Streaming Hi-Res & MQA: Boon or Bust?
I watched a 20-minute YouTube video this morning titled, “Battle of the Streams: Tidal vs. Qobuz!” produced and presented by The Seltzertron and was surprised to hear my name mentioned during the discussion of hi-res music. He participated in the HD-Audio Challenge and came to the conclusion like so many others that he couldn’t pick out the hi-res versions from the CD spec downconversions. Nobody can. The Seltertron tried to explain what high-resolution is, the merits of delivering music in hi-res, the differences between TIDAL and Qobuz, and his personal take on MQA.
And just this morning, a FB link to an article by John Darko called The inconvenient truth about MQA on iOS got me motivated to finish this article — one I started a couple of weeks ago. The continuing insistence by writers, delivery companies, organization, the labels, and equipment makers that “hi-res audio” available on TIDAL’s premium level or the newly arrived Qobuz streaming music service — regardless of the device reproducing it — enhances fidelity and leads to a better listening experience is very troubling. To add insult to injury, the hoax that is MQA with its “origami” unfolding of ultrasonics and nonsense about “temporal smearing” continues to motivate audio hucksters in their quest to get audiophiles to spent more money! It simply has to stop! Facts matter.
For those that haven’t taken the HD-Audio Challenge I uploaded some months ago, here is the link once again. Many of you have already downloaded the six files (over 4000 readers!), carefully listened on your own equipment, and discovered that the HD vs. CD versions are indistinguishable from one another. Yes, a few people got all of them correct — but most got about 50%— the same as guessing. As hard as it is for me to admit being a long time supporter and producer of real high-resolution music, whatever differences there are between a real 96/24-bit ultra high fidelity original and a version carefully downconverted to CD-spec are so slight that they don’t matter — even on the most expensive, “high resolving” systems. Deal with it.
When audiophiles and other advocates of “hi-res music” rave about the tremendous enhancement to the fidelity of a hi-res file, they aren’t comparing two different versions of the same original master! The newly digitized masters weren’t made at the same time as the CD version.
Without rehashing the “merits” — or demerits — of MQA (or mentioning the profit-driven reason why it exists), the truth about high-res music makes any system that purports to allow “hi-res audio” (again most authors mistakenly use the hardware term to describe the content) streaming moot. All of these enterprises make the incorrect assumption that the original content being streamed on TIDAL, Qobuz, or encoded using MQA on CDs is bona fide hi-res music! If there’s nothing to magically “fold” into the available CD bandwidth, then what possible fidelity enhancements can be attributed to frequencies that don’t exist? The MQA process requires that the source recording have ultrasonic frequencies to fold — unfortunately, virtually all of the masters in the TIDAL MQA or Qobuz catalogs didn’t start from hi-res masters! See illustration below.
The nonsense about “temporal blurring or smearing” only affects frequencies that are beyond our ability to hear — just like pre-ringing. The use of techno jargon sounds great but means nothing in the recordings of great masters.
The era of “so-called” high-resolution streaming is a current hot topic and with TIDAL premium, Qobuz and the Neil Young archives coming online, I wondered whether their claims of high-resolution streaming holds up. So I downloaded a few tracks from these services and compared the “normal” 320 kbps versions and the “so-called” hi-res versions — the ones that cost an extra $10 per month. I’ll show you what I discovered in my next post but you can probably already guess the results.
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21 thoughts on “Streaming Hi-Res & MQA: Boon or Bust?”
The inconvenient truth about audio origami is that it violates the Shanon Nyquist criteria. If it didn’t, think of how many other applications it could be used for.
Another inconvenient truth is that few if any humans can hear beyond 20 khz. They might if they are young children or infants but not as the grow older. An application on Android called Mosquito Ringtones allows you to set your ringtone at a high frequency sine wave within the student’s hearing range but beyond the teacher’s who might be only in her 20s. But the convincing proof is the Fletcher Munson curves when they are fully shown. The bottom most curve is the threshold of hearing, the softest sound you can hear. The uppermost curve is the threshold of pain where sound is no longer experienced the way we hear other sounds but as pain. At 20 khz, the two curves intersect meaning a sound at 20 khz or above would have to be so intense as to be painful to be experienced at all.
Speaking about loud sounds and dynamic range, dynamic range of music is the difference between the softest sound in music and the loudest. According to AIA, the Architectural Institute of America the criteria for a concert hall is 25dba C weighted in an empty hall. You can be sure with an audience present no matter how quiet they try to be it’s going to be louder than that. Classical music has the widest dynamic range of all and it rarely if ever rises above 100 db which means its dynamic range at most is 75 db. This is beyond the capability of phonograph records but within the capability of RBCD which undithered is 96 db, more when dithered.That is a safety factor of 100 times the power..
Any audible differences between HD recordings and RBCD recordings are therefore not attributable to the enhanced technical capabilities of HD, they are the result of a different factor such as a different D/A converter.
Current audio technology has many audible limitations that have not even been explored let alone solved. But the limitations of RBCD IMO is not one of them
Thank you for this article. It does seem to me that Tidal does offer a convenient way to get cd quality music. I can’t argue with your opinion about the false claims of Tidal’s Hi-Res offerings, but the service does provide an easier path to cd quality than buying a cd and then ripping it to flac. What other method is out there to get cd quality besides buying true HD recordings like those on Aix records and others? Seems to me like the practical audiophile has little choice than to jump into streaming services and then buy true HD recordings from Aix records and others when the right offering is available.
The distribution paradigm has changed dramatically as bandwidth and hardware have made streaming possible and convenient. I listen to FREE Pandora a lot and it sounds reasonable. I just don’t see supporting services that are falsely claiming they’re delivering “Hi-Res Audio” to make a buck. Simply saying they’re delivering the original master at its best quality is fine.
“I have no use for MQA. Hi-Res Audio/Hi-Res Music and MQA are all completely unnecessary…CD spec was and is good enough for all music releases.”
Mark do you seriously believe this?
I do. It is uncomfortable to admit but after producing almost 100 real high-resolution masters and then presenting them in HD and SD for comparison, I discovered that no one can tell them apart. Even people that claim to have incredible systems, expensive speakers that “resolve” down to the lowest details acknowledged that they couldn’t perceive any differences. So what’s left? We have the ability to produce and deliver all the fidelity we need in the commercial world using hi-res for capture and CD spec for delivery. It’s just a fact.
Mark, I really, really respect your honesty here but wonder if you are doing yourself a disservice. We have communicated before about the, admittedly it seems under researched area of possible timing importance in hi res recordings? – do you believe this is worth investigating? I seem a lone voice in the dark on this point but I believe hi-res recordings are more pleasant to listen to over a long period. Please be clear, I can’t tell the difference between 320kbp stuff and 96/24 on A/B comparison but I do feel that I migrate more to listening and will listen for longer periods to my 96/24 or higher ‘rate’ recordings over a period of time. If there is any substance to my theory (I’m happy to be proved wrong) then it would give a legitimacy to promoting proper recordings at higher than cd spec.
Thanks John. There may be some merit in further research on “timing” in digital audio but most of what I’ve read about “time smear” and microsecond “blurring” doesn’t result in audible errors. Transient errors in a high-resolution PCM file are present at the Nyquist frequency…for a 96 kHz sample that means the errors are at 48 kHz! No one can defend that as perceptible. I do endorse 96/24 as the minimum required for production and I would love to believe that it makes a difference in the playback but I’ve been shown that not to true. I advocated for high-res audio for years and am disappointed that it doesn’t really matter.
Ken Ishiwata told me many years ago that Marantz had experimented with sampling rates up to 500kHz, and that with every increase up to that rate, the sound quality improved.
It certainly hasn’t been demonstrated that sample rates beyond 96 kHz are perceptible…so I’m doubtful of this claim.
John, although it’s a bit more complicated, you can also do a long-term blind-test between hi-res and CD quality. You would need someone to do the switch for you, but you could listen to for instance 2-10 albums in one day in hi-res and then next day the same downsampled to 16/44.1 without knowing which is which (someone else will set it up for you) and then you write down what you think is playing. Then do this maybe 24 or 32 days in a row (or spread out over longer time), so you have 12 or 16 days with each resolution to see if you can reliably tell a difference in long-term listening.
Thanks for the real facts, truly appreciate your honest approach and respect for the recording arts.
Wouldn’t this be a good opportunity to relaease your music on CD? I love the CD-format and want to keep it alive. And every good great sounding CD would be annoying to the hi-res folks.
Releasing my catalog on CD would require additional resources and limit the rest of the features available on the discs I produce. Things like multichannel mixes, video, bonus features. Having 96/24 bit PCM is not a bad thing.
I also did take your HD-Audio Challenge and basically agreed with your findings and statement regarding that test. I Did not find any meaningful difference and could not say which was Hi-res or CD quality. The general quality was very high.
However, you put too much emphasize on blind testing. Blind testing is pseudo-science as “true testing”. If you don’t first notice a difference with open testing there is no point in doing it blindly.
You also need music that you are rely in to, not some random HiFi recording or even worse crappy ones.
I do here differences of Hi-res and CD quality, however it´s a very subtle improvement and the big difference is the recording, mixing and Mastering process. So, a remaster or a new true HD recording will as you say be better on CD format as well.
Regarding MQA, yes it´s a HOAX since lossy phony Hi-Res never can be better than the real Hi-res file (Qobuz).
David, I’m confused. You initially first say you couldn’t tell the difference between a native HD file and a CD downconverter version of the same track. And they you claim to hear differences between “Hi-res and CD quality” but that the difference is very subtle. I don’t think you can have it both ways, can you? Either an HD file sounds the same as a CD spec version or it doesn’t. What you may be hearing is the fact that it’s virtually impossible to compare a popular commercial track in CD and Hi-Res…they come from separate masters. That’s why my test is so rare…I have the original HD master and can down convert it to CD spec.
I didn’t here the difference listening to your files blind.
That does not contradict hearing a difference during open listening and on music that I have chosen my self.
It is possible that you can perceive a difference between commercial CDs and hi-res downloads or other media. The point of the HD Audio Challenge was to demonstrate that it is not possible to detect a difference when the original master is s the same.
‘that it’s virtually impossible to compare a popular commercial track in CD and Hi-Res…they come from separate masters.‘
Actually that will be the big question.
It seems that the record distributors could be manipulating the streams i.e. the mastering of the material for a CD-spec release and for the (socalled) highres version.
This way the costumer may think that the (socalled) highres is better – and could be willing to pay more.
An easy – but highly unrespectable – way to ‘solve the problem’ it would be.
What do you think about that – can such practices be revealed/shown in tests?
And thanks for your honesty – appreciate your writings very much!
The labels have multiple masters for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they can’t locate the original production master or they process the files to take advantage of the intended distribution media. They are going to do whatever sells the most records or produces the most profit…not what sounds the best.
As I have pointed out in the past. Tidal streaming, Flac and Mqa has returned me to the Audiophile Ranks by enjoying Music. MQA treatment of old Analogue music is superior to my ears than any other Streaming product. I had stopped listening to many classics cuz of the inferior sound. The reMastering of these classics with MQA is a god send. Full 24/96 recordings have no MQA benefit. My Aix BlueRay Collection in true 5.1 is my Audiophile standard. For $20 bucks a month to get access to every song I every heard or want to hear, in great quality is a no=brainer. I do not have the time, patience, or capital to buy all my music, just to say that I own a copy of it?? I am a roon user. My Library is way to much fun now.
If you prefer the sound of a lossy process like MQA to alternatives that don’t throw any sound away, then continue to support MQA. I find it technically and sonically compromised. And the business case and fact that they are falsely promoting it, bothers me a lot. It’s a hoax that should be avoided for the betterment of the whole industry.