The Clueless Audiophile

Demystifying the 2-channel and head-fi audiophile world for the clueless among us

Category: Uncategorized (Page 1 of 3)

New Article on Steven Stone’s Audiophilereview.com

Here’s another little ditty I wrote for Mr. Stone on audiophilereview.com, about what you could do in the event of a financial audiophile apocalypse:

https://audiophilereview.com/audiophile/what-would-you-do-with-your-system-when-a-life-apocalypse-happens.html

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Roon 1.5–No longer a Neophyte

About 18 months ago, I had the privilege of covering an article for PTA about a Roon neophyte’s experience both with the 1.2 upgrade as well as various options for inexpensive Roon endpoints.  During the writing, not only did I learn a great deal about the hardware endpoints that allow Roon to multi-room stream like no other, I was also happy to delve into the tools that Roon provides, like the best NAS and remote storage integration and cataloging system in the business.  The user interface, even back then, was very slick, involving, and a pleasure to visualize.  Frankly, Roon has been an absolute epiphany for me and my progressive satisfaction with its performance would be gargantuan shoes to fill.  What can I say? I’ve morphed into a Roon junkie.

It started with the super-intuitive interface (dark or light theme: come to the Dark Side) and continued with the silky-smooth integration between Tidal albums and hard copy files that I had populated from the post-apocalyptic disaster that was my digital file organization.  During the 1.2 release, I was thrilled with the ability to lossless/wireless stream to various endpoints in an ever-expanding licensing agreement frenzy with many of the digital streamer/DAC companies you already know and love.  Sure, I got giddy on following the signal path and seeing “lossless” light up when the system was firing on all cylinders.  Additionally, the metadata functions have greatly improved, combining albums and making compilations much easier to see, without duplicating thumbnails.

Now, since I’m a Roon lemming, the updates to the signal path button have been addictive to me.  For MQA files such as “Church of Scars” by Bishop Briggs, will not only show you in ad infinitum detail the signal train from NAS to monitors, but now also has a few more interactive components, like being able to adjust the DAC’s settings from the signal path window.  DSP and headroom adjustment are right at your fingertips, and way easier to find in the new software update.

But for me, the piece de resistance was the introduction of Tidal and subsequent nascent MQA support via Tidal Masters.  The beginnings of Tidal Masters MQA streaming and its seamless integration with Roon meant that I happily ditched iTunes and Audirvana like a jilted prom date and never looked back.  I’ve loved Tidal so far, but I still have a Spotify Premium subscription, which by the numbers is way more popular for the non-audiophile crowd.  Additionally, Roon still does not support native Qobuz playback.  Hopefully that will change soon as the Paris-based hi-res streaming company recently hired a new US CEO, former Warner Music France exec Yann Miossec; the company has made it known that US expansion should happen sometime this year, and it would of course behoove both companies to seriously consider an agreement.

Fast forward to May 2nd, when the execs at Roon made a press release about the impending release of the version 1.5 software update.  There are some cool streamlining tasks they undertook since their last release as well as a much-expanded Tidal Masters catalog, but the big buzz was native MQA support, i.e. the initial unfolding of MQA’s contortionist Origami structure.

I was tickled pink to see this, not necessarily because I believe that MQA is “The Answer,” but I do believe a new format that is inherently stream-friendly shows forward thinking and at least anticipating the changes that the audiophile community may experience over the next five years or so.  I’m not pro- or anti-MQA, I’m just glad that Roon is giving them a chance to prove that hi-res hard copies and high-quality streaming can exist hand in hand for the betterment of the whole industry.  This is without comment on whether the MQA technology is measurably better in terms of sound quality or a DRM roadblock; at this point I’m just glad there’s a great high-quality streaming capability that easily makes more sense than many hi-res hard copy downloads including the never-to-be-mainstreamed DSD.

These days, while the broad music industry and consumer relies primarily on convenience (sound bar, easy Bluetooth streaming), the burgeoning millennial audiophile wants both convenience and quality, and Roon/Tidal fit that bill precisely.  And almost as an ampersand, tucked away in the press releases over eight weeks from the release of 1.5, came the announcement that Google Chromecast is now a Roon endpoint.  For the cost-conscious among us or those not hyper-focused on hi-res number spouting, a $35 outlay for a dependable Wi-Fi endpoint is a virtual game-changer.  No more endless nights attempting to teach yourself Linux to build a Linux-based Raspberry Pi just to get a sub-hundred dollar Roon endpoint.

I’m not going to get into the various unfoldings of MQA from the software to the hardware, because honestly they could be explaining how to dismantle a nuclear device and I would not be able to follow along.  Suffice it to say, I like what I hear with MQA and am rooting for the company to succeed in its endeavors, primarily because I think a high-quality streaming option on Tidal will appeal to a growing crowd of younger audiophiles who 1) want high quality but 2) are too ambivalent to actually pay or download but could impulse hit “add to library” on the Roon/Tidal interface.  I do believe that Tidal’s continued courting of companies like Roon can only be a good thing.

Whether you have a hard copy MQA album or have added it to your library via Tidal integration, the Roon user is now able to compare various recordings quite easily under the “versions” tab.  It’s much more intuitive in 1.5 than in 1.2, and certainly faster.  Don’t ask me to double-blind myself and expect to get greater than Rosencrantz/Guildenstern coin-flip accuracy, but the option is there, and if your streamer and DAC further unfold the MQA file then perhaps you may hear a difference.  This feature is what Roon bragged about from the beginning with their ad “Compare Horowitz, Rubinstein, Brendel, and all 284 other performances of the Moonlight Sonata.”  Frankly, until 1.5 I had no idea how to do this, and since they’ve highlighted the button it is way more intuitive to show your three versions of the same album, be they HDtracks download, CD upload, or Tidal MQA.  This is a great feature that I’ve been waiting for Roon to make more user-friendly.

Roon’s recent press release went into some detail about its improvement in metadata organization.  I personally have seen previously disjointed albums that had auto-corrected and ended up under one icon, with the correct album cover, and no more splitting up box sets or compilations.  The metadata revamp is a HUGE improvement over the previous 1.2/1.4, and makes for a much more enjoyable user experience.

A potential Easter Egg embedded into the press release was this statement:

“A few significant projects are also under way that you won’t see in this release. Architectural work that will support a future mobile-capable version of Roon is in progress, as is work on the machine learning systems that will drive Radio and a new recommendation engine.”

Now, the new radio function is a lot more seamless and intelligent than the previous iteration, which is convenient when you’re knee-deep in toddlers and house guests.  But what -really- intrigues me is the hint of a “mobile capable version” suggesting impending iOS support.  Android devices can already act as a Roon endpoint, but if Apple was on the bandwagon that would mean we could attach the AudioQuest Dragonfly to an iPhone and enjoy MQA unfolding from Roon all the way through the DAC to the headphones.  Frankly, I’m miffed that Apple hasn’t rectified this sooner, but I’ll take what I can get.  All supposition, of course.

Conveniently, Roon also announced in their press release was that they are now supporting Linn DS products as endpoints.  While Linn is actively working on the firmware patch to complete the process, expect this to be quickly forthcoming.  While I haven’t spent too much time with the Linn products, those of you who are disciples will no doubt be thrilled with the prospect.

There are two other rather important developments to mention about the Roon 1.5 update.  The Roonies (like Goonies, except without Rocky Road) have been working diligently with Wyred 4 Sound to develop the Roon Nucleus and Nucleus +, which are Roon’s first foray into hardware powered by their Linux-based OS specifically designed for Roon.  The Nucleus can run the Roon Core, and one can attach external hard drives, NAS hardware, and the network via either a Wi-Fi router or a hardwire cat6 Ethernet plug.  I’m currently running Roon Core on my MacBook Air and the files are stored on a Synology NAS, but when the collection cracks several thousand albums it starts to get twitchy; a truly deflating experience if one is trying to get gapless playback.  I suspect a dedicated CPU with direct USB or Ethernet connections to the NAS or external drive with Roon’s optimized OS will be a great solution for those whose media has revolted and gone off the reservation.  I personally have had some issues with cutouts and in investigating with the RoonLabs community forum experts, it seems that less Wi-Fi jumps made in the system will reduce the likelihood of intermittent cutouts.  My albums are all on a Synology NAS right now, with the Roon Core on my Macbook Air.  Scanning a full 4TB NAS can cause Mac Meltdown.  A Roon Nucleus is looming for me in the very near future to see whether this hardware addition will smooth out any bumps in the road for playback.

Well, what does it sound like?  I’m very pleased with their upgrade.  In all examples, the hardware remained the same, and my software comparison/point of reference was Audirvana+ from Macbook hardwired to the DAC with a Cardas USB cable. I used three different systems for critical listening:

  • Onkyo DP-X1 DAP, android-based and functioning as a Roon endpoint, with native MQA rendering, alternating between a pair of Oppo PM-3s and MrSpeakers Ether Flow open back planar magnetics.
  • MacBook Air as Roon Core, with AudioQuest Dragonfly Red, to aforementioned headphones.
  • My main two-channel system, which consists of a MacBook Roon Core, a Synology NAS, Bryston BDP-3 streamer, Vinnie Rossi LIO DHT preamp and DAC 2.0, Vinnie Rossi VR 120 ultracap power amp, Cardas cables, and Joseph Audio Perspectives (Streamer and DAC not MQA capable.)

Roon/Tidal MQA Masters through the Dragonfly Red with MQA firmware update is about as good as it gets from a head-fi standpoint.  As mentioned before, Bishop Brigg’s debut album “Church of Scars” is as dynamic and enveloping as Lorde’s debut was four years ago.  Jason Aldean’s new release “Rearview Town” is as well recorded and rendered as any modern country album I’ve heard in the past few years.

Roon have set the bar very high for hi-res software, and I am very much looking forward to what they have in store for the future, especially in the streaming, mobile and MQA department.  The high points for me are the addition of native MQA support, the vast improvement in metadata management, and the much easier method of comparing different files.  The minimal low points are no support for Spotify or other streaming services (hopefully Qobuz on the horizon) and the straining of playback when the library gets uber-huge.  Color me no longer a Roon neophyte, but a firm acolyte.

Note the ability to adjust device setup and DSP engine through the signal path window, upper right hand corner.  Additionally, note this signal path is labeled “Enhanced.”

Also, note this signal path is described as “lossless” even while using MQA, which is technically not lossless.  This has to do with alterations in the DSP engine, nothing more.

 

Note the “versions” tab in the lower left hand column, which is much more intuitive than before.

The subsequent screen when one clicks “versions.” Note that the top Rush album is MQA.

Roon’s now-active ability to actually compare recordings.  (BTW no making fun of my speaker placement, I have two toddlers and three giant breed dogs, so things get knocked over easily around here.)

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New article on Steven Stone’s audiophilereview.com

I have the ongoing pleasure of writing for Mr. Stone, and this is my latest installment about value propositions in the audiophile and guitar market.

https://audiophilereview.com/audiophile-news/the-value-proposition-a-corollary-between-guitars-and-audiophile-gear.html

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Google Chromecast devices now Roon Ready

According to a press release earlier this week, Roon and Google have come to an agreement to make Chromecast devices Roon-Capable. Take a wander over to https://parttimeaudiophile.com/2018/07/06/roon-expands-its-connected-devices-to-include-chromecast/

and take a look.  Also be prepared to read my review of the juiced GCA with hardline ethernet and high end toslink cable compared to a homebuilt Raspberry Pi with similar specs.  The results may surprise you.

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MrSpeakers Aeon Flow Review: A fluid epiphany into affordable Planar Mag

I’ve been persistently impressed with Dan Clark’s relatively meteoric rise in the Head-Fi world over the past few years. He translated modding Fostex cans into his wildly popular Mad Dog and Alpha Prime headphones. Then came the introduction of planar magnetic technology for this San Diego-based firm, with the Ether, Ether Flow, and Ether Flow C. These products, while considerably more expensive than the original MrSpeakers offerings, began making waves in the industry almost from the get-go and started racking up awards and accolades rapidly. Clark’s newest offering, the Aeon Flow, is priced at $799 and is offered in both closed and open back configuration.  It’s the perfect set of phones for those looking for a bit higher than entry level into the intoxicating world of closed-back planar magnetics.

When I started shopping for a pair of up-market open-back planar magnetics, I ended up with the MrSpeakers Ether Flow after demoing HiFiMan and Audeze products. After 18 months, I’ve been very pleased with the wide soundstage, excellent bass, detail retrieval, and lack of fatigue. The only real bummer for me was that the open-back configuration tended to annoy my wife when she was attempting to sleep and I was listening in bed. The obvious solution was their closed-back Ether Flow, but I wanted something a little different and perhaps smaller. Imagine my unexpected pleasure upon discovering the impending release of the Aeon Flow, a slightly smaller and less expensive offering from MrSpeakers, using the proprietary V-Planar and Truflow technology first debuted in the Ether Flow, and offered in closed-back carbon fiber.

Upon arrival, the packaging was everything I’ve come to expect from an upscale company like MrSpeakers. There is an external box with a hardshell case for the cans themselves. In addition to included detachable cables with a combo 3.5- ¼’ plug, there are also several ear cup inserts that are meant to change the buffering characteristics; more on that later.  Suffice it to say, the packaging and case are very high quality and will protect your investment for years to come.

The ear cups are elliptical or tear-drop in shape, and despite being slightly smaller than the Ether Flow, I was profoundly happy with the comfort level that these cans afforded even after several-hour listening periods. The build quality is excellent, with some design elements being carried over from The Ether Flow, such as the extremely comfortable leather headband and the Nytinol metal spring/frames that provide clamping force to the cans. They are easily adjustable and are rarely too tight. One thing that has changed is the suspension swivels that attach the cups to the headband; they are slightly more streamlined than the Ether Flow and while they may have been instituted as a cost-saving measure, they in no way give off that vibe. They seem very slick, high quality, and super functional.

Sound

After about forty hours of break-in and many more hours with the Ether Flows, I feel I have a pretty good grasp on MrSpeakers’ house sound, and the Aeon Flow has its feet firmly in this camp, with excellent detail retrieval, separation, soundstage, and killer bass. My main listening rigs for this review were an Onkyo DP-X1, MQA capable, running Roon, a MacBook Air running Roon Core to Audioquest Dragonfly Red (also MQA capable), and Roon Core to Bryston BDP-Pi streamer to Schiit Jotunheim DAC/Amp to ¼’ cable to Aeon Flows.

I wanted to rely on a few old standard albums with which I was intimately familiar for this review, and the first thing that popped up in the Roon queue was Winton Marsalis Standard Time Vol 1.  Initially released in 1987 and something I had on CD for many years, but recently had downloaded a DSD64 version from HDTracks.com and was itching to try it out. To me, this album is a modern Jazz classic, and does not get nearly the praise it deserves. While listening to the opening track, a reworking of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” I was instantly hooked by the drum lead-in by Jeff Watts. Marsalis’s muted trumpet starts the melody, and Marcus Roberts’ piano drops chords in the background like no other. The Aeon Flow could deliver all this in stark detail, but without any real harshness. The resolution was good enough to hear the valves opening and closing on Winton’s trumpet.

The second record I tested out was the newly released MQA version of John Coltrane’s 1961 classic My Favorite Things.  At the height of his quartet’s musical prowess, he put together a group of musicians that were synergistic on a level not to be seen again for a long time.   McCoy Tyner’s vamping over Elvin Jones driving beats and Steve Davis’ bass (Jimmy Garrison had not joined the quartet yet) enabled Coltrane to delve into the wall of sound as he had never before, and for me it represented a pinnacle of his melodic/free form performance stage.  The Aeon Flow handled itself on this challenging recording with aplomb, easily parsing out the wide soundstage and remarkable bass (even with the closed back configuration.)

Lastly, I ran the Aeon Flow through its paces with one of my favorite prog-rock albums, Fragile by Yes.  The radio-friendly hit and opening track “Roundabout” was a joy to listen to, especially the nylon string acoustic intro as well as the extensive organ solo towards the end of the piece.  What really stood out to me when listening to the album was the other hit track, “Long Distance Runaround,” in which I heard studio sound that had evaded me from prior listenings, a slow build-up breathing into the mic by Jon Anderson.  These speakers are very detailed, and I was impressed to say the least.

In regards to the aforementioned ear inserts which the company states may change the sound profile, I haven’t found such major differences, but will keep you posted on that on a further update.

I don’t have very much to critique the Aeon Flows at this point:  They’re cool looking, they fit the bill for me as closed back planar magnetics from a company I trust,  they were comfortable for hours-long listening sessions, and at a retail price of under $800 (less than half of the Ether Flows) I can honestly say I’m a happy camper and I think these will be in my collection for the long haul.  Highly recommended.

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New article on Steven Stone’s AudiophileReview.com

Went live yesterday:

https://audiophilereview.com/cd-dac-digital/why-itunes-is-dead-to-me.html

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The Manchurian Candidate–A review of the Cayin N5ii DAP

 

Full disclosure: At one point in my life, I looked at the toys of my upbringing, and saw stamped into the proprietary markings “Made in Taiwan” or “Made in Hong Kong”, or “Made in China,” and perhaps been unfairly biased against these products.  This stems from a long-held cultural misconception that “Gosh-Darn American Made” or “Made in Germany by pious monks” somehow meant higher quality.  In the shadow of World War II, it took the longest time for Japanese car makers to prove to the Western public that their product was just as well made or more so than the European or American alternative.

This all sounds vaguely small-minded, but the fact of the matter is that I had to become a free-thinking adult that challenged his own misconceptions to accept modern products being made in China as real contenders in the audiophile market.  I’m prefacing this review with this extended Mea Culpa to help open customer’s eyes to the insanely great product modern Chinese companies are making these days, in the post British Colonial/Integrated Hong Kong/free market pseudocapitalism economy that currently drives the most populated country in the world.  Look no further to HiFiMan as an incredible success story of a Chinese company that has swiftly commanded respect of the worldwide audiophile community.

It is with this verbose prologue that I lead you to a product I essentially tripped across, the Cayin N5ii DAP.  I was having a problem at work being able to keep my iPhone with me to accept calls away from my desk while still coming back and having the tunes keep me company through a tough day.  I felt I needed a DAP to connect to the Audioengine HD3 Bluetooth speakers I splurged on for my work desk, and really didn’t want to tether my iPhone since I was using that to communicate for work purposes.  What about an Android-based DAP that wouldn’t cost me a kidney?

My search criteria were very complicated—search Amazon for DAPs <$500, and start whittling the choices based on features, ergonomics, and gut reaction.  One of the best DAPS on the market, the Onkyo DP-X1, was ruled out from the start since I already own it, love it, and don’t want it anywhere near work.  I had to find something that was slightly less expensive to justify owning two DAPS.

This is where the Cayin N5ii stepped into save me from my misery.  Some of you may have heard of Cayin from their extremely well received tube-based headphone amplifiers.  I suspect they fly under the radar in the US but are probably venerated in Asia due to reasonable prices with great sound.  Turns out they’re not only good at tube amplification, but also personal audio.

The N5ii is rather compact, 115 mm x 57 mm x 15 mm, weighing 150g.  Carrying in-pocket is slightly thicker than an iPhone but not more compact, like a deck of cards.  The device runs on the Android 5.1 platform, and is very user-friendly.  Other relevant specs include an ESS 9018K2M DAC chip, dual 2.5 and 3.5 mm headphone jacks, and micro sd card slots supporting two 400 gb cards, (WOW!)  as well as 32gb of internal storage.  In addition, the device supports WiFi, DLNA, and various third party applications through download from the Google Play arena.  N5ii supports 2.4GHz 802.11b/g/n WiFi.  Other great features include access to DropBox music, or access NAS-stored music files through Samba/DLNA.

On the output side, the N5ii provides 150 mW @ 32ohms from the 3.5mm jack, while the balanced 2.5 mm jack provides 250 mW @ 32ohms.  The DAP will decode PCM up to 64 bit/384 kHz PCM and DSD 256, and supports practically every file known to man, including Apple’s proprietary AAC and ALAC.

Just about every tech-spec of this new DAP is a huge bonus for me as a consumer, but there’s one very simple feature that I think should become the new norm for Android or any non-Apple device—the USB-C power/data cord.  Its connection is most importantly non-directional as compared to a micro-USB plug, and there are no metal tangs to become loose after many pluggings and unpluggings.  It also seats deeper than the micro USB, and in my anecdotal experience is much more sturdy and resistant to lateral stress that would progressively weaken the connection.

How, do you then ask, is the sound, darn it!?!?  You’ve been reading this whole schlemiel and haven’t gotten to hear my thoughts on whether it can reproduce decent music.  I felt that the ESS DAC handled itself very well and provided a very well balanced sound that was inherently musical, full of detail, with a great soundstage.  I felt it was –very- close to the Onkyo DP-X1 in terms of overall sound quality.  At this price point it’s the best DAP I’ve heard.  All listening was done through one of my three main sets of headphones, the Oppo PM-3, MrSpeakers Ether flow, the Sennheiser HD700, and Moon Audio aftermarket cables.

This DAP fit many requirements for me:  External micro SD card slots, flexible Android OS, great price, and great sound.  Are these 800 words of confirmation bias? Perhaps.  That being said, it’s not a lie that this is a great little DAP.  I justify the possibility of confirmation bias by stating that I am an independent blogger and have never accepted a piece of equipment from a manufacturer just for the sake of review (Let’s face it, I’m a minnow in a mighty sea of whales.) Either way, I highly recommend this product for anyone shopping in the $300-$500 range.

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Upcoming article about iTunes vs Roon on AudiophileReview.com

Again, apologies for the delay in decent writing, but with two full time jobs, wife, two toddlers etc it’s hard to keep up.

In addition to the aforementioned, keep on the lookout for reviews of the Bryston BDP 3 network streamer, and the new Cayin N5ii DAP.

Going forward, you’ll see some more analog hardware and software, perhaps some reviews of newly garnered LPs.  I hope you’ll follow me along in my adventures!

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Life gets in the way

I’m so sorry it’s been almost a year since I updated the site, but the good news is that I’ve got a bunch of nascent ideas and concrete info to share with you guys.

When you have two toddlers age 2 and 3.5, life gets in the way and since I hold down two full-time jobs and am trying to help my saintly wife to manage the household, anything not involving eat/sleep/work/kids falls by the wayside quickly.

Then came the hurricane.

We were in the direct path of the Category 4 Hurricane Irma here in Key West, and were incredibly fortunate overall; just some trees down and a slow-down of our continued renovations of our new house.  The old house was so old, we did the math and realized it had been through at least four Cat 4 storms over the past 120 years, so while the yard was a wreck, the old clapboard structure fared very well, presumably due to its inherent leakiness, who knows.

Either way we dodged a bullet and our house was basically fine.

Coming up will be a mildly truncated account of how I finished the in-home cable and internet wiring of the new one-story concrete ranch structure.   We’ll discuss hardwiring Cat6 ethernet, running coax for cable, and setting up the home network with modem/router/wifi hotspots, and additionally adding Amazon Alexa for voice control to the Nest thermostats and smoke detectors.

Stay Tuned!

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Aural Recall and Tube Rolling: Part 2

The much-awaited sequel has been published on AudiophileReview.com:

 

http://audiophilereview.com/tubes/a-guitarists-aural-recall-and-tube-rolling-part-two.html

 

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