Refining the Meridian Graphic
I was in a bit a hurry yesterday when I remade the Meridian MQA graphic showing “convenience” vs. “quality”. I simply copied their background grid and placed a new assessment in the middle of the boxes. The accuracy of the graphic certainly improved but apparently not by enough. Today I received the following email from John Siau, the head guru at Benchmark Media. I had no idea that he was a graphic artist as well as a brilliant analog and digital electronics designer.
I agree that the Meridian Quality and Convenience chart is wrong, but I am going to quibble a little with your revised chart, and offer a few observations:
1) You set CD equal to Reel to Reel. The CD has better SNR, lower distortion, and better time-domain performance (no wow and flutter). You could argue that Reel to Reel has better frequency response, although I would counter that it is less accurate in-band, and is subject to variations due to calibration of head alignments and noise-reduction systems.
2) You rated the DVD as “more convenient” than the CD. This is clearly not the case. Pop a CD into a player and it just plays. Pop a DVD into a player and wait, fiddle, wait and fiddle. DVDs always boot slower than CDs and it is often necessary to navigate menus before music will play. Sometimes a video monitor is required just to navigate the menus. DVDs do not come close to the convenience of the CD!
3) There are also quality issues with DVDs: DVDs do not necessarily contain high-resolution audio formats. Furthermore, it is often very difficult to get bit transparent data off of a DVD. When an external DAC cannot be used, the quality may be significantly less than what is obtained with a CD feeding an external DAC. Therefore a DVD is not necessarily higher quality than a CD. SACDs are especially problematic as there is no way to get the data to an external DAC. Quality is limited to that of the built-in DACs and these often do not even achieve CD quality.
4) Downloads, DVDs, and Steaming audio all share the top tier in quality. But there are much more popular low quality versions of downloads and streaming feeds. The quality of Spotify and Pandora are definitely less than the quality of a good Cassette. For this reason (and number 3 above) I have added a second quality line. My chart shows a Minimum Quality and Maximum Quality line. These two lines are required because these new distribution methods support multiple data formats.
5) What we see is a divergence of the quality curves. Cost drives the lower curve, while the demands of a small community of audiophiles drive the upper curve. Eventually the lower curve will move up toward CD quality as the costs of data storage and transmission decrease. For example, we have seen iTunes increase quality once or twice already. The sad truth is that most consumers do not have playback equipment that is good enough reproduce CD quality. This means that they will never experience an improvement if they download or stream a high-resolution format. For this reason, there will be very little incentive to push downloads and streaming beyond the quality of the CD.
6) Note that the convenience curve always rises. The slight convenience hiccup created by the DVD may explain its failure as an audio format.
7) Cost and convenience trump all other factors when delivering audio to the masses. High-resolution formats will only gain widespread acceptance if they are convenient and cheap. This means that high-resolution formats will only gain widespread acceptance if they are exactly the same cost as low-resolution formats.
Here is my chart:
Figure 1 – The Meridian illustration redone by John Siau with additional levels and more information.
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18 thoughts on “Refining the Meridian Graphic”
I would even further quibble with the convenience line. How is a cassette any difference in convenience than a CD. They were equally convenient and I would argue that the cassette was slightly more convenient than a CD as its form factor was easier to make it portable and you could record on them very easily. I would even further argue that an LP and cassette are both more convenient than a DVD. Once you have a cassette deck or a turntable they are very easy to use. For all the reasons highlighted above DVDs are less convenient than cassettes and LPs. I would also somewhat argue the convenience of streaming as it does require some sort of internet connection. While they are very common they are not yet ubiquitous and there are few things more frustrating that trying to listen to music and not being able to due to network problems. Furthermore, with the maximum quality of streaming at the moment there is no streaming service that is able to stream at any higher than CD quality so why is the maximum quality line any higher than CD. Now with MQA it may be higher but that is not widely available yet.
It’s pretty obvious that there will be lots of opinions on the convenience aspects of the graph. However, I would agree that a CD is more convenient than a cassette if you think about access to specific tracks. DVDs as optical discs are very convenient too. The whole issue of a monitor being required for DVD was a red herring to me. Vinyl LPs are the ultimate in inconvenience…I would never go back to a turntable.
Any discussion of the convenience of cassette tape should include a huge negative weighting for all the times you have to extract it from the guts of the tape player!! (Then re-wind 50 metres of tape with a pencil!)
Thanks for the reminder of some really frustrating events.
John Siau makes an interesting argument as to why CD-quality should be placed ABOVE Reel-to-Reel. He has a very “practical” approach I see. While digital formats are quantified from a Reel-to-Reel recording (most of the time I think), the inconsistencies of playing Reel-to-Reel can cause more problems. I would love to see John’s sources, or methodologies for these remarks.
John reads the posts…maybe he’ll chime in. I know that most high-resolution downloads at made from analog tape masters…it’s not universally true.
“The sad truth is that most consumers do not have playback equipment that is good enough reproduce CD quality. This means that they will never experience an improvement if they download or stream a high-resolution format. For this reason, there will be very little incentive to push downloads and streaming beyond the quality of the CD.”
True enough considering the average “joe users” home sound system. But much of today’s music is listened to on ever improving portable systems. A Pono level player and quality level headphones are offering HD sound quality to “joe user” at cost levels he can afford. Heck my little SanDisk Sansa Clip $40 plus a pair of Grado SR80’s $99 IMHO deliver great CD quality sound playing my FLAC ripped CD’s
I hope a market demand driven by my comments on portable audio quality above will soon begin to drive prices down. Sorry Mark but you guys can’t continue to charge premium prices for downloads that have no manufacturing costs to equal the build-distribution costs of hard media such as DVD’s or BluRays, Prices on downloaded albums has to drop.
The value proposition for downloads is a tough one. You have companies like Blue Coast and 2L charging $5 per track or $50 per album. My downloads are priced at premium prices but I believe they are reasonable for new recordings in real HD. I don’t sell mass numbers but it costs a lot to produce a new product…especially since I shoot and include HD video. The cost of so-called “HD Downloads” at most sites is too high because the tracks are just rehashes of the original tapes.
I’m sorry Mark, I do apologize for lumping your work in with what’s going on with much of the HD industry. What you do with custom original HD recordings and specialized packaging has a high manufacturing-production cost I’m sure.
But charging $44.99 for a 352/24 download of a 1976 analog master tape Jazz At The Pawnshop is ridiculous. Yes for it’s time JATP was a great sounding recording, but hardly done on SOTA equipment. HDTracks-Chesky loses more and more credibility as time goes by, both for them and the HD industry in general.
As they always say, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sows ear and putting a Low Definition recording in a huge HD bucket isn’t going to give you anything better than can be had with a Red Book CD and good A/D playback equipment.
Is that really what they’re charging? The Promate store is at $30 for DXD but they are older standard definition recordings. I’m amazed!
That be the price
96/24 = $26.99
192/24 = $37.99
352/24 = $44.99
There are those that believe the higher the number the higher the price. I don’t.
Convenience and quality are significant factors but i wonder at all the music that gets lost in the process? At each step and in each new era of technology, someone somewhere makes a decision as to which albums, which artist ends up on which new media. Do we ultimately only end up with what is most profitable rather than what represents or reflects the compass of music past and present. I worry that we will never know those artists ever existed let alone ever hear them.
It’s a business decision by the content holders as to which master tapes will be released. Nothing more.
An interesting article on a new Meridian DAC, designed to play MQA:
This new graphic is better, but there are still some quality and convenience issues that I find to be important.
A DVD-A should not be rated as possibly lower quality than a CD. When the same recording is packaged in CD and DVD-A formats, the DVD-A should always be at least as good in quality as the CD, and if the source recording is better than CD quality, the DVD-A should be better quality than the CD. The quality issues listed are all issues with the playback equipment being used, not with the DVD-A format. Any of these formats can be reduced to a 0 quality level by poor quality equipment or software. The quality range for a DVD-A should be 5-6 not 4-6.
Just like quality has been changed to a range, the convenience curve should also specify a range.
For DVD-A the inconvenience of requiring navigation, possibly even including requiring a monitor, is caused by inconvenient playback equipment and is not present in well-designed equipment. For example, the player in my auto plays DVD-A, DVD and CD discs all with the same level of convenience, pop it in and it just plays. Some DVD-A discs could have been designed to better overcome the inconvenience of some players, but the inconvenience is not inherent to the DVD-A format. DVD-A should have a convenience range of 4-5 not 4-4.
For downloads and streaming, convenience is primarily a result of the design and implementation of the web site providing the service. Some common issues that affect convenience include missing or incorrect metadata, poor search capabilities, lack of gapless playback, lack of client platform support and the possibility of business failure leading to permanent loss of access. Looking across the various services, download site convenience varies from 3-5, and streaming convenience varies from 1-7.
Excellent information and graph.
Overall, I agree that well-done CD beats tape, but the Ampex ATR-100 that we used to record live to two track, 1/2″ tape at 30ips,is flat to 50 kHz and can be run at +10 w/ no degradation. The blanket “ban” of all analog recordings from standing under the hi-res banner just does not make sense even from a “specsmanship” point of view.
I guess most of the classic mics are disqualified too. So… most of the best-sounding, and best music we love is ‘lo-res’. What this stance infers is that there have been no great recordings made up to now. We all know this isn’t true, so why a clean 24/96 transfer of a great-sounding analog master tape couldn’t qualify is beyond me. As well, some of the best-sounding CDs are ADD. And…the vinyl resurgence must be all idiots who somehow fool themselves that they are hearing very musical sound reproduction…No-there are audio characteristics of top-quality analog audio that should simply be digitally cloned and can in fact be part and parcel of hi-res audio.
Why bake a great pie if the slices are razor thin?
Craig, the spec sheet for the ATS 100 has different numbers…the frequency range is down 2.5 dB at 28 kHz at 30 ips and the dynamic range tops out at about 77-80 dB depending on the weighing used for the measurement. The frequency response is not flat and the dynamic range is less than 14 bits. Not high-resolution…this is what is known as standard resolution. The specs speak for themselves. As for a sound preference or the thousands of great recordings that were done on analog tape, I agree that they can be spectacular. There’s nothing that says a standard definition recording can’t light up your life. I haven’t said that. But metric and specs do mean something…or at least I believe they should.
Most classic microphones are capable of high-resolution recording either, you’re right. The vast majority of the “best-sounding” recordings are standard definition analog and will also be standard definition analog fidelity…which can be spectacular! Why are you so stressed that your favorite recordings are standard definition?
The vinyl LP crowd are not idiots but they are definitely listening to compromised sound quality as compared to digital and especially high-resolution sourced recordings. But if it’s a color and quality that they enjoy, no problem.
The world ultimate quality in virtually anything is a very thin slice. How many people drive Enzo Ferraris?