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The MQA revolution: brother, you have to wait (and see)

  • The next big thing™? Back in 2011 it was DSD; the (alleged) holy grail of hi-res digital playback. Content would come “eventually” (we were told). Who were we to disbelieve those who brokered deals with studios and music execs behind close doors? Our responsibility as consumers was to be ready with a DSD compliant D/A converter for when the tap was turned on.

    The big mags got behind the new format and helped stoke consumer demand. Demand that caused DAC manufacturers to add DSD circuitry to their next decoder – some against their initial will – lest they lose a sale. California’s Schiit Audio introduced the US$149 DSD-only Loki for anyone who wanted to add DSD playability to an existing digital front end.

    Hardware compliance raced ahead but content provision failed to keep up. In 2016, the DSD catalogue has barely grown beyond 2012 levels. The most mainstream facing of download stores, Chad Kassem’s Acoustic Sounds, offers just shy of 600 titles.

    Elsewhere, DSD downloads remain a cottage industry within the audiophile niche. Native DSDers are served by labels like Morten Lindberg’s 2L Recordings and Cookie Marenco’s Blue Coast.

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    Make no mistake though – we now live in a cloud streaming world. Tidal, Spotify, Deezer, Apple Music are on the up whilst download and CD sales crawl south. None of these streaming companies will be adding DSD to their libraries anytime soon – the files are simply too large to stream. DSD is a bandwidth and download quota killer.

    DSD failed not because it didn’t offer ‘better sound’ or because the necessary decoding hardware didn’t proliferate but because the music – especially more mainstream content – remains M.I.A..

    DSD-as-next-big-thing RIP – lest we forget.

    In 2016, the next big thing™ is Bob Stuart and Peter Craven’s MQA; another (alleged) holy grail of digital playback – but not just hi-res. MQA’s promise is essentially threefold: 1) end-to-end security of file contents with decoder authentication; 2) hi-res streaming through audio origami; 3) a deblurring algorithm that improves the sound of existing digital audio content without going back to the master tapes.

    MQA (the company) showed at CES 2016 with an abundance of would be MQA-compliant hardware on its display table. Most prominent of all was Mytek Digital’s Michal Jurewicz who could be seen conducting the same proof of concept Tidal hi-res streaming demo with his all-new Brooklyn DAC. A demo that I’d been privy to a few months earlier at Denver’s RMAF.

    Whilst I played catch up on the specifics of MQA’s promises and plans – What was it? How did it work? What could it do for listeners? – Stereophile and (especially) The Absolute Sound rang the bell for the format’s superiority.

    Remembering DSD, would potential consumers react with cautious optimism – once bitten, twice shy? Not a chance. Message boards lit up.

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    As is common when new audio tech is announced, first-hand experience is in short supply and so impatience fuels speculation, facts be damned. In sweeping up some of the misinformation propagating via his own Computer Audiophile forum, Chris Connaker sought proper answers from the horse’s mouth.

    Connaker made arrangements for forum members to submit their MQA-related questions to mainman Bob Stuart directly. Stuart would then answer them all in time and Connaker would publish the results. Click here to read a fine job by all concerned. Put the kettle on though – you’ll be there a while.

    That’s the theory. What about the reality?

    Stuart’s end-to-end process relies on studio and music label adoption at one end and hardware compliance (mostly) at the other.

    Arriving in my inbox last week came three MQA-related press releases.

    The first two formally announced what had been touted at their respective launches. That the Onkyo DP-X1 (covered here) and the Pioneer XDP-100R (covered here) portable audio players would soon see a firmware update enabling MQA playback.

    “Onkyo is proud to announce support for MQA on our “DP-X1” digital audio player. Announced at IFA in September 2015, the “DP-X1” is the world’s first MQA enabled portable digital audio player*1. The free update will be available worldwide on April 12th. Please visit Google PlayTM to get the latest “Music” app and enjoy MQA.”

    “Pioneer is proud to announce support for MQA on our XDP-100R digital audio player. Announced at IFA in September 2015, the Pioneer XDP-100R is the world’s first MQA enabled portable digital audio player. The free update will be available worldwide on April 12th. Please visit Google PlayTM to get the latest “Music” app and enjoy MQA.”

    MQA DAP population = two.

    The third press release came from Michal Jurewicz: “Mytek Digital has announced the release of the MQA™ firmware update which now enables the new Brooklyn DAC/Headphone/ Preamplifier to decode all MQA files in addition to all other formats, including PCM 384k/32bit, DSD256 and analog phono playback.”

    “After Meridian, Mytek is the second MQA licensee to release the firmware update with the MQA technology. MQA is a revolutionary end-to-end technology that captures and delivers master quality audio in a file that’s small enough to stream or download. And because it’s fully authenticated, the listener can be sure they are hearing exactly what the artist recorded and approved in the studio.”

    MQA DAC population = two.

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    Here we must remember that an MQA-capable DAC is NOT required for basic playback of an MQA file.

    According to Stuart, those without an MQA DAC should still find that MQA-encoded or MQA-processed source material sounds better than its Redbook counterpart.

    “You can take an MQA-encoded file, play it anywhere, and it will sound better than CD”, he said (according to this Stereophile piece).

    The Mytek Brooklyn and Meridian Explorer2 are only required to unfold the hi-res portion of a file and/or to authenticate its contents. An LED lights blue when it sees studio MQA-encoded material (‘MQA Studio’), green when it sees content de-blurred by the MQA algorithm as being “identical to that of the source material.”

    I have no doubt we’ll see more MQA-equipped converters come to market in 2016 but as of right now there are three: Meridian’s Prime and Explorer2 plus the Mytek Brooklyn. Three. 3. Well, three if We shouldn’t concern ourselves with this quite yet though. Limited hardware options aren’t an issue when there’s little to no content with which to feed ’em.

    Where are we at with MQA content supply?

    Standing out in Connaker’s MQ&A was this question lead-in: “I believe that MQA is the last format standing between real evolution in digital audio and Redbook-mp3 total domination in the long term.”

    Stuart is “inclined to agree”.

    The implication lurking in the shadows of this assertion is that lossy audio is set to swamp the music industry. Why? File size still matters to end users. MP3, AAC and Ogg Vorbis’ psycho-acoustic compression might be irrelevant to now dirt cheap data storage devices but it remains VERY relevant to smartphone streamers hamstrung by single-digit download quotas. How many lossless albums can be streamed from Tidal Hifi with an allowance of 6Gb? 12? 15? 20 tops.

    Stuart continues:CD was the most successful format for mass music because the catalogue became huge, everybody understood how to buy, play and store it.”

    For those already in possession of the necessary hardware, 2L Recording’s test bench is one source of content for a DIY A/B comparo. Lindberg’s productions aren’t to my tastes and possibly aren’t to yours either. But they’re there if you want ‘em.

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    Those wanting to skip the nerd games and get straight to purchasing are directed by MQA’s website to one of four download stores.

    Predictably, 2L offers its entire catalogue as MQA-encoded files; 130ish titles. Over at Onkyo Music we count 12 MQA albums. Yours for 16GBP a pop. Over at 7Digital, a single MQA album by one Amy Duncan (who?). At Technics Tracks we’re offered 15 x MQA albums for credit card purchase.

    Slim pickings by anyone’s standards. Not to mention that each and every download for sale is music of a more traditional audiophile persuasion. For the mainstream music fan there’s zilch, nada, nothing.

    We’ve been here before haven’t we? Announcements pertaining to more mainstream content are reportedly “coming very soon”. In other words, TBA.

    Even if we assume right now that MQA offers an audible improvement over standard PCM, the availability of more contemporary music (pop even) will prevent it from going the way of the DSD dodo.

    Another Bob Stuart quote: The history of recorded music shows that when the release form is accessible, it is more successful. The music market was never built on audiophiles.” [My emphasis].

    Besides, MQA doesn’t enjoy the advantage of illicit SACD rips that kept DSD fanciers from complaining of content shortage whilst official channels got their ducks in a row. Neither can one up-sample to MQA as is possible with DSD via apps like HQPlayer.

    Even if they do come through with the MQA goods, online vendors will have a hard time convincing people living beyond the audiophile biosphere that downloads represent value for money. (Presumably) a single-digit percentage improvement in SQ for the same dollars as a month’s Tidal Hifi or Deezer Elite is a tough sell.

    Therein lies the source of some irony. Fundamental to MQA’s success will be streaming service adoption. We’ve already seen a Tidal demo but we know not if/when the Norwegians will flip the switch on MQA streaming, how much it will cost us or how many titles will be made available. Another TBA.

    If you’re already asking “Does it do MQA?” of your next DAC purchase, I’d ask you consider how much MQA content you currently have access to? No point future-proofing for a future that isn’t 100% guaranteed to arrive.

    We look to the past in order to make better educated guesses about what the future might bring. We do this so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes over and over. Let us learn from getting too het up too soon about DSD and cool our collective jets on what MQA might bring to the table down the line.

    Right now, the MQA ecosystem is painfully small. Three DACs, two DAPs and a few hundred albums does not a revolution make – not yet. Bob Stuart and Peter Craven’s audio tech dream won’t become reality until we see MQA titles swarm in their thousands (nay, millions).

    In Connaker’s FAQ, Bob Stuart says, “We agree that a good supply of music is important for us and for all those interested in high-quality sound. The music business is large and somewhat incoherent. We have rapidly increasing interest in MQA within small, medium and large labels and among the recording and mastering communities. Every label will make their own decision. The real key is establishing distribution for streaming, download and physical and supporting each method as it evolves.”

    On streaming service integration our Stuart is similarly vague, “We are in discussion with a number of streaming services. However it is up to them to make their own announcements.”

    MQA is still in its infancy with much work to do. Should we therefore not keep our enthusiasm/derision in our collective pocket until this bleeding edge tech sorts out its music supply lines?

    As we saw with DSD, a delivery format’s success rises and falls on content provision.

    Further information: MQA | Mytek Digital | Onkyo | Pioneer

    UPDATE 21st April: Michael Lavorgna of Stereophile and AudioStream has picked up on what I’m throwing down here – he questions the need to be ready to be ready.


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    EDIT 19th April: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote to Bob Stuart that in fact originated with a Computer Audiophile Q&A-er and to which Stuart agreed.

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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