What we don’t know hurts us

March 18, 2017
 by Paul McGowan

Counter to the old chestnut, ignorance is bliss, I would suggest the opposite is true when building and enjoying great systems.

If you don’t know that cables matter, electronics sound different, compression formats are not the same—that it all matters—then you are missing what others enjoy.

Every low-end audio consumer exposed to the high-end comes away enriched.

And the opposite is true.

Those never exposed to properly reproduced music are deprived of one of life’s great sensual pleasures.

Let us all strive to be ambassadors, sharing generously that which we love with our friends and family.

Living in the dark is no fun at all.

Subscribe to Paul's Posts

23 comments on “What we don’t know hurts us”

  1. Paul, having just read your written comments in yesterday’s thread, i remain open minded that the jury is still out on MQA. Personally, have yet to hear live music recorded & processed through MQA and then properly unfolded through an integral DAC as compared to desktop application’s or third party software. I think you may be jaded for other reasons.


    Peter McGrath is co-hosting an MQA seminar next week in NYC. Now this here is a speaker manufacturer (wilson) and Peter will be playing some of his master tapes with and without MQA. Either he knows something we don’t, and he knows a lot about live music recording,
    or perhaps just an excellent example of a manufacturer supporting their dealer.

    Definitely worth checking out!

    As paul squirrel wrote three weeks prior, “Paul McGowan argues that upsampling 16/44.1 to DSD already improves the sound quality. Thus it seems that he sees no benefits coming from a complex MQA algorithm based on PCM. However if MQA can really correct for the type of DAC used for the mixing/mastering (pre-ringing compensation) Paul should explain if the algorithms of Ted Smith could be modified for detecting these pre-DAC induced artifacts.”

    Your dealer in Mountain View are also big fans. Is it any coincidence that both of these destinations are Meridian dealers, perhaps …


    In the digital age provenance is king,
    in the digital age source is king.

    1. I am sure that handcrafted copies of Peter’s fine recordings can be improved upon by an end to end system such as MQA. But that’s a one-off case and not what’s actually occurring.

      In the rare cases where the encoding people know the recording equipment – as in the case of Peter McGrath – it has a chance of working. But imagine the difficulty of doing the same with libraries of hundreds of thousands. How many engineers and studios, in homes, garages, even the big masters, kept track of which gear was used to record what recordings. Impossible. No records were kept.

      And, so, they generalize. They guess. And so it’s a bit like selling a car based on test results from Mario Andretti – your mileage will most certainly vary.

      No, the worst part here is they are making it easy and economical to rob the world of what we once had access to, lossless high-resolution copies of the original master tapes without DRM.

      If MQA really takes off then we the folks who came close to being able to purchase lossless copies of the masters, lose.

      Why is that something worth going after?

      1. Btw, if a music enthusiast was an Enrico Caruso freak, and there were some exclusive live recordings available to stream in a MP3 codec, i’m certain there would be no objection to listen.

      2. I believe it’s safe to say that Robert Harley is an ardent advocate
        of both Meridian Digital and Berkeley Audio Designs.
        Attached below is a link to his MQA reviews.

        Gotta love all this controversy surrounding MQA, and as you have written here before Paul, folks livelihoods are at stake. I get the authors exuberance and enthusiasm but it doesn’t have any basis in reality until one has the ability to put an ear on it (end-to-end) and listen to experience the musical performance.

        Further, is it realistic to place the cart in front of the horse and generalize about the future? Many folks complained for years about SACD until DSD eventually became a de facto standard in some high resolution audio circles, talk about the king of DRM!


        “It must be noted here that MQA has no form of copy protection or digital-rights management (DRM) whatsoever. Contrary to what some Internet posters think, MQA is not an evil scheme to institute DRM.”

        Listening to Keith Johnson’s recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring he called it “the single most realistic reproduction of an orchestra I’ve heard in my life, from any format and on any playback system.”

        1. “MQA is the most significant audio technology of my lifetime”

          I guess, Mr. Harley, that you’ve been sleeping until MQA arrived, otherwise your statement could not be taken serious.

          I hope he’s lightened a candle for MQA on the altar of audio.
          Indeed this is one of those articles why I don’t believe the reviewers any longer. This has nothing to do with journalism, thi is simply Court Reports and HiFi lyric.

          I see MQA in another way Dr. Bestears does.
          Even if one can play back the files on a system without MQA decoding one can get only the complete contents when one has payed for it. It is a de facto DRM.
          I’ve e-mailed, skyped and talked to several well reknown manufacturers of DACs in the last few weeks – didn’t speak with Berkeley Audio Designs though, none of them liked MQA. NONE!


          1. Bernd,

            As mentioned, my viewpoint is – the jury is still out – MQA is just yet another codec. Fortunately for both of us we own our music libraries. However for millions of folks out there who do not have that luxury, the opportunity to stream countless albums in high quality audio for $20 mo/$240 yr is an exceptional value when compared to the average cost of $20-$30 per Hi-Res download or remastered album.

            If we look back far enough, i’d wager Ray Dolby was responsible for the first widespread licensing scheme in audio. I was a big advocate and end user of cassette technology and everyone in that scene agreed that Dolby NR sucked and regretted ever formatting any recordings. In the later years when Dolby C and Dolby SR appeared, that may have been a different story, though a little too late for the bulk of my live music recording hobby.

            Wasn’t it just two short years prior when our host and much of the industry were jumping up and down on the Apple bandwagon claiming that ripping cd’s to a Mac Mini greatly improved their sound? Thank god for evolution because now we all know that once again the cd sounds better. Look at how many years it took the record companies to learn how to make cd transfers and recordings that actually sounded musical?

            My guess is that if Tidal had the depth of classical music recordings as compared to blues, country, jazz, pop & rock your enthusiasm would be a tad bit higher. MQA is primarily designed for the streaming world, and so far, i have nothing invested other than a curiosity to get to the musical truth. When folks like Bob Stuart, Peter McGrath and Robert Harley start jumping up and down on a parallel subject line, that get’s my attention, so i guess it’s time to get out there and give it a listen.
            Only time will tell …

            Btw myears are not the best, never claimed that, just good enough to know what i hear when i hear it and how it compares to the sound of real music. : -)

            1. Dr.

              that sound much better to me 😉

              I was really astonished, was I, when I read the sentence that opens my first answer on your post.
              I beg your pardon but I can not take Mr. Harley’s statements seriously any longer. I did the Tidal-MQA test at a friend who has a subscription to it. As I posted in an earlier thread, there was nothing, rien, nada, nichts that has been better than the CD of the same title.
              We are far from the “real music” in my pov and MQA does not get us closer.


              1. B. Well, i believe enough has been said of this subject matter for now, i’ll quote John Lennon’s take on the Beatles fame, “we’ll just spin it like a top and see where it goes”. : -)

  2. IMO the precondition to be accessible for the real purpose of high end equipment is a noteworthy love for music and that music is “part of ones life” more than as a welcom background at times.
    This can’t be seriously said of too many in my experience.

    Prior to being an ambassador for high end we’d have to be ambassador for music, the rest is much easier then.

    IMO the best place to get attention for high end from people potentially interested but not yet sensitized would be aside of a concert hall activity.

  3. Paul, so true. 3 years ago, I started on this journey, In my mind I knew exactly what my ears wanted to hear. It was the classic sound of an Akai Tape, Phillips turn table, Phillips tube amplifier back in 1980 and also some mic-less live performances by some eminent musicians and singers.

    To get to some semblance of this sound I had to go through many iterations. But the joy of learning would have been only so much, were it not for my other hobby of teaching. In the process of learning I taught about sound to many of my friends. Now, they not only listen to the music but enjoy the knowledge of what makes it sound that way, I get updates from them everyday on the tweaks that they are making to the system (cables, placement, Room etc.)

    Back in India too, When I went there last year, I purchased a pair of plain speakers and an integrated – My sisters, neighbors who have good music systems were – what is this? how can it sound this way. Is this the way this song is, never knew it. That last statement “is it how this song is” – said it all.

    It was not about missing information (low resolution) – that is a forgivable sin. It was the actual altering/distortion of voice and instruments – that is unforgivable. Another unforgivable sin is the question – How many watts is this system? That is the one and only one figure that makes a system great. And it sells! I am not against it, what saddens me is the lack of information/knowledge.

    Last I heard the dealer (works out of an apartment in south Mumbai) has received 6 enquiries from my neighbors. And he may make a sale or 2 – 1300 USD for a sound system is a big decision back in India. Till then they come to my sisters house and ask her to play songs that they would like to listen to! The only other drawback – they are giving every other salesperson a hard time, because they now know how their favorite music sounds like! What I am happy about is they now at least have a reference (kind of -:))

  4. I don’t understand what all this noise about MQA is for? I’m sure with today’s tools any competent mastering engineer can make improvements to old recordings using RBCD standards. The question is, does the underlying technology at the heart of MQA add anything? The correct answer is NO, IT ADDS NOTHING. In a world where you can buy a five terabyte hard drive for a little over $100 why would you need to conserve space to get high resolution audio which of course has no benefit even when it isn’t folded up like a cheap tent called “audio origami?” It’s the silver bullet buzz word du jour. When you can’t sell the steak, and you can’t even sell the sizzle, sell the plastic wrapper. If it says high definition, high resolution, MQA, the only thing it will hurt is your wallet. You want to test MQA? Tell the guy demonstrating it to switch the same track between MQA and RBCD. Recall what Mark Waldrep said about high resolution in his lecture to the LA Audio Society, no one, not even audio engineers could hear the difference.”

    1. ‘In a world where you can buy a five terabyte hard drive for a little over $100 why would you need to conserve space to get high resolution audio which of course has no benefit even when it isn’t folded up like a cheap tent called “audio origami?”’

      Right on, right on, right on…


      1. Of course, one of the touted benefits is a bit different — that the compressed files will free up the traffic jams on the internet highway…but it seems to me that bandwidth constrictions are also going the way of expensive and cumbersome storage solutions.

        1. My download test speeds invariably exceed 50 mbps even on my smart phone. BTW, I have no intention of downloading any of this junk anyway even for free. If I can stream 4K UHD video even on my phone, what’s a stinkin’ 44K, 96K, 192K, or even 400K audio download? Nothin’! Maybe this would have been of value 20 years ago but today it’s a joke. Tomorrow it will be even more ridiculous. You want to pay the big bucks to download Taylor Swift? Be my guest…on your tab.

    2. The correct answer is yes, to my ears the MQA streaming from TIDAL ADDS SOMETHING that I like when playing my music on my Mytek Brooklyn. I dont care if it is lossless or not and I don’t have to pay a $ more for enjoyeing highres streaming from TIDAL. The most important thing is that I like what I hear with MQA streaming from TIDAL. I don’t need anyone to demonstrate to me the same track between MQA and RBCD I can do it on my system. On 99 of 100 the MQA wins.

  5. Over the years I have always encouraged people to sit down and have a listen to my various home systems or have offered up my headphones or earbuds (all highly rated thinksound products) when out and about.

    In every single case people were able to instantly ascertain a difference. Comments like “where did all those instruments and voices come from” were quite common. But here is the rub: in only a very very few exceptions did people care enough to permanently alter their listening habits. They would marvel at what they heard on my system yet go on about their lives with what they had always been used to. They might have picked a better quality set of headphones the next time they needed some but never instantly set their current stuff aside to go seek out better equipment.

    People’s listening habits are just so different anymore. People just listen as an auxiliary to something else. They are at a bar or restaurant or even over at a friend’s house and they just have music on in the background that they don’t even listen to it is just background noise.

    I find myself falling into that trap from time to time as well, for instance as I type this I am passively listening to something that is playing in the other room while trying to corral a muddy dog who just came in from the yard and respond to a clients email. The days of sitting and listening to an entire album side are fewer and farther between for me. I don’t even consider myself that hectic compared to many and especially the younger generation.

  6. Where’s the good music? Where are the musicians who are happy inside as they play? That is needed before all else. When they become polished and refined machines, no amount of hi-end equipment is going to take up the slack for what is missing, though more of the music spectrum may be heard on a hi-end system. Its the problem. We end up with more and better “less.”

  7. What many people ignore is how much damage is done to sound in digital recording. Even decimation in the ADC (adding up the delta sigma bits) requires filtering that introduces artifacts. That does not mean we need to suffer “IMPERFECT SOUND FOREVER” from Sony/Philips digital formats.

    Theoretically, any recording of an acoustic instrument has known sonic characteristics that can be used to measure the distortions in the recording process and compensate them partially. One example is the the remarkable work of Zenph Labs. They extract information of the pianists fingers and feet movements form solo recordings so it can be played back on a solenoid driven piano.

    In the same way as audio forensic analysis, the details of the recording process can be extracted as used to create an inverse operation – never perfect, but considerably closer to the original sound.

    This is why I only record in DSD. Future conversion algorithms will get closer for word based playback, and hopefully some day all DACs will handle single bit streams.

Leave a Reply

Stop by for a tour:
Mon-Fri, 8:30am-5pm MST

4865 Sterling Dr.
Boulder, CO 80301

Join the hi-fi family

Stop by for a tour:
4865 Sterling Dr.
Boulder, CO 80301

Join the hi-fi family

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram