Well I’d say in these modern days of tech not enough things work well together, at least not as expected given the decades of preparation those science/art folks have had to interoperate and optimize efficiencies for best results at lowest cost.
Do I expect too much? Maybe I don’t know. But I know I have been using two perfect examples of that kind of interrelated power with these two devices.
From Pioneer last year came the XDP-100R a High Resolution Audio (HRA) player with its own storage for audio files. The “gotcha have to try that” incentive for me was that this was one of the very first (and still one of the only) portable audio players that supported native DSD (1-bit to analog via DoP, or conversion to PCM up to 192 on the player itself and PCM to 384 via USB) as well as full res MQA decoding (up to 24/384kHz).
The OPPO HA-2 (now supplanted by the HA-2SE) is a “simple” headphone amplifier (analog circuitry) as well as a supreme native DSD DAC as well as PCM — both convert to analog and presented to either a headphone jack (with amplification) or a line out jack (for home stereo/studio use). In addition it is a lithium battery pack capable of charging other devices (like a Pioneer XDP-100R or iPhone/Android smartphone).
I’m working with DSD as a recording media for my music over 15 years now and MQA as a mastering with authentication PCM encoding for over 1 year. To me these don’t compete! I am not surrounded by people of that same persuasion but then again, I’m not sure that matters to me either.
There’s a lot more to this story of the Mighty Duo…
Given that these 2 devices work independently of each other and the XDP-100R is a standalone player with a headphone/line out jack and 161 position volume control, it is not that obvious why I might want to pair them together.
Granted the HA-2 needs a player attached as its role is to do digital to analog conversion (DAC) and amplify the resulting signal as needed.
However in addition to the fact that the XDP-100R decodes MQA as studio authenticated masters up to the maximum resolution of masters out there today (24/384kHz), it can also upsample the resulting PCM to DSD and pass it on to the HA-2 via DoP!
The result for me (MQA decoded then upsampled to DSD at 5.6mHz Real Precision and sent to HA-2 for 1-bit conversion to analog) is absolutely some of the best sound quality I have ever heard.
I typically listen to these devices using OPPO PM-1 (open planar magnetic) though also PM-3 (closed planar magnetic) as well as earbuds (typically travel with Zipbuds Pro at about $25 on Amazon – amazing!).
If I play DSD tracks on the XDP-100R they get sent as-is to the HA-2 for 1-bit conversion and off to the headphones/stereo. Again both components doing exactly what they were made to do and doing it expertly well. This is really what I consider the best sound possible: A native DSD master played from the linked XDP + HA-2, as DSD via DoP, with no conversion except to analog out the headphone jack on the HA-2.
Well made recordings as native DSD masters (not upsampled to DSD but recorded/mastered as DSD or transferred from analog tape masters) will translate perfectly well as needed to any other media format.
To me PCM with MQA encoding is a perfect media format for today’s media environment as it delivers hi-res up to 24/384k (19mbps) in right around 1.5 mbps streams or audio files in a lossless FLAC or ALAC format at 24/48k or 24/44.1k folded MQA. That’s smaller than 1/10th the size of the hi-res file or stream it becomes when it plays! The MQA DAC unfolds the hi-res on playback after the file or stream is downloaded or received.
Dare I say that when MQA decoding can be done from a Smartphone app, the cell network bandwidth required to stream MQA masters at 24/96 to your phone will not be a problem…even if you are not on an unlimited plan. If you are on an unlimited plan most of those get restricted around 22GB anyway.
So the differences between 1.5 mbps and say 5mbps for hi-res audio streaming have big effects on what someone might do with great quality music playing anywhere they go. Remember MQA in a FLAC format is not just smaller (about 1/5th the size of a 24/96 WAV/AIF file or DSD64 file for that matter) it is time corrected as well, so it sounds much better than the original PCM master did.
The same master images can also be delivered on standard CD discs which again on playback or when ripped can be MQA decoded to full high resolution. These are then 16-bit depth with the same excellent sound quality to my ears as others. They can play on any CD player and to be honest sound very very good with no MQA decoding or unfolding at all. Pretty nifty. These stream at well under 1mbps!
Back to the Mighty Duo…
What is unusual about this combo of devices is that the XDP-100R as a audio player, is able to play and decode the MQA audio file and then upsample and convert it to DSD and pass it on (DoP) to a DSD DAC to be played as an analog signal.
This dual function is not possible with the typical MQA/DSD DAC such as the very capable Mytek Brooklyn. It (the typical MQA/DSD DAC) is not an audio player, it only can decode MQA and convert to analog or it can convert DSD to analog to play. It can’t do both functions (decode MQA and then convert to DSD) in series as the XDP-100R does before handing it to a DAC to play as an audio signal.
Nor can any other strict DAC that I’m aware of (though I’m sure they could if minds were put to it).
So what I’ve found is 2 devices of very similar dimensions and weight that can inter-operate such that the resulting sound is as good or better than most pro setups out there.
By maxing out the storage support for media on the XDP-100R by buying and inserting 2 SD Micro chips at 200GB each, I arrived at a full 432GB storage that I can carry around on a device as big as a slightly fat smartphone. If I wanted to add 200GB, 400GB, … etc. I could just buy other SD Micros to swap as needed. Unlimited storage in other words with no USB drives to carry around, and certainly not a laptop.
The total package (XDP-100R and HA-2) with extra RAM, water resistant case for both devices ($10) and all cables and still easily fits with notepad in my day pack all cost me well under $1000 US, closer to $800 really. That also includes about $150 of the extra memory (400GB) which is of course optional. The XDP comes with 32GB and you could add any additional amount of storage via SD Micro chips as you wished.
Hard to believe but I found the XDP-100R for a very low price special. It was last year’s model, as the newer XDP-300R has 2 Sabre chips (left and right channel) as well as a separate balanced headphone jack. Not sure what retail prices and specials are today but suggested retail is probably somewhere in the $500-600 range which means you can find it for less.
I think the OPPO HA-2SE followup to my HA-2 is still retailing at $199. I didn’t check.
I shouldn’t go into some of the other enormous capabilities of the XDP-100R but suffice to say it is a full blown Android palm computer. It hosts and runs any Google Play app. I regularly use email (BlueMail), Dropbox, Skype, some internet browsing and a few other apps. The only thing it isn’t is a cell phone and a camera. It stores and plays (on a very nice display) pretty much any video format as well.
There is a TIDAL app for streaming MQA if you buy the account. The number of MQA (Warner and perhaps UMG now) masters released on TIDAL for streaming at this point is in the thousands including Zeppelin, Doors, Petty, Talking Heads, Costello, Black Sabbath, CSNY, Neil Young and many many other pop/rock legends.
Playing DSD and having it sound par excellence is easily achieved here.
Playing Studio Authenticated MQA on audio files or streaming is easily achieved here.
What I’ve found and written about elsewhere is that there are some huge gains to my ears in sound quality improvements when MQA Masters at the CD Red Book resolution (16/44.1) are upsampled to 2.8 or 5.6mHz DSD and played via a DSD DAC like the OPPO HA-2. Other DACs supporting DoP (DSD over PCM) should work with the XDP’s in the same way.
The reason I think the MQA gains in reducing edgy, compressed CD-like sounding masters are greatest at this low resolution are due to the steepness of the brickwall filters used to cutoff frequencies above 20kHz. The backlash of this industry common way of filtering PCM is that it introduces large pre- and post-ringing echos on the digital signal.
This ringing also referred to as time smearing or blurring effect lessens with the increased resolution of the master recording (88.2k or 96k, 176.4k or 192k, 352.8 or 384k). DSD also measures very low in this ringing effect right out of the box.
MQA practically removes these echoes in its careful PCM technology and so the image you hear as a result is much more natural sounding and easier to listen to for longer periods of time. Instruments and voices are much more naturally located in space (left to right, up and down) as well as less confusion in our brain as to what is going on with these echos we’re hearing before the note or pulse actually gets to us. The ear is much more sensitive to location than it is to pitch! Thank you Darwin.
What’s commonly referred to as ear fatigue then gets reduced greatly and you can continue to hear the music without having to give your ears breaks.
Upsampling to DSD is now also a common feature on audio players both software and hardware. Doing this with a decoded MQA digital signal is something I’ve found to be nothing short of magical in terms of what you end up hearing from the DSD DAC as an analog signal (ie, music).
So Mobile and Home HRA has made some mighty gains in what it can do for all listeners at prices that really most if not all listeners can afford if they are looking for audio gear to feed their music habits.