Sound quality from Sony, Oppo, Tidal and Meridian take hi-fi to new heights

Oppo (top) and Sony have cornered the market for "Universal UHD Blu-ray players" as focused on high quality sound reproduction (including SACD discs) as on 4K video.

Some have written off hi-fi sound as a quaint pursuit. But as one who heeds his ears, I’m pleased that some well-placed audiophiles are coming up with sound-sational products that look to the past as well as the future.

Quite the shellacking: Last Tuesday delivered an apt example, as PBS launched  the first episode of  American Epic, a three-part homage to early-20th-century roots (blues, gospel, ragtime, country, ethnic) recordings. Years in the prepping, the music restorations on the soundtrack and companion Columbia/Legacy collections make vintage 78 rpm  platters sound almost brand new.

Listeners can clearly hear the banging of feet on the floor, the coded meanings in “get on that train” blues vocals, and the aural ambience of country shacks and hotel rooms where sessions were often recorded. Pulling off this sonic feat has taken clever reverse engineering -- putting back in service a 1920s-era Western Electric amplifier and pulley-powered disc cutter while also deploying modern noise-reduction technology. Episodes are available on demand at http://www.pbs.org/show/american-epic/. And be on the lookout for The American Epic Sessions, airing June 6, which puts such modern artists as Alabama Shakes, Elton John, and Raphael Saadiq to work cutting old-timey tunes on that same Western Electric rig.

A magic wand, called the Plangent Processes, also has been waved over what’s possibly the most coveted and enshrined (at the Library of Congress) Grateful Dead show: a board recording from Mother’s Day 1977 at Barton Hall of Cornell University.

Boasting the tightest give-and-take I’ve ever heard on such tunes as “Fire on the Mountain,” it’s clear the planets aligned that night. And the Plangent remastering on this Rhino release enhances (and romanticizes) the synchronicity, by fixing tape speed aberrations, eliminating all traces of wow and flutter. Truly, the Dead rise again.  

Sound compression that works: Don’t own a CD player? Do all your listening through streams on a computer? That selfsame Grateful Dead Cornell concert – and a bunch more carefully curated albums (in mostly “grownup” rock, jazz and classical genres) can now be enjoyed in better-than-CD-quality HiFi “Masters” form on the newly upgraded, primo-priced ($20 a month) Tidal streaming music platform.

How can streaming music sound so great? Tidal is newly remastering and streaming select titles with MQA – a “lossless” signal compression/decompression scheme developed by the British audio products company Meridian. MQA’s aspirations are higher than lossless coding rivals such as Apple’s ALAC or FLAC – the latter now being worked by streaming subscription rival Deezer Elite on the Sonos smart speaker system.

There’s a good chance MQA decoders will be built into receivers and smart speakers, as well. But for the moment the easiest delivery path is on a Chrome- or Firefox-connected Mac or Windows PC that’s feeding Tidal’s high-resolution stream to a (USB-connected) digital-to-analog converter (DAC) like the Meridian Explorer 2 ($199) or AudioQuest’s DragonFly Black and Red ($99-$199).

Then on the “out” side of the same DAC dongle, you plug in headphones, powered speakers, or a receiver to enjoy this sonic “Masters” tournament.

Many formats, one box: Also likely to thrill serious audiophiles and videophiles are the first “Universal” UHD-Blu-Ray players from Oppo (UDP-203, $549) and Sony (UBP-X800, $299). For anyone with a 4K TV set, these puppies show off how crisp and colorful a TV picture can get when fed premium 4K discs boasting enhanced color and contrast as well as finer resolution.

BBC’s Planet Earth 2 is a treasure to behold (and rescue) in the Ultra High Definition disc format. Sci-fi thriller Arrival offers lots of visual and aural spookiness – with the subwoofer (and your floor) perpetually vibrating. La La Land on UHD sparkles and shines better than the musical did in theaters, with the Sony’s playback offering more gloss, sunnier yellows and blues.

But it’s those “universal” aspirations that set these two apart from other first-gen 4K videodisc players.

For starters, both the Oppo and Sony deliver a first-rate job with CDs (remember them?) and their higher-resolution cousin SACD, which Sony invented and a few boutique labels are still supporting.

Audio Fidelity’s “Quad” SACD resurrection of Laura Nyro’s Eli and the Thirteenth Confession is a holy redeemer. Likewise the label’s Weather Report reissue Tale Spinnin’.

Both players also have a fine time with DVD-Audio discs (a now dormant format likewise cooked up with Meridian software) and Blu-ray Audio discs, such as the Steven Wilson revampings of the XTC, Yes, and Jethro Tull catalogs and Universal Music Europe “Pure Audio” treatments of John Coltrane, the Who and Stevie Wonder’s essential Songs in the Key of Life, which reveals especially vivid holographic imaging on the Oppo.

In general, I found the Oppo player delivered a warmer, more “unified” sound, while the Sony offers a more exacting analysis, especially on SACD discs.

Both do a fine job of upscaling Blu-ray discs to “near 4K” picture quality. Only Oppo has announced a future player upgrade for 4K discs with Dolby Vision high-dynamic enhancement.

The Sony player also piles on media player extras -- Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Pandora, Spotify, etc., plus the ability to beam audio to a Bluetooth speaker or headphones.

When it comes to ergonomics, the roles are reversed. The user must rely on Sony’s remote control and connected TV screen to run that player, as the slimline metal box has just two buttons on the face plate – power and drawer open/close.

The bigger, heftier Oppo rationalizes its higher price tag with a nice display and on-board controls plus an accommodating remote control that lights its buttons as soon as you pick the thing up. Brilliant.