Dr. AIX's POSTS TECH TALK — 12 May 2016

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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.

160512_mqa_streaming_image

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?

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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.

(36) Readers Comments

  1. Mark,

    I want to thank you for your efforts to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to audio quality and music fidelity. I also want to thank you w/r to your principled stand re Nordost, who are one of the worst offenders when it comes to “snake oil.” As an ex lawyer (the best kind), I well understand the financial strain of litigation, even if you win. Good luck my friend.

    Kurt

    • Thanks Kurt! The situation with Nordost has been resolved thanks to some communication between my attorney (also an audiophile) and the small firm representing Nordost. Can you imagine using a legal forum to try an establish the veracity of their claims regarding fidelity improvement? The cable companies don’t want to go there.

  2. I got that email too and noticed how WB took some real liberties with their announcement. I don’t put much of the blame for that on MQA. Still, they seem to go with the flow when it makes them look good.

    As far as trying some of music that does seem to meet your criteria, I know that 2L has some music in MQA format and they have some really high quality recordings. I haven’t taken time to see which recordings they do have in MQA but I have been to their web site and notice that they have some tracks for sale.

    • It’s the same routine…the marketing folks spew whatever will feed the appetite of the targeted consumer. Reminds me of a certain presumptive nominee (or virtually all politicians!).

  3. I think that new and shiny object/technologies attract a certain segment of the audiophile community. Usually the first adapters and those with deep pockets that can afford the latest and greatest gadget or toy.

    I’d be surprised if the average persons system would benefit from this technology any more than SACD when it came out years ago.

    The readers of magazines and web magazines are aware that there is a symbiotic relationship between the manufactures and the magazines. At least I hope so!

    If the music isn’t Hi Res(say analog tape) to begin with I don’t see how you can convert it to hi res digital and it’s going to be that much better or more real.

    I”m not sure I’ve bought into this hi res (DSD/PCM) conversion process. It just look like a glorified reformating of data from analog to digital information.

    You know what they say “You can’t put lipstick on a pig!”

    • Thanks John…very good points.

  4. Mark, you thoughts in this post pretty much exactly match my own.

    It’s getting more and more difficult to decipher whether MQA is simply a great tool for streaming providers to deliver higher quality in smaller files, or the next all singing, all dancing “must have” audiophile format – the latest in a lengthening line it must be said.

    Or is MQA all things to all men, as seems to be the marketing message?

    Now that WB is on board, we can, of course, expect the hype to go into overdrive and, as you astutely observe, we are once more descending into a confusion in terms of what’s high res, studio master quality or whatever.

    As you may be aware, your good friend and colleague John Siau at Benchmark has just written a very interesting blog, asking “Is MQA DOA?” and I would heartily recommend it to all your readers. Here’s the link http://benchmarkmedia.com/blogs/application_notes/163302855-is-mqa-doa

    • Chris, I received a note from John the other day regarding MQA. His assessment is very insightful. The more I discover about the technology and read the slick brochures, the more I’m convinced that the world doesn’t need and shouldn’t want this new technology….even if it were free.

  5. They really need to let you evaluate mqa using your own recordings! What are they waiting for? A payment from you for the privilege?

    • I’ll keep trying to get them to provide them…as I understand it, they’ve already done the work.

  6. Sadly as we both know the “hi-res music” logo means little to nothing as far as telling the consumer anything about the sound quality he is purchasing. In my experience the only classic rock HDA files I have purchased that really offered anything special were because someone like Steven Wilson the like had gone back to the master tapes and created a whole new mastering. Most likely would have enjoyed the same increase in quality if it was a Redbook file.

    “Step into the magic of the original performance with MQA”. OH BROTHER, where did I hear that before? Humm, can you say Neil Young, wasn’t he going to give us the soul back or some such thing? LOL

    The good news Mark is that there is quite a bit of push back and deep questions being asked about MQA by the audiophile tech community. What effect it may have is anyone’s guess but they’re not just rolling over to the audiophile media’s hyperbole. I do find it curious how Steward and Co continue to drag their feet and seeming hold back from releasing anything that could possibly be measured or subjected to in depth audition, such as the simple act of encodeing a few of your files. Highly suspicious to me?

    • Please read my most recent post, love to dialogue.

  7. A lot of people will be buying a lot of zeroes for a lot of money. It may be true that you can’t get something for nothing but it appears that not only can you get nothing for something, there are plenty of suckers willing to pay big bucks for it. Problem is, you can’t even plant it in your backyard and hope a beanstalk will grow from it. It seems that at least one developer, PS Audio is finding that MQA actually degrades the performance of their equipment.

    • Well you do have to take into consideration that PS Audio is now deeply invested into DSD, the claims of its audible superiority, etc. They’re kind of finding themselves at odds with MQA for better or worse.

  8. There is a lot about the MQA format that can be debated, like the effects of the audio origami, and whether MQA will become the next-gen delivery format, but IMHO, also what’s not really being discussed is if the re-mastering process to redeliver the previous recordings in the MQA container, will there be a reversal of some of the other degrading mastering and release practices that have manifested over the years, like:
    – applying too much DR compression … aka “the loudness wars”
    – normalizing to (or past) 0dBFS … resulting in inter-sample peak overs/clipping distortion
    – mixing audio watermark signals into the recordings to assert copyright ownership

    • I wrote about the sheer mechanics of preparing libraries of MQA processed albums. It’s simply impractical to believe that it’s going to happen any faster than the transferring of old analog masters to high-resolution PCM. After 9 years, there are only 10,000 albums that have been through this process.

  9. It’s all about the marketing, not the audio quality.

    In fact it’s quite similar to the trick used by oil companies who will sell you, at a high price, a motor engine oil that is almost identical to the oil used in the engines of the Formula 1 racing team which the oil company sponsors. The usual tag is something like “As used in Formula 1”. Around 99.9% of road cars would not get any additional benefit whatsoever from buying this oil compared to a cheaper, more standard version, but that doesn’t stop them. I once asked a marketng manager of an oil company about the strategy behind selling this over-the-top product to the public. “It’s for people who THINK their cars need it,” he replied.

    In the world of hifi, putting an old analogue recording into a shiny new digital container such as MQA and charging a full or premium price for it, even though there can be no possible improvement (as opposed to manipulation) of the original sound, must be aimed at people who THINK their ears can hear an improvement. I think the same applies to many of the scientifically impossible ‘hifi’ products and tweaks sold on the fringes of the industry.

    • There should be a special college course on strategies for audiophile marketing and advertising. It’s amazing what these people say and get away with.

  10. Hi Mark,
    Given your stringent and critical stance on so much of what is happening in the “Hi-Res” arena, (note the quotation marks,) I’m not surprised at the lack of response. It comes down to what I’ve said all along, heavily criticizing ANY even misguided attempt to make better sound available to the public at large,( not just the smaller group that buys your recordings,) is only retrogression at a time when progress and improvements are so badly needed in order to re-engage the public w/ the real rewards of music listening.

    Have you read the recent results of the long-term study conducted by Apple and Sonos? In sum, it makes clear that music in the home reproduced at low distortion is fundamental to a fully developed human experience. This is why it makes no sense to parse out the matter as you have done. Any efforts , including informing folks that on a good system CD still affords a very satisfying listen, or getting back in touch w/music simply by physically holding an LP, or discovering first gen sound be it analog or digital; this is all positive energy. Between the Pono thing, the Nordost thing, and now you’re jousting w/Bob Stuart, you keep missing the point. Whether or not money is at the ground floor, the real sub- foundation is still the desire by all those parties to help folks get deeper rewards from music listening.

    In simple terms, negative energy only makes more negative energy. Perhaps Mr. Stuart feels the same way=, I don’t know. But I do know that he is a right-on guy in all respects.

    • Hi Craig,

      You make some good points, and I’m inclined to agree with the tenor of your argument, but where I am at one with Mark, and the part that I think you overlook, is the lies, deceit and misrepresentation that is awash in this industry.

      The misrepresentation occurs when people are lulled into believing that differences exist where none are possible; the lies and deceit occur when unscrupulous manufacturers take advantage of this fallibility and sell cables etc. for prices which are beyond comprehension. If it boiled down to only rich fools being easily parted from their money, that might be tolerable, but when it comes to companies profiting from a wider pool of the public through deliberate deception, and where the publishing industry lamely falls into line with those manufacturers by endorsing such products with nothing other than questionable subjective views, then that’s a different matter.

      Enjoyment from listening to music is as honourable as it is ancient. This is where I fully support your argument Lies and deception are as ancient too, unfortunately. Much better that we could enjoy the former without the latter. This is where I agree with Mark.

      In the event of a legal dispute, I suggest that any offended party with a legal bone to pick, do so in the European Union where consumer protection is much stronger than in the USA. Any takers?

      I thought not.

      • Hi Bob, I can’t speak for others. I’ve had a successful 32 year career in audio specialty. 29 years ago, one of the worlds’ most highly respected audio scientists said this to me,” I go into all the Bay area shops, look around, see what’s new. But I am always horrified hearing what the salesmen say to the customers. Then he looked down at me and said, “Bur Craig, I’ve heard you speak w/ people more than any other, and I have never heard you say anything that was not true.” It is indeed possible to stick to audio fundamentals and still do plenty business. In some cases, it’s the manufacturers that start the voodoo wheel turning, and this is passed on down.
        All I ever ask is not to paint with such a wide stroke. Thanks for your reply.

    • With all due respect, it is you who are missing the point.

      Passing off substandard merchandise or technology to an ill-informed public as an improvement is about as negative as energy gets. It may convince the suckers and enrich the sellers, but it does nothing to further the state of the art. Kudos to Mark for tirelessly campaining against the practice.

    • Craig, let me try to understand your oft repeated argument. The misinformation and outright falsehoods spewed by companies doing business in the audiophile marketplace should be ignored? If so, then the government should have left well enough along when VW installed software to cheat on smog tests.

      In my view of the world and according to my upbringing, being untruthful is wrong. I have consistently stated that CDs, analog tape, SACDs, and vinyl LPs can appeal to different tastes and do a very good job of delivering high-quality music. But they are not all the same in terms of potential fidelity delivery systems…that’s the point. Be truthful and let customers know what they’re buying. Exaggerate, falsify, cheat, and play loose with the facts and karma will catch up with you.

      Robert Stuart is a friend. I’ve known him for decades and shared more than a few panels in discussions about high-resolution audio. And MQA is an innovative process that has merit…especially for streaming. My goal is to simply determine whether their authentication process benefits the production and delivery of high-resolution music. Right now, the jury is still out..at least for me. The real “sub foundation” is the desire to maximize profits and from what I’ve seen fool the consumer whenever possible.

    • Craig, you seem to imply that it’s OK to lie, deceive, or just use any type of creative marketing as long a it creates excitement and money spending through out the industry.
      I try to live by a higher level of integrity..

    • All Mark has ever done is to apply his considerable skills and experience to question the quite horrendous levels of pseudo science in our hobby. To coin a well worn phrase of a few years ago, this may well be perceived as “An Inconvenient Truth” by certain questionable elements of the home audio industry, but so be it and long may it continue, as we need this kind of qualified advocacy for the real facts that Mark brings to the table.

      I may be very wrong, but the tone in your posts almost invariably smacks of an industry insider telling another to just be quiet and let the snake oil merchants continue to bring this wonderful hobby into disrepute, so that the wheels of commerce can continue to turn.

      The recent feeble attempt by a well known company to silence Mark said far more about those desperately seeking to silence the much needed debate he had quite rightly started. What one would have hoped for was a reasoned counter argument to the points Mark raised, but there was no such intelligent response.

      Given that Bob Stuart is a highly respected industry figure and innovator, as you rightly observe, I’m quite certain that he will reply to Mark’s points with suitable eloquence and balance.

  11. Hi Mark,
    It’s great that you’re sticking to your guns around what it means to have “high resolution” audio. It is IMO the only *intellectually honest* way of looking at this.

    Imagine if Blu-Rays were released and the vast majority of movies available were derived from film done from the 50’s to 80’s, upsampled DVD quality digital from the 90’s to early 2000’s, and modern material produced with contrast pushed up to 200% and brightness so high there’s no black level left! Apart from good recordings usually in the classical world, that’s sadly what we’re seeing in the digital world despite all the hub-bub about hi-res, Neil Young propaganda, funky logos, push for mobile hi-res walkmen, etc… While there will always be new music and the industry keeps rolling along, I believe the interest in “hi-res” is already waning. Even the usual audiophile reporters are starting to not even mention whether they’re playing hi-res any more in reviews and the zeal is weakening – the public is already noticing the lack of audible difference.

    As for MQA, I’ve of course been suspicious from the start. Folding everything down to 24/44 or 24/48 obviously means the high frequency material will be “lossy” encoded at best. Furthermore, hiding that material in the lowest bits means you’ve lost the full 24-bit dynamic range. One can argue that “we weren’t using the full 24-bits anyways!” but in reality I see it as a technique that both compromises whatever benefits there are with high samplerates by replacing all that high-frequency material with some kind of “lossy” estimation, and if a piece of material could have benefited from 24-bits, sorry, it’s gone…

    I’m not surprised they haven’t come back to you to encode your files. I don’t believe it has anything to do with your viewpoint on hi-res audio. Heck, if they thought you were going to be impressed, they would/should have done it for you already so you could be a champion for them on the “objectivist”/”science based” side of the audio hobby. I think they just know you’ll be disappointed that the fidelity will be compromised.

    MQA IMO is an unnecessary Rube Goldberg Machine. Streaming a “flat” 24/48 signal will provide full 24-bit dynamic range, require no hardware upgrade, and I believe can be compressed better than MQA resulting in lower lossless bitrates. In time, as internet speeds improve, then go ahead and stream the full 24/96.

    If there is any benefit to their “de-blur” algorithm they speak of, this can be implemented as a DSP in production. Sell it as a plug-in.

    • Well, there is a case to be made for streaming providers like Tidal who are currently streaming lossless encodings to reduce their overall storage costs (obviously I am taking everything Meridian has said about this format at face value).

      If MQA can reduce the amount of bits sent over the wire then that benefits customers, especially mobile ones who are still on pay per byte data plans. So I get that.

      But I think that binding codecs with hardware in general is fundamentally wrong and bad for the industry as a whole. I think a much better approach would have been to split MQA into two licensing models:

      1) Commercial for labels and streaming providers that want to build a MQA enabled library for customers to stream. This is the primary way Meridian captures revenue.

      2) Free for all clients. MQA’s deblurring algorithm and encoding scheme is available for all software and hardware clients to make use of. That way the market gets flooded with free, available players that would encourage the customers of the commercial license to build content.

      But the idea that you have to buy Meridian DACs or third-party DACs that are MQA enabled is a very dubious proposition at best. I mean does Bob really think audiophile with existing, expensive setups are going to just abandon them for MQA? Does not make sense to me.

      • I regard MQA as possibly a benefit to streaming services like TIDAL for record companies like 2L and my own AIX Records, companies that produce new real high-resolution content. To take a Roberta Flack or Ray Charles tracks from the 60s or 70s and process them so that they deliver all of the content above 20 kHz with the MQA deblurring process seems illogical since there isn’t any meaningful content up there anyway.

  12. @craig
    I would question, if ‘the real sub- foundation is still the desire by all those parties to help folks get deeper rewards from music listening.’.
    There is nothing wrong with struggling for ‘better sound’ – what definitely is wrong, is the attempt to (once again) sell the old stuff in a new container/a new way and to make people pay more (or even a second or third time).

    The big labels should concentrate on making new masterings (transfered from the best original masters they can get) and give us these instead of the often dreadfull old masterings from the beginning of the digital aera.
    Why not just sell these at ‘normal’ prices – and as the 16/44.1 quality, that really is all we need to get ‘better’ sound from them.
    That would show us, if they really want, ‘to help folks get deeper rewards from music listening’!

    I can’t see any ‘negative energy’ in what Mark writes.
    On the contrary: it is very inspiring……but not necesarily good for ‘business’.

  13. No response?

  14. Craig, let’s try a little logic. 24 bits is 144 decibels. There are no amps out there that have a signal to noise ratio that high at full power. And at one watt the signal to noise ratio drops to about 90 decibels on the best amps. So we’re back to CD resolution on the best amps, 16 bits. Now I can do the same math that Roger Nichols did and show there can be significant distortion of a bass note at CD resolution that is not present at 24 bit resolution. Can I set up a test in a studio and hear the difference? Yes I have. The first problem is I take the same bass player to a good venue like The Doug Fir Lounge (Portland, Oregon) or the Tractor Tavern (Seattle, Washington) and I can measure the difference but can’t hear it. The Second problem is once there is music in the studio, I can measure the bass distortion at 16 bits it but can’t hear it. Third I sought out the owner of a highly resolving stereo in a very good room and played the 24 bit and 16 bit bass tracks, neither of us could hear a difference.

    So I question the need for 24 bits as a theoretical matter. Practically it allows more room to fix errors in the recording process but is no cause to rebuy any recordings. As always a good performance and a recording process that doesn’t mess it up override everything.

    As for the Apple Sonos study it suffers from “shiny toy” bias but it did show that listening to music together has benefits over solitary listening.

    Mark, I’m glad Nordost is off your back but they did one important thing for me. They will make T.H.E. Show this year in Irvine California fun. Not much fun to look for unit reduction for my office stereo (a computer, dac, amplifier and two speakers is too much stuff) and headphones for the iPhone7. It will be fun to watch and listen to misleading demos. But I’m gathering information to rebut cease and desist letters for anyone who needs it. I got the first piece yesterday, a rebuttal to everything an audiophile holds dear, written in 1958.

  15. Regarding the “negative energy” charge, I have found Mark’s writings to be a tonic ever since I discovered them (it’s nice to be able to read about audio without one’s blood pressure spiking because of all the nonsense). But I do think it would be a shame for Mark to get pigeonholed as the James Randi of the audio world.

    Since pseudo-science and unsubstantiated claims are pretty much the rule — and many audiophiles seem to prefer things that way — a more positive approach might be to continue publicizing companies who stick to real science, only make verifiable claims, and have the courage to stand up to the cable vendors. I’m thinking of Benchmark, of course, but there must be others. I’d like to know about those companies so I know where to channel any future audio expenditures.

    I already have a fine power amp but I almost wish I didn’t. Based both on the reviews that Benchmark’s AHB2 has been getting, and this company’s apparent practical, honest approach to audio, I’d be proud to buy one and support them.

    • Thanks…and the AHB2’s are really amazing.

  16. On a totally unrelated note, I recently took delivery of my CD and DVD collection that had been in store in England for many years. Sat down tonight to watch Utopia Live in Columbus Ohio 1980 and looked at the credits and it said: “DVD Producers: Mike Jason and Mark Waldrep.” How cool 🙂

    • Boy, what are the chances? Well actually not that bad…I produced or contributed to hundreds of music related DVDs and albums over the past 30 years. You’ll find my name on projects from The Rolling Stones, Kiss, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company, Blink 182, Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, and lots more. I’ve know Todd Rundgren for decades…in fact, he came by the studio a couple of years ago to check out some of my work while he was touring (he had a gig at the Hollywood Bowl).

      Maybe I should have stuck with production instead of prying into the activities of high-end audio companies.

      • Hi Mark, of course I’m aware of your previous work, but I’d owned this great Utopia DVD since release and had never looked at the credits. So it was fun to see you had been involved in what is one of my very favorite concert DVDs. As for you not getting involved in high end audio, the hobby would be much the poorer without you and needs people of your credibility, qualifications and impeccable track record to give weight to the argument that so much of what we’re presented with are nothing more than smoke and mirror illusions for someone’s commercial benefit.

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