I have never witnessed a hi-fi topic with a seemingly self-perpetuating cycle where the more answers given give rise to more questions than the Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) audio codec. At the risk of continuing this cycle, I'm going to begin this review with some MQA facts.
Some MQA Facts Or Things We Know About MQA Today
I have included Bob Stuart's comments from the fact check in italics.
- The MQA "audio origami" process wraps files in a 24-bit FLAC container which can be read by non-MQA enabled DACs. When playing back high-res content on a non-MQA DAC, the file is presented to the DAC as either 24/44.1 or 24/48 depending on the original sample rate family. You cannot play back an MQA encoded 24/96 file as a 24/96 file on a non-MQA DAC.
- The MQA "origami" process reduces the file size of high-res content down to the size of a 24/44.1 or 24/48 file if the original is higher sample-rate.
- A high-resolution original is "limited to an effective resolution of less than 24 bits" when processed by MQA.
- Every decoder manufacturer who employs MQA, either through an XMOS-based hardware solution or in software, needs a license from MQA.
- The ideal MQA encode process, i.e. on the recording side, is to use an MQA-enabled Analog to Digital Converter (ADC) (licensing fees apply)
- This gives us the minimum temporal blur from end to end (a facet of MQA not often debated in the comments).
- The ideal MQA encode process involves a representative of the record label who has the authority to sign off on the MQA encode. This process involves listening. When using an MQA-enabled DAC, a blue light indicates it is playing a file which has either been approved in the studio by the artist/producer or has been verified by the copyright owner.
- The MQA authentication ‘light’ indicates Provenance in the source for the file. The MQA display indicates that the unit is decoding and playing an MQA stream or file and denotes provenance that the sound is identical to that of the source material. MQA Studio indicates it is playing a file which has either been approved in the studio by the artist/producer or has been verified by the copyright owner.
- When that MQA light lights up green, this indicates that the file has been MQA-encoded but it has not necessarily been listened to and signed off on as described above.
- "The light color indicates provenance rather than quality or resolution."
- DRM has been brought up as a concern regarding MQA. Here's Bob Stuart's answer, "MQA manages no rights, extends or embodies no rights, has no tracing or user information (unlike UITS). There is no management system."
- The fact that an MQA-encoded high-res file cannot be played back in its native resolution by a non-MQA enabled DAC can be looked at as a form of control.
- With respect, this is backwards thinking!
The fact that a high-resolution file can be heard in great quality without a decoder is less ‘controlling’ than the current status quo. Is it a form of control that:
- An LP requires a turntable?
- Was that true for shellac, cylinder, CD, Cassette, Minidisc,?
- Is the fact that an iTunes download requires an AAC decoder a form of control?
- FLAC/TruHD/DTS/Aura3D needs a decoder?
- And what of DSD? If I want to hear this resolution I definitely need a new DAC.
- If I buy a 352 or 192k download from HDTracks I can’t play it in my car, on my phone, etc. Is that control? Or is it just inconvenience? It’s certainly destructive to downsample in software players to hear it.
- You can buy an MQA file and play it anywhere.
Is that control, or is it avoiding ‘last-mile’ meddling?
- With respect, this is backwards thinking!
- "Part of the encoding process adds ancillary data such as date code and copyright owner. The encoder has information about the A-to-D, which tells the decoder how it was encapsulated so the decoder at the other end can use the best decapsulation formula; producing the shortest temporal blur possible for that content. It will vary according to the musical content."
- "The MQA decoder tells you when the data are correct and the same decoder should know the composite DAC and associated analogue sections to get the best answer that hardware can give. By this means we can get a better sound than any other delivery method."
My MQA Questions & Concerns
I have included Bob Stuart's comments in italics.
- The catalog. While MQA recently announced a deal with Warner Music Group, there is at present a paucity of MQA encoded music and we have no idea when/if this will change.
- MQA and Tidal have been working together for some time and the only question remaining is "When" and "How much?"; When will Tidal launch its MQA streaming service and how much high-res content will there be?
- Does MQA encoded music always sound better than the original?
- Does MQA encoded music played back on a non-MQA DAC sound better, worse, or the same as playing back the file in its native resolution?
- Is it possible to draw broad conclusions about MQA when using a limited number of MQA-encoded music played through three different MQA-enabled DACs?
- If MQA corrects for sonically deleterious anomalies in the DAC, how important is the DAC?
- If the Blue MQA indicates that someone has listened to and signed off on the MQA encode, doesn't that mean this process involves some amount of subjectivity?
- The studio sign-off process using the mastering tools certainly expect subjective judgment. Not just to say ‘this is right’ but for the next phase (we have a lot of interest here) where the clarity the MQA process brings starts to influence the mix or mastering of the original recording.
- Is it too soon for an MQA review?
The DACs, the System
The system in use for this review consists of the following stuff:
- Intel i5 NUC running Roon Core and, at times, HQPlayer
- Sonore's RoonReady microRendu connected to the various DACs via USB
- Meridian Prime Headphone Amplifier/DAC
- Meridian Explorer2 DAC and the Meridian Explorer
- Mytek Brooklyn DAC
- dCS Rossini
- Ayre AX-5 Twenty integrated amp
- DeVore Fidelity gibbon X
- AudioQuest NightHawk headphones
I was provided with 28 MQA-encoded titles for review. Most were single tracks also delivered in their native format, as well 3 complete albums which I know very well. Titles included:
- Judy Collins, "When I Go (with Willie Nelson)
- Jun Fukamachi, "Jour naissant
- "Contrapuntus" from The Art of Fugue, Unamas Fugue Quintet
- "String Quartet in F major" Ravel, Guarneri Quartet
- "Debussy Prelude" Joan Rowland
- "Piano Sonata No. 47", Enrique Bagaria Plays Haydn
- "Prelude in B Minor, Op. 28, No 6, Mozart & Chopin Dialog, Joseph Colom
- "Suite BWV 1007 - I. Prelude", The Cello Suites, Petrit Ceku
- "Oh Happy Day", Les 100 Tubes Gospel, Various
- "Humoreske-Bagateller Opus 11", Carl Neilson, Christian Eggen
- "Blagutten", Quite Winter Night, Hoff Ensemble
- Ella & Louis
- I Put A Spell On You, Nina Simone
- "Resonance", Everything for Drums, Hiroshi Fukamizu
- "Jour Naissant", Jour Naissant, Jun Fukamachi
- "Beethoven Piano Concerto 5, Opus 73, 'Emporor Adagio", Beethoven Piano Concertos Nos. 4 & 5, Kyoko Tabe
- "Dark Dance", Color As It Is, Tomononao Hara Quartet
- Pro Pacem, Jordi Savall
- My Favorite Things, John Coltrane
- "Riders On The Storm", L.A. Woman, The Doors
- "How Long Blues", Soul Brothers, Ray Charles/Milt Jackson
MQA sounds great (boom!). That's me making fun of my MQA report from CES wherein I raved and that's also me poking at some of the over-the-top (to my mind) reviews that have since surfaced. Let's dig in.
Listening to Nina Simone sing "No Me Quitte Pas" is always special. I own the 24/96 version of I Put A Spell On You and the LP so I'm familiar with this record. Using the Meridian Prime, I first queued up the regular old 24/96 file, followed by the MQA-encoded version and when Ms. Simone sang out in MQA, she'd moved. Or, more precisely, Ms. Simone took up a more believable and solid place right of center as compared to her more diffuse 24/96 image that kinda sounded as if floated more centered between the speakers, still a bit right, but not as obviously so.
But that's not the only difference. The entire space of the recording opened up, unfolded?, into a more realistic-sounding space; more relaxed, more air, greater ease. Coupled with this improved spatial information, which I'd classify as RFO (Really Fucking Obvious), instruments took up a more solid position within this improved space and they sounded subtly ever that much sweeter.
Next up was the same track played through the dCS Rossini. The idea here being—how does a really good-sounding DAC compare to MQA/Meridian Prime. I went back and forth between the MQA-encoded file, which played back as a 24/48 FLAC file on the Rossini, and my 24/96 download. Hmm. While Ms. Simone was still more firmly located right of center in the MQA-encoded file, the 24/96 version sounded bigger and sweeter and more alive. Strings sung out more, and everything sounded fleshier. To my mind that adds up to better.
Time for a real curve ball, HQPlayer. In order to use HQPlayer with the Meridian Prime, I had to change software settings for the microRendu, which takes about a minute. Since sending music through HQPlayer breaks the MQA chain, I was only able to compare HQPlayer upsampling everything to 24/192 PCM (using the poly-sinc-mp, NS5 settings) to my recent memory of the MQA-decoded version. Hmm. There remains the more obvious Ms. Simone to the right placement with MQA, but HQPlayer appears to add, back?, some of that lovely spatial information that MQA did so well with this recording. In other words, HQPlayer helped close the gap between the 24/96 file played through the Meridian Prime and the MQA-encoded/decoded version.
Ella & Louis were up next, another recording I own the high-res version of (24/96) and another record I know well. "Isn't This A Lovely Day" did not offer any obvious movement of Ella or Louis with the MQA-encoded version but there was a subtle easing of the recorded space where the 24/96 version sounded flatter. Less real. There was also that extra dollop of sweetness with the MQA version, where the piano's upper registers rang out a bit truer, sounding more finely nuanced. More like a real piano. The 24/96 version sounding tinny in comparison.
I listened to all of the MQA music I was given, over many weeks using the Prime and these differences I've explained remained consistent throughout. In the majority of cases, I had the original version to compare to the MQA-encoded version. In those instances where I didn't, the qualities described above were still present. Namely a very nice, natural- and well-defined spatial presentation and a very nuanced and engaging sound.
I also spent time with the MQA-enabled Meridian Explorer2 and the original Explorer sending music to the AudioQuest NightHawk headphones. Listening to The Doors "Riders On The Storm" brings me back to my teenage years in Totowa, NJ, something I'm not going to get into other than say The Doors played a big part in it. A friend, Brian S. used to sing The Doors in bars and once pushed a poorly-performing singer out of the way, grabbed his mic, and proceeded to do his best Jim Morrison to the crowd's, and the other member's of the band's, delight.
I wrote about hearing this MQA version at CES in the BlueSound room and how impressed I was with it. Hearing the MQA-encoded "Riders On The Storm" again, through this setup in-barn, only reinforced my CES impression. I'd never heard Jim Morrison's voice sound the way it does through the MQA version, which can be described as being more dimensional, and pleasantly softer in the mix compared to any other digital version I've heard. I also have the 24/96 version of this album which sounds flatter and harder in comparison. John Densmore's drums sound snappier and fuller, and oddly enough, the rain sounds more like rain via MQA; the 24/96 version makes the rain sound more akin to glass beads hitting plexiglass.
These same files through the original non-MQA Explorer sounded very similar to each other: The MQA version playing back as a 24/48 file and the 24/96 version playing back in its native resolution. I believe the MQA version still had that softer, rounder quality, and a generally less digital sound, but the differences were subtle. I could be happy with either in this hardware and song scenario.
While I've chosen to focus on The Doors, extended listening with these setups confirmed that I preferred the Explorer2 being sent the MQA-encoded versions with the musical selections at hand. Again, think more spatially natural and better defined.
Last, and in no way least, was the MQA-enabled Mytek Brooklyn. I've been living with the Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC for years and enjoy it every day (I'll talk more about the Brooklyn in its own review). Here, the Brooklyn is clearly, to my ears/brain, the better sounding DAC of the bunch. One of the qualities that the Brooklyn DAC imparts that betters the Meridian products is tonal rightness. Things just sound more like they sound, to paraphrase Herb Reichert. This improvement communicated itself to me immediately, obviously, as the Brooklyn drew me into the music in an emotional way that I did not experience with the Prime or Explorers, even with MQA playing end-to-end.
MQA files, when played through the Brooklyn, are therefore more wow-inducing. Jordi Saval's Pro Pacem sounded pretty exquisite in its natural beauty. One can only imagine, and I mean that literally, how the dCS Rossini and other DACs, especially those with their own in-house developed digital processing, will handle MQA...
I went through the entire MQA gamut with the Brooklyn where each recording sounded lovely. How lovely? Is MQA/Mytek the equal of the at-present MQA-less dCS Rossini? Of course not. We're not talking miracles. What we are talking about with MQA is, according to the recordings I have, a more natural sound and the better-sounding the DAC, the more engaging the experience.
I let RoonRadio take over listening at times with the Brooklyn, so I went in and out of MQA, and some recordings made the difference much more noticeable. Crappy recordings sounding flat, better recordings sounded better yet still digital, with really good recordings sounding really good. Of course since my MQA selections were limited, and I'd come to know them all, it was relatively easy for me to know when I was listening to MQA end-to-end, but they consistently bettered non-MQA material. The degree to which this was the case, varied some from recording to recording.
What if I let HQPlayer do its thing and send just DSD to Brooklyn? Again, no MQA in this playback mode but music became that much sweeter, that much more spatially right and relaxed. I'm diggin' HQPlayer, and will talk about it in the future, but I wanted to introduce it here because it also offers some interesting digital processing, and user tweaking to taste, into the playback chain and its creator, Jussi Lasko, also talks about correcting time-domain anomalies in his software. According to my ears, HQPlayer works. As does MQA.
In terms of the 'sound of MQA' end-to-end, my experience says MQA works, and it works on improving music's spatial qualities providing a more natural place within which music unfolds. MQA end-to-end also improved the realness of reproduced music; nuance, detail, clarity, tone, and impact.
Just how much of an improvement over non-MQA encoded music depended on the recording, and just how wow-inducing these changes were depended on the DAC. For me, when just listening to music I enjoy, MQA was a nice-to-have change in the queue but, and this is an important but, I was not somehow suddenly disappointed with my non-MQA music. Sticking with Mytek's Brooklyn and HQPlayer, I was able to get nice and cozy with all of my music, no problem. Did I miss MQA? For some recordings, like the Doors, sure. But not so much as to get around the fact that for my listening habits, MQA needs to offer a very large catalog of MQA-encoded music before I get really excited.
Which brings us to Tidal. When Tidal begins to stream MQA, remember they demoed their MQA capabilities at RMAF 2015, and if the number of titles number in the thousands and tick up each month, it will then be time for me to take a more serious look at MQA-enabled DACs: Music availability being the overarching determination of whether or not a new audio codec is worth investing in, for me.
To answer some of my concerns:
- Does MQA encoded music always sound better than the original? With the recordings I heard MQA encoded music consistently sounded better than the original. I cannot speak to "always".
- Does MQA encoded music played back on a non-MQA DAC sound better, worse, or the same as playing back the file in its native resolution? While it depended on the recording, un-decoded MQA file did not sound worse than the original native file and in some cases, the un-decoded MQA version sounded better.
- Is it possible to draw broad conclusions about MQA when using a limited number of MQA-encoded files played through three different MQA-enabled DACs? Not really. We can speak to the specifics with real confidence and only make assumptions from there.
- If MQA corrects for sonically deleterious anomalies in the DAC, how important is the DAC? The DAC appears to be as important as it always was. The good news is that MQA made music sound better with the three DACs used in this review.
- Is it too soon for an MQA review? Yes and no.
1. Atkinson, John. "Inside MQA", Stereophile
2. Stuart, Bob. "A Comprehensive Q&A With MQA's Bob Stuart". Computer Audiophile
3. Stuart, Bob. "Master Quality Authenticated: The Interview". The Absolute Sound