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MQA Takes Off Big-Time in 2016

Today, January 4, at "CES Unveiled" in Las Vegas, MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) launched major partnerships with Morten Lindberg's multiple Grammy Award-nominated, audiophile record label/download store 2L and playback partners Auralic, Aurender, and Bluesound. The entire 2L download catalog, starting with one of Lindberg's first recordings, made in 1993, and extending through his latest DXD (352.8kHz) recordings, has been scrubbed clean and born anew with MQA.

On the playback front, MQA also announced the first MQA-equipped smartphone, HTC's One A9 (above). HTC smartphone demonstrations, as well as music playback of recordings by Lindberg, Peter McGrath, and others on Wilson and Meridian loudspeakers, are promised throughout CES, January 6–9, in the MQA Suite (30-335) in the Venetian Towers in Las Vegas. Mytek's Brooklyn DAC, as well as MQA-equipped portable players from Pioneer and Onkyo, will also be on display. Stay tuned for first-hand reports from members of the Stereophile CES 2016 blogging team, which consists of John Atkinson, Larry Greenhill, Robert Deutsch, Jon Iverson, Herb Reichert, and yours truly.

MQA's announcement, which follows just three months after Mytek's Rocky Mountain Audio Fest launch of its MQA-equipped Brooklyn D/A converter and Tidal's press demo of wireless streaming of ultra high-resolution, MQA-encoded files, doesn't stop there. Bluesound's range of MQA-compatible products, which will be demoed in Bluesound's Venetian Suite (34-204) at CES, will comprise the Node 2, Powervault 2, Pulse 2, Pulse Flex, Pulse Mini, Vault 2, and all legacy Bluesound components (above). Auralic and Aurender will also demonstrate their MQA-enabled products, with Auralic demoing MQA streaming on its Aries (below) and Aries LE models in the Venetian (29-122), before making available the necessary firmware updates for Auralic’s Lightning DS software platform soon after the show. Yet another demo will comprise the Mytek and MQA playing on the recently announced Pioneer and Onkyo players.

And then there are the other companies poised to launch MQA in 2016. How about Berkeley Audio, dCS, Ixion and Kripton joining a list that already includes Meridian Audio, Mytek, Onkyo, Pioneer, and those mentioned above? Expect, as well, a fairly imminent, long-awaited announcement of MQA-encoded streaming from Tidal. Down the road, expect announcements from HDTracks and more.

MQA has already signed on, in addition to 2L, labels Camerata in Japan and HQM. "Each label will want to make their own announcement," MQA creator Bob Stuart told Stereophile by Skype on December 31, 2015. "The major labels are close. Let's see what happens by the end of CES. As far as hardware, by Easter, we think there will be over 100 products on the market that can encode and decode MQA."

By all appearances, the MQA revolution is poised to do for the music industry what the latest Star Wars blockbuster is doing for movies. MQA may not be the final frontier, but it is scrubbing clean decades worth of digital files beset with temporal blur (timing errors) and quantization distortion and computational-induced noise. MQA promises to let us hear, for the first time, what recording engineers and artists have confirmed they heard as they recorded their music. And MQA will also enable us to stream better-than-ever-sounding high-resolution files with ease.

Okay, you may be saying to yourself. Serinus and Stereophile have drunk the Kool-Aid, and are now writing ad copy. But it's not just me and John Atkinson and Alan Silverman (Judy Collins' long-time Grammy Award-winning sound engineer) and Morten Lindberg and Peter McGrath (whose recording legacy for Harmonia Mundi is the stuff of legend) and the folks at Tidal and all the above-mentioned companies who have heard the demos and been wowed by MQA. It's also all the folks at companies and labels not yet ready to announce who are hearing to the call, and responding accordingly.

Here is how Bob Stuart (above) describes what the MQA process has done for Lindberg's first digital recording:

"This album is the first example of a "white-glove" process utilizing the MQA technology. If we play the old CD, the music is in there—but also all the problems of early digital converters: the sound is indistinct, brittle, and grainy. Morten is a great recording engineer, as can be heard in this earliest work; he is also a careful archivist with the original equipment in the cupboard. We used special signals to capture the characteristics of the [original] digital converter [Morten recorded with] so that the MQA encoder could remove its 'fingerprint' and reveal the original sound. This isn't changing the music in any way; it's more like cleaning an old painting that had been stained with smoke. Done carefully, it doesn't change the picture, it reveals the artist's intent by removing an obscuring film."

For Lindberg's take on his pre-MQA master and what MQA has wrought, see www.2l.no/pages/album/120.html. Note that the recording's MQA-encoding was achieved with direct input from pianist Christian Eggan, and made use of the original DAT converter which Lindberg preserved in his equipment archives. In this case, MQA's "Master Quality Authenticated" means exactly that.

In his Skype interview, Stuart reiterated the importance of MQA.

"MQA is a very, very big concept. It's not just the technology, which is about accurately capturing and delivering the actual sound of the original. MQA opens a new opportunity for the music industry that they haven't had in a long time.

"The music industry has reduced the quality of its product over the last 50 years. Every time the consumer was offered convenience or quality, they picked convenience. But with MQA, you don't have to give up quality for convenience. MQA recognizes that the world of hi-fi is sustained by the content we can play. There's a tightly bridged relationship between content quality and how much we enjoy the music.

"MQA can encode any piece of audio that exists. The technology will automatically work out how to de-blur it, but it can do an even better job if we have access to the original equipment used to record the music. We measure the original equipment, encode recordings to remove blur, glare, and computational errors, and end up with beautiful, crystal clear sound. It's astonishing how close we can get to the original performance with something that, bound by the limitations of old technology, does not sound natural.

"MQA is not only very transparent; it is also highly efficient. You need a much smaller file to deliver higher quality sound. And the MQA process sounds better than any other digital that can be delivered today. Morten Lindberg, who strives for extreme quality, was astonished when we put the MQA process on top of a 352.8kHz DXD file.

"My ultimate motivation is, let's get the music right. When all is said and done, MQA is a disruptive technology because it runs contrary to the current philosophy that Hi-Res is, by itself, the end-all. It isn't about how high the numbers are; it's about eliminating the blurring so you can truly hear the music."

COMMENTS
anomaly7's picture

Ah, another magic technology that we'll all need to buy in order to hear better sound. Not a new CD, or Blue Ray Audio, or SACD, but a new piece of equipment and a new encoding of our files. Never mind that we may have a couple of Tera-Bytes of files already, we need to get rid of them in the interest of saving inexpensive hard drive space? Or is it so we can really get better sound?

Thanks for covering this Jason, but I suppose I'll have to hear it to believe it- sometime after Easter (is it?) when there may be 100 products out that can decode the new file format. I'll welcome the new technology if it is indeed something that will change the future of music. The only drawback I see, aside from spending more money to repurchase music I already own, is that it's not going to happen over night, but will probably be another decade before it's fully adopted. And when one attempts to look into the future of technology ten years off... I think I see another resurgence of vinyl record sales. :-)

JohnRead57's picture

Next-Gen audio is here. Is it yeah or dammit!?

Some facts I need to be clear about...

1. Does my recently purchased NAS/DAC Cocktail need replacing or upgrading to decode MQA files?

2. Do I need to replace my entire TB of music around 10000 plus at last gasping looksee with MQA coded content - and do I have to purchase that?

3. What about my Pre-amp currently being ummmm...repaired. Should I press pause and await the answer to Q1. above? Does all of my processing equipment need to be upgraded?
3a. Can any decoding be retrofitted into existing recent equipment?

This is NOT the same as changing your mobile phone...in that case all the files photos videos of the kids etc remain, just a newer piece of kit is used to present and experience them.

I'm sure I can find the answers to these questions...why do I need to? Why isn't MQA doing as much as Dolby does when it introduces new formats? Clearly behind the scenes comms, partnerships, briefings, commitments etc have been done. Where's the HOTLINE for consumers? Are we not the most vital link in this chain? Aren't we why you made it in the first place?

Again I know...I work in leadership and change and the single most frequent failure is the failure to communicate...often enough and well enough to engage, build participation if not a sense of excitement. But I digress...after all this is the hi fi industry and engineers are renowned for other things rather than comms...Funnily enough they build the technology, thereafter, silence. Too dramatic? Oh well...you've gotta enjoy, wiry smile.

Oh and Kudos to HTC, well done matey's, Taiwan rules!

crenca's picture

I read this sort of thing and I can't help but think "woooo there boyyy". The usual "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is" surely applies. No one seems to be talking about how MQA *IS* a lossy compression technique (even if that lossy compression is applied to the +20khz range). Also, what sort of "computational-induced noise" does MQA's own computations add - or is it magically free of what has effected all that has come before. A phone with MQA?? Why? Is it likely to have an analogue output stage/amp worthy of even "regular" high res, let alone the magic of MQA? Is the end user likely to plug in earbuds that can resolve the difference between a 320 mp3 and a plain old 16/44 file, let alone high res??

Where is the balance in the reporting on this?

Archimago's picture

When you talk to these guys, could you ask a few questions to clarify what we should expect?

1. Does this MQA format have any DRM component that we as consumers need to be aware of?

2. Do encoded MQA files provide anything more than 16-bit resolution? Even if we accept improvement to time-domain accuracy, are the PCM files essentially dithered down to 16-bits... (Looks that way based on previous reports.)

3. Please try to find more information on this "de-blurring" algorithm. Other than the most purist recordings, it's unclear how this is even possible given that most studio projects mix different tracks done by all kinds of equipment not to mention DSPs and effects processors involved in the production chain.

4. Can you confirm if a person does NOT have MQA decoding capability, does the file still retain a *full* 16-bits (and presumably 48kHz sampling rate) resolution if they try to play back the data?

5. Clarification on "lossless" please. Clearly frequencies >24kHz are not losslessly compressed in the usual way we think of "lossless", right?

6. Are there different "container" sizes used in MQA. Looks like the typical is the audio data being put into (lossless compressed) 24/48. Is that the bitrate they anticipate streaming audio to be delivered? If other data rates are possible, do all devices including the Meridian Explorer 2 have the ability to decode all potential data rates?

7. I would be very interested in your listening impressions to 24/48 lossless FLAC vs. MQA (presumably also delivered at 24/48) in an A/B comparison using level matched *same source mastering* since the data rate would appear to be about the same for both. (CD-resolution 16/44 would be about 30+% lower bitrate, right?)

As much as it's interesting to test out new technology, remember to represent the interests of the consumer as well given what appears to be rather hyped up claims; much of which appears to stretch the truth. Even if some of the claims are true, we also need to evaluate the value of the "improvement" since much of it likely would have subtle effect even with an excellent sound system (remember, standard 24/48 FLAC files are more than CD quality and sound awesome already!).

dce22's picture

Meridian was serving dvd audio's lossless encoding and they lost that cash cow now it's trying to create fictional better file format to keep sucking the cash from unsuspecting music lovers while we have excellent open format like FLAC, and keep talking about temporal resolution (it's fictional thing does not exist in audio).

When i asked John Atkinson what is this "smearing in the time domain" that they are peddling with Bob he provide me with this link

http://www.aes.org/e-lib/browse.cfm?elib=18046

read it at your own free will.

It talks about how Bob compares audio resolution with camera lenses and screen pixel density to audio PCM sample rate, that is the first hole in the theory, there is nothing in sound "physics" that can be compared to screen or film resolution its apples and oranges you can kind of argue that audio frequency response is like color saturation (PCM Sample rate) and audio dynamic range is like contrast-grayscale rate (Bit depth) but even that is incorrect.
It has some nice graphs about impulse response of few filter types some graphs that prove that 16/44.1 is almost all we can hear, and some simulation of air responses and it talks about how there oversampling filter is so much closer to air simulation and that is the kicker air does not have oversampling filter and you cant compare air with hearing mechanism you need to check is the oversampling filter inside your hearing envelope and not is the oversamping filter inside bat's hearing envelope, to achieve highest audio clarity from PCM system you must be fully nyquist shannon theorem compliant no filter leakage at all (high performance dac's like Benchmark media filters leak).

The whole think inside MQA system is a oversampling filer with alot of leakage, because ... hey the air does not have tales in the input response so hey we make our filter not have either not accounting the fact that the tales are crucial part about high frequency precision.

If you get a chance to hear MQA it will sound different of course it distort alot it has to sound different but different does not means better.

The only filter that does not touch the audible band is FIR phase linear the default one in most of the DAC's if you want extra cushion go 96khz then you have covered cat's and dog's hearing, yes it's that "high" frequency and you wanna cover bat's and dolphin's you go 192khz i mean all of species inside bat's family, insane type of frequency response.

All the ADC DAC problems stem from filter distortion inside 1khz-10khz audio band you can't fix it with more sampling rate only shift it around you need better filter less ripple using more coeficients more memory and better precision not some kind of minimal phase leaky abominantion.

bdaddy60's picture

dce22.....I admire your eloquence and intelligence ! The DVD audio debacle most certainly squired this newborn "Rosemary's Baby" for those chasing the "digital wind". Pray tell Meridian's CEO of Flim Flam concocted the "perfect sound almost forever" pitch with the collusion of the marketeer's who print thousands of words organized into a sales pitch .......thank you for your insight.

dce22's picture

Cant see my comments when i log out ??!!
We are censored before we post.

TJ's picture

... from 2L to compare the sound of both using my MQA enabled Explorer2 DAC. I was surprised to find that the Explorer2 doesn't recognize the MQA encoding of the MQA files. I've sent Meridian a support request about that. I also found that Audirvana Plus (v2.3.2) can't recognize the MQA encoded files, unlike Roon which recognizes and plays both at FLAC resolution; and that the MQA files are over twice as large as the FLAC files (eg 150Mb vs 57Mb for track 14).

PeterInVan's picture

Frustrated...

I am one of those people that bought the Meridian Explorer 2 in anticipation of MQA.

If you at CES, could get straight answer on the release date for Tidal MQA, that would be much appreciated.

Also, if you see the Meridian guys, can you ask them if the Explorer2 LEDs are supposed to show MQA processing?

Many Thanks,
Peter

cas's picture

Hi,
the files are mp3, cd(FLAC, 16-bit, 44.1kHz) and MQA(FLAC, 24-bit 44.1kHz). 24-bit files are bigger than 16-bit files...
Explorer 2 needs a firmware update for the latest MQA Libraries. It comes.

TJ's picture

FYI this is a recently shipped Explorer2 connected to OS X El Capitan v10.11.2. The Meridian website says no firmware updates are available for that. But if you have more information about a firmware update and where to get it, please do share that.

Dr. AIX's picture

As a long time friend of Bob Stuart and a producer of real high-resolution recordings, I've heard MQA on a couple of occasions and was not wowed as others reported above were.

I do look forward to hearing some of my own AIX Records tracks prepared through MQA and an Explorer2, but believe that any change in sound will be very slight.

The technology or process will make streaming better quality audio possible, but the fact remains that virtually all so-called "hi-res music" tracks are just new transfers of old standard definition masters.

It's terrific to be able to experience the fidelity of those old analog sources without degradation, but it doesn't elevate them to high-res status because they exist in bigger digital containers.

The same rules apply...garbage in equals garbage out.

deckeda's picture

Could be wrong but my previous reading about MQA is that this is the theory:

ADCs are flawed, so MQA finds their flaws and reverses them via encoding/decoding processes.

If the understood premise is wrong, please correct!

That being said, it raises the obvious questions:

- if ADC flaws can be corrected, why does there need to be a 2-step process? Why not just create new corrected files and sell them, already compatible with existing gear?

- if ADC flaws can be corrected, why not just create better ADCs to begin with and forget the whole thing?

I mean, are we working smarter, or harder here?

*************************

And there's a broader concern here. Any format transformation requires adequate resolution in order to preserve the original. MQA's push for smaller files means less resolution than what we have today and that's a concern. It's not hard to imagine MQA sounding better today and then in a few years "MQA-HD" coming out, "even better." Can't we just skip to the end, given the likely outcome?

I'm of the belief, borne through some personal experience, that higher-resolutions do help music, regardless of original source because unlike Dr. AIX, I consider analog capable of high resolution sound capture.

Anon2's picture

I'm sticking to free streaming (despite the lower sound quality) and CDs until I see a bit of stability around devices, content providers, and standards.

I am not an avid follower of this technology. I go to dealer demos and shows. It just seems that there is a lot of flux in all of this.

A few years back Mac Minis and downloads were the rage. Amarra was all the talk at dealer demos.

I went to a talk recently. The standards (FLAC/ALAC) seem to have attained some measure of stability. But now the content providers and devices are all new. Mac Minis are out. New "eco system players" and music servers are in.

Streaming (with not quite cable TV rates) with increasing monthly bills is in. Downloads seem to be, for some, on the way out.

I have eschewed all of this turmoil. I can sympathize with a commenter here who shows understandable frustration at putting time and money into technologies that, in a very short span of time, have fallen into disfavor.

If all of this amounted to a few hundred bucks of expense, maybe some of us could overlook it all. But every time I get presented computer audio options, whether on soon-to-be obsolete platforms or new ones, the outlay always seems to be something in the thousands.

Beyond that, there's the time investment, particularly for downloading. I tried a download sample once. It brought back bad memories of putting some of my CD collection onto an Ipod about a decade ago. It's not an experience that I have the time or the patience to re-live anytime soon.

I know all of this sounds better. That is not the issue. The issue is having almost a reel-to-reel to casette to 8-track type of transition to manage through in less than a decade.

I know that this is all heading somewhere better for audio enthusiasts. However, with my limited time and money, I am going to sit on the sidelines until I see more of a settling of the "hi-rez" sediment in the glass.

bdaddy60's picture

I like many of my generation were first moved by recorded music playing from big radio's, console style, and suitcase style record players.......since I began paying attention to the audio industry via the trade magazines coupled with several major format changes since the middle 60's when I began purchasing recorded music, each format change and "better delivery system" has pushed me farther and farther away from those soul stirring experiences I originally enjoyed. The sick thing is, it's cost me ten's of thousands to listen to that same music in these different formats and now you expect me to drop another dime on this ......goodbye, I recently sold a completely insanely priced audio system, cut off my Tidal account, put the HD tracks downloads on a hard drive and placed it in a drawer. I then pulled boxes of CD's out the closet and spent $1000.00 of what I recovered from that dumbass system I sold on a pair of Pioneer BS-22's a NAD C516BEE Cd player, and a mint condition used Quad Elite integrated amp... I won't even bother to tell you how much of an idiot I feel like for allowing myself to chase the wind. To think I once had a huge record collection and a wonderful Linn turntable keeps me awake at night......again, Happy Trails to all those who listen to equipment not music...

JUNO-106's picture

It must have been so simple back then. You retire to your den after dinner. You push the power switch on the big, beautiful, wooden, monophonic console. You wait for the tubes to warm up then you load a stack of LPs on the record changer. You sit in your nice chair and listen to the music while you read your paper and smoke your pipe.

bdaddy60's picture

Haaa......on the wave are you JUNO-106 ? I'll be long gone before wisdom enters your day....while you sit back and smoke someone else's poop.....I mean pipe oops

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

th January 2016 IN PRESS RELEASE
London, UK and Las Vegas, US, January 7 2016 – 7digital, leading B2B digital music and radio services company, announces their first content available in MQA, a new revolutionary end-to-end technology that delivers master quality audio in a file that’s small enough to stream or download.

Following the announcement of their global strategic partnership as the leading platform provider of MQA, from January 11, 7digital will for the first time have indie label content available in this higher quality format on their platform for B2B clients. This content will also be available for download by customers of both the 7digital D2C web store and mobile apps, with the company becoming the first digital music platform provider to offer MQA for both download and streaming.

In addition, Onkyo – one of the world’s foremost creators of innovative home entertainment products – is working with 7digital to include the new MQA technology into its high resolution audio store, onkyomusic. From January 8, users will be able to access indie label MQA content in onkyomusic, a store powered by 7digital (branded e-onkyo music in Japan). Onkyo, and its subsidiary Pioneer, are also launching digital audio players with MQA playback capability.

Currently, 7digital has 46 B2B clients running digital music services accessible to consumers in 33 countries around the world. The company also has licensing rights in 82 countries, to enable quick time-to-launch for prospective new client services throughout the world.

music or sound's picture

Is that what journalism has come to, press releases (with out any critical comment).

John Atkinson's picture
music or sound wrote:
Is that what journalism has come to, press releases (with out any critical comment).

This is a news announcement to start our coverage of CES. For our commentary on MQA at CES, see www.stereophile.com/content/mqas-sound-convinces-hardened-showgoers and for my thoughts on the difference between what is called "access journalism" (news) and "accountability journalism" (critical comment), see www.stereophile.com/content/access-journalism-vs-accountability-journalism. With all due respect, you are confusing the two.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

mrvco's picture

I stopped by the MQA room at CES. If they want to implement MQA with streaming services and it can be decoded in software on my mobile devices (for no additional charge) then great. However nothing about the sound emanating from the Meridian demo system made me even remotely interested in buying an MQA compatible DAC or re-buying any of my music collection. The fact that they weren't A/B'ing MQA files with FLAC or DSD files tells me all I need to know.

Gumbo2000's picture

From what I can see the whole MQA message is not being spun by Meridian but in fact has spun out of their control! They will have to work very hard to get it back on track and given how they have handled the message so far I don't have much confidence in that happening. This could almost be a textbook case on how not to launch a product.

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