MQA, DRM, and Other Four-Letter Words

In an article published in the March 2018 Stereophile, I wrote that critics have been attacking MQA, the audio codec developed by J. Robert Stuart and Peter Craven, by accusing it of being lossy. The critics are right: MQA is, in fact, a lossy codec—that is, not all of the data in the original recording are recovered when played back via MQA—though in a clever and innocuous way. For MQA's critics, though, that's not the point: They use lossy mainly for its negative emotional associations: When audiophiles hear lossy, they think MP3.

Lately, another word—actually, an initialism—is being used in much the same way: DRM, which stands for Digital Rights Management. Like lossy codecs, DRM has a long, checkered history in and around audio. The "Red Book" set of specifications, which defines the Compact Disc, includes no DRM. At the beginning of the 1980s, when Sony and Philips came up with the CD, the Internet wasn't yet a gleam in Vint Cerf's eye, and home CD burners were still a decade or so away. Record companies have made several attempts at adding DRM to CD (footnote 1) and to other forms of digital audio, with consistently bad results: Think audible watermarks, Sony root-kits, and that iTunes DRM that, early on, made downloaded music unplayable on any device not made by Apple.

What is Digital Rights Management, anyway? Good question. One problem with debates about DRM—including the one about MQA—is that there's no official or widely accepted meaning. For some people, DRM means copy protection, like that on DVDs and SACDs: you can't legally make a digital clone of the disc you've just bought or borrowed. Others think that online license "keys," like those used for some video games or Microsoft software, are clear examples of DRM. But one vocal group—the Internet libertarians, the open-source–software crowd—takes a more extreme position: Anything that's not 100% accessible for them to copy, and manipulate—every bit and every line of code—is, to them, subject to DRM by definition.

With such a wide range of definitions of digital rights management—and no technical definition or legal standard—how can we sort out the differences?

Here's one way: Forget the phrase digital rights management. Instead, consider, very simply, which consumer rights, if any, MQA tries to manage. If we leave the loaded phrase out of the discussion, maybe we can avoid acrimony and keep things calm and rational.

What rights does MQA manage? First and most obviously, you can't build your own MQA-capable DAC, at least not without paying a licensing fee. Decoding of MQA requires a licensed decoder, which operates using proprietary technology. In practical terms, this is little different from playing a stereo LP—to do that, you need a turntable equipped with a stereo cartridge. You can hear the music with a mono cartridge, but you'll miss out on certain features of the sound. The real, substantive difference between MQA and the stereo LP is a legal agreement and a licensing fee. Also, currently, you can't transcode an MQA file into another format (eg, FLAC), at least not while preserving its full resolution. The proprietary status of MQA means that third-party developers can't freely develop their own MQA-enabled apps, at least not without signing an agreement with MQA Ltd.

If that makes it sound as if MQA's limitations are more legal than practical, then, well, I agree with you. It's not open-source. It's not an open standard. MQA is proprietary. But for a proprietary technology, it's remarkably free of intrusive controls.

What other consumer rights does MQA manage? You can't inspect the contents of an MQA file (beyond the undecoded version, which typically is just FLAC), and you can't alter an MQA file at will—again, beyond that open, undecoded version). One oft-mentioned issue is room correction via digital signal processing (DSP)—right now, you can't do it with an MQA-enabled DAC. (It's possible but not simple—see diagram). This is not, however, an attempt to manage consumers' rights so much as an attempt to balance one of MQA's key objectives—authentication—against consumer control. How do you allow consumers to alter the music signal while assuring that what's delivered is consistent with the intent of the original artist(s) and/or mastering engineer(s) and/or record label?


How an MQA-equipped DAC can implement volume adjustment and equalization: A full MQA decoder comes in two parts: The Core Decoder (which authenticates and losslessly recovers the encapsulated signal), and an MQA Renderer (which is matched to the associated D/A stage to deliver the correct analog output). The paths shown in blue should be bit-accurate (lossless) to retain the full end-to-end performance. Digital volume/leveling can be implemented in the Renderer. This diagram shows how to include additional processing, such as EQ. The Core Decoder needs to pass instructions to the Renderer; these instructions can follow a side path or be temporarily buried in the audio datastream fed to the Renderer.

Anyway, this latter limitation is starting to disappear. Certain MQA-enabled digital loudspeakers can already combine MQA and DSP room correction, and apparently there's more to come. "Room Correction–enabled [DAC] implementations are coming to market," Bob Stuart told me in an e-mail, "but done in a way that supports provenance and/or artist intention." You can do it, or soon will be able to, but maybe not exactly the way you want to. We'll see.

What other limitations does MQA impose? I've thought hard, but I can't think of any—despite the emergence (or reemergence) of two documents viewed by MQA opponents as smoking guns. First is an MQA patent application that documents an invention "whereby a representation of an original PCM signal may be reversibly degraded in a controlled manner." (footnote 2)

Sounds like DRM—but not only was this DRM technology never implemented in MQA; the application was abandoned, as anyone can see by visiting the Public Patent Application Information Retrieval portal." (footnote 3) "We abandoned [it] in all territories which can be verified," Stuart told me in an email, with characteristic precision. "Nothing contained in US20160005411 happens in MQA."

Next there's the Utamico "case study" that can be found online, which describes that company's partnership with MQA in developing technology that includes "digital signatures" and "cryptographic keys." Such things could be used to control access to MQA files and limit consumer rights—but it's clear from even a cursory read of the case study that the goal is authentication, not access, use, or copy protection. "To ensure the integrity of the artist's music from the original source to the end listener, MQA needed a solution for securely signing the music file, to ensure cryptographically that what the listener hears is what the artist approved," the case study says. In 2016, Stuart told Audiostream's Michael Lavorgna that in MQA, "Everything that looks like security is authentication."

What about the future? Would MQA ever add features that further limit consumer choice? I posed that question to Stuart; a long exchange of e-mails ensued, ending with this:

Austin: It sounds as though you are saying that while MQA files or streams could in future be delivered via copy-protected media or transmission modes, that is beyond MQA's control and has nothing to do with MQA per se. MQA itself has no DRM capabilities and will not add any in future.

Stuart: Exactly.

In a follow-up email, Stuart wrote that MQA "takes a strong stance against DRM. We don't believe in it for music distribution, we don't provide for it now or in the future."

Why, then, are some people in a state about the threat of MQA's supposed DRM? Because they are a certain kind of person: advocates of open-source, open-standard software. We meet them at the intersection of audiophilia and information technology. These are the Internet libertarians I mentioned earlier: audiophiles whose sensibilities were nourished in the software industry. Chris Hermansen, who writes the "Open Music" column at, expressed their perspective concisely: "[H]aving had for several years the ability to acquire music in open formats that do not interfere with our ability to select software or equipment to play them back, [with MQA] we are being invited to return to the old days where the music industry controls our playback devices. I don't think this is a good thing."

That's the MQA/DRM debate in a nutshell—although, in the title of his column, Hermansen does implicitly acknowledge that MQA is not DRM: "Why the Proprietary MQA Music Encoding System Is Better than DRM, but Still Not Good."

I contribute to Wikipedia, and even used Linux for a while, but I also enjoy my iPhone and my MacBook Pro—which is to say that I'm okay with proprietary technology. I also watched the collapse of the record business, which coincided with and appears to have been the direct result of open, readily shared technology. It seems I do not fear the prospect of returning audio audio files to the proprietary control of their creators.

Initiaiisms aside, if you share Hermansen's values, you may have issues with MQA. If your values are closer to mine, you shouldn't care much about the "DRM" aspect of the great MQA debate.

Next month: I examine MQA's technical behavior in the light of recent work on post-Shannon sampling theory.

Footnote 1: Technically, any variant of the Compact Disc that includes DRM isn't a CD at all; it can't be labeled or sold as a Compact Disc, and can't bear the Compact Disc logo.

Footnote 2: See John Robert Stuart, Richard J. Hollinshead, Peter Graham Craven, Malcolm Law, "Versatile Music Distribution," US Patent 20160005411 A1, 7 January 2016.

Footnote 3: Go to and search for Application Number 14/765,916.

RichT's picture

Personally I don’t believe MQA is drm. But I think concerns about the closed proprietary nature of the system should be taken seriously. I hope that standard hi-res formats will continue alongside MQA. That seems to be the case so far.

drblank's picture

At this point in time, I don't think anyone has anything to worry about. the biggest hurdle for Hi Res is getting the entire catalog converted over where they are giving the consumer something that's as close to the original 'untouched" masters in either the same digital bit/sample rate as the original, or the highest possible if it was originally an analog recording. For the early days of digital, everything was only 16/44.1, it's only within the last so many years that more and more recordings were done in something higher than 16/44.1. And for the countless analog recordings, hopefully they were archived at DSD so they can convert the original masters at a high bit/sample rate.

As far as MQA is concerned, I don't have a problem with it, because at worst, it's going to sound like 16/44.1, but if we have a MQA DAC that can handle higher bit/sample rates, then we get whatever the source was used, as long as our DAC can play it back.

For MQA to be successful, several things have to happen.

Currently there's over 40 million tracks available in AAC format through Apple's catalog. I believe they have the largest catalog. I don't know how long it's going to take, but if they can get somewhere near that level with MQA tracks, that will be the biggest hurdle, and then it's a matter of Apple and the rest of the computer/smartphone mfg. to enable MQA DACs in their product lines.

Until these things happen, MQA will just limp along just as Lossless streaming is doing. The catalog is the crucial aspect, and then the customers should line up. It's just too dang expensive for the average consumer that wants Hi Res to be able to afford to buy content at $15 to $30 per album, just like most people didn't want to even spend $10 for AAC or MP3.

dalethorn's picture

At the risk that someone already said this, the tracks at Apple's iTunes store have always been 256 kbps variable bit-rate (I have many), but the new Radka Toneff MQA album advertised on iTunes is well above that, playing at nearly 500 kbps, even though it's not "real" MQA. If that's a trend, I like it.

Anton's picture

There are phono preamps that allow users to choose the equalization curve they think best fits with the pressing they want to play.

I would like to see the same happen for digital. A DAC that is fed the DSD/Hi Rez data, and then implements MQA or whatever other algorithm comes along to perform whichever "digital origami" the end user desires to fit his or her ear. Freedom to innovate would be nice. Does anyone believe MQA should be allowewd to become the be all end all de facto standard? One algorithm fits all?

The worst thing about MQA, to me, is the insinuation of a proprietary process that coerces the user into using it. There is no sonic reason that MQA shouldn't simply exist as an add-on that audiophiles choose to apply, or not. That way, Wadia, or dCS could bring to market their own potential folding/unfolding process and we could all compare.

Loss of choice is a negative, in my book.

NeilB's picture

Hey Anton. In the 3rd paragraph of your post you talk about choice. It seems audiophiles already have that choice. You either purchase a MQA enabled DAC or you don't. Simple as that. I've purchased 2 non-MQA enabled DAC's - iFi nano iDSD's. However, I just flashed them with iFi's new firmware and voila! I now have 2 MQA enabled DAC's and didn't spend an extra dime. I certainly can't complain about that!

Anton's picture

You aren't following.

The MQA "choice" is either CD quality or MQA. There is no other DSD or Hi Rez choice that the consumer can make if this skullduggery becomes a universal standard.

If MQA wins, then you won't have the option of any other digital 'origami' algorithm. It will be MQA, CD, or the highway.

I'd like to see companies like those I mentioned be able to develop their own folding/unfolding algorithms and see if they can do better than MQA.

You are happy to be able to decode MQA, good for you. I would like for you to be able to choose from more options than what we could end up being stuck with.

NeilB's picture

I've encoded my massive collection of pristine vinyl to DSD. Ripped too many CD's to count to lossless FLAC and ALAC files. Purchased a small amount of hi rez files in either the DSD or FLAC format. I don't think the powers that be are stupid enough to sell music only in the MQA format. Their dwindling revenue from the sales of physical media would dry up almost instantly. They will follow the $ - open non-DRM's formats like FLAC, DSD, WAV and AIFF

Anton's picture

From your keyboard to the labels' boardroom, man!

Cheers on that!

NeilS's picture

Until the last week or so, Qobuz sold the just-plain-FLAC download of Radka Toneff's Fairytales. It's now apparently withdrawn, and is not offered as an alternative to the MQA-ed version.

dalethorn's picture

The new master of Fairytales (MQA only?) sounds way better than the old master, but I'm not aware that anyone has released a new master in non-MQA high-res format.

NeilS's picture

I think you may be referring to a different master version that was released in 2015. The version that had been on Qobuz was released by Odin in 2008 and was a 16/44.1 download.
According to JRiver audio analysis, the DRs on the tracks on the 16/44.1 2008 Odin release range between a minimum of 12 DB and a maximum of 16 DB, with 6 of the 10 tracks have DR of 14 DB, which I believe is very similar to the 1986 Odin CD. It sounds fantastic.

allhifi's picture

If that were the only concern. Problem is (and there's too many), but let's start with the fact that MQA must have access to the original Master recordings. That then, becomes very problematic since no one knows what the heck they're doing to the Original Master !
(I'll bet/guess it's a simple MP (minimum phase/apodizing type) signal manipulation (at the ADC stage). Problem is two-fold:
1) Such a "filter" impairs the time/frequency and amplitude domain resolution of the music signal. Bluntly; it distorts the signal for all to marvel over.
2) In order to "return" the signal to a semi-acceptable quality level, you must run out and purchase a Monetarily Quenching Algorithm (MQA) DAC to get you there!

If MQA objection was largely by those with nary an understanding of digital audio (i.e. Joe Public) who wold care? But, but, but, much of the the growing (depleted? lol) objections come from qualified minds. And many of them. In which case, we must pay attention.
It's been said before and bears repeating: MQA is a flawed compression scheme that is easily bettered by standard 18-20/96-192 FLAC while preserving (essential and delicate) signal integrity.

It is a complicated, self-serving 'system' that must surely impress its creators -and no one else (in their right mind).
In other words, it's a very costly system for everyone involved and benefits absolutely nobody (save for some record company's).

It's time someone drops the obliterating 'big-one' on this Mostly Questionable Audio nonsense.

peter jasz

dalethorn's picture

That's a good theory as theories go. As far as I'm concerned, Apple could change the game overnight if they got more of those MQA remasters like they did for the Radka Toneff Fairytales album, and released them on iTunes. Those are a much higher variable bit rate (~500 kbps) than the typical 256k iTunes files, and sound really good. But I hear that Apple intends to stop selling files, and if the industry as a whole follows suit, you'd be left with only the independents. Big things are happening, and MQA is just a facet of the big picture.

allhifi's picture

I mentioned a few things; which one do you "see" as a theory ?

1) MQA Encoding manipulation/distortion ? (factual)
2) 18-20/96-192 FLAC sounding better than MQX? (not even close)
3) I forgot the third (and possibly fourth) point ! (lol)

What theory is the "good" one ?


dalethorn's picture

Your theory that the facts are known, rather than being a proprietary mystery. But hey - I don't mean to be contradictory here, as these things have been hashed out ad nauseam here and elsewhere. I'd just like to get us to the part of the discussion where we accept that MQA is a reality now, albeit a limited reality, and get back to the actual sound if we can.

Maybe you missed my point about iTunes, so just indulge me a moment and consider the possibility of "iTunes albums from MQA" or whatever they did with the Toneff album. iTunes files newly mastered and served up as ~500 kbps VBR files. Maybe it will not happen more than this one time with 'Fairytales', but as theories or facts go, this is one fact I can vouch for. BTW, and not to belabor the point, but the iTunes 'Fairytales' is not actually MQA despite the promo cover, but it is twice the resolution of all other iTunes files.

So if Apple ends their "mid-high-res" experiment with this one album, they'll blame it on apathy in the marketplace - i.e. you and I.

allhifi's picture

dalethorn: I'm not certain why you keep rehashing this album, or appear to be so excited that 'iTunes-out' offering up 500 Kb/s (vs. 256). But where does this come into play regarding MQA -and the bigger picture for that matter? (Is this a Toneff/Apple plug ?
eh, c'mon be honest -lol)

Personally, I'm not interested in either Apple nor MQA and their half-baked offerings.

Your interest in 'All Things Apple' seems best described here, by you:

" .. So if Apple ends their "mid-high-res" experiment with this one album, they'll blame it on apathy in the marketplace - i.e. you and I"

I couldn't care less if Apple fell off the face of the Earth. And, I take exception to being lumped/labeled to the apathetic 'marketplace' (lol)

Man, if only I could be so easily pleased with iTunes (even at 750 Kb/s !)!

(P.S> Oh, may I also suggest a broadening of music horizons.)

dalethorn's picture

You're dodging my point, which is simply(!) the reality that an album remastered for MQA (not simply MQA'd, but remastered as well) has ended up on iTunes, not playable as MQA ironically, but still double the iTunes standard bitrate.

This whole audiophile thing is about the music - the sound etc., but you seem intent on making it about something else. That something else has already been beaten to death, so I'm looking into instances where MQA has actually made something better, such as the Toneff MQA album. And it is better, whether the iTunes version I mentioned, or the high-res MQA download you can purchase elsewhere.

And so my point - if MQA has made a real contribution to the sound by producing empirically better sounding albums, then let's point to those successes. If on the other hand they've contributed nothing of value in that respect, then it seems to me that that fact would drive a nail into its coffin a lot faster than quibbling about the folding/unfolding and phase/time nonsense, which is nonsense.

allhifi's picture

Hi dt: Understood. But ONE album ??? Any other examples? One other? (If I'm not mistaken you've beating this dead horse (album) for the past three weeks !) Move on please -another example. (Thank goodness you're not spinning vinyl as it would be groove-less by now)

And finally:

" .. than quibbling about the folding/unfolding and phase/time
nonsense, which is nonsense."

Nonsense ? NOT when one must determine the reason(s) for such easy-to-identify inferior SQ: Yes, I listen first. In fact, repeatedly (different music, over stretches of time). As most do.
If the same "smoothed-over" "lush" (yet sorely ill-defined, lacking resolution/speed) becomes the consensus -we must look into the "Why's".

That you believe it's nonsense is the equivalent of 'burying one's head in the sand'. Some prefer it that way. I don't. And so, we must "unpack" what the heck is going on then -from a technical pint of view. And the technical POV points to compression and digital filter artifacts -of which MQA has 'mastered' it all in one shot! Hey, here's a new one: " Mastered Quacky Audio".


dalethorn's picture

You have to get past first base before you get to second. Deal with the issue I noted, otherwise there's nothing for me to reply to. Remember - it's about the music and the sound. Toneff is just one example, and there are others. I like a good remaster, whatever the label or filter. If it's good it's good.

allhifi's picture

Hey dt: I like the pic -you look a lot like me (but you're better looking !

Anyway, I believe it's you that must "round" first base. If you are attempting to 'rescue' MQA from its many fatal flaws, you are not succeeding.

Seriously, iTunes MQA (but not MQA), yet 500 Kb/s and not 256?

Anyway, as I was (and continue) to listen to my sound system, I was struck by the enormity of SQ distinctions (with a simple power cord change, for example -and currently what I'm messing with) but also IC's, speaker wire, digital cable etc.

And in all cases, the 'overall' change in SQ is far greater than that of digital filter selection -although with a LP filter (and appropriate cables) SQ reaches superior heights (focus/clarity, definition, dynamics) and yes, even 'realism' with quality gear, power and cabling.
I have great doubt this is attainable with MQA-style filtering -regardless of their "Mastering Magic".

In other words, try making some (cable) changes to your listening set-up, and report back. Thanks.



dalethorn's picture

I don't actually doubt anything you say, but I do believe you may be a bit naïve in assuming you'll be able to enjoy the kind of software freedom you enjoy now with hardware, down the long road. I'm remaining on high alert for all things - all trends, and what Apple does should not be ignored.

allhifi's picture

Ahh, yes, naivety -one of my more salient qualities.

" ...and what Apple does should not be ignored."

Oh yes it should be. Most definitely ignored, that is. In fact, (ignoring Scrabble-Apple) comes highly recommended. Avoiding anything Apple has shown to improve IQ (and health) -did you know? Search it. It's there.

Nice chatting.

Now, back to our regular scheduled programming ...


dalethorn's picture

And here all ths time I thought you were an audiophile .... my mistake.

dalethorn's picture

I figured I'd better explain a little more for anyone who hasn't followed this .... the iTunes tracks up until this month have been 256 kbps VBR AAC, roughly equivalent to 320 kbps CBR MP3s. But the iTunes album 'Fairytales' (MQA** edition) is nearly double the 256k bit-rate, and sounds breathtaking compared to the MP3 conversion from CD or download.

**Not really MQA, but really ~500 kbps resolution.

allhifi's picture

dt: Yes, even you are allowed to make mistakes. You're forgiven.

Carry on ...


dalethorn's picture

It turns out I did overlook a few things. It seems that Apple has released other higher resolution albums on iTunes besides the "MQA" Fairytales. I can't be sure that any of those are "about as good as a CD", although they should be far better than MP3s and the older iTunes files. The problem in evaluating albums is you get what you get, unless you buy 2 or more versions of an album and then throw all but the best one away. You don't get a better guarantee on any given album with high-res sites, just a better average supposedly.

drblank's picture

If your DAC can do MQA, then it's just one more format you can playback. I didn't know Wadia and dCS had their own folding/unfolding process. I didn't know they knew anything about creating a digital compression algorithm. At least Meridian's' been doing digital longer than anyone else and they have MLP, which is used for both DVD-A and BluRay. . Meridian is certainly qualified to do it more than any other company. At least they made it so any mfg can implement it, and I don't know why people get so uptight to have to license it. Is everyone a bunch of socialists here? Why isn't a for profit company entitled to charge a fee for licensing a technology they spent millions of dollars creating? Free doesn't mean better, it just means it's free.

Anton's picture

You vote with meridian as being in charge of a market standard algorithm.

That locks out any consumer who would prefer to use a different product down the road.

You call us "socialists," I call you a monopoly fanboy, I guess.

allhifi's picture

Lol. Quote:

" ...and I don't know why people get so uptight to have to license it. Is everyone a bunch of socialists here? Why isn't a for profit company entitled to charge a fee for licensing a technology they spent millions of dollars creating? Free doesn't mean better, it just means it's free."

A couple things:

1) Socialists? May you be a teacher, politician -or aspire to be both, perhaps a lawyer? Would go along way explaining ...

2) Millions spent? On what exactly? Certainly not the pitiful and flawed codec/format as Stuart & Co.'s. has ineloquently labeled MQA. That current FLAC would annihilate MQA in a sound quality comparison doesn't seem to register with some?
Two things:
A) MP filter algorithms are deeply flawed -the only one NOT listening is the programmer -and who also feels we should all suffer for his failed experiments. Unless MQA's end-to-end MP filters DON'T suffer the same Time/Phase and Amplitude distortions as it does in isolation, and additionally that ANY type of compression scheme enhances sound quality, your assertions of socialist thinking/free-economy is as misplaced as your understanding of digital/analog signal processing.

And to think, we must all pay DEARLY for this inadequate 'system'? You're right: "why so uptight" ?

You may wish to ask leading hardware manufacturer's, digital signal experts, listener's and readers old (mature?) enough to understand the potential consequences of sanctioning such Malignant Quandary Associations.

peter jasz

NeilB's picture

sorry DRM'd, not DRM's

NeilB's picture

People won't buy MQA formatted music in enough quantity to satisfy the greedy record companies so they'll have to sell their music - downloads or physical media - in a format the general public WILL BUY

dalethorn's picture

The music recording companies don't care about physical media or high-res files. They care about streaming, concert revenues, promotions, ad-coops, and other things that the general public spends money on. If they haven't already committed everything to MQA or something similar, it's only because they want more control for themselves.

Most of the valuable, memorable recordings I have became that in their original editions or remasterings or both. They were and are labors of love. If the MQA people were to remaster more recordings like they did with Radka Toneff's Fairytales, they could get a lot of respect that way. But the incentives are not there for the larger catalogs at Sony and other companies. The incentives are for profit, for automation, and for control.

drblank's picture

It's going to be streaming it. Why spend gobs fo money on one album, when for the price of an album, you have access to the entire catalog per month?

Think about the cost savings of streaming over purchasing content. $20 a month for 12 months a year x 40 years, is $9600. $9600 only buys you 480 albums. And how many albums does the average "audiophile" have in their collection by the time they reach 40 years old? I had well over 1000 by the time I was 40.

It's not that it's going to replace all other formats, it's probably going to be the defacto standard for Hi Res streaming. which more people would do if there was a bigger catalog available. That's what the limitation is currently.

dalethorn's picture

1) Will the MQA'd recording sound as good, or fully authentic, on a non-MQA system? If not, and if Sony were to MQA everything they have, then non-MQA users would not only NOT get "Better Lossy" MQA'd recordings from Sony, they'd get "Worse Lossy" playback, yes?

2) If MQA gains the (for example) entire Sony catalog, then would Sony un-MQA everything if the MQA company changed things in a negative way?

3) Are we assured of a future with good choices in MQA-free DACs?

4) The crypto keys are for authentication only at present. That's the goal you say, but is it fact? And will it stay that way?

BTW, I also enjoy my iPhone and iPad, but I make sure none of my files are archived in an Apple format. Apple is already a nightmare in a number of respects, I don't trust them one inch, and I'm extremely skeptical about trusting MQA.

drblank's picture

MQA in it's worst state will sound as good as a 16/44.1 CD, that's what it defaults to. In order to get higher than 16/44.1, several things have to happen.
1. The source has to be higher than 16/44.1.
2. The player software has to support MQA.
3. The DAC has to support MQA and be able to playback at the highest bit/sample rate to match the original source before it had gone through the MQA encoding process.

otherwise, everything dumbs down regardless to 16/44.1 just like a CD, whereas other Lossy like AAC/MP3 don't quite match up to 16/44.1 CD quality, but they come KINDA close.

NeilS's picture

I can't speak to how it sounds in its "worst state", but my understanding is that undecoded MQA played on a normal DAC/CD player does *not* 'dumb down to 16/44.1 just like a CD' but rather is of lower resolution than a CD (has a lower bit depth - I understand around 13-15 bits - compared with 16 bit Redbook CD standard).

dalethorn's picture

My biggest hope for MQA is for it to give an incentive to the better mastering engineers and their sources to put out some high quality albums and remasterings. I don't have any inside information, but it just seems to me that good PR via good new masters would boost MQA's respectability. The concern I have, based on some pro-MQA Facebook groups, is they'll put their focus on streaming and neglect downloads.

allhifi's picture

You know, reading your reply, I thought to myself, if it weren't for Stuart & Co. insistence on NOT disclosing what it does at the Encoder Stage and still believing (more like batting over our heads) that the seriously flawed MP/ Apodizing filters is somehow to thew listener's advantage, there may be a hope for this thing. Come to think of it, no, not even then. But anyway ...

That MQA verifies a higher than Redbook spec is a good thing -there was far too much fake-rez/confusion since the intro. of hi-rez that it's nice have a verification system.

The problem is, is that Higher-Rez is professed, yet the complicated compression (and insistence on similarly flawed MP filters) erodes any possible bit-depth/bandwidth gains.

Add serious (numerous and vocal) industry objection, dizzying complexity and costs and we have a self-serving Meridian-style DVD-A/MP-Apodizing posterity program already likely written for the history books.

The real truth in your reply lies with Stuart's belief that the entire industry could be so easily hood-winked, "dumbed-down" so-to-speak.
If one has a product to appease connoisseurs, it's best to seek, answer and accommodate that customer base -and academia interests, for good measure.


RafaPolit's picture

While I completely relate to the notion that "... I do not fear the prospect of returning audio [] files to the proprietary control of their creators", I think that the main issue some of us have is that you are, precisely, not returning the control to their creators but rather to the inventors of the format the music is being delivered in.

This has happened before: record labels paid about $1 to the artist for every $10 worth of record sales. The 'creator' took a second row seat to the 'suits', the 'money makers'. Now, once more, the money to 'ensure that you are hearing what the artist intended' is going to the format maker rather than the music maker.

That is my objection. I want to be able to pay to the artist directly. Or at least handsomely. Spotify was one of the higher payer of artists in the industry, but enter Apple into the mix and they can bully artists into paying them less while they enjoy higher profits.

Here, it's the technicians back-riding in the backs of the musicians. Manufacturers will rise costs to consumers and we end up making a payment to the proprietary technology that delivers content made by others. I don't like that.

So, leaving aside the technological discussion, it is the payment chain that I object heavily.

nuitamericain's picture

I literally don't get what the fuss is about. Having been the subject of downloaded files of 'dubious' heritage from so-called respectable sites selling music who didn't even know the origin of the files they were selling, people forget that it's in the consumer's interest to have some kind of authentication that this is actually the file which came out of the genuine mastering/encoding process and not something someone has just ripped from a CD and up-sampled then called it an HD Track and sold at full price.

The fact that it sounds better, to boot, is gravy. Well, it sounds better on a suitably equipped system anyway, precious few at present are really MQA compliant, beyond the ability of a DAC to decode the MQA part of the file - in fact high bandwidth electronics and very low ringing in tweeter systems, among other things are really required to hear the full difference. In all these respects, MQA is no different to any other new technology, which requires a new type of DAC chip (remember when 24/96 was new, or 24/192, or DSD?), or new type of laser (Blu-Ray), or new type of playback device completely (CD as opposed to vinyl, SACD as opposed to CD) to function fully, if at all.

I have to suspect that those really throwing their toys out of the pram on this are doing so because they actually believe all music and all technological advance should be free (at least to them). I have yet to hear a convincing argument (and lord knows I've heard far, far too many) that MQA is DRM or is any different to any other new format in requiring new tech to play back fully.

allhifi's picture


" ..The fact that it sounds better, to boot, is gravy. Well, it sounds better on a suitably equipped system anyway, precious few at present are really MQA compliant, beyond the ability of a DAC to decode the MQA part of the file - in fact high bandwidth electronics and very low ringing in tweeter systems, among other things are really required to hear the full difference."

"..better, gravy and low-ringing tweeters"



btbluesky's picture

I am a programmer with a compsci degree. And like alot of newer generations of audio nuts, will never give in to any format controlled by 2 guys and couple companies (and their paying partners). The argument in favor of MQA, of DRM not being implemented at this point, and the chill dude saying he ain't gonna do it in future, is frankly ridiculous and should never be presented in professional magazine/website. We get the codec is good, but that's just it, it's a codec!

Jim you mentioned linux and iphone. Most people in my industry use all of them. But the MQA comparison is invalid, as they are not reinventing the entire vertical chain, ITS A CODEC! Apple actually invented the entire vertical chain (people didn't know they need iphone until Jobs showed them right?!), providing users what they want/need and deservingly have a pretty good lead from competition. But guess which is the most popular mobile OS in the world right now by installation? It's the android.

For all these years recording industry squeezed both artists and users out of whatever they want, open technologies DID NOT CAUSE collapse of the industry, it was a transition, from being fully controlled by conglomerates, to at least have the possibilities of letting ARTISTS directly engage users and both side profit from the new business models.

" files to the proprietary control of their creators." What did you smoked? Owners of the musics being the studio have had complete control, not musician-the CREATORS.

I cannot believe how illogical the authors arguements are, that a contributing editor in stereophile came up with this.

But people like me have no fear for this, I'll buy the MQA enabled DAC if it's a good DAC, good play all the FLAC I have in my library. And general public will NEVER even care about MQA, the audiophiles that do will not buy them instead of DSD. They will go the way of SACD. Streaming is the future, and they don't need MQA at all.

Steven Guttenberg's picture

If MQA is so great, why does the only high profile streaming site, Tidal, that uses MQA call it "Masters"? Wasn't there talk about Spotify signing onto MQA, then crickets. MQA on the hardware side is happening, but MQA-ed music is still, after all these years pretty much limited to Tidal. If MQA is so groovy why aren't there more takers?

dalethorn's picture

I joined a Facebook MQA group that professed total devotion to MQA, and Stuart was a member who contributed occasionally. As time went on I discovered that all they cared about was Tidal, and where I interjected concerns about downloads, I was told in so many words to butt out. That's all I know.

spacehound's picture least one Stereophile writer is still trying to 'push' this already dying MQA product.
Dying? Yes. Even this far along the only operation that actively supports the 'distribution' of MQA is Tidal. The percentage of MQA is less than 0.02 percent of their catalog and as the number of their new non-MQA releases far exceeds the number of their new MQA releases that already tiny percentage is getting less and less.

And together with TAS Stereophile is one of the only two magazines in the world that still bothers.

Just one example. Why is Jim trying to convey the ridiculous idea that the potential for increasing degradation for non-MQA users relies on the existence of a patent?
Of course it doesn't - a patent is merely a 'piece of paper' that DESCRIBES what can be done. What actually is, or may be, done doesn't DEPEND on the existence of the patent.

kiranps's picture

Reviewer notes:
Pico Clocks vs Regular Clocks - Audible Difference - YES.
Changing Power Cables - Audible Difference - YES.
USB Jitter Removers - Audible Difference - YES.
Lossy Compressed MQA vs Lossless - Audible Difference - NO.

Reviewers Claim they can hear differences when they introduce pico second clocks to reduce jitter or use expensive power cables, but don't hear any difference in music between compressed lossy MQA and uncompressed lossless files ? How can both be true, they should be lying somewhere. Industry expects us to be subjective and use emotional decisions when it comes to all the snake oil stuff, but wants us to be objective when we say compression is bad or lossy is bad. They want us to trust their reviewers and measurements that there is no audible difference.

I would request reviewers to first use science and measurements to explain Power Cables , Interconnects etc.

Fokus's picture

"This is not, however, an attempt to manage consumers' rights so much as an attempt to balance one of MQA's key objectives—authentication—against consumer control."

What authentication?

It has been demonstrated on CA that one can tamper with the contents of an MQA file and still have it authenticate on playback.

"[DSP] Anyway, this latter limitation is starting to disappear. Certain MQA-enabled digital loudspeakers can already combine MQA and DSP room correction, and apparently there's more to come."

Swell. It is coming. All we have to do is take our existing DSP toys to the landfill. What's not to like?