• My First 24 Hours With MQA



    It all started with an email on December 4, 2014. ďHi Chris, It is my great pleasure to provide details on Meridianís breakthrough technology, MQA (Master Quality Authenticated). The press release is pasted below. And attached is a white paper ÖĒ That seems like forever ago. In the ensuing months MQA has been growing like a snowball rolling downhill. More manufacturers getting on board, more content partners signing up, and more chatter within Computer Audiophile community (among others). Based on objective site analytics, I can easily say that since CES 2016 the interest in MQA has grown immensely here on CA. Much of the talk since MQAís first introduction has been speculative because only a relatively small number of people have actually heard MQA music. Even those whoíve heard it, have likely not heard it in their own audio systems. That was until Meridian officially released the MQA enabling firmware for its Explorer2, Prime, and select components (818v3,*808v6 and Special Edition Loudspeakers) Thursday February 4, 2016. I downloaded the firmware and updated my Explorer2 to v1717. Itís now MQA enabled and I have a DAC that decode and render this content through my own audio system in my own listening room. Iíve been waiting for this forever. Iíve heard MQA at shows plenty of times, but never in my own familiar environment. Now that the hardware was enabled for MQA playback, I needed some MQA music to play. Late afternoon I received an email with a link to download ten MQA FLAC files. Click, save, unzip, play, listen Ö MQA rules, itís the best thing since sliced bread. If only it was that cut and dry.


    Listening To MQA


    Like most people, I wanted to listen to a single MQA track and have my mind blown by fidelity I could only dream of prior to MQA. I also wanted to compare MQA versions of tracks to non-MQA versions of the same tracks and come to sweeping conclusions that the MQA version was so much better I would never go back to such unsophisticated non-MQA music again. My list of wants was a bit unrealistic, but my expectations were set at a normal level while I hoped for the best.

    In addition to the ten tracks sent to me this afternoon, I purchased some content directly from the 2L record labelís website. This enabled me to purchase both the MQA and non-MQA versions of the same music. What could be more telling than two versions of the same thing? Or, so I thought.

    First up on my list to listen to was Stille lys (Quiet Light) by Jan Gunnar Hoff (link). I received the MQA version of track one titled Mitt Hjerte Alltid Vanker and I purchased the 24 bit / 192 kHz download of the same track. According to 2L the album was produced in DXD (Digital eXtreme Definition 352.8kHz/24bit). I would have downloaded the original DXD version but the Explorer2 doesnít support sample rates over 192 kHz. The MQA version of the track appears in Roon as a 24/44.1 track because Roon sees the file like a DAC without an MQA decoder. Fortunately Roon, or any other application, simply needs to send the audio out to the DAC bit perfectly (unchanged) so an MQA enabled DAC can unfold the file into a higher resolution if needed. While playing this track through the Explorer2, the MQA light illuminates blue and the 4x sample rate lights are also illuminated. The LED lights up blue to indicate an MQA Studio file is playing. MQA Studio files are artist/producer-approved studio releases.

    Prior to this afternoon I had never heard this album at a show or in my own system. I would have preferred listening to music I am very familiar with, but at this point we have to take what we can get. I started with the MQA version of Mitt Hjerte Alltid Vanker and played it through three times. It sounded wonderful. Right from the beginning I noticed a clarity to the sound of each note as the hammers struck the strings and a superb decay as the tone faded into a black background. It really is a stellar sounding piece of music in all its MQA glory. That said, the 24/192 version of this track is also terrific. The main differences between the two versions of this track are 1) The MQA version has an uncanny clarity and sense of space around each individual note that is just not present in the standard 24/192 version. This space is specifically around each note, not necessarily presented as a larger or more airy soundstage as a whole. 2) The 24/192 version sounded like the microphone was closer to the strings and the sound was more narrow as if each note was compartmentalized its own silo. 3) On the MQA version, the tone of the decay of each note has a purity to it or an appropriate color to it that isnít present in the standard version. I really noticed this sense of hearing the entire note, from the initial hammer strike to the last decibel of the decay, in all its glory.

    Iím not into hyperbole or writing something with which I am unsure. Thus, I gave myself a blind ABX test by putting the two versions of this track into a playlist, listening to them back to back, then setting the queue on repeat and random and pressing the next button several times without looking. I did this several times and immediately selected the correct MQA or non-MQA version of the track every time. Readers should keep in mind that just because I immediately picked the correct version of the track, doesnít mean the differences are night and day. These things are subtle. But, once heard itís hard not to hear the differences.


    Up next was the album Ein Song FrŚ Dei Utsungne Stunder by Berit Opheim, Nils ōkland & BjÝrn Kjellemyr, also known as The BNB (link). This album was originally produced at 16 bit / 44.1 kHz by 2L. Playback through the Meridian Explorer2 illuminated the MQA light in blue and didnít light up the 2x or 4x LEDs. This MQA album remains at the same resolution seen by Roon, 16/44.1. The Explorer2 internally upsamples the audio to 4x (176.4) but thatís a topic for another time. This entire album sounds fantastic. Great vocals and great double bass accented by a sweet fiddle and viola. I noticed two subtle differences between the original and MQA versions of this album. 1) The original non-MQA version contained what Iíll call a plastic edge to the sound of some instruments. There was something synthetic about the sound that likely canít be heard unless one has the MQA version for comparison. 2) The non-MQA version has a darkness or dullness to it that isnít present in the MQA version. This isnít darkness associated with the blackest of backgrounds or a low noise floor, rather its a deadness thatís heard with the sounds of the instruments. As with the previous album, the differences are not equivalent to bumping the volume by a few dB. They are subtle and may not be apparent all listeners, especially when listening to unfamiliar music.


    Switching to music that I am a bit more familiar with, I listened to a track titled When I Go from Judy Collinsí album Strangers Again. On this track Judy duets with Willie Nelson. Roon sees the track as 24/44.1 while the Explorer2 DAC sees it as 2x (most likely 88.2 as thatís the resolution of the HD version available from HDtracks and others (link)). The Explorer2 also illuminated the first LED as green rather than blue. Blue is the MQA Studio color, but green indicates that the unit is decoding and playing an MQA stream or file, and that the sound is identical to that encoded. I am not 100% sure what this means in terms of the MQA process to turn the music into an MQA album from a standard high resolution album. For all I know it may mean that the album was converted to MQA for its smaller file size, without much of the wizardry that goes into the MQA white glove process of creating MQA Studio files. Donít quote me on that, itís just a wild guess. (see edit 2 below) Perhaps that wild guess has something to do with the very small sonic differences I heard on this Judy Collins / Willie Nelson track. I thought if there was one track, out of the ten I received, in which I would really notice a difference, it would be this track. Most of us have heard Willie Nelson a million times and are familiar with folk music (more so than classical for many people). After listening over and over to the MQA and the original high resolution versions of this track I think the only noticeable difference I hear is a touch more natural or appropriately soft sound in Willieís voice. On second thought, I believe there is also a difference in the sound of the opening drums. (I literally went back and listened a few more times). The MQA version of the track seems to reproduce more of the drumís frequencies or make more of the drum audible. Itís not that the drum has a super wide frequency response, rather the non-MQA version seems to lose some of the drum sound into the background. The MQA version seems to reproduce a fuller drum sound with better decay than the non-MQA version. Either way, this track was a tough one for me as I struggled to hear the differences I wanted to and I thought I would hear.

    Edit 1: I just received a quote from Alan Silverman, Mastering Engineer on the Judy Collins track When I Go:

    ďWe have done many blind comparisons of my original high-resolution masters with and without the MQA process. MQA is the consistent winner. What mystifies me about the technology is the purity of tone and natural realism that MQA unlocks from my high-resolution recordings. The MQA playback is more satisfying and not by just a subtle shade. MQA has educated my ear to digital artifacts that still exist, in spite of the best practices with the best equipment, by eliminating them. It is perhaps a holy grail of digital audio.Ē

    More specifically about the track When I go Alan said, "Iíve just compared the MQA playback with my original 88.2k 24-bit master and find the MQA to be mystifyingly more satisfying, and not by just a subtle shade. Listening to Willie and Judy, their voices sound much more real, at the same time, they have a textural filigree and detail of tone that I am not hearing in the original master! The same holds for the banjo and the subtle electric guitar in the right channel. I am delighted and extremely enthusiastic about the MQA process.Ē


    Edit 2: This just in from MQA ltd., "There is no sonic difference between files marked as green or blue, it is only about Provenance or Approval." In addition, "Today Alan Silverman asked us to move the Judy Collins [album] up to Studio."


    Wrapping Up The First 24 Hours


    Overall I am happy with the MQA music Iíve heard. I wish I could render an opinion, that would carry across all MQA products and music, that MQA is always better by a wide margin, but this isnít the case. The differences Iíve heard so far are subtle and my opinions are limited to the music and hardware I used in the last 24 hours. I also have a suspicion that the MQA process will be more beneficial to recordings that were done under less than stellar circumstances (i.e. lesser quality A to D converters, etcÖ). The 2L recordings are done with the utmost care using very good equipment and very good engineers. While there is still improvements MQA has made to the original 2L masters, Iím willing to bet there are greater improvements to be made to more traditional popular recordings or very old recordings. On the other hand, it may not be easy to compare an MQA version and non-MQA version of some old recordings because the MQA version has been done with the white glove process. It would be the same as comparing two difference masters of the same album, of course theyíll sound different. There will be clear differences with or without MQA. The real question many people will want answered is, how much of the difference is MQA and how much is the white glove process? But, does this question really need to be answered? Iím not so sure because we donít have the option of getting new white glove masters of some of our favorite music. If MQA is the impetus to get us better sounding music, thatís all that really matters. In a dream world we may have the option of a white glove MQA and white glove non-MQA, but this is the real world. The options are, MQA or live with what we already have. Anyway, the MQA train is finally leaving the building. Iím cautiously optimistic that everything will work out and weíll have better sounding music without too much trouble.







    System I used for playback:

    Roon software running on SOtM sMS-1000SQ Windows Edition server and SOtM sPS-1000 power supply > Wireworld Platinum Starlight 7 USB 2.0 Cable > Meridian Explorer2 DAC > AudioQuest Yosemite 3.5mm to RCA Cable > Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0 > Wireworld Platinum Eclipse 7 Interconnects > Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 Amplifiers > Wireworld Platinum Eclipse 7 Speaker Cables > TAD CR1 Loudspeakers.



    Comments 269 Comments
    1. esldude's Avatar
      esldude -
      Would be nice to know if the 192/24 track has the same exact playback level as the MQA track.

      Also if the MQA process results in the equivalent of slightly different EQ in the resulting output from the different filtering going on. Should have put that in the ask Robert Stuart thread if I had thought of it then.
    1. Audio_ELF's Avatar
      Audio_ELF -
      A couple of questions Chris.

      First up ... on the BNB album you write "1) The original non-MQA version..." then "2) The non-MQA version has a..." I assume there is a typo there.

      Second, could you for reference tell us the file sizes of the MQA and 24/192 versions of the tracks on the first album? As I recall one of the promoted features of MQA was that high res could be stored in files / streams the same size as CD quality.
    1. MikeJazz's Avatar
      MikeJazz -
      nice write up Chris. thanks for the precious feedback on this matter, I am sure CA is at the front row about testing audio innovations.

      On the test itself I wonder how much improvement you would feel on the same music by upgrading to one of your favourite DAC's...just my curiosity.

      I would like to confirm that mqa is beneficial to "repair" poor and old ADC recordings (I am remembering, for instance, Security album from 82). Even better if that "filter" technology could be applied in an open environment instead of a closed authentication scheme.
    1. MikeJazz's Avatar
      MikeJazz -
      Meridian MQA - a prova dos nove. New: notas de audiÁ„o comparativa DSD/DXD/MQA | NotŪcias | Artigos | HifiClube

      also an article. in Portuguese, not sure if the google translation is useful for you, but at least here it is to the ones who can read in portuguese.
    1. jzahr's Avatar
      jzahr -
      Hi Chris,
      Do you intend to compare the MQA vs the non-MQA version of these music files but using a standard DAC (ie a DAC without an MQA decoder)?

      This comparison would be useful to many people that are not prepared or willing to invest in a new MQA-approved DAC.

      Thanks,
      Jorge
    1. miguelito's Avatar
      miguelito -
      Thx Chris. Interesting comments. Agree about the effect of MQA on less than great recordings, agre. Hard to imagine you can do anything for a recording done with premium equipment and care. The comment on MQA being an indicator of care in the mastering is key in my opinion - I do think there's value here - IF it doesn't become a meaningless label. How many crap hi res recordings are there? More than good ones!
    1. pixelmixture's Avatar
      pixelmixture -
      i'm really skeptical with this HiRes audio trend ...
      80% of the new albums available on specialised sites like Qobuz, HDTracks or Tidal have so tiny dynamic range that listening to them in HD or Not makes NO DIFFERENCE ....

      it looks like everything recorded after 1990 sound like crap ....
    1. Bryan's Avatar
      Bryan -
      Check back in five years where the popularity of MQA is. Considering the era they were recorded in Mercury Living Presence and Living Stereo recordings are pretty darn good, they put many recent recordings to shame. I have the older Meridian Explorer. Good enough for me for desktop. Have oodles of 24/96 up to 24/192 as well many .dsf recordings on my server for the bigger system. Many of my 16/44.1 recordings are my favorites in content and recording quality. It really is mostly about the quality of the original recording and no digital tricks will make silk purse from sow's ear.
    1. Melvin's Avatar
      Melvin -
      Always appreciate your take Chris, nicely done. Most interesting to me is even with your highly resolving system, subtle (albeit noticeable) differences are heard. I can only wonder if my far less expensive and resolving gear would be a limiting factor. Will my lowly system be good enough or is MQA only for the elite? Rhetorical, of course.

      Iím not in to hyperbole or writing something with which I am unsure. Thus, I gave myself a blind ABX test by putting the two version of this track into a playlist, listening to them back to back, then setting the queue on repeat and random and pressing the next button several times without looking. I did this several times and immediately selected the correct MQA or non-MQA version of the track every time. Readers should keep in mind that just because I immediately picked the correct version of the track, doesnít mean the differences are night and day. These things are subtle. But, once heard itís hard not to hear the differences.
    1. tronds's Avatar
      tronds -
      An easy way to get hold of files to compare is to visit 2L's test bench. They provide files in various formats and resolutions, including PCM/MQA/DSD in both stereo and surround.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Quote Originally Posted by esldude View Post
      Would be nice to know if the 192/24 track has the same exact playback level as the MQA track.

      Also if the MQA process results in the equivalent of slightly different EQ in the resulting output from the different filtering going on. Should have put that in the ask Robert Stuart thread if I had thought of it then.
      From what I could tell the levels were too close to notice a difference (in level). An objective measurement would be nice however.





      Quote Originally Posted by Audio_ELF View Post
      A couple of questions Chris.

      First up ... on the BNB album you write "1) The original non-MQA version..." then "2) The non-MQA version has a..." I assume there is a typo there.

      Second, could you for reference tell us the file sizes of the MQA and 24/192 versions of the tracks on the first album? As I recall one of the promoted features of MQA was that high res could be stored in files / streams the same size as CD quality.
      Not a typo, but thanks for checking.

      RE: File sizes - Good question, and something I should have included in the article.

      Mitt Hjerte Alltid Vanker on album Stille lys (Quiet Light) by Jan Gunnar Hoff - MQA file is 36.3 MB, bitrate of 1157 (from a DXD master), the 24/192 FLAC file I purchased is 126.3 MB, with bitrate of 4569 (original size was 241.73 MB before FLAC compression of 51%).

      Ein Song FrŚ Dei Utsungne Stunder by Berit Opheim, Nils ōkland & BjÝrn Kjellemyr, also known as The BNB - MQA files between 7 MB and 25 MB (from 16/44.1 master)

      When I Go from Judy Collins’ album Strangers Again - MQA file is 47.8 MB (from an 88.2 master)





      Quote Originally Posted by MikeJazz View Post
      nice write up Chris. thanks for the precious feedback on this matter, I am sure CA is at the front row about testing audio innovations.

      On the test itself I wonder how much improvement you would feel on the same music by upgrading to one of your favourite DAC's...just my curiosity.

      I would like to confirm that mqa is beneficial to "repair" poor and old ADC recordings (I am remembering, for instance, Security album from 82). Even better if that "filter" technology could be applied in an open environment instead of a closed authentication scheme.

      This is something I am going to do. I am very interested in listening to MQA on my reference DACs that don't currently support MQA full decoding and rendering.




      Quote Originally Posted by jzahr View Post
      Hi Chris,
      Do you intend to compare the MQA vs the non-MQA version of these music files but using a standard DAC (ie a DAC without an MQA decoder)?

      This comparison would be useful to many people that are not prepared or willing to invest in a new MQA-approved DAC.

      Thanks,
      Jorge
      Most definitely.




      Quote Originally Posted by miguelito View Post
      Thx Chris. Interesting comments. Agree about the effect of MQA on less than great recordings, agre. Hard to imagine you can do anything for a recording done with premium equipment and care. The comment on MQA being an indicator of care in the mastering is key in my opinion - I do think there's value here - IF it doesn't become a meaningless label. How many crap hi res recordings are there? More than good ones!
      I hear you on that one!





      Quote Originally Posted by Melvin View Post
      Always appreciate your take Chris, nicely done. Most interesting to me is even with your highly resolving system, subtle (albeit noticeable) differences are heard. I can only wonder if my far less expensive and resolving gear would be a limiting factor. Will my lowly system be good enough or is MQA only for the elite? Rhetorical, of course.
      Very good question. I'd say the most important thing is the recording, even more so than the playback equipment.
    1. crenca's Avatar
      crenca -
      Interesting, I would have expected more given the resolving power of your system. Is it a limitation of the a <$300 DAC even though it is MQA enabled? If so, what does that mean for MQA?

      I have to wonder what those folks were hearing at the demos as reported in the usual press sources - what DAC was Meridian using during these demos?
    1. sdolezalek's Avatar
      sdolezalek -
      Chris: what you are hearing is very much in line with what I heard when I first heard MQA in a demonstration almost a year ago (using all very high-end Meridian components - new DAC, MQA enhanced speakers) -- the material that is newly recorded with MQA in place from end-to-end sounded amazingly good, but the older recordings to which MQA was applied after the fact didn't seem to be very noticeably improved.

      What we may have is a convolution of three different benefits a) truly better fidelity for new recordings, b) small file sizes but far less audible benefit for "old" recordings, and, of course, c) DRM benefits for the studios. Although I don't like the DRM benefits, my guess is that I will choose to buy new MQA material in the same way I chose to buy DXD or DSD256 material PROVIDED the MQA licenses for hardware are sufficiently affordable that the DAC[s] I want in my system come equipped with MQA. To the extent that means none of us really meaningfully benefit until we have bought a new MQA equipped DAC, it will have the same effect as offering DXD material to folks whose DAcs only play 24/96 material...
    1. Tintinabulum's Avatar
      Tintinabulum -
      Quote Originally Posted by crenca View Post
      Interesting, I would have expected more given the resolving power of your system. Is it a limitation of the a <$300 DAC even though it is MQA enabled? If so, what does that mean for MQA?

      I have to wonder what those folks were hearing at the demos as reported in the usual press sources - what DAC was Meridian using during these demos?
      I've understood from the outset that to get full benefit (non Meridian world) you'd need "fast" equipment downstream to respond to the signal. Meridians SE speakers (and DACs therein) are specifically designed for this. This isn't an advert. As I understand it the response times downstream need to be up to muster for full effect. You can tell that this isn't a technical comment...time smear. I surprised Chris doesn't have an 818...
    1. esldude's Avatar
      esldude -
      Quote Originally Posted by The Computer Audiophile View Post
      From what I could tell the levels were too close to notice a difference (in level). An objective measurement would be nice however.
      Okay. Thanks for answering the question. Your descriptions sound good. Not night and day, but a difference you can hear. Thanks again for your reporting.
    1. hissinkl's Avatar
      hissinkl -
      Chris,

      Your assessment matches mine - superb sound etc etc but clearly the principle of diminishing returns also applies and while I also recall the sound of CD when it first came out in 1982, (I had to sell this new product), it seems the technical improvements are such that today it's becoming a choice between, say, a Ferrari versus a Maserati or Aston Martin situation for the audiophile. If the differences are subtle but MQA can reproduce the original in a fraction of the size and wallops any MP3 version, then it's a success.

      And audiophiles are, when all said and done, fringe dwellers of the music world. Given that young people are discovering LP sound and preferring it to the compressed MP3 etc etc mass produced music, MQA thus delivers the LP sound in a useful digital package that a DSD file equivalent could never match, ever without all the physical hassles associated with replaying vinyl. MQA will also wallop vinyl I venture to guess, (says he with a high end vinyl front end).

      MQA actually has sounded the death knell of the High End for who would have thought that a portable MQA enabled DAC costing say $500 could produce music essentially indistinguishable from a high end DAC costing $20,000? Add a pair of the latest headphones, and if I were a Hi Fi salesman, I would be feeling a little uncertain at the moment. No need to sell state of the art music servers or front ends anymore once the MQA tide gains momentum.

      MQA has overnight changed the game; again.
    1. YashN's Avatar
      YashN -
      I guess MQA's compensation for the ADC used in the production chain shines through here.

      What would be interesting is to compare the same music recorded with the MQA process and in native DSD, preferably double or quad.
    1. jeffmudrick's Avatar
      jeffmudrick -
      Quote Originally Posted by hissinkl View Post
      Chris,

      Your assessment matches mine - superb sound etc etc but clearly the principle of diminishing returns also applies and while I also recall the sound of CD when it first came out in 1982, (I had to sell this new product), it seems the technical improvements are such that today it's becoming a choice between, say, a Ferrari versus a Maserati or Aston Martin situation for the audiophile. If the differences are subtle but MQA can reproduce the original in a fraction of the size and wallops any MP3 version, then it's a success.

      And audiophiles are, when all said and done, fringe dwellers of the music world. Given that young people are discovering LP sound and preferring it to the compressed MP3 etc etc mass produced music, MQA thus delivers the LP sound in a useful digital package that a DSD file equivalent could never match, ever without all the physical hassles associated with replaying vinyl. MQA will also wallop vinyl I venture to guess, (says he with a high end vinyl front end).

      MQA actually has sounded the death knell of the High End for who would have thought that a portable MQA enabled DAC costing say $500 could produce music essentially indistinguishable from a high end DAC costing $20,000? Add a pair of the latest headphones, and if I were a Hi Fi salesman, I would be feeling a little uncertain at the moment. No need to sell state of the art music servers or front ends anymore once the MQA tide gains momentum.

      MQA has overnight changed the game; again.
      How about a $20k MQA enabled DAC? Don't underestimate the desire among the well heeled audio community to find ways to spend money lifting veils imagined or otherwise.
    1. PeterG's Avatar
      PeterG -
      Quote Originally Posted by hissinkl View Post
      Chris,

      Your assessment matches mine - superb sound etc etc but clearly the principle of diminishing returns also applies and while I also recall the sound of CD when it first came out in 1982, (I had to sell this new product), it seems the technical improvements are such that today it's becoming a choice between, say, a Ferrari versus a Maserati or Aston Martin situation for the audiophile. If the differences are subtle but MQA can reproduce the original in a fraction of the size and wallops any MP3 version, then it's a success.

      And audiophiles are, when all said and done, fringe dwellers of the music world. Given that young people are discovering LP sound and preferring it to the compressed MP3 etc etc mass produced music, MQA thus delivers the LP sound in a useful digital package that a DSD file equivalent could never match, ever without all the physical hassles associated with replaying vinyl. MQA will also wallop vinyl I venture to guess, (says he with a high end vinyl front end).

      MQA actually has sounded the death knell of the High End for who would have thought that a portable MQA enabled DAC costing say $500 could produce music essentially indistinguishable from a high end DAC costing $20,000? Add a pair of the latest headphones, and if I were a Hi Fi salesman, I would be feeling a little uncertain at the moment. No need to sell state of the art music servers or front ends anymore once the MQA tide gains momentum.

      MQA has overnight changed the game; again.
      Interesting thoughts, but perhaps a bit premature. So far, Chris has only heard MQA improve upon a very good lower end DAC. The real test will be MQA on Explorer compared to non-MQA hi res and CD quality files on a high end DAC.

      If I were a hi fi salesman, I'd be thrilled to use MQA to explain why now is the time to increase speaker and amp budgets.
    1. hissinkl's Avatar
      hissinkl -
      The real test will be MQA on Explorer compared to non-MQA hi res and CD quality files on a high end DAC.
      Which is what I have done using the Explorer with MQA and and an Accuphase DC-37 using an Aurender X100 playing back hi-res files of the same music. As I said, it's a game changer.