General MQA Discussion


#1

This is an initial spot for general discussions about MQA (“Master Quality Authenticated”).

If you have specific questions about how to get or play MQA content (and/or whether it will work with non-MQA gear), I have a dedicated thread for that here; which is intended purely for support/how-to/what-is type questions.

What is MQA?

MQA, an abbreviation for “Master Quality Authenticated”, is a means of encoding, and decoding, audio data, filter-settings and authentication information within an otherwise standard PCM audio file/stream. It allows for “normal” playback on non-MQA aware/enabled hardware/software, as well as “enhanced” playback with software and/or hardware that is MQA-enabled or aware.

MQA claims significantly improved playback quality and resolution using their system, while maintaining full compatibility with existing gear.


MQA Playback & Support
#2

I’m not very familiar with MQA although my Audirvana + Dac support it. Is this similar to cd that plays redbook or enhanced. As Sacd cds can only be decoded with Sacd player?
Maybe the main difference is in the size of the file with MQA being much smaller?


#3

Sorry. I think my answers probably are addressed in the other thread you started. Didn’t see it earlier.


#4

It’s a bit different to either. Let’s take those cases individually though.

CDs (simple, raw, Redbook) and HDCDs are a bit closer, conceptually, to what MQA is doing. An HDCD (per the Pacific Microsonics definition of “HDCD”) encoded disc will play as normal on any regular CD player. If you had a CD player that could decode HDCD, which used an, again conceptually, similar encoding scheme to “bury” the HDCD information in the normal PCM bit-stream, it would play at “higher definition”.

So in that sense, there is a similarity between CD/HDCD and MQA.

That said, the actual encoding model, and what is being encoded is very different to MQA.

SACDs are completely different. There are actually two physical layers to a hybrid SACD disc. One is an absolutely standard Redbook CD layer (same pit-length, encoding, ECC and capacity). The other is a DSD-encoded layer that uses basically the same physical specification as DVD.

This would be closer to having one folder of CD-quality audio and another of Hi-Res audio, in an outer folder, and simply choosing one or the other to play.


MQA “folds” (compresses) additional data into the main PCM bitstream. It uses the three least-significant bits for each sample to do this. A non-MQA replay chain will just play the bits as it sees them - which will mean those LSBs differ from an otherwise identical mastering that isn’t MQA-encoded. An MQA-enabled replay chain can use the data, and instructions, that are encoded there-in to deliver an “unfolded” (claimed to be higher-resolution) version of the basic PCM data.

This is actually the right thread for your question!


#5

I took the plunge today. Yesterday I backed up the Mac mini, upgraded to Mojave OS. Today I downloaded trials of Tidal HiFi and Roon. Installed Roon core on the Mac Mini. I’ve sort of tested it and find it works.

The Roon setup was simple, but the results are a little odd. Not sure what the System Output that is supposed to be “default” is. Can’t get rid of it, but I seem to be able to make it play through other devices, including the Dragonfly Black.

Tested a few songs that I knew, and the sound seemed pretty good when Roon invoked Tidal for 44.1/16 FLAC streaming and 44.1/24 with MQA. Predictably when going for older material, it wasn’t so good (Benny Goodman Trio) but was probably to be expected.

This will take some getting used to. I have not been able to get Roon to recognize a the few tracks I have saved on my PC yet. Either I’m doing something wrong with the smb path, or maybe not sharing right on windows. I don’t have Windows Media player running in the background as a server.

That’s just a matter of trial and error, I think.


#6

This might help.


#7

So basically it’s a carrier for normal and hi-res audio tracks in its simplest term. Does MQA playing in its hi-red state offer anything audio wise over other hi-res audio standards?

-Paul-


#8

They make a few claims … the first being that it delivers equivalent (or better) audio quality than normal hi-res files/streaming using less space/bandwidth. They also claim that the MQA filters (which appear to be in a class of minimum-phase/apodizing filters) do a better job and that they have the ability to apply “temporary de-blurring” going back to the ADC stage. And of course they claim they can “authenticate” the file has not been changed from the version they published (which to a certain extent is true, but you can tamper with the file in specific ways and not break that authentication).

Now … that’s what MQA claim …

If you’re asking what I personally find when comparing MQA to non-MQA content (high-resolution or otherwise), that’s a much more involved answer - and one that is significantly complicated by the almost total lack of available material for which there is provenance available to show that MQA and non-MQA versions are from the same, identical, master.


#9

It is the default output on the computer running that instance of Roon (be it the Core or your Client(s). If you select that, Roon will play through whatever audio device is selected under “System Preferences | Sound | Output”.

In general you just want to setup your specific audio devices and address them directly, which is what it sounds like you’re doing.

If you’re using an MQA Renderer, then make sure TIDAL and Roon have MQA Core Decoding enabled. In Roon, this is logical - in “Device Settings” you just choose the appropriate value under “MQA Capabilities” appropriate for your DAC (so a Chord DAVE would be “None” and a Dragonfly Black would be “Rendered Only”).

In TIDAL it’s worded somewhat backwards - if you have an MQA Renderer, or a non-MQA device, then you must leave the “Passthrough MQA” setting OFF (this lets the TIDAL client do the first unfold). If you have a full MQA decoder then you have to turn that ON (which stops TIDAL doing any processing and lets the DAC do it all).


#10

If you want a quick, simple, and musically enjoyable (well, for me), album to test with, try the TIDAL (Master/MQA) version of Muddy Water’s “Folk Singer”.

If you play this to a DAC that doesn’t do MQA, and with MQA core-decoding disabled* in your player, it will play at 24-bit/48 kHz.

If you turn on MQA core-decoding, then it will play as 24-bit/96 kHz into a non-MQA DAC.

If you have MQA compatible hardware, setup right, it’ll play as 24-bit/192 kHz AND light up the studio authenticated indicator.


*A trick with Roon if you want to avoid having it do any MQA processing for non-MQA enabled DACs is to change the “MQA Capabilities” setting for your DAC to “Decoder + Renderer” - as this causes Roon to hand off the data unmolested to the DAC as a true MQA DAC needs it in it’s raw format.


#11

Thank you. That clears a few questions. I will have to do far more research into this subject. There do seem quite a few people that are far from ready to jump aboard the MQA bandwagon to say the least. Just a few impressions from browsing Internet forums. Something keeps popping into my mind every time I type the plural of forum after seeing somewhere that it has a specific name. I will have to look it up… Sometime.:slightly_smiling_face:.

-Paul-


#12

Thanks to you and @pwjazz. I think the issue may be network. I’m a bit rusty on MacOS, and I’m running a mixed network which is mixed both in terms of hardware, but some is wired and some is Wi-Fi. I think I’m not seeing the wired side of the lan, so I may try simply running some Cat6 the few feet it is to the router and see if things magically appear.

I’m also seeing something unexpected on Sonos, In that my office has 2 Play:3s and a Sub, but I only see one Play:3. The wired bridge doesn’t show at all. This is different in other app.

I probably have to mount the PC as a remote server on the Mac, and It’s not showing up. I’ll figure it out. My network configuration changed during the year with the death and burial of an old ASUS laptop running Linux…


#13

If you have them grouped in the Sonos app, they’ll only show up as one device (whatever the name of the group is) in Roon. And if you have two speakers setup as a stereo pair, then they will show up as single item representing that pair rather than individually.


#14

I thought that might be it. I am at work, so I need to work, not check to see if something came unplugged. When I last checked the Sonos app showed them correctly.


#15

When I checked the info/status in Roon, it seemed to be showing MQA rendering. (As far as I can recall). Content was 2015 re-release of “The Man Who Sold the World”. (Bowie). Sounded very clean on the setup through the tube amp and STAX phones.

— back at home ----
I did check the settings and I’m set as you suggest in both Roon and Tidal. The network share issue is something else, however. My PC is reporting that it has set sharing streaming media up as
\DAVIDS-SAGERPC\My Music
but that can’t be entered on the Mac in Roon. So it’s possible that the PC’s smb service is not working. I don’t see the Mac on the PC or vice-versa when I try to work with network settings.


#16

MQA is interesting and looks like it could help bring better fidelity to many people.

Unfortunately most consumers won’t care enough to buy additional copies of existing albums that they have. Many consumers think that CDs and Bose Wave Radios sound great, so what the point of spending more money on something called MQA?

You average consumer won’t be able to appreciate improved sonics because their playback gear does not have sufficient fidelity. For the rest of us, why should I get another high rez copy of something I already have in a 24/192 lossless format?

If I want to save disk space I have the FLAC format to save the disc storage space. Sorry but I don’t see the argument for MQA.


#17

“Interesting” is probably the best thing that can be said for MQA. With one exception, which isn’t actually dependent on MQA at all, but is an interesting artifact of it, that I’ll come back to.

Indeed. We’ve seen that with every format that has come along since CD really took hold. HDCD went nowhere. SACD was a big flop, perhaps only exclipsed by DVD-A in terms of just how spectacularly it went nowhere.

Though they won’t have to … and indeed really can’t … as >99.99% of MQA content is only available for streaming, and then only via TIDAL. A few CD releases exist (I believe they number under a dozen currently), and there are a maybe 100 downloadable albums available for purchase. But most of what’s out there is just for streaming - which is really what the format was initially intended for - “better than CD quality streaming”.

Your average consumer doesn’t even have gear capable of properly appreciating a Spotify stream, let alone a normal CD. So high-resolution formats are, for the most part, trading on “fear of missing out”. I know a good number of self-professed audiophiles that are in the same camp and yet either don’t even listen to sources beyond Spotify or don’t have chains that can do CD full-justice (surprisingly hard, especially at the transducer end of things).

It was never intended to save disc space (and it’s basically a FLAC file anyway). It was supposed to reduce bandwidth requirements for streaming higher-resolution content.

It is very much a solution looking for a problem.

There is no great clamoring for higher-resolution audio formats from main-stream customers. And if you look at the comparatively meager selection of high-resolution material in conventional formats, if there is even demand there then it’s not sufficiently large that the studios/labels really care.

If MQA succeeds, it’ll be because they figured out a way to make it ubiquitous without causing anyone to rebuy anything. Not new hardware, not new software and not new music. IF it gives an advantage (another point I’ll come back to) as a result of it’s technology, then you can “take advantage of” a good portion of what it supposedly offers without having to do anything you’re not already doing.

And that is, from my perspective, the only clever or genuinely interesting thing about it.

My specific thoughts on it, and experiences with will follow …


#18

At this point I think MQA is an interesting curiosity, with some clever “technology”, which may or may not actually do anything useful, and not a lot of point. I’ve been playing with it, on and off, since it first becomes available, and my experiences haven’t changed much over that time.

It has been fairly heavily technically torn-down.

Evaluating MQA is harder than it should be because the demonstrations that have been conducted haven’t been done with back-to-back versions of non-MQA content from identical masters. Nor is there very much available material which permits you do this for yourself. Even on TIDAL, where you might have MQA and non-MQA versions of an album side-by-side - there isn’t enough information available to determine if they’re from an identical master (and only differ based on their encoding) or if they’re from different masters entirely.

One place you can start for this, if you want to try and do a direct comparison from common masters, is to look at the few files that 2L have in their test library.

Over many comparisons, using both MQA and non-MQA DACs of various flavors, my personal experiences with MQA can be summed up relatively succinctly:

  • In the vasty majority of cases I prefer the normal PCM versions of music to the MQA versions.

  • In those cases where I have preferred the MQA version, it has almost invariably been down to it being a different master (typically with less aggressive dynamic range compression) and not anything about MQA-itself that is responsible. I have found cases of this where ALL replay was done on a standard PCM (non-MQA) DAC and the only thing that differed was the source file.

  • For most, but not all, MQA encoded tracks, they tend to sound better via an MQA-capable chain.

  • MQA content tends to sound superficially more impressive in a quick/casual listening session - with the most apparent change being more readily discernible detail. However, this is also what happens when you do some level of dynamic range compression to music, as well. And since MQA “eats” the bottom three bits of each 16-bit sample, there would have to be something of that nature in effect for more dynamic pieces (most modern pop/rock doesn’t use anything like 13-bits of dynamic range).

And note that I’m not necessarily talking about high-resolution PCM versions of music here, either. In fact most of the comparisons have been to Redbook 16/44.1 content. High-resolution music has tenuous “advantages” at best, and even more so in most replay chains.

I think there would be a lot less (but not “no”) resistance to the format, on principal, if it were demonstrated in the most common A/B audition format that is genuinely ASSUMED as a minimum requirement (and a properly blind A/B would be even better). That never happens, though, and it’s made harder to do for yourself than is reasonable.

For me personally, I don’t care if a DAC supports MQA or not. It isn’t a factor in my buying choices. I’ll listen to it on DACs that support it if I am reviewing them, but it’s not a personal requirement, or even desire, that my DACs are MQA-enabled.


At a recent audio event (well, earlier this year at least), I saw quite a depressing demo. I’ll keep the names out of it, since it was mostly 6-figure gear anyway, but it was an MQA demonstration. The manufacturer’s rep played a few excerpts of tracks with MQA processing disabled. Turned-on MQA processing. And replayed the same tracks.

There was much safe nodding, scratching of beards, and exclamations of delight in response to this second round of listening. The usual “it’s a night and day difference” nonsense was being heavily touted. People were really excited.

Except for me — as I was sat close enough to the DAC in question to see that the MQA function had NOT engaged when the rep had thought he’d turned it on. So what was playing was the very same tracks, in the very same fashion. Not that they sounded any different anyway, but it does go to show just how strong the effects of expectation bias can be (one reason why I try to do comparisons in reviews as blindly as possible).


#19

Now I get it. If it does enable higher fidelity listening through streaming it can only be a good thing. Though I suppose well be charged an arm and a leg for the privilege.

-Paul-

Bugger, I have just read your following post. It doesn’t seem as if it will offer that much of a noticeable difference. I will have to give it a listen myself but I won’t hold my breath.


#20

Don’t take this as me defending MQA … as that is certainly not the case.

But there’s no extra cost … at least at the moment (in the future, licensing fees might change that … but for now they’re clearly low enough to enable products like the $99 Dragonfly Black to exist).

There is a TON of MQA content on TIDAL right now. Far more than there is, say, native DSD content ANYWHERE. And it costs you no more to play that than it does to play the normal CD-quality streams.

The few albums I’ve actually purchased in MQA format (for review/evaluation purposes), were no more expensive than normal digital downloads, and a good bit LESS expensive than an “equivalent” normal high-resolution download from places like HD-Tracks.