What is Audio Streaming?
Spotify and Apple Music - these are two of the most popular music streaming services on the market today. They offer an affordable and convenient way to access on-demand music from thousands of artists all over the world, on almost any device.
For the general consumer, these services have dramatically changed the way people consume music. But how does it work?
Essentially, as long as you have an internet connection, a Spotify or Apple Music subscription, and a streaming device, you can access the content 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (more or less) commercial free.
There are some drawbacks to the way Apple Music and Spotify provide content to the consumer. Have you ever wondered why your favourite songs sound so much better when played from your car’s CD player versus when you listen to them on the radio? That is due to compression.
Compression is the process of shrinking the audio file to optimize it for transmission over a radio frequency or, in the case of Spotify or Apple Music, a data network. This process compresses the song by removing “unnecessary” data from the audio file in order to shrink down its size. This produces a smaller, more efficient file that is streamed at 256 kbps or 320 kbps to the music streaming service.
For most people, this makes a very marginal difference to the quality of the song. For an audiophile, however, this is like looking at a blurred photograph. You get the idea but miss out on all of the dynamic details of the song that the artist had intended you to hear when the song was produced.
As CDs are decreasing in popularity, this raises questions for people with high-end audio listening equipment. What is the point of high-end equipment if the music is being “dumbed down”? How do I continue to enjoy my favourite music in the best possible way?
Fortunately, that’s where MQA comes in.
What is MQA?
Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) is a high-resolution audio standard that provides the listener with an exact replication of what the producers and the artist had painstakingly created in the recording studio.
You can listen to lossless audio files without swallowing up your data plan or using CDs. It can be packaged inside current lossless containers such as FLAC, WAV, and Apple Lossless, removing the need for a whole new audio format. It can also be accessed through existing apps such as Tidal, Amarra, and Audirvana+.
But what’s the difference? Will it be really that noticeable? The short answer is: yes.
When hi-def (and subsequently 4K) TVs were first released, people often asked what the difference was and why they would pay so much more for a TV? If you asked anyone to go back and watch a standard definition, 480p movie today, you would undoubtedly hear complaints about the awful, almost unwatchable quality.
The truth is, you don’t really know what you’re missing out on until you try it. Just ask any audiophile.
MQA provides a lossless audio listening experience. It retains the quality and dynamic range of the original song and lets you enjoy it with flexibility and ease, without huge amounts of bandwidth.
LEARN MORE: this article on What HiFi breaks down the differences between standard (lossless) and hi-res audio formats
While several Android smartphones (Samsung Galaxy S8/8+/9/9+, Sony Xperia XZ2, LG V30/S Thinq) support the format, the iPhone still lags behind. You can overcome this with the right app and equipment, but it does require some workarounds.
Extremely popular music library software like iTunes don’t support it, but there are alternatives such as Pure Music and Amarra (Mac) and JRiver Media Center (PC).
As the popularity of hi-res music continues to grow, the compatibility of our various consumer devices will continue to develop with it. For the avid audiophile, we’ve taken our years of experience in audio and home entertainment and put together our recommended list of equipment for the best MQA/hi-res audio streaming experience.
The Best Setup for Streaming and Listening to MQA Audio
The Amplifier: Marantz SR7011 Amplifier & HEOS
Our favourite pick for streaming hi-res audio is the Marantz SR7011. With it’s 9.2 channel, Dolby Atmos, and network capabilities, it will surely provide an excellent experience for a variety of scenarios. The HEOS wireless multi-room music network expands its functionality to allow you to enjoy hi-res music from anywhere in your home that has speakers installed.
The SR7011 has the ability to decode up to 24-bit/192kHz ALAC, FLAC, and WAV lossless files as well as DSD 2.8MHZ and 5.6MHz tracks via the front USB port and network sources, such as the HEOS app - available free on Android and iOS devices - which can stream music from hi-res services like Tidal.
Considered the top of the line in the Marantz receiver series, the SR7011 is a must-have for the best audio streaming experience.
The Speakers: Goldenear Speakers - Triton Series
Arguably one of the most important factors in enjoying high quality audio is the pair of speakers being used. Without good speakers, every chink in the audio chain will essentially be for nothing.
The Triton series towers are high-performance loudspeakers that feature a built in subwoofer, eliminating the need for an additional subwoofer in the audio arsenal. The speakers are engineered for unparallelled performance in both two-channel stereo systems as well as multi-channel home theater and music systems.
From a technical perspective, the Triton towers use a high-velocity folded ribbon (HFVC) tweeter design that moves the air by squeezing it with an accordion-like diaphragm. Unlike a conventional speaker driver that pushes the air to generate sound, this results in greater efficiency, lower distortion, improved dynamics, and and incredibly detailed sound experience.
By using Goldenear’s amazing and innovative technology, the Triton series are the perfect piece of audio equipment to consider when consuming hi-res audio content. They also look stunning.
The Cables: AudioQuest Cables
The ongoing debate around expensive versus cheap cables is still raging. Is there really a difference? How much of an improvement am I getting over a $5 cable vs. a $50 cable?
The argument is the same for hi-def and standard definition TVs - when you hear the difference, you can’t un-hear it.
From a technical perspective, all of the components in your audio system contribute to a closed electrical circuit. Signals are created and received by the amplifier, speaker, DAC, and other devices - these signals are all transmitted electronically throughout the system via speaker wire.
Changing the resistance and capacitance of the cable can change how the amplifier and speakers interact. A high quality signal travelling through high quality cable ensures minimal signal loss and a pure, high-resolution result at each point in the chain.
AudioQuest cables espouse a “Do No Harm” mantra in their cables. This means that the integrity of the signal generated at the source is kept through the transfer between components, reducing noise, distortion, and signal loss.
The years of research and development into how signals are transmitted and encoded, how wires are engineered, and how insulation technology can be designed to reduce the degradation of the signal throughout the entire chain are all major parts of AudioQuest’s philosophy.
Using AudioQuest cables is a surefire way to ensure you are getting the best audio experience possible. Why would you invest in the best equipment only to skimp on what’s needed to connect it all together?
Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC): AudioQuest's Dragonfly Red
AudioQuest’s Dragonfly Fly Red Digital-to-Analog (DAC) converter is one of the best ways to ensure a sonic upgrade to your audio system. Converting a digital signal to analog allows for a higher resolution, maximizes the audio sampling frequency, and gives the digital signal a boost that can be audibly detected by the human ear.
The majority of devices that can be used to stream, receive, and output audio today don’t have efficient DAC circuits. They are designed to be cost-effective and small, which inevitably leads to signal degradation and a less-than-optimal listening experience.
LEARN MORE: What does a DAC do?
By incorporating a Dragonfly DAC, you’re ensuring that the audio signal coming from the source and being transferred to the amplifier is 100% maintained. When listening to MQA audio files, that component is key as you want a completely unaltered, lossless audio file to be transmitted through all areas of your audio equipment.
Having a high-quality DAC as part of your home audio setup ensures that no part of the listening experience is compromised.
Rounding out the Experience: Primacoustic Panels
Though the equipment listed above will surely provide an incredible way to enjoy MQA and other hi-res streaming formats, some people want to go a step further. Entire rooms are acoustically designed to maximize the auditory experience. When you invest in a high-end audio system, you want to ensure that your listening room is equipped to make the most of it in the best way possible.
There are many factors that can alter how music and movies are listened to within a room. Hard walls can reflect sound throughout the room and create echo, muddying individual instruments and negatively affecting the audio experience. Because of the random way that sound is reflected within a room, the sound can be interpreted differently depending on where you are sitting in the room. This creates an inconsistent experience that is a problem for the avid audiophile.
Acoustic panels can be strategically placed on the walls to absorb first-order reflections, reducing flutter echo and trapping the reflecting low-end signals.
The Primacoustic London 12 room kit is a great starting point and can make a huge difference in the the way the sound reflects with in the room. The goal is to create a listening space that is sonically neutral in order to maintain the experience that the artist intended, while ensuring the excitement of the song still shows through and immerses the listener.
High resolution audio is more accessible than ever. Advances in technology can be leveraged to deliver a vast collection of music directly to our homes, completely on-demand. Harnessing that technology and implementing the right source material, amplifier, speakers, digital-to-analog converter, and cabling creates a symbiotic eco-system of sound that will redefine the way we enjoy our music.
Contact us to learn more about how we can build your perfect home audio setup.
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