Munich Milestones for MQA

In anticipation of this week's Munich High End, which takes place May 18–21, MQA has announced several breakthroughs. The first involves its hardware partners, who have expanded to include AudioQuest, CanEver Audio, dCS, Esoteric, IAG, Krell, Lumin, Mark Levinson, Moon by Simaudio, Pro-Ject Audio Systems, TEAC, and Wadax. These are in addition to its existing partners, who include Aurender, Bel Canto, Bluesound, Cary, NAD, Brinkmann, Meridian, MSB, Mytek, Onkyo, Pioneer and Technics. All of the latter are expected to demonstrate MQA at the Munich show, with yet others showing at the Los Angeles Audio Show June 2–4.

Of special interest to budget-conscious audiophiles is AudioQuest's forthcoming (May 17) free firmware update for the DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red portable USB DACs, which will enable playback of all MQA files, including those in Tidal HiFi's growing Masters section. This update is AudioQuest's first implementation of MQA rendering technology, making full MQA playback accessible to all subscribers to Tidal's HiFi Masters streaming service

Audiolab and Quad intend to launch several MQA-integrated products in the respective premium 8300 and Artera ranges, and ensure that existing customers will have the option to upgrade their current DAC boards to MQA compatibility. Krell also intends to include MQA in its Digital Vanguard integrated amplifier and Universal DAC products. Select Simaudio Moon products, too, will soon offer MQA technology.

MQA also has new integration partners. StreamUnlimited is implementing MQA into their modular software solution, and Conversdigital will implement into their mconnect module. Manufacturers whose products include either company's modules will now be able to market MQA-ready products.

Computer Playback
Sonic Studio's forthcoming Amarra 4 Luxe media player is poised to join Audirvana Plus 3 in offering MQA local playback and streaming for computer audio aficionados and Tidal HiFi subscribers.

On the Record
Speaking to all these developments, Spencer Chrislu, Director of Content Services, MQA, told Stereophile by phone, "In every emerging technology, there comes a tipping point where it changes from a niche product to one that is exciting and accessible to a mainstream audience. Our latest developments are driven by music fans demanding master quality in a manner that is in harmony with the evolving ways they are enjoying their music. This groundswell of excitement is being felt by manufacturers, content owners, module makers, artists, and producers alike—basically everyone involved in creating and bringing music to fans. We are thrilled to have all of these partners together in one place in Munich where music lovers can now see what MQA has to offer, and experience the growing number of playback options available to them."

While MQA's press release on these latest developments does not include mention of additional majors coming on board, it does include this juicy quote from Mark Piibe, Executive Vice President, Global Business Development and Digital Strategy, Sony Music Entertainment: "As a long-running supporter of MQA's high-resolution audio solutions, we are encouraged to see a growing number of digital service providers and consumer hardware companies adopting MQA technology to make studio sound quality from Sony Music artists available to streaming music consumers." The message implicit in this statement is that well before hell freezes over, Sony Music will release MQA-encoded recordings.

MQA founder Bob Stuart will attend both Munich High End and the Los Angeles Audio Show. In Munich, on Friday, May 19, he will speak in the Audio Reference room from 11am–noon and 2–2:30pm, and will appear on the Technology Stage from 4:30–5pm. On Saturday, May 20, he returns to the Audio Reference room from 11am–noon, and to the Technology Stage from 4:30–5pm. His blog posts on provenance and authentication appear here and here.

Update: Finally, Merlin, the global digital rights agency for the independent label sector that acts collectively on behalf of thousands of indie labels and distributors from more than 50 countries, announced a multi-year agreement that, according to the press release, "will support the world’s best-known independent labels to encode their master recordings in MQA’s industry-leading technology. The partnership will boost the uptake and growth of master-quality audio streaming."

COMMENTS
cas's picture

Sony Music and CI are on the board ,too :)

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Sony Music is quoted in the article. What is CI? And what does "on the board" mean?

cas's picture
texanalog's picture

Isn't it obvious that he meant "on board"?

rschryer's picture

Wait a second. So MQA technology can be installed via firmware into pre-existing DACs, with no need to buy an MQA-equipped DAC if we want MQA? Really?

tonykaz's picture

that I've been pointing to?

Geez, you look rather young and well worn.

I thought that you'd look like a pointy headed Professor.

I showered JA with praise about that Editorial.

Tony in Michigan

ps. when is your next contribution?

rschryer's picture

Yes, I am that stereophile, Tony, and I very much appreciated your kind words about my piece. (I even enjoy reading your various comments that don't compliment me.) Unfortunately, your glowing remarks have also put me under pressure—I'm determined to write another essay that will make you happy!

tonykaz's picture

3.3 billion phone subscribers are about to have access to all the Recorded Music that was only accessible to the privileged few, those able to afford a nice music system.

The pressure has been released.

We're beginning something wonderful.

You are in, on the ground floor.

I can envision YouTube Videos with MQA level soundtracks to accompany their 4k visuals, from modest Content creators the World over!

The Velvet Rope is being taken down.

Who needs Clive Davis?

Tony in Michigan

JRT's picture

Some modern smartphones will accept micro SDXC memory cards up to 2.0_TB capacity. Good quality 0.5_TB micro SDXC memory cards are widely available at retail sale. You can copy a lot of lossless FLAC files from your home network server onto a 0.5_TB micro SDXC memory card. I would not be motivated to spend any money to a streaming service and/or to a cellphone service provider to have MQA lossy compressed data sets streamed to my mobile device, much less to my own home server.

edit (14 May 2017): I removed pricing info, as the current low prices I mentioned were not from reputable sources, and might be counterfeits. See Dale's comment related to his experience of poor reliability. I suggest buying from sources with very good reputation. Spend a little time on prepurchase due diligence investigation.

dalethorn's picture

I've purchased several of the Sandisk 128 gb MicroSD cards - all eventually failed. Whether it was the heat generated in the writing process or some other factor, my research up to a year ago determined that they are very unreliable, given the time and effort at filling those cards. I'm waiting for some reliable reviews to come in on the 256 gb MicroSD cards, but reliable is something that might not compute in those cases.

JRT's picture

Dale, Are you confident that the cards are not counterfeits? Counterfeits are an all too real problem.

dalethorn's picture

Very confident - 6 different cards in 6 separate purchases, from Amazon Prime, B&H, and others.

PAR's picture

" 2.0_TB capacity."

Which phones are they? The latest Samsung, Sony, Huwei and Apple phones have memories of <256 GB or are expandable to <256 GB. Others like Oppo, somewhat less.

Interesting but right now I won't believe in 2.0 TB phone memories, until you offer some evidence of them.

JRT's picture

example: LG V10 family of phones released to the market in October 2015 have 4GB RAM, 64_GB internal storage (51_GB available to user), and storage expansion on microSD, microSDHC or microSDXC up to 2.0_TB.

PAR's picture

........, so they do!

dalethorn's picture

I read it as the phones would address the memory, if it were plugged in.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

on the DAC architecture, I expect.

ddisbennett's picture

Yes, I have three Bluesound streaming devices, two of which are the first generation of that device. About a month or so before Tidal began streaming MQA Master albums, my Bluesound devices received an over-the-air firmware update which allowed the built-in DAC to decode MQA. I first downloaded a few free MQA titles from the 2L site and they worked great. Later, when Tidal began offering MQA Masters titles, since I am a "HiFi" level subscriber, I began streaming those albums and I must say they sound great on both my home theater system as well as my reference two-channel system using a NAD Masters preamp with the BlueOS module installed. I had heard a few previous demonstrations of MQA and, although I did hear a slight improvement, I was not convinced. However, since being able to hear them on my own systems which I obviously know very well, I mainly listen to only MAQ music from Tidal as I can tell I am taking a step down in quality when I stream Redbook files. Of course, not all DACs can or will be updated; it is up to the manufacturer as well as the intrinsic properties of the hardware itself.

rschryer's picture

Sounds exciting.

I'm curious: Did you notice a change in the sound of regular 16/44 signals, from either CD or streaming, after the MQA firmware was installed?

ddisbennett's picture

Two of my Bluesound devices are the Node Streamer, so, of course, they do not play CD's. The Bluesound card in my NAD Masters Preamp (M12) works pretty much like any other DAC in that it attempts to decode whatever is sent to it, in addition to streaming music such as Tidal, Spotify, etc. So if I play a CD in the player that is connected to the M12, it decodes the PCM and converts it to analog. To directly answer your question, no, I have not heard a difference in CD playback using that device. To my knowledge, that is the way MQA is supposed to work: no change for non-MQA files.

rschryer's picture

Thanks for sharing. I love the fact that I'll be able to try out MQA with a DAC I already own—the Dragonfly Red—and a streaming service I already subscribe to—Tidal. How often does one get to potentially experience better sound without having had to dish out more money for an upgrade?

audiobill's picture

I too have a Bluesound Node. I was delighted to find that my first generation device was upgradable for MQA decoding. However, judging from this article, it seems that my first generation DragonFly will not be MQA upgradable. Am I correct?

ddisbennett's picture

Although I assumed the first generation Dragonfly would not be upgradeable, I really didn't know for certain. I Googled it and found the following on a forum. This is not "official" from AQ as far as I know, but seems correct:

Just found out - DragonFly 1.0 and DragonFly 1.2 are NOT firmware upgradeable. Only the newer Black and Red models will be upgradeable with MQA capability.

tonykaz's picture

This is impressive news.

Are you going?, are you gonna bring Jana and her Camera?

I retailed Meridian stuff 35 years ago, I love Meridian, they're finally getting some traction.

Tony in Michigan

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

The list in the article only includes MQA partners who will exhibit at Munich High End. Different and perhaps additional partners - there are more, with the list growing - will show at LAAS in June.

Paul Messenger is slated to cover Munich High End for Stereophile. Some US manufacturers are already flying to Munich to begin preparations for that four day show. John Atkinson, Jana Dagnadan, and I will cover the Los Angeles Audio Show June 2-4.

Mordante's picture

Personally I fail to see the point of MQA. Why not stream the hires data directly without the use of MQA. Or at least give the choice. Bandwith isn't a problem for many people.

PAR's picture

" Bandwith isn't a problem for many people."

But equally it is a problem for many other people. Even here in the UK , one of the planet's technically most advanced countries, adequate bandwidth for hi-rez streaming ( or even for an internet connection at all) is not available to those living in many rural areas. Then try much of Africa and Asia.

Furthermore fast broadband is expensive even if one can get a connection and many low earners (often doing essential jobs) simply cannot afford it.

CG's picture

Is this really right?

I get that there's external decoding software available that will unfold the MQA file origami. I get that special firmware within the DAC is required to completely decode the MQA file.

But, can a DAC - even a great one like the DragonFly Red - that has a maximum sampling rate acceptance of 96 KHz actually reproduce files that have a 192 KHz sampling rate? Wouldn't that be the definition of "full MQA playback"?

Or, does "full MQA playback" actually mean that the DAC with the upgraded firmware will decode MQA files up to a maximum sampling rate of 96 KHz?

Please help me out here.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Your question is a good one. But a spokesperson for the company, I am not.

CG's picture

Fair response! Thanks.

PAR's picture

As far as I am aware from a number of sources the upgraded Dragonfly will only process the first fold i.e. limiting resolution to a maximum of 24/96. Of course as you correctly point out this portable DAC cannot convert files to analogue of higher resolution than this in any case.

It looks here that using the term " full MQA decoding" may be a flight of imagination from Audioquest's publicist. I'll be at the Munich show next week and will have the chance to have a chat with AQ about it.

I won't be rushing to upgrade my own Dragonfly Red as none of the new MQA partners appears to be in the role of distributors of MQA files i.e. streaming services. So the availabilty of MQA in real life remains exclusive to Tidal subscribers (of which I am not one) plus a couple of boutique record labels. I am sure that Sony will only be supplying tracks to Tidal along the lines of Warner ( and, to come, UMG).

CG's picture

Great!

If you have time and opportunity, please update us with what you learn.

Thanks.

LTU's picture

You misunderstand the function of an MQA "renderer" like the AudioQuest as opposed to a complete "decoder" such as the Meridian2 DAC. It's true that, even using the new firmware, the AudioQuest Dragonfly Black or Red will only accept a stream to a maximum of 24/96. That's also the maximum possible coming from the TIDAL desktop app once it does the initial MQA unfold, not the Dragonfly. The AudioQuest cannot do "full MQA decoding" but it can complete the final steps AFTER the first unfold to deliver the FULL encoded resolution, which is also now tailored for it's analog chip. 24/88 or 24/96 in from TIDAL, up to 24/384 out via the Black or Red DAC.

PAR's picture

" The AudioQuest cannot do "full MQA decoding" but it can "complete the final steps AFTER the first unfold to deliver the FULL encoded resolution"

Thank you for your interest in my comment. However I have no idea what your point above means. What is the difference between not being able to do full decoding yet at the same time being able to complete the final steps to provide full encoded resolution? The latter seems synonymous with full decoding which you simultaneously say it cannot do.

Furthermore AQ say that the Dragonfly is deliberately limited to 24/96. Also its hardware is limited to displaying 24/96 data rate as the maximum. of course the Dragonlfy will downsample files above this rate.

I look forward to your further illumination of your point.

LTU's picture

I'm sorry that I wasn't clear in trying to explain that the AQ Dragonfly cannot do all of the work necessary for a complete decode. So if you give it a 24/48 MQA file, it will not output the full monty. Instead, it relies on software, like that in the TIDAL and Audirvana apps, to provide the partially-decoded file after the first unfold to 88.2 or 96.

Even though the Dragonfly can't accept data input above 96, it CAN unfold MQA to completion on output.

PAR's picture

Many thanks and I think I now understand your point better.

" it relies on software, like that in the TIDAL and Audirvana apps, to provide the partially-decoded file after the first unfold to 88.2 or 96."

If , as you say, the Tidal app undertakes the decoding of the first fold and then passes the 24/96 file to the Dragonfly how would it know that it was to undertake further decoding? As far as it is concerned it has just received a straight 24/96 file. The normal protocol with Tidal is to use the "pass through" option with an external DAC which provides a raw undecoded MQA file to it.

Furthermore if correct this would make the Dragonfly useless with any MQA source that did not complete the first fold decoding. I doubt that would be commercially viable as although it would work with Tidal it would not with an MQA encoded download from a record label.

Anyway I shall have a chance to talk with both AQ and MQA about it later this week.

LTU's picture

The MQA file arrives with instructions for the DAC to do what it can. If the file has already been partially decoded, it knows to finish the job. If it has not been worked on (for the first unfold), the AQ Dragonfly has enough processing capability to do that initial step instead, but not enough horsepower to finish the whole job on it's own.

So it is commercially viable in that you'll get at least some of the MQA goodness up to 24/96 without paying for a TIDAL subscription. Lower power devices like this are also relatively inexpensive and can be used with an iPhone via a simple adapter. My Explorer2 needs an additional, external power supply to work with my phone, which is not exactly portable.

ddisbennett's picture

Thank you for your explanation regarding the AQ Dragonfly's decoding of MQA relative to Tidal, etc. I would assume, but do not know, that the Bluesound Node streamer, which has always had a 24/192 DAC, can complete the entire decoding process with an MQA file and not have to rely on the Tidal desktop app to do part of the job. If you or anyone listening at home can affirm or deny the above it would be greatly appreciated! I believe the DAC chip in the Node streamer is a Cirrus Logic, but don't know the model number. FWIW, my Node played the files I downloaded from 2L and stored on my NAS and the Bluesound app displayed the MQA symbol and the little blue light while playing those files.

ddisbennett's picture

I have actually wondered this myself as various DACs have the ability to decode various levels of resolution. This begs the question when decoding an MQA file which was originally recorded in 192/24 or even DSD as to whether a DAC which does not decode 192/24 or DSD can even play back those files, and if so, at what resolution? Further, I have one portable DAC which will play back files up to 96/24 natively and also play 192/24 files by downsampling them to 96/24, so I wonder what would happen in that case? I can think of several other scenarios of different DACs with different file handling capabilities dealing or attempting to deal with MQA files. I will talk to both Audioquest and the MQA representatives about this in Munich next week and post their answers here.

CG's picture

All you guys are going to Munich.

I'm jealous.

Have a good time! Please update us with what you learn once you have a chance.

PAR's picture

" whether a DAC which does not decode 192/24 or DSD can even play back those files"

Just as a small point as you raise it. MQA is PCM only. If you know even roughly how it (apparently) works then you will immediately understand that it cannot function with a 1 bit data stream as it uses the LSBs to hold the data occuring above standard resolution.

ddisbennett's picture

Thank you for your comment. I do not profess to be an "expert" on the inner machinations of MQA encoding/decoding. I was merely trying to relate my own experience with my own DACs as well as demonstrations I have heard at shows and audio friends homes. As I mentioned, I first downloaded some of the free MQA files on the 2L Records site and I can only surmise that since many of those same files are also available in various resolutions in the DSD format, including some of the files I downloaded, that information stuck in my brain as being the original recording format. In fact, most of the files available were originally recorded in DXD (again, my brain may have translated that to DSD)while one was originally recorded at 16/44.1 and another at 24/96. However, your comment does beg the question: what about all the music recorded in DSD? I can only assume, that based on your comment, it must first be converted to some form of PCM before getting the MQA treatment. These are interesting times!

Solarophile's picture

There really should not be any mystery with MQA.It's basically PCM with a bit of encoded stuff tagged on to the lower bits usually buried in the noise floor. Similar to what HDCD did all those years ago but with more bits to play with.

Anything that was recorded in DSD was converted to PCM if you want it as a MQA file. The basic decoding like in Tidal is to unfold to 24/96 by software. Some DAC firmware can decoded it higher to 192kHz or 384kHz but there's not much content up there in tests done. Each "origami" fold adds less actual content.

Like I said, there should not be much mystery. Not that complicated based on what folks have found and the descriptions in the patents on line.

Have fun talking to the MQA people. I wonder if they will do an A/B listening test this year?

ddisbennett's picture

I was only able to speak briefly to the AQ representative about their Dragonfly's decoding of MQA. I was not able to find the MQA room, although I know Bob Stuart was speaking at one of the seminars. The AQ rep told me that, as stated above, the Dragonfly's are Renderers and not full decoders as these units simply do not have the processing power to do the full monty. So they will take the MQA file and do the first level unfold to 24/96. Or, if the Tidal desktop app is used, the Dragonfly will take the MQA file after the app has performed the first unfold and "finish" the job for higher resolution files. He said the DAC chips in the Dragonfly's can actually decode PCM up to 768, although I doubt there are many/any commercial MQA files which were originally recorded at that resolution. So for music that was originally recorded at 24/192, the Tidal app will decode to 24/96 and then the Dragonfly will handle the second unfolding to 24/192 and output analog audio from that. He went on to say that their were two reasons the first generation Dragonfly's were not "allowed" to decode anything above 24/96 is that they wanted it to be plug and play for beginning audiophiles who might not understand why/how to install a class 2 USB audio driver to make it work; and secondly, because the DAC chip in the first generation Dragonfly's generated too much noise at resolutions above 24/96. The new DAC chip is much quieter than the old chip, so they "allowed" it to decode resolutions above 24/96, at least for MQA. I didn't have time to ask if they planned on another firmware update to allow the Dragonfly's to decode higher resolution files above 24/96 for non-MQA music. I assume they would also need to provide a class 2 USB Audio driver for PC's.

PAR's picture

" I can only assume, that based on your comment, it must first be converted to some form of PCM before getting the MQA treatment. These are interesting times!"

Yes, that is correct. However the irony is that virtually all DSD tracks have already been converted at least once to PCM then back to DSD again. This is because DSD cannot be edited and the only way to do this is in a PCM format.

As the full spectral content of the original DSD file needs to be retained, a high resolution PCM format is chosen to do the editing which ultimately led to the invention of DXD. The original purpose of DXD was as an editing format for DSD (hence the name chosen for it).

Archimago's picture

Guys, just some reality testing about the Dragonfly devices and MQA.

Remember that they're not using powerful microcontrollers in these USB DACs. Based on information here:
http://www.audioquest.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/dragonfly-spec-shee...

We see that the Dragonfly Red and Black are both using the Microchip PIC32MX controller. The "CPU" for this is a MIPS32 that can only go up to 120MHz and 128KB of RAM *at best*! There's not much speed there for MQA decoding which is why you need something like Tidal to do the initial 48 --> 96kHz unfolding step.

The question then is, if the Dragonfly can't do even decoding to 96kHz, just what *can* it do beyond that for the "full" decoding internally to say 192kHz?

IMO, it's likely not doing much else but maybe detecting that MQA encoding is present and maybe playing with the parameters for the ESS DAC's filtering. Realise that this is highly unlikely to sound much different because the filter will just be used for a 88/96kHz signal from Tidal (or Audirvana Plus). Already we're talking Nyquist up at 44/48kHz and beyond audible range for the filter to have much effect unless they're adding other processing like attenuation (which I assume they should not!). I think this is why they're using the term "rendering" instead of actual "decoding".

Will be interesting to hear what the MQA and AQ reps have to say in their claims about this firmware.

PS: I'm sure the firmware changes the dragonfly's funky color when it detects MQA... Having a visual indicator seems important with MQA.

dalethorn's picture

I worry about updating my DF Red's firmware. The job it has done so far is simple enough - to play 96 khz and lesser tracks, but with MQA it seems that the software can become complex, and possibly have bugs. Bugs in a hi-fi DAC are really bad news, so I hope against hope that there is no existing functionality lost in the firmware update. I have music players that have lost functionality after upgrades.

tonykaz's picture

I can't help but notice the incredible depth of discussion that you triggered with your Milestones announcement.

There's some intellectual powerhouses amongst this Group of comments.

You 'uniquely' seem to be attracting this high level of talent.

Annnnnnnnd, you don't seem to be applying any 'moderating' limits, nor are am I reading any BS blatherings. This is better than any Journalism has ever been in my lifetime.

Tony in Michigan

rschryer's picture

Not only do I agree with Tony's preceding statement, I also recommend that he become the official stereophile.com mascot, banana-plug pants and all. :-)

tonykaz's picture

Monster Cable stuff I once sold, for covering the cut ends of their $2.50 per foot 'Reference' ( best ) speaker cable ???

I'm an Active Speaker lover.

Although I did discover goodness in MH750 Speaker Cable that didn't have Pants.

Tony in Michigan

ps. I'm talking with technical people that are confirming the failures of SD memory Cards, thank you Dalethorn for that reference, it kind of reinforces the Tidal rental concept as being viable.

dalethorn's picture

I like that we have audiophile streaming now. My hope is that it can become 100 percent reliable, and have a really encompassing catalog. And speaking of catalog, I hate it that after all these years I still can't get a copy of Bert Parks singing Mona Lisa, like in The Freshman.

tonykaz's picture

Someday ?

I recently ( around 1990 ) found "Only a Rose" from the Vagabond King, after decades of searching. I'm still hunting for the work songs being sung in the Gregory Peck version of Moby Dick.

From Sheet Music, my mother sang a large number of Songs that were never recorded, the time before Recorded music was in every household, when people played the Piano. It was thrilling, it was real, it was fun and it was everywhere.

We've come a loooooong ways in 80 Years.

Tony in Michigan

HiFi Jedi's picture

Hoping many of my fav wireless speakers will be able to utilize! - MQA can't come fast enough!

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