MQA at LAAS

MQA's Bob Stuart comparing PCM and MQA recordings in the Sunny Components room

Despite there now having been many opportunities for audiophiles to compare MQA-encoded recordings with the PCM originals—as well as comparisons at shows and dealer events, the Norwegian 2L record label has offered downloads of MQA/PCM files for quite a long time—there are still members of the press who insist that no-one, other than some reviewers, has been able to perform such comparisons. At the 2017 LAAS, not only were some exhibitors demonstrating MQA—Aurender, Meridian—Covina, CA retailer Sunny Components devoted the show's Saturday afternoon to specific comparisons hosted by MQA's Bob Stuart and Wilson Audio's Peter McGrath.

The system used was Wilson Audio's Alexx speakers ($109,000/pair), recently reviewed by Michael Fremer, driven by T+A PA3100HV integrated amplifier ($21,500) and T+A MP3100 SACD/CD player ($19,000), used as a transport to feed CD data to a Meridian Ultra DAC (which clearly displays when an MQA file is playing), with an Audioquest Niagara 7000 power conditioner ($7995), an HRS RXR rack, and AudioQuest cabling.

Peter McGrath played the original PCM files for some of his own recordings from his laptop, feeding USB data to the T+A DAC, followed by the MQA versions, which in turn were followed again by the original. In the cases of the recordings I had heard in prior comparisons, the differences were the same as before, and always favoring the MQA files: more space appeared around the individual acoustic objects in the soundstage, rendering the presentation more palpable; more importantly, the music became more accessible.

An example: a few years back Peter had sent me a live recording he had made with his Joe Grado omni mikes of the Belcea String Quartet's performance of Twisted Blues, a work by Mark-Anthony Turnage based on "Stairway to Heaven." I love this recording, but it had taken me several plays to decipher the modern scoring, to become comfortable with the performance. When Peter played the same file in the Sunny room, it sounded just as I expected, somewhat opaque, somewhat raw, and somewhat intimidating. When Peter then played the MQA version, my jaw dropped—this was not the recording with which I was familiar. This was now a live string quartet playing in front of me. The music made instant sense in a way that it had taken me a long time to comprehend from the PCM original.

Some have argued that a mastering engineer could achieve the same effect through the application of EQ and more sophisticated DSP tools, but I don't think so. Such processes can make something sound different but not more real, which I have found is the consistent effect of MQA encoding.

Bob Stuart then played the MQA-encoded Astor Piazzolla CD, with the T+A transport feeding data to the Meridian DAC, which revealed it had been unfolded to 176.4kHz. Again, the sense of palpability was uncanny though I must admit that when I compared this CD in my own system with the MQA download that I purchased, which unfolds to 192kHz, I preferred the latter. Because the Red Book mandates a sample rate of 44.1kHz for CD, recordings that were originally made at 48kHz and its multiples have to be sample-rate converted when the MQA encoding is performed.

I could go on—these comparisons and Bob Stuart playing the MQA-encoded file of the restored Radka Toneff's performance of "Nature Boy" were the highlights of the show for me—but I will hand over to Jason Victor Serinus.—John Atkinson

Jason's Reaction
When I told John Atkinson that Peter McGrath and Bob Stuart had invited me to attend the MQA public demo in the Sunny Components room on Saturday afternoon, he urged me to listen to the non-MQA and MQA versions of the Belcea String Quartet's Twisted Blues. With Peter switching tracks, I found the difference between the two remarkable. Going from A (non-MQA) to B (MQA) and then back to A, the original digital recording sounded opaque by comparison with the MQA version.

"It's like you could take a knife and cut through all the noise," I wrote in my notes. The experience left me questioning the whole audiophile notion of "air," and wondering if what we commonly refer to as "air" is, at least in part, a by-product of timing errors that convey noise and haze where there were originally space and silence.

In another comparison of a before/after McGrath recording, this time of music by Stravinsky, the MQA file's colors were so much more striking, and the timbres far more real-life. When we switched to one of Peter's live recordings of the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio performing Beethoven—I was present at the recording session—there was a fineness of detail to the MQA recording that seemed far more real than the comparatively thick-sounding non-MQA presentation. Quiet passages were extremely transparent. Even when all three artists in the trio were playing full out, I was able to listen deep into the presentation and pick out individual details otherwise obscured in the non-MQA version because the resolution was so great, and what I presume to be digital timing errors mitigated.

One of the many distinct joys experienced during the presentation was encountering a long-time member of the San Francisco Audiophile Society (formerly the Bay Area Audiophile Society) who, never having heard MQA, had been swayed by all the negative comments readers had posted to our various reports. After I pointed out to him that most of the critics had never heard MQA, I urged him to attend the demo. It was so gratifying to witness him discovering for himself what MQA can do, without the voices of naysayers pulling on him.

In terms of the system itself, while I was not totally won over by the color tint imparted by the T+A electronics, their pairing with the Meridian Ultra DAC and Wilson Audio Alexx loudspeakers was maximally revealing. I expect you can hear the differences MQA makes on far less costly equipment. But when you have a system as highly resolving as this one, even minute differences are easily discerned.

Thos of us at Stereophile who have experienced MQA are hardly alone in our interest in enthusiasm. Toward the end of the demo, when the Apple big wig seated to my right left and was replaced by my long-time audiophile buddy from San Francisco, no less a personage than Craig Kallman, Chairman and CEO of Atlantic Records, took the seat to my left. You can see him in this photo, which includes (L–R): Sunil Merchant of Sunny Components, Bob Stuart of MQA, a certain Contributing Editor to Stereophile who is determined to trim that belly if it's the last thing he does, Craig, and Peter McGrath of Wilson Audio and recording engineering fame.

Thanks to everyone who put the demo together. I'm eager to discover what's next on the horizon for MQA. I hear it will be a biggee.—Jason Victor Serinus

COMMENTS
gbroagfran's picture

What is the point of this? You can't buy MQA music, and when you will be able to buy it, it will only be the same albums that you already have on vinyl, CD, HD, and cassette. There will likely NEVER be any new, interesting or odd music on this format.

O.k., embrace technology so you can listen to the same old stuff, over and over. ...Snore.....

jhwalker's picture

What a strange comment - you must be completely disconnected from the real world.

Most new releases are now coming out in MQA for streaming, and pretty sure you will also be able to buy them soon from all the usual suspects.

What would make you say there will "NEVER" be any new recordings, since it's clear they are out *now*?

gbroagfran's picture

You cannot buy music from Tidal. You can only rent it.

So, go ahead, give some corporation your money to rent music, and see how long your local record store survives.

As of now, no record store in my area sells MQA, period.

jhwalker's picture

What's that? LOL

I haven't been to (or even *seen*) a "record store" in close to 20 years. I think that ship has sailed.

gbroagfran's picture

I'm sorry to hear that. I live within five miles of four record stores, and bought 5 vinyl albums this week. Some specialize in punk, others in classical or rock.

There are probably twenty more record stores within 75 miles.

Some sell CDs, none I know of sell MQA.

Frank Larsen's picture

Actually, you CAN by music from Tidal. The Tidal Store offers files in both flac and MP3 but not MQA yet.

gbroagfran's picture

Perhaps Tidal will become the McDonalds of music.

Unfortunately for MQA, and every other techno-software product, there is always going to be another algorithm that will supersede it. Save some of your money for the next big thing.

Meanwhile, vinyl albums are backwardly compatible to the 1950's or further. Any turntable will play any album, regardless of its age or quality.

RichT's picture

Of course MQA will be superseded. But that doesn't matter so much if you stream the content. You're not buying anything physical. And I agree with you there's not much MQA material on vinyl ;) . Each to their own.

gbroagfran's picture

I'm not sure that's right, if you buy a $20,000 MQA-enabled DAC, you might have to buy another DAC for the next format change. Some companies make their products more upgradeable, and that is good.

RichT's picture

Yes, I agree.

RichT's picture

Why do you say that? New music is already available in MQA on Tidal. You can already listen to many thousands of tracks there. If you want to buy cds, there's more truth in what you say, but having tried streaming through Tidal, I'm unlikely to buy any cds in future.

gbroagfran's picture

...

music or sound's picture

I wonder how much of the benefits you heard at that demo would be lost if one listen to a system with lower resolution?

Josh Hill's picture

I wasn't fortunate enough to be at the show, but I can tell you that I've been listening to some Tidal MQA recordings via a humble Dragonfly Red with the MQA firmware upgrade and that they sound great, very much as described by JA and JS. CD is thick by comparison.

Admittedly speakers and amps were on the high res side -- I'm not sure what you'd hear through typical dynamics. But they were played off my computer through a very humble DAC.

But count me impressed.

RichT's picture

Interesting hint Jason!

2_channel_ears's picture

How many of these demos have consisted of a true A/B comparison of same folded and unfolded resolution? I don't see any cited above and I found only 1/2 of a demo between RMAF and AXPONA. That was Mytek flipping MQA in and out "on the fly" that I think was legit.

Yes, I have heard a benefit, but I'd hardly call it, or any other listening I've gotten to do, "palpable" as JA put it --including hearing MQA on a $90k MSB based system. MQA, and by extension the industry, has failed to provide an honest comparison of the technology. For me, that amounts to "wait and see".

AJ's picture

I wonder what happens when MQA from a dual analog output DAC, one direct into preamp, the other looped through a 16/44 "smearing" ADA, then fed to same pre, is then compared rapid switched blind (making sure pre ouput V is same for both inputs)?
That way, whatever remastering "effects" are in the MQA, are passed through the Redbook loop as well. So an actual valid comparison.
Anyone care to guess? ;-)

gbroagfran's picture

No.

sunnyhtms@gmail.com's picture

Thanks to John and Jason on some wonderful comments made that validated the components that we hand selected after auditioning several products that we represent in our store. Our mission was to deploy a system that would perform well with the limited power availability of hotels. We broke rules by taking an Integrated amplifier that retails at 1/5th the price of the speaker. Our mission was accomplished. My thanks to our team in helping us set up 3 rooms in one day as our room loading was delayed by several hours. Thanks to Bob, Ken, Peter, Bill, Ryan, Courtney, Brad, Mike, Dave Gordon, Kevin, Andrew and our very own Theresa who makes it all happen.

rt66indierock's picture

Bob Stuart told me HDTracks will start selling MQA downloads this summer and that MQA plugins for Pro Tools is freely available.

Universal Music Group has 8,000 to 10,000 high resolution albums and has not converted any of them to MQA.

Sony has 4,500 high resolutions albums bumps the number to 7,000 if you count singles and has not converted any to MQA.

Warner Music group has 7,670 high resolution albums. 3,900 are 24/44.1 for the Mastered for iTunes program. Until April MQA did the conversions. In April Warner completed training for the conversion process including imbedding keys in the files (sorry Jason). Apple is not sitting on a treasure trove of hi-res files at least from Warner (sorry John). The number of albums from Warner that have been converted to MQA is a little over 3,000.

According to the Digital Entertainment Group the market for high resolution streaming is 12 million people. A number not growing as streaming numbers increase.

So where is MQA now? Once a few downloads are available from HDTracks I could write an article about my findings Stereophile would have no trouble publishing. I doubt my conclusions would differ from what Kal Rubinson wrote and what John Atkinson reported in his test of MQA files. But that doesn’t make the case for MQA. How big a deal is HDTracks streaming MQA? Unlikely to provide enough royalties to matter. There just isn’t enough music to stream or sell.

It makes you wonder why the ultimate controlling party of MQA Ltd, Reinet Investments SCA pumped money into it, a retail turnaround specialist pumped money into 7 Digital to launch HDTracks streaming service and Jay Z bought TIDAL. The only way this is going to work is for MQA to be streamed to mobile devices.

RichT's picture

I too have doubts about the size of the market, but I hope it does increase. Do you have doubts that Universal and Sony material will ever be encoded, or is it just a matter of time?

rt66indierock's picture

High resolution has been a very tough sell and nothing has changed except the definition has been dumbed down. As long a file is MQA it meets the definition of hi-res even if it started as MP3.

Sony and Universal can’t convert files to MQA until they receive the same training Warner employees received. Until then MQA will have to convert their files. It is unlikely the independent labels will ever send people to learn how to convert files so MQA will have to do these conversions as well. This becomes a capacity issue. From the time Warner signed a licensing agreement with MQA until the LAAS MQA converted about 3,000 albums. But I’ve just read the MQA Ltd financial statements and based on their revenue in 2016 they didn’t start converting Warner files until 2017. Warner has converted the number tracks they announced they would convert at CES 2017. Less than half the number of high resolution albums they currently have. So it is unlikely that MQA Ltd will get enough Sony and Universal files converted in 2017 to convince me they are committed to MQA.

RichT's picture

Hi rt66Indierock,

I think Merlin will be doing MQA encoding on behalf of some of the independent labels.

I doubt that at this stage MQA would consider encoding from MP3. This would be very confusing for people. I know, as you clearly do too, that MQA certification means that the best available master has been used, not that the music is hires, but I think this distinction is lost on many people. I also doubt that any of the majors have lost any of their masters since MP3 was invented so I don't expect the situation to arise.

rt66indierock's picture

I’m interested why you think Merlin will be doing MQA encoding for some independent labels since they don’t have responsibilities for any other digital files.

MQA Ltd might be uncomfortable converting an MP3 file to MQA but would Universal? They have lost a few masters. As have a few independents.

And yes I know that MQA uses the best available master. My question would you know this if I hadn’t pressed the point with “Riders on the Storm” last year?

RichT's picture

Hi rt66Indierock,

Yes, I think you're right about Merlin. My mistake.

harryas's picture

No MQA-encoded music available? Look for Highresaudio.com, advanced search, chose format "MQA" at the bottom and you will see 258 albums that are available in MQA and most of them also in other formats (mostly classics and jazz, many ECM, e.g.). So if you want to compare, buy your favorite files in MQA and FLAC; if you only want to enjoy, MQA will be enough, maybe decoded via Audirvana software on the Mac. And if you are convinced, then buy a MQA-capable DAC.