musicandaudioguide
  • Beyond High-Resolution: MQA

    I'm looking forward to spending some time with Robert Stuart later this week. The head of Meridian and co-inventor of Master Quality Authenticated is headed to Los Angeles for the Newport Beach Show and has promised to come by the studio.
    He's been extremely busy doing interviews and demonstrations of this exciting technology. I received an MQA update email this morning that talked the tremendous success that the company had at the Munich Show.

    "Continuing its world travels, MQA recently enjoyed a rapturous reception at the HIGH END Show in Munich. Every listener was amazed by the quality of the music – a reaction we’re becoming accustomed to seeing. The show also saw supporter numbers soar above the one hundred mark."

    In the email was a link to an electronic article authored by Robert Harley titled, "Beyond High-Resolution: An Inside Look at Meridian's Master Quality Authenticated (MQA)." The piece is a reprint reprinted from the May/June issue of The Absolute Sound magazine. I must have let my subscription to TAS (and Stereophile) expire because I haven't seen this issue. After reading Robert's piece, I'm not sure I'm missing much.

    There has been a lot of compelling press and frequent testimonials about how "revolutionary" MQA is. I've heard it and can confirm that it sounds wonderful. But the level of spin associated with a new and quite clever encoding and decoding scheme has gotten out of hand IMHO. Even the title of the article is hyperbole. MQA doesn't give us audio fidelity "beyond high-resolution"! I doubt that Robert Stuart would touch that statement. But he's got to be very pleased with the gushing press that his invention has garnered. I would re-title the article as "Beyond the MQA Hype".

    A few of my favorite quotes:

    "MQA could usher in a world in which the term 'high-resolution audio' is as anachronistic as 'digital camera.'"

    "MQA doesn’t make digital sound like improved digital; it makes digital sound like a microphone feed. For starters, the sense of instruments existing in space, completely separate from other instruments, from the surrounding reverberation, from the tape hiss (on analog-sourced material), and from the loudspeakers was so lifelike it was almost eerie. The precision with which images were presented in space was also uncanny; they had more definition, with a dense center surrounded by a sense of bloom and air. As instruments got louder, I could hear the expanding bloom around the image."

    You can read the entire article by clicking here.

    He's attributing qualities to an encoding/decoding technology for which it can't take responsibility. Think of the process of recording from studio to reproduction as a pipe. What if I brought Robert Harley into the studio where the final mixing was accomplished? The artist, the engineer, and the producer are all happy. Never mind that it's a virtual certainty that the music they heard was recorded at 48 kHz/24-bit PCM...let's say for the sake of argument that T Bone Burnett was the producer and the multitrack mixdown was done from an analog tape. The process of digitizing the mixes for mastering or distribution hasn't happened yet.

    Do you think Robert would gush for 7 long paragraphs about hearing the original mix? The sound that he would hear prior to the MQA process would have to be the "master quality", right. Maybe he's never heard mixes in a real studio. I have. Would he relate that experience in the same terms he talked about MQA? Do the instruments "bloom" when they get louder when you hear the original analog mixes?

    "Instrumental timbres were extraordinarily rich in detail, particularly at the lowest levels. I remember hearing the gentlest tap on a ride cymbal and being startled by its immediacy and finely filigreed texture. The exquisitely fine structure of the attack and decay, down to the lowest level, was vividly portrayed. Cymbals have always been the Achilles’ heel of digital, sounding hard, metallic, and bright while simultaneously lacking air, openness, and extension. Cymbals with MQA have a full measure of treble energy, but without the bite of conventional digital."

    Someone should clue him in on the fact that the "bite of conventional digital" hasn't applied for at least 10 years. Remember that his own magazine printed the following about my own high-resolution PCM digital recordings, "the multichannel audio, emanating from five B & W 801 loudspeakers, is quite simply the most realistic and involving instance of recorded sound I can recall, from any source format." The cymbals didn't have any "bite" to them.

    The technology of MQA is groundbreaking but it plays no role in the fidelity of files processed using it. The concept of MQA is to preserve the sound that existed in the studio or was imprinted on the analog tape masters of yesteryear. And it does it in a much smaller container (bandwidth equal to a CD or less) and in a backwards compatible format. And it may improve the "pre" and "post" ringing timing stuff that Robert details in the article (although all of the ringing happens right at the Nyquist frequency so it's unlikely that you'll hear it at 48 kHz!). That's all great news for "high-resolution" streaming services like Tidal or even Apple if they join the club. But it's not going to do anything for new productions done at 48 kHz/24-bits.

    Let's get beyond the hype and do a reality check on MQA. I know I plan to.