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

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?

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.