Lefsetz Letter » Blog Archive » Qobuz

Lefsetz Letter » Blog Archive » Qobuz


1

It is better. But it is subtle. But wasn’t the goal to get closer to the music in the seventies? If you want to get closer to the music you want Qobuz. But you’ve got to have the equipment to reproduce the sound.

Audio split back in the nineties. The main market became all-in-ones, not much better than boom boxes. And there was a small market that went upscale, way upscale. Suddenly a stereo system didn’t cost a few thousand dollars, but tens of thousands of dollars. And if you wanted to replicate the experience of the seventies and you actually found a retailer with equipment in this price range they were reluctant to sell it to you, because most audio had become multi-channel, as in home theatre systems, did you really want stereo?

This is what the salesman asked me when my Sansui burned up and I went to replace it with an NAD. He kept reinforcing that it was only two channel. Which is exactly what I wanted. And it was far from cheap, $795 sans a turntable amp, which was $150, which I ultimately laid down for a week later.

That Sansui, the AU11000, is worth a fortune now. It served me well, now I wonder if I should have tried to fix it. I bought it because of its fat sound smoothing out the bright JBL L100s and it worked quite well. It too was an integrated amplifier, with 110 watts a channel when most people were only buying ten or twenty, maybe thirty, and I never heard distortion, but this NAD had better specs, could play much louder, but today it’s worth a fraction of the Sansui.

Actually, I purchased my stereo in stages. Because I didn’t want to sacrifice. After I heard the JBLs and my friend Tony had gotten a discount they were suddenly in my price range. I got them for $470, when list was $666, at Pacific Stereo, when discounts were near impossible. And I wanted this Sony receiver that had a hundred watts a channel, but I was convinced that it wouldn’t sound good with the JBLs, and everybody tried to sell me Luxman, but to get as much power as I wanted…it was way out of my price range. And I refused to spend less to get a system that sounded clean at low volume but distorted when I cranked it, ergo the Sansui.

And I continued to use my Dual 1218 turntable for about a week before I realized it was substandard and went to buy a Technics SL1300, the top of the direct drive line, it was fully automatic, as in the tonearm would drop and retract itself, whereas the vaunted SL1200 was the same turntable, but fully manual.

As for the cartridge?

This was just when exotic was breaking. But I didn’t have the bucks for a $1000 cartridge. I figured I’d get the top of the line Shure, the V15 Type III I think it was, which you could get for just shy of two hundred bucks, but the same people who told me not to buy the Sony told me the Shure would be too bright, so I bought a Stanton 681EEE. And that system…SOUNDED FANTASTIC! I didn’t know anybody who had one as good. And it was my respite during the inanity, i.e. the boredom and less than Middlebury quality students, of law school. I could hear certain things that made me feel all warm inside, like Mick Fleetwood’s bass drum when “Gold Dust Woman” goes from the vocal section to the instrumental. As for dropping the needle on “Hotel California” and “Hejira”? That was a religious experience.

But that experience died.

After the stereo reduction of the nineties, the cheap systems, came the MP3. Which inherently didn’t sound that good, albeit much better than the naysayers claimed. And portability was key, first with the Rio and then the iPod. Pushing the limits of sound was not a feature, portability was.

And concomitantly the music itself changed. We had the loudness wars, with mastering engineers making the tracks as hot as possible to sound loud on radio and then the overemphasis on bass, ergo the Beats headphones, and we got so far from the garden that no one could see the flowers.

And now we’ve got hi-res audio.

2

Vinyl is a fetish. You may be following the MoFi story. What everybody believed was an all analog chain turned out to have a digital step. You could only produce so many records via a stamper created from the master tape, and not only was it expensive to go back to the master, the master experienced wear, so…

Digital.

It got a bad name in the eighties, when labels just put LP EQ’ed music on CDs. It was too bright. Over time more quality was extracted from the system, but the die was cast, perception was digital sucked.

But the dirty little secret was that tape was disappearing, all albums were cut digitally. And to produce a vinyl album from a digital master… Why? Isn’t the digital original the best source? Of course! But vinyl has been cut from these digitally-recorded albums and kids all over the world are buying them, utterly ridiculous, especially when you consider that vinyl has inherent flaws of distortion. Note, I’m not talking about vinyl cut from analog tapes, vinyl records of the pre-digital era, the sixties and seventies. That’s a different story. But acts haven’t been cutting analog for decades, at least most of them.

Meanwhile, most fans are completely happy with MP3s or their relative equivalents, like AAC. But the musicians kept bitching that the sound wasn’t good enough, it wasn’t what they heard in the studio, but in truth they rarely went to the big studios anymore, it was too expensive, records were cut at home, in the box, and the big budgets disappeared with the advent of Napster and one can argue how good today’s records actually sound. But one thing is for sure, most people listen to them at a lower quality level. Via their computers, their portable devices via earbuds. And even if you have a good pair of cans, most people don’t have the amplifier in the chain to extract quality sound.

And then Apple and Amazon went hi-res. Big news, not much effect. Because most people just don’t care. If they did, they’d already gotten Deezer or the Norwegian WiMP, which eventually became Tidal. Turned out most people just didn’t care about sound quality, still don’t.

And in truth you still need to pay for the ultimate sound, not as much as the tweaks, but you still have to invest, in an era when $100 is too much for computer speakers.

But something was lost in the messaging in the transition to higher resolutions at Apple and Amazon, they were proffering BETTER THAN CD audio. Not on all tracks, but a significant number. So if you were willing to invest, you heard music better than previously available, there was now more headroom, more clarity, but most people don’t even understand this, never mind care.

3

“Blood on the Tracks” was Dylan’s big comeback.

Actually, it started the year before, with “Planet Waves,” which got huge buzz as a result of the involvement of David Geffen. People bought it on the hype, on the rep, and then it stopped selling completely. And even though in later years “Forever Young” became a classic, helped by Howard Cosell’s quotation of it regarding Muhammad Ali, “Planet Waves” was not an auspicious comeback.

But the 1974 tour with the Band was. Which yielded the double live album “Before the Flood,” which most people probably haven’t listened to in decades, but certainly put the focus back on Bob. Still, no one was expecting “Blood on the Tracks.”

And history would be completely different if Bob didn’t discard the original tapes and recut the LP with his old Minnesota buddies, relative nobodies. It’s about catching lightning in a bottle, and Dylan did. And has never reached this peak since. Then again, Dylan has had multiple peaks.

After “Blood on the Tracks” came “Desire,” which was, desired that is, after the ubiquity of “Blood on the Tracks,” and it was good, but it couldn’t top “Blood on the Tracks,” nothing could.

And then came “Street-Legal,” a disappointment, and Dylan went Christian and released “Slow Train Coming.”

The track everybody heard was “Gotta Serve Somebody,” and it was good, but many were turned off by this religious turn, to their detriment, “Slow Train Coming” is one of the absolute best Bob Dylan albums. It’s very simple, Barry Beckett and Mark Knopfler.

Beckett was one of the Swampers. Insiders knew his genius, most outsiders did not. Becket didn’t overplay, his work was subtle, but so in the pocket, so right, it’s the apotheosis, listening to Beckett play will make you a believer in music, there’s religion in what he extracts from the keys.

As for Knopfler… Dire Straits was big, but this was before 1985’s “Brother in Arms.” Actually, it was before “Making Movies.” This was after the second Dire Straits album, “Communiqué,” which was nowhere near as commercially successful as the debut with “Sultans of Swing,” but the musical community knew. Knopfler was special, something different from the bluesmeisters of the sixties.

Start with “When You Gonna Wake Up” and “Man Gave Names to All the Animals,” but play all of “Slow Train Coming,” it’s got a warmth absent from other Dylan albums, but it’s still edgy.

But the follow-up, “Saved,” was barely listenable, and then it’s follow-up, “Shot of Love,” was even worse. How did Dylan lose the formula?

Dylan wanted to get back to where he once belonged, so he recruited Knopfler, absent from “Saved” and “Shot of Love,” and recorded “Infidels,” which not only was a return to form, it even got MTV play. The two tracks that everybody knows are “Jokerman” and “Neighborhood Bully,” but my favorite, the absolute killer, is “I and I.”

4

“Been so long since a strange woman has slept in my bed

Look how sweet she sleeps, how free must be her dreams”

Dylan is not in your face, he’s telling a story. And the story is integral to the track, but what brings it together, what injects magic, is the guitars of Mark Knopfler and Mick Taylor. Then again, let’s not forget Sly and Robbie, on drums and bass, adding that island feel, as well as the unheralded Alan Clark on keyboards. “I and I” sounds like a jam in the studio, as in cut for those in attendance, not the audience. It sounds personal. And listening you go on a journey, a trip, to the Middle East, you’re removed from today’s world but ultimately placed right in the center of it.

“Think I’ll go out and go for a walk

Not much happenin’ here, nothin’ ever does

Besides, if she wakes up now, she’ll just want me to talk

I got nothin’ to say, ‘specially about whatever was”

He doesn’t want to talk! Dylan never does, even though he’s got so much to say, i.e. the Musicares speech of a few years back. Bob’s observing, and he’s letting us into his vision.

And the wisdom of Dylan’s sixties words is still extant:

“Took an untrodden path once, where the swift don’t win the race

It goes to the worthy, who can divide the word of truth.

So what we’ve got with “I and I” is a minor masterpiece, one in which the music and the song, the melody and the lyrics, all fuse together to create a feeling you cannot get anywhere else but music. “I and I” penetrates you, you may be cooking dinner, you may be driving, but it’s not background music, you’re nodding your head involuntarily, the groove is just that precious.

5

Now the great thing about Qobuz is the app tells you exactly what resolution you’re hearing the audio in, something which Apple and Amazon do not.

And in truth, not every cut is hi-res, a good bunch are CD quality. And I’m surfing through the tracks, comparing quality, and then my brain says…”I and I.” It’s one of my test tracks.

Like Supertramp’s “Bloody Well Right,” from “Crime of the Century.” If only today’s kids listened to “Crime of the Century” instead of trying to build apps or trading crypto our culture would be much improved. “Crime of the Century” is about alienation, the negatives of school and society, back when artists were the other, and that was enough before money became paramount. And even though “Breakfast in America” with its slew of radio hits is the most famous Supertramp album, “Crime of the Century” is the best, by far.

And the reason I mention it is because “Bloody Well Right” is the cut I used to demo audio equipment. I’d bought an FM tuner a year after my other stereo components. A top of the line Yamaha. What is that worth in today’s digital age? Well, it’s got a nice wooden cabinet. And in 1979, I wanted to buy a tape deck. Everybody said cassettes made on Nakamichis sounded great on Nakamichis, but not so good on other tape decks. This ultimately turned out to be true. It was between a thousand dollar Aiwa or the top of the line Nakamichi, the 582, at $795. I wanted to buy the Aiwa, but when we made tapes of “Bloody Well Right” on both devices at Federated, it was clear, the Nakamichi was superior, it rendered the sound just a bit cleaner, anybody could hear it.

Like with “I and I” on Qobuz as opposed to Apple and Amazon.

Really, I was starting to wonder if there was a difference, and if said difference was really a matter of volume, which will play tricks with your ears. I had no intention of writing, but then…

I pulled up “I and I” on Qobuz.

And that initial Mark Knopfler guitar, it was richer, it was warmer, it was a listening experience I knew but had been long gone.

And Qobuz says “I and I” is playing in “Hi-Res 24-Bit 96kHz.” And for the uninformed, CD quality is 16 bit 44.1 kHz.

Are you getting this, I’m listening to “I and I” in better audio quality than ever previously available. Better than all the CDs ever produced, never mind MP3s.

But was this sound really better than what was available on Amazon and Apple.

I went to Amazon. Where the track was listed as being in Ultra HD.

And to be honest, it sounded damn good, close, but…

I kept going back and forth, it was clear, on Qobuz I was just a little closer to the music, I couldn’t only hear the sounds, I could see the players.

And it wasn’t only Knopfler.

I kept comparing his guitar intro on the three platforms.

But then I let the track play on Qobuz. WHEW! Dylan was no longer a sound, he was a person, you could hear the air around him, he was positively human, listening to him on Qobuz was more insightful than reading a slew of reviews. Because Bob Dylan is an actual person, a human being, flesh and blood, just like you and me, and if the audio quality is good enough, you can hear this, he’s not above us, but amongst us.

That’s the power of music. That’s the power of high quality audio. It’s the same as it ever was, as you get closer the rewards increase. But we’ve been moving away for decades! Hell, people don’t even make records the same way anymore. They’re not full spectrum, they’re made for impact, and that doesn’t always square with quality listening.

Now let’s be clear, to hear this quality you need an external DAC. Otherwise it’s literally impossible, the platforms can tell, call it the magic of computers. But you can get a reasonable external DAC for a hundred bucks.

And, once again, I’m listening via the Dragonfly Cobalt, which is a much bigger difference than any streaming platform, the Dragonfly turbocharges the sound, cleans and broadens it, it’s a revelation.

Assuming you have the system that allows you to hear it.

That could be great headphones via your smartphone, but in truth most people don’t have headphones of this quality, then again, even hundred dollar headphones can oftentimes illustrate the difference, show you the potential.

Or a great system at home. Whether it be a big rig stereo, which few still possess, if they ever did, or expensive computer speakers, which almost no one has.

But it’s not out of reach. Sure, Qobuz is a few dollars more than Apple and Amazon, but not by much. And you’re in a walled garden away from your friends, but…

In truth listening is not a social experience, but a personal one. You may be able to share a meal, but you can’t share your ears.

“Took a stranger to teach me, to look into justice’s beautiful face”

This stranger is telling you I can hear Dylan reach, I can hear his guttural vocalizations, I am closer to the music than ever before.

And that’s exactly where I want to be.



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