Friday, 25 February 2011

iTunes 24 bit Rumours!

Thanks to good audiophile friend Alan and good audiophile site Computer Audiophile for this one!

There's a rumour that Apple's iTunes will be offering 24 bit audio sometime in the future.  Now that would make a huge difference to the market and remove that nagging doubt about the widespread availablity of a good catalogue of true High Def audio content.

Fingers crossed, and any chance of FLAC please Mr Jobs?

More Cyrus Details

More information on the Cyrus streamer was announced at the Bristol show.  I should've said streamers rather than streamer, as its actually a bit of a family of products.

Lots of connectivity - USB (asychronous or not is not yet clear), iPod dedicated USB, wired Ethernet, WiFi, uPnP and DLNA.  Plus they plays the most important FLAC and WAV file formats up to 24 / 96.

Most impressively, Cyrus have got it right and produced all the main possible combinations for this device:

£1600 Streamline that is streamer / DAC / pre-amp / power amp as an all-in-one mini system (compare Naim UnitiQute)
£1400 Stream X which is the streamer only with digital outputs - so the main "source" component for those of us interested in selecting the best avaible device for each element in the sound reproduction chain (compare Naim NDX)
£2000 Stream XP which is the streamer / DAC / pre-amp version (perhaps compare Musical Fidelity?)

All work with a remote that includes a screen and controls the devices over the network.  Can't see anything in the news (no rear panel photos either) that indicate compatibility with the PSX-R power supply.

Brilliant!  I'm hoping these devices will sound as good or better than the company's existing DAC products (more soon on this topic) but Cyrus have to be absolutely congratulated and encouraged to continue with this excellent approach to covering all the bases.

Cyrus Announcement

What HiFi News Link

Squeezebox Touch - Evolution Begins

No changes to the rest of the system (although there is a bit relating to cables...) so this is the first stages of experimentation with streaming audio and how it relates to the Logitech Squeezebox Touch in my system.  For the first part of this story, see the posting First Streaming Times below.
So we are at a Touch on its own into the rest of the system using a pair of Linn Black analogue interconnects.  And it sounds very detailed but flat, lacking space between the instruments, there's little width to the sound and its all lacking somewhat in terms of drive / pace / enthusiasm.  Its fine for background listening, but not so good for listening to music properly.  The CD player is still in a different league.  These comparisons are done between the same CD and the ripped version in FLAC, not against high res files which would be an unfair comparison.
 
Some research revealled that quite a few folks have been running external DACs on their Squeezebox Duets and Touches with some success, and there are various references to different (e.g. Fidelity Audio, Teddy PS) external power supplies making a difference.
There's then a whole separate story about a chance opportunity to go to a Naim dealer when Naim themselves were there demoing loads of kit.  I might write that one up sometime.  But the key relevant point here is that Naim have come out with a streaming device that sounds distinctly unimpressive to me when using its internal DAC, but plug it into the Naim stand alone DAC and it sounds astonishingly good.  Add the external power supply to the external DAC and you have something quite remarkable, but also rather expensive (approx £6.5k at this point).  So this, coupled with the internet chattosphere spurred me on to further experimenting.
I took the plunge and bought a Cambridge Audio DACMagic (for those with an eye for absolute detail, its a black one) along with the CA basic optical digital interconnect.  This is a major step forward and unleashes all sorts of extra information, deeper bass and the soundstage leaps out from between the speakers and pretty much doubles in width.  Hmm, very interesting.  If I then move the interconnect from the CD player (its an AudioQuest Topaz) there are further improvements in control and bass extension.  I purchased a What HiFi recommended Chord Chameleon Silver Plus interconnect (£125) which is an improvement on the Linn, but isn't as good as the Topaz (£180 for 0.5m over 10 years ago, but thrown in when I bought the CD player).
Now if I use the DACMagic and CD player as a transport then the CD player inbuilt DAC still wins out, and that's using an optical digital interconnect (not tried with a coax interconnect yet), so the DACMagic doesn't appear to be as good as the DAC inside the CD player.  Or is it?
The reason for this doubt is because of the next step I took.  I picked up an old coax digital lead that's actually designed for Meridian components to talk to each other, but only for control purposes, so its not exactly designed with sound quality in mind.  However, the improvement of this over the optical digital lead was astonishing.  Optical appears to be rubbish - that could be the Touch output, the DACMagic input, or the cable, or some kind of combination of all or some of these. The biggest difference here is difficult to describe, but if you imagine the "space" around, between and behind instruments is blackness, then the blackness was much blacker - I guess it means there's some kind of digital error correction or hash (jitter?) disappearing from the signal? The music is now going along with some proper drive and pace.  Foot is tapping at last. So if a rubbish cable is better than an optical one, what's a decent cable like?

So in comes a fairly basic but recommended digital coax cable - a QED Performance which is only £30.  Another step forward over the basic coax, but more subtle this time - mainly in the treble area, it's lost some of the remaining grittiness and splash.  Must get around to trying the DACMagic with the CD player transport and the coax interconnect soon, just haven't had the time.
So we're now at Touch - QED coax - DACMagic - Chord Chameleon. 

Comparison with CD player is now getting about 85% of the way there.  CD player still giving a bit more in terms of punch / pace etc, but from a pure detail point of view, there's nothing in it.  CD player still using the Topaz interconnect though, which is somewhat better than the Chord Chameleon.
So off to ebay to find a secondhand Topaz (you can't buy them new anymore).  No luck there, but did find 2 pairs of Audioquest Emerald interconnects which were top of their range at around £230 for 0.5m.  Got them for £40 and £42 so one for the CD and one for the DACMagic.  So here we have yet another improvement to both Touch / DAC and the CD player.  Again its subtle but its definitely there.  How can I describe this one?  Well its a kind of smoothness and flow to the music - whilst the instruments are very seperate and obviously so, the actual music seems to flow along much better and its not a bunch of accurately rendered notes, its a better illusion of a piece of music (I almost used the word accurate there, but we know its not about accuracy, because so few of us actually know what the original performance sounded like and we need to remember that much of the processing done during production is deliberately trying to make the recording NOT sound like the original performance).  This description probably isn't making much sense, that's why I'm not Jimmy Michael Hughes!
So we have Touch - QED Coax - DACMagic - Audioquest Emerald and that's now somewhere between 90 and 95% of the way to the CD player's quality. 

But here are the 2 killer points.  It now stands me at £500 and if I was starting from scratch I'd a choice between that and the £1700 CD player, I know which I'd choose!  But as soon as you add in the ability to play 24 / 96 files then its a hands-down win for the streaming tech - its a good 10% better than the CD player and leads to those evenings that are "just one more track" until its suddenly 1am!

So you have to wonder just how much DAC the Touch can support...
And what about power supplies, and do they matter, once you're no longer using the internal DAC?
 
If you're interested in more on the Squeezebox Touch, take a look at this article as there are mods you can do to your Touch without spending any cash:

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Cambridge Audio NP30 - Still on the Horizon?

CA have been touting this device for about 10 months now. Supposedly with Wolfson DACs, but not using the same circuitry nor config as the DACMagic.  It streams from a network, from USB and internet radio.

But still no sign of it yet, with the nearest I've seen to anyone saying its actually available coming from Stereophile:

http://www.stereophile.com/content/cambridge-audio-np30-network-music-player

Today's Tunes

Managed to grab about 30 mins of downtime amongst the bathroom decorating today.

I chose to play music through the Squeezebox Touch / DACMagic as follows:

Shostakovich Symphony No 8 (88.2 kHz 24 bit)
Massive Attack- Three (44.1 kHz 16 bit)
Lyle Lovett - Dakota, She's Already Made Up Her Mind (44.1 kHz 16 bit)
FAC 15 - Stay With Me Til Dawn (44.1 kHz 16 bit)
Ian Shaw - A Good And Simple Man (88.2 kHz 24 bit)

Very enjoyable.

First Streaming Times


Having studied the various PC / USB / NAS / Squeezebox / Ethernet / WiFi options for approximately 12 months, I've made the decision to go down the NAS / Ethernet / Streamer route.  I'm interested in this approach as it gives the benefits of no PC nor any spinning hard disks in the listening room, the ability to use mirrored storage in the NAS for back up purposes and only one copy of the music to be accessed from around the house - even across the internet is possible with the QNAP software.
Having been to a few Linn and Naim demos, I knew that it's possible to get very good sound using streaming and accessing NAS over Ethernet.  But I'm not yet ready to spend thousands of pounds on a first try.
More research.  More tests read.  Good reviews of the Logitech Squeezebox Touch and its ridiculously good price whilst being able to deliver FLAC at up to 24 bit / 96kHz looked like a safe way to go. 

This particular story has a bit of background, so if detail is your thing, this should suit you somewhat!

System
CDs ripped using Exact Audio Copy to FLAC, so 16 bit 44.1kHz
FLAC files downloaded from Linn being a mixture of 24 bit 48 kHz and 24 bit 96kHz
QNAP TS 209 II Pro NAS using 2 x 1.5TB mirrored Seagate drives (ARM processor, Linux based firmware)
DELL laptop, Windows 7
Wired Ethernet over Mains
Logitech Squeezebox Touch
Linn black analogue interconnects
Meridian 541 pre-amp
Linn Tunebox Active Crossover
3 x Rotel RB850 power amps
Linn Tri-Active Keilidh speakers
Linn LK600 speaker cable
Comparison against Meridian 508.20 CD player

Software
A mixed bag.  Getting software installed on the NAS is a hit and miss affair, in general, despite them being recommended by Linn - but Linn only required uPnP (e.g. Twonky) and nothing bespoke / proprietary.  The SqueezeCenter server software is, therefore, immediately a compromised situation.  Being reliant on the open source community for QNAP installs means that you need one or more people out there who are enthusiastic about doing what you need to be done. In this case, there only seems to be one person who is producing the required QPKG files (that's the QNAP equivalent to and RPM in the RHEL World or an MSI in the Windows World).  It's therefore a problem if things don't work and that individual hasn't found the time to fix or look at your particular combination of NAS hardware, firmware version, QPKG version and SqueezeCenter version.  I believe the ReadyNAS range has much more support in this area, but having had an earlier Belkin NAS, I didn't want to go there again!  If you are really keen you can go command line and do the Linux install manually and I thought that might be where I might end up.

The QNAP web site is very helpful and has step by step instructions and screenshots on where to find the downloads, where to install them, how to run them etc.  Such a shame then that QNAP have redesigned their website and, of course, our helpful friends in the opensource community have changed some of the help text and instructions since the QNAP instructions were published.  I therefore had to grub around using search terms at the QNAP site (which is a bit hit and miss) to find the right files and to interpret the steps into the current version of the actual steps to take.  So, I downloaded the QPKG file and the QPKG web interface file.  They have to be in a particular directory on the NAS and that was no problem.  I ran the QPKG and it worked OK, but then you have to go off to Squeezebox (Logitech) to get the actual SqueezeCenter software - and even that isn't in a logical place - its actually at mysqueezebox.com which isn't the main Logitech site - for the QNAP box you need the Perl version of this software.  This did install OK through the QPKG software.  However, when running the SqueezeCenter (don't forget to spell it the American way or you'll find nothing!) it failed.  There is a log file which is full of fairly obscure (to me at least) error messages and hints.  However, using the hints in the log and searching for them on the QNAP forum fetched up some answers (one of which included uninstall and reinstall of the NAS firmware - scary!) but it turned out I had a QPKG that was specific to one recent version of SqueezeCenter and needed to download an earlier QPKG that was compatible with early SqueezeCenter versions and the latest version.  So a bit confusing.  It's also a bit disconcerting when running the QPKG files and the NAS tells you that you are now installing a system update...a little unsettling.  Now over 2 hours in!

In the meantime and in parallel...I downloaded the Windows version of SqueezeCenter, installed it on the DELL, pointed it to the correct directory on the NAS and it was all done in about 20 mins, including indexing my music files (but there's only 6 albums of FLAC at the moment).  This allowed me to log into my SqueezeCenter account and make sure all my stuff was ready to go there too (not that there's much to do if you just want vanilla everything), and to plug in the SB Touch and get it up and running.

Touch
This was packed very well and is done in a very restrained but quality way.  The unit itsself is much heavier than I expected and has a solid case and an aluminium stand at the back with soft rubber feet and the whole thing feels very sturdy - there are no nasty plastic moulding edges / flashing etc.  Its very thoroughly wrapped in thin cellophane which is a bit of a challenge to remove.
So, using an Ethernet cable directly to the router and sat alongside the laptop, I plugged in the Touch and switched on.  It immediately identified that later software was available, asked me if I wanted to update and off it went and the software was downloaded automatically and installed in about 5 minutes.  From there it found the (Windows!) SqueezeCentre automatically and there was my (very limited) collection of HQ rips available via album, artist, search etc.  I haven't used the touch screen as navigating via the remote is very easy to use, if a bit cheap feeling in the hand.
Once all up and running the SB Touch was moved down to the listening room and plugged into the Ethernet over mains and the main hifi system using a Linn interconnect.
In my room I'll have to think about where the SB is going to sit - the only currently available position in my rack is a bit restrictive and the screen faces 90 deg to the listening position.  Even so, although the screen is very clear and easy to read, I doubt it will be readable from the listening position.  The interface is easy to follow and very intuitive and I have no problems with it at all.  Very impressive.  I like the info available on each track - you can delve into sample rates, bit rates etc. which helps in comparing sound quality.

Listening
I used exclusively FLAC files as listed above, ripped from my CDs using EAC or, with higher quality files, downloaded from Linn.  Tracks from Jon Strong (Folk Rock), Charles Webster (electronica) from CD and Ian Shaw (Jazz / Rock?) and some piano stuff and female vocal jazz from the Linn sampler downloads.  An Ian Shaw track (A Case of You) I have from Linn in both 24 bit 48kHz and 24 bit 96 kHz formats.  Everything streams fine over the Ethernet over Mains with no dropouts and no obvious artefacts.
So, bearing in mind that its now nearly midnight, listening was not extended and these are very much initial thoughts.  At least I could use a decent volume as the kids were fast asleep and it takes a lot to wake them!  I didn't make direct comparisons with the CD player due to time limitations so observations are from memory of how the CD player sounds and I will report back when I can make actual comparisons - I'll be able to compare CDs against rips of those CDs and CD against downloaded higher res files.  But for now, it seems to me that the SB Touch has very good resolution of detail and has reasonable timing.  However, whilst pretty much all the info is there, it all feels a bit "polite" or "restrained" with tracks lacking some attack and Jon Strong's aggressive acoustic guitar playing (he's from Leeds and is singing about what Thatcher did to the North East so, as you can imagine, this track shouldn't be polite, and isn't on my CD player and definitely isn't when he's playing live with a couple of pints inside!) isn't as meaningful as it should be.  On the female vocal jazz this isn't really an issue as its politely presenting very polite music.  The electronica dance tracks were also restrained and less likely to get your foot tapping, but again the detail is there.
I guess you might remember the "inky blackness" of silence between instruments when moving from vinyl to CD?  Well this device takes that one step further - the lack of noise is stunning and is something I noticed on the Linn DS devices.  I think some might call this dryness or sterility, but I would disagree - it just makes the actual music stand out more.  Also, I noticed that the SB Touch is actually capable of demonstrating the difference between the 24/48 file and 24/96 file of the same Ian Shaw track - very impressive.
Internet radio works - I guess it'll be very sample rate dependent as DAB is.  Favourites are going to be essential here as the choice is a bit overwhelming and could be a few evenings work in itsself - hopefully its possible to manage this through the SqueezeCenter software rather than just through the Touch as the interface isn't good enough to be able to work through the full gamut (sorry Alan) of choice.  There are apps to install too, one of which allows podcast listening so that'll be the first one I give a try.
So a pretty good start.  A more direct comparison will need to be done against the CD player.  However, here's the killer point - the SB Touch was £208 including P&P and the CD player cost £1700 about 10 years ago.  Even at this early stage, I don't think I'd want to swap the CD player for the Touch, but if you were starting from scratch...

If this is the basic level, then the likes of the Cambridge NP30 and stuff coming soon from Cyrus, Arcam et al looks very promising indeed.  Perhaps I don't have to save up for that Linn Akurate DS after all?

Back to the Software
And so the above was all done listening through the Windows SqueezeCenter on the laptop.  However, the NAS version did get up and running, pointed it to the correct folder on the NAS, closed down the Windows SqueezeCenter and started up the NAS version.  SB Touch did find it, but I had to use the "change folder" option on the Touch to point to the new SqueezeCenter instance.  Everything then works well and I did a quick listen to make sure it was working.  Wonder if there's a difference in sound between the NAS and Windows versions???

Saturday, 12 February 2011

In The Beginning

A warm coke fired Rayburn fire, my favourite Corgi, Dinky and Matchbox toy cars, the Hornby OO in the other room, Toad in the Hole with gravy and mash, the first proper bike with only 2 wheels (sky blue and red, as it happens), caravan holidays in Devon and the Yorkshire Dales, the kids next door, Dad's blue Hillman Avenger, the local park, the outside loo block at primary school and the big old Marconiphone Radiogram playing "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" - these are some of the clearest memories of my childhood.

There's a photo of the radiogram on the Images page.  I very much remember the sqeaky metal supports as the big front flaps covering the receiver controls and the record player hinged down. There was that smell that comes with hardwood furniture, the incredibly heavy looking white moulded plastic tone arm with the stylus you could turn, using the maroon "control" on the end of the tone arm - a needle for 78s on one side and a stylus for "microgroove" records on the other.  The receiver took a while to warm up - I presume it used valves, and the sound was very very warm and inviting.  A deep tone, but very little in the way of information, with vocals just part of the music rather than something distinctive.  It seems amazing to me now that 35 or more years later, this radiogram is such a vivid part of my memories.

I had to sit close, I assume this was to make it seem louder than I was allowed to play it, but I don't remember being asked to turn it down.  My brother is 4 years older than me, so he started buying music earlier than I did - I don't remember any albums on this machine, just 7" singles, particularly his Beatles music.  For me, the first single I bought was T-Rex's Solid Gold Easy Action.  I'm a child of the glam-rock era!

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Where Are You All?

Map of recent visitor locations, just FYI.

Why?

I'm sure there must be a reason for this product to exist, but I'm really struggling with the way Bryston have gone with the BDP-1 digital music transport.  It's reviewed in the March 2011 edition of HiFi Choice magazine, page 64.
There are 3 main ways in which digital file based music is being delivered into hifi systems at the moment - one is the PC / Laptop / Mac feeding through USB into a DAC, the second being streaming from a PC / Laptop / MAC over a network, be it Ethernet, Ethernet over mains or Wifi and finally we have music servers which contain an internal hard drive in addition to the control elements and DAC (and sometimes pre-amp / power amps).  The latter one has a further option of adding other "clients" to the system - examples being SooLoos and Sonos.
So the beautifully built Bryston chooses another route - to only play music directly from direct attached USB storage - be that solid state or a hard drive.  So you have to get your music off your computer, onto some kind of USB attached media and then plug it into the Bryston.  It then scans the storage and builds an index - every time you connect.  So you add one more ripped CD to your portable USB hard disk storage and when you re-connect to the Bryston, it re-scans your collection of 1000 CDs (or whatever your numbers are).  Bryston claim that streaming over a network is messy and hard.  Interesting - and see my next post about the Linn Akurate DS, also reviewed in the same magazine edition (coming soon).
All of that seems unusual, to say the least.  Personally I'm not convinced of the merits - putting a CD in a player seems somewhat easier to me.  So having got all the media onto the hard disk, you just plug the £2200 device into a system right?  Wrong.  All this device is doing is taking the digital file, providing some control over the content (selection, playlists etc.) and squirting it to a digital output.  You need to add an external DAC, which, of course, Bryston can supply, as can many other manufacturers.  The outputs use a choice of electrical connections (no optical, good) which use either a BNC connector or XLR.  And we used to think Naim were a little odd with their choice of connectors!  The Bryston DAC has an asychronous USB input, but this device has no equivalent output.  Hmmm.  With a decent DAC this device is competing with the Linn Akurate DS on price but is no comparison on capability.  Sound quality might be a factor of course, but I doubt I'll be lucky enough to have the chance to make that comparison.
HiFi Choice give the device a good review for sound quality but pronounce the device low on features.  That seems to be a bit of an understatement.  I just don't see a place for this, but perhaps you can correct me?  There may be a market out there for those who find Windows Explorer or Mac Finder enough from the computer side and don't want to have a computer close to their listening system, or don't want to mess about with networking I suppose.  And here is the final oddity - the device has an ethernet port on the back - to allow you to connect to your network which enables the use of an Apple device to provide control over wifi.  Bizarre.

A relevant thread at Computer Audiophile can be found here.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Musical Fidelity Join The Fray

More good news, but not quite so hot off the press, given that MF are advertising in pretty much every hifi mag with this at the moment.  But here it is anyway:

The MF M1 CLiC music streamer with 24/192 DAC, ethernet, wifi, internet radio, iPod digital input, USB input and iPhone / iPod controller app.   MF's twist includes digital and analogue inputs that allows use of this as a pre-amp in addition to being a source. At £1300 it looks like a good option and it will be interesting to compare against the Cyrus on sound quality and price.  For those who were disappointed that the Naim UnitiQute came with an amp, this could be just the thing, and for those who find the Linn Sneaky a disappointment (that would include me - it just doesn't deliver on the emotion in music and looks like they forgot to put it in a box), it would be great if it challenges the Akurate DS on sound.

http://www.audioaffair.co.uk/Musical-Fidelity-M1-Clic-Music-Controller/product_4870

Friday, 4 February 2011

First Images Posted

Checkout the link to the Images page on the right - some vintage stuff in there!  Starting to build up the story over the past 4+ decades.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Cyrus - Breaking News!

What a great way to be able to start off the blog - some breaking news from Cyrus - they're about to release a network streaming player!  Observations later, but here's the news from a newsletter release today:

 We are pleased to announce that the new Cyrus streaming platform will soon be unveiled and we have taken all of the feedback on board that we received last year. We have not only developed an exceptional streaming music player, but also a truly unique interface that we have aptly named n-remote.  Whether you want to browse your network music library, select albums, artists or specific tracks, find your favourite internet radio station or control your Cyrus system, the n-remote will let you do all of this and more from the touch of a few buttons.
With its sleek body, full colour screen and two-way control, the n-remote is just one of the features that make the new Cyrus streaming platform very special. We will be releasing full details of this new platform over the next few weeks, but as a valued and favoured customer we thought you might like to see a sneak preview of this latest product...... 
The new Cyrus streaming music player

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Introduction

It's all about the music and the emotion is conveys, but you can only get there if you have the right kit to produce something you like the sound of in your home / car / office / garage etc.

Everyone has an opinion about what sounds right to them - and that's fine, and that's what you'll get here - my views, my opinion and that's all it is for what it's worth.  Hopefully there'll be some who agree, some who don't and something that creates a bit of interest or some debate.

The blog will contain a mix of what's happening at the moment with my listening kit, what's happening in the industry and something about the music that's been playing, interspersed with a bit of history spanning back to 1981, and perhaps even earlier.