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If there are any consistencies in the audiophile hobby it is that there are almost no unilateral agreements. Differing opinions exist on almost everything audio related. We have any number of amp and speaker technologies. We have multiple music formats and even a few not considered as meeting the basic acceptable standard of audiophile grade sonics. For about two decades, we had digital music solely in the form of a CD. Streaming changed all that, almost overnight. MQA is poised to possibly change things in a profound way, depending, that is, on the acceptance of what is, admittedly, a controversial subject.
Most audiophiles have read at length about MQA. I feel sure there are those of us who have grown weary of the debate surrounding this new format. To a certain degree, that describes my position on the matter. There are too many variables that affect streaming, and the systems on which music is played, for me to make an absolute declaration about MQA’s sonic quality. I have seen many comparisons of MQA to CD quality and Hi Rez but those comparisons were based on streaming. I have yet to see much of anything on a comparison of any resolution – SACD, to MQA, to CD in the physical format. Until now, that is.
I recently received four discs from our editor, Steven Stone. Two of the discs were mastered in MQA and two were SACD. The original purpose was a sonic comparison of MQA to SACD in the physical realm. I decided to include CD quality as well – and a couple other comparisons thrown in for good measure. As to the two selections, one is the Bob James Trio – “Espresso” and the second is chlara – “evo sessions.” While the links are for the purchase of the MQA physical disc, both are also available on Tidal in CD quality and MQA as well. For the comparison, an MQA encoded DAC was used and amplitude of all the recordings were level matched.
I elected to jump straight to the presumed top of the food chain and immediately chose Bob James’ MQA disc. When I pushed play, I immediately heard an expansiveness in the overall presentation. It simply sounded big. I’ve been to several of James’ live performances and to a certain degree, this large-scale presentation reminded me of those concerts. Reminded me of, please note, NOT identical to. There was also a perceptible ferocity in how he sometimes struck the keys. It actually sounded quite surprising. I also noticed that on piano solos, and especially on more robust passages, there was a “reverberation” in the sound as his fingers struck the keys. I also felt the notes were better sustained, that is they hung in the air longer than what I would think CD quality would represent. This level of detail is what I would expect to hear when a piano was played live. As you might expect from such a high resolution recording, the clarity was magnificent. Frequency range was also spot on – that is, the bass line could be easily followed and the mids and highs sounded very accurate.
As to the SACD disc, I must admit, it was a very close second, but indeed a second to the MQA format. The overall width of the presentation was not quite as wide and the perceptible ferocity of James striking the piano keys at times was not as distinct. Make no mistake, the differences I noticed were very slight and were I not looking for any differences, with the exception of the sonic width, I might not have noticed much of a difference at all. From a frequency range, clarity, definition and accuracy standpoint, the SACD disc was almost on par with the MQA disc.
In regard to chlara – “evo sessions,” the MQA version was much the same as the Bob James selection. The music almost “exploded” from the speakers. There was a power and authority in the guitar playing that was easily noticeable. The sometimes transient percussion that is oftentimes difficult to hear, and makes music more interesting, was readily noticeable. There was excellent separation of the instruments and a lot of air around them as well. I also thought that at times, the presentation was a little bright but that was in all probability the recording itself and not the audio system. In all honesty, the attributes of the MQA recordings were very similar in both discs. This makes sense as both were released by the same production team.
Compared to the “chlara” SACD version, the results were much the same as what I experienced on the Bob James disc. I noticed the presentation was not quite as “large” and the impact, especially on guitar, was not as powerful as the MQA version. It was almost as if the strings, when played with authority, were not struck as hard. Also, the separation of instruments was not as profound as with MQA but really, not by all that much. In fact, the SACD versions of both sounded very, very good. I would be happy listening to them anytime I played music.
The above comparison was my original goal, but I wanted to compare things in a few different ways. Streaming of both in MQA through Tidal compared to the physical MQA CD’s was certainly surprising. I immediately felt the physical disc was better than the streamed version, again, in MQA. I know that streaming, depending on the system, can introduce profound amounts of jitter and consequently devastate a digital signal. This condition is greatly reduced when playing a physical CD. So perhaps jitter had something to do with the fact that physical MQA sounded slightly better than streamed MQA. It could also have been the streaming setup of my system compared to the CD player. Really, though, the streamed version in MQA had all the earmarks of the physical version, just not taken to quite the same level.
Finally, I compared all the various formats, physical and streamed, to CD quality. This was not a surprising conclusion. MQA and SACD sounded better, regardless of physical format or streamed, than Red Book CD. Not a huge difference but again, it would be noticeable. I should also mention that I thought all of them, regardless of the format, sounded very good. In summary, I thought both physical CD’s in MQA sounded better than their streamed counterparts. The SACD physical format was a very close second to the physical MQA and quite possibly equal to, and depending on the system, better than streamed MQA. Any of the MQA and SACD version were better than CD quality, or 44.1 / 16.
Does any of this change my mind about MQA? No, not really. I have always maintained I have heard MQA sound profoundly excellent but also sound not so different than CD quality. That has absolutely as much to do with the system as with the recording. I will admit, however, I was very impressed with what I heard with an MQA formatted physical CD. On the right system, a physical MQA disc could conceivably be the pinnacle of digital music. But this would be very system dependent. Availability of MQA discs likely negates building a substantial library with them. If, however, this is a format that could catch on, and availability increases, hey, maybe so. Given the ever-increasing popularity of Internet based music at a minimum of CD quality, I question if the MQA format will ever take a firm hold in the physical realm. If it does, I feel sure it will be one more of a growing list of contentiously debatable subjects.
I have read other reports that have found that some MQA-enabled DACs fail to reset their digital filters back to “normal” after playback of an MQA-encoded recording. This can put the next recording played at a sonic disadvantage, being the filter used is not appropriate for that particular recording. Did you take steps to ensure that this was not the case in your setup?
Why is it that people who state a preference for MQA are treated as idiots? I have expressed the opinion a number of times with the same result, when I have asked most critiquing have not even used MQA?
Yes, I made sure all the settings were correct for each CD played or each streamed signal.
You seem to be confirming that MQA modifies the recording. Consistent with my findings. I am generally not in favor of this. Everything you are reporting hearing can be done without it.
No. Your assumption is confirming your own bias…
Bob Stuart confirmed it in our conversation at the Los Angeles Audio Show. We were discussing plugins for DAWs to compensate.
But was that an accurate assumption, or a false one? That’s pretty relevant, don’t you think?
It could be that the modification of the recording (assuming that is the case) is irrelevant to the human perception of the recording as played back.
Much of this discussion is based on our subjective impressions vs. the objective realities of the technologies and the apparent disparity between what we THINK should happen vs. how humans actually perceive things (e.g. HRA should sound better but many assert that no one can reliably distinguish HRA from Redbook)
Steve, I am simply reporting what I heard on my system. How that sound was created was not part of the review process. I would think it is up to you to decide how that sound was made. I am not advocating for or against any format. I’m simply describing what I heard when I played these various songs in the formats listed. I would hope there could be some separation of opinion of how the recordings were produced and how they sounded when played back. And by the way, I’m not really a big fan of MQA. I’ve heard it sound great, and not so great. In the case of these two physical CD’s, I thought MQA sounded fantastic. However, I would not even begin to suggest that all MQA physical discs will sound as such.
Thanks for your comment.
Paul let’s take a review of a driver shaft. To not talk about how it is made would leave the review incomplete. the same applies here.
I can assure you several of us are working to figure out the DSP in the MQA encoding process.
Steve, you’re absolutely correct! According to the inventor of the MQA process, there is not supposed to be any timbral or fidelity alterations between an original file and the MQA version. The only possible upside is the ability to stream hi-res audio…but even that is done in a lossy fashion. You’re also correct when you assert that there are non-proprietary ways to stream full fidelity recordings without the MQA nonsense. And finally, no one can actually perceive a difference between a real hi-res audio file and a CD version of the same thing…and most streams don’t start as real hi-res, so what’s the point? Other than to line the pockets of MQA and their investors, make audiophiles spend more money on another useless “upgrade”, and to give writers something to advocate for in exchange for clicks. Do some real research on MQA and you’ll find it’s a technical nightmare and has been largely rejected by the professional community.
Mark, I did some real research in 2010 about whether people perceive a difference in hi-res and 16/44.1 and concluded people could not tell the difference. Imagine my surprise when Bob Stuart and Peter Craven cited some of same sources I used to conclude otherwise.
I have done research on MQA using my professions research standards and found technically it has enough problems that it would cause me to lose a lot of sleep if I had to implement it.
If you do research on vinyl playback you will find it is an astounding technical nightmare, what does that prove about its sound? A good question re hi fi , look up the video on youtube, is “which type of fake music do you prefer”?
It doesn’t really matter if MQA is slightly better than another failed format (SACD). It will probably go where HDCD, DSD, and all the other odd-ball formats have gone (nowhere).
If they would have started with 24/96 in the beginning, we’d all be good.
It’s my opinion these new formats just waste customers money and manufacturers development time.
I have not been able to locate a physical MQA-encoded CD that I can audition, I’m in the US. Any recommendations?
Thanks for bringing the physical media vs. streaming variable into the conversation.
My current task is to compare Qubuz non-mqa titles against the very same titles encoded in MQA on Tidal. Just started that process, but not hearing any explosive differences myself so far.
Audiophile Review was contacted by the manufacturer directly. They sell into Japan. If the files compared are from the same master you may find the differences, if any, are not consistent enough to lay the “blame” on the formats themselves…IMHO…
That’s an interesting point. Assuming that titles are re-mastered for MQA, then one cannot fairly compare that MQA-encoded CD against any CDs that were made from a prior master. The MQA CD will still be fundamentally Redbook with respect to sample rate and bit-depth (is that right?) but will be encoded in a lossy manner, so perhaps it is fair to say that one might lose some fidelity if one plays the Redbook level of quality from the MQA CD as compared to a conventional CD, and that might be a negative. But that sort of misses the point of MQA, which is to get HRA from a much more compact file.
The compact-ness of the file is, I suspect, mostly relevant to mobile device users who will benefit from lower data usage. For home-based system users, that characteristic is more or less irrelevant. The home user will likely benefit from the higher SQ that the MQA provides.
Thanks for the conversation, I really enjoy talking about this stuff without people yelling at me.
Peter, the links in the above article naming the artist and title, in this case Bob James and chlara, will take you to evo88.com. You can purchase the MQA physical disc there. I found a few other sites but this one had the best price so I used it.
Thanks for your comment.
All this compare and contrast is all well and good, but MQA is bound to fail, like SACD, DVD – Audio etc. Letting the marketplace decide,picking winners and losers, hasn’t worked. The industry has not embraced any single format universally since CD in the early 80’s. Until the industry at large picks a hi-rez format universally, it will remain a niche market for audiophile nerds. (like me) CD will not go away.
My ears don’t lie and sacd is hands-down and light years better than all others and all others are fairly boring in comparison
Nothing to do with the format whatsoever. If there are any differences, that would be due to mastering and the overall production behind the album.
From what I can gather from the label website, these albums were recorded in PCM, meaning that the SACDs would be transcodes.
Not sure that’s really a fair comparison of the sonic capabilities of SACD and MQA which, while lossy, is still basically native PCM.
I must have missed where you inform as to the equipment you used to conduct this inquiry. Can you point me to it or list it here, please?
Thx. Best general MQA article i’ve read. Equipment used wpuld be v. helpful, DAC is critical, but reslly whole chain.
Thanks Michael. Appreciate the compliment! Equipment used was as follows:
>Amp, Preamp, DAC – Esoteric AO2, CO2, DO2
>CD Player- Cambridge Audio Azur 751 BD
>CD Player Interconnects- Nordost Valhalla 2
>For MQA- DAC was a Berkeley Reference Series 2 w/ MQA Upgrade
>Streaming Device- Bluesound Node 2
>Streaming Digital Cable- Nordost Tyr 2 (BNC to RCA)
>All Other Cabling- Nordost Odin and Odin 2 throughout
>Speakers- KEF Blade Graphite
>Speaker Footers- (8) IsoAcoustics Gaia 1
>Speaker Platforms- (2) Symposium Super Plus
>Subwoofers- (2) REL G1 Mark II
>Subwoofers Speaker Cables- (2) REL Baseline Blue
>Subwoofer Power Cord- (2) Nordost Valhalla 2
>Power Purification: Nordost QX4 Power Purifier, (2) QBASE Qb8 Mark II Power Distribution Blocks,
(2) Nordost Qv2 Line Stabilizers, QK1 Line Enhancer
>System Grounding- Nordost QKORE 6 w/QKORE Ground wires to all major components, Nordost QLINE Chassis ground wires between all major components
>Vibration Absorption Devices- (8) Stillpoints Ultra 6 w/Base, (4) Stillpoints Ultra SS w/Base, (4) Stillpoints LPI, (1) Symposium Super Plus Platform, (16) Nordost Bronze Sort Kones
>Room Treatments- GIK: (4) Bass Traps (custom sized), (12) 242 Absorption Panels, (18) Combination Absorption & Diffusion Panels w/2A and 4A Design Sequence, (4) Poly Fusor Diffusion Panels, and (4) Gotham N23 5″ Quadratic Diffusion Panels, (12) Synergistic UEF Acoustical Panels and (2) Synergistic FEQ Frequency Equalizer
>Electrical- Dedicated Outlets w/Furtech GTX-D Gold Receptacles, GTX Wall Frames, & 104-D Carbon Fiber Covers
Digital Music Server was not used for this review. Server equipment not listed.
Analog section was not used for this review. Analog equipment not listed.
I have just been googling various bits of your remarkable hifi system and I noticed you had a pair of Rel sub-woofers. I wonder if you wouldn’t mind giving me some quick advice about them please. At the same time I apologise to all for taking this thread momentarily off topic.
The question I have Paul, is what you think about the benefits of having a pair of subwoofers. I have a single Rel which I use when watching films but when I play music more often than not I use our amp in stereo mode so the Rel is not engaged. Do you have your pair playing an active part when listening to music and if so, do you have them physically close to your main speakers ?
As this thread is old I have no idea if you will see this post and once again to you and the other participants, I apologise for butting in 😉
So if I capture the analog output from an MQA decoder with a high-end ADC and then carefully downsample that to CDDA, will the MQA still sound better? If not, this whole thing is a farce.
Too many variables for a valid test…how you downsample and what you use for software and hardware will have an effect on your outcome…please make a better test… 🙂
If I have to buy a $30 SACD instead of a $12 CD to get better mastering, I do it. I have some CDs that have better sound than some of my SACDs. In theory, CDs can be made to sound great, but in practice, more effort in mastering seems to be put into the more expensive product, so the AVERAGE SACD sounds better than the AVERAGE CD. Likewise, I’m ready to spend $550 on a Bluesound Node 2i to get better streaming out of Tidal, because that seems to be where the effort is being expended to get the best streaming sound. We can argue about formats, but we still have to live with what is available in the marketplace.