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My mysterious MQA misery

mike7877

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So Tidal offers Low, High, and "Max" quality now ("Max" instead of HiFi I think...)

Sometimes "Max" ends up being stored and sent by Tidal as MQA, and sometimes, FLAC (usually 24/96 FLAC, iirc).

None of my DACs support MQA - Topping G5, Topping DX1, RME Babyface Pro, Arcam rDac. I thought my G5 did, but... it does not.


I was listening to Dream Theater's album Images and Words earlier tonight (for the first time as MQA through my G5 + LA90D), and really not enjoying myself... Usually when I listen to the album or a couple songs from it, I use Foobar2000 to play back a 16/44.1 FLAC rip I did myself, but tonight, for convenience's sake (phone plugged into G5 with USB-C cable, FLAC files far away on desktop PC), I used Tidal.

For Images and Words to sound good, it needs to be being played back through a good system with no weak links from start to finish - especially DAC, amplifier, and tweeters. It's a brighter album, and the electric drums' snare has a lot of HF energy, too. This snare is so tricky that you only need to hear it hit 2 or 3 times to be able to determine if you're listening to a 320kbps MP3, or 16 bit / 44.1k lossless file - on a minimally transparent system, of course. The only snare that even approaches this one in it's resistance to being lossyly compressed, is the one on Judas Priest's Painkiller album. On that album, it's a combination of the drums (timbre and style), snare, guitars, and the spacious reverb on everything, that makes it probably even less friendly to compression than Images and Words. (Which is really something!)

While listening to the sonfs Take the Time, Under a Glass Moon, and Metropolis Part 1, like I said before, I wasn't enjoying myself. The frequency response seemed fine, which is one of the things that MP3 screws up about the snare, so I didn't suspect codec as being the problem (the possibility of Tidal's audio quality mistakenly having quality been set to "Low" and MP3 assaulting my ears). I looked anyway and saw MQA under the song in active playback, and thought to myself "G5 does MQA so that's not likely the problem" I settled on the problem being my ears because it's been a long day and fatigue can affect your hearing. After a few minutes I got a brainwave - the idea to lower Tidal's quality from "Max" to "High"
I was going to get a different copy of the exact version I usually listen to: 16 bit 44.1kHz CD rip. I needed to rule out MQA (I'm always suspicious of lossy to at least a small degree lol)

As soon as I applied the change and I went to the next track and the codec changed, I could tell what the problem was. MQA!

Before writing this thread I did some reading about MQA (never been interested in lossy codecs) and then to make sure my G5 supported MQA I looked on the product page, and it doesn't!!

I also found there's not much info on how MQA works (proprietary BS), but I did learn that MQA, when played back on non-supporting hardware, is the equivalent of 13 bit wave.

13 bit wave!
16 bit wave with 65535 different steps is borderline IMO... 13 bit, with just 8191?!?! I don't care how much dithering is done, 8k vertical voltages ain't enough...

Since the MQA info is limited, I didn't discover how many bits the 13 were leftover from... is it 16? 24? Supposedly bit depth reduction is one way MQA compresses music, so maybe it's variable?

MQA was 15 years late anyway.... It came out in 2014 - I've had 1.5Mbps internet since 1999. CD is 92% of that, or 1411kbps... it's been 10 years since 2014 now, making MQA 25 years too late at this point.... Give it up already!!! Lmao


Has anyone else got worse performance on Tidal with their MQA through a good DAC that doesn't support MQA?
If you have Tidal and appreciate good metal/prog metal, you can see what I mean if your DAC also doesn't support MQA (or you can disable it).
 

Galliardist

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I had a few minutes with my PC, Tidal and Qobuz so I had a listen. I can't replicate what you are describing here, but I suspect that the issue is further processing in your phone.

There isn't exactly a quiet subtlety to the sound here... and for reproduction over speakers 13 bits with dither will be quite sufficient. I can push MQA passthrough to the internal DAC in my computer and over different headphones there is no difference from processed MQA by the desktop app or through my Dragonfly (yes, I know...) which will "unfold" the music.

I presume an Android phone here, which is pulling down the MQA, but maybe can't pass it through to the DAC or do any unfolding, so it will instead reconvert the signal to whatever it wants to put it out at, and I suspect that conversion is the cause of your woes. In fact there is a chance that the HIFI level is actually outputting the MQA file without decoding. For some MQA files, the 16/44.1 file is just the MQA file anyway, converted to that format.

I'm no Android expert, but you would need to go through what happens with the particular OS version and any additional audio software on the phone, to understand what is happening there. There are continuing complaints about changes with the OS and the Tidal client preventing passthrough or undergoing format conversion while playing.

Personally, depending where you are, you should consider switching to Apple Music on iOS and Qobuz or Deezer on Android, as I understand the current situation, for best results: there are threads around ASR on playback via Android that may tell you more.

Quite a lot of music has converted to FLAC or plain 16/44/1 on Tidal on PC and Mac desktop as they are slowly dropping MQA, but the purchase of MQA by Lenbrook is probably causing some issues with that changeover: it's hard to see them wanting to change the BluOS Tidal client to default to FLAC, after all.

For the record, fully "unfolded" MQA is still only 13 bits plus dither in the audible range.
 

Vincent Kars

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MQA is lossy compression of hires recordings to save bandwidth.
Normally it comes to you as 24 bit / 48 kHz or 44.1). As they fold the frequency range 24k-48k and store it below bit 17, effectively reducing the dynamic range to 17 bit.

There is a variation, the MQA CD. It is the same trick but as 16 is the max on a CD they use bit 15 and 16b for the folding.
As Tidal is replacing MQA with original the lossless version in FLAC, nothing to worry about this format
Some technical information: https://www.thewelltemperedcomputer.com/KB/MQA.htm
 

Brian Hall

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Late seeing this. I solved any MQA issues by canceling Tidal and sticking with Qobuz. My office system uses a Schiit Modi+ dac which doesn't waste money by licensing the MQA garbage. Btw, listening the to Dream Theater album you mentioned on Qobuz now and it sounds great. Wiim Pro Plus -> Schiit Modi+ -> Schiit Magni+ (headphone amp) -> Sennheiser HD 650. It sounds great to me. The Wiim Pro Plus has a good dac, but I use the Modi+ dac so it is easy to switch between inputs (desktop computer thru usb, Wiim through coax and a CD player thru optical). Qobuz says it is playing that album at CD quality 16/44.1.

From Schiit's website: https://www.schiit.com/news/news/why-we-wont-be-supporting-mqa
 
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