Category Archives: Music

Reviews, news and views about music of all types.

A few months with the KEF LS50

Just before the shitshow shutdown, I was debating improving my desktop system with a new amp and set of speakers.  I’ve gotten the amp taken care of, as a previous article mentions.  I looked at a handful of smaller speakers to see what would fit my desk and still sound good.  I finally narrowed it down to two KEF systems, and the LS50 won out.

Appearance-wise, they’re a cool combination of black cabinet and rose gold speaker.  My only minor concern is that there are no grilles to deflect damage.  Not that we have a rough household, but accidents happen.

As I’m using them near a rear wall, I’ve installed the included port plugs.  These seem to match nicely with the small subwoofer I use under the desk–the way the sound disperses under and behind the desk, it coincidentally provides a seamless match with the speakers.  The LS50s themselves are a nice system.  The coherency is amazing–the concentric tweeter is really something special here.  What amazes me even more is now inert the cabinet is.  Under moderate volume, you can’t feel anything from the cabinets whatsoever.  No doubt this is a key to their uncolored performance throughout the mids and upper bass.

They still need to break in a bit, as I’ve also been playing my main system in the evenings.  I want to get proper stands so I can hear the LS50s correctly in my main system, rather than trying to find random bits and pieces to set them on.

I still have a dullness in my desktop system, though. Could I possibly have another dud amp?  I’ve changed both analog and digital interconnects.  The tubes I chose for the amp are not known to be dull.  I plan on trying it in my main system soon, as that’s ultimately what will tell me the most about how well it is reproducing music.  (I even went with 6CA7 tubes to try to avoid that mushy EL34 sound.)  Jury’s still out on the amp, but I really didn’t spend all that much on it either.  I could easily get a PS Audio Sprout100 or NAD D3020 (or similar model) that would work out well, and either would provide a better DAC than the DacMagic I’m using now.

TubeCube heading to retirement; Reisong A10 replacement on the way

I have an opportunity to test out a better pair of speakers for my desktop system, and felt I needed a change from the dulled character of the TubeCube 7.

As an experiment, I used the DSP in Roon to kick up the highs quite a bit, like by 12 or 18 dB.  It resulted in almost no change to the sound.  And on stronger material, the amplifier was actually overloading in the highs.

I’ve chalked this up to a poor amplifier design.  As per my original review of the TubeCube 7, there is another review out there exhibiting the same rolloff.  I would think twice about buying this amp or at the very least, hoping for a good return policy.  It appears this amp also goes under the APPJ model designation elsewhere.

Being eternally stupid, I decided to try another chi-fi amp, although this one was favorably reviewed by Steve Guttenberg.  Again, it’s no perfect amp, and I’ve read of a couple of them arriving dead or having an early capacitor failure.  But the version of the Reisong A10 I ordered is point-to-point wired, and is a version shipped without tubes, so I could use my own.

I figure if the amp fails or I want to improve the sound, I can order up a set of Nichicon caps and give it a good going-over.  It really is a simple circuit, like amps in the old days.  And it’s easy to apply any further modifications down the road, including changing the output transformers (with a little bit of case work).  It looks like a decent enough chassis to build on.

The tubes I have on hand are a pair of Electro Harmonix 6CA7 (EL34 equivalent) and a pair of Voshkod 6N2 input tubes. I am awaiting the rectifier tube.

At least if this one doesn’t do it for me, I can resell it, and would probably lean towards an NAD 7050 or PS Audio Sprout100, which would also give me a DAC upgrade.


My “30 days of Roon” trial

The only apparently sane way I could get bit perfect audio into my DirectStream from both my server and from Qobuz was to use Roon.  I waited until my schedule was somewhat clear, bit the bullet and installed it.

Roon’s basic setup is such that one Core runs on your network, and any other device acts in essence as a remote to control the Core, such as, which device to send music to, volume, DSP, and of course the mechanisms in place to seek, search, discover and play the music from multiple sources.

My first plan was to get a QNAP NAS to add to the Synology NAS I’m already using on the network, yet I found the QNAPs to be pricey.  The reason was due to the QNAP having more powerful processors and expandable memory.  Once I thought about it, that didn’t seem like a good idea.  A NAS really should only be storing files and performing a few minor functions.  What if my processing needs change in a few years?  Then I’m having to purchase an even more powerful NAS.

I initially balked at the idea, but I settled on buying one of the Intel NUC boxes (basically, it’s a full-fledged computer in a very small package, and is expandable in terms of memory and storage), and loaded up Windows 10. This way, I can run Roon Core, as well as the Mezzmo video server, which runs only on Windows, but is far superior to anything else I have tried in terms of organizing and cataloging a video collection.  I’ve used a 500GB M.2 SSD in the NUC, and am starting with 8GB of memory.  Everything is running well on the NUC in this configuration so far.

So far, Roon seems to be easy to use, and performs nearly flawless.  One thing I want to try is to have others in the household try to use it, without any assistance from myself–I want to see if usability is intuitive to others who aren’t tech-oriented.

There are some quirks, however, but I will cover them separately.  There is so much to cover that I will split things up into separate posts.

For the time being, Roon seems to be about the best way to get the audio to the DirectStream without compromising it in any way, and is easy enough to use that I’m not worrying about not being able to find my music.  JRiver still gets me access to my music faster, but over the years it is still an unstable piece of software, freezing up often or crashing at least once daily.  I’ve had no such pauses with Roon.

Soundbar: Martin Logan Vision

With a 65 inch 4K screen, I knew going in that the built-in speakers would be lacking. They are in reality not too bad, but still can’t touch a dedicated soundbar.

I searched. I tried researching all of my favorite brands as well as some I don’t care for, and without fail, the reviews on most of those I looked at pointed to some fundamental flaws that I could not overlook. In a lot of cases, it was the electronics that caused problems, especially if wireless technology was used.

Out of the blue, one of my saved Craigslist searches returned a hit on a Martin Logan Vision soundbar.  It was a three hour drive away, but given the price, there was no way I could turn it down.

As I picked it up, I noticed how long the box was–this is not some tiny soundbar. For now, it fits on my low IKEA TV stand with about 6 inches on either side to spare.  It is also quite heavy.  The contour of the enclosure is curved and sleek. It comes with a wall mounting plate, which I plan to put to use once I hang the LED panel on the wall.

The rear hosts the inputs–two S/PDIF optical inputs, one coaxial, and one analog input.  There is an analog subwoofer output, and the Vision is also capable of wirelessly transmitting to the Dynamo 700W and 1000W subwoofers (which also have wireless capabilities built in).

The drivers include Martin Logan’s “folded motion” tweeters, which act more like a folded accordion to push the sound out.

The Folded Motion tweeter

As the TV has a digital optical output, I utilized one input for that on the Vision, and used the second input for the digital output of a Chromecast Audio.  That way, anyone can turn on the soundbar, select the source, and cast to it.

The Vision sounds really good so far–it has a much larger sound than its cabinet would have you believe.  The surround mode is also a nice touch–it can decode Dolby surround and DTS, and also reaches back to Dolby Pro Logic II if needed.  Bass is adjustable, and there is also a compressed Night mode for late night use.

I pressed an old subwoofer into action, but unfortunately the subwoofer output is like others I have used–it is only activated when fed 5.1 surround sound, with bass present on the .1 channel.  And that is sad, since I would love to use this soundbar with the video games, which don’t utilize the .1 channel.  I have looked a little for a bass management system that could work inline via the optical connection, but I doubt I will find one easily, if at all. (I just need to route the bass from the main channels over to the .1 output.)

Aside from that, the sound is quite good.  The highs are not piercing or grating at all–the folded motion tweeters are smooth and revealing.  Bass is tubby at the moment, due to having it tucked into the shelf space of the TV stand, but that will change once I can wall mount the soundbar.  The subwoofer output is a nice touch but again, I’ve rarely heard my subwoofer due to the 5.1 digital surround signal often not having any “.1” content. (I would need some sort of external bass management box that would inject all bass into the .1 channel, one that had both optical S/PDIF inputs and outputs. Nothing exists, that I can find.)  It does a good surround effect with the right input signal, extending the sound far beyond the confines of the soundbar without having any weird phasey effects (as many of these do).

This soundbar is a keeper so far.

MQA Is Dead

Maybe I’m the first to say it. But let’s face it:  That lossy digital audio codec known as MQA is dead.

Sure, the pundits will point to streaming MQA titles on Tidal.

And that’s all fine and dandy, until you realize that Qobuz is coming out of beta on February 14th and offers true lossless high-res streaming up to 24-bit, 192kHz. Qobuz has already been the “official” streaming service at a few audio shows, and is doing the same at AXPONA this year.  Not only that, Qobuz fired a direct shot across Tidal’s bow by having Roon support right out of the gate.

Will audiophiles leave Tidal in droves?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But an appreciable number of them will.  And given Tidal’s past financial troubles, and the perception of being an also-ran among the Spotify users of the world (“what’s a Tidal?”), it may not take much to push them over the precipice of failure. (Or ripe for acquisition, by a corporation looking more at dollar signs than “those crazy audiophiles.”)

Many will hang onto MQA for only one single reason–they spent a small fortune on compatible hardware just to play it back.  They can’t justify their purchase of “just another DAC” any other way.

Let’s also consider MQA CDs. A lame concept right from the beginning. The discs have stiffed!  Many were purchased by curiosity seekers, and many ended up for sale rather quickly.  MQA obviously did not take a lesson from HDCD’s failure. Another format the music buying public was apathetic about.  Essentially the sound quality of CD-resolution is compromised in order to take advantage of MQA’s lossy encoding.

The public did not ask for HDCDs.  Nor MQA CDs.  Which are essentially HDCD 2.0.

MQA already has a lot going against it.  Apparently not even its creators can give us a clear explanation of what it does.  Rather, we get “white-paper-speak.” In essence, a lot of technobabble that makes sense only to its creators, intended to baffle everyone else who asks.  Plus, we keep hearing of so many things that MQA does, or promises, as we go along–it is at the point where I don’t think even its creators know what it does anymore.

MQA. Master Quality Authenticated.  It turns out that there is nothing “authenticated” about its “masters.”  “Quality” is debatable–it’s a better lossy format than MP3, but it’s still a lossy format.  Call it some ridiculous name like unfolding but…it is still a lossy format. Only now, depending on what you play it on, you get different levels of lossy.  Don’t forget it also does some magical “deblurring” or whatever they call it–essentially, using DSP to tamper further with the original sonics of the recording.

Nice.  Why not add a smiley-face EQ and maximize it while you’re at it?

What was laughable a short time ago was how the high-end press were gaslighting us. Of course it was us, the consumers who didn’t understand MQA. “We” didn’t get it. “We” couldn’t hear its many benefits.  But, we mistrusted their motives for publishing what amounts to propaganda. Why were they so eager to shove this down our throats? That remains unanswered.

What they also failed to point out was that MQA was a licensing scheme, on many levels (equipment manufacturers, labels, etc.).  Not only that, it offered a back-door scheme to enable DRM (digital rights management).  This appeases the record companies to make them embrace MQA, but even the hint of DRM turns off consumers who learn it may affect the music the purchase.

So OK, right.  What about us, the consumers?  Most audiophiles that I know personally distrust MQA.  Few ever hear any improvement; most hear no improvement at all.  Others have found that MQA really is just a lossy codec which barely resolves to a level above CD, not to mention having DSP (digital signal processings) to perform some vague “deblurring” that is questionable at best.  And some report the MQA-processed signal to be very slightly louder.  This itself can be deceptive–it has long been proven that given a comparison between two sound samples, listeners will usually choose the louder of the two samples as sounding “better.”

Others feel it’s a money grab by a company that failed to make its last compression technology a household item. (That was MLP–Meridian Lossless Packing, which was used on DVD-Audio discs, which of course have now died a slow and painful death themselves.  MQA is essentially a spinoff of Meridian; if they did one thing right, they’ve planned for the eventual failure of MQA by separating it from Meridian.) What a great way to sell more hardware!  Oh, and all that licensing income can’t be hurting them either.

So, where does that leave us?

Qobuz is blazing the path of true high-res music streaming.  Many will leave Tidal for Qobuz.  The discs have flopped.  Why buy lossy MQA CDs when you can download true high-res files from several places online now?  There will be audiophiles who hang onto MQA, most likely because they purchased expensive equipment to play it back on.  But that will not sustain a dead format.

The bottom line? Nobody asked for MQA. Nobody needs it or particularly wants it.  It was an answer to a question nobody asked.  While it arguably wasn’t stillborn, it had lived a short, miserable existence.

Time to order the headstone.  RIP, MQA.