Tuesday, January 20, 2015
But streaming services c2013 weren't there. Even at the highest offered rate of 320kbps, there was a small amount of lost ambience and detail compared to a silver disc spun in our CD player (not to even broach the subject of an LP which would wipe the floor with both of them). It was enough that would make you miss the lost information only when you weren't in the middle of a chore cycle. But, towards the back end of 2014, we became aware of emerging streaming services that might provide a genuine high end experience - at least to CD levels (16/44.1)! Murfie, Deezer Elite and TIDAL all appeared as options on our SONOS player, much to our delight. Given their promise to stream uncompressed CD resolution music, we got excited that this might be a what we were looking for: Convenience and Quality.
For is, it boils down to a simple question: could any of these emerging streaming services replace the CD in our (audiophile) stereo rig? Could any of them offer a genuine high end experience?
We signed up for all of them, and started trying them out to see from Thanksgiving through the end of the year into the early weeks of 2015.
Common strengths: All sound terrific - comparable to what you may already have on your home network or computer. In fact all of them with our reference rig as well as through the speakers throughout the house, had a sound quality comparable to the files we had ripped and stored on our network. They advertised 16/44.1 resolution, and from the sound quality we believe them.
Common Weaknesses: While they all advertised 16/44.1 for their ultimate resolution, they do not stream or support higher resolution formats (such as 24 bit files at sample rates higher than 44.1kHz). This means that they represent the main portions of a typical music collection, but not the very highest quality as represented by high bitrate files. On the convenience front, none of them really measured up to the curated lists of Songza (really the ones to beat for scads and scads of well curated lists tailored to moods, times of day and activities with an incredible level of appropriateness), none of them had reliably good "radio station" style service like Pandora. And of course, all of them cost more than lower resolution services (either through high up-front costs like Murfie, or just high monthly fees in the cases of Deezer and TIDAL).
Special Note: One of the things that made itself very apparent, was that a couple of times I had difficulty connecting to one or more services. I first thought it was the services themselves, but as I worked through the issues, I found I had to reboot my Sonos components. It happened only over a period of 2 days in over the 2 months of use we were putting into this review, so not awful, but not flawless either. So this mention isn't anything against the services but more a note about our modern world. We'd only sum this up by saying that before you go completely streamed, you would be best to have some sort of local or physical backup so you won't get caught short in case of an internet outage, network or software issue of some kind.
https://www.murfie.com/) - our one-liner: "We'll rip your songs, and stream them to you, full rez."
Our sarcastic comment: "Guess whose fault it is if you don't like your playlist? Your music is only as good as you are!"
We liked Murfie since this is a solution to the drudgery of ripping individual CD's to a hard drive for playback later. It solves the storage issue (they store it free for 3 years, provided you pay them 80 cents per CD for ripping), and will stream in 320kbps or FLAC lossless. This felt like a no-brainer, so we quickly signed up for some ripping and sent in several hundred of our CD's to be ripped, but also used their user-to-user marketplace to purchase a dozen or so albums to try them out.
As the first service we tried, we realized a CD-only player may no longer be strictly required in a high end rig. While the streaming quality of their service, once you upgraded to "HiFi" was equal to everyone else, they hold the music that you own, let you buy and sell, and add in music, and you have control over your collection like you do your cash kept in a bank. So if you have some odd CD's you bought at a festival by some hipster artist nobody but a dozen people have heard of? Murfie has you covered provided you turn the disc over to them to rip.
Strengths: You own all the music. They store it for you unless you want it back. They are happy to send you a NAS or HDD of your music. Once your CD collection is ripped, it's not expensive to maintain or stream, you can buy and sell on their marketplace very easily (with generous return policies for regretful or accidental purchases). Fantastic customer service and support through email. Of all 3 services, I could convince myself this had the best sound quality by just a hair over the others.
Weakness: It will be no better or worse than your music collection. While you can buy and sell on the marketplace, it is WAY TOO EASY to buy stuff, and it will add up! Up front costs for ripping discs can add up.
Why you want it: Your CD collection streamed to you where and when you want it - not taking up room, and not having to worry about computer backups, and want to free up that old closet that's full of Jewel cases.
http://www.deezer.com/) - our one liner: "16/44.1 streaming, decent selection, fun music discovery tools. Only 'okay' curated offerings."
Our sarcastic comment: Deezer will throw in a cover in your playlist. Deezer doesn't care.
I have to say we're not that thrilled with the name of this service (What is a Deezer, anyway?) - but that's neither here nor there - it's about the offering, less the name (but c'mon guys ...) of course.
Deezer always gave the impression of the kid in school that put 100% of everything into whatever they did. And while it didn't always translate to being a sports star, or Honor Roll Student, you couldn't help liking the person. We would say that Deezer is like a reliable, if a little odd, friend who you know you can rely upon.
Where we really played into their strengths, wasn't so much the pure music catalog (seemed to have a smaller collection than TIDAL or Spotify), but their method of music discovery was both fun and more improtanlty FAST. You could create a custom playlist of you-selected similar music faster that you could say PANDORA by utilizing the menu structure under one artist to find similar artists. In some cases we had so much fun with it, we whiled an evening away by trying to find a similar artist way from Disco to Classic Rock. It was fun and hard and very VERY entertaining. Yeah, we might need to get out more, but if you don't ... this was a very fun game.
So honestly, for pure FUN we liked Deezer Elite a lot. In fact, it sort of wins the "Mr. or Ms. Congeniality" for the whole lineup.
Strengths: First mover on Sonos. Unique way of searching "similar artists" for some really good music discovery and for us is the strength of this service. Allows user submitted playlists. Radio is intresting, but very uneven in curating.
Weaknesses: Catalog is improving, but not as good as Spotify or Tidal. Allows user submitted playlists. Universally weak playlists.
Why you want this: Music discovery through similar artists with uncompressed CD-level music.
http://www.tidalhifi.com/) - our one liner: "Spotify sized collection streaming to you at 16/44.1!"
Our sarcastic comment: TIDAL is cooler than you are. And knows it.
The thing about TIDAL is you have at your fingertips a Spotify sized collection of albums, all ready to be streamed at 16/44.1 to your house. That really is enough to have it be a highly recommended streaming service, and in a pure streaming environment, you may not want for much more. In sound quality, we have to say it is first rate, and it may make you think twice about the need for a physical CD collection. Where TIDAL gets odd, is in the curated section. They have a ton of playlists, but for someone whose center of gravity is 1960-1990 Classic Rock, 1970-now Top 100 Pop, R&B, Blues and Jazz - TIDAL seems like the friend trying to impress you with deep and profoundly cultivated musical tastes by showing off all the less well known artists, even though they don't have to.
It isn't off-putting, but when trying to do casual listening, it can get a little frustrating checking out a dozen lists of "underappreciated artists Q4 2014" in search of "Pop Music to Clean My House By" ... c'mon TIDAL, I already subscribe, you don't need to show off, just be my one and only by being what we need when we need it! (LOL)
But seriously, this service rocks. It really isn't any worse than the early days of Spotify when you have to make your own playlists, except there are a few they have that are nice.
TIDAL started in Europe as a full resolution service, and it grew and grew, eventually jumping across the pond to the US late 2014 in its 16/44.1 glory. The size of their catalog was the most impressive.
Strengths: A first rate collection of music seemingly as good as Spotify - even "Best Of" albums, obscure artists and covers well represented.
Weaknesses: Harder for music discovery than Deezer or Spotify. Curated playlists need some work since it trends towards the obscure.
Why you want this: If Spotify rev's your engine when you want what you want, TIDAL is the uncompressed answer.
When it came to time to choose a winner, we couldn't. I know it sounds like a cop out, but like one's own kids, each brings an uniqueness to the party. While we don't think this year (2015) is the year to ditch a silver disc player, this is the first time where a case has been made where physical media may someday not be needed for a genuine high end experience. It is an interesting thought to chew on.
Happy 2015, happy listening!
Sunday, November 16, 2014
|If you can't hit it with a hammer|
and easily replace it, leave it
at home ...
"That cheap Timex? It cost what, $25?"
The Timex guy took off the watch and placed it on the bar with a nod, pulled out a hammer and smashed the watch.
"I can go and get another one easily."
Touché. And so it goes for portable audio ...
While there has been a resurgence in consumer electronics around portable audio - that has reached and created genuine high end products for it, the acid test for such devices is while you are traveling.
I have some simple principles that I use when selecting what to take:
|Fiio X5 ... the heart of my|
road warrior kit
For me, the balance seems to be a Fiio X5*, with a couple of high capacity memory cards filled with CD (16/44.1), HR (24/96+) and a smattering of compressed audio. Cardas headphones (EM5813) and Etymotic ER-4's. The whole setup weighs in well below a kilobuck.
I travel with a laptop, but I don't use it for audio (or video). I also bring along an ePaper Kindle (not a tablet as their battery life is too short). I can survive a 12 hour plane flight to Asia without getting bored, and at the other end, have enough to keep up personal entertainment (this is especially important whenever you are in a place where you are not fluent in the local language).
What about you?
*The Pono we have on order, promises to be better quality for a similar price.
Saturday, November 15, 2014
One of the things that struck me is that I keep reaching for them, despite that they are breaking a few "audiophile rules" in that they are not tonally as accurate as the Etymotic IEM's I had also packed for the trip. There is something that is big, spacious, warm and lifelike with the way they handle the music they are given by my trusty PMP.
It is clear that the headphones capture the life and emotion of the performance, dynamics and transients are just about perfect. Tonality? It's on the warm/dark side of the spectrum, but unapologetically so - the subtractive loss is not large, and the benefits are so amazing, that these have become my "go to" headphone when I am not actually on a airplane (the Etymotic, while less captivating, win due to their superior sound isolation).
For acoustic instrument based music there will likely be no better headphones, but surprisingly with the diet of classic rock and pop I have been feeding it, the small details and big dynamics are captured so well that the minor accuracy (subtractive) errors aren't important. And what's surprising as well is that instrument timber and pitch definition are intact, too.
For an experiment I used the digital EQ on the PMP to see if I could "fix" the tonality issues ... and it did make that better, but at the expense of some of what made the headphones truly special. So I left it alone after that.
Monday, October 20, 2014
|Crimson at night!|
The guys at Austin Hifi were generous to let us borrow the Crimson Amps and Preamps with a set of their crazy Good cabling. We made the trek to send back the giant Pelican cases happy that we heard it and with a tear in our eye. While we're gathering our thoughts for a review, we'll say that this is a truly magnificent, transparent, fast and realistic sounding set of gear and we were happy to have tried it out. We sent it back with a sad farewell, but hope we'd be able to make it a permanent part of the mancave at some point. Stay tuned for a review ...
We had a network filled weekend ...
|Cat7 ... shields and shields ... kill that RFI dead!|
Added some new video capability ...
We FINALLY set up the couple of AppleTV's we had kicking around. While both are more or less the opposite of perfectionist ideals, they are fantastic for streaming shows when you decide you don't need to subscribe to cable anymore, and pour all of that money into a fiber optic connection + a few subscriptions for streaming. So far it beats the pants off of our TV's native streaming capability and was a snap to setup (We love how Apple products make you feel like A/V and Networking experts even though deep down you know and everyone else knows you aren't!).
Upgraded our Macs and BROKE our Squeezebox ...
|OliveOne ... can somone live with it?|
We have to right now, so yes ... but
it's a great piece of kit!
OliveOne suddenly finds itself as our main streamer ...
The OliveOne is a pretty good sounding player, and while we plan on doing a full review of it eventually, it has too many rough edges to do a good review of it just yet. We really feel it will be the improved, spiritual successor to the Logitech Squeezebox (RIP) - but until they add some critical features (Playlist support or being able to choose the order of play being the most important), and have another round or two of general refinement and stability fixes, we can only say we're impressed by its sound quality and excited by its potential.
|Streaming at full Rez - 16/44.1|
We also upgraded our Sonos Bridge to a Sonos:BOOST and we'll see if it makes a big difference. But also speaking of Sonos and streaming, we love the sound quality of the Deezer Beta service available on Sonos Labs - and it brings Sonos one step closer to being a genuine high end product. It's $20/mo but you get full 16/44.1 streams with a very large library that's skewed towards pop and rock.
If Sonos ever offered the ability to play 24/96+ files with decent quality (now it will skip over them, and not even play them downrezzed!), it would be game over for so many of the germinating competition big and small, because their integration and software is so freaking good.
|The Gramovox - Unboxed, and Fantastic!|
The Crowdfunding Bounty comes rolling in ...We got both the Gramovox and the OliveOne in the past month. The Jury is out on them both as we're just getting used to them, but anyone that thinks a horn based Bluetooth speaker isn't cool ... well they haven't seen or heard this baby! More about this later - simple to use, and a vintage sound, and immediacy that only a horn can give! Next we have our eyes on the guys at Light Harmonic ...
And what is ahead for us?
We have piles and piles of reviews and music session to do ... we slowed down from the pace a year ago ... but we're still at it, trying to bring to you guys our "regular family with regular means," take on the insanity that is perfectionist audio ...
Sunday, October 5, 2014
The Beatles were late to the digital game, and only recently allowed their taped to be converted to digital. After lengthy legal negotiations with all the estates and remaining band members, they ripped the tapes to 24/192, but for some reason, only 24/44.1 downsampled has seen the light of day.
Now we own and love the stereo box set. Given the difficulty of locating an affordable copy of a quality pressing of their stereo albums, this was a godsend to many. But ... purists complained (they always do!) that since it was rumored to have been mastered from those 24bit/44.1kHz digital files - the Vinyl fell short of expectations. We had hoped the release would be a last word on fidelity, and it certinaly isn't it, but it is far preferable to a worn out abused piece of used vinyl.
But for someone seeking the best something can be ...
Recently, though, the Mono box, which is publishing a perfectionist all analog chain mastering stream from the tapes to a new high quality pressing. Given that the mono releases for most of their catalog were the ones the engineers, at the time of the recording, sweated over, if you had to pick one ... this was the one!
We got ours in within a week of it's release, and for our favorite albums, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour this was truly a sonic breakthrough only obtainable with exotic, expensive hard-to-find special pressings.
For those that know the stereo mix by heart, you will notice some minor differences, but the sound quality is first rate, and we highly recommend them to not only Beatles fans, but even casual fans - this is the one you want!
Check it out.
Saturday, October 4, 2014
|This was supposed to kill our sound|
and save our amp. It made our sound
(and sleep) better!
"You know ... if you use a surge protector you will ruin the sound"
I had bought into this idea, plugging in the amp right to the wall, since instantaneous power delivery was supposed to be compromised wheever anything was between the wall and power cord, and therefore the sonics compromised. The only give-back I had, was utilizing a Chang Lightspeed powerstrip to handle sources and our preamp (low current stuff). For things well outside of the sonic pathway we still have a long extension cord to another plug with a standard (inexpensive) filtered powerstrip that the motors, and dirty digital stuff (Logitech Squeezebox Touch, Sonos, the cool Philips Hue products, and our Lava Lamp).
But ... every single time there was a thunderstorm rolling through, we got nervous - with visions of a smoking carcass of that amp (making us unplug the amp) - and that we aren't exactly rolling in money so it could take out our listening enjoyment for quite a while if we suffered a hit. So ... while we trusted the conventional wisdom of audiophile experience, we felt we needed to do something even if it was going to degrade sonics a little to give us peace of mind.
We had explored getting a high current Chang Lightspeed, or any other higher end power conditioner all claiming to improve the sound through a variety of technologies from filtering, isolation or even regenerating the AC signal perfectly. All were a little to a lot North of $1000 and our budget just wouldn't allow that - at least currently as we recover from an unplanned-on new roof. (it isn't just electronics that fail in stormy weather!)
Given that Florida is the lightning strike capital of the US, a number of Audio Asylum Florida dwellers has a lot of useful advice - they recommended a number of brands, but based upon our (beer and not champagne level) budget, we carved out enough to get a 2 high current outlet from Surge-X (SA-20). Our local audiophile dealer, Forefront Audio, got one, and given it had a captive plug for the 20A circuit we had, we also bought an inexpensive audiophile hospital style plug and the whole thing installed in about 30 minutes.
Over the last 3 weeks of owning things, we've noticed a lower noise floor, a little more detail, and better transient snap. Given the 20A circuit is hardly dedicated (it covers this lower floor room and most of the upstairs) it's pretty clear the filtering helped a bunch. And our only conclusion has to be that when it comes to system Synergy, take conventional wisdom as free advice, but not a law. Try things out for yourself, since there are so many things that can and do vary in a particular system and particular setup, that there is plenty of room for experimentation.
(This is not to say that the rule of thumb is wrong, just that your experience might run contrary to this in your specific case!)
So ... we added a quality, but not astronomically priced, surge protector, and got better sound. Perhaps you should violate a couple pieces of received wisdom and see if it works for you, too!
|We're no longer worried about this. We also improved our sound!|
Isn't this a strange hobby?
Tuesday, July 29, 2014
|The Koru's understated yet solid front face|
"Will you go get it?"
"No, you go get it!"
"It's all the way over there, I don't care enough to get it."
Thus ends the Mancave's statement about album art and liner notes. For those keeping track, it was "Funeral for a Friend" and how silly is that to fuss over?
No, we don't read liner notes, or gaze lovingly at the album art. If this makes us overly honest, or philistines, I couldn't tell you. I am skeptical that lot of people pour over it at all, and find people listing this as one of their favorite things about vinyl, are either overselling it, are crazy and actually do it. But in reality, we spin disks and stream files for no other reason but the music - and for us the closer it sounds to what was actually laid down, the more we enjoy it - good liner notes, or not.
This attiude not only keeps us vinyl fans, it also keeps us in the DAC/FLAC and SACD game, too. All make it easier, and sometimes possible at all to hear what the artist was actually playing in the studio or on stage.
And the Koru phonostage promised to do all of that within a few hours of putting it in the stack (Thanks to the generous equipment loan from Forefront Audio). We avoided Audiophile Favorites - that kind of music that sounds good but has no soul. We played a lineup of what we would actually listen to, rather than a bunch of tests. Some is recorded well, some actually enjoyed by audiophiles, and some are definitely below average in the sound quality. If this Phono stage is to distinguish itself, it's got to be forgiving where forgiving is called for, and revealing when what is revealed is beautiful.
|Rondo Bronze + Headshell|
*- our house is only a mile or two from some powerful radio transmitters, so noise is always and has always been an issue in our setup. The Parasound is damn quiet in any real sense, but just the Plinius has a very small edge over it in our situation. We suspect both would be outstanding in a "normal" location.
One of the things that made this review somewhat delayed, is we substituted in an Ortofon Rondo Bronze on and Arche headshell. From our impressions of that combination in the previous review, we felt that we needed to go back and re-listen and reevaluate the Koru. One of the things that we had previously was the Denon DL-103R was perfectly suited to the Parasound JC3 we were using it with, and it sounded even better with the Koru, however, on a lark we drug out the Ortofon Rondo Bronze, which we were never quite satisfied with with the Parasound, but with the Arche+Koru ... whoa! The whole setup took a giant leap forward and despite the "higher than entry level" price, this cartridge was never considered a reference (the "Cadenza Black" would be considered a possible Reference level, and higher). But the Koru clearly wasn't reading the marketing literature and the market position of our little Rondo, it took its signal and brought forth more music and emotion than we were, frankly, expecting. And one thing that we have to be clear, is that we were unable to try truly expensive "reference" cartridges - we figure this sin is forgivable, since even on a US$4k phonostage, it would be a rare audiophile indeed that would use a $2.5k+ cartridge given it would have to be retipped every couple of years (it certainly wouldn't be for us, anyway).
But once we were sure the Rondo Bronze was fully broken in, we got down to work ...
Elton John "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" [stereo]
|She took a piece of our hearts ...|
We have two copies of Cheap Thrills actually. One (mono) was bought decades ago, new, by the parent of the Mrs. We also have the (stereo) reissue that was released more recently. When we played both, the vintage mono sounded by far the best: the emotion of the music, Janis' pleading voice on "Piece of My Heart" came through the best - and gave us goosebumps as the song took us away from our living room to the feeling of a concert. As much as we like to pick apart recordings and sound cues, the only thing we really noted was that the raw emotion, and music turned off our analytical minds and swept us away. And to think we felt this album was "so-so" ...
|Felt like a very good demo - where|
they worked it all out, but more
intimacy than studio gimmicks
We decided to listen to the mono version, since the stereo has a heavy hand on the reverb, and the mono version has a much more intimate feel, indeed, the best playback gives a feel of a demo-tape in the emotion. This did that to a great deal, with the outstanding track of that reminded me how much I liked them, and how ahead of their time they were when they made this album. The stand-out track for us was "Plastic Fantastic Lover" which, again, was a track I usually didn't "get" but with the sonics all dialed in, the rhythmic poetic chanting had us toe tapping and the rawness that put me in a space that was what I imagined it was like hanging out in a mellow, loose party hosted by someone famous, where Andy Warhol was a guest.
"Ella and Louis" [45RPM 2 disk Reissue]
Chicago's Greatest Hits [vintage LP, stereo]
Norman Greenbaum "Spirit in the sky" [Reissue, LP, stereo]
Miles Davis "A Kind of Blue" [LP, stereo]
You may have noticed that our music descriptions are lighter on the detailed technical descriptions, and heavier on how the music made us feel. This is both the result of how we listen to music, but it is also that this combination with the Koru at its heart, time and time again pulled us into the emotion and flow of the music, and while the instruments all sounded like instruments, it also sometimes produced that "X" factor you get when listening to live music. When you listen to this album even through a clock radio, you know you are hearing fantastic music. When you hear it presented the way we did? It is mind blowing. The Koru delivered to us the whole band in our living room, with a very emotional core that you can only get when things are just right.
Conclusions: A New Reference for us?
We will state quite plainly, that the Plinius Koru really rocked our world, and distinguished itself to the point where we ordered one and it currently resides in our reference stack. Not only did if offer us more performance than our previous phonostage (Parasound JC3), even at a higher MSRP, it offers greater value for what we're after. It seems unfussy about the cartridges (assuming optimal load and gain, the Koru seems to do really well with whatever you throw at it), and seems to extract more beauty, better (and more tuneful) bass, and a natural extended treble but all of that was preserving the coherence we go for in our musical presentation. The really killer deal is that time and time again, we were drawn into the performance and emotion of the music. And if there is a stronger endorsement than that, I don't know what it is.
Downsides: Dearth of competition at its price point forces you to compare to vastly more expensive and cheaper, making comparisons much more difficult. Needs 24 hours to warm up and sound its best. (Yeah, not a lot)
Still a Mystery: How would it do with some truly high end cartridges ($2k+)?
Bottom Line: We have a new reference. You should have this on your "short list" if you want more from your records.