MQA Reviewed

[Editor's Note: MQA remains as controversial, if not more so, than when this review was first published in May 2016. Seeing as there have been more words spent on MQA than any other hi-fi topic in the past few years, I thought this review, which is focused on listening, was worth bumping up to the present.]

Intro to MQA
I have never witnessed a hi-fi topic with a seemingly self-perpetuating cycle where the more answers given give rise to more questions than the Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) audio codec. At the risk of continuing this cycle, I'm going to begin this review with some MQA facts.

Some MQA Facts Or Things We Know About MQA Today
I have included Bob Stuart's comments from the fact check in italics.

  1. The MQA "audio origami" process wraps files in a 24-bit FLAC container which can be read by non-MQA enabled DACs. When playing back high-res content on a non-MQA DAC, the file is presented to the DAC as either 24/44.1 or 24/48 depending on the original sample rate family. You cannot play back an MQA encoded 24/96 file as a 24/96 file on a non-MQA DAC.
  2. The MQA "origami" process reduces the file size of high-res content down to the size of a 24/44.1 or 24/48 file if the original is higher sample-rate.
  3. A high-resolution original is "limited to an effective resolution of less than 24 bits" when processed by MQA.[1]
  4. Every decoder manufacturer who employs MQA, either through an XMOS-based hardware solution or in software, needs a license from MQA.
  5. The ideal MQA encode process, i.e. on the recording side, is to use an MQA-enabled Analog to Digital Converter (ADC) (licensing fees apply)

    • This gives us the minimum temporal blur from end to end (a facet of MQA not often debated in the comments).
  6. The ideal MQA encode process involves a representative of the record label who has the authority to sign off on the MQA encode. This process involves listening. When using an MQA-enabled DAC, a blue light indicates it is playing a file which has either been approved in the studio by the artist/producer or has been verified by the copyright owner.

    • The MQA authentication ‘light’ indicates Provenance in the source for the file. The MQA display indicates that the unit is decoding and playing an MQA stream or file and denotes provenance that the sound is identical to that of the source material. MQA Studio indicates it is playing a file which has either been approved in the studio by the artist/producer or has been verified by the copyright owner.
  7. When that MQA light lights up green, this indicates that the file has been MQA-encoded but it has not necessarily been listened to and signed off on as described above.

    • "The light color indicates provenance rather than quality or resolution."
  8. DRM has been brought up as a concern regarding MQA. Here's Bob Stuart's answer, "MQA manages no rights, extends or embodies no rights, has no tracing or user information (unlike UITS). There is no management system."
  9. The fact that an MQA-encoded high-res file cannot be played back in its native resolution by a non-MQA enabled DAC can be looked at as a form of control.

    • With respect, this is backwards thinking!

      The fact that a high-resolution file can be heard in great quality without a decoder is less ‘controlling’ than the current status quo. Is it a form of control that:

      • An LP requires a turntable?
      • Was that true for shellac, cylinder, CD, Cassette, Minidisc,?
      • Is the fact that an iTunes download requires an AAC decoder a form of control?
      • FLAC/TruHD/DTS/Aura3D needs a decoder?
      • And what of DSD? If I want to hear this resolution I definitely need a new DAC.
      • If I buy a 352 or 192k download from HDTracks I can’t play it in my car, on my phone, etc. Is that control? Or is it just inconvenience? It’s certainly destructive to downsample in software players to hear it.
      • You can buy an MQA file and play it anywhere.
      To get the full studio experience you need a decoder, but the decoder unwraps the file to exploit the capability of every platform. And each and all of those possibilities are preview able in the studio and approved, including the no-decoder case. This does allow the artist/mastering engineer to deliver better the sound they want you to hear.

      Is that control, or is it avoiding ‘last-mile’ meddling?

MQA's Claims
  • "Part of the encoding process adds ancillary data such as date code and copyright owner. The encoder has information about the A-to-D, which tells the decoder how it was encapsulated so the decoder at the other end can use the best decapsulation formula; producing the shortest temporal blur possible for that content. It will vary according to the musical content."[3]
  • "The MQA decoder tells you when the data are correct and the same decoder should know the composite DAC and associated analogue sections to get the best answer that hardware can give. By this means we can get a better sound than any other delivery method."[2]
If I can paraphrase, MQA claims to correct for timing anomalies introduced by both the A/D and D/A conversion process based on the specific devices used at either end.

My MQA Questions & Concerns
I have included Bob Stuart's comments in italics.

  • The catalog. While MQA recently announced a deal with Warner Music Group, there is at present a paucity of MQA encoded music and we have no idea when/if this will change.
  • MQA and Tidal have been working together for some time and the only question remaining is "When" and "How much?"; When will Tidal launch its MQA streaming service and how much high-res content will there be?
  • Does MQA encoded music always sound better than the original?
  • Does MQA encoded music played back on a non-MQA DAC sound better, worse, or the same as playing back the file in its native resolution?
  • Is it possible to draw broad conclusions about MQA when using a limited number of MQA-encoded music played through three different MQA-enabled DACs?
  • If MQA corrects for sonically deleterious anomalies in the DAC, how important is the DAC?
  • If the Blue MQA indicates that someone has listened to and signed off on the MQA encode, doesn't that mean this process involves some amount of subjectivity?

    • The studio sign-off process using the mastering tools certainly expect subjective judgment. Not just to say ‘this is right’ but for the next phase (we have a lot of interest here) where the clarity the MQA process brings starts to influence the mix or mastering of the original recording.
  • Is it too soon for an MQA review?
Of course I'm going to address most of these questions shortly when I talk about listening to MQA. As I said to MQA's Bob Stuart in a phone conversation, reviewing MQA is a minefield. I hope I can proceed without stepping on one (boom!).

The DACs, the System
The system in use for this review consists of the following stuff:

  • Intel i5 NUC running Roon Core and, at times, HQPlayer
  • Sonore's RoonReady microRendu connected to the various DACs via USB
  • Meridian Prime Headphone Amplifier/DAC
  • Meridian Explorer2 DAC and the Meridian Explorer
  • Mytek Brooklyn DAC
  • dCS Rossini
  • Ayre AX-5 Twenty integrated amp
  • DeVore Fidelity gibbon X
  • AudioQuest NightHawk headphones
The Music
I was provided with 28 MQA-encoded titles for review. Most were single tracks also delivered in their native format, as well 3 complete albums which I know very well. Titles included:
  • Judy Collins, "When I Go (with Willie Nelson)
  • Jun Fukamachi, "Jour naissant
  • "Contrapuntus" from The Art of Fugue, Unamas Fugue Quintet
  • "String Quartet in F major" Ravel, Guarneri Quartet
  • "Debussy Prelude" Joan Rowland
  • "Piano Sonata No. 47", Enrique Bagaria Plays Haydn
  • "Prelude in B Minor, Op. 28, No 6, Mozart & Chopin Dialog, Joseph Colom
  • "Suite BWV 1007 - I. Prelude", The Cello Suites, Petrit Ceku
  • "Oh Happy Day", Les 100 Tubes Gospel, Various
  • "Humoreske-Bagateller Opus 11", Carl Neilson, Christian Eggen
  • "Blagutten", Quite Winter Night, Hoff Ensemble
  • Ella & Louis
  • I Put A Spell On You, Nina Simone
  • "Resonance", Everything for Drums, Hiroshi Fukamizu
  • "Jour Naissant", Jour Naissant, Jun Fukamachi
  • "Beethoven Piano Concerto 5, Opus 73, 'Emporor Adagio", Beethoven Piano Concertos Nos. 4 & 5, Kyoko Tabe
  • "Dark Dance", Color As It Is, Tomononao Hara Quartet
  • Pro Pacem, Jordi Savall
  • My Favorite Things, John Coltrane
  • "Riders On The Storm", L.A. Woman, The Doors
  • "How Long Blues", Soul Brothers, Ray Charles/Milt Jackson

The Review
MQA sounds great (boom!). That's me making fun of my MQA report from CES wherein I raved and that's also me poking at some of the over-the-top (to my mind) reviews that have since surfaced. Let's dig in.

Listening to Nina Simone sing "No Me Quitte Pas" is always special. I own the 24/96 version of I Put A Spell On You and the LP so I'm familiar with this record. Using the Meridian Prime, I first queued up the regular old 24/96 file, followed by the MQA-encoded version and when Ms. Simone sang out in MQA, she'd moved. Or, more precisely, Ms. Simone took up a more believable and solid place right of center as compared to her more diffuse 24/96 image that kinda sounded as if floated more centered between the speakers, still a bit right, but not as obviously so.

But that's not the only difference. The entire space of the recording opened up, unfolded?, into a more realistic-sounding space; more relaxed, more air, greater ease. Coupled with this improved spatial information, which I'd classify as RFO (Really Fucking Obvious), instruments took up a more solid position within this improved space and they sounded subtly ever that much sweeter.

Next up was the same track played through the dCS Rossini. The idea here being—how does a really good-sounding DAC compare to MQA/Meridian Prime. I went back and forth between the MQA-encoded file, which played back as a 24/48 FLAC file on the Rossini, and my 24/96 download. Hmm. While Ms. Simone was still more firmly located right of center in the MQA-encoded file, the 24/96 version sounded bigger and sweeter and more alive. Strings sung out more, and everything sounded fleshier. To my mind that adds up to better.

Time for a real curve ball, HQPlayer. In order to use HQPlayer with the Meridian Prime, I had to change software settings for the microRendu, which takes about a minute. Since sending music through HQPlayer breaks the MQA chain, I was only able to compare HQPlayer upsampling everything to 24/192 PCM (using the poly-sinc-mp, NS5 settings) to my recent memory of the MQA-decoded version. Hmm. There remains the more obvious Ms. Simone to the right placement with MQA, but HQPlayer appears to add, back?, some of that lovely spatial information that MQA did so well with this recording. In other words, HQPlayer helped close the gap between the 24/96 file played through the Meridian Prime and the MQA-encoded/decoded version.

Ella & Louis were up next, another recording I own the high-res version of (24/96) and another record I know well. "Isn't This A Lovely Day" did not offer any obvious movement of Ella or Louis with the MQA-encoded version but there was a subtle easing of the recorded space where the 24/96 version sounded flatter. Less real. There was also that extra dollop of sweetness with the MQA version, where the piano's upper registers rang out a bit truer, sounding more finely nuanced. More like a real piano. The 24/96 version sounding tinny in comparison.

I listened to all of the MQA music I was given, over many weeks using the Prime and these differences I've explained remained consistent throughout. In the majority of cases, I had the original version to compare to the MQA-encoded version. In those instances where I didn't, the qualities described above were still present. Namely a very nice, natural- and well-defined spatial presentation and a very nuanced and engaging sound.

I also spent time with the MQA-enabled Meridian Explorer2 and the original Explorer sending music to the AudioQuest NightHawk headphones. Listening to The Doors "Riders On The Storm" brings me back to my teenage years in Totowa, NJ, something I'm not going to get into other than say The Doors played a big part in it. A friend, Brian S. used to sing The Doors in bars and once pushed a poorly-performing singer out of the way, grabbed his mic, and proceeded to do his best Jim Morrison to the crowd's, and the other member's of the band's, delight.

I wrote about hearing this MQA version at CES in the BlueSound room and how impressed I was with it. Hearing the MQA-encoded "Riders On The Storm" again, through this setup in-barn, only reinforced my CES impression. I'd never heard Jim Morrison's voice sound the way it does through the MQA version, which can be described as being more dimensional, and pleasantly softer in the mix compared to any other digital version I've heard. I also have the 24/96 version of this album which sounds flatter and harder in comparison. John Densmore's drums sound snappier and fuller, and oddly enough, the rain sounds more like rain via MQA; the 24/96 version makes the rain sound more akin to glass beads hitting plexiglass.

These same files through the original non-MQA Explorer sounded very similar to each other: The MQA version playing back as a 24/48 file and the 24/96 version playing back in its native resolution. I believe the MQA version still had that softer, rounder quality, and a generally less digital sound, but the differences were subtle. I could be happy with either in this hardware and song scenario.

While I've chosen to focus on The Doors, extended listening with these setups confirmed that I preferred the Explorer2 being sent the MQA-encoded versions with the musical selections at hand. Again, think more spatially natural and better defined.

Last, and in no way least, was the MQA-enabled Mytek Brooklyn. I've been living with the Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC for years and enjoy it every day (I'll talk more about the Brooklyn in its own review). Here, the Brooklyn is clearly, to my ears/brain, the better sounding DAC of the bunch. One of the qualities that the Brooklyn DAC imparts that betters the Meridian products is tonal rightness. Things just sound more like they sound, to paraphrase Herb Reichert. This improvement communicated itself to me immediately, obviously, as the Brooklyn drew me into the music in an emotional way that I did not experience with the Prime or Explorers, even with MQA playing end-to-end.

MQA files, when played through the Brooklyn, are therefore more wow-inducing. Jordi Saval's Pro Pacem sounded pretty exquisite in its natural beauty. One can only imagine, and I mean that literally, how the dCS Rossini and other DACs, especially those with their own in-house developed digital processing, will handle MQA...

I went through the entire MQA gamut with the Brooklyn where each recording sounded lovely. How lovely? Is MQA/Mytek the equal of the at-present MQA-less dCS Rossini? Of course not. We're not talking miracles. What we are talking about with MQA is, according to the recordings I have, a more natural sound and the better-sounding the DAC, the more engaging the experience.

I let RoonRadio take over listening at times with the Brooklyn, so I went in and out of MQA, and some recordings made the difference much more noticeable. Crappy recordings sounding flat, better recordings sounded better yet still digital, with really good recordings sounding really good. Of course since my MQA selections were limited, and I'd come to know them all, it was relatively easy for me to know when I was listening to MQA end-to-end, but they consistently bettered non-MQA material. The degree to which this was the case, varied some from recording to recording.

What if I let HQPlayer do its thing and send just DSD to Brooklyn? Again, no MQA in this playback mode but music became that much sweeter, that much more spatially right and relaxed. I'm diggin' HQPlayer, and will talk about it in the future, but I wanted to introduce it here because it also offers some interesting digital processing, and user tweaking to taste, into the playback chain and its creator, Jussi Lasko, also talks about correcting time-domain anomalies in his software. According to my ears, HQPlayer works. As does MQA.

MQA Conclusions
In terms of the 'sound of MQA' end-to-end, my experience says MQA works, and it works on improving music's spatial qualities providing a more natural place within which music unfolds. MQA end-to-end also improved the realness of reproduced music; nuance, detail, clarity, tone, and impact.

Just how much of an improvement over non-MQA encoded music depended on the recording, and just how wow-inducing these changes were depended on the DAC. For me, when just listening to music I enjoy, MQA was a nice-to-have change in the queue but, and this is an important but, I was not somehow suddenly disappointed with my non-MQA music. Sticking with Mytek's Brooklyn and HQPlayer, I was able to get nice and cozy with all of my music, no problem. Did I miss MQA? For some recordings, like the Doors, sure. But not so much as to get around the fact that for my listening habits, MQA needs to offer a very large catalog of MQA-encoded music before I get really excited.

Which brings us to Tidal. When Tidal begins to stream MQA, remember they demoed their MQA capabilities at RMAF 2015, and if the number of titles number in the thousands and tick up each month, it will then be time for me to take a more serious look at MQA-enabled DACs: Music availability being the overarching determination of whether or not a new audio codec is worth investing in, for me.

To answer some of my concerns:

  • Does MQA encoded music always sound better than the original? With the recordings I heard MQA encoded music consistently sounded better than the original. I cannot speak to "always".
  • Does MQA encoded music played back on a non-MQA DAC sound better, worse, or the same as playing back the file in its native resolution? While it depended on the recording, un-decoded MQA file did not sound worse than the original native file and in some cases, the un-decoded MQA version sounded better.
  • Is it possible to draw broad conclusions about MQA when using a limited number of MQA-encoded files played through three different MQA-enabled DACs? Not really. We can speak to the specifics with real confidence and only make assumptions from there.
  • If MQA corrects for sonically deleterious anomalies in the DAC, how important is the DAC? The DAC appears to be as important as it always was. The good news is that MQA made music sound better with the three DACs used in this review.
  • Is it too soon for an MQA review? Yes and no.

Website: www.mqa.co.uk


References
1. Atkinson, John. "Inside MQA", Stereophile
2. Stuart, Bob. "A Comprehensive Q&A With MQA's Bob Stuart". Computer Audiophile
3. Stuart, Bob. "Master Quality Authenticated: The Interview". The Absolute Sound

Associated Equipment

COMMENTS
en1omb's picture

Really great review Michael. Well balanced and considered.

I like that you touched on how different DACs will cope with MQA. It was always clear to me that MQA will not make all DACs sound alike but some people seem to have got scared by this. The analogue stages will always have a big influence.

Do you have any thoughts on the pace rhythm and timing with MQA? Hardly any reviews cover PRaT for components but I am very sensitive to it. I worry with MQA that the extra processing required will damage the pacing compared to a CD player (still not heard a DAC that can match the pacing of my laser disc player!)

Michael Lavorgna's picture
PRaT is a term I never use, but MQA made the musical selections I had sound better. That's an inclusive 'better' ;-)
DH's picture

Hopefully many more MQA DACs will be introduced soon, so it won't be a tough decision to get an enabled DAC or not. It would be great if MQA or not wasn't a factor in my next DAC purchase.

Or - that they release a software decoder. Personally, I'd be willing to pay something for that.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...it's all about content, i.e MQA-encoded music availability. I spoke to Warner Music Group and they do not have a plan, as of two days ago, regarding the amount of MQA content they will release and when. So we're left with Tidal, which we also don't know how much or when.

So it's also about timing. Personally, I'd start looking for an MQA-ready DAC when there was enough content to make it make sense. Of course, that number will vary from person to person. I wouldn't hold off on buying a new DAC for 50 albums-worth ;-)

miguelito's picture

If I were them I would surely say I will support MQA, and then do it as fast or slow as needed! It's a free option!

JoeWhip's picture

I have yet to hear MQA but I must say that Michael's description of the sound sounds a lot like my Gumby.

miguelito's picture

LPs require a turntable but not licensing to someone, AAC/FLAC/DSD/etc are completely open, anyone can create a decoder. So yes, it is a form of DRM.

Nacarp's picture

On NonMQA DACs, the file looks like 24/44.1, but resolution is only 16/44.1. using the same size FLAC container, true 24/44.1 may well sound better. Because those lower 8 bits in MQA files is just random data to nonMQA DACs and HQPlayer, you might get better results with HQPlayer by truncating the MQA files to 16bits first.

audiofool's picture

usually when timing and image are stressed I end up disappointed with tone color authenticity. Hopefully this will make the audio shows with some A/B shootouts vs vinyl on at least a few tube amplified systems.

JR_Audio's picture

Hi Michael
Watch your steps (boom!) ;)
Nice write up.
Juergen

Venere 2's picture

So who plans to buy MQA versions of their music collection (when and if available)? I just made a quick calculation. If I rebought every album I already own in MQA at an average price of 20$-25$ (about what HDtracks sells Hi res albums for), it would easily equal the price of a Metrum Acoustics Pavane DAC and a Melco N1A server!

I believe buying these components to upgrade a Rega DAC R and a Mac Mini would be a colossal upgrade compared to buying the same music in MQA format (for the same amount of money)!

And for those who say I do not have to rebuy every album; then what would be the point of getting an MQA capable DAC for a handful of albums?

This is assuming that there will one day be hundreds or thousands of albums available in MQA format. Either way, what is the rush? It seems more prudent to wait.

DH's picture

of the MQA DAC for you would be to stream the files, not own them

NeilS's picture

I'm just not getting exactly why an audiophile in 2016 should be interested in a lossy codec (not to mention proprietary and hardware-based).

Hugo450r's picture

So I see you slid the microRendu into the rotation.

Review forthcoming, perchance?

DH's picture

already done in past issue

dadracer's picture

Thanks for this comprehensive comparison and it has helped remove the veil of confusion that had descended upon me over this whole MQA malarkey

v1m's picture

I'm playing with the trial version thanks to your mention. Impressive. HQP sounds noticeably smoother and more laid back than Audirvana Plus does with my Meridian Explorer (through the headphone out into Grados).

volvic's picture

Thank you for taking the time.

sjraogers's picture
I thought I was on TWO planes higher than normal "human beings"

The sound was soo,, so reeeal. It almost sounded like original analog tape...! I mean, can it be messiah? It sounds almost like the real (old) tapes... or maybe, maybe a serious B grade turntable. Not bad mind you. But... This may be "new",,, but It Aint the new messiah. Period. But wait theres more. I spent a few thousand and waited 15 months (one year plus 90 days) and found it was good. But not psychedelic. So after my massive cash lay out and ridiculous Weight (wait) I get some thing mildly better (so far)than mp treee.

IF you think the "Format" rules the sound... just chek out the GArbage "Madona" produced as so called studio tapes. Absolute Garbaaage. Truly Un-listenable on a good stereo (and who cares beyond us?). Just ask your self who profits from this. You? Me? The public? Nay Nay Nay. Me the proprietary owner. Furthering the label domination. And the hardware software purveyors. Public benefit? Yes to those fools who pony up again and again again. Try Goodwill for clean used records. Buy them all and clean with ultrasound. [stream of consciousness flame deleted, Ed.]

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...via Tidal HiFi for free (Tidal offers a free trial), and the Tidal app allows for up to 24/96 streaming through *any* DAC, people can try it for themselves.

For free.

Did I mention this doesn't cost anything?

;-)

DH's picture

For now. Hi res masters didn’t need MQA in order to be streamed. The record labels aren’t converting all this material to MQA and suddenly making it available for steaming because they are altruistic. They will want to make their money back.
Ask yourself why the labels waited till MQA came along to release so called hi res masters to streaming. Don’t tell me file size, because it’s already been shown that a 24/96 master file can be converted to a 18/96 flac file which will have more bit depth and more of the bits of the original than does the MQA version. And it will be smaller in absolute file size.
When you figure out the answer, you’ll understand the real reasons for MQA.

hankaberle's picture

This statement was written by Simon Meyer from HIRESAUDIO.com regarding the authentication of MQA files downloaded from his site:

"Honestly, you really believe that any record company staff e.g. product manager, producer, engineer or mastering staff is listening, signing and approves an MQA encode."

Best regards,
Simon Meyer
HIGHRESAUDIO ⎜Info

So much for provenance!!!

Michael Lavorgna's picture
God cares.
DH's picture

1. I also have an ME2 and don’t hear the consistent improvement you hear. I have heard some recordings for which I think the MQA sounds worse, sort of an artificial sound.

2. MQA turns 24 bit files into 15-17 bit files. This has been admitted by Bob Stuart on tape. So there actually isn’t anything that can accurately be called a 24/88 or 96 etc MQA file.

3. Likewise, all MQA files that purport to playback content above 88k or 96k are just being upsampled by the MQA rendering from 88 or 96 to 4X or 8X rates. The MQA process turns 4x and 8x files into 2X files.

4. Bob Stuart is misleading us about DRM. The MQA patents show that there are DRM elements to MQA. Bob tries to make it sound like DRM is only about the ability to copy files, which is incorrect. DRM is also about the ability to control your playback, among other things. I won’t get into it here, but there are a lot of scenarios where this could be used to record company benefit and against what’s beneficial to consumers and audiophiles. I’d suggest that if MQA becomes a major format, these schemes will be deployed. I have tried to understand the economic rationale for MQA, and why the record labels are all of a sudden opening their vaults to “hi-res” streaming. The only way MQA makes economic sense for the labels is if they employ market power and DRM with MQA to squeeze more money out of the music buying public.

5. Michael, your Mytek DAC isn’t able to switch off the MQA filters when you play back non MQA files. In other words, once your DAC engages MQA filters, they stay on unless you manually turn them off. So your comparisons are false ones, as only the MQA files are being played back with the proper filtering. This is also an issue with some other MQA DACs, and has been confirmed by Mytek, Aurender, and others.

granosalis's picture

Qobuz is streming 24/192 and works with my DAC out of the box. Why should I need MQA?

DH's picture

highresaudio.de and several classical sites. MQA isn't needed for hires streaming

nick's picture

thoughts on MQA from someone who as actually listened to it, and made some pretty relevant comparisons

DH's picture

"And it is worth noting that the Meridian DACs were of low enough resolution that Michael didn't notice the loss of resolution that MQA mandates. The original 24-bit file is reduced to no more than 17 bits of resolution, and this can be heard by careful listeners. The most obvious place I've noticed this was on perhaps the track that ML most focused on, The Doors' "Riders on the Storm", where the "whisper" overdub on the lead vocal is nearly missing on the MQA processed version"

So not everyone hears the same improvements when listening to MQA....

DH's picture

This makes ML's quote in his article seem somewhat ironic, "I'd never heard Jim Morrison's voice sound the way it does through the MQA version, which can be described as being more dimensional, and pleasantly softer in the mix compared to any other digital version I've heard." Apparently he prefers the loss of resolution and is mistaking the removoal of the "edginess" of the "whisper" overdub (where consonants and fricatives are emphasized) as being "more dimensional, and pleasantly softer".

ednaz's picture

When I did my MQA testing - with my best MQA option being only the Explorer 2, but still... I found the MQA versions sounded so much better in much the same way you did - they were more alive. Comparing them through the Explorer 2 to high res non MQA through a DAC that costs 5x as much... yeah, MQA's not a miracle.

But two things kind of leaped out. First, I think MQA did more to improve live tracks than most studio tracks. I say "most" because some studio recorded music has had a very light touch applied, so it's effectively live. But, MQA seemed to let me hear the venue much more clearly.

Second, MQA did very, very little for anything that suffered from the loudness wars compression. I couldn't tell the MQA track from a non-MQA on the Explorer 2, if the dynamic range had been crushed. For all that, I find that hi res is also pretty much worthless on tracks that have been mangled in the loudness wars - it's hard to tell a 320 MP3 versus 24/96 for the Alabama Shakes, for example.

Curious if you found the studio/live distinction, and if you had any dynamic range compressed MQA files. (Actually, they shouldn't exist, should they? Antithetical in concept.)

Timcognito's picture

RFO MQA Nina and Analog Nina. Rarely is MQA compared to analog. Just curious. Thanks in advance.

darthlaker's picture

DVD-A, SACD, MQA

bobflood's picture

were down so here we have another round of MQA to stir things up.

Always fun reading.

philipjohnwright's picture

It's just that they never had the critical mass they needed commercially to succeed. Same with Betamax over VHS tapes.

It remains to be seen whether MQA does

mwhitak's picture

zzzzzzzz..........don't need it....don't want it......next

Ali's picture

I think now its a good time to compare Tidal-based decoding MQA and hardware-based decoding MQA with one of those MQA capable DACs to see the difference . Myteck DACs for example are very good one to run this test with. If there is no different, then one can buy whatever DAC he likes, even those excellent one without MQA decoder and use Tidal application to decode MQA. I like Chord DACs sound quality but am doubtful if I can enjoy MQA files from Tidal the same as a DAC with MQA enabled decoder at hardware level. Besides I like to know if MQA can be completely decoded at software level in computer or it must be done via firmware in a DAC?

Vigna ILaria's picture

There are two levels of MQA decoding. The first level can be done in software, but the second level can only be done in hardware. So without a MQA-compatible DAC you can only get the partial, first-level decode. In principle, TIDAL could perform the first-level decode in software, but it cannot perform the final second-level decode. However, for TIDAL to perform the first-level decode they would need to pay a license fee, and I'm not sure they would be prepared to do that unless they thought they could get away with passing the cost on to their customers without losing them. Of course, MQA could, as a marketing strategy, grant TIDAL a free license to perform the first-level decode in software. But MQA is run by MBAs, and they are not going to want to leave a single brass cent on the table. Up and down the whole audio chain, MQA is all about extracting license fees from everyone who touches it.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Including the MQA software 'unfold' in Tidal which has been available for a year+ at no additional cost to Tidal Hi-Fi subscribers.

<satire> I don't know what the world is coming to when companies want to make as much money as possible. I miss the old days when companies wanted to make the least amount of money as possible and employees regularly asked for pay cuts </satire>

Vigna ILaria's picture

Just to be clear, I have no private knowledge about MQA, and this is all speculation based on what I have seen in the public domain.

MQA comprises two independent technologies, both of which appear to be quite unrelated. The first is the "Audio Origami" which is simply a form of lossless (or, more likely, "slightly lossy") data compression. The second is the "Quality Authenticated" aspect which I believe boils down to an attempt to control phase distortion across the playback chain, and compensate for it at the DAC stage. My own view, FWIW, is that the Audio Origami adds no real value, and possibly even subtracts value. But the Quality Authentication is potentially a good thing.

The first-level decode is pure Audio Origami and contains none of the QA aspects. It can be done in the playback software if the DAC itself doesn't support MQA. It is not clear to me that it brings any possible benefit whatsoever, other than to eliminate the signal degradation that is brought about by the original 'enfolding' down to 24/44.1 (or 24/48).

The second-level decode includes an additional Audio Origami unfold. Once again it is not clear to me whether any improvements over the first-level unfold are merely down to eliminating degradation caused by the original 'enfolding' process. However, the second-level decode also includes the Quality Authentication step, which I believe involves a phase correction. Clearly, if that is the case, this correction would have to be DAC dependent, since each DAC's DSP stages, as well as its analog reconstruction filter will require a unique phase correction. I think this is why this second stage must be done in the DAC hardware, and cannot be done in the playback software (unless the software has critical knowledge of the DAC).

It seems to me that the real value of MQA, such that there is any, is to be found in the QA part, and that the whole purpose of the Audio Origami is to provide a framework around which the QA concept can be monetized. The whole unfolding malarkey is all about providing an identifier that says to the DAC that it should apply the QA correction only to those tracks that require it. We have a combination of the smoke and mirrors associated with the Audio Origami, which is driving people nuts because they don't see how it can possibly provide the sonic benefits claimed for MQA, together with the actual QA aspect which MQA tries its best not to talk about which possibly delivers a real audio benefit.

If all that is true, it relies on source material being provided by recording studios able and willing to apply the appropriate MQA standards at the recording stage. Such material will provide the most immediately compelling sonic benefits. This is why the material used to demonstrate MQA is so methodically curated. But good luck getting execs at the major labels to play along with that (even if you can get them to 'buy in'). And even then, there are hundreds of millions of legacy recordings out there that don't meet those requirements, and probably cannot be made to do so.

DH's picture

Spencer Chrislu (MQA director of content services):

"It's important ... to protect the interests of studios."

Jim Austin (interpreting MQA's vision):

"MQA proffers a simpler world in which a single ... format serves all needs, and in which consumers no longer have access to those high-resolution PCM masters"

"And that locked-up technology is aimed, apparently, at restoring an old-fashioned, label-dominated musical economy."

Bob Stuart

"We are trying to reverse the damage [wrought by the Internet]"

And some of you somehow think this is benign and in your interest?

DH's picture

What damange is MQA trying to reverse?
Oh yeah, I understand labels are making less money. Do I care? No.
They are still making money, they just aren't making levels of profit based on monopolistic like control of all aspects of the market that they once had.
And please don't tell me that artists aren't making money. The big damage to artists income are the paltry royalty payments the record companies and media companies allow them from streaming.

Guess what? If those corporations care about the artists, then split the royalty revenues more evenly with them.

In short, MQA is all about profits accruing to corporations, and nothing else. The rest is all a sham and Orwellian marketing speak designed to fool us into thinking we are being given something of value that we don't already have.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...address in your user profile to one that works.

Thanks

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Let's look at some facts-
  • the interest in "hi-rez" is limited to a small and insignificant % of the population
  • streaming is the only significant growth area in music distribution
  • Downloads are in decline
  • the music business is a business
If we look at these facts, I have to ask myself who in their right mind would cook up a scheme whereby the future of the music business is tied to what some people call a 'hi-rez DRM trojan horse' where the DRM piece is tied to downloads?

The argument appears to be to keep the 'crown jewels', hi-rez originals, from being distributed. But the *only consumers* who care about this, or DSP, etc. are audiophiles who amount to a big fat $zero on the music business radar.

Here's my question for you, DH:

If the record labels want to keep hi-rez from the distribution chain and out of the hands of the public, why wouldn't they simply stop providing hi-rez?

After all, there's *no money* to be made in 'hi-rez' outside of small special interest groups like us, the *majority* of hi-rez content above 24/96 is released by specialty audiophile labels, most pop music is at best 24/48, most pop music suffers from poor recording quality, and most people simply a) don't care about hi-rez, and b) do not have the gear to listen through to make hi-rez of any value.

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