Monthly Archives: February 2019

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.



Opinion: Carpenters with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Let me begin with a brief background.  We had Carpenters in the house while growing up. I’ve always liked parts of their earliest albums the best, and have long felt that A Song For You is their masterpiece.  It captures the band at a creative peak, their careers having gained traction in a relatively short time. Songwriting was also top notch, with solid contributions from the Paul Williams/Roger Nichols and Richard Carpenter/John Bettis teams.  The album is a snapshot of this combination, and if I have to recommend any one album to someone curious about Carpenters, this is the one that I point them to without fail.

Carpenters With The Royal Philharmonic OrchestraHang onto that “snapshot.” We’ll be returning to it.

I recently gave a listen to the newest installment: Carpenters with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.  Apparently, this is the latest installment in the realm of repurposing old recordings by popular artists, with the RPO strings added on top.  Sure I’m oversimplifying it here.  But if a particular recording works in that context, and it sounds good, then enjoy it for what it is! This type of project has its fans.

Yet as I listen to this Carpenters RPO release, it sounds…strange. Something is vaguely yet subconsciously “off” about the whole thing.  To my ears it is unsettling, even disjointed.  Why is this?

A little more background. Over the years, with countless compilations and handfuls of CD album reissues, Richard has been quietly remixing and even re-recording parts of these classic recordings. Remember what I said about a snapshot in time?  Well, someone has taken that old family reunion photo, touched up Aunt Hortense’s warts, neatened up Cousin Roy’s hair, and replaced a couple of assorted other cousins with better head shots from a couple of more recent photos.  It looks nicer, but something seems wrong here.

I have never liked the remixes.  I also dislike the re-recorded parts even more.  From a moral standpoint, it could be the idea of tampering with the past that upsets some listeners.  But that is not what bothers me about them.

It’s how the remixes and re-recordings sound.  When A Song For You was recorded, I’m sure most of the recordings were tracked in the studio with most of the band in there, and overdubs were likely limited to things like guitar solos and of course, Karen and Richard’s trademark overdubbed vocal harmonies.  When you have all the musicians in one place, there is a certain vibe between them, an energy in the room that you can’t quantify, and is something that only musicians can understand.  Overdubbing during the original sessions tends to convey a similar energy–you’ve witnessed those original tracks playing back through your headphones.

On top of that energy and vibe, another consideration is how the overdubs are being recorded. In later cases, the multitracks were converted to digital, and these overdubs and re-recordings were all done digitally.  Why does this matter?

Those sonics during the recording of A Song For You are also a snapshot of how the studio sounded at the time.  The microphones used, the mixing desks, the echo chamber, the analog tape recorders, even the formulation of tape used…these all contribute to how Carpenters (the band) sounded when the album was originally recorded.

Not only that, there are the recording and production techniques used in the 1970s that have no ability to be recreated.  The mixing engineer had his own touch.  The mics were placed in specific places to capture the instruments.  Other decisions like using EQ, reverb, etc. on the original tracks were up to the engineer and producer. These are studio processes that happened on the spot when the recordings were originally tracked.

Now, enter the remixes.  They can sound fairly close to the original sonics, but once digital EQ and reverb are added, this adds a brighter “sheen” to the originals that wasn’t there.  Re-recordings make this far worse, though.  Now, we have an updated performance, recorded in pristine (or one might say “sterile”) digital technology, sounding all new, squeaky clean and pure, against a performance recorded in the early 1970s.  The two do not mesh.

This is like taking your family reunion photo, photographed on an old Nikon SLR, scanning it into digital, and inserting new head shots of a few family members in Photoshop taken with a new Sony mirrorless digital camera.

Hence, my issue with this new recording being unsettling, disjointed, and feeling like it was cobbled together. I understand that there are even more re-recorded parts now, and of course we have the RPO overlaid on top of it all.  All of it note-perfect, of course. With all the original charm and soul slowly sucked out of it over all the years.

While I see that many are enjoying this new recording, I simply can’t get past the sonic collision of old and new. The definitive versions of all of these songs will always be the original album versions, all of which I have heard at least dozens of times (at least up through their album Horizon).  Altered parts never did sound right (even the overdubbed guitar solo on the single mix of “Top Of The World”), but these remixes, re-recordings and now this latest orchestral project just removes me further from the originals.

The good things is, there are still a few scattered copies of the Remastered Classics CD series out there so one can get the original album mixes.  And of course, original vinyl lives on in used record stores around the world, provided you can ever find a clean copy that hasn’t been played out.

Phono stage changes

I have used a Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ as my phono stage for about two years now, I’m thinking.  My preamp is a line stage, as most today are.

When I originally was shopping for tube preamps, I was leaning towards getting one with a phono stage built into it.  But the more I’ve thought about it in recent years, I may go a few days between playing vinyl, with the preamp running sometimes 8-10 hours per day. I would have been burning up the life of the tubes in the often-unused phono section had I gone that route.

The Phonomena II+ did sound good, yet something was bothering me–background noise.  I am using the Audio Technica ART7 moving coil cartridge, which has a very low output of 0.12mV.  With the Phonomena’s gain set to maximum, sadly the noise of the electronics (that low “rushing” noise of amplification) was audible above the surface noise of the quietest records I own.

I had two phono stages on my short list–the Rogue Audio Ares (preferably the Ares Magnum with upgraded Cinemag step-up transformers), or a Conrad-Johnson EV-1, which matches the rest of my C-J-based system.  As luck would have it, my “wanted” post on US Audio Mart resulted in a hit within 48 hours, and it only took an extra day or two before I took up the seller on his offer and had it shipped in.  It arrived, in beautiful condition, a bit dusty inside, but nothing a careful cleaning won’t take care of.

Now, keep in mind I do not yet own a step-up transformer.  All I could cobble together was an ancient Musical Fidelity AC-1 pre-preamplifier I had on hand.  I got everything connected, and noticed a couple of things.  First, that AC-1 is one sensitive little beast–it picks up hum from just about anything.  I finally had to half dangle it off of a nearby shelf to minimize the hum.

And through the EV-1, the sound of everything connected was rather lackluster.  But I kind of expected that.  I don’t know how transparent the AC-1 is but more importantly, these are apparently the original tubes in the EV-1, and it did sound kind of tired.  It did sound a little better after using it for a couple of hours, but it wasn’t where it needed to be.

Time to replace the tubes.  The EV-1 uses two 12AX7, one 12AU7, and one 5751.  Uncle Kevvy to the rescue–I decided to try some Gold Lion 12AX7s and a 12AU7, and one Tung-Sol 5751 from Upscale Audio.  I did see a note on about some earlier C-J preamps being hard on the 12AU7, and didn’t quite get a straight response from Upscale about my concerns (the email, to be fair, wasn’t directly from Kevin Deal).  So I ordered the 12AX7s and the 5751 from Upscale. I’m using his same Tung-Sol 5751 recommendation in my C-J power amp and it is sounding excellent.

A long couple of days of Internet digging turned up the Brimar CV4003, which is the British military equivalent of the 12AU7, and happens to be Uncle Kevvy’s favorite 12AU7.  I ordered two, one as a spare, and they are en route to me from Turkey (of all places).  And the price was very reasonable. In fact, I may order a couple more spares next month, along with another matched set or two of spares for the preamp (which uses the Mullard CV4058/M8080–by far the best 6C4 variant I have used).

That leaves the SUT.  More digging. I fancied making my own with existing transformers, but ended up buying a kit from a small place called K&K Audio. They are a US distributor for the Swiss-made Lundahl transformers.  I spent a couple of weeks digging for the right transformer ratio to use with my ART7, and finally settled on 1:20, which will give me the gain I am looking for, plus the load impedance is almost dead on where I wanted it (120Ω, and the combination works out to 117Ω).  I ordered the K&K kit version with the Lundahl LL9226.  One deciding feature was that K&K’s kit allows me to set the step-up to any one of the three ratios it offers (1:5, 1:10, 1:20), so I am future-proofed when I get a higher-gain cartridge in the future.

Finally, I’ve added a set of Vibrapods and Vibracones to the mix, and those are arriving here soon as well.  The EV-1 proved to be slightly microphonic on its old tubes, so these will help.  (I’ll have a separate post on the Vibrapod/Vibracone system once I get them all in my system.)