MQA Playback & Support


#1

MQA Playback & Support

The intent of this post/thread is purely to explain/discuss the requirements for playback of MQA content as it relates to DACs and software that either do, or do not, specifically support it. My goal in this is to avoid repeating this information in every review of an MQA-capable DAC.

Do not take this thread as any kind of endorsement for, nor condemnation of, MQA on my part.

Also note that I intend to keep this thread focused on discussions about the “how-to” for MQA playback and how/where it does/does not work – as well as for questions about specific DAC/software compatibility and/or how to configure (or troubleshoot) things in a given system to make it work.

Discussions of MQA of a qualitative, philosophical, relevance, value and/or in-depth technical nature belong in a different thread (or threads) – and will be moved to such a thread should they wind up in this one. There is no issue with having such discussions – just not in this particular thread. One starting point for those sorts of discussions is here.

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.

TL;DR;

You do not need anything special to play MQA encoded files. They will work on normal DACs and with normal software players just fine. If you want to take advantage of the MQA features/encoding then you need either a software player that can do MQA “core” decoding (e.g. the native TIDAL desktop client), an optional MQA-rendering-capable DAC or an MQA-enabled DAC that can do full-decoding.

Quick Examples

The examples below are the most common concerns/situations encountered when considering whether/how you can play MQA-encoded content:

  • Someone with a normal DAC (be it an ODAC or an Yggdrasil) and a TIDAL premium subscription can play MQA material at up to 24 bit/96 kHz, without any additional software or hardware.

  • Someone with an MQA “Renderer” device (e.g. an AudioQuest Dragonfly or iFi Nano iDSD Black Label) and a TIDAL premium subscription can play MQA material at up to 24 bit/384 kHz, with MQA filtering and “temporal de-blurring”.

  • Someone with an MQA “Full Decoder” (e.g. a Meridian Explorer 2 or iFi Pro iDSD) can play MQA material at up to 24 bit/384 kHz with MQA filtering and “temporal de-blurring”.

All of the above scenarios will work regardless of whether you get your MQA content via TIDAL premium streaming or by purchasing MQA-encoded material. They will also work irrespective of whether you choose the native TIDAL desktop client, Roon, Audirvana+ or Amarra as your player.


Can I play MQA encoded content?

Yes.

You do NOT need special hardware or software to play an MQA encoded file/stream. If your system can play standard 16-bit, 44.1 kHz PCM content (which pretty much everything can), then MQA files will play back just fine as you are.

MQA content can be housed in any lossless PCM container/format, typically FLAC.

Any player that can play that container/format will work fine – and will treat the contents as a normal 16/44.1 FLAC file.

Do I need special MQA hardware/player software?

Only if you want to be able to expose/access and play the MQA-encoded/filtered content in your MQA source material.

Where do I get MQA encoded content?

While there are a few online stores that sell MQA-encoded files, the largest source for such material is via TIDAL streaming. You need to be on their “Premium” tier, and have “Master” selected as your Streaming Audio Quality.

Note that this option is only available via TIDAL’s desktop client not on their mobile apps or the browser interface)!

Can I use software EQ with MQA?

Generally, NO.

And always NO if you’re using a full MQA decoder.

Applying EQ to the audio data changes its contents and the MQA encoded data is no longer recoverable. The file will play as if it were a non-MQA-encoded file in this case.

If your player software supports EQ (or can host plug-ins that do), as long as the “Core Decoding” is done prior to EQ being applied then it can apply EQ to it’s output. However, if you do this you cannot then use an MQA renderer to do the rest of the decoding.

Can I use software volume control with MQA?

Generally, NO.

And always NO if you’re using a full MQA decoder.

Applying volume control to the audio data changes its contents and the MQA encoded data is no longer recoverable. The file will play as if it were a non-MQA-encoded file in this case.

If your player software supports volume control, as long as the Core Decoding is done prior to volume-control be applied then it will work However, if you do this you cannot then use an MQA renderer to do the rest of the decoding.

Understanding MQA Playback

In addition to the basic 16/44.1 PCM data, MQA files embed multiple levels of “folded” information. Typically, there are two levels of “folding”, sometimes three. Each level of “unfolding” is supposed to result in higher-resolution replay. The first “unfold” will yield an 88.2 or 96 kHz output. The second and third can take that to 176.4, 192 kHz or higher.

There are four ways to play MQA content:

  • Non-decoded
  • Core Decoded (software decoding)
  • Full Decoding/Full Decoders (hardware decoding and rendering)
  • Core Decoded (software decoding) + Renderer (hardware rendering)

First Unfold (“Core Decoding”)

The first level of unfolding is referred to as “Core Decoding”. This can be done in hardware or software.

This means that with an ordinary non-MQA DAC, and player software that can do “Core Decoding” the streamed MQA content from TIDAL will play on your existing DAC at 88.2 or 96 kHz instead of the normal 44.1 kHz.

For example, the “Master” quality version of Muddy Water’s “Folk Singer” will play back at 96 kHz via a player that can do “Core Decoding”, even on a non-MQA DAC.

Various players and streaming clients can do this first-unfold, including the native TITAL desktop client, Audirvana+, Roon and Amarra.

Second & Third Unfolds, Filtering, Deblurring & Authentication (“Rendering”)

After the first unfold, whether it is done in software, or internally by an MQA-enabled DAC, additional unfolding is possible – which yields yet higher bit-rate playback (I’ve seen files indicate they were playing at 384 kHz here). After which MQA-specific filters are applied (the file determines specifically which) and additional DAC-specific processing occurs.

Additionally, the file can be “authenticated” at this stage as having been unaltered from the studio-provided copy. There is usually a dedicated indicator for this - typically a blue-dot, light, or an MQA logo.

This second (and subsequent) stage of processing is referred to as “Rendering” and is only supported in hardware.

MQA Renderers vs. MQA Full Decoders

DACs and similar audio components can either implement the full MQA decoding/rendering chain, or can simply implement the final rendering stage.

In the first case, “Full Decoding”, the full MQA decoding/processing is applied by the DAC itself and does not need a special player or software to feed it. This allows for sources, streamers and tranports that don’t support, or pre-date, MQA to play MQA-encoded content and have the DAC do all of the necessary MQA decoding and rendering.

Examples of devices that perform full MQA decoding include: Meridian Explorer 2, Pro-Ject Pre-Box S2 Digital, Mytek Brooklyn+, iFi Pro iDSD and Sony NW-WM1Z.

In the second case, “Rendering”, the hardware requires that Core Decoding has been applied by the source/player. This obviously means that the source/player must be MQA core-decoding capable.

Examples of devices that can act as MQA renderers include: AudioQuest Dragonfly Black & Red and iFi Nano & Micro iDSD Black Label.


General MQA Discussion
#2

Excellent primer Ian. I can’t wait to mess around with it. My dac Matrix Xsabre Pro will do full MQA decoding. I also have Tidal Premium w/Master. It sounds like these files can sound like or cose to DSD files.
Tom


#3

Very informative thank you. Such a great read.

-Paul-


#4

I have tried countless ways to get MQA working in my system - Mac - to Tidal desktop which prerequisite to playing MQA Master recordings. with Tidal Masters Account - My Dac is Matrix X Sabre Pro which seems to have every conceivable option and filters.

The Mac continues to show X Sabre output. My current input from Mac is usb. I have volume set to control by external device. I have searched and located files with MQA logo. I have made sure Master switch in setting is checked. Sound output is set to X Sabre Pro . - Passthrough MQA is disable through software decoding is checked. Force volume is checked. Controlled by external device. Tidal has exclusive use is unchecked. with all of these setting this are the 2 methods I have setup to no avail.

  1. . When going from Desktop App to play MQA files, which is required to play Masters. It cannot be from from the online portal. I choose MQA file and play song. My Dac continues to say PCM 48khz and 24 Bit
    These MQA songs sure sound like Hi Res
  2. Next method was through Audirvana using the Tidal Streaming with same audio setup. Same thing happens. PCM light shows up. Then the big difference is the indicator light up on same song as 24/192 khz with the MQA light on. The sound is much more improved. Once again indicator of the X Sabre Pro shows 48khz 24 bit. Looking at the X Sabre Pro Manual indicates there is a MQA light.

This is link to manual . http://matrix-digi.com/pdf/X-SABRE_Pro_MQA_Manual_EN.pdf
When and if anyone has the patience to help me figure this out, I would appreciate it. I want to add my Dac enjoys listening and indicates DSD files to 512 as well as 1024 via IIS. Dac also has Full MQA decoder.
Tom


#5

The TIDAL client doesn’t have two settings here … just one. Which is the Passthrough MQA setting.

Passthrough MQA must be ENABLED (switch to the right) for your X-Sabre (or any other full-decoder).

You do not want any software decoding going on when using a full-decoder like the X-Sabre.

I can’t figure out from what you’re saying here if the MQA indicator is coming on or not. One sentence says it is, the others say it isn’t.

In Audirvana+ it should detect and configure an MQA device correctly. If it doesn’t, in “Audio System” uncheck “Auto-detect MQA device” and then in the drop-down pick “MQA Decoder”.


#6

Sorry for confusion. Audirvana shows light on indicating MQA on


#7

Okay …

So what Auridivana+ will show, at the top right hand side of the main window, when playing an MQA file is a) whether it is MQA, and if so what bit-rate it is. It will do this regardless of how your DAC is configured.

Post a screenshot of the “Audio System” tab in Audirvana+'s preferences and I’ll see if that’s correct (it should show your DAC as an “MQA decoder device”.

If it IS, and it still doesn’t work, then there’s likely an issue with the DAC. Some have to have MQA specifically enabled in their settings (Mytek’s Brooklyn was like this - and if it wasn’t enabled it wouldn’t play in MQA mode … sadly if it WAS enabled it used the MQA filters for everything, which was not good). Some may need a firmware update … more than one DAC has been shipped with “MQA support” that didn’t actually have it until it was updated …


#8

That’s what seem to be the problem it says no MQA device detected


#9

These are other settings. When I do Audirvana it shows mqa lit up, but not on Dac
When I play same song on Tidal app it does not show mqa on indicator of dac


#10

1 More picture


#11

Uncheck the “Auto-detect MQA devices” option (auto detection doesn’t work for every DAC).

In the drop-down below it make sure it says “MQA Decoder device” (which it does right now).

That should be all you need to do.

I’m assuming you don’t have any Audio Units or any Audio Filters configured?

Try the above, if that doesn’t work then either the DAC isn’t reporting what it’s getting correctly or there is some other issue with the DAC itself.

One additional test if the above doesn’t work. Choose “Not MQA Device” in the drop-down. Playing that Muddy Water’s MQA album I mentioned should then show up on your DAC as 24/96. If it doesn’t, there’s something else going on.


#12

Well now that I have the Matrix X Sabre Pro Dac memorized and have exhausted all of the wonderful advice given by @Torq it is time to walk away from this nightmare trying to get MQA working. I’ll probably call Arthur up at Matrix and see what he has to say. I know when I’m whooped. As in the past when I walk away from something and get a new perspective things sometimes work out for the better. :scream::scream:


#13

You’re sure it’s the “X-SABRE Pro MQA” that you have? And not just the “X-SABRE Pro”?

I ask, because they’re different models, at different prices, and the plain “Pro” doesn’t have MQA support at all.


#14

Ian You hit the nail on the head. I thought I knew all about Matrix dacs . I owned their last X Sabre dac. The online manual indicates MQA support. I did look at the site and sure enough there are 2 models, one with and one without. Once again @Torq 1000 thanks
Tom


#15

If you want to play with MQA … there are four DAC/amps in the Community Preview Program (which you’ve qualified for) that do support it (all are Renderers, but the end result is the same - fully decoded MQA).

I’m going to save my personal thoughts on MQA for a bit (and they’ll be in the other MQA thread) … as they’re a bit complicated, and come from both low-level/detailed technical understanding as well as more hours than I care to think about doing specific comparisons (or as specific is possible).

It is interesting to experiment with, either way.


#16

Today, nonetheless turned out to be a good learning experience. Unfortunately at the expense of a lot of your time.


#17

I was only trying to check it out. Thankful I have a Boatload of Hi Res files.


#18

I few notes on my MQA setup using TIDAL and ROON on MacOS. Right now, I have the xDSD wired to the Mac Mini. The xDSD is driving the input to the STAX headphone amp, which in turn is driving the headphones.

I find I had to create a new “device” in ROON. System Output selected on the Mac Volume indicator in the top bar could be set to the xDSD (or the Dragonfly if it was plugged in), but this did NOT seem to be reflected in quality on the xDSD’s quality indicator light.

After creating an xDSD zone, the magenta MQA indicator finally lit up. When being driven from the System Output zone, I would get either the Green (PCM up to 96khz) or Yellow (PCM 176/384 khz) indicators. The indicated sampling rate appeared to be double what Tidal/ROON reported in album info.

Albums were selected from those showing MASTER quality, but the Signal Path was not showing MQA rendering. Now it does. Listening to the Best of the Grateful Dead 2015 remix. Source is TIDAL FLAC 48kHz 24 bit 2ch, MQA 192kHz. Authentication is MQA Studio 192kHz . MQA Core Decoder to 96kHz with MQA signaling, This Mac (my computer) Roon Advanced Audio Transport. IFI (by AMR) HD USB Audio Output in CoreAudio Exclusive Mode. MQA Renderer ORFS 192kHz. Output = Analog Output

Oh yeah, that’s through Audioquest Evergreen to the Mjolnir/STAX amp and then to my old Stax SR-5N headphones.

Lots of words, but it sounds pretty good listening to the music. :wink:

I don’t know why it doesn’t switch correctly using the Mac System Output. Maybe others have this same experience. I also did not get the MQA using Bluetooth connection from Mac to the xDSD. I may have to test this again.

Hey @Torq see, I’m actually testing stuff out so when I write a review, the drivel content will be less than 50%.


#19

(Reply to self)

Switched album, it all went dead. Checked connections. Everything APPEARS as if it’s playing, but no sound. I swapped in the Dragonfly, and I have sound again.

Not sure what happened. MQA is still showing active with the Dragonfly in this exact configuration. (I changed zone to Dragonfly, which I had previously created. Now to see if I can get other sound on the xDSD or if I have a “Problem”.

— minute later —

Well it’s playing OK through the Dragonfly to Grados, which it did not before… I thought it did not like Tom Waits.


#20

Yes, that’s typical when Roon/TIDAL does the first unfold (Core MQA decoding).

You won’t get MQA over Bluetooth. All of the Bluetooth audio codecs are lossy which changes the bitstream from the native file, preventing the MQA “authentication” from working. This is expected behavior and is part of the design-intention of MQA. So don’t spend any time trying to “troubleshoot” it!