• The Computer Audiophile

    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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    Me too! But I always find statements like this------------

     

    ROTFLMAO,, Yea OK. :)

    One comment, we're talking about High Fidelity here, not the subjective view of art, music or photographs. The former is a scientific pursuit, the later (like sex and your post) the pursuit of pleasure. Have fun.

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    I used to love going into the city to browse in the used record stores. The artists didn't get paid then either. If anyone complained about royalties back then, I didn't hear about it. Used records were cheap in the 70's too. I don't think a used record store could afford to pay rent these days. But I miss buying physical media in stores. Shopping was part of the experience for me.

     

    Guess you haven't looked for one in awhile. We have a great one in our smallish city ( While Traverse City’s official population is 14,572, and a daytime population of more than twice the official population, it is the hub of a Micropolitan Statistical Area of 143,372.), it has a great used record store and he is thriving. Interesting thing is, he was once the owner of a mid-fi / Hifi shop and now is happier than he was running that.

     

    If you venture out to larger cities you will find a number of great record stores. I get to Chicago on occasion and there are quite a few great used record stores with fantastic prices and fantastic inventory. Frankly, it's where I go for "hi-res" music that I want to "own".

    Tidal (and now Roon and MQA) are filling the bill for digital music for me.

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    Guess you haven't looked for one in awhile. We have a great one in our smallish city ( While Traverse City’s official population is 14,572, and a daytime population of more than twice the official population, it is the hub of a Micropolitan Statistical Area of 143,372.), it has a great used record store and he is thriving. Interesting thing is, he was once the owner of a mid-fi / Hifi shop and now is happier than he was running that.

     

    If you venture out to larger cities you will find a number of great record stores. I get to Chicago on occasion and there are quite a few great used record stores with fantastic prices and fantastic inventory. Frankly, it's where I go for "hi-res" music that I want to "own".

    Tidal (and now Roon and MQA) are filling the bill for digital music for me.

     

     

    I live outside of Boston. I'll bet there was 100's of used records store near Harvard Square. There was many used hi-fi shops too with all kinds of electronic junk to browse through. That's all long gone. Rent in the city of Cambridge is unaffordable now. I know of a couple used record stores that still exist in other parts of the state but it aint what it used to be.

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    I live outside of Boston. I'll bet there was 100's of used records store near Harvard Square. There was many used hi-fi shops too with all kinds of electronic junk to browse through. That's all long gone. Rent in the city of Cambridge is unaffordable now. I know of a couple used record stores that still exist in other parts of the state but it aint what it used to be.

     

    Interesting. I was just at a used record and CD shop near where I live (50ish miles from nearest large city) and picked up some old Kinks and Dave Mathews Band for 3 bucks each.

     

     

    Sent from my iPhone using Computer Audiophile

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    I live outside of Boston. I'll bet there was 100's of used records store near Harvard Square. There was many used hi-fi shops too with all kinds of electronic junk to browse through. That's all long gone. Rent in the city of Cambridge is unaffordable now. I know of a couple used record stores that still exist in other parts of the state but it aint what it used to be.

     

    There certainly may be less than there used to be. Sorry there isn't one near you!

    If, however, you get an urge to get into the heartland of this country, you need to spend some time in the great city of Chicago and there you will find hrs and hrs of used record browsing available in a number of good shops. Prices seem really low to me too and my experience jives with Jud's in that I bought an armload of pristine jazz at $3-4$ a pop last time I was there. I was able to get 15 records for the price of 2 hires downloads!

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    There certainly may be less than there used to be. Sorry there isn't one near you!

    If, however, you get an urge to get into the heartland of this country, you need to spend some time in the great city of Chicago and there you will find hrs and hrs of used record browsing available in a number of good shops. Prices seem really low to me too and my experience jives with Jud's in that I bought an armload of pristine jazz at $3-4$ a pop last time I was there. I was able to get 15 records for the price of 2 hires downloads!

     

    I used to spend entire afternoons browsing through used record shops. Go out of one door into a store next door. But that was 35-40 years ago. Scary to think of how much time has passed.

     

    My friend's daughter now rents a small 1 BR apartment(2 1/2 rooms) in the same area for almost $4,000 a month. You don't see many small businesses that can survive under those conditions.

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    I think every college town has used record (CD, LP, etc.) shops. We have 3 and I just got back from my Sat. am browse... the guy even recognizes me now and said "see you next Sat.

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    If you venture out to larger cities you will find a number of great record stores. I get to Chicago on occasion and there are quite a few great used record stores with fantastic prices and fantastic inventory. Frankly, it's where I go for "hi-res" music that I want to "own".

     

    If your in Chicago two of my life long haunts are still around and not to be missed.

    Both on the near West Side suburb of Oak Park, front door access to both from public transportation.

    For vinyl, since 1972, is Val's halla Records. A legend in the Chicago area, I can remember the days full of the smell of patchouli oil, incense, and the refer being smoked out front! LOL

    Vals halla Records | We Buy Vinyl

     

    For CD's is Chicago Digital. A guy named Chris Miller opened this wonder place in 1985 and at the time was the first CD only store in the country. Today you can't really browse any more since the place is just packed tight, floor to ceiling, front door to back, with over 40,000 new & used CD's. If there's something special or rare you want just give him a call. (Tell him Sal sent ya. ;) )

    http://www.chicagocompactdiscs.com/

     

    Way off topic from MQA, but this is more important stuff in any case.

    LOL,

    Sorry Chris.

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    Here's a terrifically interesting piece by Jim Collinson of Linn. In my view, Jim raises some interesting questions about the philosophy and the monetizing behind MQA. I found Jim's analogizing MQA to the Netflix/Amazon model to be particularly poignant.

     

    i should say that by personal predilection, I still want to 'own' my music - a proposition that is becoming increasingly difficult. I use streaming for non-critical listening of narrow dynamic range music. Material employing a wider dynamic range I end up owning after the hunt for the best recording Many times red book)

    https://www.linn.co.uk/blog/mqa-is-bad-for-music

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    Here's a terrifically interesting piece by Jim Collinson of Linn. In my view, Jim raises some interesting questions about the philosophy and the monetizing behind MQA. I found Jim's analogizing MQA to the Netflix/Amazon model to be particularly poignant.

     

    i should say that by personal predilection, I still want to 'own' my music - a proposition that is becoming increasingly difficult. I use streaming for non-critical listening of narrow dynamic range music. Material employing a wider dynamic range I end up owning after the hunt for the best recording Many times red book)

    https://www.linn.co.uk/blog/mqa-is-bad-for-music

     

    That's a great article, hadn't seen it before. Includes some of the things I've been saying all along on the DRM like aspects of MQA. Thanks for the post!

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    On 2/9/2017 at 10:38 AM, DanSmedra said:

    It seems one of the major current tensions among audiophiles in various forums is the viability and supply of music delivery channels. 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.

     

    As silly as it sounds, some forums have small groups of anti-streaming and MQA 'protestors'. I'm not sure whether they are retired, unemployed, or live in mom's basement, but they are drawn (as if with a sci-fi tractor beam) to express dissent and write denigrating comments toward that segment who enjoy streaming and who optimistically look at MQA as a possible enhancement to sound quality and musical enjoyment.

     

    Enthusiasm for TIDAL/Masters and the emerging market for MQA-certified hardware seems to make certain audiophiles downright miserable...as if music pleasure is a zero-sum equation. "It's just not 'fair'!" Really?

     

    Audio Industry Take Note. Those of us who enjoy streaming services like TIDAL, Pandora, Spotify, etc. and its ability to introduce music listeners to new artists and genre as well as replay favorites from massive cloud-based libraries, are excited about TIDAL/Masters and the future of MQA.

    Agreed. I am one of those who never forked out the money to "re-purchase" my entire library in high-resolution formats.  I did buy a dozen 24/192 PCM albums and a similar amount of DSD albums.  One of the reasons that I didn't download more is that some of the purveyors of hi-res downloads did not provide the provenance of their offerings, and in some cases I was delivered substandard results from a poor master or just a conversion from PCM to DSD.  I am not paying $25 per album for that kind of product.  So when Tidal streaming came along, I found the SQ to be acceptable, but the interface not.  But Roon / Tidal with Masters checks all of the boxes for me: great interface and reasonable SQ.  The biggest advantage is in music discovery: I am able to find the music that I really like, so that I can make a price / performance judgement on whether it is worth buying as a DSD download, or whether Tidal / Masters is good enough.  Another advantage is that I don't feel compelled to purchase complete albums any more, just the tracks that I like.   My experience so far has been to really enjoy Roon / Tidal / Master streaming to the point that I have not purchased a hi-res download since Tidal / Masters became available.  I will continue to discover new music and will continue to make the judgement each time on whether I want to purchase a hi-resolution version through download.  The nice thing is that with Roon, it seamlessly integrates the downloaded tracks with streaming tracks.

    I don't think that I am that unique

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    Has anyone been able to play a trac that produces the green light ?

     

    (I tried to search for "Green light" but it was impossible for me to understand how to upen a post containing my search phrase)

     

    So far I've only seen the blue light.

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    20 minutes ago, R1200CL said:

    Has anyone been able to play a trac that produces the green light ?

     

    (I tried to search for "Green light" but it was impossible for me to understand how to upen a post containing my search phrase)

     

    So far I've only seen the blue light.

     

    I have one that's green light, but it was given to me as a press sample.

     

    To open a post containing your search phrase, you can click on any of the three items with arrows (see screenshot)

    mqa-gree-light.png

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    1 hour ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

     

    I have one that's green light, but it was given to me as a press sample.

    Same here.

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    16 hours ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

    I have one that's green light, but it was given to me as a press sample.

     

    I've been looking for such a file.

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