MQA Contextualized

When you come to a fork in the road, take it.—Yogi Berra

Over one busy week in 1986, Karlheinz Brandenburg laid the foundation of a technology that a few years later would upend the record business. Brandenburg, a PhD student in electrical engineering at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg, was figuring out how to code digital music efficiently enough that it could be delivered over digital telephone lines. A patent examiner had concluded that what the application proposed was impossible, so over a week of late nights, Brandenburg produced the proof of concept and more. It was another decade before the technology—MPEG-2 level III, more commonly known as MP3—would find its true home, the Internet.

MP3 was first envisioned as a profitable business. The Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media—one of 60-plus applied science institutes supported by the Fraunhofer Society for the Advancement of Applied Research—and resellers would sell MP3 encoders for real money. Decoders would be cheap or even free. Then, in 1997, an Australian graduate student used a stolen credit card to buy MP3-encoding software, and posted it on an FTP site with a .readme file saying, "This is freeware thanks to Fraunhofer." In the ensuing years, the illegal sharing of MP3 files via Napster and other websites decimated the record business (footnote 1).

In time, it became clear that the culprit wasn't Napster per se—or MP3, for that matter—but the Internet itself, combined with a new kind of information-based commodity. Previously, cultural artifacts had always been objects: paintings, sculptures, books, recordings. But in this new world, a song or a symphony was ephemeral; you could give it away again and again but still own it. Music was especially vulnerable because the digital code was readily available in unprotected form, buried in the pits of Compact Discs.

What's Old Is New Again
As I noted in the February 2018 issue, some critics have drawn unfavorable parallels between MP3 and Master Quality Authenticated (MQA), the music-distribution codec invented by Peter Craven and J. Robert Stuart. Those critics have drawn attention to the "lossy" nature of both MP3's compression and what MQA Ltd. calls its codec's "audio origami"—its folding of ultrasonic information into the frequency range below it, in the bits beneath the noise floor. It's a superficial comparison—and ironic, in that MQA is intended, in large part, as a solution to problems introduced by MP3 and the Internet. "We now see a plethora of file types, we see a huge percentage of the music-buying public just plain pulling out," Stuart wrote to me in an e-mail. "It is too complicated. It isn't satisfying. There are other things to do. Audiophiles still survive on the dregs and niche releases."

To fully grasp the extent of the problem, audiophiles need to look at the big picture. First, a healthy music industry is important. As Spencer Chrislu, MQA's director of content services, told me in an interview in 2016, "It's important . . . to protect the interests of studios. If a studio does their archive at 24-bit/192kHz and then uses that same file as something to sell on a hi-rez site, that is basically giving away the crown jewels upon which their entire business is based." The metaphor seems mostly apt, although crown jewels have the profound advantage of being physical objects; they can't be given away and still owned. Plus, jewels are harder to alter than a music file.

Another big-picture item: Audiophiles need to recognize that we're a small minority among music consumers. When have our interests and opinions influenced any high-level decision in the music industry? The cases I can think of were all eventual failures: HDCD, SACD, DVD-Audio. The best we can hope for is a system designed to serve the interests of others—the industry, musicians, and casual (and mobile) music listeners—but that is also good enough that we can live with it.

With MQA, record companies can supply consumers with versions of recorded music that sound at least as good as the best-quality master recordings in their archives—MQA claims that they sound better—without sharing actual digital masters. An era of music distribution dominated by MQA begins to seem like a sort of post-apocalypse version of the peak era of vinyl, when music was issued almost exclusively on black discs (there probably were some open-reel tapes around), which sounded fine, or not so good, or great, depending on many factors. Those legendary master tapes were kept hidden away in musty vaults (footnote 2). MQA proffers a simpler world in which a single, back-compatible distribution format serves all needs, and in which consumers no longer have access to those high-resolution PCM masters.

That, anyway, is the vision of MQA Ltd.

To most audiophiles who experienced the pre-Internet music world—that is, most of us—that vision is pretty appealing (though I do like my 24/192 downloads). MP3, loudness wars, earbuds, Beats, convenience over quality, dead record stores, playback rituals destroyed—has anything good happened in music technology since, say, the Replacements broke up? Buying online, downloading, and managing a digital music library are not nearly as much fun as a weekly expedition to the neighborhood record store. Few 21st-century experiences can match that of carefully pulling a new prize from its paper sleeve, putting it on the turntable, brushing off the dust, and lowering the needle.

Regrettably, it's hard to envision a future that includes bricks-and-mortar record stores. But perhaps some sanity—and some profitability—can be restored to music production and distribution. Sure, we've always known that the major labels cared more about profits than about music, musicians, and us. Without them, though, we'd have missed out on those wonderful experiences. Surely, a revivified music industry would be good for people who care about music, even if we audiophiles remain an afterthought.

Lurking just below the surface of the argument I'm making is a vulnerability—or an entire class of vulnerabilities. I'm looking backward. So, in a way, is MQA.

I'm somewhat, if not yet entirely, convinced that MQA is based on a real, advanced, sophisticated technology. It's optimized for streaming, the dominant music-delivery system of our time for better or, more likely, worse. MQA's ideas about time-domain performance and its origins in post-Shannon sampling theory reflect cutting-edge thinking. I find its focus on neuroscience less convincing, but that, too, makes a compelling story. In many important ways, MQA looks forward.

And yet—MQA is a locked-up, proprietary technology in a world that, influenced by information technology, has come to expect open sources and standards. And that locked-up technology is aimed, apparently, at restoring an old-fashioned, label-dominated musical economy—which is surely why the three major record companies are all now stockholders. Even MQA's notion of "analog to analog"—microphone feed to DAC output—can seem old-fashioned in assuming that music starts its life as analog in an increasingly digital world. Not all music comes into existence as vibrating air, and even when it does, it often matures largely in the digital realm.

Audio Files for Audiophiles
Napster and MP3 aren't the only changes wrought by computer technology. The growing Internet has swallowed ever-larger slices of culture and commerce, employing ever-expanding hordes of IT workers. Traditional audiophiles may not have noticed, but somewhere along the line, people who listen to music via computers have come to outnumber those of us who listen through serious home audio systems, the ranks of which have shrunk over the same period.



Footnote 1: See The Appetite for Self Destruction: the Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age, by Steve Knopper, Free Press, 2009.—John Atkinson

Footnote 2 . . . where, unfortunately, they were all too often lost or damaged by floods, neglect, or time.—Jim Austin

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
michaelavorgna's picture

Great work.

Cheers,

Michael Lavorgna
Editor, AudioStream.com

Glotz's picture

What an epic, truly brilliant essay! I could not agree more with any one direction, let alone sentence.

This is also an irrefutably convincing argument for MQA, when we remind ourselves of what the larger (music) market bears. Times change, and we need to change with em... Companies want to protect their company jewels and MQA's anti-piracy protection would seem very attractive.

I am super-grateful for modern CNC machines... turntables would NOT be the same.

ok's picture

A brilliant essay, no less indeed – save of course for MQA irrelevance: another brick in the wall.

Glotz's picture

You will probably stream it whether you like or not.

ok's picture

I already stream from YT with increasing audio quality as time goes by plus DSP correction just in case. Makes me feel like an idiot for all the years of feeding on audiophile fodder (see picture on the left:-)

Glotz's picture

You may need to adapt as other corporations change their methods.

ok's picture

..but I see no real-world reason why should MQA be the future of audio - nor do I actually care either - regardless of the unabashed advertisement it gets from certain american magazines. Anyway, even Hillary could have won the elections with so much push from the mainstream press :-)

Glotz's picture

It is about Stuart's efforts to influence the industry players directly.

The real-world reason is that record companies and recording artists don't want their IP available to every consumer on the planet.. A version of it yes, but clearly the industry wants to restrict their IP access, and many high-end counterparts see it as an acceptable standardization for their interests. Many do not as well.

spacehound's picture

Just use FLAC. Which we and the music 'industry' have used for years.

It's lossless, free, fully supported, takes up roughly the same space/transmission bandwidth as MQA, is not proprietary, doesn't need a new or modified DAC, and doesn't add possibly audible artefacts like MQA does.

And music will continue to be composed, performed, sold, and listened to whether the present music 'industry' is 'healthy' or not. It just needs a little more competence than it has now.

MQA is totally pointless except for DRM. Which the really BIG suppliers of music have stopped using.

volvic's picture

And yet, Mr. Stuart claims, in an interview with Mr. Lavorgna on the Audiostream site, that MQA has no DRM - everything he said that looks like security is actually authentication. Which for me cleared up a lot of things.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Repeat untruths so often that they take on the ring of truth. Truth:
(a) MQA's DRM is for authentication purposes only - the files can be copied (illegally, but they can be copied).
(b) You do not need a new DAC in order to play MQA files. You only need a new DAC, or an upgrade to an existing one if the architecture allows, if you want to unfold and render MQA and hear the full benefits of the process.

spacehound's picture

Read the separate DRM patent more carefully.
And it's separate for a reason - so they can say it's not in MQA.

But it can be added anytime the MQA people or the labels see fit - degrading by any degree they want affecting those who don't have full MQA DACS.

What benefits?
It adds possibly audible artefacts (almost certain with some instruments), doesn't save space/transmission bandwidth, reduces everything to a maximum of 17 bits, and everything of a higher resolution than 96 is totally fake, including the noise.

Anton's picture

A) MQA is not a faithful reproduction of the original file. It can only be fully implemented via a licensed device. So, DRM. I chuckle when I see Mr. Stuart claiming the purpose is only so the consumer will know the data is "authentic."

B)If I don't have an MQA DAC, what resolution will the file yield? If it is anything less than full resolution, then you are saying that CD quality playback is our punishment for not wanting to pay Mr. Stuart for insinuating himself between the consumer and the higher resolution options?

I say this as someone who has an MQA DAC but, please, let's not fool ourselves into thinking this is some beneficent blessing being bestowed on end users in the name of higher fidelity.

I have said before, supply me with the high rez version, then let me pass it through an MQA implementation device and leave the decision about which is higher quality to me, the consumer!

Glotz's picture

Family Jewels.. They don't want you to hold them.

arve's picture

MQA's DRM is for authentication purposes only - the files can be copied (illegally, but they can be copied).

This is a very restricted view of "DRM", and not one you'll find much agreement with among users who come from an IT background.

People who wish to pirate content will always do so, quite regardless of copy protection mechanisms, which is the sole definition you are using.

An often used alternative acronym for "DRM" by detractors is "Digital Restrictions Management" - in other words, you take away the consumer's right to process or transform the content on equipment or with methods of their own choosing, and in that regard, MQA does have "DRM", just by another name. The consumers lose the ability to freely choose the decoding platform they want to use, or to process data in a manner that's sensible to them - Jim is touching on this when he writes:

I think it does. MQA is not in principle incompatible with DSP-based room correction—Bob Stuart told me that in an interview—but current implementations of it that I'm familiar with are incompatible with other DSP systems.

I am one of those people whom Jim acknowledges when he writes:

They likely have set up sophisticated digital-signal processing systems to perfect the frequency response of their high-end headphone rigs, using command-line tools that look like gibberish to the rest of us.

Although I don't really do headphone listening, I make heavy use of custom DSP solutions and measured in-room performance in all of my setups - ranging from merely correcting frequency response for when I actually need a zero-latency setup, via a system where both frequency and phase response is made linear, to a completely wireless corrected setup built on a custom Linux build, to the all-out "mad scientist" setup comprised of four discrete front channels carrying direct and ambient sound on separate channels (which is quite glorious, and rather jarring). Some of these setups are flat-out incompatible with anything any hardware vendor would be willing to build.

By tying proper decoding of the audio directly to specific hardware, the net effect is that I lose the freedom to enjoy music, and the hobby in a way that I can fully enjoy, and there is a "rights" management aspect to it, but not one that actually benefits the people whose rights I actually care about: The musicians themselves.

Anton's picture

Kudos for a job well done!

DH's picture

DRM isn’t limited to copy protection. That’s an untruth that MQA has been promoting by saying it doesn’t have DRM because you can copy it. DRM can have lots of elements to it that have nothing to do with whether you can copy a file.
That's the truth that anyone can find out in a few seconds with an Internet search.

MQA has the ability to activate other types of DRM built in, such as encryption and decryption keys that could be used to limit who can play it back and under what circumstances. Saying, “but they aren’t using it” isn’t meaningful - why is the capablilty there if there is no intent to ever use it?

Craven and Stuart also have a separate patent that would enable various levels of playback - full, or various levels of degraded playback, depending on the users subscription model and the use of “authorized” HW. It was originally intended to be part of MQA, but was removed - that has been confirmed by people at MQA. So it’s not there now, but could be added at any time. Are you naive enough to think such a scheme won’t be used in the future if the labels and MQA think that adds profit possibilities? If you are, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell to you.

AndrewC's picture
Quote:

Repeat untruths so often that they take on the ring of truth

Exactly! You hit the nail on the head Jason...

Quote:

With MQA, record companies can supply consumers with versions of recorded music that sound at least as good as the best-quality master recordings in their archives

spacehound's picture

Need I (or any of us) say more?

dalethorn's picture

Certain things about this are beginning to coalesce for me. One, the "owned files" genie is out of the bottle, and it isn't going back in. Two, the payment/debt/cashflow systems are where every government and corporation wants to be - on the receiving end of regular payments. Three, the vast majority of people who are concerned about sound quality (not all audiophiles) are moving toward streaming and/or Cloud storage - some just a little, some a lot, but it's a clear vector. Four, managing files is a headache proportional to the number of files one manages - ~30000 active files for me. Five, vinyl is a nifty boutique market - no threat to anyone.

I'm no Nostradamus, but the big picture seems to favor the music providers managing the content for an increasing majority, for their necessary convenience. I've experimented with Siri at the Apple Store, and it's not very good (for me anyway), but it and its competition will get a lot better and start pulling in millions more subscribers.

HammerSandwich's picture

Jason, do you really feel that all such copying is illegal? Don't you have backups of your downloads?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Of course I have back-ups. File sharing is illegal. (Maybe I should have said "sharing" - thanks for pointing out the inaccuracy of language penned in haste.) So, as far the government is concerned, is marijuana. So, as far as much of the world is concerned, is homosexuality. What the legal facts are, and what any of us does, are two separate matters.

Farther down in this thread, Robert Schryer asks Spacehound why, every time he posts, he sounds like he's trying to pick a fight. The last thing I'm interested in is an online fight with a pitbull who is constantly aiming for the jugular. Thanks, but I've had several encounters with the real thing while walking the late Baci Brown of canine renown, and that was enough for me for this lifetime.

To confine my observations to the human realm, I find online bullies boring. In the interest of democracy and free speech, Spacehound is granted the freedom on this site to hurl vindictive and accusations against me, John Atkinson, Bob Stuart, and anyone else he wishes, at least at this time. I do not feel the need to take his bait, nor to engage in a game of scoring points.

BTW, if you take a good look at Spacehound's accusation above, you'll note that he takes a quote from me and another from Jim Austin, and lumps them together in the same post as though they are from the same person. In another recent series of posts about MQA (I think), someone took sentences of mine out of context in order to argue against a conclusion I had never drawn. Am I going to start engaging in a debate around this? Hardly.

My follow-up review of the audible effects of dCS and MQA's implementation of MQA in the dCS Rossini will appear in the May issue.

spacehound's picture

As I can't be bothered to check.

A fight? While you and others continue to blatantly present demonstrable untruths as facts that is what you and the others will get. Not otherwise.

But while you and you colleagues continue to present untruths I will comment, if allowed. If not, we can all draw the appropriate conclusions. All this anti-MQA stuff (and I fully accept that is what it is, and it is not just from me) has a broader and increasing public.

EG - NO DRM.
You cannot fully play MQA unless you use a MQA capable box.That is DRM.

Another EG - BENEFITS.
Since when are reducing bit depth from 24 to 17, falsely displaying '96' as '192' and introducing probably audible artefacts 'benefits'. All this is easily demonstrable.

They are a sample of provable items, there are others. Why do you persist in denying them?

And deliberately choosing to tell us about your dog for the sole purpose of comparing me with one is nonsensical. Think about it. Would you have done the same if it was your canary that been killed by a mynah bird?

Wavelength's picture

SH,

Flac is a file format it is nothing like what MQA is doing. You can certainly convert an MQA file to Flac and most streaming services do that now to get even lower data rates for streaming.

Thanks,
Gordon

spacehound's picture

They compress it with FLAC, stream or not.
But MQA first reduces everything to "around 17 bits"(Stuart) for a start.What little information there is 96-192 is fake, including the noise, as it is just upsampling.
Having degraded it as above, it then uses FLAC.
But as it is such a mess FLAC does not compress it well.
The end result is that it is usually (depends on the music content) little or no smallar than a 'regular' FLAC file of 24 bits resolution (as the original is), as can be easily seen if you look at it's 'properties' or if it is a stream, capture it and/or observe it.
BTW: "even lower" than what?

dalethorn's picture

Question about DragonFly Red and MQA: I see that the DF Red is a 'renderer' only, whereas a Meridian DAC is 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 were 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?

-Rudy-'s picture

That needed to be said, @spacehound. FLAC is free, open, and as most people out here in audiophile land have said, mqa is the answer to a question NOBODY has asked. This essay is just yet another cog in the propaganda machine Stereophile has been running in favor of it. Sorry...I see right through this essay--it's the latest monthly in stallment on how bloody great mqa is.
Whatever. Stereophile, Atkinson, et al. just don't know when to give it a rest--it's month after month of the same tired argument that everyone out in the public is sick and tired of hearing.

They've got a word for this already: gaslighting. EXACTLY what Stereophile et al are doing. Only the public isn't buying it.

Bye, all...

corrective_unconscious's picture

It spent way too much time saying we need to verify MQA actually delivers sonic improvements, discussing the lossy aspects, discussing some of the DRM implications, to be "propaganda."

And when you say, "Bye, all...," you're not leaving. You and your over-determined, overly cute logo are spoiling for a fight that will run for scores of posts back and forth.

NeilB's picture

MQA may sound better than FLAC files? Have you ever done an apples to apples listening test to verify that there is no audible benefit to MQA in comparison to FLAC? I will be listening to MQA files for the very 1st time today. The first 8 Black Sabbath albums via MQA files that came included in a vinyl box set. Playback will be
via an iFi Nano iDSD Black Label DAC (US $170 new). I'm looking forward to hearing what all the fuss is about. I can't remember an actual music file format having stirred up so much vitriol before. That is, of course, besides MP3..............

spacehound's picture

It's the artifacts MQA induces that you are hearing. If might be 'enjoyable' until you get 'fatigued by it, as it can add a false 'liveliness' with some music, but it isn't accurate to the original.

FLAC is, being lossless, which MQA isn't

Yes I have, through a recently MQA enabled dCS Rossini, no less.

And a vinyl/MQA comparison is utterly ridiculous for reasons that should be obvious.

If you enjoy MQA fine, but don't say it's 'better'. You have no reference to how it is supposed to sound. And that is claimed to be the entire point of MQA. You can only do that by direct comparison, on the same media, through identicsl components, of the original 'master' and the MQA version.

dalethorn's picture

"Buying online, downloading, and managing a digital music library are not nearly as much fun as a weekly expedition to the neighborhood record store."

Forget that. The few times I've had any pleasure flipping through record bins was when there were good record stores whose bins weren't full of crap.

"....But I've seen the damage done by freeing up information...."

Umm, no. Not in a thousand years. The only solution for offensive free speech is freer speech and more of it. The sharing of music tracks is offensive to a just society, but that doesn't mean that the ability to share is offensive. The ability to share is my protection for a product I purchased, that can remain intact in my possession forever. Anything less is forced obsolescence.

If it turns out that I can play purchased music coded in MQA forever on open-source music players, then I'm OK with that, I think. What I really need to know is the worst-case scenario: For the MQA tracks that I currently possess or purchase in the forseeable future, is there a way that I could lose the ability to play those on an open-source player?

arve's picture

If it turns out that I can play purchased music coded in MQA forever on open-source music players, then I'm OK with that

First, let's define "open source" here - that would be open source/free standard for both the software and hardware chain.

You'll never be able to do that. While there is a "compatible" portion occupying the 13 to 15 most significant bits of MQA-encoded audio wrapped in some container (which can be FLAC), the decoding of MQA content is proprietary, patented, and shipping a software- or hardware decoder means that the implementor license the technology from MQA Ltd. This license agreement, as far as I can tell also involves signing a non-disclosure-agreement, effectively preventing decoding of MQA with anything that is truly open source.

Software-only MQA solutions (read: Tiidal) is closed-source, and while it is technically possible to rip the MQA streams from Tidal using software like Soundflower or Virtual Audio Cable, you are only ever getting a partial unfold of the content.

If someone reverse-engineers an MQA hardware device and ship a library for full unfolding in software, distribution of this software would be illegal in most jurisdictions. The best you can get from MQA on hardware/software combinations is a clean-room implementations that strip out the folded MQA signal, but you are then left with audio in a quality between 13/44.1 and 15/44.1 - in other words: Degraded.

NeilB's picture

I only raised the possibility that it "may sound better".

I take it you were unable to hear any sonic benefits to MQA with your listening tests with the dCS Rossini?

As mentioned before I've never had the ability to play back and hear MQA files until today. All comparisons of the different files (FLAC 96/24, vinyl ripped DSD 5.6, CD quality FLAC, etc.) would be done using identical components obviously.

spacehound's picture

it introduces artifacts and is lossy.

dc_bruce's picture

First, a thank-you to Mr. Austin for a thoughtful essay; and to Stereophile for responding to the howls of MQA critics by drilling into the subject. More please!

Now, let's talk about the opening theme of Mr. Austin's essay. There's no question that the digital revolution upended the music business -- and not for the better. There have been articles written about old guys (and they're mostly guys) still on tour to make money, because the expected royalty stream from the sale of the music they wrote and performed in their hey day has dried up. Another collateral development has been the evolution of "music artists" into branding factories. They can't make the kind of money selling recordings that pop artists from, say, the 1960s could so they develop their "brand" and put it on headphones and other merchandise.

The issue, quite simply, is copying, At the end of the analog era, copying began with cassettes (reel-to-reel was too clumsy and not portable). The response was to put a "tax" (or whatever you want to call it) on the sale of blank cassettes that was put into a royalty pool and eventually distributed to copyright holders. This provided some money and, fortunately for the artists, second generation copies from cassettes were unacceptably bad.

Digital copies are, of course, bit-perfect; so there's no limit to the number of generations that can be made from a single original. MP3 and the Internet just made copying on mass scale easy, especially given the bandwidth limitations of 90s-generation Internet access.

So, how does MQA relate to any of this, Mr. Austin? Can it be used to prevent, or discourage (through sonic degradation), copying? I get that the music companies can avoid publicly releasing their 24/96 or other hi-rez masters by releasing MQA-treated 16/44 files instead. But if the MQA file is sonically equivalent to the master in the vault and if it can be copied without damage, and if that copy will sound as good as the original when played on an MQA DAC, I don't see how this works.

Sure, there could be a royalty paid to copyright owners for every MQA DAC and ADC sold (like there was for cassettes and blank "music CDs"), but surely that can't replace the royalties from individual music sales.

If the answer is that the industry never sells any music file and moves to an all-streaming model (which would allow for royalties to be collected as part of the streaming fee), the streamed file could still be captured and copied. In fact, a number of Internet player/streamers already use caching to an SSD to improve sonic quality. Sure, to avoid infringement claims, they either don't cache the whole file, or flush the cache when the file has been played. But I'm sure those functions can be defeated or hacked.

So forgive me if I don't understand how MQA helps solve the unauthorized copying problem inherent in digital music files.

DH's picture

MQA is certainly an improvement over MP3; I don’t really care about that, since I don’t listen to MP3 much.
If that’s what MQA was about that would be a good thing.

Whether MQA sounds better than Redbook or hi-res is certainly a matter of taste. From my listening, I hear some albums that sound better and some that sound worse -worse meaning less detail, “softer” , more artificial, less realistic. I think some of what is getting praised about the sound of MQA is exactly that - a loss of small detail and subtlety that sounds more pleasant, but is actually eliminating fully accurate reproduction.

The 90’s downfall of the traditional recording industry was brought about in large part not by technology, but by the greed of record companies and their lack of response to the needs of the music buying public. The public (mostly young people) wanted the ability to buy individual songs, not just full CDs. The record industry refused to provide this, preferring to force people to buy $15 CDs, even it was just to get one or two songs. Even after the Napster debacle, the industry couldn’t figure out how to make money off of digital music files, even though it was obvious that what the public wanted was the ability to buy any digital songs for under a dollar each. It took Apple to put that model into effect and show that if you give the public what it wants, it will pay money for it.

Why is that history relevant? Because I think the industry is trying to turn the clock back with MQA. Apparently the idea is to remove actual hi-res files (and possibly even Redbook) and leave us just with MQA as a format other than MP3. If you don’t like the sound of MQA, or don’t like having a DAC that can’t turn the MQA filter off when it plays non MQA files (which is often the case so far with MQA DACs) you will be stuck with MQA, and I’m willling to bet that you will have to pay a premium price for it. The industry doesn’t care about consumers and what they want, and it wants to create a closed, monopolistic type environment where it can control the market and charge prices in accordance. That is the real idea behind MQA, not making streaming more efficient or improving SQ.

monetschemist's picture

Dear Jim,

I've been reading your series of articles on MQA and I would like to offer a few comments, none of which relate to the sound of MQA-encoded music, nor to the technical merits of MQA.

In this article, you state:

people who listen to music via computers have come to outnumber those of us who listen through serious home audio systems

and

Computer people... likely have set up sophisticated digital-signal processing systems to perfect the frequency response of their high-end headphone rigs, using command-line tools that look like gibberish to the rest of us.

and

Computer audiophiles like nothing better than to play around with computer audio files

This part of your essay really does a disservice to those of us who are happy to have replaced CD players with computers and music downloads; first by giving the false impression that "music via computers" and "serious home audio systems" are incompatible; second by typecasting those who would enjoy computer audio as most likely to be nerdy software-tinkering headphone-using freaks who only use the music to check their results; and third by implying that what pleases these "others" is not relevant to the more important needs of card-carrying audiophiles and music consumers.

Maybe you didn't intend to say this! But that's the way it comes across, from my perspective anyway.

You also talk about the limitations MQA's patents place on experimentation and innovation.

The fact that you can't mess with the code is a selling point aimed at both music suppliers and consumers—it's not a bug but a feature

and

In an MQA world, the sound of your DAC will be determined mainly by MQA's technology, and not by your own choices of reconstruction filter and design skill.

I understand how music suppliers could think it's in their interest to prevent listeners from "messing with the code". I don't understand how consumers benefit by this restriction. Seems to me the opposite - from the consumer's point of view, MQA limits opportunities for innovation. And this is confirmed by the second sentence. How is this a good thing for consumers?

Finally, you ask how we can judge MQA's potential impact.

If we can't anticipate MQA's impact on the industry—and we can't—then how should we judge it?

Leaving aside the questions of "how does it sound" and "what other benefits does it bring", I respectfully suggest that the most important way to judge MQA is that, should Mr. Chrislu's dream of MQA domination come true, designers and consumers will find themselves significantly restricted by the encumbrances that the MQA patents place on the full enjoyment of the music.

Is that an impact that we audiophiles really want?

arve's picture

should Mr. Chrislu's dream of MQA domination come true, designers and consumers will find themselves significantly restricted by the encumbrances that the MQA patents place on the full enjoyment of the music.

Well said. For the past 40-ish years, the conversion domain has been free to tinker with, and not as Stereophile is trying to portray it, for audiophiles that like to "tinker", but also for companies that like to do new things. MQA's prescriptive D/A conversion through authenticated paths is inherently incompatible with many forms of digital processing:

  • beamforming (B&O, Kii, Apple, others)
  • band splitting/crossovers (B&O, JBL, Kii, others)
  • Nontrivial dynamics processing (All of the above, others)
  • Nontrivial spatial, ambient and stereophonic processing (Bacch SP, ambiophonics, Apple)
  • Nontrivial distortion reduction mechanisms (work related to Klippel)
  • Nontrivial multi-speaker aware correction algorithms and equalization (Dirac Unison, others

… in an environment where the original signal no longer exists in a meaningful form, the prescriptive filtering imposed by the MQA process is largely meaningless. What is worth is that if MQA becomes prevalent, dominant or the only option, it presents a potential quality issue that cannot be resolved - an undecoded MQA file offers less headroom and has semi-uncorrelated data that can potentially mess with such processing - in particular because it also embeds a semi-correlated noise stream, or the "origami" data in the lowest few bits of the audio signal.

What is further, and this is your point: In a world where the only music distribution is MQA, it represents a massive barrier to entry for new companies: They have to license it upfront, at considerable cost - which may be incompatible with being a start-up business. As a result, and MQA-only universe will heavily stifle innovation in the audio industry. Which is mindboggling in this day and age - whether one likes Klippel, Dirac, Apple, Kii or B&O is beside the point, but they are pointing towards a future of "computational audio", where advanced signal processing that goes way beyond merely replicating analog circuits in the digital domain.

In that respect, MQA and other technologies that through patents, licensing and restrictive mechanisms represents extra barriers to entry for startups and small innovative companies, and only serve to stifle innovation.

crenca's picture

...several important perspectives and realities that trade publications such as this one refuse to acknowledge, even though theoretically they should.

tonykaz's picture

RedBook 16/44.1 has been about a thousand times more successful than 33 1/3 Vinyl ( probably a vast understatement ). It appears to have a viable future, well into the next decade.

I kinda wish that God would've given 16/44 to Moses, on the Mountain, along with those 10 Commandments that nobody follows, we would've had all this digital formatting sorted out, by now, wouldn't we?

Still, we're getting close to universal agreement on PCM.

MQA is probably a "done-deal" that remains "Optional" for now and might just remain an Option that quite a few will Opt into once the Smart Phone offers "HighRez" Music to their 2 Billions of Customer Base.

When the Smart Phone goes Audiophile, vinyl will become a buggy whip. Us old geezers will struggle to justify those 3 thousand pound Record Collections and all that dusty gear needed to play the darn things ( not that anyone takes the time to pull one out to play it ).

It's probably time for us to start focusing on some other Controversy, like Class D Amplification, perhaps even have a Recommended Category for Class D Amplification devices.

And maybe even a "proper" evaluation/review of the "WEL" Signature Balanced Cabling from Audioquest, I'll pay money to read what Herb Riechert has to say about these things.

DACs are so Boring.......

It's time to move on.

Tony in Michigan

volvic's picture

I have no horse race in this MQA controversy, I just respect Mr. Stuart for his legacy and at some point would like to listen to an MQA encoded track vs a FLAC file. But I am also a Linnie and respect their justified comments against MQA.

$1000 + for an audiophile phone when it comes will not spell the end of vinyl, in fact the opposite I predict, if it ever comes, LG has tried without much success. Technology is a never ending evolution of incremental advances and paying four figures for something that that has a cultural status and not much evolution, as it is still the same phone it was 5 years ago, is not money well spent. I would rather spend that coin on a nicer cartridge or more records. To think the "Audiophile phone" (whatever that is) will usher in the era of MQA is a leap of faith.

While others debate MQA above, Furtwangler and Karl Richter have never sounded better on my vinyl rig. Better yet, used software is available at record bins for a few dollars and in pristine condition. Same can be said for CD's as well, grabbed over 36 cd's for $3 each on almost all of Celidibache's performances released on CD when I was visiting Montreal last week. Good times.

John Atkinson's picture
volvic wrote:
To think the "Audiophile phone" (whatever that is) will usher in the era of MQA is a leap of faith.

We will have a review of LG's MQA-capable smartphone in the May issue of Stereophile.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

volvic's picture

I only saw it once with a B&O DAC module, that was added underneath. To be honest, don't know how successful that combo was in terms of sales or sound for that matter, never saw anyone with one, but that is not proof of anything, but it was an interesting approach. Not surprised they are first with MQA.

Glotz's picture

"Another big-picture item: Audiophiles need to recognize that we're a small minority among music consumers. When have our interests and opinions influenced any high-level decision in the music industry? The cases I can think of were all eventual failures: HDCD, SACD, DVD-Audio. The best we can hope for is a system designed to serve the interests of others—the industry, musicians, and casual (and mobile) music listeners—but that is also good enough that we can live with it."
Read more at https://www.stereophile.com/content/mqa-contextualized#UzTW4kHX6XhsKaLG.99

Do we as audiophiles really think that our concerns are the most important matters to MQA and streaming?

volvic's picture

Mr. Stuart has worked for a hifi company, so surely he has given some thought to his long time base.

DH's picture

For what music? The only reasonable catalog of MQA music is at Tidal, and the Tidal phone app isn’t MQA capable. So you are going to review based on the minuscule number of non Tidal MQA files available? Or based on specialized “curated, white glove” MQA files which bear little relationship to how many MQA files are produced?

Sorry, that’s sort of a bad joke. The only real purpose of such a phone for the foreseeable future would be to play back streaming MQA files over Tidal. Even your own writers keep telling us that the real value of MQA lies in streaming and that streaming it is the future.
Reviewing that phone without MQA streaming makes no sense, and only heightens the perception that your magazine is somehow engaged in a PR effort to push MQA.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

The phone plays PCM up to 24/192 and DSD up to 256. There's plenty of reason to review it above and beyond MQA.

DH's picture

How often does the magazine review phones? Yet somehow you are going to review the “MQA capable” phone. There are other phones on the market designed to give advanced sound capabilities. No reviews of them.

spacehound's picture

I fully agree with DH's comment. While I realise that you are not 'in charge' it is curious that (AFAIK) the only phone that has ever been reviewed in Stereophile since MQA became available is an MQA one.

Furthermore, while I am fine with your 24/192 and DSD comment, are you aware that MQA is 17 bits maximum, so lossy, and additionally lossy because everything above 96 is completely fake, including the noise, at it is merely upsampling - putting a content-free sample between all the already truncated 'genuine' ones?

tonykaz's picture

Stereophile is populated by turntable owners, all 70,000 of us.

Stereophile's lead review ( this month ) is a Mono Koetsu Phono Cartridge. Only a turntable owner will be interested ( I was a Koetsu Collector and I'm definitely NOT interested ).

Still, I admire the commitment of the Vinyl group or should I suggest that it's the Remnant of a Group?

Vinyl is where we all came from, it's our historical origin. ( for me it'd be 78s, then 45s, then 33 1/3 Mono, then Voice of Music Tape, then 33 1/3 Living Stereo, then Cassettes, then Audiophile recordings from Sheffield Labs & Reference Recordings ). Phew!!!

Since 1985, I've owned superb RedBook CD playback, I never understood the Audiophile complaining about Digital.

I guess that I've been living with New Music Formats since the early 1950s and see each one as some sort of significant improvement.

I'm embracing Streaming !

The vinyl people remain committed to vinyl.

This year I'll be Married for 50 years. I'm capable of commitment, I'll commit to auditioning the Koetsu digital music player, when it arrives.

And I'll remain committed to Music, for the rest of my days.

Tony in Michigan

ps. I also admire Stereophile's commitment to us Music Lovers with our quirkiness, it's kinda a half-way house for the "still suffering audiophiles" searching for our "higher powers" . Stereophile might be our "Big Book" !

Staxguy's picture

Tony,

How are DACs boring?

Ok, in my case:

Intel Onboard Audio (Realtek 888S) - I like the sound of the HP PC Audio, but am dismayed by the SNR. At 24/192 and 24/96, it's good to my ears, even straight to a Stax 007t Tube Amplifier and 007 Headphone.

FiiO Olympus - just for fun, this drives my non-Stax headphones (I love the bass boost) like the Ferrari Calvino T250 (one black, one tan - get it?), Tumi Monster Inspiration, AKG K550, AKG Q701, Fostex TH600, Sennhsier HD650, etc. or even in-ears like Sennhsier IE800, B&O H3's. etc. etc. etc.

Calynx Coffee DAC - terrible, 1970's + seattle grunge house sound, but fun - use it to drive a Rotel 980BX

Audio Engine D1 - terrible sound compared to Intel / 888 Realtek, but less noise than Coffee.

iFi iPower USB - improves both the D1 and the Coffee DACs.

iFi Nano iDSD - terrble, terrible sound. :)

Left out a few.

In my case, they are far from boring in that they are a constant stream of disappointments (mind you, I'm not spending much) but a constant stream of expectation, also.

So an abusive relationship, like an audiophile changing speaker wires, dissatisfied with the relationship of his speakers to his amplifiers, say. :)

I figure the discontinued CEEntrance DAC Mini CX or PX is likely next. :)

Perhaps, though, because I'm batting in the little leagues, DAC wise - I'm thus so interested in reading about TotalDACs and Lampizators!

I have a special affinity for guys who design their home's around speakers with GOTO and ALE compression drivers, and Lampi users in my mind are the same sort of (though for headphones) crowd.

A very small crowd, admittedly...

I realize there is much higher margins in the audiophile power cord business, etc. but for me DACs (due to the evolving nature of the technology) are much more interesting.

Call me a gear slut, but when Weiss of Switzerland made Maya (the Indian word for Illusion) for $200K for mastering (a DAC), I was interested!

https://www.gearslutz.com/board/mastering-forum/122811-best-dac-9.html

It looked cool the way Stax Electrostatic speakers would look to me back in the day - who would buy such inefficient loudspeakers, I would wonder - and then buy massive Stax Amplifiers just to power the buggers.

http://www.stax.co.jp/OLD/Photo/Dmax1.jpg
http://www.stax.co.jp/OLD/Photo/X2.JPG

Now, admittedly, to my ear, my little AudioQuest DragonFly 1.1 DAC, sounds pretty good - and will even to my taste, power a pair of Audeze LCD-3 Headphones (though I hate the post-fazor - what is that Star Trek + a Brazilian bikini), so saying that, there are some - maybe you are one, that, once they find a component (say a DAC) that they are interested in, the whole topic will have little interest to them.

Now, I've got pretty poor ears. I'll admit that when I listened to the B&W 802 D3 Loudspeaker on unfamiliar material, while I could hear all the amplifier cabinet, amp tubes / processing, and microphone distortion, plus tape sound in the blues recording (24, 192), darned if I coudln't detect any immediately apparent flaws in the loudspeaker, itself.

I felt kind of crappy for that. Like I couldn't hear, or know anything about speakers.

But darned if I don't want to hear proper 32-bit, GHz digital audio.

At my price level, though, I'd limit myself to about $15,000.00 USD to $20,000.00 USD in a DAC.

It's not like I wouldn't want something better, but when I looked at spending for the top MSB, and then thinking of how quickly I'd want to replace it. Maybe 1 year, min.

The same with speakers like KEF Blade. I liked the imaging. I sort of liked the sound. Good enough to play with for 3-years, I figured. But I just didn't like them enough to throw away that kind of cash.

Instead, I bought the KEF X300 - which I never use - to have something of their present style designs in my home collection.

Idiot that I am, I'll probably wait (even though I hated the sound of the iFi iDSD Nano, which I bought, and couldn't bare to use for more than a few listening tracks) for the iFi iDSD Pro as my next hope for a decent DAC at an affordable price level.

That $2,000 - $3,000 price level is pretty hot. Like a bottle of wine, if you are into those cool brands and vintages.

DACs are boring? Well, they last more than a bottle, I would say. But are they as interesting?

Hmm, that's an interesting question.
:)

tonykaz's picture

A while back,
I was at one of those headphone Meets where I had a chance to audition a range of DACs including many of the Schiit DACs.
I couldn't hear any significant differences.
I wrote to Schiit about it and Jason Stoddard wrote back that "DACs are Boring".

I agree.

It will take a hell of a system to hear any difference in a Good DAC.

Tony in Michigan

Graham Luke's picture

"Now, what's all this shouting about? We'll have no trouble here!"
"This is a local format for local people; there's nothing for you here"
(with apologies to Tubbs and Edward)

spacehound's picture

If movie studios can sell or rent their movies and TV series in full quality, music studios can sell their products in full quality as well. This is corporate protectionism from the studios and Bob Stuart.

dalethorn's picture

Quality is half of the equation. The other half is copy protection. As far as I know, I cannot buy a movie online that I can play anywhere on any device I have. If there were a simple open-source converter from the movie I buy to generic MP4, then I could back up my purchases and never worry that they won't play unrestricted.

Glotz's picture

And it was the intent of the industry for many years, as with movies. Things will be changing with the advent of Net Neutrality and the ability (and more importantly, the desire) for corporations in cable, tv and film to vigorously pursue pirates and control their IP distribution. Charter and ATT are most certainly targeting consumers that use BitTorrent and others.

volvic's picture

I thought people gave up on those long ago.

bdiament's picture

"Computer audiophiles like nothing better than to play around with computer audio files. (Sorry.) Take away their ability to manipulate those files and you destroy much of their hobby's appeal."

Sorry but this one stopped me. It reminds me of those who say audiophiles are only into gear and not into music. It misses the mark by just as wide a margin, and simultaneously does an injustice to a large group of listeners who just happen to enjoy their music in a way that might differ from how you enjoy yours.

My experience with computer audio has increased my appreciation of my music library by an *order of magnitude* -- note I'm talking about listening to music, not playing with files. I can hear a piece of music and with a few quick keystrokes, broaden my appreciation by say, finding other versions by other performers, or other music by the same composer. The search possibilities are endless and I get the results in less time than it would take me to walk to my library shelf, much less retrieve a given disc (or set of discs) and put one in the player, then press Play.

And for all this convenience, I trade not a wit of audio quality. Quite the contrary - playback from the computer (I use non-data-reduced, raw PCM for everything in the library) gives me the sound of the digital master. This is something I've never heard from any molded disc, played via any transport, player, or DAC, regardless of price or design. (I wrote about this a few years ago in an article on my blog, which was also reprinted in HiFi Critic.)
Properly rip a CD to the computer and play it back via a fine DAC and what you hear is indistinguishable from the CD master, something no player or transport has to this day, to my ears at least, yet achieved.

Best regards,
Barry
www.soundkeeperrecordings.com
www.soundkeeperrecordings.wordpress.com
www.barrydiamentaudio.com

AJ's picture
Quote:

I trade not a wit of audio quality. Quite the contrary - playback from the computer (I use non-data-reduced, raw PCM for everything in the library) gives me the sound of the digital master.

Please get with the program Barry. The "Authentic" master has unauthentic aliasing distortion added and re-equalization of that PCM file, to "fix" the "temporal blur" that doesn't appear in digital texts or controlled listening tests, especially of old guys with zero hearing ability >16k, much less 20k.

bdiament's picture

Just my opinion of course but to me, the authentic (not to be confused with "Authentic") master is the one created by the mastering engineer.

To be clear, my comment was with regard to the assertion that computer audiophiles like to play with computer audio files, the implication being that music listening is secondary. I make no comment on the larger subject here because I have not heard it. Have you?

Best regards,
Barry
www.soundkeeperrecordings.com
www.soundkeeperrecordings.wordpress.com
www.barrydiamentaudio.com

AJ's picture
Quote:

the authentic (not to be confused with "Authentic") master is the one created by the mastering engineer

Barry, that's the old definition. Those millions of recording are in fact, "unauthentic" because of "blurring" that the Mastering engineers were blissfully unaware of.
The age of enlightenment is upon us. The new authentic is the old authentic "deblurred", by adding (maybe no so authentic??) aliasing distortion and some possible re-equalization of the high frequencies.
It matters not if the artists/mastering engineers, etc are long dead. Who cares? They had no clue what they were doing and "blurred' everything. We now have a way to authenticate their false authenticity, by passing their music through an MQA filter bank account and then seeing a Blue/green Pavlov light.
Have I heard it?
Of course!
The first Commandment of audiophilia is:
Thou shalt "listen" before casting the first stone (all while staring at the Pavlov light).
Yes, for many months of Tidal via a Mytek, I "listened". So indeed, I have heard the new authenticity.

p.s. are you familiar with the term tongue in cheek?

bdiament's picture
Quote:

p.s. are you familiar with the term tongue in cheek?

Yes of course.

I'm curious though: In your listening, did you compare the MQA version with the source they used to create the MQA version? In other words, if I were to make a comparison, I'd want to have access to the source they used. Otherwise, it would be like most demos of new formats that I've heard, where what was offered for comparison was effectively a listen to different masterings and not the different formats. As such, I would think there is no basis for a logical, much less fair, comparison.

If the only "original" that was available to me was the existing release, and I have no way of knowing what the source for the new version was, again, I would not draw any conclusions. (One might be able to say they "like" one more than the other but there would be no way to determine accuracy.)

A fair test would be to demo the original source used to create the new version with the new version. I would hope this is how any new format would be demoed, though again, in my experience with other formats (I have not heard MQA), what was played was a louder, completely different mastering.

Best regards,
Barry
www.soundkeeperrecordings.com
www.soundkeeperrecordings.wordpress.com
www.barrydiamentaudio.com

AJ's picture
Quote:

did you compare the MQA version with the source they used to create the MQA version?

Of course not...unless you trust that the Pavlov light assures this.
I simply compared the MQA versions of the same tracks on Tidal. Whether those were derived from the same master is completely unknown to end users. It is very clear some are not.
http://www.superbestaudiofriends.org/index.php?threads/mqa-op-ed.3817/pa...

bdiament's picture

I believe the light has a different purpose. If I understand correctly, it is present only when playing the MQA file. Thus, it isn't assuring anything about any comparison with a non-MQA file or what said files' relationship may or may not be to the MQA file.

What this tells me is that under such circumstances, folks can declare what they like (or don't like) and which if any they might prefer. That's certainly fine but it doesn't tell me anything at all about how (or if) the process impacts the original.

If I were to assess the "after," in order to have a logical basis for any conclusions I might reach about the process itself (as opposed to how I might feel about the results), I'd need access to the "before."

In the link you provided, it appears the MQA version was created from a superior source. I would *expect* (and hope) the result preserved this superiority. But in the end, I'm comparing masterings (or sources) and still don't know what the process itself is accomplishing.

Best regards,
Barry
www.soundkeeperrecordings.com
www.soundkeeperrecordings.wordpress.com
www.barrydiamentaudio.com

AJ's picture
Quote:

I believe the light has a different purpose.

I'm familiar with Pavlovs work. I know the purpose of the light ;-).

Quote:

it appears the MQA version was created from a superior source. I would *expect* (and hope) the result preserved this superiority. But in the end, I'm comparing masterings (or sources) and still don't know what the process itself is accomplishing.

Bingo. Only MQA knows what masters and processing are used for MQA releases, like any good shell gamer.

bdiament's picture

But that last phrase illuminates intent.
We've agreed that you have not heard a fair "before" and "after" comparison. The logical conclusion then is that we don't know. Nothing else, in my view, is logically supportable.

To cast aspersions is to suggest something else. And with that, our exchange ends. I'll let you have the last word if you choose to do so.

Barry
www.soundkeeperrecordings.com
www.soundkeeperrecordings.wordpress.com
www.barrydiamentaudio.com

AJ's picture
Quote:

We've agreed that you have not heard a fair "before" and "after" comparison.

Again, correct. I'm not a mastering engineer with master files and a MQA encoder. Being merely a end user, that is the only available means of comparison of anything MQA.
Shells games aren't supposed to be "fair", they are supposed to be profitable.

ok's picture

By the way the main reason for the hdcd/dvd-a/sacd extinction was not so much the marginal or nonexistent audio benefits for a shrinking consumer target, but rather the protection/incompatibility issues that rendered copying and sharing inconvenient.

AJ's picture
Quote:

That little blue or green authentication light on your MQA-ready DAC implies that you're getting what the artist intended—although who actually signed off is, for older recordings, open to question.

A Pavlov light for audiophiles. Perfect ;-)

Dcbingaman's picture

Thanks, Jim, for a really well-written and researched article. I'm not sure Mr. Stuart agreed with your final points, but I think you defined the proposition he and Craven have laid out for all of us. Namely, are the compression and rendering benefits of MQA worth the loss of an open software architecture for future digital audio recording, archiving and distribution. Clearly, the jury is still out on this point. As you have written, the market will ultimately decide, and the LARGEST segment of the market thinks that MP3 meets 99% of their needs. The "high-end" segment of the market is divided into two distinct groups - 2 channel, for which FLAC seems pretty well entrenched, and multi-channel (MCH) which has embraced 5.1 to 11.2 DTS-Master Audio and / or Dolby Digital Atmos.

I think the real future for audio beyond headphones lies in MCH reproduction, which, for classical recordings provides an in-home experience much closer to what I hear in the concert hall. While MQA has concentrated on the 2-channel market, it seems to have ignored MCH, to its competitive detriment. I do not think that MQA will displace MP3 or FLAC, but the data compression and rendering functions it incorporates could be very beneficial in the MCH space, particularly MCH streaming. I am hopeful that MQA and, perhaps Meridian, who understands MCH as well as anyone, will recognize this in time. If not, DTS and Dolby surely will.

Talos2000's picture

MQA are doing an epic disservice to us all by promoting the fallacious nonsense that today's studios' master tapes represent their "crown jewels". This is an outdated concept based on the days when these things were actual tapes, and you couldn't copy them without creating a lesser-quality copy and at the same time marginally degrading the original. So it made sense that you needed to protect those originals fastidiously.

And let's also not kid ourselves that that those legacy magnetic tapes of the pre-digital era were lost or damaged due to the natural degradation of what is an ephemeral medium. Not true. Such losses were almost totally down to the wilfull neglect and carelessness of the very industry that today bangs on the table and yells "Crown Jewels!". Those studios that did treat their legacy tapes very carefully are now sitting on an inventory that remains in excellent shape.

Today, new Studio Masters are all digital files, and we can make unrestricted generations of copies without degradation in either the copy or the original. Let's remind ourselves what the Studios are supposed to be all about in the first place. The only reason you'd want to record a high quality master is that you are concerned with delivering a high quality product to the consumer. If not, why would you bother attempting to create one in the first place? Just so the studio execs can treat themselves to private auditions in the comfort of their own "crown jewel" vaults, accompanied no doubt by only the finest aged single malts?

Today we finally have the ability to deliver unconstrained Studio Master quality to the end user. So what do we think of an industry that says "NO! They're mine, I say! All mine!"? I think it deserves what is coming to it. It can crash and burn and I will personally toast the ashes. Sure, there will be some pain, but from those ashes will rapidly emerge something else that actually functions in the real world. It's the way things work.

If MQA sees its mandate as propping up the industry's "crown jewels" hoax, then they can crash and burn with it.

dalethorn's picture

Best post I've seen yet!

Glotz's picture

Any company's intellectual property needs to be protected inherently for their own needs. Without it they are giving it away for free.

Studios are supposed to provide their masters for you because you feel entitled to it? And if they provide a DRM version of it, that's not good enough, because of some perceived 'ownership' of the IP? They license digital product in the business software realm this way for years. Restricted rights based on usage, cost and need is the industry norm, Adobe, Microsoft, etc.

dalethorn's picture

False. The industry standard is DRM-free music. Maybe do some research first.

Glotz's picture

Strange that you think the current DRM-free market place is tenable. I would think that with countless years of experience you would realize a sea change is about to occur. It doesn't really matter what audiophiles want; record companies simply aren't interested. And you know full well that I was referring to the business software world. [flame deleted by John Atkinson]

dalethorn's picture

It already occurred. It's streaming for one. But with high-res downloads and CDs and various other avenues, it's too late for any 'file' DRM, explicitly anyway. I see a lot of great discussion relating to those music files, and I think that's where the controversy over MQA is, yes? From the discussion I see, the only real fear among the concerned is that the music companies will MQA everything that comes as physical media or computer files. Even then, very few people seem concerned about DRM per se in those files - most everyone seems to be concerned about how much content or resolution they'll lose (if any).

If MQA is a form of DRM, I'm no longer worried about it, since there's too much music for me to get to anyway. My current efforts will be to buy some recordings and see how they sound.

Glotz's picture

And I think your observations here are very consice. While I do not want DRM of any kind, I also fear that it will affect physical media. If it's not sonically transparent, I hope the industry manufacturers will balk and the buying market will vet it out with their wallets.

Thank you for being considerate and I apologize for the flame.

dalethorn's picture

Not to belabor the point of ownership, but I thought I'd offer a couple of thoughts: The collection of files that I think of as "mine" are playable on everything pretty much, especially open source players. When the closed systems are also able to play those files, it adds confirmation. Some of those closed systems like the iPad Pro I have, will only play the high-res FLACs if I use a third-party app, which means loading the files into the app's container. Then there's always a possibility that the app won't be updated when a new iOS comes out and the app no longer works, and for various reasons I can't run the old iOS. So I don't get into that. With a 256 gb iPad, WAV files are no bother for current playlists stretched over a few months.

When it comes to computer O/S's, I have the latest on a Macbook, and also a PC running Windows XP (with an installable XP disc to any replacement drive or computer I get). I'm pretty safe on the PC, since it has never connected to a network. The Mac will probably play everything I have for years to come, but I don't depend on it for much more than file uploads and downloads. Since MQA is new for me, I'll treat it like any new technology I've adopted - the files go into separate folders on the computers, and they'll gestate there for awhile until I decide on their final disposition.

Glotz's picture

That's a smart process, and I will be taking the same approach with PC. Mac scares me for those reason you illustrated, though I like their OS and style.

labjr's picture

Why would anyone would care about the "Crown Jewels" if the MQA file sounds the same or better?? Repeating these senseless talking points is what makes people think MQA is a hyped up scam. Evidently, you must believe it, because JA has repeated the same thing in "As We See It" and other columns.

Talos2000's picture

But does it sound the same or better? We don't know. For years now, all we have been told is that MQA sounds better on a very tiny sample of hand-crafted files of undisclosed provenance. It amounts to no more than genuflecting at the temple to accept this as gospel truth.

If they are going to such great lengths to hide stuff from us, then it is only right and proper that we get to call it a "hyped up scam" until such time as they come clean on it. I mean, haven't you even seen the freakin' Wizard Of Oz???

cgh's picture

Like anything, the opportunity for disintermediation is there, someone with the will and the way just needs to drive the wedge.

PeterInVan's picture

As Archimago said over on Computeraudiophile.com, “But who else might gain from this “philosophy”? I think we have to look at why the “Big 3” music labels seem to want to “get in” on this system. Warner Music was the first to make an agreement in May 2016, followed by Universal in February 2017, and Sony Music in May 2017. These entities control about 75% of the music market.”

The elephant in the room is the steaming service that will disintermediate the big lables by offering artists and song writers a path to publishing their work without the need to get into hock with a label and spend their careers paying back the tempting up-front advances.

Big labels will adopt technology that protects against this existential challenge, and protects their revenues from existing archives.p

Stevens's picture

MQA files and DACs have been around for around two years. If there was a good reason for it to change the industry, I think we would know by now.
The USP started out as being able to get 24/192 data in smaller files because of streaming limitations. We’ve been able to stream 24/192 and DSD in Europe since late 2016, via Qobuz and highresaudio, soon coming to the USA. The next USP was sound quality. The best blind test I’ve seen so far was by Archimago, which did not demonstrate any improvement. So the next USP is DRM. The music industry has moved past Napster, they are just looking to provide a good enough service people will pay for. Qobuz allow unlimited protected downloads, so without internet access I can listen to HD audio on the beach with my Kindle and Mojo DAC.
As someone who listens mostly to classical and Jazz, I could happily live with well mastered 16/44 files. For other music, most of it would I suspect benefit far more from more dynamic mastering than MQA.

Graham Luke's picture

"As someone who listens mostly to classical and Jazz, I could happily live with well mastered 16/44 files"
Well said; I couldn't agree more. Monty settled this one on xiph.org to my satisfaction. Classical and Jazz form the significant majority of my listening and a ripped CD in ALAC codec through a Dragonfly from a iDevice is fabulous. Besides, my knackered old ears would struggle to discern any improvement from this or any other format...

spacehound's picture

Of course.
But the world's audio forums are fully aware of what you are all doing. You can run, but you can't hide.
Right, Mr Atkinson?

rschryer's picture

Every time you talk, it sounds like you're trying to pick a fight.

spacehound's picture

MQA is a scam from beginning to end. And many well-qualified people from all over the world have the evidence that proves it.

tonykaz's picture

I've got sumpt'n to start a fight over:

Are you an Audiophile, damit, or not ?????

It's time to get off the fence and fight for who you are!

Here goes:

1.) Is your Speaker Cable bigger than your Garden Hose ? answer: I have Flexzilla Garden hoses and have headphones.

2. ) Is your Music System more expensive than your Car ? answer: I don't own a car, I'm a bicyclist who gets 10 miles per Cheezberger.

3. ) do you think that tube Amplifiers are beautiful ? answer: those tube amps with the tubes sticking up are ugly, shity ugly. Woo Fireflys are gorgeous.

4. ) are you worried if your music is in phase ? answer: whats in phase ?

5. ) are your speakers bigger than you refrigerator ? answer: I own a gigantic Samsung with French Doors and freezer Drawers, my speakers are Sennheisers. ( I own lots of them )

6. ) do you stay up late listening to music while "normal" people are watching movies or Stephen Cob'air pointing out the silliness of Donald ? answer : I don't own a TV, I'm not "Normal" !

7. ) do you own "Kind of Blue" in LP, CD, SACD & a file ? answer : I only got a CD copy of Miles Davis Stuff recently , I don't like most of that "Fusion" Jazz stuff. I never listen to my "Kind of Blue"

8. ) does your System at home sound better than some "Live" concert's PA System ? Answer : My Sennheisers sound Wayyyyyyyyy better than any Electronically enhanced "Live" Band.

9. ) can you listen to music without Multi-Tasking ? answer : not most of the time but I close-out my day with Michael Jones "Endings"

So Dear Robert, am I an Audiophile ?, probably not. I'm probably a Stereophile, just like you. A kindred Spirit.

Can you too take the Audiophile test ?

We have an Alcoholic AA test like this which is usually embarrassing but I haven't had any drink since the last Century so I'll pass the AA test.

Tony in Michigan

rschryer's picture

...if I like tube amps with tubes sticking up? I hope so. I like tube amps in all shapes and sizes, unlike my audio cables, which abide by the motto: "thin is in!"

tonykaz's picture

We're fellow travelers.

I'll see to it that you have a Bon Voyage.

Tony in Michigan

HammerSandwich's picture

Jim, this is a thoughtful article, but I can’t help feeling that your thoughts are stuck inside a box built by the recording industry. I understand that you're trying to balance the reality of big-media Goliath versus audiophile David, but let's not throw our hands up and abandon critical analysis.

You freely admit to looking backward, but surely we can imagine more than the 2 options you envision. The belief that we’re either stuck in today's world or might revisit The Good Ole Days via MQA is a false dichotomy, isn't it?

For example, why can’t MQA’s de-blurring & other fidelity algorithms be applied to tracks which are then packed in high-rate FLAC or WAV, rather than origamied? I’m pretty certain any reason’s not technical…

Distribute those open-format files with checksums, and authenticity can be verified without harming the users’ ability to DSP, transcode or otherwise work with their purchases. You needle computerphiles in your essay, but this isn’t arcane technology that requires a thick neckbeard & command-line interface; it already exists in many platforms & operates transparently to the users.

Implementing such a system would have been massively less effort than developing MQA’s origami. An open, documented verification method also would provide greater certainty than MQA’s authentication, which is based on multiple levels of “trust us.” I don’t believe the MQA folks would cheat here, but labels have been caught selling upsampled “hi-res” files at equally upsampled pricing. And we all know that, eventually, some wiseacre will run a listening test & publish, “We exposed sad, deluded audiophiles who ‘heard’ better playback every time we enabled an LED we put in a normal, non-MQA DAC.” What? Some of you hadn’t seen that coming?

So, the origami technique addresses neither sound quality nor authenticity, which means it exists to produce smaller files and/or to lock (some) bits away from the customer. Are there other possibilities? Smaller files matter solely for streaming, and the 2nd reason is DRM. (Those who claim that open access to CD-quality bits means there isn’t DRM aren’t thinking clearly. Would they make the same claim about “CDs” that delivered Redbook resolution in certain players but MP3 otherwise?)

Which is pretty much what all of the blather about “giving away the crown jewels” implies. I apologize for sounding dismissive, but protecting the jewels offers nothing to the customer, and the comments really do come across as a load of... something stinky. Here’s why.

First, Chrislau’s intellectually dishonest when he twists “sell” into “give away” by hedging with “basically giving away.” This is polished rhetoric, but it does not persuade. When a company takes your money, it ain't giving anything away. And, if they’re not selling the crown jewels, they are – by definition – not selling as high-quality a product as they could.

Now, let's suppose MQA truly delivers on the claims that MQA files:
1) sound at least as good as high-rate PCM masters,
2) contain no DRM,
3) can be copied freely.
These points cannot all be true while simultaneously protecting the data. *PCM* masters might not be available to consumers, true, but what happens when they copy their MQA files? Anyone with a copy simply needs an MQA decoder to enjoy all of the same benefits as the original purchaser. Crown jewels, indeed.

When I realized that MQA cannot reduce the quality of pirated files, I was stunned that any music label would give it a moment’s consideration. After all, MQA adoption would seem to benefit its developers far more than the studios. Unless, perhaps, MQA’s actually aimed at a streaming-only world, one in which the studios’ requirements for DRM aren’t quite so high. Perhaps my reasoning’s flawed, but it certainly seems that MQA is incompatible with music ownership. Not technically incompatible, mind you - the problem is the business model. If the studios won't sell their PCM jewels, how could they justify selling persistent MQA downloads? The vast majority of consumers would find them equivalent to full-fat PCM, at least once they upgrade their playback hardware. Piracy won't be reduced, and the pirated files might as well be the jewels. Studios that fear losing the ability to keep reselling their back catalogs couldn't possibly justify it.

Of course, none of this matters much in reality. Illegal copiers with enough technically savvy or financial motivation will tap into MQA DACs’ I2S lines to obtain unfolded bits. Others will loop analog from MQA DACs to their ADCs and accept the generational loss. And non-pirating audiophiles who value quality over convenience – you know, the nerds who bother with all that DSP – will have some difficult decisions to make.

It’s a damn shame the major labels don’t want to sell high-quality music in a format I can trust I’ll own & control forever. Or at least as long as they keep my money.

But that’s okay. There are plenty of small labels that aren't afraid of high-res PCM. There are plenty of excellent, unsigned artists, both locally & on the net, who produce their own recordings. And – just like you, Jim – I like browsing & buying physical media. The prices on used CDs are really great.

John Atkinson's picture
HammerSandwich wrote:
why can’t MQA’s de-blurring & other fidelity algorithms be applied to tracks which are then packed in high-rate FLAC or WAV, rather than origamied? I’m pretty certain any reason’s not technical.

We examine this question in the April issue's "As We See It."

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

HammerSandwich's picture

Thanks, JA. I'm very curious to read it.

AJ's picture
Quote:

Others will loop analog from MQA DACs to their ADCs and accept the generational loss.

This is what I suggested to Jim/Stereophile in his last article.
Take their favorite MQA dual analog out DAC and bling preamp system.
Insert variable output 16/44 ADC between one of the analog outs and an input on said preamp. Level match precisely.
Have MQA fans switch between inputs without telling them which was connected to MQA DAC or ADC. Fully sighted and "relaxed" testing. The Pavlov Blue/Green light is always there for comfort.
Watch them easily pick the "pure" MQA stream from the "blurred" version.
Put on Youtube for whole world to see.
Oh what fun that would be! ;-)

Dcbingaman's picture

That is a question I have. What generational loss ? If I use a proper ADC and DAC with Apodizing filters on An MQA-unfolded and rendered analog file at a high enough bit rate (say 96Khz / 24 bit), would I perceive ANY perceptual loss ? I think any such loss would be drawfed by the benefits of using MY DSP's on said recreated digital file for room correction, digital crossovers, etc.

The other question I have is, will MQA's claims for deblurring have any material impact on the sound outside of headphone listening ? One could cogently argue that the phase and frequency non-linearities in any realizable analog reproduction chain (especially loudspeaker crossovers) will overwhelm the "timing" accuracies claimed from the rendered MQA file.

Again, the issue in my mind is what do you propose to do with the recovered MQA processed file. It appears to be aimed at two-channel, headphone listening, perhaps for streaming. While that may be of value for a lot of audiophiles, it does NOTHING for me.

As to the death of CD/DVD/Blu-Ray disc catalogs and availability, I give you AMAZON. It is possible to pick up the entire catalog of Decca, RCA, and many other labels in physical form for pennies on the dollar. It even has a good enough search engine to find the most obscure work you can think of from a half dozen vendors, both new and used.

Wavelength's picture

Jim,

Well written piece, thanks!

I think the big problem with the anti-MQA camp is they can tear apart the technology on the output side. But they have no freaken idea how the data is encoded and that is where their bubble bursts!

Also not everything should be "open sourced"! I have been programming for 41 years in tons of industries. Some things are better off closed.

Thanks again,
Gordon

dalethorn's picture

If I pay for files that I'm going to keep to play in years hence, I don't want to get stung by unpleasant surprises. I've dealt with one such baddie recently and lost a week of work on it. Better that though than losing a hundred or a thousand music tracks when I switch devices or O/S platforms. I learned how to keep my code generic and transportable decades ago, but that's not something the average consumer can do. If a large number of consumers get drawn into something proprietary that they assume will survive years of changes and updates, then find out otherwise, we'll read all about it on the comments pages. Forewarned is forearmed.

Stevens's picture

The main issue anti-MQA people like me have is that at some point we will have to pay for something that is unnecessary.
When MQA was launched it was not possible to stream 24/96 or 24/192. Now it is - I do all the time - as do other Qobuz Sublime customers. We can also download and play offline for no extra charge. So the main reason for MQA - to stream HD - no longer exists.
The replacement sound quality and DRM arguments hold no water.

It was a grand plan to make some money from licensing (Bob Stuart's audio company Meridian has lost money for years), there is no special tech behind it (there is no MQA patent that I can see), they raised a marketing fund and it now seems to be owned mostly by two investment funds and the three major record companies (Sony, UMG and the other one) are also significant shareholders.

If and when Tidal dies it will take MQA with it. Sprint bought a share in Tidal, presumably to market mobile contracts. The record companies might have invested in Tidal if they were interested in MQA, but clearly they are not.

Wavelength's picture

Stevens,

I think you are missing the vision. Not sure I like the vision or even if this applies to High End Audio, but let's face it. Things are going streaming and mobile.

There is still a long way to go in the mobile market over cellular to make streaming work.

~~~

Two things to consider here...

1) Nobody is asking you to buy anything. You can continue to buy and download content at any sample rate and file format you want. Why people are spending boat loads of hour trying to figure out MQA is beyond me!!! and yes I am under NDA and I still have not read the patent. Which brings me to #2.

2) I have done a bunch of patents with companies. I don't do it anymore because it's worthless unless you pay a ton of lawyers to make sure nobody steals it. But when we use to write patents, we never would tell you what we were doing. We would hide as much as possible to protect the IP. This is the main reason why I didn't read it as I knew the proof was in the listening.

I have done a lot of listening to MQA. Via Tidal and other streaming services in the works plus MQA CD's and evaluating dac platforms I have a ton of time in it now. Basically I think it sounds better. As a musician digital to me sounds flat. MQA output sounds more 3D and has more air between the notes and instruments.

I don't really listen to music like most people. I tend to tear music up into pieces in my mind. I find that better systems, playback, amplifiers, instruments and so forth can be better analyzed this way. To me MQA does a better job of that. Especially when I am involved in the recording and compare that to the output. A true sign of how good the output is.

As for the money... My feeling is the musicians are not getting enough of it!

Thanks,
Gordon

Stevens's picture

I agree that all streaming gets little cash to artists.
MQA is not about buying options. I only buy vinyl. I stream high resolution, non-MQA. Qobuz does not and has no intention of supporting MQA. They provide the "crown jewels" provided by the record companies.
Companies that invent things need to patent things to protect their licensing rights. Quad patented current dumping amplifiers and made a ton of money out of it over 40 years and still so. Otherwise, it is easy to copy hardware. It is less easy to copy software, but it can be protected by patents and enforced. The lack of any patents suggest there is no invention. It is likely a set of filters that will be unravelled and copied if there is commercial value in doing so. It may have been done already. Auralic do their own MQA decoding. Explained here at point (4) onwards.
https://darko.audio/2017/04/auralic-firmware-v5-0-adds-dsp-engine-web-br...

DH's picture

The problem is that MQA's stated goal is to eliminate those sample rates and formats I want from the market and replace them with MQA.

I'm pretty sure that's why the labels are supporting it, as there is actually no need for it to stream files above Redbook in bit depth and resolution.

Anton's picture

A big source of my concern regarding MQA is that the Audio Industrial Complex is foisting an altered musical source upon listeners just as we reach the point where we can access the highest resolution levels of a recording.

There may be some skilled "audio origami" algorithms that would beat MQA, but we are being cut off at the knees when it comes to the CONSUMER making the choice regarding his or her preferred encoding and decoding.

MQA could fully exist as a stand alone device that a CONSUMER could decide to input and then output based on sonics.

Another company may find an even better path and could produce a "Better Quality Algorithm, or BQA" and, as a consumer, I could input my original rez file and then output BQA's sonic magic. MQA is insinuating itself between me and the original recording and wants a monopolistic hold on how we decode our signals.

I can choose my cartridge loading, but now I am forced to deal with MQA?

Why?

Keep the source original and make these digital gymnastic devices AFTER MARKET.

_

The course of this product's arc has been interesting to see as a hobbyist, it really feels as if my 'representatives' in the audio press are out to sell me rather than report to me.

Why the urgent love for MQA that we have been seeing squeezed out and the "shut up, MQA is better" vibe?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Anton, because I know you, and know that you are sincere, I will respond. If MQA didn't audibly improve sound quality to our ears, our coverage would be minimal. As it is, we are engaging in analysis whose depth is unrivaled by any other publication.

As for the "shut up, MQA is better" vibe, I think the number of times you post in a given week is evidence of the fact that no one is telling you to shut up.

Anton's picture

The main bone for me remains my inability to choose to use MQA, or not.

We know that an MQA encoder can be fed the original signal, perform its origami thing, and then be decoded by an MQA capable DAC to get MQA's 'interpretation' of what it says is 'better' sound.

That's great! Make me a device than can do that and I would likely play with it!

By holding the consumer hostage to MQA, we are stripping other Hi Fi types from innovating and creating their own processes that might improve the original to an even greater degree. If what we get our hands on has already been "MQA'd," then it could never be "Naim'd," "Ayre'd," "Schitt'd on," or "PSA'd."

It's MQA or the highway.

That should be anathema to an audio lover!

Keep the Hi Rez original, and let the consumer marketplace determine the product's viability, I say. At this point, we are standing and applauding while MQA makes itself a rather non-reversible standard for what gets delivered to consumers.

"The consumer can still have CD quality playback from MQA" is the opposite of what the trend has been for improving audio quality.

_

Also, MQA is one size fits all. No matter the original, it will be MQA'd whether we like it or not! MQA is an 'after the fact' process that has nothing to do with creating the original recording...why would we trust any audio device to apply the exact same treatment to every recording? I certainly don't fall in line behind that idea, either.

None of this is meant with vitriol, I simply want people to think about what we are buying into when we elevate MQA to the unavoidable default process.

Give me the Hi rez, and trust me to decide what sounds best, to me!

Cheers, Jason, thanks for your kindness as a person.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

MQA's argument is that you and recording engineers are currently hostage to DAC timing errors. If MQA can truly correct those errors, does that make you a double hostage, or are you actually freer to move closer to the source?

Furthermore, digital is also one size fits all. Why is digital kosher to begin with? (Oh, someone says. It isn't. In which case, I ask, why are so upset about MQA, since you're sticking to vinyl to begin with?)

SACD attempts to break the bonds of CD limits, as does Pure Audio Blu-ray. To hear the benefits of either technology, you need the right disc player and DAC. But if you don't have them, you can still hear the recording. Why is that different from what MQA does?

I do hear the argument that you can't hear the ultimate resolution that MQA unfolds to if you don't have an MQA unfolder and renderer. What we don't know is if streaming apps in the future will do the unfolding for us, even if we don't have a renderer. If they do, and most people stream, then the argument that MQA restricts resolution for people who don't have it goes out the window.

In terms of hi-res downloads, a lot of what labels have been sending me, and sending to download services etc is 24/44.1 or 24/48. I have my doubts that the original recording was limited to 24/44.1 or 24/48. But they don't want to share the master, or so it seems. Also, what certainty do we have that the mix we find on hi-res sites is an exact copy of the master?

No need for a big back and forth (and no time on this end). Just want to share some thoughts.

Dcbingaman's picture

If many or most of the most important recordings are made available via SACD, DXD or Pure Audio Blu-Ray, WHY do we need MQA, (at least for classical and acoustic recording) ? Judging by marketplace behaviors, popular music is already adequately served by MP3 and Redbook audio (streamed or on CD).

If MQA is to facilitate streaming of better audio with less bandwidth, then I am all for it, (so long as the MQA DAC's and streamers are made widely available at a reasonable price), but if it eliminates choice - specifically my ability to acquire multi-channel recordings with native high-bit rate data, (at least 96Khz / 24 bit for 5.1 channels), then I've got a problem with the MQA business model and its dependence on restraint of trade. I don't think this is what Bob Stuart really has in mind, but the history of proprietary data formats for digital audio in the marketplace is dismal at best, (see SACD, DVD-A, and HDCD for example), and so many fear that MQA is being pitched much harder at music producers and sellers rather than music buyers. That implies limiting consumer choice to make the new thing viable.

Proprietary formats HAVE worked in the movie soundtrack market for DTS and Dolby, but that may be because there remains competition in that market. DTS and Dolby decoders are widely available at a reasonable price, (whether in a player or a processor), allow for straight PCM post-processing for room correction and other DSP tasks, and the competition itself has spurred continuous improvements in both of DTS and Dolby's data products. DTS-MA today provides up to 7.1 channels at 96Khz / 24 bit and is playable on ANY Blu-Ray player built in the last 5 years - what's not to like about that ? (If you are convinced that this is NOT high-end audio, you have probably not heard Steve Wilson's unbelievable DTS-MA encoded 5.1 re-mixes of Jethro Tull's four big albums - Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, Minstrel in the Gallery, and Out in the Woods, all highly recommended.)

Can the same be said for two-channel digital audio ? It is 2018, close to 40 years since the advent of the CD and we still have, predominantly, MP3 or Redbook playback of almost all 2-channel music. It seems to me that market forces will not easily displace MP3 and Redbook audio, (unless it becomes a baseline for iTunes). Meanwhile, FLAC and MQA will likely co-exist for sometime to come, (for those who want something better), but the longer MP3 and FLAC are freely available, the harder it will be for MQA to avoid the fate of Bob's Last Great Adventure, DVD-A.

Stevens's picture

Being in the UK, I can stream high res via Qobuz. Because they are studio master files and easy to put online, well over 100,000 titles are available. I mostly listen to new releases and I would estimate over 50% are 24/96. A few are 24/192,some still 16/44, and the rest at other rates from 24/44.1 upwards. This service will be available from Qobuz in the USA in 2018. In this context, given the extraordinary sound quality, MQA just makes no sense and it pains to keep hearing about it.
Can you stream in high res in the USA via Tidal that is not MQA, or is the only high res option on Tidal MQA?

deckeda's picture

I don't agree with most of the assertions within it.

Audiophiles are concerned about far more than sound quality. MQA wouldn't really be a hot topic based on just its sound. 'Cause hardly anyone's heard it unless they spend their days on Tidal HiFi.

They are concerned with being presented Holy Grails, which is why for example we LP lovers also have a stake in this topic.

We feel as if we have been trickle-truthed regarding some very fundamental aspects of the product which impact us in ways we can't yet know.

-- Lossy was a simple question unanswered for far too long, because lossy = bad. Now it's OK that it's lossy. "Innocuous," sorry.

-- Claims about MQA sound quality rely more on faith than audition. Even where someone says they've compared MQA against straight PCM, their experiences aren't transferrable in ways available to other formats and files. Certainly not to any scale.

Audiophiles in particular know mainstream music listeners don't care about sound quality, so "offering" it to them is disingenuous given the label backers, who suddenly "got faith" yet somehow still create 24/44.1 dynamically-challenged recordings of major artists and distribute them almost universally as MP3 or AAC without a second thought. Labels have zero credibility regarding their stated intentions for sound quality. Don't get me started on LP reissues cut from digital files, where superior analog masters exist.

-- The goal is to replace PCM, to save an industry that "died" due to reasons far worse than Napster or Pirate Bay. There is a strong sense their hurt is self-inflicted, having killed every physical format with hardly any effort to educate buyers as why they should care.

That's why the attitude of "this is a good thing now, so relax" is unwelcome. It's not the quality, it's not even really the DRM. It's the trust that's shot.

MQA's strategy is straightforward. They're gonna be the next Dolby Labs, but for music, so that questions of what's best are no longer relevant. "Brilliant!"

saxman73's picture

I admittedly don't know exactly what MQA does and have never heard a single MQA file, so I don't pass judgment on the audio quality, but as a recording artist and a music lover, I have two fundamental problems with it, as described in the piece above:

1. As someone who takes great care when recording and mastering records, I expect and consider normal to have the final sign-off on what gets distributed. I personally sign off on every single uncompressed version of what gets distributed of a record of mine. For my last record "The Turn", that means vinyl, 192/24, 44.1/24, 44/16 (CD). It is true that I have no control over compressed versions (iTunes etc), other than making sure I give the powers that be the best possible version for them to encode, but still I make a real effort to have control over the way a record of mine sounds when someone buys it.

As a mostly independent artist, I may be in a position to do this but a lot of artists and engineers take great care in what they do. I don't think any of them would agree to blindly submit to an audio process in which it's not even clear what happens, and take at face value the claim that it will somehow be the same or "better". Nothing in my experience is plain "better" in audio. Everything has a sound, everything is a trade-off. I would expect MQA to be as well.

Bottom line is that personally, I want to make sure people hear what I signed off on as an artist. MQA is not that. Nobody seems to even be sure of what it really does and how it does it.

2. As a consumer, I mostly buy vinyl if it looks like it was done well or the highest resolution file I can find (if not upsampled). I resent the fact that the MQA people seemingly wish to make disappear the 192/24 or 96/24 versions of recordings to replace them with MQA encoded versions. First, as mentioned, I doubt that the MQA versions will be the same. Second, is my hard-earned money not good enough to buy the best quality audio possible? What is wrong with allowing people to buy high resolutions files?

Spencer Chrislu, MQA's director of content services is quoted as saying "If a studio does their archive at 24-bit/192kHz and then uses that same file as something to sell on a hi-rez site, that is basically giving away the crown jewels upon which their entire business is based": I profoundly disagree with the logic that this quote implies.

The high res files are expensive enough, especially in an age where everyone can stream music for free. It's fine to allow people to buy - fairly expensively too - the high resolutions files of a recording. In fact, it's what everyone should do! What's not fine is to expect the consumer to buy files encoded with a new and still fairly unproven, mostly proprietary technology, in the hope that they will have to buy everything again when the next technology comes along, or just be locked into the MQA approved universe. Regardless of the audio merits, or lack thereof, it just seems needlessly greedy, sorry.

Jerome Sabbagh
www.jeromesabbagh.com

Stevens's picture

"Spencer Chrislu, MQA's director of content services is quoted as saying "If a studio does their archive at 24-bit/192kHz and then uses that same file as something to sell on a hi-rez site, that is basically giving away the crown jewels upon which their entire business is based": I profoundly disagree with this."

I doubt Chrislu cares if record company executives give away their crown jewels, their children or free money. What he does care about is that by doing this they make the MQA offering redundant.

saxman73's picture

Yes, of course. I agree with you (and amended my post to make it a bit clearer).

Jerome Sabbagh

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

How would you feel if I reviewed your recording without listening to it? I ask because you have just made absolute pronouncements about something you have never heard and, admittedly, have not taken the time to read about or understand.

In addition, you've joined a chorus of people saying that they don't understand MQA, when in fact, Stereophile is going to great lengths to explain what MQA does. That doesn't mean that all the technical details are easy to grasp, or that there's something wrong with people who cannot follow them. But it does suggest an a priori belief system that trumps facts, and refuses to investigate sincere attempts to share them with readers. (Take a look at how many articles we have published about MQA.)

What if I told you that what MQA attempts to do sonically addresses errors inherent the equipment used to record you, and that, when applied to your master recordings, might sound more realistic and please you even more than what you've already heard? Might that encourage you to take a listen before resorting to absolutes?

If your answer is affirmative, you have just read what a lot of us, including a host of major sound and mastering engineers and recording label executives, have been saying. That doesn't mean that, once you listen, you have to agree. But Lord almighty, don't you hope people will come to your music with an open mind? Why not extend the same courtesy and curiosity to MQA?

jason victor serinus

saxman73's picture

I admitted upfront that I have never heard MQA. I actually have read the Stereophile articles you refer to and found them interesting, including this one. That said, I think it's fair to say that, despite Stereophile's laudable attempts at explaining MQA, there remains a fair amount of controversy regarding the process, including from people who understand the theory better than I do. Suffice to look at the lively debates on this board and elsewhere.

My two main points remain.

Have you spent a lot of time recording and mastering records? I have, with the best engineers in the business including James Farber, Doug Sax, Steve Fallone, and many world class musicians. I can assure you that we all take great pains to deliver the best sound possible and very much wish that to be experienced by the listeners out there. We do A to D converter shootouts to figure out which ones to use, we try different dithers on recordings to make sure the CD sounds as good as possible, we try different microphones etc. I personally would not want ANYTHING, whether MQA or anything else, to alter what I take great pains to achieve in the studio. I don't think that's unreasonable, quite the contrary.

I also have never ever encountered any single process in audio that, after the fact, just makes everything better, regardless of music styles, recording techniques etc. I am willing to believe MQA makes things different, and I am actually curious to hear that difference. I can also believe that, in some case, it will sound better, at least to some people, perhaps myself included. Anytime anything changes, some people will like it better, and some won't like it as much. However, call me close minded, but I simply don't believe that it can be better, across the board, for every single recording ever made. That is simply a bold claim to make.

In addition, not one professional recording studio I am aware of uses MQA on the recording end, at least in New York City. This could well change, and if it does, I will deal with it. Until then, I want my recordings to sound as I, the artist, intend, with whatever "errors inherent in the equipment used to record". By the way, what exactly are you talking about there? Is it the $15000 Neumann M49 microphone that I used on my last record, the Neve 8036 console at Sear Sound, which is the envy of most studios in the world, Doug Sax's mastering chain, which was widely admired, including in these very pages? Please feel free to enlighten me.

Furthermore, the concept of "errors" in the recording chain is flawed. Everything in audio is imperfect. Everything has a sound. In the studio, you make esthetic choices to get the sound you want and it takes a lot of time and effort. Then you sign off on it. That is precisely why I do not want things to change after the fact. It would endanger all the work I do to make things how I want them.

The bottom line is I want to hear everyone's recordings the way the artists intended them, or at least the way someone at the label signed off on. Everything else is questionable.

I am also in favor of consumer choice and I find dangerous and misguided the business plan, which MQA's director of content services freely admitted to, of having MQA replace the high res versions that artists signed of on. It simply locks everyone into having to buy MQA. I note that your answer to my comment does not address what I consider an important point. To be honest, that quote, which I find quite shocking, is what compelled me to post a comment in the first place.

Respectfully Yours,

Jerome Sabbagh
www.jeromesabbagh.com

jasenj1's picture

The bottom line is I want to hear everyone's recordings the way the artists intended them, or at least the way someone at the label signed off on. Everything else is questionable.

I believe one of the things MQA is claimed to do is assure that what is played is what was recorded. The recording engineer turns over a master to duplication/distribution and MQA ensures that what the consumer gets is what the artist wanted.

texanalog's picture

Well said. Very well said!

crenca's picture

In that you keep coming back, mantra like, to how it sounds. Even if it were a large sound quality gain the black box, DRM/IP, "end to end" $control$ it wrests from *everyone* in the recording/delivery/consumer chain does not justify it (not even a little bit). Yet, it is not even that - it is a small SQ gain for some, a small SQ loss for others.

Only JA has acknowledged the damage MQA (or anything like it) would do to our musical ecosystems in his "more" piece. T

supamark's picture

the BBE Sonic Maximizer was supposed to do:

"What if I told you that what MQA attempts to do sonically addresses errors inherent the equipment used to record you, and that, when applied to your master recordings, might sound more realistic and please you even more than what you've already heard?"

Also, most of those "errors" are intentional choices. You don't use a Pultec EQ or Urei 1176LN compressor because of their pristine sonics, but because of their specific colorations. I know you're a mostly classical music kinda guy, but that is a really small part of the music business and the way classical is generally recorded bears little resemblance to how most other music is recorded (even jazz). The 3rd violinist isn't punching in to fix a clam, they'll just edit in a few bars from a better take (which is why classical releases generally have 200+ edits when they're not single performance live recordings). Even back when I was recording the Austin Symphony for radio broadcast they would edit the two nights of each week's program to make one reasonably good performance (they weren't very good).

If you're curious - 2 x Neumann U87 crossed cardioid pattern, suspended about ~30' above stage level over like the 1st row (I think, it was over 25 years ago) using a fishing reel and line to raise/lower the mics. There was about a 1/2 mile of mic cable between the mics and the control room and Harrison console which was in a different building. We recorded to Sony PCM F1 (and a VCR) and Panasonic SV3700 DAT (a fine machine). We also had a few Ampex ATR-102 1/4" decks for editing.

By "master recordings" do you mean the two track mix (often done to 1/2" analog at 30ips) that is sent to the mastering facility or the master that is released commercially? These are almost never the same, and I think what Mr. Sabbagh is saying is that what he brings to the mastering engineer already sounds the way he wants and needs minimal or no processing. Mastering doesn't always involve EQ and compression, sometimes it's just some editing, sequencing, and putting it in the proper format for the CD or LP pressing plant (or digital download).

labjr's picture

Having the audacity to make such a statement about "Crown Jewels" is preposterous. They must think people are stupid.

JimAustin's picture

I greatly admire your music, which I have only recently discovered (thanks to my colleague Micalief. "The Turn" is in frequent rotation at my place.) I look forward to catching up with you at one (or more) of your New York gigs.

In gratitude, I thought I'd attempt to address some of your concerns--after noting that several and perhaps all are legitimate and shared. I am ambivalent on many points. Still, maybe I can offer some clarity. We'll see.

You wrote:

Bottom line is that personally, I want to make sure people hear what I signed off on as an artist. MQA is not that. Nobody seems to even be sure of what it really does and how it does it.

MQA is currently in "bootstrap" or "startup" mode. (It may graduate from that or just disappear. Only time will tell.) As a result, processes are still being worked out. But what you describe--your desire to sign off on the MQA version--is completely consistent with MQA's creators' vision; this is what the blue light (as opposed to the green light) is intended to mean. At the major labels, the labels often dictate the process--not the artists or the mastering engineers. This means that currently only a minority of the work of major-label artists (whose work is encoded into MQA) is encoded in the mastering studio; instead, it's done within (e.g.) in Burbank, after the master files are delivered to the label. I do not know how that process works, and it probably varies, not only among the big three but within each company. A few mastering engineers are pushing the labels to have this done at the mastering studio, in collaboration with the artist. We'll see how that goes.

None of this need affect you though. Because you're an independent artist, working with small labels, I believe the only way your music will end up in MQA is if you want it to, on your terms. That would mean, probably, working with a mastering studio (since currently the mastering stage is the earliest MQA is frequently employed) that is MQA-friendly and MQA-equipped. In that case, you would have the opportunity to review and sign off on the MQA version of the music. If you were to sign with a major label, that is still completely possible--and as I said, consistent with the vision of MQA--but things get more bureaucratic and complicated.

There are, of course, practical considerations. It's less common than it used to be for artists to show up at the mastering studio; when artists sign off, they're often doing so on whatever equipment they typically listen to. That may be good (as in your case; I read the Stereophile profile) or Apple earbuds. And here I'm talking about standard versions, not MQA. As for MQA, a current problem is that, away from the mastering studio, artists commonly lack access to an MQA-capable DAC (and, very likely, a system capable of resolving those differences).

Which brings me to a second point: You said you'd never heard MQA. When you do--when you compare MQA and non-MQA versions of your work--I think you will be surprised how similar they sound. I have never heard a piece I thought MQA made worse, but in general the change is quite subtle, IMO. (YMMV.)

As for the disappearance of high-res PCM versions, this remains a matter of speculation--although I do note that in his Manufacturer's Response, Stuart did not address this point--no denial of my statement that "...Spencer Chrislu's remarks surely imply that if MQA succeeds, the "crown jewels"—open, high-rate PCM files—will be withdrawn from the market."

This gets at questions of economics that I do not understand. Apparently, according to Spencer's quote, and the fact that all three majors are MQA shareholders, the majors at least are eager to see those "crown jewels" pulled back. Looking at the big picture, I'd like to see the music business make more money, and, say, the finance industry make less. The reason, of course, is that I'd love to see music's less lucrative areas be more vibrant--and, ultimately, I want more good, interesting, non-mainstream musicians to make more money. I want what's best for music. If pulling those "crown jewels" off the market would help to accomplish that I do not know. I haven't found the expert yet that can shed light on that question--although I've encountered many who are sure they know all the answers.

The point I started out with is, I think, also true here: As long as you are an independent musician working for small labels, I don't see why you can't issue your own high-res PCM, or DSD, files if you want to.

Best Regards
Jim Austin

saxman73's picture

Jim,

Thanks for taking the time to write this thoughtful and considerate answer. I am glad you like my music. I really did appreciate your piece, by the way. None of my comments were ever intended as a knock on Stereophile's coverage of MQA, which I have found informative in general.

At this point, I really don't want to add too much to what I wrote, especially considering I am starting to feel I should really listen to what MQA does. I do stand by what I wrote.

You make valid points: I am pretty sure that, as a - mostly - independent - artist, I will be able to control my output, and opt in with MQA or not, if the choice is ever offered to me.

That said, I am also a bit concerned about all the decisions made after the fact now, sometimes about really iconic records. At some point in time, when the music was first recorded, the artists and/or producers and labels signed off on the sound. To me, that is important. In some cases, we are 40 years later. Who is to say that whoever is owning the rights to those records is more qualified to make sonic decisions that the people who were involved at the time? Even if someone at Sony signs off now on an MQA approved version of a Miles Davis of Johnny Cash record, is it true to what the artist wanted? Of course, this is also true of any remasters. And that's why remasters are controversial in the first place. Some are great, some are not, and most people don't agree about them. At any rate, they are not the music as it was first delivered when it came out.

I also would like artists and labels to make money but labels have themselves to blame for allowing themselves to get destroyed by streaming. Streaming is why labels and artists don't make money anymore. I don't see MQA changing that. On the contrary, if all labels pulled their high resolution content from streaming services, and perhaps allowed only lossy files to stream, I believe they would make more money, as audiophiles would pay good money, as some, myself included, are already doing, for the high resolutions files. Those files are $20-$30 already. That's more than new CDs used to go for, most likely even with inflation. If enough people cared about good sound, but it's perhaps too late for that, that could be a valid economic model. I don't think the subscription model, whether it's Spotify or Tidal, can work for the artists, MQA or not. That's why I raised money through Kickstarter to make the best vinyl I could (and I am about to do the same for my next record).

Last, if the improvement with MQA is, as you say, "subtle", why bother in the first place? The cost of MQA for the consumer (and presumably for the majors, mastering engineers etc) is not negligible ...

Anyway, this is a complex debate. I do not pretend to have all the answers and just wanted to respond to some of the issues you raise.

I think I will refrain from further comments until I listen to MQA ... I also have a gig to prepare to tomorrow. I hope to have a chance to meet you some time. Please say hello if you come to a gig of mine.

Best,

Jerome Sabbagh
www.jeromesabbagh.com

jasenj1's picture

Whew! Very long and passionate discussion.

For an examination of physical vs digital economies, "Being Digital" by Nicholas Negroponte is a good read.

Over on AVSForum there is a recent thread on MQA. A poster there provided graphs and links to sites showing the noise MQA adds and wrote that once trained he was reliably able to distinguish an MQA vs non-MQA recording. Worth a read.

One of MQA's purposes is to provide Hi-Res quality at CD bitrates for streaming. In the world of 5G, gigabit-to-home, and 4K streaming video, I find trying to save a few MB/s a losing proposition.

Another feature is the "authentication" or DRM. One of the things I've read in Stereophile is that when a studio creates a master and sends it off to wherever for duplication & distribution, those people often mess with the master, so the listener does not get what the recording engineer intended. MQA seems to add some provenance to the distribution chain. That seems like it has value. And there are certainly other ways to do that - checksums and the like, but MQA is tackling that problem.

I'd like to know what the folks at Dolby Labs have to say about all this. This sort of thing seems well within their area of expertise.

As for vinyl vs digital, that is another whole religious war. My take is that digital products tend to be mastered at higher levels with squashed dynamics, whereas the physical limitations of vinyl doesn't allow for that sort of manipulation, so the consumer ends up with a worse product in digital. It has little to do with the digital medium, and everything to do with production choices. See the Dynamic Range Database.

saxman73's picture

Thanks for your comment. I actually wrote a lengthy response, which is now quoted in the "MQA offers provenance" comment (a good point, by the way). It seems to be in the hands of the moderators. I don't know why, as it first appeared as a response to your comment. I kept editing it for clarity and then got a message saying it was being moderated. I hope it will reappear, as it took me a long time to write and there was nothing even remotely offensive about it.

Jerome Sabbagh
www.jeromesabbagh.com

JimAustin's picture

Jerome, based only on my experience, I suspect your comment was eaten by Stereophile's spam filter--it has happened to me several times in the past--and not pulled for moderation. It's hard to know why the spam filter makes the decisions it makes. If it was the spam filter, perhaps it will be recovered. We'll see.

Jim

saxman73's picture

Jim,

My comment is back up. It's the one called "Dear Victor". Apologies to Jason Victor Serinus, I used the wrong first name.

Jerome Sabbagh
www.jeromesabbagh.com

John Atkinson's picture
saxman73 wrote:
My comment is back up.

The spam filter seems to have a mind of its own - it is supposed to learn from experience but tends to be err on the aggressive side, due to the sheer amount of spam postings that our site receives every day and are blocked. It could well have been due to you including a URL in your signature line.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

DH's picture

It apparently can be a company bureaucrat who sings off on the “authenticated” master, and not the mastering engineer or artist. For you personally it may not be an issue. For the industry at large it is.

At this point I have no faith that the authenticated light means anything positive for listeners. MQA is asking us to “believe” in their process. I don’t, as they’ve already been shown trying to hoodwink us about some of the process. If they want the light to mean something, be transparent: tell us who “authenticated” the master.

And before some of you MQA defenders tell me I don’t understand “authentication”, guess what? That’s because the MQA team uses the word as a marketing point and doesn’t reveal what actually is going on.

NeilS's picture

I think that it's very difficult to maintain credibility when arguing faith against fact (for example, from everything I've read, believing in MQA's "deblurring" is faith, not fact). Judging by the nature and number of critical comments, Stereophile hasn't seemed to have made a dent in the MQA critics. Rather, like banging one's head against the wall, the damage done is not generally to the wall.

I don't think it's that readers and commenters who are critical of MQA don't understand it. Perhaps they do and just don't like it.

Steven Guttenberg's picture

MQA,MQA,MQA,MQA,MQA,MQA,MQA,MQA,you're on repeat. The only real outlet for MQA is Tidal, which doesn't even call it MQA, to them it's "Master." So many words spilled on MQA, and wasn't Spotify supposed to feature MQA last year? If MQA is such hot stuff why aren't their more outlets for it? Bob Stuart is a smart guy, definitely, but his clumsy handling of MQA's roll out makes me think MQA's chances in the wider than just us audiophile world is right up there with DVD-A and HDCD.

rt66indierock's picture

Last weekend John Atkinson noted I haven’t posted in a while. The reason is I don’t want to interfere with the contests going on. A couple of side notes. The first two winners have donated their prizes to a Foster Children Organization in Arizona. I matched them as did two foundations whose mission it is to support foster children in Arizona.

So let’s review a few things. There still aren’t to my knowledge 10,000 unique albums converted to MQA and only a very small number of albums recorded directly into MQA. My nine very common reference albums still aren’t available in MQA. The six albums I picked to do preliminary testing last year were available in Europe still aren’t available in the United States. The MQA decoder has been cloned and one version has many claiming it is better than the licensed versions. The DRM in an MQA file can be removed and an open source program will be available soon to make it easy to do. The blue light authenticating an MQA file can easily be tricked. For example removing bits 0 to 7 the high resolution portion of a 24 bit MQA file it will still be authenticated. And may still give you numbers on your DAC indicating the output is 24 bit when we made the file sixteen bit.

And finally a personal favorite issue. Adding MQA to an open source music player used in many network audio players violates the license agreement for the player. There has already been one company forced to make changes. I think there will be more.

dalethorn's picture

Speaking of bits (or whatever else may be relevant), my MQA'd CD** has less energy above 10 khz than my 24/96 download of the same album. I barely notice it, but someone with no HF rolloff at 15 khz or so would hear a more obvious difference. It might be a normal expectation of a CD to Highres comparison, or it might be a limitation of my current DAC which is just a renderer. Or it might be something other than real HF extension.

**I don't know for sure yet, until the new DAC arrives.

dalethorn's picture

Here are some things I've discovered so far, using a Macbook with the Meridian Explorer-2 DAC (updated to v1717 firmware), playing different copies of the Steve Reich/Pulse album as noted below:

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.

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 MQA album I purchased 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

Comparing the HDTracks 24/96 copy of Buena Vista Social Club to the MQA Studio version I got from the HighResAudio site, using the Macbook and Meridian Explorer-2 DAC, the MQA Studio version is slightly brighter on the high end - especially noticeable on vocal sibilants ("Amor de Luca Juventud"). One effect of this that I hear is a quieter background on the HDTracks version, so the brightness (or whatever) extends across much of the treble, and doesn't sound like a narrower EQ'd range.

This is consistent with what I experienced with the Steve Reich/Pulse album, using the Meridian DAC. I no longer place any significance on what I heard with the DF Red DAC, because it's just a renderer and I'm not using an MQA music player.

The Meridian DAC lights reported blue-white-off with the MQA Studio version, and white-white-off with the HDTracks version, as long as the Mac's MIDI settings were correct (48 khz for Studio and 96 khz for 24/96). Both of the lights displays were correct for each version, and represent high-res music (88 to 96 khz). Unknown to me at this point is whether any of the well-known MQA music players are able to force the correct MIDI setting on the Mac when MQA and non-MQA tracks are present in the same playlist and are played randomly (i.e. the player doesn't know anything about the tracks' contents in advance of playing them.

Lastly, I have no idea which version is the best, or audiophile-preferred in terms of the treble, as these are different masterings at some level. Secondly, although I can increase the volume to more clearly discern minute differences in the uppermost treble to ~15 khz, if there is anything going on above that, or any low-level anomalous sounds that got past me in normal listening, I can't report on those.

Edit: I have more than a few recordings that are edgy, sibilant, or contain minor irritations here and there, but I don't hear anything in the MQA'd albums that suggest other than a high quality mastering.

Solarophile's picture

Very thorough article posted on Computer Audiophile! Refers to this article also.

https://www.computeraudiophile.com/ca/reviews/mqa-a-review-of-controvers...

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

Solarophile's picture

Great PDF. Good that you're not noticing any sound problems with the Explorer-2 setup.

You mentioned about "convert their MQA files to a generic format, evaluate the conversions for sound quality, then back those up in a separate folder or volume from the MQA files".

How are you converting these to a generic format?

dalethorn's picture

Rather than derail this topic, I'll say just look up what people were doing when real DRM was around. There's plenty of info on that. But of course, converting MQA is much simpler, since it's not real DRM.

Solarophile's picture

If people have to do the same as when "DRM was around", why is this "not real DRM"? Maybe it's just some kind of weak DRM and speaks to what he says in the article.

dalethorn's picture

As I've expressed in my own article and elsewhere here, I have as much concern about DRM as any person who is highly concerned. I have a history of protecting my code and data that goes back to the mid-70's. Very few people, even experienced software engineers and their supervisors/executives, take the time to ensure the portability of their code. Portability of code to me means being able to convert the code easily with a parser, to other platforms and even languages.

Portability of music files is different, in that I have no intention of writing code to massage music files. Today it's no problem protecting yourself from potential DRM, because conversions are easy, and you can validate them simply by listening. If they're not as good, you should have purchased only one such album, not 100 of them.

dalethorn's picture

Here's another thing for you to chew on, since the above article references illegal sharing via the original Napster, as well as the raison d'etre for reducing the demand on bandwidth via low-res MP3 and later, high-res MQA. The only thing that I, and a small subset (still, millions) of Napster users considered vitally important was this: To be able to look up a song and see a list of users who had that song, then click on each of those users and see what else they had in their collection. For me, that's a far superior method for locating and sampling music that I might like. No streaming or other similar service comes even close to that. I have to ask then, "Why couldn't the music companies implement a service like that, but block the downloads in favor of 30-60 second samples?" I have some ideas....

John Atkinson's picture
Solarophile wrote:
Very thorough article posted on Computer Audiophile! www.computeraudiophile.com/ca/reviews/mqa-a-review-of-controversies-concerns-and-cautions-r701/.

Thank you for posting the link, Solarophile. I read it with interest, but almost all the article seems to be reworkings of earlier criticisms of MQA.

One thing that concerns me greatly, both as an editor and as someone who has always posted to the Internet under my actual name, is the anonymity of the author. Yes, CA's Chris Connacker explains why he felt it okay not to reveal Archimago's identity, but I strongly feel that writers should not hide behind anonymity. Readers are entitled to transparency, particularly when the subject is as controversial as MQA.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Solarophile's picture

Over the years I have been in touch with him and he has always been reasonable. I think many online audiophiles know about the blog by now,

I wonder if Stereophile will test those results and comment on the opinions.

dalethorn's picture

I read his article, which started out "reasonable", then went downhill from there. Furthermore, the forum host is not at all reasonable in what he allows, even to the point of posting my personal message to him openly on a topic that was full of anger and invective. Now, back to the actual sound....

arve's picture

One thing that concerns me greatly, both as an editor and as someone who has always posted to the Internet under my actual name, is the anonymity of the author.

JA: There are perfectly valid and very good reasons for people to create online personas not tied to their real identity. Reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the persona hiding any conflict of interest when speaking up.

There are important reasons for people not to divulge their real identity

Online safety: The less information that is kept out there leaves people participating in targeted attempts at fraud or identity theft.

Insulation of professional and private activities: A person may have work in a field entirely unrelated to audio or this industry. They do not represent their employer, but any public-facing activity will inevitably be tied to their employer. Sadly, there have been examples in the past where malicious actors in a debate have retaliated by contacting and harassing a person's employer based on disagreements in various comment sections and forums.

Privacy and safety: As indicated by the previous point, not everyone on the Internet is a good person, and there are people out there willing to go above and beyond in harassing, threatening or making good on those threats. Such actions may vary from pranks like placing orders online that are shipped to the victim, to threats and harassment via phone, e-mail, SMS or other message services. To the more serious ones. For instance, where someone perform an act of "Swatting" - making a fake call to emergency services/911 either making threats when impersonating the victim, or making claims that the victim is armed/dangerous. In two cases of swatting (2015 and 2017), the action has resulted in bodily harm and death. Please see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swatting#Injuries_or_deaths_due_to_swatting

To reiterate: People have entirely legitimate reasons for remaining relatively anonymous on the Internet, and it's typically not due to some hidden agenda or deliberately hidden or obscured conflict of interest. Instead of focusing so much on the name or alias, spend the time on evaluating the arguments made.

John Atkinson's picture
arve wrote:
To reiterate: People have entirely legitimate reasons for remaining relatively anonymous on the Internet, and it's typically not due to some hidden agenda or deliberately hidden or obscured conflict of interest.

Legitimate reasons or not, this is not a forum comment or posting but a major statement in the form of an formal article. Publishing such an article without identifying the author goes against everything I believe and stand for as a professional editor. If the author lies to his readers regarding his name, no matter the reasons, how can those same readers trust what he writes?

Yes, we have had a writer, Tom Gillett, whom we published under a pen name, Sam Tellig. This was grandfathered in when I took over from J. Gordon Holt in 1986. It never sat well with me.

arve wrote:
Instead of focusing so much on the name or alias, spend the time on evaluating the arguments made.

As is the case with the article to which you are posting a comment, we have published a lot of analysis on MQA, taking the subject one aspect at a time. Future articles examine DRM, the possibility of aliasing, and the purported time-domain optimization.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

arve's picture

Legitimate reasons or not, this is not a forum comment or posting but a major statement in the form of an formal article

The same concerns apply for Archimago's article, which is what we are discussing. While I would be perfectly comfortable disclosing my real identity to the editors of a publication of some sort of legitimate publication, I would absolutely not agree to have my views publicized under a full name. This would apply whether I was writing on correctional care/the prison systems in the NY Times, or whether I was writing about an audio product or technology in Stereophile. Privacy and personal safety is more important than "your" right to have some real-sounding name attached to what you read. "Your" here being the general term for the reader, not specifically naming people.

Computer Audiophile explicitly states:

Editor's Note 2: The author of this article is writing under a pseudonym. While he is unknown to the readers, his identity has been verified by Computer Audiophile. He has no vested interest in the audio business, other than being a consumer of music.

By continuing to attack the "anonymous" bogeyman, your statement is now directly attacking the integrity and honesty of the editor of Computer Audiophile (who _is_ named on the web site), and I personally find that a bit disturbing.

T.S. Gnu's picture

The author has not "lied about his name." Rather, he/she has truthfully stated that it is not his/her name. You appear to have graduated from arguing from authority to ad hominem, or should that be ad nomenem as well. Most people would hope that it is, indeed, behaviour exactly such as this that you ought to stand for (against?) as a professional editor.

Worth mentioning here is that, unlike yourself, the author and editor you are speaking of do NOT expect their readers to trust them. They have, instead, provide readers with the tools to test their claims and points of view. The extant evidence shows that, thus far, no one has been unable to reproduce their results and, as such, those results stand. That is pretty much how the process of science works. Your claim to have "published a lot of analysis on MQA" has been difficult for me to corroborate and I would love to have some links to support that. What I appear to have found is that you have published a lot of opinion on MQA and a lot of anecdote in addition; I have yet to find you publish an analysis with detailed measurements as discussed in the CA article (perhaps you can supply links, which would be appreciated, for those of us who may have missed that).

Future articles notwithstanding, many would state that a prudent approach would be to attempt to address the results by either reproducing them or showing them to be irreproducible before attempting to question the credibility of the contents of the article, which you have not done so at any point yet — you merely question that of the author.

The original publications on General and Special Relativity would be just as correct irrespective of whether they were authored by a European named Albert Einstein or a Texan named Red Stain as long as the contents were the same. In sports, the saying is "play the ball, not the man" and it might behoove one to do likewise in the present circumstance. The other option would be to simply take your ball and go home. One would expect that future responses from this publication would provide evidence of how this will play out.

Respectfully,
T.S. Gnu
Blackboard Monitor, Grade 9 (<-- in case that helps my case:)

dalethorn's picture

Speaking from a customer perspective, I didn't realize this was a science forum. It's not. This is an audiophile forum where listening takes priority over measurements.

One very important thing you need to learn is the difference between 'science' and the Scientific Method. Science is very corrupt, because it gets polluted with twisted facts like any business. Now back to school...

T.S. Gnu's picture

Before I can present a more appropriate response, It would be useful if you were to more clearly define what you mean. I do, however, find it anathema to believe that an "audiophile forum" precludes discussion based on logic if that, indeed, is you implication...as it comes across based on how you have worded your comment. In fact, the word "forum" itself is an arena for matters of public import and, by that very definition, requires a methodology of thought processes that you appear to question the value of.

Unless you are choosing to redefine terms instead of sticking with their conventional meanings, science is generally viewed as the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the world through observation and experiment. The scientific method is a means of minimizing self-delusion in the aforementioned activity. Much as one may like to view the pursuit of audio as out of this world, reality has the inconvenient habit of intruding.

Science itself, is not actually corrupt. No ore than fire is. It's the person who "twists the facts" (to parlay your phrase) to suit their world view that is corrupt, The scietific method, as I mentioned earlier, minimizes that occurrence and science is rather self-correcting, unlike dogma.

Perhaps it might be useful to "get back to school" and nail the fundamentals. It is difficult, if not impossible, to have any dialogue without that, I trust you agree. It also might be useful for you to learn more about the McGurk Effect before prioritizing listening over reality. And, yes, I am not implying but actually stating that measurements do provide a view of reality in many more cases than we are inclined to believe. There is a reason why the editor of this publication furnishes its elders with measurements.

Pages

X