Meridian Audio Ultra DAC digital converter

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Meridian Ultra DAC

The stage is well presented, with plenty of detail, but without being etched. A warm bouncy bass exudes a sense of fun in this gripping saga. Surveying the filter situation, my audio taste-buds were more drawn to the precision and slightly more natural sounds of the short filter, through which the orchestra sounded a little more lithe and real. Compared with the Chord DAVE, there is a slight understatement of the bottom octave of the double basses.

Switching to my MacBook and with the latest download of Audirvarna, as recommended by Meridian, and listening to the same track on hard disc, there is a noticeable fall in the clarity of the recording. The bass is more smudged, the soundstage narrowed, and an audio step backwards. There is a graininess to the sound which isn’t there with the dCS as a transport. Of course the dCS is a class-leading source, and by the standards of other DACs, the Ultra’s USB input is really quite good. My point is that from this example, a good transport can show a laptop a clean pair of heels.

So going back to the dCS as a transport, and listening to Tidal, I now want to see how the DAC performs when fed with MQA versus a PCM recording. Although this on the dCS app isn’t obvious, I have found two different versions of the same recording on Tidal of the Amadeus Quartet playing Schubert’s “Trout Quintet” with Emil Gilels. Having owned the LP of this which dates back to the 70’s, and having never been impressed by the recording/mastering/pressing quality, to hear this remastered is truly a revelation. The 44.1K version sounds a massive improvement over the original LP, and with MQA, there is a far greater sense of the individual instruments – separated and the quintet’s place within the hall. I can feel the presence of the back wall of the hall with MQA; without it, the instruments seem to blend to a paste!

Rather oddly, my dCS has stopped feeding Tidal in MQA through to the Ultra, and I’m unable to replicate this comparison with other recordings. I have a strong suspicion that what I’m hearing with MQA is beneficial when it comes to real acoustic recordings, done in a real space, as opposed to laid down electronically, or spatially created at a mixing desk. Hence MQA would favour classical music above other types of recordings – just a thought, and this would need a great deal more listening to ascertain with confidence. 

In the coming months, dCS is going to make the Network Bridge MQA compatible; there has been a press release to this effect. I look forward to the time I can really enjoy and assess what MQA is doing, using a top quality source, and not a laptop, as I can compare MQA and non-MQA files played on a Mac, but this is in my opinion a second-best source. I can certainly hear some exciting potential from MQA, but I would find it difficult to pronounce on the basis of a laptop as a transport. I did hear a demonstration at the Windsor Show of Mahler’s 5th Symphony as an original master, and then having been MQA’d. Rather miraculously, I heard the same traits as I’d heard at home, a more chiselled sense of space, greater separation, and the sense of the hall – a clear difference – no equivocation. Quite what goes on in the later stages of the unfolding process seems to be shrouded in mystery. There are plenty of things one takes for granted – what’s inside a Coca-Cola bottle, apart from the 20 heaped spoonfuls of sugar or whatever it is. There will be those who want to understand the process, and then there are those that won’t mind the not-knowing. Personally, I’d like to know.

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