I spent almost an hour chatting with Bob Stuart about his new MQA development on the last day of the CES show. As I explained yesterday, the technology “encapsulates” temporal information in the ultrasonic frequency range below the noise floor of a standard 16-bit recording (which is 90 dB below the maximum amplitude), which can be used by MQA compliant hardware (some components will require only a firmware upgrade) to deliver the equivalent of a 192 or even 384 kHz PCM recordings without any loss AND within a pipe that is 1/10 the size of the original…or roughly that of a CD. Amazing.
However, today I would like to share my thoughts after listening to a wide variety of music from diverse decades and formats. The first thing up was a recording of Bob Dylan accompanying himself with his harmonica and steel string acoustic guitar. The tune was “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”. Robert explained how Steve Berkowitz, Senior Vice President of Sony Music’s Legacy Records and a multiple Grammy Award winning producer, spent months tracking down the “right” analog master of the Dylan Track. The tune was written in 1962 and released on the 1963 album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” and as a single.
The Meridian system consisted of a Sooloos music server (owned by Meridian now) and a couple of their top of the line digital speakers…the Meridian DSP7200 loudspeakers. I sat precisely in the middle position about 7-8 feet away from the speakers. When the music started, I was immediately aware of the clarity and detail in the sound. Honestly, I expected to hear more hiss than was present at the start of the track. There’s no way to know the provenance of the tracks…is it the flat transfer of the EQ’d master…but I can attest to the fact that I’ve never heard Bob Dylan sound that transparent and clear. I’ve got the “Best of Bob Dylan” 44.1 16-bit PCM tracks on my Sprint One M8 Harman Kardon Edition phone, which sound amazing even in headphones…but the MQA versions were a move up.
But all was not sonic bliss, there were a few notes that I would have adjusted if I were doing the transfers or remastering. They were rare but the few occasions when they did happen they possessed an edginess. The sound was just noticeable enough that I would not have been able to do repeated listenings to this great piece of music. This was not the fault of MQA, I should point out. However, somewhere in the processing and transfer of the analog master something was missed…in my opinion.
Then Robert played “Killing Me Softly” by Roberta Flack, which won the 1974 Grammy Award for Record of the Year. The track is well known to most music lovers of my generation. I can remember walking home in the early morning hours of the day after my job at Dominoes Pizza in Ann Arbor, Michigan hearing that song. It’s a fairly sparse arrangement with a bass, drums, acoustic guitar, percussion, background vocals, and electric piano. The MQA version was very present sounding, intimate, and possessed the full frequency spectrum. The triangle and kick drum were especially precise and clear. The sound was ideal.
The next tune was a recording done in the offices/studio of Ahmet Ertegün, the founder of Atlantic Records and a major force in the discovery of important talent in Rock and Blues…including Ben E. King, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Wilson Pickett. The track he played was a jazz number featuring Ray Charles. This one was a disappointment…at least for me. I explained my feelings to Robert and the others present. The sound was dull, distant, thin, and colored by the sound of the acoustics (an office) of that space it was recorded in. Again, I would stress that this is not the fault of the MQA technology but rather the fidelity of the technology and recording circumstances of the time…the late 1950s.
We listened to some contemporary recordings by Morten Lynberg of 2L and even a Daft Punk track. The 2L recording was sublime in every way or as good as it could be in two-channel stereo. The Daft Punk track lacked any dynamic range, a victim of the production methods and requirements of commercial music, but did have a lot of complex instrumental layers that were perfectly preserved by the MQA process.
The MQA technology seems ideally suited to pulling the best sound out of the hundreds of thousands of aging analog master tapes and presenting them once again. Getting the best “Master Studio Quality” from those tapes is very important. MQA and a number of other technologies can make sure that we get the very best of these standard resolution masterpieces.
I was impressed and encouraged. I’ll withhold final judgment until I hear my own files through MQA. I’m setting that up in the next week or so.