With Words DSD (self-released via downloadsNOW!)
Bill Nelson Stereo Star Maps CD (Sonoluxe ‎UK CD035)
Locust After The Rain LP (Editions Mego Germany 205)
Sky Dies Irae 12″ (Ariola Japan K-15P-48)

Every hot-shit reviewer on The Absolute Sound and Stereophile‘s payroll has one or two pairs of hot-shit speakers waiting in the wings to compare against the reviewed pair of new hot-shit speakers. I don’t. I just have that 4-year old pair of Paradigm Studio 100s, and they’re in the family room now, far, far away. Anyway, such a comparison would be safely termed, as we say in the business, not a fair fight. So we’ll dispense with such comparisons.

Firstly, after unpacking your Crescendos, take the speaker grills off the upper and lower drivers. The grills look nice, but they enhance nothing but appearance. With the grills on, the highs sound veiled, the mids seem masked and the lows are muffled. Put the grills someplace where the cats can’t get to them. You can thank me later. Wrap the things up in those nice drawstring bags and stash them in the shipping cartons. You can always reattach them when grill-expectant company is anticipated.

I read a lot of reviews of speakers where the writer alleges that speakers are genre-specific. “Oh, these are great for female vocals. And trip-hop. And world music recorded before 1989. Not like my Altec Santanas — they’re the only thing I’ll play Bitches Brew through.”

Barf.

I threw everything I had at the Crescendos. Black Sabbath’s first album. Wishbone Ash. Charles Mingus. Nils Frahm. Arcangelo Corelli. Bill Frisell. Achim Reichel. Blaze Foley. Beth Orton. Cassandra Wilson. Stars of the Lid. Renaissance. Gentle Giant. Cluster. The Louvin Brothers. Nine Inch Nails. Yo La Tengo. 10cc. Neu!. Lucinda Williams. Joe Walsh. Vangelis. Traffic. Tuxedomoon. FLACs. LPs. CDs. WAVs, AIFFs and DSD.

There was nothing the Crescendos couldn’t handle with grace, depth, and aplomb.

Let’s look at some faint-praise weigh-ins. These speakers occupied a prominent place in The Absolute Sound‘s 2015 Editors’ Choice Awards, wherein, yea, verily, it was spaketh thusly:

…what the Crescendo lacks in ultimate bass extension, it makes for it with superlative time-domain performance, easily exceeding that of the ubiquitous bass-reflex enclosure.

I’m not sure I fully grok that back-handed remark about “ultimate bass extension.” The Crescendo’s bass extension is wonderful. Yeah, okay, so it maybe doesn’t rival a quarter-million dollars’ worth of, say, Wilson Audio cabinetry. But it more than holds its own at a relatively small fraction of the price, and I don’t need a crane to move them. And my girlfriend, while still thinking they’re slightly large for the living space, doesn’t tell me they look like something better suited to the surface of Jupiter, either. And I know “time-domain” has something to do with math and the temporal plane and spatial relationships, but heck if I’m going to encourage slide rules and oscilloscopes in my living room. A line has to be drawn somewhere.

I may not know much about the time-space continuum and its relationship to speaker design, but I know enough to posit that Acoustic Zen’s Crescendo Mark II speakers are worth the money. If you have a good-sized room and a decent — or indecent — amplifier and a discerning ear, they’ll please you. These speakers are considered (and worthy of the term) full-range, but if you find their bass response running astray (doubtful) you can always put one or two subwoofers behind them, if that’ll make you feel better.

The best thing about the Crescendos? They don’t sound like speakers. They sound like music. Select some up-to-snuff source material, preamplify and amplify it rightly, sit back, and enjoy. Your system will get out of the way, and, if you’re not careful, the music will happen.

These may have been “review units,” but Acoustic Zen isn’t getting them back. I bought them, and I’m keeping them.

(Oh, and that too-short speaker cable? I emailed Robert at Acoustic Zen and told him I’d screwed up on the length. He quickly (and fairly) calculated what a longer run would run me, I sent him a check, and the new cables were in my living room before I’d sent the shorter ones back. The speakers could then be pushed back out of the way of guests — or, alternately, pulled forward away from the evil, standing-wave prone corners — and harmony in the household reigned once more).

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