• 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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    It's possible to play 24/352.8 on a class 1 device and without custom drivers.

     

    Chris, I see your point, but still ... Oversampling is performed by all delta sigma DAC chips. In Sabre it is quite advanced implementation and the target sample rate is 705.6/768kHz. Because of that oversampling we don't call all 44.1k recordings to be 705.6k. I see your point that MQA contains compressed info about high frequency content and standard Redbook content doesn't contain it. But that raises questions: What's the accuracy of that high frequency information and what's the accuracy of the hardware decoding/rendering process? It seems the high frequency content reconstruction is lossy process. It may be too strong to declare that 24/352.8 is played. Especially compared to the DXD original.

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    Thanks for the write up, very interesting.

     

    "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."

     

    This is of no benefit to the consumer, only the record labels.

    So MQA *does* contain DRM - thats actually not "a cool concept".

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    Thanks for the write up, very interesting.

     

    "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."

     

    This is of no benefit to the consumer, only the record labels.

    So MQA *does* contain DRM - thats actually not "a cool concept".

     

    "Benefit" can be either for consumers or record labels - or both! It doesn't have to be a zero-sum game.

     

    And how does "verify this is the file s/he plays back at home" = "DRM"?

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    Isn't DRM about deciding if you can play a file or not? And with MQA it decides how far you can unfold it. Or have I missed something?

     

     

    Sent from my iPhone using Computer Audiophile

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    Isn't DRM about deciding if you can play a file or not? And with MQA it decides how far you can unfold it. Or have I missed something?

     

     

    Sent from my iPhone using Computer Audiophile

     

    I think you've missed something. If you have the appropriate software and / or hardware, you can unfold the file as far as the software / hardware supports.

     

    Just like DTS or Dolby Digital encoding on a Blu-Ray: it's not considered "DRM" if you don't have a Blu-Ray player that supports that feature, but you will only be able to playback the stereo content on the Blu-Ray . . . just like you can play back the Redbook content of an MQA file if you don't have a software or hardware device that supports MQA decoding.

     

    PS - I also don't think the "authentication" feature qualifies as "DRM".

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    Thanks for the write up, very interesting.

     

    "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."

     

    This is of no benefit to the consumer, only the record labels.

    So MQA *does* contain DRM - thats actually not "a cool concept".

    Consumer verification at home is a major benefit to consumers. I'm guessing you don't want to purchase a high resolution download that was generated from a file of much lesser quality. You will know when this happens because the authentication light will not illuminate.

     

    I agree DRM in the classic sense isn't cool. I don't look at this as DRM in the classic sense.

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    PS - I also don't think the "authentication" feature qualifies as "DRM".

     

    Hi John - I think MQA made a mistake calling it authentication. The connotation with that word is too negative. It makes this sound like the file is authenticated back to the mothership before playback. In this case, authentication only means you are playing the authentic file that was released by the label. Similar to clothing that has expensive hologram stickers on the tags so people know they are purchasing the real thing.

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    Hi John - I think MQA made a mistake calling it authentication. The connotation with that word is too negative. It makes this sound like the file is authenticated back to the mothership before playback. In this case, authentication only means you are playing the authentic file that was released by the label. Similar to clothing that has expensive hologram stickers on the tags so people know they are purchasing the real thing.

     

    While I agree with you to some extent, how could they have better indicated the genuine article? Many obsess over provenance, no? Isn't this what MQA guarantees?

     

    Nice article BTW.

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    While I agree with you to some extent, how could they have better indicated the genuine article? Many obsess over provenance, no? Isn't this what MQA guarantees?

     

    Provenance yes, but not in the sense that many see it. MQA guarantees provenance from the label. Once the file is distributed, there is a guarantee it will reach the consumer without alteration. I never thought this was an issue until I talked to more people involved in the distribution and sale of music.

     

    Labels are always free to deliver what they want (44.1 native or 44.1 upsampled to 352.8, etc...). MQA just guarantees we receive what the label sold.

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    Thanks Chris, enjoyed the article. I note that you hinted that we can expect many more MQA DACs in the future, hopefully this year.

     

    Many of the questions raised still remain unanswered but I think the fog has cleared a little now. While I am still wondering about how to do room correction AND receive the benefits of the full MQA decoding (right now its literally impossible without going through another ADC/DAC chain), I guess we will have to wait and see how things develop this year. Like you said, perhaps we should put some of the questioning aside and just enjoy what we currently have...

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    Thanks Chris for this clarification.

    Just a question on:

    "You don't need a decoder to enjoy our standard sound quality - which is now widely agreed by the mastering communities to be superior to CD"

    Is there available documentation which confirm that the mastering communities widely find that a lossy file which has been modified by the MQA dsp is superior to its untouched lossless original?

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    Thanks for the write up, very interesting.

     

    "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."

     

    This is of no benefit to the consumer, only the record labels.

    So MQA *does* contain DRM - thats actually not "a cool concept".

    I disagree. It is useful to know that a file is the original file and has not been modified. There are of course many other ways to do this (eg MD5) and it can be done without the lossy compression.

     

    Additionally, @Chris, I just don't get the crown jewel bit... Do you mean to say that the recording companies are now able to NOT sell you the original DXD master? That it is an advantage to them to sell you a maimed copy?

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    Provenance yes, but not in the sense that many see it. MQA guarantees provenance from the label. Once the file is distributed, there is a guarantee it will reach the consumer without alteration. I never thought this was an issue until I talked to more people involved in the distribution and sale of music.

     

    Labels are always free to deliver what they want (44.1 native or 44.1 upsampled to 352.8, etc...). MQA just guarantees we receive what the label sold.

    So many other ways to do this without involving lossy compression... Seriously.

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    Thanks Chris for this clarification.

    Just a question on:

    "You don't need a decoder to enjoy our standard sound quality - which is now widely agreed by the mastering communities to be superior to CD"

    Is there available documentation which confirm that the mastering communities widely find that a lossy file which has been modified by the MQA dsp is superior to its untouched lossless original?

     

    This was the most suspicious piece of the whole writeup in my opinion. In my testing, defeating the software unfolding in the Tidal desktop app and playing the "direct pass through" on my Musical Fidelity M6si's USB input (which has never heard of MQA) sounded noticeably worse than the Red Book versions of the same tracks. Duller, flatter, less dynamic and with a narrower stereo image. Software unfolding is a must to make these files sound passable.

     

    It would also be great to get some clarity around Auralic's plans concerning software unfolding on its Aries line - their Facebook page made some mention of a forthcoming "proprietary upsampling" algorithm, but it sounds like MQA unfolding is more than a simple up sample.

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    As an audiophile, I see no need for the lossy compression part of it unless it's streamed. Even then, who cares about the sound quality for streaming? I don't see it as the major delivery method for audiophiles.

     

    I have a feeling there will be only MQA compressed files eventually. Highly unlikely that the major labels are gonna want to distribute multiple formats. But I'd like to see MQA de-blurred sans compression as an option.

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    Thanks Chris for this clarification.

    Just a question on:

    "You don't need a decoder to enjoy our standard sound quality - which is now widely agreed by the mastering communities to be superior to CD"

    Is there available documentation which confirm that the mastering communities widely find that a lossy file which has been modified by the MQA dsp is superior to its untouched lossless original?

     

     

    I'm not aware of any documentation effort that's public. I know some mastering engineers have participated in videos, without compensation, for MQA.

     

     

     

     

     

    I disagree. It is useful to know that a file is the original file and has not been modified. There are of course many other ways to do this (eg MD5) and it can be done without the lossy compression.

     

    Additionally, @Chris, I just don't get the crown jewel bit... Do you mean to say that the recording companies are now able to NOT sell you the original DXD master? That it is an advantage to them to sell you a maimed copy?

     

     

     

    Anyone who owns the content can sell whatever they want. Now, similar to the movie studios, they can sell you something other than the original master that is purported to be as good or better. This claim is debated heavily though.

     

     

     

     

     

    So many other ways to do this without involving lossy compression... Seriously.

     

     

     

    The lossy compression bit is a little misleading. This lossy is far different than the lossy of MP3 or AAC.

     

     

     

     

     

    This was the most suspicious piece of the whole writeup in my opinion. In my testing, defeating the software unfolding in the Tidal desktop app and playing the "direct pass through" on my Musical Fidelity M6si's USB input (which has never heard of MQA) sounded noticeably worse than the Red Book versions of the same tracks. Duller, flatter, less dynamic and with a narrower stereo image. Software unfolding is a must to make these files sound passable.

     

    It would also be great to get some clarity around Auralic's plans concerning software unfolding on its Aries line - their Facebook page made some mention of a forthcoming "proprietary upsampling" algorithm, but it sounds like MQA unfolding is more than a simple up sample.

     

     

    The judgements about sound quality without a decoder have been all over the board. Some tracks are better or worse without a decoder and some people are all or nothing on it as well. It's not a black and white thing though. Those who have been claiming un-decoded MQA is inferior by showing graphs and technical analysis, have so far not agreed to take any listening tests that would backup the claim.

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    As an audiophile, I see no need for the lossy compression part of it unless it's streamed. Even then, who cares about the sound quality for streaming? I don't see it as the major delivery method for audiophiles.

     

    I have a feeling there will be only MQA compressed files eventually. Highly unlikely that the major labels are gonna want to distribute multiple formats. But I'd like to see MQA de-blurred sans compression as an option.

     

    When I think about lossy, I ask myself what is lost. With MP3 and AAC real music is lost. With MQA I don't believe real music is lost. MQA changes digital, making existing terminology require more discussion than in the past.

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    As an audiophile, I see no need for the lossy compression part of it unless it's streamed. Even then, who cares about the sound quality for streaming? I don't see it as the major delivery method for audiophiles.

     

    Well, I'm sure there are loads of us that do care about the sound quality for streaming. I certainly do or I'd be using Spotify or Apple Music.

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    The lossy compression bit is a little misleading. This lossy is far different than the lossy of MP3 or AAC.

    True. The same is true with upsampling: most of the time we are listening to an upsampled version of the original file and we like it. My point is MQA per-se is not a better solution than delivering the high res file itself. Whether the difference can be heard, or whether the result of hardware decoding compensates for shortcoming in cheaper DAC chips are different questions.

     

     

    Many MQA titles I've listened to sound better than other versions I have, including the ones billed as "high resolution" (eg Joni Mitchell's 'Blue' or 'Both Sides Now'). I frankly don't care what shenanigans MQA is coming up, I like the result, and as such I will be a customer.

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    As an audiophile, I see no need for the lossy compression part of it unless it's streamed. Even then, who cares about the sound quality for streaming? I don't see it as the major delivery method for audiophiles.

     

    I have a feeling there will be only MQA compressed files eventually. Highly unlikely that the major labels are gonna want to distribute multiple formats. But I'd like to see MQA de-blurred sans compression as an option.

     

    I use streaming everyday not only in the car, but in my main system. I care about sound quality almost always.

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    Provenance yes, but not in the sense that many see it. MQA guarantees provenance from the label. Once the file is distributed, there is a guarantee it will reach the consumer without alteration. I never thought this was an issue until I talked to more people involved in the distribution and sale of music.

     

    Labels are always free to deliver what they want (44.1 native or 44.1 upsampled to 352.8, etc...). MQA just guarantees we receive what the label sold.

     

    I see what you're saying more clearly now. Still, I think the whole end-to-end aspect of MQA is a positive step in that direction, especially if the artist is signing off. Maybe I'm just being naive or foolish.

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