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MQA: A fresh take – why the big labels are converting their catalogs

MQA

What’s the buzz with MQA? Read on…

There has been much interest in MQA of late and on some audio forums it seems quite a topic of controversy as well.  So I thought I would do some digging on it in advance of continuing my exploration of PS Audio’s amazing DirectStream DAC with an MQA/Roon compatible Network Bridge II.

I reached out to MQA public relations guru Sue Toscano and we decided to meet up with fellow Atlanta native Ken Forsythe who is very involved on the MQA team and has worked with MQA founder Bob Stuart for many years.  I really wanted to have a fresh take on what MQA is, what it actually does, and what the future business model looks like.

The way I will approach this fairly complex subject is to do a series of articles and this first one has some initial thoughts on what MQA might do for the music business.

First, I want to share my personal background with high resolution digital.  In 1993, I was working on a part-time basis for Chesky Records and we started having the ability to record sounds in high-resolution digital, namely 24/96.  Bob Katz and Jeremy Kipnis were very involved on this and after doing many sessions in fairly excellent 16/44 conversion (at least for it’s time), the sonic benefits of high-res were quite apparent.  The separation of instruments was better, the instruments seemed spot-on in timbre, and there was just an overall feeling of ease compared to the “Redbook” standard.  This led to Chesky releasing some early high-res discs called Super Audio Discs and also Mike Hobson at Classic Records releasing his excellent DAD discs.  All these played on DVD players and eventually this led to DVD-Audio format of which Bob Stuart, MQA’s founder was involved via his creation of Meridian Lossless packing (MLP). Stuart actually detailed early on the benefits of higher resolution sampling rates and word lengths and indeed he is really found at the centre of many digital breakthroughs.  Most people know Stuart through his involvement in Meridian which has made many excellent PCM-based CD players and has been a pioneer in DSP-active loudspeakers.

By 1999, we were witnessing the birth of two high-resolution formats: DSD for Super Audio CD release, and high-res PCM (24/96 or higher) for DVD-Audio release.  Unfortunately, both served a niche market and the format war on both sides probably contributed to a lack of acceptance.  SACDs actually released over 10K titles and many of the prime classic rock catalogs.  DVD-Audio produced much fewer titles and has morphed into a small but vibrant download market such as those found on HDTracks, started by the Chesky Records team.  Super Audio CD is still alive and kicking via classical labels and Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs and Analogue ProductionsAnalogue Productions but tasty titles remain relatively sparse.

So thinking about the history of better digital formats, it seems that this “lens” of inventing a better quality format to satisfy only audiophiles is just not working.  Sure, LP and to a very small extent tape (reel-to-reel) are quite popular these days but sales are a fraction of the entire market.  LP has legs in my opinion.  Tape is even better at 15 ips but so expensive and so limited in software that I just see it as a niche for wealthy audiophiles.  Going to back to digital, I think it’s just hard to get a format off the ground that only solves the sound quality desires of audiophiles.  The economics sadly are just not in their favour.  There is just not a big enough market to generate a return on investment that is exciting enough, or has my consulting friends say, “moves the needle.”

Even though I have some wonderful-sounding CDs mastered by the likes of Steve Hoffman, Kevin Gray, and the Mofi team, it seems CDs are bit moribund these days as well.  LPs are exciting and CDs are just fading into smaller shelf space in many record stores and Best Buys.

So where do we go from here?

MQA-2

Ken Forsyth (left), and Alan Jones.

As I talked to the affable Ken Forsyth over the course of five hours at hifibuys, the light bulb went off.  Streaming.

Yes, for better or worse streaming is the future.  It’s just too little money for a huge library of songs delivered conveniently.  And really by that, I mean on your mobile phone.  Or as Forsyth puts it, “the future is my 18-year-old son finding the music on his phone and being able to carry it anywhere.”

So what if we could invent a digital format in higher resolution that goes everywhere?

What if that format was attractive to non-audiophiles?

What if that format had a huge number of titles?

Well, that is what MQA has accomplished.  To judge what formats are going to be successful, you need the content support.  I don’t know about y’all but I’m tired of buying the same 20 audiophile war horses every time a “new and improved” format comes out.  How many Kind of Blue and Dark Side of the Moon versions can we listen to?  Did Miles or Pink Floyd do any other albums?

Why isn’t there high-res of my Yello Touch album?  I really want to hear that.  Well it turns out that Touch is available on Tidal Masters in MQA – and boy does it sound great.

What is this MQA?  It’s Master Quality Authenticated which means in MQA-speak that the sound is authentic to the “studio master.”  Many of these studio masters are high-resolution files the label has already created.  Some are just 16/44 but even there MQA applies Bob Stuart’s temporal de-blurring filters that eliminate one of the biggest monsters of bad digital: pre and post ringing.

But the skeptics say, “OK fine, but what about fresh titles?” Well here is the good news from Forsyth: All three major labels have signed on. Warner, Universal, and Sony are onboard.  Merlin, which represents the independent community, is also on board.  It gets even better.  All three labels and the independent community have signed a contract with MQA.  That contract has terms that require a full catalog conversion to MQA.

“Okay fine Lee, but that will take years… when is this happening?”  It’s already begun.  MQA files are coming out fast.  Look at the 10K+ titles on Tidal.  They just started in January 2017 with MQA.  By September 31st, Tidal had added in a whopping seven times the total amount of high-res files that existed pre-MQA.  If you like high-res, this is the best chance to get more of it.

What’s happened behind the scenes is that engineering teams at each label have been given a demo of the sound quality in A/Bs and there has been technical discussion and qualification. The label’s sound engineers had to approve the soundness of the engineering before the label would commit.  So these labels are onboard from an engineering standpoint.  The MQA file is only limited by its source file, many of which are high-res digital now.

So think about all the tracks the four major labels have committed to… that must be millions of tracks, right?  Yes.  Millions.

So with MQA-enabled software apps, MQA converters, or both, we get mountains of catalogs in high-res?  Yes.

Why all the controversy on the internet?  MQA is a gift to audiophiles who are experienced enough to know the magic of a good high-res file.

And that, my friends, is very good news.

Stay tuned to Part-Time Audiophile for an upcoming article about the technical specifics.

About Lee Scoggins (72 Articles)
A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Lee got interested in audio listening to his Dad’s system in the late 70s and he started making cassettes from LPs. By the early 80s he got swept up in the CD wave that was launching which led to a love of discs from Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs. Later while working on Wall Street in the 90s, Lee started working on blues, jazz and classical sessions for Chesky Records and learned record engineering by apprenticeship. Lee was involved in the first high resolution recordings which eventually became the DVD-Audio format. Lee now does recordings of small orchestras and string quartets in the Atlanta area. Lee is a serious music collector and his current system consists of Audio Research Reference electronics and Magnepan speakers.

14 Comments on MQA: A fresh take – why the big labels are converting their catalogs

  1. I do not see the Masters version of the Touch album by Yello on Tidal. However I do see Toy and Live in Berlin. Toy sounds great, but so does the CD version. Where did you find Touch?

  2. You removed from my post the statement about middleman like you, John Atkinson and Robert Harley being all the way for MQA.

    Feeling squeezed a bit maybe? I can understand that.

    • Nope, that’s me — your friendly neighborhood editor-in-chief, limiting your freedom to spread bollocks and poppycock.

      You will note that the actual argument part — other than the ad hominem part — remained intact. Incoherent. But intact.

      For the record, I probably cannot hear you over the sounds of the giant piles of money pouring off of the back of the MQA truck into my solid-gold bathtub.

  3. After smaller files turned out to be irrelevant now we are at the stage when MQA claims that it is better than 24/192 because it removes “temporal blur”. Unfortunately Bob cannot explain it.
    ” There is no standard measure for temporal blur but we believe our use of the term is clear and intuitive.”

    — Bob Stuart (August 2016)

    “What is happening here is that the encoder (using system metadata and/or AI) resolves artefacts that are obviously different in each song according to the equipment and processes used. When these distracting distortions are ameliorated then the decoder can reconstruct the analog in a complementary way.”

    — Bob Stuart (June 2016)

    So that’s the revolution. That’s it?

    Consumers aren’t that interested, important sound engineers think that MQA is BS, or worse.

  4. Rob Bertrando // January 15, 2018 at 3:54 PM //

    There is absolutely nothing 9n this article that hasn’t already been part of press releases or multiple previous articles in the audiophile press over the past 3 years. No reason for PTA to publish this unless you depend on advertising revenue from the Big 3 music labels and MQA.

    OTOH, an article using the same basic data set as this one could have pointed out that this is a blatant (well, maybe not so blatant since the author of this article apparently missed it) attempt to monopolize hi-rez music distribution. Monopolies are virtually never good news for the consumer, and this one (if it succeeds) is unlikely to be any different.

  5. MQA is a classic case of solution in search of a problem.

    This article comes over as shilling, and doesn’t make PTA look very good to be honest.

  6. By now folks who love their music have bought into an ecosystem – iTunes, Spotify, Tidal,
    Google Play Music, etc. Unless MQA repopulates all those libraries, folks paying $9.99 per month won’t switch.

  7. “Why all the controversy on the internet?”

    Here is a good place to start: http://www.soundstagehifi.com/index.php/opinion/1104-mismatched-masters-and-false-frequencies-is-mqa-better-worse-or-just-different

    If you are going to write a series of articles on MQA, getting answers to these legitimate questions would be a great benefit to everyone.

  8. I’m happy for people who enjoy their streaming but to me it just seems like one more nail in the coffin of the music business.

    • Lee Scoggins // January 14, 2018 at 12:23 PM //

      We are just starting on our MQA journey. I will be addressing technical elements and sound impressions in later articles. The subject is complex and there is a lot of discussion so we are gathering a variety of opinions from experts in the field with varying opinions on MQA.

  9. Danny Hoffman // January 9, 2018 at 11:29 AM //

    Let’s get some facts here that aren’t MQA propaganda/marketing speak.

    1. MQA is a lossy format: hi-res files converted to MQA have at most 17 bits of depth (not 24) and pretty much all content above 48K is eliminated – even if they call it a 96 or 192k file. You aren’t getting “the master” with MQA. In fact one of the reasons for the existence of MQA (and record companies admit this) is that with MQA they can claim they are giving you an “MQA master file” – but never release the actual hi-res master.

    2. Even if this weren’t true, there’s another problem: not everyone thinks MQA files sound better than non-MQA versions of the same file, even on an MQA DAC. And on a non MQA DAC, some people think MQA files sound worse. Do you want MQA deciding how your files are filtered and played back?

    Now lets think some more. Non audiophiles couldn’t give blank about MQA. They aren’t interested in anything more than decent/mediocre sound quality. If you don’t think this is true, note that Tidal has been offering a premium stream that provides CD quality streams (as opposed to mp3 quality) for a few years now – and it hasn’t set the streaming world on fire and stolen customers from Spotify and the others. In short, the vast majority of people don’t care enough about sound quality to pay a few bucks extra a month for it.

    But the record labels, streaming companies etc have to make money from MQA, right? MQA isn’t running some kind of charity, as far as I know. So how are they going to do this?

    This is where the scary part comes in. There are a few ways they can monetize MQA: a) tier streaming prices so your SQ is dependent on the amount you pay; b) once MQA is established, remove non MQA files from the market so you have to buy/pay to stream MQA if you want music.

    In addition, MQA is designed to be a vehicle for DRM. No, this doesn’t mean you can’t copy MQA files – you can. But DRM also means the provider can control how you listen, among other things. So how could this DRM be used? Well, they could set the files up so that if you don’t have an MQA DAC you get a “degraded” sounding version of the file. Or they could even do things like make changes to the HW or SW requirements for MQA playback and prevent you from playing back the files (or prevent you from playing them back unfolded to hi-res) if you don’t pay for an upgrade. And they could even use the DRM to get information about you (yes, you agree to things like that in user agreements when you don’t read the fine print).

    Just some factual info, not the audiophile press and MQA marketing speak.

    • Lee Scoggins // January 14, 2018 at 12:26 PM //

      We will examining the technical aspects in follow-on articles and we will also be sharing sound impressions based on our own recordings that have been encoded.

      We will also discuss DRM but it has not been used in MQA to date and based on current research is not a driving force in label adoption.

  10. Well let’s see Andre Stapleton SVP partner development, global digital business at Sony Music was quoted this June in Paris saying “We’ve licensed them (MQA) our entire hi-res catalogue, and we’re very excited.”

    Also in Paris Mike Jbara, CEO of MQA said the vast majority of music out in the marketplace has been mastered for CD, rather than true-studio quality.

    I told Mac Finer of the Digital Entertainment Group at the Los Angeles Audio Show this June “that you will find hi-res a very difficult sell.” I’m not seeing any consumer interest in hi-res audio. The only interest I see is from people selling hi-res hardware and software.

    • Lee Scoggins // January 14, 2018 at 12:27 PM //

      I think the evidence from download site consumers contradicts this. Tidal HiFi and HDTracks have been quite successful.

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