Updated – MQA and Tidal: Initial listening impressions

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.

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.

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.

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)


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.

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