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MQA & Tidal – where are we now?

Barry writes…

So Tidal are at last streaming hi-res content?

Yes, Barry, but not as you or I might drag n’ drop a hi-res file across from a LAN, from one computer to another. I assume you have read my CES coverage on this from last year? And this piece on patience? And this piece on my own early auditions?

Tidal are streaming 24bit/96kHz (and above) – that is, moving music data from their servers to your computer – using MQA’s ‘audio origami’ technique. The MQA encapsulation process folds the file in such a way that it can be stored / travel at 24bit/48kHz or 24bit/44.1kHz and then be unfolded again by the end user with an MQA-certified DAC and/or software. The result is we get to hear 24bit/96kHz (and above) but via a much less bandwidth-intensive delivery system.

For example, a 24bit/192kHz file is folded twice: first to 24bit/96kHz and then to 24bit/48kHz. It is this 24bit/48kHz file that Tidal stores on its servers. It is this file that is streamed to you.

Once transmitted, an MQA file’s data usage is roughly 1.6Mbps once FLAC compressed. That’s slightly higher than CD quality (16bit/44.1kHz – 1.4Mbps) but a lot less than the 2.3Mbps eaten by FLAC-compressed 24bit/96kHz. FLAC is the file wrapper here.

Not all masters leave the studio at 24bit/96kHz. Many modern indie rock release are mastered at at 24bit/48kHz. Some at 24bit/44.1kHz. MQA allows Tidal to stream the studio master irrespective of its sample rate. Ergo “Stream The Studio”.

Bob Stuart talks MQA at Fujiya Avic, Tokyo (October 2016)
OK, that’s how the file is packaged and transmitted. What happens once the MQA file arrives at my computer/streamer? I assume I need to some expensive new gizmo to actually play an MQA file?

Actually, no. ANY DAC can play it. It just won’t see the entire hi-res portion of the file that MQA’s encapsulation has tucked away under the file’s noise floor.

Right – so how do I access the hi-res portion?

Any MQA-certified DAC will unfold the 24bit/48kHz file back out to its full resolution – or up to the DAC’s maximum sample rate capabilities – prior to D/A conversion. MQA refer to this process of unfolding as ‘decoding‘.

For example, a 24bit/192kHz studio master folded by MQA down to 24bit/48kHz will be unfolded back out to 24bit/192kHz by the soon-to-be MQA-certified and previously 96kHz-limited AudioQuest DragonFly Black/Red.

AudioQuest have confirmed that the 96kHz ceiling introduced by the DragonFly’s receiver chip does not affect MQA content arriving as 24bit/48kHz or 24bit/44.1kHz because the MQA unfold takes place inside the DAC. The DragonFly Red and Black will therefore decode any sample rate dictated by the MQA studio master: 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz, 192kHz, 352.8kHz etc.

The Mytek Brooklyn’s USB receiver chip can already handle sample rates higher than 96kHz and will also unfold an MQA file as many times as is needed to deliver the studio master’s original sample rate.

So, I need a new DAC then?

Not necessarily, partial unfolding can also be done in software.

Tidal’s desktop app (Mac OS, Windows) will carry out the first unfold, even in the absence of an MQA DAC. In other words, a 24bit/48kHz MQA file streamed via the Tidal desktop app will reach the downstream DAC as a 24bit/96kHz file, whether that DAC is MQA-certified or not. And if the original studio master has a sample rate of 96kHz or less, you’re not missing out on anything.

 

So, I don’t need an MQA DAC to get the full MQA experience?

You don’t necessarily need it for the first unfold (to 24bit/96kHz) but what if you move to different playback software? As of right now, Roon passes the incoming 24bit/48kHz MQA file on to the DAC directly. Ditto Amarra For Tidal. Ditto Audirvana+ 2.x. No unfolding takes place. (This has been confirmed by each software app’s developer).

On non-MQA-certified streamers like AURALiC’s Aries, the 24bit/48kHz MQA file is also passed directly onto the DAC. Again, no unfolding takes place. Again, confirmed by the horse’s mouth.

Future versions of these software apps – and the software that powers AURALiC streamers – might execute the first (or even second) unfold. We don’t yet know for sure. Patience is required.

[Side note: The Bluesound Node 2 houses an internal DAC and is already MQA-certified.]

I saw you previous post about MQA support coming to the next major release of Audirvana+. Do you know when and how much the upgrade will cost?

No and no – sorry. For now, you’ll need to live with v2’s MQA’s passthrough which only works if you’re not using Audirvana+’s volume control or DSP functionality.

Why?

(Presumably) because DSP and volume controls messes with a file’s bits. A DSP-d MQA file will therefore fail to authenticate with any downstream MQA DAC. Authentication via light (green or blue) is an MQA DAC’s way of telling us that the studio master has reached the DAC fully intact.

OK – so why are Roon users and the like waxing lyrical on forums already about the wonders of MQA?

Possibly because they are hearing what MQA does at the studio end: according to its co-inventor Bob Stuart, MQA can correct for the time domain smearing caused by the original A/D converter.

Even if you don’t have an MQA DAC and you don’t have software that executes hi-res unfolding, an uptick in sound quality might still be heard, especially on a more resolving hifi system.

Let me ask it another way then, JD: if Tidal’s desktop app handles the first unfold and the A/D is corrected at source, why on earth do I need an MQA-certified DAC?

Because you want the second and third unfolds… and also because of MQA’s third point of sonic amelioration: the MQA code that sits on a certified DAC’s USB receiver chip can pre-emptively correct for the DAC chip’s own time domain smearing. MQA call this process ‘rendering’.

Ah OK – so MQA isn’t only about reducing the bandwidth required by hi-res audio streaming (and Tidal’s file data storage costs) but also about correcting the time domain blurring caused by the A/D and the D/A?

You’re catching on, Barry.

OK – how do I get going with MQA on Tidal?

Firstly, you need a Tidal Hifi account – the US$20/month one. Once that’s running, click to Settings → Streaming and check ‘Hifi / Master’. This will ensure Tidal streams MQA content to all your desktop apps and that Tidal’s desktop app will carry out the first unfold.

I’ll be getting a Meridian Explorer2 soon I think. What happens then? I mean, how do I tell the Tidal app that my DAC will be doing all the unfolding from thereon in?

Go back to Settings, select your (Meridian) DAC’s settings (click the wheel) and ensure that the three checkboxes – Exclusive Mode, Force Volume, MQA Passthrough – are all checked.

Can I stream MQA via Tidal on my smartphone?

Nope – not yet. I’m waiting to hear if Tidal’s iOS and Android apps can still ‘see’ the MQA content even if no unfolding takes place in the apps itself. But can you imagine what might happen once Tidal enable MQA on a smartphone: hook in an AudioQuest DragonFly Black or Red for the full MQA experience whilst out in the street? That’d be sweet, right?

I guess. But hi-res isn’t a panacea for a poor recording or master though, is it?

No, it is not. A bad master cannot be corrected by MQA and a nicely mastered file streamed via good old Redbook will, all other things being equal, sound better than a dynamically compressed master streamed via MQA.

The things is: all things are rarely equal. It’s highly probable that a Redbook file converted to analogue by an Aqua La Scala MKII will easily better the SQ of that same song MQA-d but converted to analogue by an AudioQuest DragonFly.

Beware of those now kicking Redbook and CDs as a means to sell us on the benefits hi-res audio.  Many consumers won’t have the hardware to resolve the improvements. Many more won’t even care. Also keep in mind that “Stream the Studio” and “As the artist intended” are little more than catchphrases dreamed up by marketing departments.

I assume it’s just the usual audiophile recordings get another belly rub from MQA on Tidal?

Actually, Barry, it’s not. The likes of Beyonce and Jason Derulo sit beside Phil Collins and The Doors. Click to What’s New → Albums → Masters to see for yourself. AudioStream claim that Tidal are sitting on 30,000 MQA files but it seems they’re releasing them unto the wild in a piecemeal fashion. Around 500 albums have thus far emerged.

But you can’t stand Phil Collins’ music?

True that. I’ll be sinking my teeth into some MQA-d David Bowie, Tom Waits and Talking Heads instead; a pity Fear of Music is MIA in MQA. Perhaps it will arrive eventually. Tidal are adding new content daily. Really looking forward to Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, if and when that drops too.

Over and out – until next time…

Further information: Tidal | MQA

Written by John H. Darko

John H. Darko

John is the editor/publisher of DAR from which he derives an income from its ad revenues. John is also an occasional contributor to 6moons and AudioStream and lives in Berlin, Germany.

Twitter: DarkoAudio
Instagram: DarkoAudio
Facebook: DAR

192 Comments

  1. Hi John,

    You mentioned that an MQA’s data file usage can be anything up to 2.3Mbps, I presume this is FLAC compressed?

    For a FLAC compressed CD track, the data rate will be closer to 0.9Mbps. A FLAC compressed 24/96 file is closer to 2.7Mbps.

    • Hi Jan, great list there, Unfortunately when I look through Tidal Masters on the desktop app I’m seeing nowhere near that amount. Are you finding the MQA albums elsewhere? Tidal is up to date so I’m a bit confused as to why I’m not seeing what’s on your list here.

      • Hi David,

        Not every MQA album is in the “Masters” list. Try one of those albums not in the “Masters” list and jou wil see the MQA light on your dac. That is if you own a MQA compatible dac.

        I found the list a couple of days ago. I think it originates from a ROON forum/group.

        • Thanks for the reply Jan. I have the Mytek Brooklyn and have been doing as you suggested. Hopefully they will reorganise the Masters/MQA section shortly and include all that’s available! Thanks again for the list, it’s a real bonus just now.

          • many of the artists listed in ‘masters’ i have no clue their genre of music…hope Tidal starts to sort them via playlist or genre or artist.

      • Hoi Peter,
        I’m only sharing a list I found from albums available in MQA on Tidal. 🙂
        List is still growing…

  2. Great article, Thanks!

    Question – You state that ‘Because DSP and volume controls messes with a file’s bits. A DSP-d MQA file will therefore fail to authenticate with any downstream MQA DAC. Authentication via light (green or blue) is an MQA DAC’s way of telling us that the studio master has reached the DAC fully intact.’

    If this is the case, how do Meridian speakers, which use both DSP and digital volume control, fully unpack an MQA file?

    • I know not how Meridian do it, only that these software apps, as they currently, stand cannot do DSP and MQA simultaneously. Jon from Amarra said this: “If the volume is at full and the EQ is off it should pass MQA just fine.”

    • What you cannot do is do any DSP/volume control -before- decoding the MQA file. If you do you destroy the encoding. After decoding you can do DSP or digital volume control, as you have a standard PCM stream.

      My understanding is an MQA DAC first decodes the untouched file to produce a PCM stream, then converts that stream to analog with a standard DAC. Meridian applies DSP and digital volume control right after decoding and before sending to the DAC chip – at least this is my understanding.

      Tidal’s software decoding opens up the possibility for post-processing DSP/digital volume control with ANY DAC. However, there are two drawbacks:
      1- The very last step of DAC tailoring that is done in MQA DACs does not happen
      2- PCM rate is limited to 88/96 (it looks like this is a compromise reached b/w Meridian and Tidal but this is far from clear)

  3. Seriously though if they want to take this to the masses than they better get on board with more main stream manufactures, can’t see too many people willing to fork out over $3000 for a DAC just because it can do MQA.

  4. October 2016

    MUSINGS: Keeping it simple… MQA is a partially lossy CODEC.

    -> http://archimago.blogspot.com.es/2016/10/musings-keeping-it-simple-mqa-is-codec.html

    The “de-blur” algorithm supposedly makes it sound better:

    Supposedly data about the impulse responses of the studio equipment fed into the encoder can lead to a more accurately time-aligned version of the music. Supposedly, based on magazine testimony, this audible difference is remarkable. Now suppose I take this at face value and accept that indeed it sounds better, as an audiophile who cares about quality and wants the best sounding version I can get, I’d be wondering then why this de-blur algorithm cannot be applied to a fully lossless 24/96 or 24/192 download? Wouldn’t that potentially be even better!? Wouldn’t I ultimately want that instead of yet another intermediate “format” with lossy compression? There’s no reason to marry this de-blur processing with the partially lossy CODEC which my DACs can’t decode. IMO this is no different than any of the myriad studio DSP plugins used in the production chain that can potentially make the music sound “better”. This is why I’ve always felt that there needs to be a dissociation between the CODEC piece and the “de-blur” DSP piece as I suggested months ago. By all means, provide the de-blur processing as a tool on the production side for the artists and sound engineers so they can apply it to anything from CD-quality to DXD.

    [Let’s not forget that the significant time-domain errors inherent in speaker systems during playback cannot be cured by a universal de-blur algorithm in any event as discuss here.] …

    • Assuming your quoted comments from Archimago are true, DSP correction remains a perfectly valid method with which to improve a loudspeaker’s performance in quasi-anechoic and in a room as per DEQX and Dirac et al, why not apply it further up the chain if it renders files as subjectively better? Admittedly, it’s non-removable but purists can still access non-MQA-d hi-res files from sites like HDTracks and HiRes Audio. Or buy CDs from the store and rip ’em. Or stream lossless Redbook from Qobuz or Deezer.

      • You may not be able to shed any light on this, but the Beyonce Formation MQA track is significantly bigger in size than it’s 16/44.1 FLAC counterpart (about 70% larger). So I presume it must contain at least 24/88.2 data. However looking on HDTracks and HiRes Audio I can’t find this album at all, and most other popular hi-res albums are usually no higher than 24/44.1.

        So is it that MQA are getting access to higher resolution source files than the other hi-res websites?

        Or does the MQA process effectively upsample the 24/44.1 source? Does MQA’s studio process result in a double resolution file?

        If MQA does indeed have access to the original 24/96 or 24/88.1 files, then it means that Tidal, at the moment, are the only source for such high resolution versions of those files, and there is no other non-streaming sources.

        Could the studios have intentionally restricted sites like HDtracks and Pono from accessing higher res sources?

  5. Hi John, What a GREAT and timely article. The best information on this planet so far regarding MQA….thx so much!!!

  6. Since the folding is lossy, a “fully unfolded” PCM with a rate of say 384KHz must necessarily have much (most?) information above say 96KHz mostly looking like a decode-based UPSAMPLING. By that I mean there must be little if any resemblance between the original master info above 96KHz sampling and what you get out of full hardware decoding. No?

    • Yup – that which you infer from Lavorgna’s post could well turn out to be correct: that 24/44.1 or 24/48 will pass easily into the DragonFly and then be unpacked from within to 88.2, 176.4 and above or 96, 192 and above. That’s the theory. Time will tell if AQ decide to take their ‘Flys in this direction.

  7. A couple of comments:

    1) For every MQA album featured on the main page under the “Masters” heading, there are several that are not so featured, yet are shown to be “Master” quality upon playback. If it’s been released as a high-res download over the past few years (esp. the Warner catalog), it’s probably already available in MQA format in Tidal. Don’t know why they’ve made it so hard to find them, but I have no reason to doubt all 30k tracks are already available.

    2) There’s no reason DragonFly (or other similar DACs) playback should be limited to 96/24. That’s the limit on inbound files imposed by the USB interface, *not* the limit of the internal processing chip (which can process internally at 2x, 4x, 8x, etc., rates). Since the file is actually seen as 44.1/24 or 48/24, it could well pass through the USB interface and then be “unfolded” to full resolution upon playback. I don’t know if that’s what they *will* do, but we need to rethink how DACs can work given this new world of MQA compression.

    • 1) Thanks for the heads up on that.

      2) I didn’t want to get into the weeds on this issue but now that you’ve mentioned it, I’ve added my thoughts on the same to the body of the post. Indeed, AQ’s choice in ESS DACs’ aren’t the sample rate bottleneck but the receiver chips. Potentially – and I don’t know at this stage – we could get 24/384 from a file that arrives inside the DAC as 24/48.

      EDIT: AQ have confirmed that MQA makes sample rates above 96khz possible.

      • From what I’ve read, I don’t believe that you can get something equivalent to 24 /384 form a 24-48 file. However, MQA seems to change daily so we’ll see.

        • From what I can tell, “folding” is just marketing-speak for “lossy compression”. I have a feeling you are right, and I’m skeptical that that we can really wring too much out of this “triple unfolding” process.

          • Skepticism regarding MQA’s all upside / no downside sales pitch? It remains to be seen whether MQA can successfully do to hi-res 2ch audio what Dolby did to HT audio.

  8. I have tidal hifi account and roon with a oppo 105 dac. So how should my tidal settings be? Should I ensure that the three checkboxes – Exclusive Mode, Force Volume, MQA Passthrough – are all checked when i play from roon? Would you suggest that I buy another dac?

  9. Who’s Barry? Obama?

    Just reading this article makes my head spin! The definition of what’s considered to be MQA seems to be growing exponentially. Pretty soon we’ll have MQA unfolding passive ear-plugs for MP3 files.

    • I don’t think I’ve ever made it through more than half of one these simulated dialogue posts, however I’ve never been able to put my finger on why they don’t work for me. It feels a bit like a movie that has had voice-over narration added after the screen testing stage… a bit too on the nose for my taste I suppose.

  10. What I’m wondering: is there an idea of ever having full MQA unfolding and deblurring in software? Some kind of plugin written for each DAC that can be added to playback software or incorporated to something like Tidal?

    Or is the idea to permanently limit SW decoding so that full unfolding and deblurring of MQA will take place only if you buy an MQA enabled piece of HW?

    • Good questions but ones that sound like they relate to business decisions as made by DAC manufacturers, MQA and software houses. Ideally, we’d all love to be able to tell our software which DAC we have and then have the software apply MQA’s pre-emptive correction. But if you’ve paid up for your hardware to be MQA certified, does that not then leave you high and dry?

  11. Just answered:
    http://www.audiostream.com/content/mqa-decoding-explained#GqCP5pvaqyBAiyKS.97

    Comments From Bob Stuart

    “The strength of MQA is that one file can be played back in a wide variety of situations by the customer.

    The three presentations you discussed: No decode; MQA Core; Full decode are all previewed in the studio. Each is optimally set up for that presentation (with appropriate de-ringing).

    MQA Core (which comes out of the soft decoder or digital outputs) carries the additional information necessary for an MQA Renderer (eg Dragonfly) or a full Decoder (eg MSB, Brinkman, Mytek, Meridian) to ‘finish the job downstream’.

    Full software decode is not possible because the DAC must be known and characterized. MQA is an analog to analog process. “(my boldface-danny)

    So, yes, for the full MQA experience you need the MQA DAC.

  12. I wonder if companies like the Auralic and Sonore would consider modifying the software software in the Aries and Microrendu that would complete the unfolding process beyond the 24-96 limit? May not be possible but it would be nice as it would theoretically eliminate the need for an MQA DAC.

    • Eliminate the need for an MQA DAC? Doubtful. I suspect software decoders will be foreve restricted to the first unfold. Besides, an MQA DAC also gives us MQA’s rendering i.e. DAC chip optimisation.

  13. Anyone have any idea if the Aurender servers will be able to do the unfolding of the MQA with a software update? I know that the A10 is MQA capable server/DAC.

    Cheers,
    KK

    • From all of the MQA facts so far, I think it is safe to assume only those devices with analog outputs will have full MQA decoding. In principle, there’s no reason why this could not be done in software – that is what firmware is after all. Limiting software decoding to 96KHz is probably more of a business decision than anything else. Tailoring to the DAC used is a possible justification, but you could also produce what you could call a “flat” PCM stream.

  14. Do you still check the Passthrough MQA box in Tidal (as you suggested in your article)….if you are using the Tidal desktop app to do the first unfold?

    That doesn’t make sense to me.

    • No – if you don’t have an MQA DAC, do NOT check passthrough. If left checked the Tidal app will pass the 24/48 or 24/44.1 file directly onto the DAC and not carry out the first unfold in software.

  15. Excellent read, thanks John, you seem to have a handle on MQA and a superb ability to make it 99% understandable. When streaming services can offer this kind of quality the writing is on the wall for the music industry. Two things to come. Retrofits of existing DACS to become MQA compliant and custom playlists. People are inherently lazy and will pay for someone with musical taste to make a playlist for them . Question for you please, how difficult is it for a DAC to be retrofitted to be MQA compliant?

  16. Really helpful article!

    You mention that people hear improvements to un-decapsulated tracks “possibly because they are hearing what MQA does at the studio end: according to its co-inventor Bob Stuart, MQA can correct for the time domain smearing caused by the original A/D converter”

    Do you know any more details about what MQA do at the studio end that doesn’t need the full unfolding process to hear?

    Thanks!

  17. I recommend an in depth article titled “12 Reasons Why Hi-Res Audio Is Going Mainstream”.

    It’s a game changer for sure, the race is on to see who and what is coming next. Meanwhile, enjoying very much TIDAL Masters.

    Take Care,

    Analogman

    • A lot has changed in the last year for sure but until Spotify, Pandora or Apple Music use MQA (or similar – is there similar?) to deliver the studio master to their customers, hi-res content / studio masters remain somewhat of a niche interest. I’ll admit that niche just got larger with Tidal’s announcement. I do wonder though how many people outside of the audiophile bubble are wetting themselves at the prospect of studio master streaming? These things take time to work through into the mass market’s consciousness.

        • Saw it. ‘Support’ = words/theory and *very* vague. Where’s the action and what form will it take?

      • “These things take time to work through into the mass market’s consciousness.”

        Totally Agree. We will have to wait and see who and what follows when & where.

        Meanwhile, who would have thought 45rpm heavy vinyl would be making a such a splash and the recent announcement of Master Analog Tape reissues from Analogue Productions. This gets more interesting by the day and more choices and ways to listen to top quality recordings.

        My guess is Apple will be last when they should have been first. Have you listened to the iSine20, just curious if this is a sign of things to come with respect to Apple.

        https://www.audeze.com/products/sine-series/isine20-ear-headphone

        Oh, one last thing. Neil Young (Pono) has announced they are going HiRes Streaming with their store reopens.

        Take Care,
        Analogman

      • Considering there hasn’t been a hint of pressure on Spotify or Apple Music to add lossless 16/44.1 streaming to compete with Tidal, I seriously doubt that the mass market is going to wet themselves in anticipation of paying up for MQA support, especially when less than half of Tidal’s current subs bother paying up for HiFi service now.

        I love my Tidal HiFi subscription, but I have to wonder how Tidal can justify the additional (not insignificant) storage and streaming costs of MQA without a price hike… I know, I know, they’ll make it up in volume!

  18. Actually, you can listen to Tidal Masters via iOS apps (iPad, iPhone) for Bluesound. Here’s how: go to the Tidal desktop app and save any of the Tidal Masters as favorites. Then you simply access those favorites on your Bluesound iOS device. To verify MQA playback, you’ll see the MQA logo and the little blue LED next to it that confirms the playback. Works like a charm! Admittedly, you’re not getting full MQA value, as it’s a software algorithm doing the decoding vs DAC decoding but what the heck!

  19. This is a disaster for the music industry. The new economy is basically insert some middleman in the old economy. The idea that the full decoding cannot be done in software has ZERO engineering merit and smacks of a money grab. All it would take is a what DAC are you using dropdown or default setting for oddballs. I spent a few thousand on DACs last year. I will spend zero this year and I doubt the industry is ready for many like me.

    • I’m not spending a penny on a new DAC. I can’t see what’s wrong with my ARC DAC8. no audio industry ruse is going to get me to fork over another $5000 plus just to add MQA. I’ll be satisfied with the, so called, first unfold.

        • Well I just bought a dragonfly red on the basis of a) MQA b) compatibility with my phone and c) NZD$150 discount. As a high-res tidal user since it first became available it was MQA that tipped me over into buying the dac. That said even though MQA isn’t enabled in the DFR yet I’m loving having decent portable sound – despite the fact that both my phone and my ultrabook are well regarded for their sound-quality the DFR makes a *big* difference.

          Can’t wait for MQA to come to the DFR.

  20. Thanks John for the informative article as always. I know this post is regarding Tidal and MQA but have you heard if KEF will be supporting MQA with the Wireless LS50’s? I am in contact with my local audio dealer to order them and as one who uses Tidal often, was curious if you had heard anything.

  21. What happens in case of a direct digital amplifier such as the NAD 390DD? The amplifier applies a PWM to the speakers, so the digital signal stays digital all the way. How would MQA work in this case?

  22. Another great article thanks John.
    I have an Imac that I bought privately some time ago and which already had Audirvarna loaded and I use this programme to playback files from a hard drive.
    I was already subscribed to Tidal and have really enjoyed the HiFi quality streaming via the Tidal player. However, the OS on the Imac does not support Tidal Masters and cannot be upgraded to a later version according to the Apple store.
    Rather than update the Imac, I was thinking of just updating to Audirvarna+ to access the MQA tracks. Is this feasible? Assuming of course that the OS will accept the later Audirvana.
    Currently, I am listening to the Masters on a Windows desktop via 5 metre long leads to my amp. Yes, hardly ideal but one needs to do what one needs to do.

  23. There is a work-around to access streaming of the TIdal MQA files from iPhone. I created a new play list in Tidal desktop, added the MQA albums I wanted to to that play list and then using Using Roon and/or Lightening DS can stream 24/48 via Auralic Aries to my DAC. Nice!

  24. As I understand it, any file delivered over the internet depends on packet protocols, which break a file into parts before transmission and then reassemble them at the destination point after they have traversed parallel paths. Given that we live in a world where some (including me) feel the choice of ethernet cable can affect audio quality, how important is integrity in packet de-/re-construction compared to the advantages which MQA (or, for that matter, FLAC) provides? I’m guessing they are small, but present. Am I right in thinking that the vagaries of packet technology are beyond the typical consumer’s control?

    • Hello Michael,

      I have the same question that you have. Did you get a reply on your question? I looked for one but didn’t one. Any hands on experience maybe?

  25. sheesh… sounds like you are saying studio A/D conversion in the time domain adds a sonic signature like the RIAA equalization fiddling that old vinyl can require? How the heck would you know what A/D device was used for a recording/song unless you use a media database like Tidal?

  26. great article, John…very helpful, as always…i’ve shared it on the various headfi threads.
    I must admit, however: you’d think Tidal would have provided this sort of explanation
    (I even sent it to them giving them a bit of hell) with the illustrations (which many/most of us i’m sure
    find helpful in clarifying settings). Tidal’s instructions imo have been pretty pitiful.
    So huge Kudos, Sir John (hey that’s got a nice ring, eh?)

  27. MQA hardware question: What is the difference between an “MQA Renderer” and a “full Decoder”?

    I am referring to this comment from Bob Stuart:
    “MQA Core (which comes out of the soft decoder or digital outputs) carries the additional information necessary for an MQA Renderer (eg Dragonfly) or a full Decoder (eg MSB, Brinkman, Mytek, Meridian) to finish the job downstream.”

    This comment suggests that the MQA operation occurring in the Dragonfly is somehow different from that which takes place inside the other listed dacs. I have just one uneducated guess: that the Dragonfly can perform all the necessary origami unfoldings, but lacks the ability to pre-emptively correct for the DAC chip’s own time domain smearing. I hope this is not the case, but I can’t come up with another guess.

    I thought I had all the details ironed out, but some of the terminology remains wrinkly.

    Thanks for your diligence; we appreciate it!

    • I came across the answer on Audiostream. According to Lavorgna, “A renderer relies on the software decoder to perform the first decode whereas a full decoder does not.”

      I wonder then if a Dragonfly user will need a different selection in the “Passthrough MQA” setting?

      In any case, it seems as if my concerns were unfounded, so long as a Dragonfly user’s software of choice can perform the first decode. I doubt users of Audirvana, Amarra, or Roon will have terribly long to wait at this point, but until then the Tidal desktop app will do the job.

      • Unless you want ONLY the first decode (via software), passthrough *will* be required for the DFly, like any other MQA DAC. Passthrough sees the 24/48 (or 24/44.1) sent directly to the DAC so that the first unfold takes place not in software but in the DAC itself. The DAC will also carry out any further unfolds. Get it? 😉

    • AFAIK, the MQA filter (that pre-emptively corrects for) the DAC chip’s ringing will still sit INSIDE the DFly – I’m pretty sure this is what MQA call ‘Rendering’. The DFly will carry out multiple unfolds too – i.e. ‘decoding’.

      I’m as unsure as you as to why Stuart has separated the DFly out in the list.

  28. Thanks for all the explaining John, it’s very enlightening!

    I’m the proud owners of two Devialet Phantom speakers streaming TIDAL music. Do you think it will be technically possible for Devialet’s Phantom speakers to be made fully compatible with MQA through a software update?

    Thank you!

  29. Great explanations John. Given that you’re now living in the land of chocolate and Sennheiser, I hope you’ll be able to talk Sennheiser into letting you listen to something OTHER than Hotel California on the 55K Orpheus, but be warned : the Orpheus bought Jude Mansilla to something that seemed halfway between an orgasm and the death of a close relative, claiming that he had to fight back tears during his 15-minute audition. MQA could well push you right over the top, leading to a series of memes that would (hopefully) outlive Donald Trump’s presidency.

    Keep it real,

    Artie

      • DSD was always going to be a tough sell given the file sizes, but I think you’ve heard the Direcstream Junior and one or two others that convert everything to DSD – depending on whom you listen to, that approach has merit. In a brilliant display of just how fickle some of the bleeding edgers are, having discarded the Yggy and a host of seriously expensive DACs from MSB et al, there seems to be a lemming-like rush back to the NAD M51. If you recall, the NAD’s claim to fame was that it upsampled everything to 384kHz (regardless of container or format), and from memory that was well before PS Audio rolled out the first Directstream. Given the pace of change in that niche, it would be interesting to get the M51 alongside your LIO and see how they fared feeding the LS50 Wireless.

        (FWIW, Vinnie wasnt the first to offer replaceable modules with an amp, even if the LIO concept takes it to the nth degree.
        http://nadelectronics.com/products/hifi-mdc-modules
        )

        • Modular add-ons have been around for while, sure, but the NAD *must* start life as a amplifier. The LIO does not have this baseline restriction. It can be built as only a phono stage should you so wish.

          As for DSD, yes, the HQPlayer crowd use it to upsample too. Here I believe it offers another possible flavour. My gripe with DSD isn’t with the format itself but the big talk that sat behind for so long, it being touted as the next big thing in certain quarters as if they were almost willing its success into being. I doubt many manufacturers would have added DSD support to their DACs had it not been for this hooplah being consistently and disproportionately bigger than DSD’s catalogue width.

          • The hoopla with DSD was because of the sound quality! Isn’t this the reason for the obsession with high end audio? The library of high-res source material is probably never gonna be huge.

            I’d jump at the the opportunity to go into the studio while they roll the master tapes of some of my favorite albums and rave about it! I certainly wouldn’t turn it down because I couldn’t listen to the entire back catalog.

            The original Elton John “Honkey Chateau” SACD sounds better and has more impact than any other version I’ve heard from anything. Billy Joel “The Stranger” still holds the crown for best I’ve heard this album sound which was one of the first titles available on SACD back in 1999. BTW, the 1999 SACD sounds way better than the Mofi SACD.

            If DSD sounds this good due to lack of smearing that MQA improves, then it should be a smash. But give it to me without the folding. I don’t care about the file size.

          • It may well have been about SQ but what’s the point of better SQ if it only applies to a few hundred albums? From where I sat, the hoopla was, from the outset, also hooked into a promise of more content to come. Content that ultimately failed to show up to the party.

          • SACD came out around the same time as Napster. Everyone was downloading. The average person couldn’t care less about sound quality and probably still don’t. The industry doesn’t care about sound quality either. Just massive profits and a new DRM’d format. And the sound quality of SACD’s seems to be gotten worse since the initial releases.

            I’m guessing that Bob Stuart has convinced the industry that MQA is the next big thing and that it will bring the masses to streaming. I don’t think so will but we’ll see. I think they should bring back tangible media. Nobody wants to pay for air.

      • I overloaded on Bowie myself. Not much love in 1,200 posts responding to my January 2nd post about MQA. Oddly none of the hate has been directed me.

  30. Nice article, thank you for explaining it very clearly.

    One of my concerns about MQA is that in the future, MQA-encoded files could become the *only* format in which high-resolution audio is distributed (streaming or file purchase) by the major labels. Then, as a consumer, I’d be forced to buy in to the end-to-end MQA paradigm to enjoy high-res audio.

    Do you see this happening?

    Thank you.

    • MQA is (for now at least) entirely ignorable. Don’t want anything to do with it? No problem – your DAC will still play the Redbook portion of the file as if it were standard PCM. I’m confident this will continue but with things moving so quickly in the hi-res audio space at the moment, I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess as to what might or might not happen.

      • what do you think will happen to MQA, John…taking into acct what Tidal is trying to do…and also taking into acct both Schiit and Linn’s opinions?
        still so early…guess we’ll see more as the yr (min) unfolds.

  31. Holy Crap dude! Thanks for making sense of this for us (i.e., figuring it out and then figuring out how to explain it).

    Thank you.

  32. great review/description of MQA and how to use it! what i have heard already just from the 1/2 unfolding of TIDAL’s MQA ‘decoding’ sounds great-i hope what you said comes true with DF RED which i am going to use as my MQA DAC on the cheap-what i have now is a Schiit Gungnir and MAGNI and a FULLA with ethernet 6CAT from an apple time capsule and use Sennheiser HD 598’s and RS 195’s(so i can listen on the third floor of my house have a NUB and a Logavulin without freezing my ass off on the porch! and yes my CFO will not let me smoke a cigar on the lower floors) very nice article mr darko

      • I guess this means Audioquest just didn’t feel like writing and supporting firmware/drivers for higher sample rates. Now all of a sudden they want to try and increase sales. There probably isn’t proper filtering built in for DSD.

        • Nope – it’s that the USB receiver chip is UAC1 and tops out at 24/96. Those wanting a DAC that ‘natively’ supports sample rates higher than 96kHz should 100% look elsewhere.

          And what’s wrong with wanting to increase sales? Is that not what being in business is all about? If MQA brings high/er res support to the table without forcing AQ to move to a different USB receiver chip or writing drives for UAC 2, more power to ’em. I don’t understand your angst.

          Also – it’s not as if existing owners are being left out in the cold either – the MQA update gives them something for nothing.

          • I think we’ve had this discussion before.

            I feel the product was designed for only PCM to work only up to 96khz, most likely, so they didn’t have to support drivers etc.

            I forgot about the USB receiver limitation but they could have used a different USB receiver in the new version but didn’t. They could have added support for DSD but chose not to. Those things would have increased sales. But I never thought this product was useful as it was. I’ve never had one person ask me how to get better sound from their phone or notebook etc. I imagine audiophiles are really the ones buying this product, and they like lots of options.

          • Pretty sure that receiver chip in the Dfly 1.2 came from TI whist inside Red and Black we get Microchip silicon, so designed for lower noise and low power draw.

      • thanks for the reply
        Now what do you have to say about the fact that if one makes a queue list of ‘MASTERS’ it is limited to 99 songs and one cannot shuffle them(On TIDAL)?
        Whys is content so small-I have neither the time nor the inclination to search for hidden MASTERS. Will there be more DEAD albums plus Jerry alone and with others ie acoustic stuff ,’old’ Tom Waits and what about SINATRA?
        I think the TIDAL interface sucks as well as their search engine and I love their HIFI/FLAC but I think Qobuz(FLAC) desktop is far superior in SQ and choices, interface plus instead of static for a particular song on an album Qobuz gives you 30 sec of mp3 then goes on to next song unlike TIDAL.

        • The Tidal interface is pretty awful and they seem to be going out of their way to avoid showing you Master recordings.

  33. So my Kef LS50 wireless arrive on Monday 🙂
    I’m currently in love with MQA on Tidal and want to play it though these speakers.
    It seems like the best way right now to to play MQA through them is by usb connection form my MacBook Pro and I ordered a USB to USB-C cable for that connection.
    For streaming MQA say from Roon what device could I put inline to the Refs to play MQA through its MQA decoding and does that use the devices DAC totally bypassing the Kef dac? For example a Dragonfly Red or meridian explorer connected to the Kef usb port. I only want the MQA hardware decoding from this device and use the Key mac.

  34. I hope MQA isnt a repeat of one aspect of DSD that I loathed – elitism. I spent a large chunk of 2014 straining to hear the difference between Redbook and SACD with two highly regarded disc spinners (Marantz SA-14S1 and Oppo BDP-105D) – at best, it sounded smoother and easier to listen to over long listening sessions. That would also be my takeaway from comparing DSD to my ‘lesser’ collection of music files – I guess I must have had the ‘wrong’ DACs or the cloth ears, but for me it wasnt worth the download cost or the massive file sizes. OK – others clearly got more from the format and that’s fine UNTIL they started laying the boot into anyone who didnt share their newfound religious fervor. No surprises that many of them were the SACD zealots from days of yore, but change a few of the terms in their posts and they sounded an awful lot like vinyl nazis for mine.

    If we need one thing for this crazy hobby to move forward, its tolerance. I know terms like ‘nazi’ and ‘zealot’ dont fit in with that message, but that’s precisely how I view these folks and MQA could easily become another dividing line for them to set themselves apart – we can look forward to extensive discussion of which ADC was used to produce a given album and why their MQA-enhanced download shits all over everything else. I have a lot of respect for those who pump serious dollars into their record collections AND actually enjoy listening to those albums but considerably less respect for those who spend their waking hours denigrating those of us who dont own a turntable : the last thing we need in digital audio is for MQA to become another weapon for the exclusionists. The same people who raved about their expensive CDP’s just five years ago are in no position to start slinging rocks at anyone listening to ‘standard’ Redbook or high bitrate compressed files. End of sermon 😉

    • I too would say that DSD allowed to create a dividing line amongst audiophile – “It sounds good but wait till you hear it on DSD” – but the limited DSD library, one that favoured more traditional audiophile titles, was also a factor in that division. I think MQA is different for two reasons: 1) it’s available via on a mainstream service, Tidal and; 2) its application (seems to) favour no genre.

      ” I have a lot of respect for those who pump serious dollars into their record collections AND actually enjoy listening to those albums but considerably less respect for those who spend their waking hours denigrating those of us who dont own a turntable.” <--- never a truer word spoken and I am with you all the way. Elitist attitudes and snobbery is one reason why the audiophile world is seen by many as a fancy ghetto on the edge of town. Hence a motto that I try to adhere to "pragmatism, not idealism".

      • The good thing about digital is you can use the same equipment for all file types, if you make it upgradable. You don’t need to go out and buy an expensive new turntable setup etc.

        I think the industry likes and probably needs the hype from new formats like MQA and DSD to shake up the market. The audiophile market isn’t that large. And to me, it’s doubtful if it will grow outside of the audiophile niche.

        What I don’t like about digital is the loss of perceived value from non-tangible media.

        • I might be splitting hairs, but a CD is still tangible media and its 100% a digital media – I know you meant ‘digital downloads/streaming’, but for those of us who carted milk crates full of CDs around for decades (and vinyl before that) its not an entirely unwelcome development. Streaming services free us from the dreaded ‘one or two decent tracks followed by ten filler throwaways’ that marred far too many CDs for mine – probably not an issue for the classical and jazz folks but all too common in other popular genres.

          As for the market for ‘audiophile’ formats not being very large, I’m sure John has some thoughts re Neil Young’s attempts to get people into high bitrate music, but for me FLAC seems to be the hipster container of choice, audiophile or otherwise. If TIDAL and others can convince said hipsters that there is value in paying a little extra for MQA-enabled FLAC (or simply that ‘Masters’ are better than ‘Hi-Fi’ – pick your preferred marketing terms), the takeup might surprise all of us. In any case, I’m more excited by the POTENTIAL for MQA to offer better sound quality than I was with DSD and I guess time will tell whether we all end up with Messrs Stoddard and Moffat laughing in our faces 😉

          Keep it real,

          Artie

  35. John – this is the best expalantion I have found of MQA – thank you! One question though: you state “As of right now, Roon passes the incoming 24bit/48kHz MQA file on to the DAC directly.” Does this mean that if I run Tidal through Roon, I lose out on the first “unfolding”? In other words, I need to output Tidal directly to my DAC (non-MQA) in order to get the first unfold? If that is true, any word from Roon if they are going to address in 1.3?

    • You won’t get ANY unfold with Roon handing off MQA content to an MQA DAC. You either need to use a) and MQA DAC for first unfolf or b) Tidal’s own app for first unfold. Spoke to Roon yesterday – absolutely no word yet on when exactly they’ll be offering the first MQA unfold.

  36. I listened to many “Master” titles over the weekend, and while the Classical titles available are a bit thin at this early stage, I’m relatively pleased.

    I got an Explorer2 (they’re down to $200 US now) to mess around with this, although I suspect that I will ultimately get a non-portable DAC for my home system. I’ll ultimately redeploy the Explorer2 either to my office (currently a small Behringer) or into my bedroom which does not have a DAC at all. I am hoping that OPPO will support MQA in the 4K version of the 105d, but we will have to wait a bit to find out.

    My most pleasing discovery was “Brezzin” by George Benson. Listening to that great recording of “This Masquerade” reminded me of what an outstanding composer Leon Russell was, a big loss last year. That album sounded outstanding!

    Fleetwood Mac – Rumors was also especially pleasing.

    I did find that I kept looking at the blue light while playing non-MQA files (it did not turn blue, of course) and I have to say that I have some sort of marketing bias installed now, if it doesn’t light the little blue light I’m just a little bit disappointed. I think that may be similar to the point the gentleman at Linn made.

    I hope that they add more recent Classical recordings to the Masters list. That WILL make me very, very happy indeed.

  37. Without extending an earlier discussion to the point where your indentation would be sorely tested, I’d like to address the issue of ‘tangible media’ vs downloads. Streaming is a slightly different kettle of fish, but I think most of the streaming services also provide some sort of download capability – in any case, I’d be surprised if there is an album on TIDAL that isnt available from a download site somewhere – happy to hear otherwise.

    1. I might be sorely mistaken here, but I believe that those of us who still obsess over silver discs have a MUCH greater range to choose from, both new and secondhand, than vinyl lovers AND at much more attractive prices. I mulled over whether a ‘new, still in the shrinkwrap’ copy of Darkness on the Edge of Town on vinyl could possibly be worth 100AUD a few years back and I expect that the owner is asking double that now (regardless of the provenance of the shrinkwrap). How many of us literally gave CDs away when we couldnt be bothered trying to find a buyer ? I’m talking Styx, Boston and the like, but it was still that all important ‘tangible media’, often in better condition than what I could find in the secondhand bins.

    2. The fact that any file I download, regardless of format/bitrate etc, will still be 16/44.1 PCM when I burn it to a CD really doesnt sit well with some of us. Is it really so long ago that CD transports were ‘big news’ and people spent many thousands just to get the right transport for that same miserable 16/44.1 Redbook album that apparently just doesnt cut the mustard any more ? I know the album covers and liner notes are important to many of us, but I find the online versions of same significantly easier to read than anything I recall from my own CD collection.

    3. Technically, 16/44.1 is supposed to be superior to the analog formats it superceded – that’s probably better left to the eternal forum debates, but that’s what the cool kids at Hydrogenaudio told me. We’ve all read ‘The Myth of 24-bit Audio’ etc and the claim that high bitrates sound great until you look at the real world limits of human hearing – unless you’re part bat, Redbook is supposed to be capable of capturing the frequencies that matter : as I said, an eternal debate.

    Fans of SACD / BD Audio / DVD-A and other exotic formats must surely realise that those formats are as dead as the dodo, but when I can still buy brand new ‘Top 40’ CDs for $10 off the shelf price things cant be all bad.

    https://www.mightyape.com.au/product/1989-cd/22758843?gclid=Cj0KEQiAnvfDBRCXrabLl6-6t-0BEiQAW4SRUCG-gQCqvsyYKzp6-VVVTgc11qqU96VrDYwdzDHkz5saAjN38P8HAQ

    Ms Swift isnt exactly standard audiophile fare, but here’s something from the MOR catalog that DAR regulars might recognise:

    https://www.mightyape.com.au/product/rumours-35th-anniversary-cd/21012340

    Apologies for spamming my fellow readers, but I think you get the point : $12 will barely get you a Happy Meal at McDonalds in my town (sad but true), and its roughly a third of what you’ll pay for the vinyl. As several reviewers have noted over the last few years, we are living in the golden age of audio – we can either bemoan the changes or embrace what we have and move forward.

    Artie

  38. “The Mytek Brooklyn’s USB receiver chip can already handle sample rates higher than 96kHz and will also unfold an MQA file as many times as is needed to deliver the studio master’s original sample rate.”

    Why would any quality DAC manufacturer NOT want to incorporate a “USB receiver chip” capable of “decoding” MQA, like described above?

    Theoretically, will a formerly less expensive DAC modified to be MQA-certified be superior to higher-end DAC without MQA?

    • I don’ think so improving the source material quality and changing out a DAC’s digital filter is only part of the digital audio story. Analogue output stages and power supply quality are also critical influencers of SQ.

  39. I find it bit strange and funny that Bluesound gets a very rare mention in these reports. Audiophiles are pained to see that their 10K DAC’s can’t seem to function with MQA, but a simple Bluesound Node 2 handles it beautifully.

    All one needs to hear these MQA albums in their glory is a modest Bluesound Vault or Node and you are off to the races.

    I have seen beautiful set ups described all over the audiophile forums complaining they can’t hear what MQA offers with their very complicated set ups yet it is so easy with Bluesound.

    Just hook it up to your amp with RCA cable and you are off to the races. Beautiful hi res sound without any stress.

    I’m using Bluesound Vault 2 with my Denon AV amp and my McIntosh 502’s power amps driving Martin Logan Montis speakers and it sounds great.

    Simple and functional, yet the sound is awesome.

  40. I just have to comment on what I read from Linn forum. Jim there said: “For you, you’ll pay a higher price for the same music, and you’ll pay more for your hi-fi system too. And even if you don’t buy into MQA, everyone will get less innovation, creativity and poorer music as a result.”

    Reading that from Linn forum is quite funny as Linn products are so expensive that most of us can’t and won’t buy them (naturally I’m biased towards North American hifi with McIntosh and Martin Logan but that’s not the point).

    Right now one can get high res streaming from Tidal (and probably from many other sources soon) for $20 a month. Add to that a Bluesound player, a decent integrated amp and good loudspeakers and you have a set up that can play high res music to your heart’s content.

    Now compare that investment to a Linn set up with buying high individual high res music and I’m quite sure your costs will be considerably higher.

    I’m sure Linn is very concerned of this development, but saying that it will be more expensive is not true.

    There has never been a better time to start listening to great music and you don’t have to pay a lot to start enjoying that.

  41. I’m listening to Tidal MQA on my Meridian Explorer 2 Dac that I just received. 🙂
    There must be a way to connect this to my Kef LS 50 wireless right?

  42. nice review!
    does anyone know or think that Warner Records will ‘MQAize’ their RHINO library and thus ‘unfold’ so to speak all the rest of the Grateful Dead/Jerry music and all those other artists on the RHINO label? And what about Sinatra and all the rest of Tom Waits what about Tom Russell?
    Also what is yours or anyone else’s opinion on the Explorer 2 vs AQ DF RED which is better-or should i buy both-the df red for my ipad air 2/iphone for the car or plane trips and the explorer 2 as my MQA DAC ‘on the cheap” for direct connection to my Mac Mini?
    You mentioned Amarra for TIDAL-I can’t get it to work at all and the MQA titles don’t even show up in the library web page it presents but my playlists do ie if I play one of the 2 MQA playlists I made from the TIDAL web/desktop app no music comes out ie the sound bar is blank. Any suggestions-I have emailed Amarra and have had no response and Ralph is always pretty good about responding.
    Again very nice review and explanation of how this all works/’unfolds’ and it does sound pretty darn good even with only the first unfold for my non MQA setup
    bobbmd

  43. I bought the Meridian. I’m no expert but it seems to be a much more powerful DAC than the Dragonfly based on specs.
    I’ve been reading different things about whether the Dragonfly does the full unfold or not. Perhaps someone here knows for sure. The Dragonfly is smaller but the Meridian size isn’t really an issue for me.

    • I have the Meridian DAC in my office at work and have been A/B’ing iTunes music and Tidal MQA for people. You should see their reaction when they go from the same song on iTunes to an MQA/Tidal version. 🙂
      Good to know that the Dragonfly Red will also support the full MQA unfold. I need a second MQA capable Dac and will get one of those.

      • And I’ve impressed people with plain old hi-res. I can’t imagine MQA being that much better when John Atkinson of Stereophile couldn’t reliably choose the MQA over the standard versions of his own recordings.

  44. I have the Meridian Explorer 2 DAC. I am playing MQA files, which I bought from 7 Digital. I am getting the green light on the DAC when I play these MQA files through JRiver on my iMac.

    I also converted the MQA files into extra ALAC files so that I can try to compare them. The weird thing is that the converted ALAC files, which are clearly not listed as MQA files in JRiver, still show the green light during playback, indicating that they are playing as MQA files. When I play these same ALAC files through iTunes, the light is correctly white on the DAC. In JRiver, I tried playing MQA files, then some different AAC songs that are not MQA, and then back to non-MQA ALAC versions of the MQA songs, and I noticed that JRiver does show the green light with MQA songs, then the white light with AAC songs, but then the green light again with the non-MQA ALAC songs converted from MQA files. So, it is not that JRiver is getting stuck somehow when moving from MQA to non-MQA, but rather that it ignores the user’s attempt to play non-MQA songs when it recognizes that MQA versions of those same songs are in the library. So, weird but not really a problem except when trying to compare MQA and ALAC.

    So, I can’t really comment on whether the MQA files sound better than the ALAC files in JRiver. I can say that the MQA files clearly sound better in JRiver than the ALAC files in iTunes, but that is an unfair comparison when anything sounds better in JRiver than in iTunes.

    Anyway, the good thing is that I can convert the MQA files into extra copies as ALAC Apple lossless files so that can get them into iTunes and then sync them to my iPad, iPhone, and Sony Walkman. So, at least I am not stuck with songs that won’t play on anything but my iMac when I purchase MQA songs. I wish that I could get the MQA versions into iTunes and then sync them and have them play as MQA files on all of my devices, but iTunes blocks the MQA files from being dragged and dropped into iTunes. Rotten Apple.

    I can comment on the Dragonfly Red versus the Explorer 2 DACs. Yes, I know that the Dragonfly Red is to get a firmware update to play MQA, but we all know that people will have mostly non-MQA files in their libraries for many years and so I decided to try a different DAC to see how it will play a variety of different files types. The Explorer 2, as others have noted, is more mellow and softer, which I like. It doesn’t give up details so much as instead it just sounds more refined, natural, and without digital glare. The Dragonfly, as others have observed, is like an Xray into some music and that can be fun at times, but with some songs, such as several by Joszef Van Wissen with his hyper strong acoustic strings, it can be a bit harsh and fatiguing. Vocals and acoustic strings are smoother and thus to my ears better on the Explorer 2. I also noticed that in JRiver I can force the Explorer 2 DAC not to upconvert files to 24/192 as confirmed by the lights on the DAC. When not using my Sony Walkman ZX2 in my car, I will use my Dragonfly Red with my iPad to feed the car’s speakers. My Explorer 2 has replaced my Dragonfly for use with my computer system where I will experiment with MQA.

    I can envision trying Tidal streaming at some point, but not yet. Right now, managing a purchased music library on a computer and three devices is as far as I want to go with music management and playback.

    • The reason why the MQA light comes on with ALAC is because both FLAC and ALAC are lossless, i.e. they don’t modify the contents. The best way to think of FLAC and ALAC is like ZIP (in fact the compression principles are very similar). It doesn’t matter if a Word document is compressed with ZIP, RAR, or 7zip, it still decompresses to a Word document.

      My guess is that if you convert the FLAC to a WAV file the MQA light would still come on.

    • I don’t think Kingwa has got around to MQA-certifying ANY of his DACs yet. Therefore, the only unfold currently available to you is from Tidal’s desktop app.

  45. Thanks for a great article.
    I recently reactivated my Tidal subscription to try out the new Masters releases.
    The only way I have to play them is via a BlueSound Node2.
    Comparing MQA fully decoded by the Node2 DAC, or as bluesound does it – “partially unfolded” and sent out the coax or optical outputs to 2 different external DACs at 96Khz- I still very much prefer the either of my external DAC options (wish I didn’t but I do). All 3 outputs on the Node2 can play at the same time and are connected to the same amp so it’s easy to compare them.
    Point being “fully supporting” MQA won’t make a poorly implemented DAC any better. The node2 DAC sounds good – just not as good – even though it’s MQA end to end..

    • Exactly right! A better DAC playing Redbook or partial unfolded MQA will surpass MQA piped through a lesser, MQA-capable DAC.

      • I have played the same tracks through both the Meridian Explorer2 (Blue Light showing Full MQA) and through my Beresford Caiman SEG 15v DAC. No contest the Caiman sounds much, much better, even though it is only playing the 24/96 files as unfolded by Tidal. Confirmation that the DAC makes a huge difference and MQA alone is not the holy grail.

  46. Question: the ‘lineout’ on explorer2 is it just an RCA output or is it also a Toslink mini out? the manual i downloaded says it is a Toslink. in either case this means the me2 can be used with headphones or through an avr to a speaker system correct?

      • I have a Meridian Explorer 2 and just got got a single RCA to dual rica cable so I can connect it to my Kef wireless which I will be doing later today. According to the Meridian web site it has this for inputs;
        3.5mm analogue line out, fixed 2v RMS.
        3.5mm headphone jack with variable-level output, impedance 0.47Ω.
        Both the data sheet and the user guide say the same thing.

  47. And yes of course it can be used as both a analog feed to a Hi-Fi system or headphones, but not simultaneously. Does a great job with the cans bye the way

    • I’m playing Tidal MQA right now with my Meridian Explorer 2 connected from my MacBook Pro to my Kef LS50 wireless speakers 🙂 Wow!

  48. Jax- Thanks again I can’t for it to arrive plus I am going to get the AQ DF RED so I use it in the car and on plane flights like Chris at CA described-as i put it MQA DAC’s ‘on the cheap’

  49. So John, this is best understandable MQA article on the web to date. Thanks!

    I was able to do an A/B comparison of streams (1 unfold-24/96) using the TIDAL app on my MacBookPro, USB to W4S mINT and Martin Logan speakers. The MQA vs. non-MQA track is substantially better SQ to my ears. This simple test convinced me to pursue a MQA-certified DAC in the future.

    You wrote: “A better DAC playing Redbook or partial unfolded MQA will surpass MQA piped through a lesser, MQA-capable DAC.”

    I attempted the same MQA trial sending the TIDAL software stream (1 unfold) to my PS Audio DL3 (older) USB input with Martin Logan powered speakers, but then had no volume control from the laptop hardware or app software. This older DAC seems to disable the computer’s volume control. Has anyone else experienced a similar problem with their respective systems?

    Why can’t MQA create and license a hardware decoder (4 unfolds) that would fit between a music streamer and any DAC or Amp/DAC?

  50. This all sounds great but I’m waiting for a manufacturer like Marantz or Cambridge Audio to build in MQA decoding directly into their network streamers. Who knows perhaps MQA ready home theater receivers will follow suit someday as well? Do that and you’ve got me because convenience matters. This business of having to upgrade and purchase a laptop and separate MQA capable streamer just to enjoy the full glory of Tidal unwrapped is a bit much. I suspect the majority of us just want to turn on our system, punch a button, enjoy a cup of tea and simply enjoy streaming high quality lossless MQA audio. Count me out if I’m required to jump through flaming hoops while wearing my early adopter t shirt.

    • I see your point but lots of people use Dac’s with their laptops and its not exactly a burden to get one of the several that do MQA for a few hundred dollars to use with headphones. Man does it sound great…
      But yes it really needs to be built in to devices and there needs to be a wider catalog for sure.

    • So I read that you can play MQA directly from Tidal via Bluesound Node 2 without using the desktop application.

    • They’re on the way. The current landscape just demands patience at this point. Recent articles carry rumors that big money (Bezos, etc.) is considering entering the streaming realm to better drive his Echo (http://bit.ly/2kSwBKR). Spirit already dropped $200 million into TIDAL and MQA is well positioned, despite what one might think about the technical side of things.

      I plugged (USB) my MacBookPro running TIDAL into a Wyred mINT with Martin Logan Motion 12s. Deblurring with one decode (24/96) and volume adjusted MQA’d vs non-MQA album was enough to convince me of the aesthetic benefit of MQA.

  51. I should add that I would love to play MQA/Tidal more through my Kef LS 50 wireless but connecting directly to the speakers for my laptop is something i find I’m not wanting to do very often.

  52. I just heard yesterday that my Hifi shop in France is beta tester for QOBUZ hirez up to 24/192………..

    PS without any MQA, just normal PCM, do we need more ?

  53. Jorgen- Do you mean Hirez from the desktop app or the ‘new’ WEB browser app not purchasing a Hirez download from SUBLIME? Yesterday I went to a link recommended by Musicophile on Computer Audiophile in “music downloading and streaming”(post #19) that gave me this beautiful new Qobuz page with a just fantastic layout it recognizes me has my created Qobuz playlists and for the first time allows me to play the Qobuz curated/created playlists-I can’t do that with the blue shaded desktop app. The version of this apparent new WEB browser is 4.0.8-b006- is this the forerunner to a version that will STREAM music at 24/196(MQA or not MQA) sound really good without it ie just white lights on my ME2.

  54. Jorgen ot Mr Darko or anyone else- if anyone has this ver 408-b006 of Qobuz browser does anyone know if A2+ can acquire it? Or will we have to wait for Damien to release ver 3.0? And how can one get this browser to be part of your start up page ie there appears to be no way to put it there or keep it ‘in the dock’ so to speak on my mac mini.

  55. My friend used a tablet and it worked like a normal Sublime Hifi streaming subscription – just with added 24/44 – 24/192, when allowed from artiste I suppose, not everything was possible to get in more than 16/44, exam. Ivan Fischer – 1. Mahler.
    It might be the future for everybody who has Sublime !
    I tried the new Qobuz interface, the white one, on my lab top, very nice, – but as I use the microRendu I dont know what else to use than my good old LMS with 3.party Qobuz on a NAS.

  56. I gotta say mqa on Tidal is good. Masters on Tidal thru Roon less so..(no decoding).
    But what the hell is going on with the Dragonfly Mqa update? End of the month my ass! Its now March!
    Come on guys, I’m gen Y, this wait could be fatal!

  57. I just updated Tidal and now it seems buggy. Before it would automatically switch Mac bitrates depending on whether it was playing hi-fi or master tracks. I could see in Audio Midi Setup that the changes had been made. And when Tidal quit it would return the bitrate to whatever it was set to before Tidal started up.

    Now, I periodically get a message that I need to set sound settings to 44 / 16 bit. Not exactly what I want for MQA / Master files. Does anyone else use Tidal on a Mac and have similar results?

    Thanks

  58. Apologies if this is answered above. I didn’t see it.

    At the current time, is the only way to know an album on Tidal that makes use of MQA, is to start with “What’s New” > “Masters” and then scroll?

    In other words, when I search for an artist in the search bar, it brings up all of that artist’s albums (MQA and not). But the albums on THAT list (found with the search bar, not “What’s New”) do not distinguish whether MQA has been used or not.

    So to be as clear as possible: Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” can be found on the Masters page. But on the Coltrane page there is only one version of that album. If I choose “My Favorite Things” from the Coltrane page am I listening to the MQA album? Or can I only get that by starting with, “What’s New” and choosing the album there?

    BTW my Geek Pulse DAC shows 44.1K no matter whether Tidal is playing an MQA file or not.

    Many thanks for making something very complicated more understandable for those of us who really just want to hear the best version of the music we love.

  59. Figured out part of it myself. Duh!

    For those as slow as I am, at the bottom of the Tidal screen (at least on the desktop app), next to the time played/time remaining on the track it will either say “Master” or “Hifi.”

  60. Feel free to choose not to post my my two comments above as I figured out the answer myself. (And presumably others have also.)

    But…You wrote: “In other words, a 24bit/48kHz MQA file streamed via the Tidal desktop app will reach the downstream DAC as a 24bit/96kHz file, whether that DAC is MQA-certified or not.”

    Would you have any idea why my Geek Pulse DAC shows 44.1K while playing an MQA file on Tidal? A high res file on my computer, when played through that DAC will show on the DAC as 96K or 192k?

  61. Hi, you need to check and activate exclusive mode in Tidal settings. If you don’t have it already activated this is the reason for sure. In any case exclusive mode increase substantially the sound quality anyway no matter a master file or not.

    • Stefano wrote: “you need to check and activate exclusive mode in Tidal settings”

      Thanks for that, but I see no such setting.

      After much back and forth with Tidal tech support, I am using the most recent version of the Tidal desktop version on my iMac. 2.1.5.228 (W: 2.1.0–28) (NP: 2.3.26)

      Under “Quality” it offers: Normal – High – HiFi/Master. Nor is there an “Exclusive mode” under “Sound Output.”

      I have Hi-Fi/Master selected.

      Where does one find the choice for “Exclusive Mode?”

      Thanks.

      • Streaming>then put your mouse point to the right of the DAC you re using and you will see a gear icon appear that you can click and check these options.

        • Except after changing those settings as instructed…it didn’t work. The music played but as if it was speeded up, like an LP played at the wrong RPM.

          “Normal” music only returns when I go back into Tidal Settings and choose “System Default” rather than my DAC. Via my Mac Settings and Audio Midi Set-up, the default output IS my Geek Pulse DAC.

          But…while hovering my mouse to the right of all the other choices, gives me the gear icon, there is no such icon shown on “System Default.” Thus “Exclusive Mode” cannot be chosen.

          Help?

  62. Thank you John for this splendid article. I use Oppo dac HA-2 se and I think it works perfectly.

Software as a hi-fi system component

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