The Outer Limits of Audio

MQA

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MQA LogoMQA (Master Quality Authenticated) is the latest audio algorithm to provide the listeners a true audiophile listening experience without requiring high bandwidth.  MQA requires software and hardware to unfold the file for the DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) to understand and provide an analog signal.  In a nutshell, this requires the listeners to invest in hardware/software to decode this new format and the level of performance differs from one brand to the next.  Here are my thoughts on this technology.

MQA – Is it another type of compression format?

The people behind MQA would describe this technology not as a compression algorithm, but rather a type of audio origami. This basically means an audio signal is folded to form a very tightly packed package of data to be either streamed or stored. A typical 24/192 file containing about 5-minutes of information (FLAC format) is 195-Megabytes. MQA aims to create the same resolution using a folding technique to reduce this number by half. Well, a bit more than half because an MQA album I purchased that had the resolution of 24/192 and the same length mentioned above came out to about 80-Megabytes.

MQA compression graph

MQA core decoder featureFrom a computer technician’s perspective, this is a compression algorithm, and although the method is more of a folding technique, it is still a compression algorithm (I know the people from both the listeners and from Meridian will correct me – This is from my perspective as I understand the technology). Like with any compression algorithm, a codec must be used. However, this is where the differences begin as MQA is a unique audio folding algorithm; hence, this tech is not a codec. Due to this, a unique MQA Core Decoder software/hardware is required to perform the first of three levels of unfolding. The Core Decoder delivers about 85% of the performance (based on certain claims from different sources). It allows for the DAC to have the highest fidelity possible to the listener (even though it is only 85% of the true potential of the signal from the MQA perspective) and could be performed from either the software or hardware side.

Is MQA true master quality?

That is the hope and not all systems seem to follow one standard.  Master Quality Authenticated is supposed to be virtually identical to the Recorded Masters and yet depending on the DAC implementation, the sound signature can vary.  As an example, the LG V30 uses a combination of the ESS9218p SoC and the MQA in Full Decode implementation (1. unfold, 2. Stream Lock, 3. Render), which is suppose to deliver the highest performance akin to the Master recording.  Upon listening to a few albums and in turn purchasing identical albums from a streaming/download service, I was able to conduct a thorough one-on-one listening session.  Now from a mobile streaming service, this wouldn’t be an ideal comparison so I conducted another listening session with my home rig…

The home rig uses (a friend’s system as my home is being renovated except for the one item I am listing first) the Teac NT-505, a full MBL rig complete with pre and power amplification plus the MBL 101E-Mk2 for loudspeakers. Cables from UIT. The Teac NT-505 is a network player/DAC with the ability to conduct an MQA Full Decode and the DACs used are from Assai Kasei Microdevices (AKM-4497EQ – one for each channel as the NT505 is a balanced Network/DAC). Everything in the rig is wired single-ended (RCA type). One more thing to add about this rig is the use of older Cardas Audio’s Golden Reference for speaker cables as my friend prefers their loudspeakers to be connected using these already well-rounded cables.

Once all of these elements had been combined, my friend and I then listened to the album “Across The Stars” by John Williams with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter in 24/96 and MQA 24/96. The details between the two are quite interesting as one is a bit more musical than the other. What I mean is there are differences between the two albums that can be a deal-breaker for some. I find it fascinating to hear two identical albums not sound exactly the same since both are in the 24/96 FLAC format with one being MQA and other just FLAC-1 (1-being the lowest level of compression). MQA is supposed to sound akin to recorded masters and yet it doesn’t quite perform as well as standard non-MQA FLAC.

To clarify, MQA doesn’t have the same air as with the downloaded non-MQA version. The ambiance of the orchestration isn’t there and the subtle nuances of the energies behind Mutter’s violin work doesn’t seem to captivate me. MQA feels like a good recording with a good amount of detail while the Qobuz downloaded FLAC is a bit more true to life. There is ambiance, there is significantly more detail to the textures of the violin, and the sound-stage presence is a bit more refined. This is a studio recording and MQA emphasized the presence to this effect while FLAC made the recording more realistic despite where it had been recorded.

Album cover of Beethovens Violin Concerto in DI thought this was an issue, so I decided to listen to one of my favorite recordings. Anne-Sophie Mutter as the solo violinist with Herbert Von Karajan conducting “Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D” is an Audiophile’s best recording of the two masters. Tidal has an MQA version while Qobuz features a high-resolution version of this same album. While both are in 24-bits with a 96-KHz sampling rate, they still sound different. MQA is easier to stream when bandwidth is a concern, but there isn’t the same listening feeling when compared to a standard FLAC version from a rival streaming service. Then I further tested this listening theory by listening to my digital download and have found the listening character to be more identical to the Qobuz FLAC than to the Tidal MQA version.

With these two albums, I have chosen to enjoy the rest of the day with my friend listening from Qobuz rather than from Tidal. Please don’t misunderstand here, Tidal MQA is very good and they have a larger selection, but for pure fidelity sake Qobuz caters to us Audiophiles.

So… To Achieve the Best Listening Results, I need an MQA Full Decoder thus what are my options to achieve this level of audio fidelity?

This is not an easy question to answer, and quite frankly, I can’t really offer a solution. I can make an educated, subjective guess as to how to proceed without breaking the bank. As consideration for the reader, the Teac NT-505 is a $2000 piece of audio gear that may be either good or bad depending on the system he or she has.

All I can say is to check out the MQA page to find out which brands offer MQA Full Decode capabilities in their DACs. The Teac NT-505 was recommended to me when I traded my previous Esoteric Ko1X with the newer K01XS. The audio fidelity using the 1st level unfold or by using the MQA Core Decoder allows for a good amount of audio performance before investing heavily into a given system.

audirvana logoI almost forgot to mention one other part. The Teac NT-505 decodes native DSD albums through the USB input thus treating this network streamer and decoder as a DAC device for either headphones or loudspeaker systems. In this configuration, software from either the desktop/laptop or mobile devices, such as smartphones, would be used to stream digital signals to the MQA capable streamer. The software I would use for this configuration is Audirvana. This music streaming server software can be installed on either MacOS or Windows 10 with an available companion app aptly titled “A+” (Audirvana’s remote control app). Audirvana supports Tidal, Qobuz, and HiRes Audio Vault. For Tidal, Audirvana streams Tidal MQA through the software with the MQA Core Decoder should the attached DAC or internal digital-to-analog converter not have the hardware decoding/rendering processor built-in.

Adding Audirvana to the Teac NT-505, how does it sound?

Audirvana simplifies the organization of the music albums along with the integration of the streaming services such as Tidal and Qobuz. One additional item is the immediate auto-detection of my hardware MQA Full Decoder/Rendering processor in the Teac NT-505. Of course, I can disable this feature and listen to how Audirvana handles MQA streams using its own software MQA Core Decoder, though it would not be a fair comparison, especially for this article.

With every aspect of the program and hardware integrated together, I begin my listening session by playing a total of two album pairs (Tidal MQA and Qobuz Hi-Res FLAC). Here is the configuration for the listening session.

– Harbeth P3ESR in Cherry
– Anti-Cables Level-3.1 8′ length speaker cables
– Mark Levinson No.33 monoblock amplifiers with Nordost Vahalla 2 power cords.
– Cardas Golden Cross RCA single-ended interconnects 3.0m pair.
– Townshend Allegri+ passive autotransformer line stage using Fractal Wire.
– Teac NT-505 network streamer with USB input and MQA hardware full decoder
– from network streamer to line stage, Cardas Golden Reference stereo RCA interconnects at 2.0m pair.
– 17″ Apple Macbook Pro Unibody 2011 model year with 2TB Samsung EVO+ 7-series SSD
– UIT 2.0m USB digital interconnect from Macbook Pro to Teac NT-505.

Coltrane album coverColtrane ’58 – The Prestige Recordings both Tidal MQA and Qobuz. Resolution at 24/192. This is one album I have purchased from both the Tidal and Qobuz Stores where the former is a task not easily achieved as the resolution of the albums being downloaded are not immediately apparent. I had to take a guess on the resolution from the Tidal Store based on the price of the album. Qobuz is exceptionally straightforward in the task of purchasing albums. Anyway, back to the most important part. In listening to the album in general, not focusing on one single track in the album, I was able to hear clearly the differences between MQA and FLAC. Master Quality Authenticated is very good for which I can hear a bit more warmth to the music and instrumentation, especially during the mono tracks. There is a loss in the airiness of the instruments in space (stereo is more pronounced than with the mono recordings) while there is a slight loss in depth (to keep this subject pure, I am sticking with streaming over local file playback).

Now a direct comparison while the album is fresh in my memory, the Qobuz version at the same resolution sounds more lively. Mono recordings feel as though I am hearing the instruments without filtering. The textures in the piano pieces are brought out without being held back. The Tidal MQA version isn’t as energetic as the Qobuz version, however, I did notice that a much larger file loaded into RAM from the Audirvana application. Using the last track in the album “Time After Time,” I can hear the subtle nuances in the piano, saxophone, and the brushing of the drum when listening to Qobuz FLAC versus the slightly muted and warmer sounding MQA. It is a similar comparison to an analog album using both the London Reference and Grado Epoch-3 phono cartridge to conduct the listening session. MQA = London Reference. Qobuz FLAC = Grado Epoch-3. Hearing these differences, I quickly stayed with the Qobuz source and migrated to another album.

John Adams: Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? – Performed by Yuja Wang and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel – LA Phil. This is the latest addition to my music collection; one featuring two legends in the classical genre of music. Listening to the album through Tidal MQA to Audirvana, I love the intimate sound and warmth exuded in this album. The first track is whimsical in both title and composition; “Gritty, Funky, But in Strict Tempo; Twitchy and Bot-Like” is aptly named. I close my eyes and hear Yuja Wang play her part frantically while imagining Dudamel in a near precise and bot-like state delivering his conducting style to the musicians on the stage. The sound is quite intimate in nature while being controlled. The sound-stage presence is quite nice, but having said that, I haven’t heard a concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall yet. So I don’t have a clear picture in my mind how this piece should sound.

Until I heard the Qobuz version…

There is an air to the music being played that is much more realistic and where I don’t feel like the instruments are held back. I can hear the delicate details of the piano and strings being played out. Same track, but there is significantly more energy from the orchestra, and Yuja Wang’s playing of the Steinway & Sons Concert Grand sounds like what it should be. And I can hear the details in the concert hall, which sounds similar to Elbphilharmonie Orchestra in Hamburg (I have attended two concerts after the completion of the concert hall in HafenCity). The initial attack of the instruments are clearly defined with textures in the secondary harmonics that feel quite realistic and organic in presentation. That can’t be said with the rendition of the same piece from the MQA version from Tidal.

My Final Thoughts.

I don’t particularly think that we as audiophiles have to invest in something that should be offered as an inexpensive upgrade. I understand that with new and emerging technologies, some financial compensation is required to obtain this level of performance. Similar to DSD, the existing decoder for MQA would have to be replaced in order to play the latest format. In this case, MQA is like a form of hardware digital rights management because the MQA Core Decoder or the Full Decoder must be part of the system in order to play the Master Quality Authenticated part of the file or stream.

From a mobile, on-the-go streaming perspective, MQA has the clear advantage because, when we are moving, our network bandwidth can vary from city-to-city. When storing the content for offline playback, the album file sizes are much lower with MQA (compared to FLAC of identical resolution/sampling rate) thus allowing for more storage for other things. Software application of the MQA Core Decoder is great for those whom don’t have integrated MQA hardware, but can be a strain on the mobile device and can alter the audio fidelity to where it may not sound right. I personally own the LG V30 and have heard the differences between the integrated hardware MQA Full Decoder and the software decoder from another phone that I own; the LG V10 (both use ESS DACs so the sonic signature is very close) and the hardware decoder sounds very good.

There are no wrong answers here and MQA is here to stay as there are many whom appreciate what this audio tech represents.

Some food for thought. Stay Safe and Stay Well.