5. January was an important moment in digital music history. That day TIDAL announced the new Masters service using MQA technology, delivering High-Res music streaming first time ever.
We the audiophiles were excited hearing the news. Nowadays almost 1400 music albums can be found in TIDAL Masters (MQA). A daily edited table is available here due to Roon community.
I tried both the software decode by TIDAL desktop application (which provides a maximum resolution of 24bit/96kHz) and the full decode delivered by my Bluesound Node 2, and I am very excited to tell that MQA technology is able to deliver the best digital music listening experience so far.
I made a comparison between TIDAL HIFI (CD quality), TIDAL Masters (High-Res quality) and LP using Gary Clark Jr. Live album. Being an engineer I am always thinking in figures. I awarded points to each of my listening sessions, but please consider it as a very subjective verdict.
1. LP = 100 points
2. TIDAL Masters = 80 points
3. TIDAL HIFI = 60 points
This result means that TIDAL Masters using MQA technology came half way closer to LP starting from TIDAL HIFI, which is a great achievement. What is more important than this one is that MQA gave us the most natural sounding, most analog like digital music. Reaching this level was unbelievable a decade ago.
There are many articles and forum discussions about MQA and TIDAL Masters, but I found the most understandable explanation about how the file sent after MQA "origami" is unfolded by different ways was this one.
An engineer always try to visualize such processes, so I decided to make some charts for those want to understand how a music lover can practically enjoy the new opportunity.
Let's start with the chart showing the situation we do not have any device capable of decoding MQA.
This is happening in case of most media players and AV receivers having TIDAL integration but not having MQA decoding skill. You can still enjoy a better than CD quality.
What happens if we have a PC/notebook, or MAC and an Audioquest Dragonfly portable DAC/headphone amplifier (Black or Red), soon capable to act as MQA Renderer:
Most probably we will see other renderers in the near future from other manufacturers as well.
On some forums there were a fear that having a renderer someone cannot reach the same sound quality as having a full MQA decode device, but theoretically this is not true. Time (and forum members) will tell the difference.
What seems to be a fact that the best sound quality can be reached by using a device full decode MQA:
The number of devices with MQA decoding skill is limited at the moment, but I expect this number will grow relatively fast. Having a full decoder the total unfolding is happening within the device, and the listener can achieve the best possible sound quality close to the original master recording.
Before MQA music became reality with plenty of songs available (not just the very generous 2L free downloads) many people having a non MQA DAC (actually waste majority of the DACs are non MQA DACs) had a fear that they spent a lot of money buying a product which cannot be used to enjoy the latest development in digital music industry. Fortunately they can also enjoy a certain level of MQA, but not the best level available.
The good news is that the so called core quality can be enjoyed even not having an MQA capable DAC.
After TIDAL Masters was introduced I contacted Bluesound support asking how come that I was able to see yellow (88kHz) and green (96kHz) colours on a Chord Mojo connected to a Bluesound Node 2 using an optical cable at a recent test.
The support sent an answer as follows:
"The Node 2 will uncompress and decode the MQA signal and send it through all of its outputs,but official word from MQA is that if the external DAC or any equipment being used is not MQA Certified that the audio you are hearing is not officially MQA.
Even the Coax output or Optical output being sent from the Node 2 is MQA, even though being a Digital output it is bypassing any DAC, but if that DAC it is going into is not MQA certified then the audio after conversion is no longer MQA, and will instead be a standard FLAC file."
Interesting...anyway I was able to enjoy great sound quality from the Bluesound - Mojo system, and this is what counts the most.
Let's see what resolution we can get this way:
If we consider the previously mentioned article published by The Computer Audiophile stating that core decoding provides 90% of the MQA benefits those having a non MQA device should not necessarily think about to buy a new one. But do not take my word seriously if you want to reach the maximum enjoyment, and go ahead buying an MQA full decode DAC (a relatively affordable offer will be the Mytek Clef coming soon with great spec sheet).
I do hope that this visual tour helped you to understand the unfolding of MQA and what sound quality we can reach using different methods.
More explanation can be found in this subject in the article of Mr. John H. Darko here.
Perhaps you already know that I am a big fan of TIDAL and MQA and looking forward to see other Record Labels joining the MQA family, before Warner Music is becoming so profitable being able to buy the competition.
Huge appreciation to Mr. Stuart of Meridian for inventing MQA and for TIDAL to deliver us the new audio heaven.