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    MQA (for civilians)

    At CES 2017 Tidal announced it was streaming MQA masters and MQA Ltd announced software decoding of the MQA signal. Two big items for all of us who enjoy music. Immediately the questions and conjecture started flowing. It's human nature. We ask questions and make guesses about what's happening, when we don't have all the information.

     

    Shortly after the announcements I setup a meeting with MQA's Bob Stuart to get more details about decoding MQA signals. I wanted to know the differences between software and hardware decoding and where rendering comes into play, in addition to many other items.

     

    A PhD isn't required to enjoy MQA. This article is my attempt at explaining how decoding and rendering work, from a civilian perspective. Most of us have seen the music origami graphs and deep technical explanations, but have no idea what any of the information actually means for us, enjoying music at home or on the go. I want to help members of the CA community understand how to get the best sound quality out of MQA.

     

     

     

    From The Distribution File Forward

     

    Currently MQA music is offered through online stores for purchase and download, and through Tidal for streaming. I'm willing to bet more music will be available through both channels and both channels will have more outlets in the coming months.

     

    Consumers purchasing or streaming MQA music will see either 24 bit / 44.1 kHz or 24 bit / 48 kHz files without playing the audio (16 bit MQA files are outside the scope of this discussion). These are what's called the distribution files. They have been through the MQA process that deblurs and folds them into a smaller package, readying them for transport and playback on almost any device.

     

    The MQA distribution file, the file that's actually purchased or streamed, is like a chameleon. In its packaged state the files are 44.1 or 48 kHz, but decoded and rendered the files can expand into the highest supported sample rate of the digital to analog converter inside the DAC..

     

     

    Real world example:

     

    1. The studio creates a track at 24 bit / 352.8 kHz DXD.

    2. The studio uses the MQA process on the track, packaging it as 24 bit / 44.1 kHz.

    3. The consumer purchases or streams the 24 bit / 44.1 kHz track.

    4. The consumer's playback system decodes and renders the track at 24 bit / 352.8 kHz DXD.

     

     

     

    Squeezing The Best Quality From MQA Music

     

    With the aforementioned real world example in mind, let's look at how to play MQA music and how to get the best sound quality possible. There are four "ways" to play MQA music. I use the word "ways" for lack of a better, more specific term.

     

     

    A. No decoder

    B. Software / Core Decoding

    C. Software / Core Decoding with Hardware Rendering

    D. Hardware Full Decoding

     

     

     

    No Decoder

     

    Similar to a dual layer SACD that plays the CD layer in a standard CD player and the Super Audio layer in an SACD player, MQA music is playable through almost any playback system, but the highest quality is only possible with the appropriate solution.

     

    Playing MQA on a system without a decoder, will enable the consumer to hear the 24 bit / 44.1 kHz (or 24 bit / 48 kHz) version of the music in the example above. According to MQA Ltd, playing the un-decoded version still enables the consumer to benefit from the deblurring processes used in the creation or folding of the track.

     

    Examples of systems without decoders are plentiful in this early phase of record labels rolling out MQA music. JRiver Media Center, Amarra, HQPlayer and many others are applications that don't decode MQA. In addition, most hardware on Earth doesn't decode MQA at this time.

     

    One scenario that may confuse consumers, is when an MQA renderer is present without a software or hardware decoder. This will result in an un-decoded signal exactly as it would without the MQA renderer. The 44.1 or 48 kHz version of the file will play, undecoded. One example of this is the upcoming AudioQuest DragonFly (updated Red and Black versions). Without a decoder in the playback chain, an MQA renderer has no effect on the audio.

     

    No-decoder.png

     

     

     

    Software / Core Decoding

     

     

    MQA is a whole host of processes and technologies, but for purposes of this civilian discussion, let's look at it as three processes. MQA files can be 1. Fully decoded, 2. Software / core decoded, and 3. Rendered. Software decoding is capable of exactly what its name suggests, decoding MQA. Rendering must be done in hardware because it is custom matched to the DAC system.

     

    Software decoding, what MQA Ltd calls core decoding, provides what I consider to be about 90% of the MQA benefits. Decoding in software unfolds / unpacks the music to a maximum of twice the base sample rate, 88.2 or 96, for either analog or digital output.

     

    EQ, bass management, and other non-MQA DSP can take place after core decoding.

     

    Using the real world example above, the Tidal desktop application, Audirvana, and soon Roon would decode the MQA 24/44.1 distribution file and unpack it to 24/88.2. This can be output digitally to any DAC, digitally to an MQA DAC for rendering, or output as analog audio.

     

    Another example can be seen when streaming Beyonce's album Lemonade. The MQA distribution file is packed to 24/44.1 and the decoded file is also 24/44.1. The album must have been recorded at 24/44.1 and the studio is being honest with us, rather than upsampling it to 88.2 or higher.

     

    When a master is 44.1 or 48 kHz, the core decoder Authenticates, decodes full dynamic range and matches to the current PC playback settings. (Depending on the soundcard and audio configuration, the Tidal App may decode this example to 44.1k or a provide a compatible 88.2k output for smoother playlisting). If you select Passthough, the raw 44.1/24b MQA file is passed downstream to a decoder. For music where the original sample rate is 88.2k or higher, the core output is always either 88.2 or 96kHz.

     

    Note that other Apps and products implementing Tidal may be subtly different.

     

    core-decoder.png

     

     

     

     

     

    Software / Core Decoding with Hardware Rendering

     

     

    The third way to play MQA music is through a software decoder and a hardware renderer. As you read above, MQA has three process required for the full MQA experience, 1. Full Decoding, 2. Software / core decoding, and 3. Rendering. In this method of playback, a combination of software and hardware is used to deliver all that MQA has to offer. Don't ever use this as the answer to an MQA exam question, but you can think of it this way - software / core decoding serves up the file and hardware rendering hits it out of the park.

     

    Everyone looking to get the best sound from MQA music will want to use this method or the all hardware method discussed last. In this method, the core decoded MQA file is passed from a software application to the MQA hardware renderer.

     

    Using the real world example above, the Tidal desktop application, Audirvana, and soon Roon would decode the MQA 24/44.1 distribution file and unpack it to 24/88.2. This file is output from a computer via USB or S/PDIF or even a phone via Lightning or USB on-the-go, to the hardware renderer. For this example, we'll output via USB to an AudioQuest DragonFly. The core decoded file enters the DragonFly at 24/88.2, then expands to the full 24/352.8 kHz resolution of the original studio master file.

     

    Readers familiar with the DragonFly will know that the DragonFly supports audio up through 24/96. However, that's only on its USB interface. Internally the DAC goes up through 768 kHz. MQA enables the audio to duck its head to get under the door frame, before standing straight up once again. Kind of like a balloon as well. Squeeze the middle of a long balloon and the two ends will get larger while the middle shrinks. The two ends are the studio master file and the fully decoded MQA file, while the middle is the packed undecoded MQA file.

     

    The above method is a really good way to work around the lack of USB Audio Class 2 driver support in many Windows operating systems and to get around interface sample rate limitations. It's possible to play 24/352.8 on a class 1 device and without custom drivers.

     

    What happens when using software / core decoding and hardware that's capable of full decoding like the Meridian Explorer2? If desired, it's possible to use an app like Tidal to do the core decoding and send the MQA signal to the DAC for rendering only. If the Explorer2 is fed with an MQA core (decoded) signal, it only does the rendering.

     

    Note about renderers: There are no generic MQA renderers, as each one is custom designed for each piece of hardware. According to MQA Ltd, the analog output is custom tuned for each device to most closely recreate the sound heard in the studio. As always, you'll have to be the judge to see if the marketing matches the end result.

     

    One additional piece of information that fits somewhere between this section and the next, systems like Meridian that run digital to the loudspeakers, send a core decoded stream to the speakers before final rendering separately for each drive unit. This core decoding takes place in hardware / software loaded on Meridian hardware.

     

    core-decoder.png

    render.png

     

     

     

     

    Full Decoding (Hardware Only)

     

     

    There's not much more to say about this one. Full decoding is only possible in hardware and it's considered the full monty. Both aspects of core decoding and rendering are controlled by a single manufacturer and the requirements for third party software are gone. The final analog output however, is theoretically identical to a software / core decode and hardware render. We'll have to see once more opinions come in from people testing both methods.

     

    A DAC or home theater processor capable of full decoding can receive an untouched MQA file (distribution file or stream) or a core decoded file from a software decoder, for rendering only. I'm not sure why anyone would prefer to use a software decoder when s/he has a full decoder in hardware, but it's entirely possible.

     

    All details about the renderer hold true for a full decoder. Very custom and tuned to each hardware device.

     

    A note about this tuning for each DAC. I've talked to many manufacturers who have products in the process of MQA certification. Every one of them says the process is thorough and a bit demanding, often requiring many updates to hardware and firmware until everything is as close to the target as possible. This piece isn't marketing, it's all based on engineering.

     

    Using the above real world example, any software or hardware capable of sending a bit perfect audio stream to an MQA DAC with a full decoder, will work just fine. The DAC must see either a core decoded stream or undecoded stream without alteration.

     

    full-decoder.png

     

     

    Let There Be Light

     

     

    Whether playing MQA content fully decoded, core decoded and rendered, or just core decoded, an MQA DAC or application will always signal the file is true to what the record label released. If it's MQA it will illuminate a blue/green light.

     

    When I first investigated MQA I knew the blue authentication light on MQA DACs was helpful in identifying bit perfect output to the DAC, but I thought the whole authentication piece was unneeded. However, I've since learned that the music supply chain is full of challenges and less than stellar versions of our favorite albums (some related to up/down sampling). Much of this isn't malicious, it's just a matter of large companies with many people involved who may not know exactly what's going on. MQA has the ability to provide record labels with a single deliverable file and the consumer can verify this is the file s/he plays back at home. It's a cool concept.

     

    Conclusion

     

     

    Enjoying MQA music isn't rocket science, but it takes a little education to make the right choices. Obtaining the best quality MQA playback requires either a combination of software decoding and hardware rendering or a full decoding DAC. Fortunately, I believe 90% of MQA's benefits can be realized by only using a software decoder, called core decoding. Now that some of our favorite music is available in MQA, it's time we listen for a while rather than talk over the music. Set your systems up right and press play.

     

     

     

     

     

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    Edited by The Computer Audiophile


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    I listened to MQA at Meridian in NYC in March 2015. The MQA files in the demo sounded way better than the "standard" files. The people giving the demos were either completely ignorant or deceptive as they would not answer any of my questions. And I do not believe the MQA versions came from the same master. So really very deceitful if you ask me, frankly.

     

    But... Do I like the sound of many of the MQA albums on TIDAL? Yes. Are they better than even my so-called hi res versions of these albums? Almost across the board the answer is: Yes. Is it because of MQA, deblurring, origami, or some of Bob Stuart's hair interspersed in the file? I don't know and I frankly don't quite care. Call me a cynical pragmatist.

     

    I like a lot MQA on TIDAL. I think the psychoacoustical analysis of the files in the MQA process helps a lot. Snake oil? I don't know. MQA sounds incredible. I'm scratching the origami folding thing (no more unfolding than TIDAL's own) but the sound quality is noticeable.

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    Very good explanation. Now I understand why I heard the differences I did with software decoding, through different DACs, and hardware decoding through the Explorer 2. My best DAC (not MQA) with software decoding in front mopped the floor with the Explorer 2 in full MQA hardware mode - because the differences between the DACs themselves were way more than the hardware decoding uplift. After fiddling with multiple DACs and different ways of playing back (and now I understand what went on behind what I heard) I'm a huge fan of MQA for streaming Tidal, but I'm unlikely to re-buy any music with MQA encoding. I did comparisons between streaming some of Tidal's MQA and HD non-MQA versions of the same music stored on my server, and local won (except on music recordings where everything was turned up to 11 in the production process - where the two were dead equal.)

     

    And while I wouldn't object to buying a DAC with MQA decoding capability, that would only be if the DAC is the best I can get at the price point for non-MQA playback... meaning, the MQA decoding pretty much needs to be a free feature. For the Explorer 2, in fact, that's kind of how it seems to me. It's excellent at its price point, with MQA thrown in.

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    Hi-res music owners clearly seem threatened and angst over streaming music becoming too popular and its SQ too good. I think their concerns are unfounded.

     

    Not this Hi-res music enthusiast. Over two-thirds of my large music library is Hi-res and I spent years converting and laborously correcting tags and cover art yet I'm all for advancements as well popularity of streaming, MQA and all else that gives music lovers more choices. I'm old and won't be around that long, but exciting times lie ahead for music lovers and audio system enthusiasts. Love to jump in a time machine and see what best of music reproduction is like fifty years from now :-)

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    I did comparisons between streaming some of Tidal's MQA and HD non-MQA versions of the same music stored on my server, and local won....

     

    Depending on your hardware, it's configuration and your network infrastructure, the results may have reflected how optimized you were for internet streaming vs local playback rather than MQA vs straight Hi Res.

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    Sorry if this is an amateurish question, I'm trying to understand if you will need to set up your software to decide how to pass the signal along. In other words, one user may want a signal bypassing any software decoding and passing it right to an MQA capable DAC while those without an MQA DAC would want more done by playback software. (like Chris's example with the Meridian Explorer DAC) Will there have to be some sort of toggle switch in software to direct it how the user wants it to handle MQA files? Could one, or would one, want to have a completely unprocessed MQA track sent to the DAC to do all processes (decoding, rendering, etc., etc) and if so, I am assuming the software will need to have some sort of option to do that? Hope that wasn't too confusing....

     

     

    I made some charts how I interpret the different processes:

    1. What is the quality of the music received with a device doesn't decode MQA?

    2. How the original master sound quality is delivered using rendering?

    3. How the original master sound quality is delivered using devices capable of full decoding MQA?

    4. What sound quality can be achieved using an MQA device with a non MQA external DAC?

    You can find them by clicking my name.

    More thoughts can be found here

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    Chris-Excellent description of MQA. could you explain the 'pass through mode'? If I am using the ME2 am I supposed to to click pass through mode on(blue box in streaming on TIDAL) or should I leave it off? When playing a Master the blue light remains on on the ME2 either with/without the pass through and I don't really hear any difference in SQ.

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    Chris-Excellent description of MQA. could you explain the 'pass through mode'? If I am using the ME2 am I supposed to to click pass through mode on(blue box in streaming on TIDAL) or should I leave it off? When playing a Master the blue light remains on on the ME2 either with/without the pass through and I don't really hear any difference in SQ.

     

    Passthrough on means the Tidal app sends the MQA stream directly to the DAC. With passthrough off the app decodes the MQA. Since your DAC supports MQA, it gets decoded either way, so there shouldn't be any difference in sound.

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    Depending on your hardware, it's configuration and your network infrastructure, the results may have reflected how optimized you were for internet streaming vs local playback rather than MQA vs straight Hi Res.

    Music server streaming via fiber optic USB to DAC, for both local music (on in-chassis hard drives) and MQA software decoding. MQA DAC replaced the Exasound e22 in one test, Exasound won. MQA software decoding to Exasound vs local high res, local high res won. Also tried it on my MacBook Pro, streaming vs high res, a couple of different small travel size DACs. My home network streams 2xDSD and DSF to more than one system so I'm pretty sure I'm not bandwidth constrained.

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    Music server streaming via fiber optic USB to DAC, for both local music (on in-chassis hard drives) and MQA software decoding. MQA DAC replaced the Exasound e22 in one test, Exasound won. MQA software decoding to Exasound vs local high res, local high res won. Also tried it on my MacBook Pro, streaming vs high res, a couple of different small travel size DACs. My home network streams 2xDSD and DSF to more than one system so I'm pretty sure I'm not bandwidth constrained.

     

    One possible issue is the quality of the network feed to the server, something that is bypassed with local playback. Speed is not the issue. The quality of the network infrastructure can have a major effect on sound quality e.g. Switches and Ethernet cables are very critical even when bandwidth is not an issue. A good way to remove this factor would be to send the local files to the server over your network, putting them and Tidal on equal footing.

     

    Did you compare local and Tidal using the MQA DAC?

    Edited by scottsol

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    One possible issue is the quality of the network feed to the server, something that is bypassed with local playback. Speed is not the issue. The quality of the network infrastructure can have a major effect on sound quality e.g. Switches and Ethernet cables are very critical even when bandwidth is not an issue. A good way to remove this factor would be to send the local files to the server over your network, putting them and Tidal on equal footing.

     

    Did you compare local and Tidal using the MQA DAC?

    I get that my wireless network may play a role somehow, but it's good enough to have MQA Tidal absolutely slay regular Tidal. However, in one of my comparisons, I streamed to my laptop from my music server on the same network that was streaming Tidal.

     

    Even with the Explorer 2, 24/96 files played from my laptop were slightly better sounding than software decoded MQA on my laptop (with two different DACs) and than hardware encoded MQA from my laptop. (Using both Sennheiser and Fostex headphones.) Same was true if I wireless streamed from my main server via my laptop, which SHOULD make all things network equal. I could only find a few albums on Tidal where I know the production quality would be good enough for hearing a difference (and where I know the album really well), so again, there are limits on all this back and forth. An awful lot of hip hop, reggaeton, and rock these days would probably sound as good on an AM radio as they would HD on a DAC. Honestly, there were some albums where they sounded the same no matter what approach I was using - the loudness wars pretty much wrings the life out of music.

     

    My conclusion is not that MQA isn't worth it. Absolutely is for Tidal streaming. But at some point the care taken in production when music gets re-mastered and turned into an HD file makes so much improvement that any other improvement is really a nudge and not a wow. At least for me, with the Explorer 2. Maybe different at the high end of DAC land.

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    Bryan-atta boy I have waited for the SQ that is available now all my life and thank God I didn't ruin my ears in the 60's keep all these hires/lossless/mqa type formats coming love 'em and will try them(if my CFO allows)

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    I get that my wireless network may play a role somehow, but it's good enough to have MQA Tidal absolutely slay regular Tidal. However, in one of my comparisons, I streamed to my laptop from my music server on the same network that was streaming Tidal.

     

    Even with the Explorer 2, 24/96 files played from my laptop were slightly better sounding than software decoded MQA on my laptop (with two different DACs) and than hardware encoded MQA from my laptop. (Using both Sennheiser and Fostex headphones.) Same was true if I wireless streamed from my main server via my laptop, which SHOULD make all things network equal. I could only find a few albums on Tidal where I know the production quality would be good enough for hearing a difference (and where I know the album really well), so again, there are limits on all this back and forth. An awful lot of hip hop, reggaeton, and rock these days would probably sound as good on an AM radio as they would HD on a DAC. Honestly, there were some albums where they sounded the same no matter what approach I was using - the loudness wars pretty much wrings the life out of music.

     

    My conclusion is not that MQA isn't worth it. Absolutely is for Tidal streaming. But at some point the care taken in production when music gets re-mastered and turned into an HD file makes so much improvement that any other improvement is really a nudge and not a wow. At least for me, with the Explorer 2. Maybe different at the high end of DAC land.

     

    Seems like an accurate assessment. I think the difference will be smaller with a high end DAC. The DAC probably has more influence on the sound quality than whether it's MQA or not. Same with a good mastering. John Atkinson, editor of Stereophile Magazine, couldn't reliably choose the MQA over originals using his own recordings.

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    Passthrough on means the Tidal app sends the MQA stream directly to the DAC. With passthrough off the app decodes the MQA. Since your DAC supports MQA, it gets decoded either way, so there shouldn't be any difference in sound.

     

    As I understand, from Chris article software decoding is limited 1 time folding (i.e. 44/48 > 88/96). Full decoding hardware only.

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    As I understand, from Chris article software decoding is limited 1 time folding (i.e. 44/48 > 88/96). Full decoding hardware only.

     

    With software decoding, a compatible DAC will do the final "unfold" which is just a very, very poor upsampling anyway.

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    With software decoding, a compatible DAC will do the final "unfold" which is just a very, very poor upsampling anyway.

     

    That's probably why the "final unfold" is so tricky/problematic for hardware manufacturers. Isn't their proprietary signal manipulation what distinguishes one DAC from another?

     

    And that's why it's being repeated over and over...

     

    "I guess. But hi-res isn’t a panacea for a poor recording or master though, is it?

     

    No, it is not. A bad master cannot be corrected by MQA and a nicely mastered file streamed via good old Redbook will, all other things being equal, sound better than a dynamically compressed master streamed via MQA.

    The things is: all things are rarely equal. It’s highly probable that a Redbook file converted to analogue by an Aqua La Scala MKII will easily better the SQ of that same song MQA-d but converted to analogue by an AudioQuest DragonFly." John Darko

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    My conclusion is not that MQA isn't worth it. Absolutely is for Tidal streaming. But at some point the care taken in production when music gets re-mastered and turned into an HD file makes so much improvement that any other improvement is really a nudge and not a wow. At least for me, with the Explorer 2. Maybe different at the high end of DAC land.

    Precisely. And to be clear, I don't see the streaming bandwidth improvement compared to an equivalent FLAC of similar resolution.

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    With software decoding, a compatible DAC will do the final "unfold" which is just a very, very poor upsampling anyway.

    Perhaps this is a stupid question; but if the final "unfold" is "just a very, very poor up-sampling" then why would some files report higher sample rates after the final "unfold" than others on an MQA DAC?

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    Perhaps this is a stupid question; but if the final "unfold" is "just a very, very poor up-sampling" then why would some files report higher sample rates after the final "unfold" than others on an MQA DAC?

     

    The MQA file tells the DAC what the original sample rate was, and this is what is displayed. No content above 44.1/48 kHz is actually preserved by the MQA compression.

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    The MQA file tells the DAC what the original sample rate was, and this is what is displayed. No content above 44.1/48 kHz is actually preserved by the MQA compression.

    Let's see if I'm following your claim correctly. The original article by Chris and MQA's website show the signal between 48kHz to 96kHz is losslessly "encapsulated" and "folded back into" the core MQA file.

     

    What do YOU mean by "actually" preserved? Are you saying that the band of the signal that's losslessly compressed and decompressed is never "actually preserved" (semantics) or doesn't even exist at all on playback? If the latter, you're claiming Chris and MQA's explanation are fraudulent?

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    Let's see if I'm following your claim correctly. The original article by Chris and MQA's website show the signal between 48kHz to 96kHz is losslessly "encapsulated" and "folded back into" the core MQA file.

     

    What do YOU mean by "actually" preserved? Are you saying that the band of the signal that's losslessly compressed and decompressed is never "actually preserved" (semantics) or doesn't even exist at all on playback? If the latter, you're claiming Chris and MQA's explanation are fraudulent?

     

    Consider a 48 kHz 24-bit MQA file. The high 15 bits of this file are a reasonable representation of the 0-24 kHz frequency band from the original while the low 8 bits contain a compressed version of the 24-48 kHz band. The "core" decoder decodes the low 8 bits and combines this information with the base band signal from the high bits to produce a 96 kHz sample rate output covering the 0-48 kHz frequency band. Compared to the original file, this decoded version comes pretty close, but there some losses in the high half (24-48 kHz). If the original file had a sample rate higher than 96 kHz, any frequency content above 48 kHz will have been completely discarded. The "render" part upsamples the output of the "core" decoder to the same rate as the original file. Because of the terrible interpolation filter, it may at first glance look like some high-frequency content has been restored here, but it is all fake. All you actually get is images of the lower frequencies and a rising level of dither noise.

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    If the original file had a sample rate higher than 96 kHz

     

     

    Should we take from this that no actual musical/harmonic content above 48KHz would be preserved in an MQA file encoded from a 192KHz original? (I'm guessing my speakers don't have usable response even up that far, but just asking.)

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    Should we take from this that no actual musical/harmonic content above 48KHz would be preserved in an MQA file encoded from a 192KHz original? (I'm guessing my speakers don't have usable response even up that far, but just asking.)

    That is exactly what I'm saying.

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    That is exactly what I'm saying.

     

    Thanks. I personally wonder whether there is much actual content above 48KHz on hi res recordings; I'm just happy that the product doesn't have to be taken all the way down to 16/44.1, very possibly with a system that is not terribly high fidelity. (This of course is no assurance that a hi res product will be high fidelity, it just eliminates one possible way of screwing things up.)

     

    But if we want to minimize the number of conversions between us and the studio, MQA doesn't help in that regard.

     

     

    The benefit I've heard from MQA so far consists of the release for streaming of better masterings of some recordings.

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    Thanks. I personally wonder whether there is much actual content above 48KHz on hi res recordings;

     

    There isn't, but that's no excuse for MQA to lie about what their product does.

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