Nothing is what you expect. The news this week included an announcement about Warner Music Group signing on as the first major label to license MQA, Robert Stuart’s process for delivering master quality audio in CD sized streams. The opening line of the piece on Music Business Worldwide states that MQA will, “significantly increase music fans’ access to hi-resolution music globally”.
However, the very next line says something completely different, “MQA says it can deliver master quality audio in a file small enough to stream or download”. So which is it? Is MQA going to deliver the riches of Warner’s deep catalog in ‘hi-resolution music’ or give music fans access to ‘master quality’ audio? They are not the same thing. And it’s critically important to understand the difference before jumping on the MQA train or buy into the exaggerated claims for high-resolution music.
High-resolution music requires that the original source recording be up to the definition of the format. As you know, my definition is substantially higher than the one promoted by the CTA, NARAS, DEG, and the labels. But even if you take their highly watered down version, most of the catalog of WB (or any other label…with a few exceptions) will never qualify as high-resolution. So what the press announcement should have said is that the WB music catalog will be available at master quality and the MQA process will make it easy to stream. But getting old analog masters in master quality is what HDtracks and the other services are already doing. It’s unfortunate that they and everyone else want to elevate that limited ‘master quality’ to “high-res music” status but that’s business. Money over fidelity.
The audiophile press has essentially rolled over when it comes to extolling the dramatic improvement in fidelity offered by the new MQA process. And I’ve stated in this blog, the demonstrations that I’ve heard (several different times) have been impressive. I wasn’t blown away like writers at TAS and Stereophile. In fact, in my conversations with its inventor, the idea is not to improve the fidelity of the original tracks but instead to minimize degradation caused by converters and other intervening digital production steps. Does anyone really think that playing an original master tape is going sound worse than an MQA digitally processed copy? If MQA is “enhancing the fidelity” of the original source, then I want no part of it.
I wrote to Robert again just the other day asking about getting some of my tracks processed in MQA so that I could compare them against my unprocessed files. We started communicating about this at the 2015 CES show and 18 months later, despite repeated requests and promises…nothing. I don’t want to evaluate the technology on the basis of a few demos of analog tape masters transferred to PCM digital using MQA. I’m waiting to hear whether a bona fide high-resolution music recording (one of mine) will benefit from MQA processing.
So when I read blog posts and articles about how the “hi-res music” logo is going to migrate to streaming services, I have to pause for a moment. Since the WMG catalog is not high-resolution in the first place, why is it newsworthy to talk about getting the catalog streamed at a fidelity level that won’t make any difference…and from what I’ve been learning might actually make it worse?