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Updated – MQA and Tidal: Initial listening impressions

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Oh, you elusive Masters tab…

First of all, I’m not a “high-resolution” expert by any stretch. I’m a simple analog caveman who finds himself in a digital world. But I absolutely love what Roon, and Tidal do together with the totaldac d1-integral I have for long-term review. So when I was at CES in Las Vegas this past weekend, and Tidal announced they were finally streaming true high-resolution data in the form of  “Masters” 24/48 MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) files I couldn’t wait to get home, and hear how it sounded. Fast-forward to Thursday night, and I’m finally able to get some time with my home system, and see what all the Internet explosions are about.

To start, it wasn’t easy to find the Masters tab in Tidal… I had to restart my DAC/streamer, and laptop with Roon/Tidal installed several times before I could actually see Masters in this Tidal menu system: Tidal/What’s New/Albums/Masters, and have it show up as 48/24 files on the hardware display screen of my DAC/streamer.

Initially I wasn’t too happy about this because I thought I was losing my mind for about 20 minutes. I had been reading several threads at community/roonlabs.com regarding how to get MQA hooked up because I wanted to hear it, and was not seeing anything that was being discussed online in my desktop Tidal app. It was only after the aforementioned several restarts that the file path I had been seeking finally appeared… Once it showed up I started to favorite as many Masters albums as I could in Tidal. I then had to also restart my iPad for them to show up in Roon Remote so I could select them to play, and then under “Different Version” in the Roon interface they initially didn’t show up, so another restart of the iPad, and finally they were there.

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MQA Masters show up in Roon as 24/48 kHz files.

I wasted no time in doing A/B listening tests of Led Zeppelin  (ST), Joni Mitchell Blue, and Beyonce Lemonade. Previous to this I had only heard MQA demos at the last three hi-fi shows I had attended (T.H.E. Show in Newport Beach, RMAF in Denver, and at CES in Las Vegas last weekend), so I didn’t ever have a chance to realistically do an A/B in anything resembling a controlled environment on gear I was familiar with.

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Listening was done through the totaldac d1-integral-headphone,  MrSpeakers Etherflow, and Audio Note UK integrated amp, and speakers..

In my digital set-up I’m running Tidal Hifi/Masters  ($20/month) through Roon on a MacBook Air 11-inch via ethernet/LAN into a totaldac d1-integral-headphone DAC/Streamer/Headphone amp. This is hooked up to an Audio Note Soro Phono SE Signature integrated amplifier into Audio Note AN-E SPe/HE 97.5 dB loudspeakers, all cabling is Audio Note with PS Audio power conditioning. This is a highly-resolving, and musical system which I’ve assembled (to my tastes), that is very good at immediately translating any sonic differences to the listener.

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The MQA software handoff…

If you’re unfamiliar with how Tidal, and Roon handles the software decoding of MQA files, I recommend reading John Darko’s excellent post about just that. The totaldac is not an MQA-certified/enabled hardware DAC, therefore I’m only hearing what the Tidal desktop application is handing off via the MQA stream to Roon. I’m listening to 24/44, and 24/48 files through my system via Roon, not the multi-step unwrapping of high-res files that an MQA-certified DAC would be able to deliver (if the Master file was recorded at 24/48, 24/96, 24/192 or higher), or the software decode that Tidal is capable of (up to 24/96)

 

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Getting heavy at 48kHz.

First up was Led Zeppelin’s  Led Zeppelin. This is the Deluxe Edition that was remastered from the original analog tapes, and released in June of 2014 before getting the MQA treatment. For these A/B comparisons I listened to the 16-bit versions first several times then switched to the 24-bit MQA files. This is not meant to be the definitive A/B of MQA, merely my impressions.

One of the things we’re told is that a big advantage to MQA files is that they are corrected for time-domain smearing. How this translates to your ears is anybody’s guess, but on Babe I’m Gonna Leave You the A/B difference between the 16/44 and the 24/48 MQA version was not subtle to me. An increased clarity of individual instruments – guitars, and percussion in particular. Voices took on a more human quality in their room presence. Everything in the song seemed to have an increased jump factor to it, a more palpable, tangible musicality to the experience.

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Little Green is a favorite of mine.

Then came  Joni Mitchell on Blue. I’ve found this to be a “hot” recording at certain song points on vinyl, and it takes a thoughtfully curated system to get the most out of it in my experience. The 16/44 Tidal version through the totaldac improved on the analog versions I’ve owned/listened to over the years, with a smoother presentation, and none of the tizz/grain on upper registers I was used to. The MQA version was again, a noticeable improvement over the 16/44 version. There was breathing room around Mitchell’s voice on every cut I A/B’d, particularly on This Flight Tonight, with the sense of compression on her closely-mic’d vocals almost completely absent. The depth to the decay on notes from guitar, and piano had a more natural timbre, and a better sense of the dimensions of the space where the song was recorded. I also don’t think I’ve previously experienced the same sense of fragility portrayed in Mitchell’s voice that came through on Little Green via the undecoded MQA Master file.

Lastly, Beyonce’s Lemonade. I noticed that the mix sounds more sonically enveloping, deeper, more fleshed out when jumping from the 16/44 to the 24/44 MQA file. From the first drop of electronic bass notes, and layered vocals on Pray You Catch Me it sounds as if a room divider was pushed back within the recording space. 6-inch with The Weekend scales up nicely, without ever losing the sense of right-there presence, and subtle intimacy to Beyoncé’s emotional vocal shadings. Spatial cues to where instruments, and performers were positioned in the recording have better delineation to my ears as well, even in densely-packed tracks like Freedom.

Are any of my takes on the MQA sound, or sonic signature a scientific response? No, but I’m not a scientist, I only put so much faith in measurements when it comes to sound reproduction in hi-fi, and lastly – but to me most importantly – I’m human, and gauge my response to musical playback on systems in an emotional way. Were these huge differences? No. The sound of 24/44, and 24/48 MQA files vs. 16/44 Tidal tracks is different to me. Is it better? that’s up to you to decide. Also, until Roon is ready to enable the first stage of MQA software unfolding ( a few more weeks I’ve heard), this is what I’m able to listen to. The number of recordings being released is another factor for many, but I can say that listening to 24-bit MQA is a more enjoyable, emotionally-engaging experience for me, than listening to straight 16-bit Redbook is. It’s my understanding that MQA is optimized for each level of playback (24/48 – undecoded, 24/96 – software-decoded, 24/192 or higher – hardware decoded), so I’m assuming what I’m hearing is that optimization, and timing. I’ve tried to present my experience in a manner readers can relate to as best as I can, but ultimately it is a personal decision to make. The fact that you can now experience thousands of albums as MQA files via software decoding for $20 a month via Tidal Hifi/Masters without having to drop a stack of Benjamins for a new MQA-certified DAC is a bit of a no-brainer.

–Rafe Arnott

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18 Comments on Updated – MQA and Tidal: Initial listening impressions

  1. andreas tanzer // January 31, 2017 at 11:15 AM //

    thanks for the Review. Got – very roughly – the same Impression. Sounds different and somewaht more open (and “smoother” i would say), but to my ears, the differences are subtle and experience may be vary according to taste.
    BIG THANKS for telling about the Problems in finding master-section in tidal at all. Had exactly the same Problems. (Contacted press Office of tidal and felt like a fool when just then, the “master” mystriously appeard in the whats new section. (where – i am sure – it wasnt the time i opended the app before. So basically thanks for re-establishing my belief in my own sanity 😉 )

  2. It works even better with an MQA-ready DAC. My BlueSound Node2 and it’s internal DAC playing MQA sounds as good as my BlueSound Vault2 playing redbook through a Berkeley Alpha DAC. That is a huge leap. The Alpha doesn’t get the benefit of the time correction.

  3. Thanks for your impressions, which mirror mine. By coincidence, I listened to some Zeppelin (IV) and Joni Mitchell (Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, Hejira) before reading your article. I also listened to Tina Turner (Private Dancer), which for the first time (Redbook, JVC “audiophile” CD, TIDAL) didn’t burn my ears off. That album is a real treat when the sonic are good. I play TIDAL through a Bluesound Node (v1; handles MQA, but I don’t know how much unfolding it’s doing; awaiting a response from my dealer about that) with TOSLINK out to a PS Audio NuWave DSD, which doesn’t up sample. Thus far, I prefer the MQA version of every album I’ve tried.

  4. matthewpartrick // January 14, 2017 at 11:25 AM //

    I was successful in uninstalling and reinstalling the Tidal OS app on my desktop and seeing the “Masters” albums pop up. Just to clarify, since you were running through Roon, you were talking about uninstall/reinstall on Roon, correct? I cannot get the “Masters” to appear through Roon.

    Regardless of whether or not my DAC is MQA (It’s not) I’m interested in getting Tidal Masters working through Roon because my Onkyo DP-X1 is an MQA DAC and I’d like to A/B Roon/Tidal MQA vs Tidal Android app (not currently functioning with Masters) vs a hard copy downloaded MQA file.

    Thanks!
    Matthew

    • I can’t “see” them in Roon or on Tidal (I’m sure I’m doing it wrong), but I am able to play them. I don’t have an MQA DAC either, FWIW. But in Roon, I can “see” multiples of some of albums, and when I click on them, they show up as 24bit files. These are the MQA files. And yes, this is a total PITA. I’m hoping that at some point, this becomes significantly more transparent.

      But here’s a curated list of MQA titles currently in Tidal.

      • matthewpartrick // January 15, 2017 at 9:35 AM //

        Thanks for linking the list. I guess for now I’ll just search the albums and add to library if they’re 24 bit. I’m sure within the next few months they’ll iron out the issues for Roon, iOs, and Android.

    • Rafe Arnott // January 14, 2017 at 5:08 PM //

      Masters don’t show in Roon yet, so you have to favourite them in Tidal, and then they’ll show up in Roon as “New” in your library. You can the create an “MQA” tag for all your MQA files. Makes it easy to find them. Hope that helps.

      • La musique // January 16, 2017 at 12:59 AM //

        To me, it looks all too complicated and not worth the effort and investment.
        Just stick to a good old or new record and even a good CD and just enjoy the music.
        Do you want to constantly change format because it is the new HIP?
        I tell you one thing, just stay with what you have, improve on it and it will always be on top
        of everything else no matter what, because the industry will always come back to it .
        Just enjoy La Musique.

  5. “MQA is ONLY decoded in TIdal SW at this time”.

    Not true. Besides the “unfolding”, MQA improves the SQ by correcting “time smear distortions” created by both the original ADC and the DAC. When using the Tidal MQA software, there is no correction of the “time smear” created by your non-MQA DAC, so Tidal MQA software is only a partial MQA decoder for all sample rates. It is not a full decode. This info is from Bob Stuart.

  6. I’ve had problems getting Tidal Masters to pop up on Roon as well. I will try uninstalling it like you did. Thanks for the tip.

  7. MQA is ONLY decoded in TIdal SW at this time.. if you bookmarked a Master album and play it through Roon, no MQA DAC, you are getting nothing more than a better re-mastered master.. No MQA folding and unfolding at all..

    Roon will pass on an MQA file to an MQA DAC and you get the full benefit.

    So it’s TIdal with 1 unfold, or an MQA DAC for 2 or more unfolds depending on the master fie bit rate.

  8. why do people insist on comparing MQA Masters to CD quality sources… they should compare MQA to another hi-res version.

    Comparing MQA Masters to CD quality sources will always go in favour of MQA… but is it MQA that is the difference or the fact that the source is hi-res?

    Even then it becomes tricky with so many different hi-res remasters around of the same a album… so an apples to apples compare is in most cases impossible.

    The twist I think is the fact that partial MQA unfolding can now be done via a desktop app (it wasnt originally planned) so your non-MQA DAC can see 24/96.

    So the big question is: Does this partial MQA unfolding present any audible artifacts when compared to a local 24/.96 source?

    Peter

    • Peter, I agree completely. I did what I think is an apples-to-apples comparison of Fleetwood Mac “Rumours.” I have the HD Tracks download, 24/96, which almost certainly was sourced from the same mix/master created for DVD-A. I played the download against the Tidal stream and found them to be very close sonically. Without touching the volume, the two seemed to have the same EQ and compression/limiting, so I’m pretty confident that both came in one way or another from the DVD-A master.

    • Rafe Arnott // January 14, 2017 at 3:53 PM //

      I’ll be comparing local 24/96, and 24/88 files once Roon enables MQA software-decoding.

  9. Even if you play files directly from the Tidal app (and have MQA decode ON), you still only have partial MQA decode. That is because your non-MQA DAC will cause “time smear” distortions due to it’s low-pass filters and MQA is not correcting those particular distortions (as it would if you were using an MQA DAC). So, for now, Tidal and an MQA DAC is the only route for the full MQA effect. You still, however, will hear improvements with only the “partial decode”.

  10. If you’d played the files directly from Tidal instead of Roon, you’d actually be getting the first taste of MQA, as the Tidal software would be “unfolding” the files to 88.2 or 96k for presentation to your DAC.

    As it is, all you’re hearing is the undecoded, Redbook-equivalent stream of an MQA file, which may sound “different” from the unprocessed Redbook version, but you’re not hearing *any* of the real benefits of MQA.

    • Rafe Arnott // January 13, 2017 at 4:19 PM //

      Hi John,
      Yup, you’re right. I didn’t play it directly from Tidal, because I use Roon via ethernet into a totaldac.
      Also I don’t consider 48/24 to be Redbook-equivalent.
      But I understand what you’re saying.
      I’m really looking forward to expanding on my listening comparisons once Roon is software-decoding enabled, because my initial session was very positive.

      • So.e of the points above are valid but comparing Redbook version to MQA unfolded gives the opportunity to hear some of the unsmearing at the studio end. I agree these files sound excellent, definitely better spatial details. Now it don’t know if this is good use of master tapes or the studio process, bit I’m sold

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