For those of you that have been reading my posts for at least 9 months, you may remember that I wrote about a very nice lunch meeting that I had with Meridian and MQA head Robert Stuart. You can read the original post by clicking here. At that time, Robert agreed to answer a few questions about MQA. So I wrote down what I thought people wanted to know and sent them off. And I waited. As you can imagine, Robert is an incredibly busy man and I knew it would take some time get his responses. Well, I received them last weekend and am very thankful that he was able to explain the whole MQA situation.
My Q&A session with Robert will be included in my upcoming book (Music and Audio: A User Guide to Better Sound”). There is a chapter called “Meet the Experts” where a number of my friends in the industry have contributed lengthy segments on room acoustics, engineering pop records, etc. I agreed with Robert that I should save his answers for the book. But I’m very happy to share a couple of important take-a-ways.
First, as Bob explained, “MQA is a revolutionary end-to-end technology that captures and delivers master quality audio in a file that’s small enough to stream or download. What’s more, it’s backwards compatible, so will play on any device. And because it’s fully authenticated, the listener can be sure they are hearing exactly what the artist recorded and approved in the studio. The days of sacrificing quality for convenience are over…MQA is a philosophy more than it is ‘just a codec’.”
The MQA approach focuses on the front and back end analog signal fidelity. The importance of preserving the fidelity present at the door of the ADC through all of the intervening stages and finally to the output of the DAC is of paramount importance. It’s not about sample rate and word lengths, according to the inventors.
As you can imagine, it’s very hard to argue with someone as smart and influential as Bob Stuart. But there are things in his answers that differ from my own positions. For example, in response to the following question about high-resolution and MQA, “Is the MQA invention intended solely for so-called ‘high-resolution’ audio or are there benefits for older standard resolution analog and CD-quality music?” He wrote, “Your question implies that analogue is not high resolution, but of course that isn’t the case.”
Is he saying that all analog audio is high-resolution? I’ve written extensively about what is and what isn’t high-resolution audio. Dr. Sean Olive, head of R&D at Harman International, wrote to me many months ago and praised me for clarifying that “analog tape and vinyl LPs” are examples of audio that are not high-resolution. So which expert do you believe? Certainly everyone is entitled to his or her subjective preferences, but analog recordings are most definitely not high-resolution as compared to high-resolution digital ones. Of that, there should be no argument. Without bringing up sample rates and word lengths and their related performance specs, the reels and reels of analog tape that hold the vast majority of classic albums cannot match the potential fidelity of a new high-resolution recording. So IT IS the case that analog is not high-resolution. Of course.
And there’s more confusion and subjectivity in the new article by Robert Harley on MQA. At the top of page 2, he states, “The other problem with ‘high-resolution’ digital audio is that it didn’t really solve the fundamental problem of why digital sounds the way it does—flat, congested, hard, and glassy”. Couldn’t I similarly say, “The challenge with analog recording formats is the fundamental problems with limited dynamics, poor frequency response, intrusive distortion, and excessive noise levels?”
It seems he’s reinforcing the very false subjective opinion that high-resolution digital music recordings sound “flat, congested, hard, and glassy”. They don’t. He supports this lie in part because he believes that we still have a problem in search of a solution—and maybe MQA is the answer to that problem. Later in the same article he says, “We ended up in this predicament because each improvement in digital audio was merely an incremental evolution of conventional ideas and models.”
Is there something wrong with incremental evolution in the pursuit of perfection? Isn’t that how most products and technologies improve? Recording and playing back recorded music have progressed to near perfection. High-resolution digital audio and recorded music already achieve levels of fidelity to the source that actually exceed the needs of the artists, engineers, and producers (who create the albums that we consume). Whenever someone says that such and such a technology or piece of equipment delivers what the artist and producer wanted, I want to choke. They artists, producers, and labels want to deliver recordings that people want to buy. Of lesser importance is the fidelity of the tracks. They don’t get to dictate they way they want things to sound.
“Houston, we have a problem”. But it’s not the problem most writers, software programmers, and equipment designers think we have. We don’t really need to raise sample rates and lengthen digital words. We don’t need to eradicate “pre-ringing” (which in a 96 kHz recording exists at just below 48 kHz!!) because you’ll never hear it. The problem we have is the lack of truly great sounding recordings. The production chain is broken. How can ever expect to deliver better fidelity with software tweaks, expensive cables, and exotic hardware when the content were playing doesn’t measure up?