What is MQA? Do you need it? Is it overrated? What separates MQA from other forms of playback? All of these answers and more, comin’ up.
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What is MQA?
MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) was invented by Bob Stuart, co-founder of the British Hi-Fi manufacturer Meridian Audio.
It represents an efficient way for people to listen to large, high-quality audio files that would otherwise be too bulky to play through a typical streaming app (like Spotify) that requires a lot of bandwidth. Related: Tidal vs. Spotify [Definitive Guide]
The process takes master quality, hi-resolution files (authenticated by the artist in the studio), and basically packages them into a smaller size without reducing the quality.
Lossy, compressed files are typically very small and convenient, but come at the expense of an honest representation of the track in question.
Those files aren’t actually authentic as they come from third-party apps such as Apple, Amazon, etc. The files are given by record labels but are subsequently compressed down to a manageable size for streaming.
MQA circumvents this issue by providing the original file in a small package without sacrificing quality.
Another claim to fame of MQA is its ability to reduce what is known as time (0r temporal) smearing.
To understand time smearing, we first must understand frequency response, bit depth, and sample rate.
As outlined in my What is DSD? article, my Bit Depth vs. Sample Rate article, and many other articles and videos on this site and my YouTube channel, humans cannot hear over 20kHz no matter what snobs on the internet claim. This is one of the most basic concepts in audio that gets glossed over time and again by people who have no idea what they’re talking about.
What is interesting to note is the fact that we still may be able to perceive, on some level, the intricacies of a higher sample rates’ effect on our perception of sound; or what is known as temporal precision, which is measured through impulse response.
In simpler terms, frequency response is very important, but the time-domain performance is also just as important; albeit less understood.
In 1929, Von Békésy discovered that humans can actually hear time differences of up to 10µs (microseconds). For clarity’s sake, a microsecond is equal to one-millionth of a second.
While this does suggest that higher sample rates can be effective in providing a somewhat more resolving signal (i.e. they can improve temporal precision to an extent, thus somewhat reducing the ringing tails after the main impulse), the law of diminishing returns kicks in after about 96kHz.
In other words, anything beyond that is STILL essentially useless from a “more is better/higher is superior” standpoint; something audiophiles still love to argue with me about even despite overwhelming evidence that it doesn’t matter.
Of course, the idea that these ringing tails are a ‘bad thing’ is not new, and converter manufacturers like dCS and Wadia (amongst others) have been offering alternative filtering schemes for many, many years. So what can be done to get rid of these impulse response tails? Well, there are several ways to reduce their duration, and the first and easiest is simply to employ higher sampling rates — which is possibly why some listeners claim that existing ‘hi-res’ audio formats sound more natural. However, this approach is subject to rapidly diminishing returns above 96kHz: the audio data rate grows enormously and impractically, for only moderate reductions in the filter ringing duration.Sound On Sound
There you have it, Diminishing Returns makes yet ANOTHER return in audio. I’ve talked ad nausea about this concept in headphones and DACS, but now it’s proven yet again that it exists in the source file itself! Beginners Guide: What is a USB DAC?
Who would have thought?
Well, I did, since I’ve been harping on the Nyquist Shannon Sampling Theorem for the better part of 2 years now. I’ve learned at this point that it doesn’t really matter how much data and objective science you bring to the table. People will STILL argue with you about it because they’re in essence always trying to justify spending money needlessly on things that don’t matter.
In fact, I expect someone to argue the point made by Sound On Sound as well.
I’ll say it again; All of the relevant audio information ranges from 0Hz to about 22-24kHz (the yellow triangle below). Anything from 24-48 can be relevant in that there is still a small amount of musical information present above the noise floor (as illustrated in the diagram below), but anything over 48kHz is just negligible noise and doesn’t matter. You know, like a lot of the comments I get from people trying to argue with me. 😂
Now that you’ve read all that, think for a second about the hundreds of thousands of DACS on the market today, all vying for a chance at your wallet.
Now think about how many of those DACS advertise these ridiculously High PCM rates that don’t matter at all, the DSD crap that … doesn’t matter at all, the Quad, Octa, Hexa, Dexa, Plexi-glass infused Amp/DAC and it’s got your back and it will stroke your sack if you ask it nicely enough, JACK.
None of it matters, yet we have people STILL falling for marketing ploys rather than doing any real research of their own and educating themselves on what truly matters in this hobby. Aside from the music, it comes down to using the mind that God gave you and NOT GETTING SCAMMED.
The sad part is that people will happily piss their money away if it means feeding their addiction and buying into yet another placebo.
The same people who won’t accept these basic concepts are also the ones who think Prima Donna is actually before Madonna was born; i.e. Pre-Madonna. 😂
Now, for what CAN actually reduce the unwanted pre and post ringing tails in an impulse response?
A concept published in 2004 by Peter Craven, this cascade series of filters allows for almost complete eradication of said tails and temporal smearing; a concept also utilized by MQA.
With a typical 24/192 system, you’ll get about 100µs (100 microseconds) of time smear from an impulse response. MQA aims to cut that number to around 10µs, right in line with what we discussed above in regards to Von Békésy’s findings; that is, that humans can perceive time differences of around 10µs. Not bad!
The only way this works, however, is in a fully functioning system; that is, the complete end-to-end sampling & encoding process (MQA), all the way to the decoding process utilized by an MQA certified DAC.
Luckily for us, the MQA enabled iFi Zen is a perfect choice here at around a paltry $130. The AudioQuest DragonFly Red is another option; one that I’ve recommended countless times for many reasons.
That’s right, you can achieve near-perfect audio for around $150 (also taking into account a Tidal Hi-Fi membership). I haven’t included the headphone which would add to the cost, but you get the idea. Hi-Fi has become almost ubiquitous. There’s really no excuse for streaming low-quality dog food tracks anymore.
Do you now understand why DACS to me are almost completely irrelevant to the actual listening experience? In reality, they have very little to do with how good or bad the track is going to sound. They can alter the flavor a bit via Output Impedance (i.e. warm or cool/neutral), but in the grand scope of audio, DACS are meant to do a practical job (converting digital information into analog), not become the main focus and cause people to lose their minds and obsess over them. Beginners Guide: What is a USB DAC?
Even if you don’t have an MQA DAC, you can still theoretically hear masters inside Tidal – but only the first unfold of the decoding process. To hear the most accurate representation of the track, you’ll want the full unpack and that can only be achieved with the appropriate MQA certified DAC.
But how exactly does MQA provide an ultra-high-resolution track in a tiny package?
Simply put, they use what they call the origami method of unpacking (this is referred to as encapsulation; not conventional lossy downsampling).
To meet these challenges, MQA uses the sophisticated data-reduction strategy described in the ‘Music Origami’ box. This, in effect, ‘folds’ the relevant high-frequency audio information back into the noise-floor region of the base-band audio signal — but in such a way that it can be extracted and reconstructed for lossless replay. The sample rate of an MQA file is always based on that of its source material, so original material at 88.2, 176.4 or 352.8 kHz would be encoded as a 44.1kHz MQA file, whereas material starting out with 96, 192, or 384 kHz sample rates would be encoded as an MQA file at 48kHz. (Maintaining the base sample rate for each format is essential, as any sample-rate conversion processes would compromise the system’s time-domain performance.)Sound On Sound
It’s also important to note that while traditional sample rate conversion employs anti-aliasing filters to negate the unwanted artifacts in the recording, MQA does not. This strategy allows for a completely clean signal without the unwanted timing blur that goes along with the more conventional method of conversion. It also does not largely matter anyways since, again, any aliased elements will always be infinitely quieter than anything in the audible range – i.e. you still cannot hear them.
But does MQA sound better?
This is perhaps the most important question and one that I’ve personally wrestled with for quite a while. I know others have as well. From a theoretical standpoint, it would seem to make a world of difference.
Within the scope of a practical listening experience?
I lean towards yes. I completely agree with Sound on Sound’s analysis and echo almost the same exact sentiments, but I’ll put it in my own words.
The music just takes on a somewhat more live flavor. The instruments sound crisper, livelier, and more vibrant. They have more personality. The Soundstaging is better and everything sounds more liquid-smooth and natural. The Timbre of instruments sounds better and more correct. Attack, sustain, and decay are just that much more realistic and immediate. What is Timbre?
Now is it a monumental difference? I would say no. It’s more subtle than you would think, but it’s definitely there. Even if you knew nothing about what I’ve discussed today, you’d likely find the music to sound crisper and lusher. At first, I chalked that up to the music just being a bit louder, but upon further research into the actual science behind MQA, my tune has certainly changed. Whatever differences I perceived at first make complete sense after further investigation into these concepts.
I absolutely believe the combo of good headphones + Tidal MQA DAC + Tidal Hi-Fi monthly subscription is worth it. I pay for it and enjoy it, and have for quite a while; even before doing extensive research on the subject.
To be able to experience everything I’ve described in this article from a technical standpoint makes me incredibly spoiled. The “MQA is better” notion pretty much cannot be disputed at this point when you look at the literature.
With a great set of headphones like the K712, you’re getting as close to a ‘You’re there’ feeling as can be realistically expected.
Remember, you still have headphones on your head.
In my exhaustive research over the years, I think a lot of people overexaggerated the effects of a headphone with a good Soundstage, particularly in the case of AKG’s. It’s not that the headphone doesn’t provide an out of your head experience; it certainly does. But the wild and unsubstantiated “It’s like you’re there!” claims can be safely discarded if you happen to be reading this.
It’s really not like that.
A headphone like the K702/K712 can give you a more “in person” type of feeling, but those moments are fleeting. They come and go. It’s not as if they just linger for the entire duration of a listening experience, causing you to feel like you’re in the front row of a Phish concert high as a kite. 😂
A good speaker setup to me is still superior to a great set of cans with regard to the illusion of being there, but even that isn’t perfect.
I had a chance to listen to $60,000 Mark Levinson speakers at an Audio Advice Music Matters show a couple of times in 2018 and 2019. While they sounded utterly breathtaking in every way, I still had to close my eyes and concentrate super hard to feel even one iota of being in front of a band.
So you can imagine how out-of-control audiophiles get when they try and describe that^ within the context of tiny headphone drivers that are inches away from your ears. It’s just asinine. What is a Headphone Driver?
At the end of the day, I definitely recommend MQA every day and twice on Sunday, homie!!
If you’re interested in purchasing an MQA DAC, I love the iFi Zen:
Stu is determined to help you make sound decisions, and strives to deliver the best and most in depth content on the internet! In his spare time, he likes to fish, paint, play guitar, pray, rap, make beats, take photos, record videos, graphic design, and more. His sense of humour, coupled with a knack for excellence and strict attention to detail are what allow him to stand out in an crowded industry.