Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part CX: MQA--The Rise and Potential Fall of Great Digital
(August 2016)

"MQA? Never heard of it until about 24 hours ago, and now it's all over. Guess everyone got their new Stereophile in the mail on the same day, hmmm?"

That snarky comment was made by me just a day or two before I left for Los Angeles to exhibit at T.H.E. Newport Show, back in the first week of June. Everyone in the high-end audio industry was chatting about MQA, which stands for Master Quality Authenticated, on my Facebook news feed. I had little interest in the debate until the June issue of Stereophile showed up in my mailbox around the same time with a banner across the top of the cover that asked "Master Quality Authenticated--Does It Really Work?"

I quickly assumed it was some new technical advance in the digital world, and I usually don't pay a lot of attention to the latest and greatest digital thingamabobs since it seems like they come along about once a fortnight. That's one of the reasons why it's taken me so long to get excited about the latest digital technology--I can't keep track of it all, and I'd rather just listen to LP's than look incompetent in front of today's youth. Besides, my attitude toward computer audio, DACs and everything else digital can be summed up with my impersonation of the average IT expert, hands on hips, saying "I don't know why this isn't working."

But here's the thing. I have been getting into digital lately. One of the reasons is that I've found a digital interface that is easy to use, versatile and provides access to almost unlimited music for a reasonable amount of money--Tidal. You pay your $20 per month, and you can listen to 25-30 million albums, or something like that. I actually tried the trial version of Tidal a few years ago, when it first came out. It didn't excite me. Neither did Spotify, nor Pandora, nor anything other service that was recommended to me.

Why the change of heart? Well, a little thing called the Naim Mu-So came into my life. The Naim Mu-So is basically the coolest table radio in the world. Shaped like a small cube, the little Mu-So sounds big because its multiple drivers are placed on three of its sides, projecting a rather impressive field of sound. It won't fool you into thinking you're listening to quality two-channel audio but if you sit next to it and work, you'll be immersed in reasonably good sound--including big, thumping bass.

This little cube is even more impressive when you look at its features--it has digital and analog inputs so you can plug any source into it, even a turntable (one that includes a phono pre, of course). Once you connect it to your wireless router, you can enjoy internet radio on it. I didn't realize it, but internet radio in 2016 is much more interesting than I knew. Through the Mu-So, I can listen to thousands of Internet radio stations from all over the world. If I want to listen to country music from Albania, I can. How about polka from Uganda? Dubstep from Vietnam? It's all probably in there. I've gravitated toward a station called Nordic Lounge Copenhagen, which is trip-hop from Denmark. It's the perfect station to have playing in the background while I work, and I'm a guy who has always insisted on working in relative silence.

The Mu-So also supports both Tidal and Spotify. Once I linked my Tidal account to the Mu-so, that's when I fell in love. Now I can do my favorite thing, which is play DJ for an audience of me. Instead of having to get up and change LP's or CD's, I merely select a new tune off my iPhone. A song can pop into my head and five seconds later I can have it playing. To me, that type of flexibility is worth the slight loss of ultimate sound quality compared to the best analog.

But here's the thing--I also have Tidal downloaded on my laptop, so all I have to do is connect it to a quality DAC (digital-to-analog converter) and I can have all that flexibility added to my reference sound system. THIS IS EVERYTHING I HOPED DIGITAL WOULD BE ONE DAY. Is the sound as good as vinyl? Probably not, but it's pretty close when you listen to hi-rez files instead of MP3's. Again, it's an almost even trade between ultimate sound quality and an almost infinite flexibility. I've been sucked in.

But here's where it gets interesting--Tidal is going to support MQA. This might be the last piece of the digital puzzle for me.

So what is Master Quality Authenticated? It's a program for decoding a digital data stream that was developed by Meridian Audio over the last couple of years and is now supported by manufacturers such as Pioneer, Onkyo, 7Digital and of course Meridian. This British company has always been at the vanguard of digital audio development--they were perhaps the first company, back in the 80's, to produce a CD player that didn't sound like all the other CD players. I was a little rough on Meridian back in 2001 in my column "Perfect Sound Forever Again," when I expressed disappointment during a Meridian demo of a very expensive multi-channel audio system. But Meridian also made the 508-2 CD player, the only one good enough for my old friend Dr. Cameron in the column "Doc Goes Digital."

MQA compresses the energy in data streams from higher frequencies and uses dither to embed them into the other frequencies, which underlines one of the first controversies surrounding the technology--it's a lossy format. That means some of the data is either compressed, approximated or otherwise compromised. That's a big deal for digital fans who want to preserve every single bit of information from the original recording, even though most digital recordings have already been compressed back in the studio (Google "The Loudness Wars" sometime). In addition, some people have expressed concern about MQA not handling more than 24-bit recordings, but then again the best-sounding digital I've heard was 24-bit recordings. Bob Stuart of Meridian has been very forthcoming about how MQA works, however, and has ameliorated much of the hesitation to embrace this new technology by fielding numerous Q&As on various online forums.

The high-end audio press has also been extremely enthusiastic about MQA with both John Atkinson (Stereophile) and Robert Harley (The Absolute Sound) reporting it as a major advancement in digital sound reproduction. Despite my relative ignorance about MQA until a few weeks ago, I was able to sit in on a demonstration at The Newport Show at one of the rooms hosted by Sunil Merchant of Sunny's Components, one of the biggest and most successful hi-fi dealers in Southern California. Sunil invited me to visit his room for a demonstration just before I left--he told me that listening to Adele's 25 with and without MQA decoding was nothing short of miraculous.

I assume that many readers have heard 25 already and some may agree with me that it's a slick, overproduced album that sounds kind of crappy. I was looking forward to hearing it transformed into something listenable. By the time I tore myself away from my room and headed down to Sunny's, he wasn't there. But I was able to sit in on an MQA demo with a few tracks I didn't recognize, and indeed I was far more impressed with the MQA code than without. MQA sound seemed more coherent, more of what you would hear during a live performance. One of the advantages to using MQA is that it contains time-domain correction that actual helps to erase those blurred edges that can occur with digital clock errors. That made those recordings seem effortless, clear and easy to absorb at a very basic level.

Delving deeper into MQA, I made one rather interesting discovery, that Morten Lindberg of 2L Recordings in Norway has been using MQA in many of his wonderful recordings. Check out my blog over the last few years and you'll see I'm a huge fan of 2L and have already reviewed a few dozen of their releases. Not once did I notice the letters M, Q and A in any of those reviews.

That brings up what you need to hear MQA for yourself. It's firmware that needs to be installed, so you'll need to buy a DAC that's MQA-compatible. So it's not something that just automatically happens once you buy a recording that has MQA coding. This is where the problems begin for MQA--a few DAC manufacturers have already come out publicly and said they will not support MQA in their products. We've seen this all before, worthy formats and technologies that, while being superior, have not survived in the marketplace due to marketing decisions, politics, competition and the continued prioritization of convenience over performance. It killed Betamax and LaserDisc, and it seems to have killed off SACD although I can still buy those discs at most of the mail-order outlets. Even Pono, a basically awesome little portable digital player, is starting to bleed out due to mainstream tech articles that poo-poo ultimate sound quality and declare, rather flippantly, that Neil Young's baby isn't that special.

That type of myopic journalism is already starting to make the rounds as far as MQA is concerned. I've already seen one titled "Is MQA DOA?" No wonder the high-end audio industry is struggling--we can't seem to catch a break.

That's why I'm looking forward to streaming music from Tidal that has been encoded with MQA. Despite the fact that Meridian is behind this technology, and that most of their products are quite expensive, you can jump into MQA for just $299--the cost of their Explorer2 headphone amplifier and DAC. This little device is a 4" long cylinder that's smaller than most remote control units. It plugs in between your headphones and your source--which can simply be a laptop streaming Tidal. One of the things that dooms new technologies like this are high prices for first generation products, but as you see Meridian is taking a different approach.

It's an approach, quite frankly, that deserves the support of consumers. How many years did it take for us to understand that vinyl's longevity is due to ultimate sound quality, and that digging deeper into your favorite recordings is something that's rewarding? Not everyone agrees that MQA is the bee's knees--I've had a couple of audiophiles tell me they weren't as impressed as I was. But if digital can sound really special and really right for once, don't you want to know about it? Don't you want to listen for yourself?

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