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MQA and DSD at T.H.E. Newport

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The T.H.E. Show in Newport is the major audio event in Southern California. The venue had changed to the higher class Irvine Hotel. This was an improvement especially since the room AC’s were quieter than the previous hotels. Unfortunately, the live performances were drowned by bar noise and bad room acoustics (there’s some irony in this for an Audiophile show). In addition to high-end equipment there were interesting presentations and discussions of digital formats. In Meridian’s room there was a demo of the new MQA format. On the program was also panel discussion about progress on DSD.

 

MQA

The new MQA format was introduced by Meridian last year. It’s essentially a way of compressing high resolution files in a 24 bit, 44/48 kHz format. Details are too complicated to describe here but content over 44 kHz is compressed and fitted in the 8 bits added to the CD’s 16 bits.

The main benefit is that higher resolution files can be streamed as “CD” files. This would give us audiophile access to 24/192 files if the streaming companies so choose. Meridian has made additional claims about improved audio experience. These are on the psycho-acoustic level and, frankly, sound too good to be true.

The Meridian room had the 818 controller ($16,000) and DSP 7200SE Speakers ($46,000). The speakers are active with four DACs and four 150W amplifiers each, one for each driver. They are certainly a tour-de-force in speaker design.

The tracks played at the demo were non-released tunes from MQA partner. The speaker received the files and “unfolded” them. The actual resolution was nicely displayed on the left speaker in a small LED window at the top.

The first quick listen was promising. Black background and excellent dynamics. No CD sound here. The file was a high resolution blues track. Meridian also played a non-MQA CD track that was up-sampled by the controller. The intent was to show how the system could improve CDs as well. Unfortunately, this is an impossible task. The track was typical Red Book junk with some possible improvement in the filtering.

I went back the following day for a formal demo with more tracks.

The Meridian guys that ran the demo were from Meridian America. This is the equipment people and they are not directly involved in the MQA company which licenses the technology to equipment and music companies. They politely and professionally waved off any questions on who would use the technology and when large amounts of files would be available. However, many DAC manufacturers are on board so there will be no shortage of equipment to run the files.

Meridian played several files in different resolutions. The 24/192 sounded great – no question that the excellent speakers had a part in this. As a demo the Roberta Flack track “Killing Me Softly” was streamed from Tidal. It was displayed as 192 kHz. I could hear the tape hiss from the recording, so great resolution. There was some distortion in the louder sections of the track, perhaps from the recording.

The blues standard “Three O’clock Blues” from a computer file showed up as “88”. The bass was good but it sounded very much like an 88 kHz file with the lack of detail that comes with the lower sampling/reconstruction rate. The trend repeated with other files played.

This was a pre-introduction demo, so too early to make any definite conclusions. What I heard was that good files sound good, lower resolution files not so good. This is not unexpected as there’s really no chance to fool digital nature. We can look forward to a good way to transfer high resolution PCM files efficiently without any major degradation, which is a great achievement. Perhaps future demos can prove that there are sonic improvements as well but I wasn’t convinced this time.

Any DSD files have to be converted to PCM to use MQA. If you are an SACD-DSD lover you can get no satisfaction from MQA. PCM fans will be OK though.

 

DSD

T.H.E. had a panel discussion labeled “DSD and Analog: The Great Convergence” chaired by Dave Robinson from Positive Feedback. The panel members included top recording engineers and Chad Kassem from SuperHirez.com/Acoustic Sounds/HiRes. Chad’s company has an extensive list of DSD files from major labels.

I asked the group what they thought about MQA. As expected from a DSD group they did not offer any strong endorsement. Dominique Brulhart from Merging Technologies pointed out that MQA is a lossy format. Since he’s a top digital engineer, I’ll take his word for it. There were comments that indicated that as recording engineers they were not pleased by claims that MQA could improve sound quality over what they created in the studio.

Five/Four Productions records all their files in Quad DSD format. This gives them excellent quality and possibilities to convert to SACD and high level PCM formats.

Most editing is currently done by converting the DSD file to PCM/DXD for manipulation. After editing the files is converted back. Dominique Brulhart said the main problem with editing DSD is that it adds noise. The quad files offers an opportunity for DSD editing since the noise is shifted away from the audible content.

The main take-away from the panel discussion is that DSD is a true audiophile format and has advantages over PCM. The double and quad DSD can get us even closer to “master tape” quality.

As a disclaimer I should say I’m long time SACD listener and have a preference for this format over PCM. If DVD-Audio had not died a premature death the high resolution PCM would be further along. SACD and DSD have improved steadily and we have plenty of great recordings available.

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8 Responses to MQA and DSD at T.H.E. Newport


  1. Jim says:

    Sir,
    Your disclaimer was entirely unnecessary. The fingers-in-ears comment regarding ‘typical Red Book junk’ placed you precisely.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I, unfortunately, wasn’t able to make this show. I was hoping to pull myself away to attend. But here’s my take on MQA. I think if Meridian wants to make MQA the defacto standard, they need to essentially get every music player software to decode MQA where people don’t have to upgrade their DAC to a Meridian or a specific DAC. with all of the DACs in existence, most DACs don’t have MQA support. Do you think someone that just dropped hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands is just going to automatically sell their DAC to get a MQA enabled DAC? I don’t think so. A Meridian owner will probably upgrade their system to be MQA enabled, but that’s a small market. The average person won’t. Too expensive. Same thing for people with home theater receivers. They are unlikely going to replace a working receiver to get MQA enabled DAC. I think if Meridian wants this to take off, they not only have to sign on Tidal, but Apple, Spotify (they actually may not last long enough since they are losing money), and they need to essentially give all of the s/w guys like Channel D, Sonic Studio, Audirvana, JRiver, BitPerfect, etc. etc. MQA decoding s/w for FREE so people don’t have to change their existing DAC. Then on the other end, they have to get MQA encoding software in the hands of everyone in the recording industry that does the mastering so they can create MQA enabled content. This whole process of getting a significant number of MQA capable listeners is going to take YEARS to capture a compelling amount of people.

  3. First: calling MQA lossy compression is technically correct but does give a completely wrong perception of the system. There is some lossless compression for the audio signal between 48 and 96 kHz. There will be no read music info there, this part of the band is only interesting from a temporal perspective.
    Second: THE most important property of MQA is that it is taking temporal behavior of both the recording and the playback system in account. Although playback software probably will get MQA decoding (my educated guess, not a fact), MQA will then not be able to reverse the impulse respons of the playback system.
    Third: D/a-converters that are software based, like Chord, PS Audio, Lyngdorf, dCS and so on, might just get a software update like the Meridian Explorer2.
    Fourth: Unlike DSD MQA does not need noise shaping to achieve resolution.

    • ‘There is some lossless compression for the audio signal between 48 and 96 kHz’ should have been ‘There is some lossy compression for the audio signal between 48 and 96 kHz’.

  4. Toby says:

    Regarding the quality of CD’s – yes, it does make me want to put my fingers in my ears.
    The CD was introduced in 1980. It took 35 years to go from end of WWII to the CD. In the 35 years from 1980 to today we went from the CD to – the CD!? This is a late 1970ies digital format and it is just as outdated as the floppy disc and Intel 80286 chip (released in 1982).
    It’s time Audiophiles demand better. Modern DAC chips can easily handle DXD and quad DSD which is a 35 year leap in technology and sound quality.
    The MQA is certainly good for the new distribution models of streaming audio and video. However, since we now stream 4k Movies I can’t see any problems streaming DXD quality audio. It’s not clear what actual bit rate the MQA “unfolds” to. It must be less than 24 bit since the added 8 bits from CD’s 16 is used to store 44-192 kHz information. The files I listened to showed up as 192 – but is this 16 bit? 16 bit would indeed affect sound quality.
    It will be interesting to listen to MQA in a controlled environment and compare source 24/192 files with the MQA of the same. For Audiophiles, MQA really should be compared with the modern high res formats of DXD and quad DSD – which are 2015 technology. 24/192 was introduced in DVD-Audio around 2000 so already 15 years old.

  5. Bill Riley says:

    I have a very good PCM based DAC and a DSD only DAC. I think MQA is for Meridian owners and possibly a few who may retrofit their existing DAC or software to accommodate MQA.

    Based on listening, I prefer the sound of DSD roughly 80 percent of the time, over any version of PCM. The difference, or superiority of DSD is small but important for most realistic venue.

    I personally look forward to more innovations in the DSD field. At the same time, I appreciate all the work done to get the most out of PCM.

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