AudioFiles: The Controversy Over MQA

A new technology promises the best sound ever—but gets a skeptical reaction

DragonFly-Red-2

The AudioQuest DragonFly Red, a digital-to-analog converter compatible with MQA

Imagine if someone told you they’d met the best tenor saxophone player who ever lived—better than Hawk, better than Sonny, better even than Trane. Imagine they showed you glowing testimonials from famous musicians raving about the new player’s skills. But when you went to hear this supposedly miraculous artist, he would play only solo versions of original tunes from behind a curtain.

This is much like the situation audiophiles find themselves in with the introduction of MQA, or Master Quality Authenticated. MQA is the name both of the technology and of the company that’s licensing it. MQA claims to deliver the best sound ever available—better than vinyl, better than CD, better even than high-resolution audio. Yet despite the fact that it was announced in 2014, many audiophiles and journalists still aren’t sure what to think of the technology.

What’s New?

MQA seeks to pack high-resolution, better-than-CD-quality audio files down to a size practical for streaming over the Internet. It also seeks to improve on high-resolution audio through the correction of “time smearing,” a problem the company says occurs in digital audio recording and playback.

Right now, high-resolution files—typically produced with resolution of 24 bits and a 96-kilohertz-or-higher sample rate, compared with 16 bits and 44.1 kHz for CD—are available mostly through digital downloads. High-resolution files are considered by many audiophiles to sound better than CD-quality files, but they’re typically three to seven times as large. With downloads on the decline, some companies want a way to stream high-resolution files through a bandwidth practical for the Internet. MQA does this through what it calls “music origami,” squeezing the extra data needed for high-resolution audio into parts of the data stream that go largely unused. This process gets an MQA file down to about 1.5 times the size of a CD-quality file.

Digital audio recording and playback require the use of filters, which block sounds too high in frequency for the system to record. These filters can produce effects that are subtly audible. According to MQA, one of the effects is “time smear”—the introduction of false signals before and after the actual signal—and the filters used in MQA are said to eliminate this artifact, thus making files encoded with this process sound even better than the originals.

MQA also offers the ability to know if the music you’re hearing has been certified by the producers to be true to their intent—that’s the “Authenticated” part of the formula. If a file has been authenticated by its producers, an indicator on the MQA-compatible hardware (usually a digital-to-analog converter, or DAC) lights up.

Night and Day

Some audio writers have raved about MQA, with one editor calling it “the most significant audio technology of my lifetime.” The technology has been embraced by audio manufacturers; at the time of this writing, 35 were offering MQA-compatible products. Sony, Universal, and Warner have all signed on to offer their music in MQA. It’s available on streaming services such as TIDAL and Deezer, and from a few download services.

Yet many experts remain unconvinced. Most demos have involved playing MQA-encoded files without comparing them to non-MQA files, usually through a $100,000-plus audio system that could make even an MP3 sound amazing. MQA gave me a demo two years ago where I could hear little, if any, difference between a full high-resolution file and an MQA file. The company agreed to MQA-encode recordings made by a noted audio writer, but he could barely tell the difference between the originals and the new files.

Then a year ago, I got to hear a demo comparing 1990s-era classical recordings in their original form with MQA-processed versions, and in every case, the new files sounded radically more vivid, spacious, and realistic. Why, I wondered, didn’t MQA present this demo from day one? And how could I be sure the files hadn’t been sonically sweetened?

According to some, MQA makes the sound worse. A few writers, most notably one posting under the alias Archimago, have done technical tests that suggest it actually adds unwanted distortion and noise.

I’m still not sure what to think about MQA, but finding out what you think doesn’t demand a big investment. You can hear it on the premium version of TIDAL, which costs $19.99 per month and is available in a free one-month trial. TIDAL’s app offers MQA streaming at up to 24-bit/96-kHz resolution with no extra hardware required. To get sound quality that really shows what MQA can (or can’t) do, add an affordable MQA-compatible DAC, such as AudioQuest’s $99 DragonFly Black and $199 DragonFly Red, or Meridian Audio’s $199 Explorer2.

So at least there’s one positive thing I can confidently state about MQA: It doesn’t cost a lot to find out which side of the controversy you endorse.

Read Brent Butterworth’s column on digital-to-analog converters.