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Letters to the editor – Weeks #28 & #29, 2021

  • Mel writes…

    You frequently remind your viewers of the scant availability of hi-res offerings on the likes of Qobuz. If you take into account their complete catalog, you are absolutely right. However, the overwhelming majority of items have little to do with high-quality musical performance or recording excellence. I think that many of your followers curate their playlists and favorites to some degree. I myself am fairly omnivorous and have ticked off over 5,000 favorites. Yet, when I quickly scroll down and scan my choices I find that 35-40% of my picks are in fact hi-res, even though my tastes are far from catholic. True, you need to spend money on better equipment to hear the difference, usually by doubling your investment to gain a 3-5% improvement each time. Unfortunately, that is the nature of the beast. The good news is that, with the exception of the uber-high end, over time, costs are coming down while equipment, quality keeps improving. Keep up the good work.

    Me: Hi Mel

    You are spot-on in your observation that you need to spend a decent amount of money on hardware to realise hi-res audio’s 3-5% difference. That alone means hi-res audio will only really appeal to audiophiles with deeper pockets.

    As for hi-res supply: if I listen to nothing but Bowie, R.E.M., Talking Heads and other kinds of (what might be called) classic rock, my hi-res hit rate goes up. Way up. But if I look at electronic music – the HardWax or Bleep kind, not the Tangerine Dream kind – I’m lucky to find anything in hi-res. It’s clear, as your email illustrates, that any listener’s hi-res hit rate will vary according to his/her musical taste. And the more favourites we flag, the closer our hit rate will be to the streaming service’s 1 in 12 average. However, neither you nor I can speak to this in any reliable way. We don’t know ‘everyone’, their tastes or how many favourites they have. What we can speak to reliably – as I have many times – is the hi-res supply within Qobuz, Tidal or Apple Music’s catalogue: quite a bit less than 10% of the total number of songs.

    Ian writes…

    I watched your recent video on the three dongle DACs and I found myself wondering why no one had created one that connected more directly to an iPhone without having to use the expensive and flimsy camera cable. Moreover, why has no one created a dongle DAC with a balanced headphone out? Well, it seems DD Hifi has and you have the connector as a USB type C or Lightning. It is only £75 on Amazon UK but I think I might get one to try and compare it to my DragonFlly Black.

    Sai writes…

    I stumbled upon your reviews on YouTube and must say I am hooked! I am a first-time audiophile, so your website and videos are very helpful. I like your presentation style and find your videos to have just the right amount of detail. Not long-winded or boring at all. I have been able to gather a lot of information from them. I am trying to build a stereo system to start with (currently own KEF Q300 bookshelf speakers and a NAD D3020 v1 integrated amp but looking to upgrade to floorstanders and separates). Look forward to more incisive reviews from you. Thank you and please keep up the good work!

    Roberto writes…

    I have been following your channel for about 18 months now and I really enjoy the quality and relevance of your content. I just watched your A beginner’s guide to DONGLE DACs video and had a couple of newbie questions for you.

    1) I have an iPad air and I use Tidal to stream music. I bought the Helm Bolt a few months ago and I connect it to the iPad’s USB-C output. I use a pair of Meze Rai Solo IEMs. When streaming Master albums in Tidal I do get the magenta LED indicator on the Helm Bolt. Is the output really MQA?

    2) I have also been using the Helm Bolt with the Rai Solo IEMs connected to the USB-C output of a 16-inch, 2019 Mac Book Pro. For some reason, when I stream music from Tidal via the web on Chrome OS (not using the app) I am getting some annoying distortion. Just tested using the Tidal app and the distortion appears to have gone away. Any idea of what might be wrong with my settings or software?

    Me: Hi Roberto. These are questions for HELM’s tech support team, not me. Sorry.

    Steve writes…

    I just wanted to thank you for your videos and the reviews you do on your website. I wanted to sort out the audio in my study (long hours working from home) with a combined goal of getting better music audio for Spotify / Bandcamp, and better audio from my TV for movies / TV shows (where I was using the inbuilt speakers). The room is not conducive to anything “normal”, being quite a small space, and the TV is on the long wall whilst the desk is on one of the short walls.

    Watching your videos took me from trying to shoehorn speakers into a small room (one of which I had visions of moving from right speaker to left speaker with different cables depending on whether I was listening to music or watching TV), to realising that headphones were the better solution.

    It was your video on Spoti-pi that sealed it. I’d bought the THX Onyx when it came out and was struggling to use it because most of my out and about headphones are Bluetooth and I can’t see that changing any time soon. However, putting an RPi under the TV, getting it to run Volumio and hanging the THX off the USB port worked brilliantly. I ended up (again thanks to your videos) getting a Schiit Modi and Schiit Magni running a USB to the Modi as a backup from the Pi as well as the Toslink cable from the TV, and then connecting both inputs from the THX and the Modi in the Magni via some 2 to 1 converters. Out the front of the Magni I got some Sennheiser 660 S headphones off eBay (second hand, but hardly used, and less than half the price), and I couldn’t be happier.

    Now I’m working on the wife to allow KEF LS50 Wireless 2’s (plus the sub) into the lounge when we redecorate and get a bigger TV.

    Thank you for your accessible approach to audio, and for covering the sorts of topics that the “real world” can use. I love the higher-end stuff you cover, but I’m not going to buy it! Keep up the good work!

    Anders writes…

    I’ve just purchased, and am waiting for the new Sony Xperia 1 III, seemed the only choice now that LG has bowed out. From what I read, the new Sony Xperia has a good DAC as well as 3.5mm jack, which are important to me. Additionally, I’m restoring a vintage Samsui system that will incorporate ROON and a good quality DAC. I understand at some point it’s splitting hairs, but which streaming service do you find yourself navigating to most while listening via mobile Tidal or Qobuz? Tidal seems more popular, but the whole MQA business has me confused… Could you send me a link to tip? Cheers!

    Me: I lean towards Tidal. Because of its more extensive music library AND Tidal Connect. That will likely change when Spotify goes lossless as their library is more comprehensive than Tidal’s. And they too have a ‘Connect’ service.

    Travis writes…

    I know you are very busy, so I don’t know if you have seen this product. You can google “Qualcomm Snapdragon sound” and the website for Qualcomm will come up. This is a new product from Qualcomm (that will work with the new “Qualcomm phone for insiders” which you can Google as well) that promises wireless hi-res audio. This tech is irrelevant for 99.9% of people, but I suspect you would be interested if you were not already aware. I do not work for Qualcomm or any affiliated company. If you purchase the “Qualcomm phone for insiders”, it comes with what appears to be white label Master & Dynamic earbuds that have “Snapdragon sound” written on the case. I have tried to find out (out of curiosity) if the regular Master and dynamic earbuds have “snapdragon sound” but have been unsuccessful in my efforts.

    Me: Just had a quick look at the Snapdragon Sound web page and it looks like it uses the aptX Adaptive codec which, yes, the website literature says will “deliver 24/96”. And it will. But not without throwing some information/data away. Qualcomm is very good at marketing. Data loss will depend on the connection’s quality (that’s the adaptive part).

    Qualcomm’s website quotes a 2018 Salford University study that says there is “no statistically significant difference between Qualcomm® aptX™ Adaptive at 420kbit/s and Linear Audio at 24bit / 96kHz”

    420kbps? 24bit/96kHz requires ten times that amount. Even CD quality requires up to 1411kbps. And if there is no significant difference between them, why should the audio industry bother with uncompressed 24bit/96kHz hi-res at all?

    Jon writes…

    I am looking for an amp, wiring, and a DAC recommendations that will best complement the Klipsch RP 600M speakers I have. I am looking to spend under $200 for each component, but am a little flexible with the price if it’s the right fit. Thank you I appreciate any help.

    Me: Sorry — not wishing to sound uppity but I’m a publisher of content, not a private audio consultant.

    J: I apologize I had accidentally ignored the information above the feedback form. But I do wanna say that I enjoy your content.

    Scott writes…

    I think your story provides a lot of good information and I generally agree with your thoughts, especially for the average listener.

    However, before you completely turn your back on 24-bit and its value, be sure you listen with a quality pair of headphones. That’s where high res truly shines as a quantum leap from 16-bit CD quality. I have such a pair and that’s my primary listening method (via USB). But I also have some Klipsch speakers and they shine on those too.

    You’re right though – you do need the investment quality equipment. And not all high res releases are what I would consider reference-quality depending on the mastering.

    Good read – thanks!

    Me: I’m not ‘turning my back’ on anything. I wanted to highlight how the hi-res audio conversation is disproportionately louder than the performance gains offered. Hi-res audio sits at the thinnest end of hi-fi playback wedge. Audiophiles would net even better sound quality if they redirected some of their hi-res enthusiasm towards better recording/mastering quality and room acoustics. Alas, with recording/mastering quality and room acoustics, there isn’t the numerical scale necessary for (online) bragging rights.

    Li writes…

    I am a recording engineer, have been since 1990, and I totally agree with your statements and opinion on the subject. Most music listened to nowadays is highly processed, and since most people cannot distinguish the difference between lossy and lossless versions, why bother with Hi-Res? I also conduct lessons on music recording and the advice I always give my students is to adhere to the most basic 44.1kHz/16-bit if they intend on releasing on CDs. What is the point of recording at a higher resolution when you eventually have to convert to the CD’s lower specifications… just does not make any sense! I specialise in classical music recordings, Hi-Res recordings do uncover more details such as clearer overtones and expose wider soundscapes but as you said, it does take a trained ear to detect the subtle advantages of Hi-Res. Unfortunately the majority of listeners today use head- or ear-phones to enjoy their music, as a result, many would have started to experience some degree of hearing loss by the time they are in their 20s, thus they are unable to appreciate the advantages of Hi-Res even if they wanted to. Hi-Res is not for the mass market, it is for a select group of audiophiles who are obsessive with what it has to offer.

    David writes…

    After watching your video about buying a great hifi for €1000 I wondered if a future article/video would be worth exploring the alternative of how to buy a much better hi-fi system secondhand. 14 years ago my secondhand system cost £2700, I sold it with the exception of the Michell Alecto amps in January for £2700. Although I kept the Alecto’s I saw that a set was sold a few months earlier for £1100 so I put a value of £1000 as I had them upgraded by Graham Fowler the original designer. The system Michell Alecto’s, Tom Evans Vibe Pre-amp, Chord Dac 64, Ruark Prologues, Chord Signature interconnects, Chord Clearway speaker cable.

    I sold the system for £3290 (retaining Alectos but including the price, I could have sold them for) I had £590 profit to spend on an upgrade. I retained the Alecto’s and bought a Lumin D2 streaming pre-amp, PMC 22 speakers, upgraded my speaker cables to Chord Epic, Audioquest Red River interconnect, Audioquest Cinnamon Ethernet, Total spend £2450. However, adding the value of the Alecto’s £1000 overall £3450.

    For £160 more and after 14 years I have a huge upgrade on sound, I also have an excellent dedicated streaming option. The cost new of this system Including an estimate of the Alecto’s or a similar amp £6,400. I will add an English Electric 8Switch £450. Obviously, the starting point for a system could match John’s €1000 system but would be interesting to see what he could put together secondhand for €1000 and compare it with his choice of buying new.

    Dave writes…

    I don’t know if you can try it but the Audiowise SRC-DX gives a real boost to the Chord DAC range. I was sick of trying expensive mini upgrades and getting nothing tangible back. I thought it was only for hi-end uber Mscale-d Daves and TT2s and HQP etc. — not for the basic Qutest owner struggling to keep up.

    I got the Qutest off your advice and haven’t looked back. Forums mentioned the Chords USB implementation could be better and suggested the SRC DX. Cynically, I tried it and was so surprised by the difference. It might not fit into your out the box approach for your current presentation style but for you, yes and I hope it pays a little back for your help and advice over the years. Thank you, John.

    The Canadian designer seems to know his stuff and is RFI EMI obsessed. Try one for just you, if it fits into the ‘Darko audios model’ great it’s another video.

    I know you get a million emails demanding all sorts…but bypassing the USB on pure Coaxial via DDC is just lovely and shows how good the DAC really is.

    I am just silly Brit but happy. Keep doing your thing John I think it’s fantastic mate.

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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