MQA-Encoded CDs? Yes!

On March 17, Japanese label Ottava will release the first MQA recording on compact disc, A. Piazzolla by Strings and Oboe. Recorded by the UNAMAS Piazzolla Septet, whose videos you can view online, the short disc was mastered by the Tokyo-based label's CEO, Mick Sawaguchi. The recording is also available for download.

The partnership between Bob Stuart of MQA, Sawaguchi, and Seiji Murai of Synthax Japan and UNAMAS began after they met last fall at Stuart's MQA presentation for the Japan Audio Society. As soon as Sawaguchi and Murai realized that MQA was compatible with CD encoding at 16/44.1k, they determined to move forward.

"The UNAMAS Label deals with only hi-rez downloads, but Seiji-san runs both hi-rez as RME Premium Recordings and OTTAVA Records as CDs," Sawaguchi explained in an email I've edited slightly. "When I asked Bob how to make an MQA-CD, he kindly gave me useful and practical suggestions. One day, I brought a test MQA-CD and a normal CD of the same music to SONA Studio where a CD player and Meridian amplifier and loudspeaker systems were installed. I was really excited to listen to the music played back. 'Is it music from CD?' I asked myself.

"Listening to MQA-CD gave me a great moment in my life. Finally, I was confident that MQA-CD will usher in a new era of CD."

Sawaguchi (left in photo above, with Bob Stuart, right) offers the following about the advantages of MQA-CD:

"MQA coding enables us to preserve the original master sound quality with thorough timing de-blurring and very small data size. Advantages of MQA-CD are:

• No additional cost for users
• Can be played back by conventional CD-players with higher quality sound.
• With an MQA decoder, listeners can get a master quality hi-rez from CD. No special knowledge of PC, network, or software operation skill is necessary. MQA is a remarkable innovation of CD media."

Such an announcement raises a host of audiophiles-want-to-know questions. Below is Stuart's response to a list I quickly submitted by email:

Is this CD available only in Japan? Or available other places, through Amazon etc????

We are finding out, but the first introduction of the Ottava CDs is in Japan.

Is the same title available for download? From where?

Yes, this title is available as a download from both HQM and e-onkyo music.

Can you stream the music in MQA from Tidal and other sources?

Unamas/Ottova do not yet release for streaming.

Is the master file 16/44.1 with MQA or higher resolution?

This Ottava MQA CD starts from a 176/24 master. The Origami process is used to fold the audio into a 44.1kHz file which can be post-processed to provide a 16-bit MQA file.

FYI, an MQA CD can be made starting from masters at 44.1, 88.2, 176.4 or 352.8kHz.

How many titles are expected?

Ottava has several titles planned and some already in process.

When did the idea for MQA-encoded CD originate?

The MQA distribution file was originally architected to be flexible in delivery for streaming and download, but also enjoyable in a number of playback scenarios. Thus, the ability to step down to 16-bit is in the design hierarchy. MQA can push the maximum quality to endpoints, and supports several applications such as Airplay, Automotive and, of course, CD.

How long have the CDs been in the planning stage?

I first showed an MQA CD privately at CES to John Atkinson a couple of years ago.

What do you need to play them?

An MQA CD is a Red Book CD and is 100% compatible with any existing CD player. The audio on the disc is MQA-encoded PCM, and will play back happily without a decoder. In this case, the sound quality is slightly better than a typical CD, because the audio is already de-blurred in the studio. However. if the bitstream is passed to an MQA decoder, it is unfolded to 176kHz (in this case) and rendered to the DAC at 24-bit.

Besides the Meridian player equipped with MQA, can anyone connect a CD transport to an MQA-enabled DAC, perhaps from another company, and decode the MQA.

Definitely. The digital output of a CD player or Blu-disc player can be fed into an MQA-capable DAC such as Mytek, Brinkman, Meridian 818 or UltraDAC, or any MQA decoder with bit-accurate S/PDIF, optical, or HDMI input. At a forthcoming press conference, we will demonstrate a normal CD player connected to Mytek's Brooklyn and Meridian's Ultra DAC, as well as to a Meridian 808v6 CD player.

Any transport can mate fine with the Ultra DAC as long as there is no upsampling in the player. Also, this week Technics has announced the SU-G30, a network/CD player/amplifier with MQA decoding.

Are any other companies planning MQA-enabled CDs?

Yes. Several other labels, both in and outside Japan, are expressing interest in issuing MQA high-resolution CDs. A key reason is the 100% backward compatibility to all Red Book players, and the fact that the sound is much improved. There are at least two labels in planning, but we can't yet say who.

Are MQA-enabled Blu-ray discs being contemplated or worked on?

Not yet, but it is certainly possible.

COMMENTS
tonykaz's picture

Nice catch Mr.JVS!

Tony in Michigan

ps. of course, I'll pay attention, this time round.

dalethorn's picture

Tried to order - "This album is not available in the U.S."

Next try on HQM store - "Server cannot be found."

fetuso's picture

Will mqa cd's cost the same as regular cd's?

rschryer's picture

If the download price of 3000 Yen listed on e-onkyo.com is anything to go by, then 3000 Yen at the current exchange rate converts to US$26.46.

Archimago's picture

Seriously, with a 16/44 bitrate, and presumably a very quiet noise floor to begin with assuming the master file truly is of a high resolution pedigree, there's little that can be hidden for MQA extraction!

Sure, you can upsample any 44.1kHz signal to 88.2/176.4+ using whatever upsampling filter you want and claim that this improves time domain performance. But I'd love to see how much ultrasonic content can actually be unfolded out of that meager lowest few bits.

Until shown otherwise, it's likely that this will affect the sound of the undecoded playback in an adverse fashion.

SeeHearInc's picture

Disclaimer: I am not a comp sci engineer, let alone a digital audio engineer.

I think you're confusing two different concepts. The "data under the noise floor" refers to data - not sound - in each 16 bit word. The MQA process "hides" instructions for the decoder there that tells it how to construct (unfold) the full resolution file.

Also, there's no "upsampling" in the conventional sense that audiophiles refer to. The hi-rez stream is derived from the 16/44.1 stream, not upsampled. There's computation happening beyond what's attainable by simply upsampling. The "de-blurring" happens during the encoding process, not the decoding process. That's what makes even an un-MQA-decoded file sound "better."

Regardless of my (mis?)understanding of how the process is engineered, I have heard the result on very revealing systems and can attest that it is both different and an improvement. It's no "magic bullet;" no container can fix a bad recording. But, with a good to great recording, this container system does less harm. The most revealing demo I've heard was a live recording made in a church. The "regular" file sounded good. The MQA file, though, was spectacular: The reverb in the space became more specific, more real. The audience's conversation was more intelligible, the host's speech was clearer, the choir became a collection of singers as opposed to a mass voice and the vocalist's performance was even more magical. I liken the process to focusing a photographic image.
However, the system isn't magic. If the original recording sucks, there's not much that MQA can do. I suggest you go hear it before reaching a conclusion about the process' efficacy. You'll be glad you did, if only to base your opinion in fact rather than presumption.

hb72's picture

I second Archimago's post. could we see something like an original signal trace, the Redbook cd extract & reconverted analog signal, and the same with an 176/24 upsampling filter before D/A conversion?

very mysterious.

NeilS's picture

I have no interest in buying an MQA CD. I also have no interest in buying dynamically crushed remastered CDs or colorized version of black and white movies either. Might be a theme there...

crenca's picture
anomaly7's picture

So we have a new format that removes data from the original digital file, and makes it sound better. And it makes money for the implementers every step of the way. I think I'll never get by my common sense bias that this is something I not only have no interest in, but I resent that I have to disagree those reviewers I've met who are giving it such positive press in spite of it gaining so few accolades from those who are not trying to sell it. You must report what you believe you hear, but I must also believe what I don't hear and find no logic in purchasing.

John Atkinson's picture
anomaly7 wrote:
You must report what you believe you hear, but I must also believe what I don't hear and find no logic in purchasing.

Of course. But I would interested in learning which recordings of the hi-rez original files and the MQA-encoded versions you compared to reach this conclusion.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

anomaly7's picture

Good question. As it's been since T.H.E.Show last year, my recollection of the recordings and playback have been lost, though the experience has remained fresh.
Is it possible some recordings would sound better with some equipment when MQA was employed and played back through a particular MQA capable DAC? Sure. I've heard some PCM recordings that I thought sounded better than the DSD version (at Blue Coast), though I also enjoy listening to DSD on many of my recordings. It's not that I'm adverse to new technology, it's that I think the current technology has all the potential for delivering "all the music" when the recording process is done well and the playback is done with compatible Gear. Do we "need" another technology for repackaging our music files? I don't think so, as my ears haven't yet been convinced that it will make music that I already think sounds excellent, sound any better. And as for the music that I may find lacking, I usually attribute that to the recording process.
Where all of the debate on MQA relates to streaming, I can't say. There seem to be those in the industry who profess that the bandwidth is there to be able to stream higher resolution files, and they say we do not need to compress data to get it to the consumer. I don't know that technical answer. What I do know is that when I stream music I usually do so in a non critical listening mode. The music is background music, or I'm just listening to the composition to decide whether or not I want to actually buy the piece, and not just rent it.

allhifi's picture

Quote; " .... Do we "need" another technology for repackaging our music files? I don't think so, as my ears haven't yet been convinced ... "

Seriously ? YOU haven't been convinced ? So what !

Go about enjoying what you do. There is no need for your two-sense or two-cents on the topic. In fact, who are you, that we need to know "You are not convinced" ?

Please. Give it a break. Basically, we have a world-class engineer/pioneer in Bob Stuart and his team (talented folks), legions of similarly-minded recording engineers, record labels and passionate listener's that are thrilled with the effort put forth and that such an OPTION exists, yet the Peanut Gallery throws in their point-less, peanuts worth.

If there is nothing intelligent to say, keep a lid on it. Or find a new hobby, at least another forum --one where other dispassionate globs will, no doubt, reinforce such mindless blather.

Next.

pj

Brown Sound's picture

As leery as I am about the impact of MQA on the entire music chain, and I indeed am. How will this new folding and unfolding affect the ability to rip a CD to my music server? Will it be RB or hi-res? No better, no worse? I don't normally play CDs, they get ripped and stored on a shelf, in my case anyway.

dalethorn's picture

I finally managed to download this album in MQA FLACs from HighResAudio dot com. Maybe in a couple weeks of listening I can determine (assuming I don't hear anything wrong with the MQAs on my standard players) whether it would be worthwhile to get the non-MQA tracks to compare.

EDIT 3/18 2100 UTC: This album is recorded very close up and seems slightly claustrophobic, with less "air" than I'm used to. For all I know this may be a perfect recording, but since I'm playing the MQA FLAC files on an Apple Vox player and not decoding the MQA, maybe that's a problem? No way for me to know.

John Atkinson's picture
dalethorn wrote:
I finally managed to download this album in MQA FLACs from HighResAudio dot com. Maybe in a couple weeks of listening I can determine (assuming I don't hear anything wrong with the MQAs on my standard players) whether it would be worthwhile to get the non-MQA tracks to compare.

I also purchased the download of the album, but it appears to be 24/48k FLAC files, not the 16/44.1k versions that are on the CD.

dalethorn wrote:
This album is recorded very close up and seems slightly claustrophobic, with less "air" than I'm used to.

Agree, though from one listen to the album on a non-MQA DAC, the music making is excellent.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

SeeHearInc's picture

Quote:EDIT 3/18 2100 UTC: This album is recorded very close up and seems slightly claustrophobic, with less "air" than I'm used to. For all I know this may be a perfect recording, but since I'm playing the MQA FLAC files on an Apple Vox player and not decoding the MQA, maybe that's a problem? No way for me to know. End quote.

In my experience, MQA won't change the character of a recording. If it's close miked, MQA can't affect that. It seems the only way to know for sure would be to get the same recording but not processed through MQA.

As I understand the process, you should hear the encoding benefit of deblurring with your current setup. Adding an MQA DAC would bring further benefits.

I spoke at length with Mike Jbara of MQA last week. As I understand it, these are the "levels" of fidelity:

    Non-MQA encoded file
    MQA encoded file with no MQA playback
    MQA encoded file with software MQA decoding
    MQA encoded file with end to end MQA using MQA DAC


I'm curious to know what you think after hearing the non-MQA file.

SpinMark3313's picture

Absolutely want.
Record labels: one solid vote in favor - both thumbs high in the air.
I am a hard copy guy all the way: records, CD's, reels.
FWIW...