Do you remember this equation from your school days:
E = mc²?
Today I´d rather prefer this one for my full musical enjoyment:
MQA + Ex² = HiFi²
MQA ? Ex² ? Many new words to get to know, I know ;=). But let´s just take one step at a time, ok? This small “stick” is a USB D/A converter and a headphone amplifier, 10 cm long, heavy as a feather, and has a mini USB input on the incoming side. On the other end there are two outputs, one for headphones, and one for use as an analog output and thus the unit can be connected directly to your HiFi system.
The three small light diodes are all lit with white light (meaning 192/24) when I listen to “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” performed by Simon & Garfunkel. And oh boy this sound is joyous and no matter the hows and the whys that these tracks are recorded 40+ years ago, the sound is good, and fresh too, to my ears. This song - and this SOUND - left me wanting for more, much more. I was intrigued to say the least.
“Comes a Time” by Neil Young also sounds very, very good with the Explorer2. Young´s voice sounds as good as ever on this recording from the 1972 album. Which leads me to his song “Heart Of Gold”. Young´s vocal sounds not young to me, on the other hand it´s the sound of his rambling guitar, the slide guitar and his mouth harp that makes this song memorable.
“The End Of The Summer” with one of my all-time favorite artists Dar Williams is another track I want to brag about. Released back in 1997 this is still one of my most precious albums. It´s also very well recorded - though it can be a bit harsh to listen to Dar´s beautiful voice on some HiFi systems. It´s easy to judge a new cable or a new location of your speakers with this track. Her vocal can happen to be hard to listen to if there is something wrong in your setup. Not so with the Explorer2. All s-sounds are now definitely removed or diminished to a more HiFi-ish degree, if you get my point. The great software Roon led me to her newest album, called “Emerald”. I switched over to iTunes, bought and downloaded the album within a minute, resynced Roon and then played it with great enjoyment. Williams new album Emerald plays just nicely with the Explorer2 from Meridian. I recommend the track Empty Plane or the title track.
Flash forward to last years Rihanna/McCartney´s song “FourFiveSeconds”. Yes I know this song is highly compressed, nonetheless there are some out of phase tricks (Rhianna´s vocal comes from behind your ears in the beginning of the track) that I have not heard prior to the Meridian Explorer2 arriving.
And another, and another track followed the many weeks where I just listened, or better ENJOYED more music then ever together with my HiFiman HE400S headphones. And I NEVER got tired (also called listening fatigue) - no on the contrary. Even music recorded back in the 80´s and 90`s was now listenable, and not too hard or “digitally right in every manner” ;=).
Fast forward to Golden Earrings “Radar Love” from 1970 (yes I am THAT old!). I heard exactly that track at a friend’s last week. His system had loads of dynamics, but also a little too much energy round 6-8 kHz. You know when the HiHat gets too dominant in the bridge of the song, your ears can get too tired? But not so with the Explorer2.
Ray LaMontagnes new album “Ouroboros” gives me the chills, especially the track “In My Own Way”. Not only Ray´s voice can get me dreaming, all the eerie sounds just create new dimensions in the listening room. These soft guitars, all them drums they all have this cool ol´ analogue sound to them. With the Ex2 it´s just joyful to listen to his art of music - as it is with most music with the Meridian Explorer2.
And, my friends, these listening examples are done by just using an iMac, Roon, HiFiman´s great HE400S and this small Meridian Explorer2. So it´s not a system that will cost you a million. It´s a system that any of us HiFi lovers can afford, and can live with every happy after. I am sure I could. And I would.
MQA - MASTER QUALITY AUTHENTICATED
But the best part is yet to come, hey I haven't even mentioned MQA yet have I? MQA is not easy to understand, but it´s easy to discern.
It´s a coding/encoding system that takes a music file, uses some clever algorithmic and compacts it to a smaller one sized suited for eg. streaming but without loosing sound quality! MQA uses some intelligent formula to know where your ears are most sensitive, adjusts to that, and does not throw away any useful bits, so it´s supposed to even augment the music. One of the big advantages is that MQA even works without a proper decoder, the sound is still better than CD - the biggest sound quality though you of course can achieve with a MQA capable device, like the Explorer2, several more are coming soon from other companies. So all iPhones, DACs and pre amps, whatever, can have advantages of the encoded MQA songs even without the MQA stuff inside! Now THAT is good news.
And yes it´s not easy to understand how MQA works, please read MQA creator, Bob Stuart´s Q&A at our friends site: here or read MQA’s own words about it: here.
MQA gave me a loan of a bunch of MQA tracks together with the Explorer2 so I could try the stuff for myself in my own listening room and with my own gear. But also on the Norwegian site from 2L you can download and compare MQA tracks with other formats. The link is: http://www.2l.no/hires/index.html
I of course got all the available tracks.
The first one was the Nidarosdomens Jentekor singing Arnesens (no, not the Danish soccer player Frank Arnesen) MAGNIFICAT 4. I compared it to the CD version, the result is nothing but stunning! Whereas the 44/16 file sounds quite good, the MQA music just sounds much more homogenous. Some hard sounds on the CD version are removed with the MQA encoding technique. The voice is just beautiful rendered, very beautiful!
With or without you
And please be aware that you even can have some advantages of using the MQA tracks even WITHOUT an MQA decoding machine. The sound quality is surely better with MQA files and no MQA player, than without the MQA files in the first place. The big fun starts though when you add a MQA capable device, in this test rig it´s the Meridian Explorer2. And what a joy! And your cheapest way to go the MQA route at the time writing.
Amy Duncan´s latest album “Undercurrents” was one that MQA sent me. Both her vocals and the guitars, in fact all the acoustic instruments had a nice “analog” sound to them. Beautiful, full blossomed sound I had written in my notes that evening. The next morning I would describe the sound quality as if some kind of digital fingerprint has been removed from the tracks, it´s much more listenable - and lovable too. Now take the piano on the song: “My Silver Net” from the same album. It has some softness that must be heard, it sounds to me as if there never was some kind of digital converter involved. But it still has the precision of digital, the acoustic bass is deep and Amy´s layered vocals on top is just the icing on the cake. Wonderful!
I can also recommend the track “Blågutten” with the Hoff Ensemble from the 2L demonstration track in MQA. It´s stunning how the low level drums with their attack roll through your head, while the muted trumpet shines in a fantastic way. The accompanying bluesy guitar renders the tunes as if it´s the easiest thing on earth. And even when the song finishes and fades to zero, I still applaud to this new way of sound quality. Wow!
Engegård Quartet´s version of Haydn´s String Quartet vol 1 is an “uptempo” though still classical tune. A little too much uptempo if you ask me, I would take it back some small BPM if I were the director.
Again from 2L I downloaded Tore Wik & Barokkanerne´s version of Vivaldi - Bellezza Crudel. Normally I am not THAT keen with Opera or singin´music like this one. But when the track is MQA coded the bar is raised way higher. The vocals are no longer hard or tiring to listen to, the strings are now soft as a summer breeze, yet precise as never before. Bravissimo!
The weight of a grand piano is difficult to play for many a HiFi system; the overtones, the dynamics and both the high and low frequencies are not easy to discern. Not easy for the microphone in the first place. And not easy for the en/de-coder in the last stage. Now it´s just as simple as counting to one two three.
Something weird happened …one day I got tired in my head. I get the urge to do something else, my body wants to go outside, my mind wants to rest. Before, and just before I turn off my music computer, I recognize that the blue LED on the Explorer2 is not lit! So actually the last 10-15 minutes I was listening to non MQA tracks! I just was not aware of it, just playing random tracks from my harddiscs. Back to those MQA files and the calmness in my body and in my ears is back. Strange that this coding system called MQA can have this major impact on both my hearing and wellbeing! Not bad for a small device costing less then a 10 minutes session at your local shrink ;=)
I just love Rickie Lee Jones and her real life stories that she paints on my inner canvas in the back of my head. Her “Chuck E´s in Love” is a one time favorite of mine with the drums (Steve Gadd), and the background vocal (Jones herself). I really love this album played trough the Meridian Explorer2, I would love it even more, with no doubt, when it was MQA coded in the studio. I have to wait a little bit for this to happen though, patience please Mr. Lassen, patience …
And you know what? This song and many and many more of the songs that I´d listened to during this review working overtime, I never had the urge to look for a better cable or power distribution system or whatever when the blue MQA lamp was lit. And the soundstage was not as wide as I´d imagine, the rendering of the smallest details not at clear as heard WITH the MQA, I just want to transfer myself not back, but towards in time. The time when ALL tracks are MQA coded, and all computers, D/As, active speakers are MQA capable .
This is not subtle, this is GREAT. This is the future of digital audio.
Amarra sQ+ does not pass on the MQA technique, though as good as it sounds, and I really really like the sound of Amarra, it doesnt work with these MQA files. The same goes for my trusted PureMusic. Another funny thing is, that when I converted the MQA.flac file via XLD to an AIFF file, the MQA flag is still lit, even if it´s now an AIFF file playing. Many new things to develop as an end user I can see that.
And just before my deadline, I received a USB A->Mini B cable provided from Curious Cable in Australia. What a joy! The sound quality got even better, and not just a tiny 0.1%, but way more. The deep frequencies got more dominant, and more easy to listen too on the track “When I Go” where Willie Nelson joins Judy Collins on her Strangers Again album. The soft played drums comes now deep rolling in the system. And the sound stage also now is bigger, deeper and wider then with the standard USB cable. It´s also like the last touch of nervousness has been removed with the Curious cable.
Before I received the Curious USB A to Mini B cable, I was curious (pun intended) to try my trusted and well burned in Curious USB A-B cable, just with a small adapter just doing the work from A to B. Some magic got lost with this adapter, it´s actually WAY better to listen with a direct connection with the Curious A to Mini B. So ditch your adapter if you have one, and go for the real stuff. Prices are: or the 200mm: US$120 incl. shipping.
And another great thing happened, I tried to connect the UpTone Audio USB REGEN™ inline with the Curious cable, and just got another step up in audio quality. So no reason to ditch your REGEN if you´d got one already. This altogether is just great stuff. And the REGEN passes on the MQA flag.
2L vs 2L
I also tested another 2L file, “2L-038_01_stereo_DXD_FLAC.mqa” versus “2L38_01_192kHz.flac”. The first one is 98MB, the last is 354MB. I changed their name and copied them to Roon, where I made a playlist with these two tracks, and just kept the music running. As I at the same time was hiding the Explorer2, the blue MQA light on the E2 could not be seen from my seat. So I was blind testing these two tracks, not knowing what was playing. So every now with minutes apart, I put on my headphones, decided within seconds if it was the MQA or non-MQA tracks that was playing, turned around the Explorer2 to check if the blue light was on or off, and you guess what? After ten times or more my score was 100%. And also this changing tracks made it easier to discern other MQA tracks later in my listening sessions later on, because I had now tuned my hearing into to the sound of Master Quality Authenticated audio. The non-MQA tracks seem to play slightly faster (which it of course they don´t, it´s just the way we THINK the track behaves), and the strings are not as shiny. It´s a bit edgy, and the sound changes a tiny bit from side to side. The MQA track definitely plays softer strings, which at the same time are easier to listen too. The dynamics are better and the localization of the instruments is way better, the precision of the sound is really good stuff for us HiFi lovers. The file is smaller, the sound is better, what´s not to like?
One more thing though, do I have to buy all my music again when it´s all has been coded ? Not necessarily no, you can actually wait for Tidal to implement all the songs in MQA quality, and then stream them from there. Together with Roon this is a killer combination. And with the Meridian Explorer2 and the Curious USB cable and Regen device you can come a long, long way towards HiFi-heaven if you ask me. Much better sound for less money you´ll never get, I´ll promise you that.
And the Ex²? It´s just my abbreviation of the Meridian Explorer2. A fabulous little thing, and the cheapest way for you to go the MQA route. And worth every penny!
And one more thing, with the Meridian Explorer2 you can listen for hours and hours. Listening fatigue is just not a thing to worry about anymore.
With the Explorer2 music is just fab, together with the MQA codecs it´s way beyond belief.
This stuff is handmade in the UK. Both the hardware AND the software (and not to forget the brains behind it!) are made in the UK.
Some artists comments when listening to their MQA music for the first time: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NI8mBmpq_vQ
More info and background stories of the MQA technology:
How it works:
Where to find MQA files:
Morten Lindberg of 2L about comparing MQA to non MQA:
A little about the Explorer2: https://www.meridian-audio.com/products/computer-audio/explorer2/
MERIDIAN AUDIO LTD
Price: Euro 250
©Kurt Lassen Text and photos 2016