Jason Approaches the Finish Line at LAAS

How to conduct a successful MQA demo when the person requesting same already has made up their mind? That question, or some variation thereof, must have run through the mind of Meridian's SW regional sales manager, Courtney Careccia, when the sole attendee (besides me) in her room on a slow Sunday asked for a non-MQA/MQA comparison on her all-Meridian system. After no more than 45 seconds—it could have been less, but certainly not more—the man asked to switch to the MQA version, listened for a much shorter time, stood up, declared the whole thing was a sham, and marched out the door. It was almost as if the comparison had never happened.

Just the day before, when John Atkinson and I shared breakfast with Bob Stuart of MQA, Bob had told us, "No A/B demo can be done effectively in 45 seconds, or against prejudice, or on the basis of one trial. Frankly, it makes it a non-event.

"According to ECG measurements around content with and without components above 20kHz, the brain needs 100–200 seconds to process information before it can effectively move from A to B. We at MQA infer this is primarily a response to more or less temporal smearing, and therefore probably also applies to comparisons between grades of higher rate content." (footnote 1)

Whether or not this inference is accurate, it was clear to this silent observer that the demo was over before it began.

So what did Courtney do? She provided an object lesson on how to let water run off a duck's back. She watched the man walk out the door without blinking an eye, and remained open to welcoming the next attendee. Courtney, I think I need to jump into the same lake as you, follow your lead, and placidly paddle along behind a true pro.

Also leading the way were Meridian's DSP7200SE digital active loudspeakers ($45,000/pair), 218 Zone Controller ($1000), and 808v6 CD/MQA CD player/DAC/preamp/streamer. The latter was for folks who wanted to listen to a CD. A MacBook running Roon and streaming Tidal wirelessly via a local network, and Meridian Speaklink cabling completed a system relatively elegant in layout and appearance.

One of E. Covina, CA-based Sunny Components' three 4th floor rooms at LAAS combined Wilson Audio's Sabrina loudspeaker ($15,900/pair) with an electronics chain dominated by Audio Research's ARC LS28 linestage preamp ($7500), PH9 phono stage ($7500), and Reference CD-9 player ($13,000). From my prior experience with these components, I had expected quite a different sound than the extra-sibilant, extra-shine, bass-thump presentation of Chris Thomas' "Broken Chair." After all, the Sabrina didn't win a Product of the Year award from Stereophile for nothing—it is without question a giant killer in its price range, and capable of producing mind-blowing, highly dynamic, well-controlled sound that extends far lower in frequency than one might expect.

Archie Shepp's "When Things Go Wrong" fared much, much better in the midrange warmth department, and also sounded very clear, quiet and transparent. But a visit with the MQA version of Beyoncé's "Daddy Lessons," which I tried to focus on despite excessive talking in the room, seemed noisy and bright. Was this a case of Tidal wireless streaming failing the sniff test? What is certain is that an Aurender DAC A-10 ($5500), Technics turntable SL1200G ($3995), AudioQuest Niagara 5000 noise-dissipation system ($3995), AudioQuest cabling, and an HRS rack completed the equipment chain.

Pietra chose Emotiva Gen 1 monoblocks to showcase their black galaxy granite-enclosed Pietra Model 3.10 loudspeaker ($17,500/pair) via Pietra speaker wire. Weighing 340 lbs., the 3.10 has a surprisingly low sensitivity of 83dB/2.83V/m. Pietra designs speakers with their own proprietary software, and claims very even response with good directivity.

A well-worn track of Rodrigo y Gabriela sounded nice and even, but the top was too bright. Chesky's recording of Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus fared better, with the system revealing the multiple shortcomings of a hesitant chorus whose members frequently failed to begin and end passages at the same time, and were too concerned with the microphone to consider the music's spiritual import. From this if-only-it-were-sublime experience to Yello's "Electrified II" we went, with the transition far less shocking than the reality of how much bigger, fuller, and more impactful this track can sound when more information is conveyed. I would have loved to have heard these loudspeakers with different electronics.

Because I gave the MSB room at AXPONA a hard time, I want to say right off the bat that, at LAAS, the change in the MSB Reference DAC to a new, free-to-download high-resolution 16/44.1 filter and new DSD "optimized" mode, along with an optional Femto 33 clock ($14,905 by itself, or $54,405 total as shown), made a world of difference. On the same Murray Perahia Plays Handel and Scarlatti disc that I listened to in Chicago, the lovely grace and even flow of Perahia's playing emerged intact, with the balance between top and bottom registers ideal. Perhaps there was a mite too much percussive emphasis on notes in extremely rapid passages, or perhaps this system was even more accurate in conveying Perahia's staccato, pseudo-harpsichord pianism than virtually every other system I've played this recording on. Regardless, it was one of the most magical presentations of Perahia's performance of Handel's Harpsichord Suite 5 in E, HWV 430 that I have ever experienced.

God, I love those times at audio shows when I want to close the book on the clock and list of obligations, and simply get lost in the music. This was one of them. Every subtle dynamic transition was conveyed effortlessly, and with utmost poetry. I didn't want to stop listening.

A very different 1978 recording of Bill Berry & the Ellington All-Stars fared equally well. To help make such a musical presentation possible, MSB's Vince Galbo made use of an AudioQuest Niagara 7000 ($7995), Audioquest Niagara 5000 ($4995), and carefully implemented Tripplite hospital-grade isolation transformer on the transport, all of which were behind the curtain. What you can see in the photo are MSB's Universal Media transport with Dual Signature PowerBase ($11,990) and M204 class-A, 200wpc monoblocks with newly upgraded power supply ($39,500/pair), YG Acoustics Sonja 1.2 loudspeakers ($72,800/pair), Analysis Plus Golden oval interconnects ($8000) and speaker cable ($11,000).

Yet another winning system surfaced in the room where Nola Metro Grand Reference Gold 2 loudspeakers ($40,000/pair) met a Synthesis A40 V integrated amplifier ($6395), Déjà Vu/Western Electric Audio Vintage Collection preamp with Western Electric tubes, transformers, and vintage parts ($25,000), Déjà Vu/Western Electric DAC ($25,000), Esoteric P-05 transport, and Nordost Odin 1 and Odin 2 cabling. Shirley Horn's brightly illuminated voice on "It Had to be You" sounded positively gorgeous, with excellent midrange textures, revealing intimacy, and not a hint of glare.

Switching to my CD of the rousing last movement of Lou Harrison's Violin Concerto, all instrumental timbres were excellent, with both the metal and skin of Lou's wild assortment of percussion conveyed with ease. The system wasn't as tight as can be on the bottom end, but its depiction of depth and believable tonalities was excellent.

Footnote 1: In subsequent discussion by email, Bob referred us to four papers, one of which can be found here. The others are "High-resolution music with inaudible high-frequency components produces a lagged effect on human electroencephalographic activities," by Ryuma Kuribayashi, Ryuta Yamamoto and Hiroshi Nittono (Clinical neuroscience, 2014); "Multidisciplinary study on the hypersonic effect," by Tsutomu Oohashi, Emi Nishina, Manabu Honda (International Congress Series 1226), and "Inaudible High-Frequency Sounds Affect Brain Activity: Hypersonic Effect" by Tsutomu Oohashi, Emi Nishina, Manabu Honda, Yoshiharu Yonekura, Yoshitaka Fuwamoto, Norie Kawai, Tadao Maekawa, Satoshi Nakamura, Hidenao Fukuyama, and Hiroshi Shibasaki (The American Physiological Society, 2000).

Glotz's picture

Measuring goes to another whole level!

I have a buddy of mine that bought the Tannoy Sensys DC1's with super-tweeter support. He claims he has never heard a difference. No surprise!

You (or anyone) don't know what you are hearing! It is proven- it is FELT, which in turns commands the brain to relax and focus... and one's head/face proves it!

Mind blown juuust a little bit.

Archimago's picture

Thanks for the coverage Jason.

For the MQA discussions, it's "EEG" (brain), not "ECG" (heart).

For those looking at the research paper, this is another example of very small effect size just like all the research articles on high-resolution that have come before. With a small sample size of 22 individuals, and inconsistent responses among the physiological domains measured, to focus on the EEG & ERP changes as evidence of this "100-200 second" threshold seems a little "speculative" as the authors admit. Also, looking at the procedure, one wonders how this is supposed to represent the typical listening "task" when enjoying music in a high quality sound room! (When was the last time you tried a Go/No-Go task on a CRT(!) monitor with a refresh rate of 100Hz in front of you while listening to music with speakers 1.5m away?)

Now as for MQA taking this speculative result and claiming it's due to "temporal smearing" - well that's even more speculative isn't it :-)? The bottom line is that this research is using presumably a lossless 24/192 recording of classical music. It did not use MQA encoding. We do not even know how well MQA would maintain the ultrasonic spectrum as shown in the paper's supplemental material. Likewise, we do not know if MQA encoding would have affected the 24-bit depth. Therefore, it would be healthy to be a little guarded when it comes to accepting the attribution theory being offered.