Robert Harley on Digital and Electronics Under $15k

Show report
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters
Robert Harley on Digital and Electronics Under $15k

Five Most Significant Digital Introductions

MQA Streaming on Tidal
The big news from CES was Tidal’s long-awaited announcement that it was finally streaming files in the MQA format. About 30,000 titles are expected over the next few months. If you have a Tidal HiFi subscription, you now have access to MQA under the “Master” moniker (MQA is available only on the desktop app at the moment, not on mobile or embedded apps). Better yet, Tidal includes an MQA decoder that will “unwrap” the file and send the 88kHz or 96kHz audio stream to your DAC (the Tidal decoder is limited to 96kHz). You won’t get all the benefits of a full MQA decoder implementation in a DAC, but the sound quality is significantly better than with no decoding (I’m listening to MQA via Tidal as I write this).

At a press conference, the Digital Entertainment Group announced that several other streaming services would offer “hi-res” streaming (including Pandora, HDtracks, Napster/Rhapsody). High-level executives from major record labels also stated their support for hi-res streaming, but inexplicably there was no mention of MQA and no opportunity for Q&A. I later learned that all these services will offer MQA streaming later this year. The MQA floodgates appear to have opened.

MQA-Compatible DACs
Concurrent with the Tidal news, several manufacturers announced MQA-compatible DACs, or updates to existing products to make them MQA-compatible. Most notably, AudioQuest announced that the company’s DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red DACs (see my review in Issue 270) will be MQA compatible with a free and simple software update via AudioQuest’s website. Technics announced that its SU-G30 network player will include MQA decoding; Mytek showed the Clef MQA-compatible DAC; software player Audivana will include MQA decoding; and NAD/Bluesound expanded its range of MQA-compatible products. Brinkmann also showed its Nyquist MQA DAC to wonderful effect in the Vandersteen room.

MSB Select DAC
demonstrated the MQA upgrade to the company’s flagship Select DAC. The upgrade consists of a hardware module ($3995) that plugs into the Select’s open architecture, along with a software update. The hardware module also improves the performance of all USB sources. At the front of an outstanding-sounding system of MSB’s own amplifiers and YG speakers, the paired comparisons of MQA and non-MQA versions of the same music were stark.

NAD Masters M50.2 Digital Music Player
announced the MQA-compatible Masters M50.2 Digital Music Player ($3995), a networked digital player that allows you to access music from a wide range of sources (ripped CDs, a NAS drive, streamed music from Tidal, Spotify and other services) and play that music through any other BluOS-enabled components in your home. You’ll still need a DAC: the M50.2 has only digital outputs.

Nagra HD DAC and Classic DAC
Although not new at this show, I was greatly impressed by the sound, technology, and build-quality of Nagra’s Classic DAC ($14k) and HD DAC ($30k). The two units share identical digital sections; the difference is that the Classic has a solid-state output stage while the HD DAC features a tube output stage with a special inter-stage transformer built by Nagra. The DACs are a product of digital guru Andreas Koch’s expertise and Nagra’s long experience with analog circuits and power supplies. Each is powered by a whopping 25 separate power-supply stages. The HD DAC in Nagra’s system with Wilson Alexx speakers sounded as analog-like as any digital I’ve heard, and the Classic DAC in a different system with Nagra’s Classic Preamplifier and Classic Amplifiers driving YG speakers was one of the show’s highlights.