Dr. AIX's POSTS — 26 May 2015

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I’m looking forward to spending some time with Robert Stuart later this week. The head of Meridian and co-inventor of Master Quality Authenticated is headed to Los Angeles for the Newport Beach Show and has promised to come by the studio. He’s been extremely busy doing interviews and demonstrations of this exciting technology. I received an MQA update email this morning that talked the tremendous success that the company had at the Munich Show.

“Continuing its world travels, MQA recently enjoyed a rapturous reception at the HIGH END Show in Munich. Every listener was amazed by the quality of the music – a reaction we’re becoming accustomed to seeing. The show also saw supporter numbers soar above the one hundred mark.”

In the email was a link to an electronic article authored by Robert Harley titled, “Beyond High-Resolution: An Inside Look at Meridian’s Master Quality Authenticated (MQA).” The piece is a reprint reprinted from the May/June issue of The Absolute Sound magazine. I must have let my subscription to TAS (and Stereophile) expire because I haven’t seen this issue. After reading Robert’s piece, I’m not sure I’m missing much.

There has been a lot of compelling press and frequent testimonials about how “revolutionary” MQA is. I’ve heard it and can confirm that it sounds wonderful. But the level of spin associated with a new and quite clever encoding and decoding scheme has gotten out of hand IMHO. Even the title of the article is hyperbole. MQA doesn’t give us audio fidelity “beyond high-resolution”! I doubt that Robert Stuart would touch that statement. But he’s got to be very pleased with the gushing press that his invention has garnered. I would re-title the article as “Beyond the MQA Hype”.

A few of my favorite quotes:

“MQA could usher in a world in which the term ‘high-resolution audio’ is as anachronistic as ‘digital camera.'”

“MQA doesn’t make digital sound like improved digital; it makes digital sound like a microphone feed. For starters, the sense of instruments existing in space, completely separate from other instruments, from the surrounding reverberation, from the tape hiss (on analog-sourced material), and from the loudspeakers was so lifelike it was almost eerie. The precision with which images were presented in space was also uncanny; they had more definition, with a dense center surrounded by a sense of bloom and air. As instruments got louder, I could hear the expanding bloom around the image.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here.

He’s attributing qualities to an encoding/decoding technology for which it can’t take responsibility. Think of the process of recording from studio to reproduction as a pipe. What if I brought Robert Harley into the studio where the final mixing was accomplished? The artist, the engineer, and the producer are all happy. Never mind that it’s a virtual certainty that the music they heard was recorded at 48 kHz/24-bit PCM…let’s say for the sake of argument that T Bone Burnett was the producer and the multitrack mixdown was done from an analog tape. The process of digitizing the mixes for mastering or distribution hasn’t happened yet.

Do you think Robert would gush for 7 long paragraphs about hearing the original mix? The sound that he would hear prior to the MQA process would have to be the “master quality”, right. Maybe he’s never heard mixes in a real studio. I have. Would he relate that experience in the same terms he talked about MQA? Do the instruments “bloom” when they get louder when you hear the original analog mixes?

“Instrumental timbres were extraordinarily rich in detail, particularly at the lowest levels. I remember hearing the gentlest tap on a ride cymbal and being startled by its immediacy and finely filigreed texture. The exquisitely fine structure of the attack and decay, down to the lowest level, was vividly portrayed. Cymbals have always been the Achilles’ heel of digital, sounding hard, metallic, and bright while simultaneously lacking air, openness, and extension. Cymbals with MQA have a full measure of treble energy, but without the bite of conventional digital.”

Someone should clue him in on the fact that the “bite of conventional digital” hasn’t applied for at least 10 years. Remember that his own magazine printed the following about my own high-resolution PCM digital recordings, “the multichannel audio, emanating from five B & W 801 loudspeakers, is quite simply the most realistic and involving instance of recorded sound I can recall, from any source format.” The cymbals didn’t have any “bite” to them.

The technology of MQA is groundbreaking but it plays no role in the fidelity of files processed using it. The concept of MQA is to preserve the sound that existed in the studio or was imprinted on the analog tape masters of yesteryear. And it does it in a much smaller container (bandwidth equal to a CD or less) and in a backwards compatible format. And it may improve the “pre” and “post” ringing timing stuff that Robert details in the article (although all of the ringing happens right at the Nyquist frequency so it’s unlikely that you’ll hear it at 48 kHz!). That’s all great news for “high-resolution” streaming services like Tidal or even Apple if they join the club. But it’s not going to do anything for new productions done at 48 kHz/24-bits.

Let’s get beyond the hype and do a reality check on MQA. I know I plan to.

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About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(27) Readers Comments

  1. I can’t wait to hear your comments on the Meridian MQA. What I heard in Montréal from Meridian was very good and quite impressive.

    Your clear and concise analysis of how it works and what is sounds like in your studio will be more than welcome and, as usual, devoid of the overused audio thesaurus gargling.

    Thank you.

    • I’ll keep you posted. I haven’t yet heard my own recordings through the MQA process but will not be surprised if it sounds identical to the original sources…but at much lower bandwidth. If it can do that, I’ll be impressed. I hope it doesn’t alter the sound of my tracks.

  2. Black Magic meta-science sequel number 99…. You’re quite right in all your points, although I take a harsher approach than you since I believe that MQA is the paradigm of a rational solution seeking for a real problem hence it can only be marketed in this para-sensical and metaphysical way, despite the fact that in itself it is no snake oil. You should know better by now than waste your time on what the absolute sounds and geriatric golden ears of this word are writing about..

    • THe MQA is quite a feat of analytical and developmental prowess. But you’re right, it doesn’t change anything except the ease of delivery. If I was a label and someone asked me to re-transfer my master tapes to MQA, I wouldn’t do it. I would stick with high-resolution PCM.

  3. Hello Mark,
    if we notice the time difference which is less than 10ms than we need more than 48kHz to memory it.

    • Is the 48 kHz you’re referring to the sample rate or the maximum frequency. I’ve read the arguments about timing acuity down to 5 microseconds but I’m not convinced that this is the difference between something sounding live or recorded. My 96 kHz/24-bit PCM tracks are as good as I’ve ever heard.

    • Research has demonstrated both that people can distinguish miniscule timing differences when listening to short high-pitched test tones and also that with complex sounds like music, the timing differences must be hundreds to thousands of times more discrepant before they’re audible. And even when timing differences are significant enough that they’re audible, some people actually prefer that sort of mushy, “warm” sound.

      • Yes, the human ear is a phenomenally complex organ and our ability to hear is very refined. This whole thing about 10 microsecond or less delays causing big problems in audio recordings sounds somewhat dubious to me…at least in the real world.

        • Microsecond events can be caprtured with ANY digtal capturing process even at quite pedestrial sampling rates as long as their frequency is below half the sampling rate.. People are still thinking of staircases and samples. People DO NOT UNDERSTAND digital audio science. It’s quite discouraging actually after all that has been said in this blog…

  4. I have a fresh bowl of popcorn in hand, Dr. Mark. I’ll be waiting patiently for your thoughts. MQA appears to represent the best single potential upgrade I could make to my audio system to access the greatest amount of HQ content. Thoughts?

    • It’s not a fidelity upgrade. It is a delivery technology based on more efficient encoding and decoding. If you want to stream “high-resolution”, then it might be that you need MQA decoding…but as far as actual listening, it means very little.

  5. I wonder if the Munich demo was MP3 vs. MQA encoded stuff yet again.

    • Joe, the sound at the CES event was excellent. But they played old recordings that originated from analog tape.

  6. Will Meridian be demoing MQA at T.H.E. Show this weekend?

    • I don’t that for a fact…but I do know that Robert is on a couple of panels.

  7. “Temporal Blur”? What is he talking about?

    • When they talk about “temporal blur”, they are referencing the timing differences that occur between the initial arrival of a signal and any delta to any other in phase elements.

  8. I hope you will keep us updated on the playback gear, they pick to demomstrate their technology.
    As we have learned from your effords lately, you can’t choose ‘any’ gear to play 24/96.
    It is about the complete chain – from the recordings/the files through to the speakers.

    FB

    • I’ll keep you posted. What I’m most interested in hearing is my own recordings run through MQA.

  9. Just another data compression codec in a long line of improved tech. A few years down the road there’ll be yet something better. As to any improvement on the sound of the original file I HIGHLY doubt it. Can’t wait to hear what results you find Mark.
    But I’m qiving 50/50 odds he finds an excuse to duck out of the meeting in your studio.

    • I heard from Robert today and we’re trying to figure out a time…there’s a very good chance we’ll spend some time here.

      • Well according to the recent Robert Harley article, you get the impression MQA will figure out the DACs you used. Will do some processing to improve the “temporal blur” and that would result in your recordings sounding better than you have ever heard them before now. Let us know how it works out. My guess is it will sound like your originals.

        • The Meridian people talked about matching the quality of the converters used in the studio. But how good are they? Not great…maybe good. Pro Tools converters are nothing special.

      • We’ve already slipped from “promised to come by” to “a very good chance”? 🙁 He’s dancing already, scared. I’ll raise my odds to 5-1.

        • Robert and I will getting together…but he’s coming in to town and headed directly to Irvine, where the Newport Show is happening. We’ll find a chance to get back to the west side and visit the studio. It’s all down to his schedule.

  10. MQA is very clever, in the sense that HDCD was clever.
    MQA is also very useless. Just like HDCD.
    MQA’s marketing spin is outright disgusting.

    • Werner, I think MQA is a bigger deal than HDCD. The possibilities for streaming real HD-Audio is intriguing. All marketers spin…including me…but the reactions by the likes of Robert Harley at TAS makes me run the other way.

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