Spencer Chrislu: Master Quality Authenticated

Most people who have heard music recordings encoded with Master Quality Authenticated agree that it sounds really goood (footnote 1)—but even they recognize that at least one major challenge remains: ensuring that listeners can actually get, in MQA format, the music they most love. I spoke with Spencer Chrislu, MQA's director of content services, about the company's efforts to meet this challenge.

Jim Austin: Please tell us about your background.

Spencer Chrislu: Wow, where do I start? I've been a music fan all my life, and fell in love with high-end audio as a teenager. I've always been fascinated by music production, and wanted to be a recording engineer from early on. I went to school at the University of Illinois and graduated with a BS in Electrical Engineering. After moving to California, I got the incredible opportunity to work with Frank Zappa for the last three years of his life, and later moved on to work on high-resolution DVD-Audio releases for Warner Music, where I met Bob Stuart [then with Meridian Audio]. After 14 years at Warner, and after hearing the first generation of MQA, I jumped at the idea of working together with Bob.

JCA: What is your role at MQA?

SC: I am the director of content services, which means that I'm involved with helping and advising on the production and archiving of tapes from various vaults around the world, to the nuts and bolts of making the MQA production process work inside the studios. Since we're a small team, I'm also heavily involved in new-partner engineering discussions and taking some of the administrative burdens off the engineers.

JCA: What are the advantages of MQA for music producers and consumers?

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SC: It's amazing, in the sense that it gets us back to all listening to the same source—but now it's the source that came from the mastering desk itself, at the best possible resolution. And it's authenticated! So now music fans know they're getting the exact same music their favorite artist heard, and music producers know their art that they've sweated over gets to their fans untouched by anything in the supply chain.

JCA: Does MQA always start with the master tape?

SC: MQA should start with the best possible master in whatever form it is in. This could mean the master from the original tape, the digital archive, or the final master from the mastering desk.

JCA: Please share your observations as a sound engineer: What does MQA sound like?

SC: I tell everyone that I hear a tonal alignment from the midbass on up to the highest highs. Voices have a chest instead of a disembodied head, double bass has a real cavity that resonates with every note, piano soundboards and sustains go on forever, and reverberation tails have every detail, and decay naturally without falling off a cliff. And the edginess and glare is gone.

Beyond that, there is a sense of ease to the music very much like a live performance. You no longer have to "focus" to try to pick out a musical line or harmony, but you find yourself lost in the music and able to easily move around on the soundstage and easily hear everything going on in the recording.

JCA: Most of the MQA recordings I've heard so far are audiophile recordings. But the bulk of available music is dynamically compressed and aurally indifferent. What should we expect from MQA versions of the bulk of the catalog? Will it make undistinguished CDs— early-1980s CDs, say—sound significantly better—or will it just make the flaws more apparent?

SC: It has made everything that I've heard from that era sound better. I worked almost exclusively in digital in that era, and I can tell you that my recordings have been greatly enhanced by the MQA process. All I can say is that it will make it sound like it was coming from the mastering desk as opposed to through hashy converters.

JCA: What are the company's ambitions for MQA? Do you hope/expect that all digital music will someday be MQA encoded?

SC: Well, that's the goal!

JCA: How is label recruitment going?

SC: When the labels and music owners have heard MQA, they've loved it. When the download and streaming services saw what it could save them in bandwidth and storage and still offer the highest-resolution material, they've loved it too. The rest comes down to the nuts and bolts of making a real agreement that works for both sides. Labels and services are excited, and they're on board. You'll definitely see things happen very, very soon (footnote 2).

JCA: Last May, in a press release, MQA and Warner Music Group (WMG) announced a licensing deal that, they said, "paves the way for recordings from WMG's diverse roster of acclaimed artists and its world-renowned catalogue to be made available in studio master quality through MQA distributors." What can we expect from Warner in the coming months?

SC: While we can't share details regarding specific Warner releases yet, we're working closely with the WMG teams to identify, encode, and deliver some of the most amazing music in their collection of labels.

JCA: Craig Kallman, the CEO of Atlantic Records, has been publicly enthusiastic about MQA. Does that mean we should expect to soon see, say, the Charles Mingus catalog on MQA? Ray Charles? Led Zeppelin? What other labels are you talking to?

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SC: I'm not at liberty to say just yet on this particular question, but since the release of the Amy Duncan album [Undercurrents, Diverse 53 and/or Filly 001] and the 2L catalog, we've had a number of inquiries from smaller independent labels and artists, and we're working with them all. There is some great music out there, and right now, my time is largely spent making sure everyone gets to hear as much of it as possible in MQA.

JCA: Tidal is streaming a lot of music from a lot of different labels and companies, and reportedly will soon be streaming in MQA. Does this mean that all those labels are on board? If so, who's doing the encoding? Does Tidal have access to all those master files?

SC: Tidal has been a great partner with MQA from the beginning. They've seen the potential for MQA, and how it could drop into their current infrastructure and give them something that differentiates them from every other service out there. I can't really comment on the specifics of Tidal's business—you'd have to ask them directly—but everyone understands that MQA should come from the best possible source, and from someone empowered to make that choice.

JCA: A few people on computer-audio forums have called MQA a way of putting the digital cat back in the bag—that it is, in effect, a new form of digital rights management (DRM). If MQA is implemented the way you intend and anticipate, will it affect end users' ability to share digital music files?

SC: No cats, no bags, and especially no DRM. MQA is PCM audio, plain and simple. It's a much more intelligent PCM audio, using the coding space in a much more efficient manner, but make no mistake: MQA is backward-compatible with every DAC out there, and that MQA file, even undecoded, will sound better than CD due to the de-blurring we do. But once you get it into an MQA decoder, that's where it really takes off. You can share it with your family and it will adapt to every playback environment.

It's important, though, to protect the interests of studios. If a studio does their archive at 24-bit/192kHz and then uses that same file as something to sell on a hi-rez site, that is basically giving away the crown jewels upon which their entire business is based. But beyond that, the file is incredibly large and unwieldy. So MQA comes along, and can take that tape from the archive, make it sound better than ever, and deliver it in a format that is fully authenticated and waaaayyyy smaller.

Can MQA files end up on a Torrent site? Sure, and they will, but the only way to really get the best resolution is to play it back through [an MQA] decoder. Can the analog output of an MQA DAC be captured back to digital and then put on a Torrent site? Yes, but the resulting file will be huge (again), not authenticated (so it won't trick people into believing it's the real thing), and will have gone through a blurring A/D conversion, which will degrade the sound.

MQA really is about delivering—and guaranteeing—the sound of the master tape, without all the hassle of actually transporting the huge amount of inefficient data of the master tape.

There is no point in trying to lock anything down, but we think there is real value in letting people know that the file they download or stream has real, traceable provenance from the owner, and gives them a great musical experience in a way that is convenient to how they enjoy music now. And should there be something even better than MQA coming down the pike, the labels will be able to leverage their archive to take advantage of that medium.



Footnote 1: See my review of the Meridian Explorer2 in June 2016, JA's listening impressions, and Michael Lavorgna's comments here.

Footnote 2: At a late-August press launch at the Kripton HQM store in Tokyo, it was announced that MQA music will be available on HQM's high resolution download music service from the beginning of October 2016. Labels offering MQA-encoded recordings on the service for the first time will include Camerata, Shinkomusic Entertainment and Berkeley Square Music. Music in MQA format is currently available in Japan from the e-onkyo music store, most notably recordings from acclaimed Japanese label UNAMAS and the entire catalog of "Anime" specialist label Falcom. Indie-oriented digital music service, Ototoy, has plans to offer MQA music later this year, including recordings from the Beagle Kick label.

COMMENTS
volvic's picture

and great questions. I don't stream nor subscribe to Tidal, but if MQA improves playback for all, then that to me is a great thing and a good thing for recorded music not just for audiophiles but for all listeners.

mrvco's picture

Just let the software player (Tidal or otherwise) unfold MQA and send it to my DAC. I don't have a problem with streaming services like Tidal utilizing MQA to reduce their storage and streaming costs. However I can't say that I have any interest in tying any or all of my digital music collection to a proprietary format that requires proprietary hardware with licensing and royalties at every step from production through to playback. We don't need another HDCD or DVD-A.

Just the facts's picture

However I can't say that I have any interest in tying any or all of my music to a proprietary format that requires proprietary hardware with licensing and royalties at every step from production through to playback.
These same objections applied to the R.I.A.A Long Playing records.
Licensing and royalties are a constant. You WILL pay to listen.
Or listen to that crappy Russian pop for free.

Anton's picture

Hey, "read between the lines, folks."

Saint0's picture

Interesting quote, explains why digital, even Hi-Res digital sucks, "It's important, though, to protect the interests of studios. If a studio does their archive at 24-bit/192kHz and then uses that same file as something to sell on a hi-rez site, that is basically giving away the crown jewels upon which their entire business is based."

I've noticed the studios tend to use better masters (less compressed, higher DR) for vinyls, perpetuating the myth that vinyl is better than digital to protect their "crown jewel!

eriks's picture

I'm sorry, I'm trying to be open minded about MQA, but I can't get past the first sentence of this article. "Most people who have heard music recordings encoded with Master Quality Authenticated agree that it sounds really goood [sic]." Please back that up with evidence, or clarification.

The few MQA tracks I could find sound fine, just like PCM to me. If that is "really goood" then I guess I can't argue with you, but the extra "o"s make me believe you are stating it's better than regular old PCM. If that's the case, let's see real evidence of comparisons, or point out recordings which demonstrate this marvelous new snake...er, I mean technology. The few of us who can actually play MQA back are having more than the usual trouble matching our experience to yours. That's me being hyperbolic and speaking vaguely about people I have never counted.

Best,

Erik

Just the facts's picture

Read the white paper. It's designed to solve problems elegantly and efficiently. And then does so. The engineering is sound. Pun intended.
Most things designed to perform better do.
There is no reason to doubt experienced listeners impressions.
Without listening to MQA, but over 40 years a listener I am going to buy into this. It cannot be any worse. That temporal blur they talk about has always been a thorn in my ear. If it works only half as well as some say, I'll be pleased.

eriks's picture

I also read the Benchmark Media blog about it, which is much more clear. I see reams of postulates, hypothesis with proposed solution and no empirical evidence for me to examine myself. Again, I question the entire first sentence for it's accuracy.

I have an MQA capable DAC and I'm ready to be wowed. Some one wow me.

I've seen the Emperor and he seems naked to me. Perhaps my eyesight, ears or intelligence is beneath the level required to perceive them. If you feel you can perceive his clothes, however, there's no reason why you should not order some for yourself.

Best,

Erik

Just the facts's picture

When the idea of phase (driver) alignment was first introduced, to my memory Dahlquist, B&O and then name of the inverted foam pyramids escapes me, it only made mechanical sense. I owned Klipsch horn loaded undamped plywood boxes.
On my first listening I knew exactly what they intended. A focus dissimilar distant sources could not attempt without additional complexity.
This method carries the same sort of obvious truth about "blur" and encoding packaging.
Consider the enormous data wasted at 20hz at 192khz , 32 bit.
They allot data density where it matters.
This is unlike the weird sculpture that deepens images.
Truth does not always need empirical evidence to be truth.
Some things we can lend credibility by plausibility, feasibility and probability. And it will likely sound good.
I've often found that a critical eye can guess which products will sound good in your situation.
Seeing how Magicos are built for instance.

Just the facts's picture

Memory just kicked in with Duntech. Early adopter of phase alignment, directivity and diffraction control and considered a reference by many for years.

eriks's picture

Hey Just The Facts, have you actually listened to MQA? Because I have. It's been a very "meh" experience.

Sound quality trumps all of theory and technology. Where is the single track that makes me go "Oh my god, I've been wasting all this time enjoying what I thought was music, but now I have MQA and I am saved!"

I'm not asking for much. 4 minutes or more of audio that demonstrates the superiority of the format. Failing that, it's no better than black energy generators and room temperature fusion.

I love the tech by the way, I love the folding idea, but not the implementation necessarily.

Best,

Erik

Just the facts's picture

On the very surface black energy generators and room temperature fusion make no sense.
Perhaps you like pizazz and reality doesn't.
"Meh" is a feeling, not an attribute. You probably brought in with you.

eriks's picture

Pot and kettle and all.

eriks's picture

Those generators make no sense on the surface or in reality. No one has ever proven black energy or cold fusion has ever produced a single watt of excess energy, unlike say, solar cells or burning paper. Not to say it won't someday, but that's a field that is historically littered with charlatans.

"Meh" is shorthand for "I heard no difference at all."

If this technology is that great, Wow me. Don't make me hunt around for it with a microscope.

Again, I've heard what sources I could. If you have actually heard anything that says "MQA is better than a cat's pajamas" please be specific and point me to a location where I can experience this.

Not just you, anyone! :) I'll even host a listening party near SF if some one points me to anything remotely close to showing MQA is worth it. Not different, but significantly better in a way that is easy to tell. The last thing we need is a new format that only the magically gifted can hear a benefit from.

Best,

Erik

Just the facts's picture

You'd simply insist you hear no difference.
Then declare victory.

eriks's picture

Troll away.

I have a feeling I'll be waiting here, like Stephen Hawking waiting for time travelers to come back from the future, waiting for evidence that MQA does anything significantly better. But wait I shall.

Best,

Erik

Glotz's picture

C'mon... Do you really think that Bob has proven himself to be anything less than a trustworthy and utterly brilliant audio designer?

I think Mr. Stuart has acquitted himself very nicely over the past decades, and he has the same, heart-felt intent for people to enjoy music, as we do for ourselves.

But you do read this magazine, and I would think you trust its editors to, you know... tell the truth as they see it?

It seems that most posters here don't believe anyone, and don't trust anyone. Or more importantly, they've already made up their minds without really looking or listening deeply.

Why would some of the most trusted writers of the past 30 years lie to you or anyone (about MQA)?

Do you really think that a trusted and proven designer like Bob Stuart would lie to you as well? His products from long ago or just this year all prove he makes incredible and innovative products and his intent is genuine.

It's really rather on the posters here.. it seems that almost everyone has lost their OPEN minds. Shame.

eriks's picture

An open mind can also be a skeptical one.Whether or not there are significant personages lying or exaggerating claims made for MQA is a straw man argument, and not really something I think about at all.

The real question is, can I hear any difference? Is there any value to me, personally. I can safely say "No, not a dime's worth." I have yet to hear any benefit of MQA through my own DAC. Of course I'm a stranger with no track record in the industry but I'm somewhat comforted that my opinion is shared by industry insiders such as Paul McGowan of PS Audio, and others as well as members of audiophile societies whom I generally respect.

It is of course possible that modern DAC's have made MQA obsolete. I have heard several DACs over the past 5 years make amazing improvements in Redbook performance and as a result what benefit MQA might have had is a decade too late.

I'm generally disillusioned by any so-called great stride forward that requires a "microscope and tweezers" approach to discovering them, which seems to be the case for MQA. Compare this to say Dolby A,B, C, dbx I or II or tape biasing. Massive gains! Easy to shell out extra money for. Even changing filters from minimum phase to conventional makes more of a listenable difference to me than MQA does. So to me thisis much more like the emperor's robes. I'm afraid I think he's naked and I'm just going to have to accept I'm not as smart or have as sensitive hearing or system than those who see the robes.

You and any other readers are free to form your own opinions on the matter and spend your money however you like and I will not be upset either way. But for me, meh!

Best,

Erik

Glotz's picture

The tone of your comments here and above show that you aren't going to trust out of hand.

The comparisons of the dbx and Dolby are both false examples and yet still a poor comparison.

If technology this aids recordings from here on out in terms of some form of standardization, it assists the industry at large, and in counterpoint to your fears that every few years a new snake oil is invented.

Meridian has been making cutting edge gear for 30 plus years. To dismiss them out of hand, and not take many of the other well-respected reviewers and manufacturers that do back MQA is equally unwise.

I do trust Paul's opinions and his sense of truth- I know first hand from my purchases with PS Audio.

I can attest as well, that it may not make a difference due to the quality (subjective or objective) of many modern DSD Dacs as well.

You may indeed be right about improvements with Redbook Dacs, such as PS Audio's offering that uses its own FPGA system.

But that loads the question with your example, you bring one company that custom-designed its own DAC and then claim that the industry doesn't need something like MQA. I wonder if off the shelf chips would benefit or not from this type of development as MQA or later as another technology.

Again, life isn't black and white. Love or Hate. Or even Meh. It requires more thought to the future of what this development could provide later (if not now) and connections with money behind it.

I would disagree and state its scope to far larger than that.

And the higher cost to consumers within this market, I also wonder if that is correct... really, isn't it too early to tell?

Again, I applaud speaking your mind. But many people can't show even simple respect to Bob Stuart and what he has brought to this industry over the past decades.

People treat him on this site as if he's robbing people. That's seriously insulting and deserves complete disdain.

eriks's picture

Little in your argument relies on fact but much on reputations, subjective characterizations of intentions, "tone" and accusations of accusations, etc. It's long and yet paper thin. It does not deserve more of a reply.

Erik

Glotz's picture

You're Jaded.

What about the Meridian 808V6 player? It's a landmark player in many respects.

That's reasons why this deserves a chance in the market place. The first two were explained.

But I'm sure YOUR next digital product will be so much more sophisticated.

I seriously doubt you would ever listen to FREE MQA-equipped player...

HURRUMPH!

DH's picture

What the MQA people haven't answered clearly is if there is going to be a software player that deocdes MQA with it's advantages intact.

I'm certainly not going to repurchase my entire catalog of digital music and also get a new MQA enabled DAC, just for the relatively small number of MQA files I might buy in the future.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

There are a number of them. We've covered their introductions at shows. Pioneer and Onkyo come to mind.

DH's picture

I've seen those product announcements - they're about updates for specific units. Doesn't help someone who doesn't own those devices.

I'm referring to some kind of MQA player software or plugin that anyone can install on a computer and get MQA enabled playback.

If you know of such a thing, please post a link. I've never seen any mention of such software.

tonykaz's picture

A number of them?, anyone know that number??

Seems the advantage here is file size, isn't it?

I've had a love for Meridian since the M-2 speakers ( 1980s ).

I'm fatigued by new formats.

I lost vinyl long ago.

I'll stay committed to Red Book Digital till they again force me.

So, MQA looks like another dud.

However, the LG V20 Quad DAC Audiophile Phone is something to keep an eye on, will you lads at Stereophile have it on your Front Cover?

Wishing you well,

Tony in Michigan

ps. the next 80 days are supposed to get ugly, I'll be in the Battleground States signing paper for two Accountants.

Axiom05's picture

Warner, aren't these the same people that watermarked (audibly so) their digital files? Doesn't sound like they really care about sound quality, just protecting their assets. Not sure that an endorsement of MQA by them is going to carry much weight with me.

Just the facts's picture

You must have missed the part about being backward compatible with your current player while sounding better.
You ok with that?

Anon2's picture

What kind of near-field monitor is the gentleman using in the "MQA studio?"

Allen Fant's picture

Thanks! for sharing- JA.

music guy's picture

We had a local stereo show, Vancouver 2016, and my sweetie pie and I went specifically to hear the Meridian sponsored event. Truly wanted to hear MQA. The room had $200,000.00 of Burmeister and Tidal (speakers).
A totally lackluster gent from Meridian had a small intro then played a cut from Brubeck...the great drum solo from Take Five. No A/B. Someone rightfully asked for a comparison. Didn't happen. He then played an musically meaningless audiophile cut.
As a keen music lover, I am completely interested in all the hulaballoo but the one opportunity Meridian had to offer us any opportunity of hearing their proposed changes fell completely flat. I let with no understanding of this technology.
I now question why the Stereophile team and R. Harley have become relentless cheerleaders as we, the great unwashed, have no opportunity to hear what all the fuss is about.and are only left with your relentless defense in the face of any descent or concern. The issues with DRM should be considered and not simply dismissed.
What's happened to this process?

Anon2's picture

While the muddle of the Hi-Rez arms race continues, the most troubling aspect of Hi-Fi demos are the increasingly threadbare offerings that get played again, and again, and again.

"Take 5" was the featured track in the two of the last three audio events that I have attended in the last 9 months.

In one presentation, we were played a mysteriously up-sampled, re-sampled, hot-rodded version of Take 5 that, in Sci-Fi fashion, was reconstituted and transmuted into a recording of "undefined" resolution. The presenter said, "we're playing this one for a mysterious reason, but it's become a favorite of ours over the years;" "over the decades" is more like it.

The only thing that's missing now is an anti-matter Hi-Rez version of Take 5.

Then of course, where would we be at audio shows without "Stimela?" "When they serve them that mish-mash in that iron plate!!!!!!!!" Then there's Diana Krall and Adele in their various recordings. It was almost a relief to hear the almost obscure "Stairway to Heaven" at one show a few months ago; I looked for the guitar store sign from "Wayne's World" to no avail.

Aside from the Hi-Rez Tower of Babel, and cost-increases that surpass health insurance premiums and Venezuelan inflation, the other thing that the Hi-Fi world must confront is the deepening rut of the same-old, same-old tracks that seem to pop-up in shows from coast to coast, year after year.

I'll look out for you at the next show. Take 5 will be there, too.

Just the facts's picture

"I let with no understanding of this technology."
That's why you don't get it.
If you understood how it works you'd expect it to sound better.
They went a long way to solve problems clearly defined.
Engineering usually solves the problems it tackles.

selmer59's picture

Unity Audio: the Rock hifi active speaker
( with ELAC drivers )