First Major-Label MQA CD: Steve Reich on Nonesuch

The Nonesuch Records CD Steve Reich: Pulse / Quartet arrived with its sonic bonus unheralded. With no MQA designation on the album cover or disc, few would have known of its MQA provenance had not posts appeared on Facebook that, when inserted in a player capable of decoding MQA, it can deliver high-resolution MQA.

Now that I've heard the MQA-encoded FLAC files courtesy of Nonesuch (owned by "Big Three Major" Warner Music), I can attest that there's every reason in the world to hear this disc in the best-sounding format available to you. The "Masters"/MQA version can also be streamed on Tidal or, I believe, downloaded in some countries other than the US from highresaudio.com.) (The MQA files are 24/48 MQA.FLAC, and unfold to 24/96.) The non-MQA hi-rez version can be downloaded from HDTracks and Acoustic Sounds.

When played as 24/96 FLAC without MQA, the sound is extremely clear and direct. While well-suited to conveying the complex, shifting patterns that are central to Reich's music, the music sounds somewhat dry and studio-bound. (I can't resist noting the irony of a recording that was made at Air Studios, Lyndhurst Hall, London, and mixed by John Kilgore in New York, sounding dry and airless.) Switch to MQA (mastered by Robert C. Ludwig in Portland, ME), and everything opens up. The more realistic vibrancy, color, and body of the instruments themselves, and their markedly increased, natural-sounding resonant interaction with the hall are impossible to miss, even through headphones.

Regardless of how you're equipped to listen, I hope you will, because Steve Reich: Pulse / Quartet contains definitive recordings of two recent works by American minimalist master and Pulitzer Prize in Music winner Steve Reich (b. 1936): Pulse (2015), performed by the same famed International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) that premiered it in Carnegie Hall in 2016, and Quartet (2013), dedicated to extraordinary percussionist Colin Currie and played by the Colin Currie Quartet. While the combined length of these premiere recordings is a mere 30:57, which is unusually short even by Nonesuch standards, the disc goes for mid-price, and showcases a composer who, as he was approaching his 80th birthday, was very much on top of his game.

I've attended high-energy Reich performances where the optimistic, exultant spirit of his music impelled cheering thousands to their feet. Pulse and Quartet, while not at all brooding or depressed in the Philip Glass sense, are more contemplative than ecstatic in nature. They reflect a baseball cap-topped composer who, as he approached 80, may have been less inclined to jump to his feet with both hands waving wildly in the wind, but continued to affirm the transformative power of slowly evolving and morphing musical patterns, themes, and ideas.

According to liner-note writer Timo Andres, a feted composer who is 51 years younger than Reich, Pulse begins with the same harmonies that begin one of Reich's extraordinary masterworks, Music for 18 Musicians (1976). The music rises and falls in waves, its radiant highs balanced by what, to this heart, registers as contemplative sadness. Its instrumentation—11 high instruments and one very low one—includes violins, flutes, clarinets, piano, electric bass, and a two instrument percussion section.

Andres describes Pulse as "the most vocal of Reich's instrumental pieces." With notes and chords never rising above mezzo-forte, Pulse feels like slowly shifting, luminous rainbow waves washing over a steady bass pulse.

Reich conceived Pulse as a counterbalancing response to his earlier Quartet, which he says "changed keys more frequently than in any previous work. In Pulse, I felt the need to stay put harmonically and spin out smoother wind and string melodic lines in canon over a constant pulse in the electric bass and or piano. From time to time, this constant pulse is accented different through changing hand alternation patterns on the piano."

Quartet showcases the mating of piano and percussion that has played a central role in many of Reich's pieces, albeit sometimes with more pianos or percussion. With its frequent changes of key and rhythm, it is one of the more complex pieces Reich has ever composed. Reich appears to be yet another composer who, inspired by Currie's phenomenal ability to deliver whatever impossible percussive load that is handed to him with ease, dared venture into territory that would be anathema for lesser artists.

Pace is so important to Reich that he names Quartet's three movements "Fast," "Slow," and "Fast." That the whole piece lasts only 16:36 minutes may surprise you; given how much energy is expended, it feels like a much longer work.

Andres notes that Quartet's texture evokes, in all of 16:36 minutes, "Reich's reverence for the French tradition, the effect not unlike Debussy's tone-painting piano Préludes: intoxicating, even dramatic, but at a remove . . . . [Reich's] old obsessions with pulse and harmony have led us into new territory." If that doesn't get you to take a listen, nothing will. I had more than a bit of trouble trying to put Reich and Debussy together at first, but, as you'll read below, eventually came to understand what Andres was getting at.

The opening "Fast" movement—the longest of the three at 6:46— abounds with energy. Melody and rhythm keep morphing as they engage in a constant percussive dance of sorts whose glowing resonances, almost Gamelan-like (and more realistic and convincing with MQA), are filled with surprising rhythmic stops and starts. The middle "Slow" movement sounds particularly compelling with MQA, the luminous, sustained sounds of vibes suspended uncannily in three-dimensional space in a manner that evokes, in a curious sort of way, Debussy's Mélisande, who moved through life with an air of untouchable, suspended mystery.

The final "Fast" movement sounds even faster than the opening, and is one of those echt Reich works that gets you into a groove and carries you away. Virtually bursting with paradoxically contained ecstasy that radiates out into the hall and into your being on its own terms, it will likely inspire you to immediately check out Music for 18 Musicians and the Pulitzer Prize winning Double Sextet. For starters.

COMMENTS
dalethorn's picture

Interesting how music that seems primarily electronic would sound more "airy" etc. with MQA, as though the instruments as they are would project their sound into a studio, then be captured with microphones into the electronic recording devices. It would be interesting to follow the path of these sounds from source to destination, to best understand where the various acoustics occur.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

With appreciation for all your comments and correctives, do note that, save for electric bass, the other instruments are acoustic. One of the pieces, for example, uses two pianos and two vibraphones.

dalethorn's picture

The sound and performance are good in any case - worth the time and money.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

If the music were mediocre, this would be, at best, a news story, or perhaps a mention in a longer article. But it's anything but mediocre. The reason I've reviewed it is that these are definitive, premiere recordings of music by a Pulitzer Prize in Music-winning American master whose music appeals as much to younger people as to older folks.

Gumbo2000's picture

So the only way to know this is an MQA recording is to play it? Sounds like they are trying to pull a fast one on the consumer! No matter, sales of classical recordings are in the dumpster anyways.

dalethorn's picture

The sales of classical music are much lower in gross revenue than other genres, but are very disproportionately profitable because of their customers' demands for accurate tonality, and the unit prices those customers spend on their recordings. And that's why I look forward to the more acoustical performances to judge the differences between the ordinary and the MQA.

Gumbo2000's picture

No mention in the article if a non-MQA version is available for the Reich recording.

dalethorn's picture

"The non-MQA hi-rez version can be downloaded from HDTracks and Acoustic Sounds."

-Rudy-'s picture

This is good news that it can be downloaded in full resolution. I'm quite disappointed at Nonesuch though, for falling into the sham that is mqa. As it is, I just smell the typical Stereophile mqa propaganda machine at work here.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Have you tried using a neti pot?

For the record, no one at Stereophile requested that I review this recording. I alone decide what classical recordings to review. The only stipulations are that it be a recording I like, and that I comment on sound quality.

Because of the recording's musical importance, I had requested the hi-res files from Nonesuch weeks ago, and determined to review it. Then, at the last minute, I discovered Bob Ludwig's post on Facebook about its MQA provenance, and worked fast to get the MQA files. That delayed the review a week.

The comments about the sound of the MQA files are mine and mine alone, and were not vetted by JA or anyone else connected to the vast ultra conspiratorial Stereophile MQA propaganda machine. JA did request that I rewrite certain sections of the review, but those requests basically centered on me adding more personal commentary; there was no request to spout some supposed company line. If the oft-rumored Stereophile MQA propaganda machine exists, I had best discover and tap into it soon, because I am clearly missing out on huge sums of MQA playola.

I am working to get more information about the genesis of this MQA CD from Robert Ludwig and Nonesuch. I'll probably post them under jasenj1's post below.

supamark's picture

because most of the music is old enough to be in the public domain (no royalties), no A&R because they know what sells and don't need to spend money to develop new acts, and the recordings themselves are much cheaper, easier, and quicker to produce - book a few days in a large studio, record as many playthroughs as you have time for, edit the best together. Musicians and engineers are paid a set fee and the producer is probably a label employee so nobody gets points. Minimal marketing costs so pretty much everything after initial production costs is profit for the label.

It has nothing to do with "...customers' demands for accurate tonality..." at all (that doesn't affect cost - top flight studios already have very nice mics and mic pres, even studios that do mostly pop/rock - which is all of them). Seriously, that's just a rediculous statement. Professional recording engineers, all of them regardless of the genre they work in, are just as anal and discerning about the sound of their gear and recordings as audiophiles. Pretty much all of them have better "ears" than the average audiophile of the same approx. age, because they literally listen critically to music 8+ hours per day as their job.

dalethorn's picture

A ridiculous statement, that customers would demand accurate tonality, or something better than copy-and-paste musicianship? OK for you, but I can tell the difference with my dollars.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

It would only be a" fast one" if there is absolute evidence that MQA CDs degrade the sound of the 16/44.1 material, regardless of whether the person playing them is equipped for MQA CD playback. I don't know for sure, but I would venture a guess that if they put "MQA" on the disc, only in Japan, where I am told that people are far more educated about and interested in MQA, DSD256 and DSD512, would people understand.

It may also be the case that Nonesuch did not originally intend this as an MQA CD, and printed their labels before mastering engineer Robert Ludwig demonstrated to company executives how much better the MQA layer sounds.

Gumbo2000's picture

According to Nielsen Soundscan sales data from 2016:

"We’ve just seen the Nielsen Soundscan sales ratings for last week and can pronounce, in full confidence, that fewer classical records were sold than at any time since records were kept.

For the first time, no release sold as many as 100 copies in the entire USA – that’s CD sales and downloads combined.

Of the enfeebled remainder, the top three consisted of two albums of monkish chant and one of Yo Yo Ma.

What will it take to turn this around?

Don't see MQA doing anything to turn this sales trend around!

dalethorn's picture

I follow some of those "numbers", and I know better. Have some patience here, and you'll get some more reliable sources / links.

Edit: I don't see the close quote in your quote, or what person made that claim.

NeilS's picture

Jumping the shark.

jasenj1's picture

mixed by John Kilgore in New York, sounding dry and airless.) Switch to MQA (mastered by Robert C. Ludwig

That sounds like too many hands touching the master tracks to make a definitive statement that MQA makes the music sound better. Unless Mr. Ludwig took the master 24/96, 32/192, or whatever files and simply poured them through an MQA encoder. If he altered the original mix in any way, then all bets are off on the value of MQA.

That is, did Mr. Ludwig do the mastering for ALL versions? Did he take the mix provided by John Kilgore, do the mastering work, and then do something akin to "Save as..." to the different formats?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Mastering Engineer Robert Ludwig explains to me that the way records are made follows this progression: Recording, mixing, mastering, and distribution. While the non-MQA files sounded a bit dry to me, Bob thought the sound "lovely and totally appropriate to the music."

For the record, John Kilgore mixed the two pieces with Grammy Award-winning producer Judith Sherman and Steve Reich sitting right next to him. Both approved the mix, and were happy with what they heard.

Bob says, "As usual, I try to take everything that is given to me and make it sound better. So I mastered it as I have done for every Nonesuch project in my career." In other words, every mix of this recording has been mastered by Bob.

He continues, "After mastering it, I thought that there was one more thing that it needed, and that was something I cannot do by myself, and that was to have MQA de-blur added to it. I could tell that the MQA was going to help it a lot, and it did! As usual, an engineer does their very best to make the best musical product they can make. Then in this case, a piece of technology does something that nothing else can do! It is quite remarkable."

If and when I hear back from Nonesuch's VP, I will post more information.

Indydan's picture

Bob Ludwig has mostly mastered hard rock, metal and pop albums. Most of those albums are mediocre in sound quality at best. Big name, not so big achievements.

When someone of note who has mastered jazz and or classical albums starts promotimg MQA, I might listen.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Bob Ludwig has received 11 Grammy Awards and two Latin Grammy Awards. With a Masters from the Eastman School of Music, the former principal trumpet with the Utica Symphony Orchestra masters all recordings for Nonesuch, including those of the Kronos Quartet. The Daft Punk recording that has received universal praise was mastered by him.

audx's picture

"that, when inserted in a player capable of decoding MQA, it can deliver high-resolution MQA"

Now how exactly does that work?

Surely you're not suggesting that you put the CD in a CD player and that this somehow would play non-Redbook MQA encoded files?

Perhaps the MQA FLAC encoded files are also on the CD. Ok. But what was written really didn't quite make that point.

Or is this somehow sort of a dual layer disc that's going to be compatible with a new generation of players that can decode/play the MQA layer?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

The answer to your questions may be found here:
https://www.stereophile.com/content/mqa-encoded-cds-yes

I would add that Robert Ludwig, who mastered this Nonesuch MQA CD, would also assert that because MQA-encoded PCM files on an MQA CD are already de-blurred in the studio, the sound quality surpasses that of a standard redbook CD, even if the player is not equipped to play back MQA. I have not tested this for myself, and can only pass on what he and others say.

audx's picture

Perhaps I missed it but I don't recall reading that there are MQA encoded PCM files on the CD only that it's an MQA encoded CD. Which perhaps is saying the same exact thing.

Let me put it like this. Presumably, the current CD offers a max runtime of 80 minutes or 800 MB. If the Red Book portion is 30 minutes or 300 MB, then this leaves 500 MB for MQA. Ok that would seem doable.

But what if the music is 75 minutes? If it's all on a single disc, it would seem to me that you'd either have a dual layer disc or perhaps something larger than 800 MB.

Are the MQA files on the CD the same as the MQA files that you reviewed?

Or is the plan that CDs are going to have 16 bit MQA, while online sites offer 24/96 and or 24/192/etc?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thank you for your questions.

MQA encodes PCM files; it does not work with DSD. All MQA files are PCM.

An MQA CD contains only MQA-encoded PCM. MQA discs are not hybrid, as in dual-layer SACD. Please read the information referred to in my previous email, which explains this.

Indydan's picture

"I have not tested this for myself, and can only pass on what he and others say."

This sentence reminds me of when Trump says "I am hearing", and then says something that he tries to pass off as fact.

spacehound's picture

"There are two hi-res ones. I will review only the MQA one and say the MQA one is 24/96 when it is actually lossy "about 17" (Stuart)/96 rather than the lossless 24/96 of the other one"

AND it wasn't MQA 'authenticated' in the manner MQA Ltd claim. There was no artist/mixer/producer 'sign off' at all. MQA was just added on later by some other guy and 'approved' (not 'authenticated') by some suits.

dalethorn's picture

Since I already bought the 24/96 from HDTracks, I figured I would buy the ArkivMusic CD today, which should land by Saturday since I paid for 2-day UPS. My first comparison will be the 16/44 CD rip to WAV, comparing to the 24/96 FLAC tracks I have. Presumably any audible differences would be 1) The superiority of 24/96 to 16/44, or 2) any advantage of the 16/44 due to the MQA process that's audible without an MQA DAC, as described in some articles here and elsewhere. I'll get to the MQA DAC later.

spacehound's picture

Unlike Stereophile staff just parroting MQA propaganda, and also telling us a 96/17 file is 96/24.

And the MQA file is not 'technically' a CD, as the format is totally different, A CD is neither FLAC (as used by MQA) nor WAV. That probably doesn't matter but it is why the 'CD' badge is not allowed by Philips/Sony on an MQA disc. It's not that the MQA people want you to know what your are buying, as they pretend.

MQA itself? The 'sound quality cannot be 'better' even you may happen to prefer it. It is both lossy and has audible distortions. And whatever your DAC displays it's 96/17 maximum. The rest is discarded.

dalethorn's picture

I'll report my findings, but even if it "sounds better" in some sense, I'll reserve judgement on that until I try more examples and hopefully get feedback from others.

PAR's picture

I need more explanation of this.

Yes, I understand that if you haven't got an MQA decoder and just play the CD you get an MQA deblurred rendition without the additional high frequency resolution of full MQA decoding.

However MQA is a lossy system. According to Bob Stuart MQA uses the effectively redundant (for musically relevant information) LSBs of a 24 bit word to contain the additional MQA data. I believe he was talking about using bits 21-24. Commentators have reported that the MQA system in practice can lose up to 7 bits and I believe that John Atkinson found somehting like a a 3 bit loss with his own recordings that had been MQA mastered.

The actual numbers are not all that relevant but the principle is. In respect of the CD system we only have 16 bits to play with. As MQA has to use some of these bits to hide the additional MQA information then although the MQA CD when played as a standard CD will deliver a deblurred version it also can no longer be 16 bit musical data due to the loss that MQA entails. So what is it now? 12 bit or less? The difference here compared to a 24 bit word is that the lost bits are musically relevant.

It is also incorrect to say that when an MQA encoded CD is played and the data is then passed to any MQA equipped DAC full MQA will be revealed. This is because not all DACs with an MQA facility are able to do full decoding. Some are MQA renderers only e.g. Audioquest Red or Black Dragonflies and the forthcoming MQA upgrade to the dCS Vivaldi DAC. This is because the " heavy lifting" of the decoding requires a lot of computing power and is undertaken either in a computer ( e.g. Tidal) or in the case of dCS in the MQA equipped upsampler or Network Bridge. A CD player does not , of course, have this ability so an MQA CD can only be used in full with some MQA set ups.

Have I got it wrong?

NeilS's picture

Great point. I also am wondering how an "MQA CD" consisting of MQA data + Music in a 16 bit CD format played back on an ordinary CD player can't be at the sacrifice of some of those 16 bits of just plain CD musical bit depth unless there is no MQA data to occupy any of the 16 bits. Can you even really call that a "CD"?

PAR's picture

As an MQA encoded optical disc containing audio data does not conform to the Redbook standard ( IEC 60908) for CD it is arguable that it cannot be described as such or implied that it is of this nature even if it is partially compatible. We have quite strict consumer protection laws in the UK and the rest of the EU and it may be considered somewhat risky for Warners to market it over here using such a description. Even if Philips or Sony are unlikely to raise the issue as their patents for CD have expired, given the controversial nature of MQA a consumer could well seek a test case.

spacehound's picture

But the logo is copyright and they asked 'politely' (for the moment) that it not be used.

NeilS's picture

I think it would be appropriate to alert readers who may have gotten the impression that this album is a Redbook compliant CD somehow capable of playing MQA. As I understand it, this is not the case, rather, either playing this album on an ordinary CD player, or ripping it to disc, is sub-CD quality resolution, along with MQA's baked-in DSP.

If this is indeed the case, I think Stereophile should amend the opening paragraph of this article to clear up any ambiguity or confusion that the current description in the article may cause readers considering purchasing the disc.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

You wrote: It is also incorrect to say that when an MQA encoded CD is played and the data is then passed to any MQA equipped DAC full MQA will be revealed.

I say: You are correct. II should have said "decoder." Apologies.

jasenj1's picture

A search for "MQA origami" on this site will bring up an article describing the "folding" MQA does. My very crude understanding is that all 16 bits are rarely/never used in 16/44.1 recordings - the noise floor is the bottom few bits are sonically meaningless. MQA puts stuff there. Exactly what that stuff is, I'm unclear on. Is it timing information? Something used to reconstruct/unfold higher frequencies? Some sort of checksum/authentication? All three? In any case, the encoding and use of these "wasted" bits has some novel wizardry going on.

According to the Wikipedia article on MQA, "these novel sampling technologies may result in standard methods of analysing conventional digital audio content producing meaningless or misleading results when applied to MQA files."

And for me that's where the curiosity, skepticism, and hope lie. The claim is that there's something beyond what the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem explains going on - I think. And either the math, signal, and other science is beyond my understanding; the creators are bad at explaining what's going on; or there's some snake-oil in there.

As the X-Files says, "I want to believe". But I'm the kind of guy who also wants to understand - at least as much as my limited training can comprehend (I only got a 'C' in Calculus and I've forgotten almost all of it).

Allen Fant's picture

As always, excellent music review -JVS.
Please keep us abreast of releases like this on referencing MQA CD.

kenkirk's picture

MQA files are the only digital that I can crank up and the soundstage does not collapse. I have 4 TB's of high resolution PCM files, but seldom listen to them. I would rather stream MQA from Tidal or spin vinyl or tape. What ever MQA loses, its the right crap to throw away. I do not even bother looking at dacs that do not have MQA. Love my analog and MQA. The rest is filtered digital and blurred. I have a Resolution Audio Cantata that sits cold. I love the MQA hate. The more the guys hate it, the more I know it sounds right. They hated on tubes for years. They hated on vinyl for years. I remember rec.audio.high end. Same crap, different day. Oh they hated on Wadia's filters too. Pretty much everything that sounded more like real music was hated. I just love the sound of MQA. It sounds like I plugged into a good board. And the Steve Reich sounds excellent in MQA streamed on Tidal. Nice!

spacehound's picture

And if that is not important, why do so many magazines, even this one, say it is? (Before MQA came along of course.)

And has got 'artefacts' that were not in the original. Audible with some instruments.

Do you want high fidelity or not? Your preference, not 'sound quality'.

dalethorn's picture

There are lots of questions of course. Since this is not just a one-edition-only, and can be downloaded in 24/96 FLAC, my only question (that I haven't asked until now) is -- what exactly is the 24/96 (or 24/192) edition compared to the "original master"? I don't have an MQA player now, but if I can find something small and cheap and trustworthy to play on my Macbook, I might buy the MQA version to compare with MQA off and ON. So to clarify, that's three samplings - the 24/96, the MQA version through a non-MQA player, and the MQA version through an MQA player.

On the other hand, this recording has no "rough edges" as I think of them, where differences are more easily heard, so it might not be a good sample to test. As a side note, I have a DragonFly Red DAC, and I hope to the gods that I'm never forced into a firmware update on that DAC, whether to enable MQA or otherwise.

dalethorn's picture

Well, since 94.5 percent of the discussion is on something other than the music, I'll add an impression. This is an uncommon album for me - like** at first listen. I sometimes dread reading the liner notes before or during the initial listen, in case it would tell me something I don't think I'm hearing. Pulse is terrific. Quartet (reading the liner prior to playing it) is where I expected a challenge in discordant tonalities, but it didn't happen. I wouldn't be surprised to see critics describing the music as 'soft', but they and other customers may listen in ways that I don't. Total play time is just over 30 minutes and I paid the regular 24/96 price at HDTracks - not disappointed in the least!

**Hedging my bet...

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

At last we are back to the music.

rt66indierock's picture

Back to the music I ordered the plastic disk with music on it. I will listen to it then I will analyze it. There is a simple explanation of why the disk doesn’t have an MQA it. It isn’t high resolution and true MQA files are considered high resolution. How can this be? Again simple an MQA stream will still be authenticated if you remove high resolution part in bits 0 to 7 of a 24 bit MQA file or put nonsense characters in bits 0 to 7 at least on a Mytek Brooklyn DAC. So I’m going to look at the file see what is on the disk. Then I’m going to strip out the MQA identification and authorization in bit 8 the DRM you said wasn’t there and enjoy the music.

If this disk only has 16 bits and still authenticates as MQA then you have a problem. How can Stereophile readers trust the blue light?

dalethorn's picture

If your system is configured properly the lights will be reliable. But it's not easy to figure out what's the proper configuration, because MQA has been evolving and there are thousands of articles and posts online that misrepresent the technology. Most people get discouraged by all of those incomplete postings. I have an MQA CD coming today, but it will be a few days until the 100% MQA DAC arrives.

rt66indierock's picture

We have cut out bits 0 to 7 of a 24 bit MQA file and the blue light still goes on.

dalethorn's picture

I'm just the average audiophile consumer, and I really don't want to get into the bits-and-bytes discussions. There are two things I'm looking for here - one, proper functioning, and two - a comparison of the sound with and without. I have no doubt that the light will function correctly when I have the right DAC on hand in a few days, plus genuine MQA'd music files.

The only thing I'm not 100 percent sure of as yet (which I hope doesn't cause a malfunction of the proper functioning of MQA) is the difference (if any) between 100 percent correct MQA decoding and rendering versus 98 percent correct decoding and rendering.

I've been told that the Meridian-2 DAC with the latest firmware will do the full decode and rendering, and I've been told by others that "MQA was designed or intended to be played on an MQA player or streamer."

So hopefully the Meridian-2 will give me 100 percent of the MQA experience, so I can judge the sound that I'm supposed to be getting without the need for an "MQA player". We will see in a few days.

rt66indierock's picture

Dale, this is more of a how can you still get the blue light to come on in 16 bit environments. More of a binary is it high resolution or not question?

Just something I learned listening carefully to MQA licensees.

dalethorn's picture

I hear ya - I have the 24/96 FLAC of this Reich album, I have the CD which is said to be MQA'd, and I have a 16/44 download from the same source as the CD, so when I get my full-MQA DAC today, I'll get to work.

One question I've asked of several MQA DAC makers (full MQA DACs, not just renderers) that has NOT been satisfactorily answered to date (amongst the several replies I've gotten) is whether any of the MQA benefit is lost when not using an MQA music player. In other words, the DACs, including the very low-cost Meridian-2 Explorer which do the "full" decoding as well as rendering - they should be able to do everything the software does, since the software music players have the "pass-through" option to put everything on the DAC.

Oh, yes - and since I will not be using an MQA music player, the DAC should tell me what's MQA and what's not, yes?

rt66indierock's picture

I've heard claims about what benefits you get from an MQA file played without any decoding or rendering but I haven't done any testing myself yet. My reference albums still aren't available in MQA yet.

Actually the DAC can be fooled see my earlier comment. Only 16 bits are authenticated.

dalethorn's picture

I would assume that if I buy my MQA music through reliable sources, as I do most** of my recordings, then I should be able to trust what I see.

**If I really want something that I can't get through "reliable sources", then I'll get it any way I can short of something illegal.

So in essence, we would need to know how the fakes and failures impact those who have purchased their music from legitimate sources.

And the question: If I play MQA'd files on my open-source player, I can't imagine that being a violation of anything. So exactly how does a violation occur?

dalethorn's picture

I got the Meridian-2 DAC and checked the firmware - v1717 for Mac. All is well. My music player is the free Vox player (not MQA-aware). I set the Mac sound preferences, then I set the MIDI output to 24/192 as instructed by Meridian Audio. Playing the FLACs I ripped from the CD, the green light went on. All is well. Playing the 24/96 FLACs from HdTracks, the light was white, but only one light. The book says 2 lights should be lit, and the Vox player definitely displays the correct bit values (2526 kbps, 96 khz, 24 bit etc.) I played a 320k MP3 and the lights were the same as the 24/96 FLACs.

So the DAC worked in displaying a green light for the non-"Studio" MQA files. I don't know at this point whether I can play such "Studio" files on this Vox player to get a blue light on the DAC.

The sound differences are similar, probably subtle to a lot of people, but I got opposite impressions of the differences between the CD-ripped FLACs and the 24/96 FLACs (which are not MQA). Yesterday using the DragonFly Red, I thought the 24/96 files had more energy above 10 khz, but using the Meridian DAC the opposite. I think what I'm hearing is not treble extension or quality or whatever - who knows? But even though the CD files seem to have more of the edgy violin harmonics I'm used to, the 24/96 files are still as good as or better than the CD files in the sense of more spaciousness or "air", but I'm just guessing at what's really going on with the sound.

I might be missing some things I don't know how to listen for, but turning up the volume 6 or so db on the opening notes of 'Pulse' for initial comparisons, you can get a really good sense of the string harmonics and background sounds.

NeilB's picture

in your words, "small and cheap" - https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B076K9M2TZ/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o04_s... - $199 from Amazon USA for an iFi nano iDSD Black Label DAC. Using TIDAL to play back MQA streams and Roon to play back MQA files. This little DAC really sounds great for PC or Mac-based playback with MQA, DSD or any flavor of high rez PCM. Not sure I understand your reluctance to do the firmware update to your DragonFly Red that would make it MQA compatible. Have you "bricked" something with a firmware update in the past? I do network and systems admin for a living, have about 1,000 firmware updates under my belt for dozens of different components and have yet to "brick" any hardware, although I do understand the risk.......... Oh, and nobody will ever "force" you into a firmware update. It's strictly an elective process! Peace to you

dalethorn's picture

I have no problem updating cameras, and only some reluctance updating a computer or phone, based on how much time I have to inspect all of the differences. Music devices are a bit different, as thousands of files are dependent on the performance of those devices, whereas I don't have a similar computer/file dependence (hard to explain).

The "small and cheap" solution apparently includes not only the $200 DAC, but ROON software to play the files. A few weeks ago I was suggested to buy JRiverMC to "easily convert a few DSD files", which turned into a total fiasco, and JRMC unable to create FLACs playable on Foobar2000. And I lost a week of work on that one.

So, what am I looking at in terms of "small and cheap", i.e. the $200 DAC plus the cost of ROON plus whatever time it takes to configure and operate ROON? I do have a free VOX player for the Mac that plays the DSD files, but unfortunately it doesn't do MQA as far as I know.

NeilB's picture

Right now my MQA playback is handled thru TIDAL (via a stream, obviously, and it's only a trial still) and MQA file playback is via Roon. I'd previously purchased Roon some time ago. The only MQA files I own came with the Black Sabbath "Ten Year War" box set - which honestly I bought for the 8 vinyl LP's. I gave up on Foobar for playback of MQA files. I put in a huge amount of time on the config and never got it to work at all. Ginormous waste of time. I do I.T. for a living so it's not like I didn't know what I was doing. Roon config was drop dead simple and just worked. All my playback of high rez FLAC, DSD or ALAC files previously was handled with JRiver Media Center. JRiver MC works great for playback, with some small amount of config up front, but I was unaware it can do "conversion" as you mention. Sorry you got led down that road. Not sure why JRiver was suggested for conversion. I have the platform agnostic version of JRiver MC so it works on both Mac and PC. My drop off in using JRiver MC has in some part to do with their lack of MQA support. I like the "Swiss Army Knife" approach to audio file playback - it's nice to have something in place that will work with "everything". MediaHuman Audio Converter (free) has worked well for me doing conversions of audio files with various flavors of Windows. For what it's worth - if it was me I'd just do the firmware update on your DragonFly Red that makes it MQA compatible and be done with it. I've done firmware updates on 9 or 10 different DAC's and never had any troubles at all. I have an original DragonFly Black which is not capable of being upgraded for MQA playback. If it had been I'd have done the MQA update and probably would have never bought the iFi nano iDSD Black Label in the 1st place..............

dalethorn's picture

Thanks for the info. Given the various alternatives, I'm going to look at updating the DF Red. Not that there's much to lose anyway.

dalethorn's picture

I asked this question elsewhere after lots of searching but getting no clarification:

I see that the DragonFly Red is a 'renderer' only, whereas a Meridian DAC is supposedly a full 'unfolder' etc. So apparently if I use a music player that does the stuff that DF Red needs for the full MQA experience, then the music player does its part and DF Red does the rendering, and together they provide the full MQA experience? I get the idea also that a Meridian DAC can be used with any non-MQA-aware music player for the full MQA experience, since the Meridian has the stuff that the DF Red lacks.

If the above is true, then what happens when MQA-aware music players are used with the Meridian DAC? Are they going to fight with each other over who does the full unfolding etc., or what?

I'm not interesting in buying another DAC if not necessary, I'm just trying to see which configurations are needed for the full MQA experience.

EDIT (from Darko.Audio):
"Now the wrinkle: the low-power Microchip micro-controller used in each DragonFly has only enough juice to apply MQA’s “deblurring” filter (rendering). The first (and only) unfold in this system is instead carried out by the desktop playback software. A team effort –hardware and software."

PAR's picture

" what happens when MQA-aware music players are used with the Meridian DAC?"

The answer is that the MQA aware music player ( e.g. The Tidal desktop player) has an option for MQA encoded tracks called " Pass through". This is engaged if the signal is being sent to a full MQA decoder and the music player does not do any of the unfolding of the track.

Yes, you are right , if the "pass through" option is not engaged and the music player does the "heavy lifting" and the signal is then passed to a renderer like the AQ Dragonfly the combination of the two provides full MQA experience. The MQA update to the Dragonfly unlocks its capability of higher resolution than 96K for MQA repertoire.

BTW the update to the Dragonfly is very easy to apply.

dalethorn's picture

I updated the DF Red, but now it appears that I need MQA software to get the full experience. If you don't mind my asking for advice, here are my requirements:
1) Internet connection only to purchase, download, install, and license the software. No further Internet connection required.
2) No subscriptions - a permanent license, and local files playback only.
3. Price less than the lowest cost full-MQA Dac.

EDIT: I purchased the Meridian Explorer-2, which might not have the ultimate refined sound, but should serve well for the initial evaluations I have to do.

dalethorn's picture

Here are some things I've discovered so far, using the Macbook and the Meridian Explorer-2 DAC (updated to v1717 firmware):

Reading the FAQ at Meridian Audio, they show the MIDI output settings as 24 bit/192 khz. With that setting, the 44 khz FLAC download I got from Arkiv (and the CD I ripped as well) would not display the MQA-authenticated green light on the DAC. When I changed the MIDI setting to 44 khz, the green light did display. Naturally I reset everything, restarted the computer, repeated every combination several times, and the green light will not display until the MIDI setting is 44 khz, for those files anyway. I haven't determined yet whether I'm losing quality at that 44 khz MIDI setting when the player plays a 24/96 non-MQA FLAC file in the same playlist.

It turns out that I didn't need to buy the CD from Arkiv/Nonesuch, because the 44 khz FLAC download they have is MQA'd. I hope in the future that these MQA releases are labeled as such.

I described my preliminary impressions comparing the music quality of the 24/96 files versus the 44 khz MQA'd files elsewhere, but I can see that I'll need more recordings to experiment with. There's also a possibility that hardware changes can make evaluations of the MQA aspect of the sound unreliable. People who do this full time are in a better position to judge.

Edit--sound quality note: It is clear that the Meridian DAC did a better job with the MQA files than the DF Red, but that's obviously because the Meridian is a full decoder/renderer while the DF is just a renderer.

soundgals's picture

I have this album downloaded from Qobuz and the PDF booklet supplied with the download includes the following:

PULSE
Recorded May 28, 2017, at Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, NY
Engineered by John Kilgore
Production Assistant: Jeanne Velonis

QUARTET
Recorded May 30, 2016, at Air Studios, Lyndhurst Hall, London
Engineered by Mike Hatch
Mixed by John Kilgore at John Kilgore Sound & Recording, New York, NY
Mastered by Robert C. Ludwig at Gateway Mastering Studios, Portland, ME

So the first piece; Pulse was recorded in a different studio and possibly a "drier" acoustic to the Quartet piece.

Certainly I find that first piece to be "drier" sounding.

This also indicates that Robert C. Ludwig was the mastering engineer on this 24/96 Edition (I'm assuming that applies to both pieces) as well.

So at least as far as the Qobuz download of the album is concerned, it appears to be the same "master" as the MQA version on Tidal.

PAR's picture

" So at least as far as the Qobuz download of the album is concerned, it appears to be the same "master" as the MQA version on Tidal."

Unfortunately although the same mastering engineer was involved there is no way of telling that both versions are derived from the same master. BTW " master" has a number of definitions in the recording world. Mr. Ludwig could have prepared one production master for MQA encoding and another for other releases. We don't know. Studios/record companies do this kind of thing all of the time.

dalethorn's picture

I have the 24/96 download from HDTracks, the 16/44 download from Nonesuch (via Onkyo) which may be MQA (TBD), and a CD on the way from ArkivMusic which is supposed to be MQA. When the Medidian DAC that I ordered arrives, these will be interesting to compare. The 16/44 FLACs that I got are 26.5 percent the size of the 24/96 FLACs (144 to 541 mb).

soundgals's picture

"Mr. Ludwig could have prepared one production master for MQA encoding and another for other releases. We don't know. Studios/record companies do this kind of thing all of the time."

Point taken. If it's the case that separate masters are being prepared for the MQA releases, it makes it very hard to impossible to judge the merits or otherwise of MQA itself. People who prefer the MQA version may just be preferring the master prepared for the MQA release.

…and if the master prepared for MQA release is a different one, and superior regardless of the MQA aspect, then I'd like those masters to be available for the non-MQA releases as well.

How can we compare unless we're on a level playing field?

dalethorn's picture

It makes comparisons more complicated, unless you buy a number of releases, and every version of each release. I have the CD of this Reich album, which is supposedly MQA'd, I have the 24/96 FLAC, and I have a 16/44 download from Arkiv/Nonesuch that may or may not be MQA'd, so I'll be making comparisons today and tomorrow. It would be good if these comparisons become a regular topic at a reliable site that isn't being trolled to death.

DH's picture

Both say they find the MQA version harsh and unpleasant sounding and prefer the hi-res.

dalethorn's picture

I'll be checking on that when I get my new full-up MQA DAC in a few days.

spacehound's picture

I've just been banned from Computer Audiophile for holding honest opinions directly stated.

It's rather funny. Obviously CA's 'endless search for the truth' is somewhat limited in its scope.

:-)

dalethorn's picture

I may have you one-up on ignominy - I sent the head guy a PM calling him less than honest, and he reopened the closed thread and posted my PM on that thread. After banning me of course.

John Atkinson's picture
spacehound wrote:
I've just been banned from Computer Audiophile for holding honest opinions directly stated.

Sorry to hear that. I skimmed your most recent postings to that forum and you didn't seem to have said anything you hadn't said before. Many times before :-)

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

dougotte's picture

Thanks for another great review, Jason. I'm not interesting in getting into MQA, and no longer buy CDs. I was tempted to download the 24/96 files, but saw that Nonesuch has announced a vinyl version for the end of March. It's $2 more than the download, but I think I'll wait for it.

dalethorn's picture

Today I bought the Buena Vista Social Club album from HighResAudio, where the cover photo has a blue sticker saying "MQA Studio". The blue light on my Meridian DAC does come on, and the second light in white indicates that the data rate is 88-96 khz, although my non-MQA player says 24/48. To get that blue light, the Macbook's MIDI screen has to be set to 48 khz exactly.

It would be good to know if any of those MQA players can force the correct MIDI setting on a Mac, or bypass it entirely, because the Reich album requires the 44 khz setting to get the green light.

The tracks I added to my playlist are 452 mb in size, and the total time 35:44, so where CDs play at about 180k bytes per second, these files consume 210.7k bytes per second, but of course the unfolding or whatever means the actual data rate is much higher. Comparing these FLAC sizes with some non-MQA 96k FLACs that I have, the non-MQA FLACs consume about 290k bytes per second, so if that ratio would hold for other samples, the MQA FLACs are about 73 percent the size of non-MQA FLACs.

The sound quality seems very good, but I don't have another version to compare to at this point. I did conversions of these FLACs to WAV and MP3 to see if there were conversion issues (none) and whether there was any blatantly obvious degradation of the sound. All is well. Next I'll see if I can find a 24/96 copy of this album to make comparisons.

dalethorn's picture

I collected my MQA research into a small PDF file at the link below. Summarizing, I didn't find any negative issues in careful comparisons of two albums, in PCM and MQA'd masterings.

Should there be an example of alleged sonic degradation in an MQA mastering, I'd like to download the PCM and MQA'd files from the usual high-res sites and compare them myself.

http://dalethorn.com/Audio_MQA_Notes.pdf

dougotte's picture

I had a hankering for some new music the other night, so decided to buy they FLAC 24/96 download instead of waiting for the vinyl.

The sound is very nice - open and warm.

I haven't heard any Reich since Tehillim/Three Movements, and these newer pieces have a jazz flavor to me. I base this upon the syncopation and complex harmonies, but of course improvisation is not there.

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