|Connoisseurs of French cuisine will know this guy...|
To me, that's the heart of it. Everything else revolves around that statement as we try to justify or criticize this central fact.
The reason why this fact can be difficult to reckon with is because it's a proprietary partially lossy "hi-res" CODEC (COder/DECoder)**. Imagine a 24-bit WAV/AIFF file with a portion containing lossy data (think MP3 or AAC or Opus) embedded in the 24-bit noise floor. The "baseband" sound material up to 44.1/48kHz sampling rate (that is, up to 22.05/24kHz audio frequency) is basically a WAV/AIFF PCM stream down to around the 16th bit. And there's stuff below that 16th bit or so that's encoded in a lossy fashion used to reconstruct frequencies above 22.05/24kHz. With lossless compression used on that 24-bit WAV/AIFF data, it looks like any other FLAC/APE/WV/ALAC file.
Implicit in the "lossyness" is the fact that if we feed a very high resolution file into the encoder - say a DXD 24/352.8 file, and it needs to be squished into a 24/44 container, it just means more data is thrown away; at least the portion in the ultrasonic spectrum the algorithm deems as not worth keeping (presumably based on their concept of the spectral content of music). Sure, when you play back the MQA file, it might be reconstituted into a 24/352.8 stream and this looks reassuring with your DAC displaying "352.8kHz" if supported since that was the "original resolution", but in reality, we have to accept that relatively more data was lost compared to a 24/88 track compressed into that same 24/44 data stream! If you look at the 2L music store, you'll see the MQA files listed as "Original Resolution" even though of course the file size would be equivalent to 24/44 or 24/48.
The frustration and disbelief for many are claims that it's "more" than just a CODEC. It's the fancy talk about how this is all done (the "origami" process) and why it's supposedly good (improved time domain accuracy thru the "de-blur" DSP algorithm). Over the last couple of years since the fancy release party, it's this impressionistic marketing chatter along with hyperbolic ("revolutionary" anyone?) claims and testimony that IMO fuels criticism. The claims are hard to accept, and the testimonials from the usual audiophile press suspects are even harder to swallow.
For me, there are "simply" two major issues I find wrapped up in what otherwise is a proprietary CODEC that makes this whole scheme debatable.
1. The "de-blur" algorithm supposedly makes it sound better:
Supposedly data about the impulse responses of the studio equipment fed into the encoder can lead to a more accurately time-aligned version of the music. Supposedly, based on magazine testimony, this audible difference is remarkable. Now suppose I take this at face value and accept that indeed it sounds better, as an audiophile who cares about quality and wants the best sounding version I can get, I'd be wondering then why this de-blur algorithm cannot be applied to a fully lossless 24/96 or 24/192 download? Wouldn't that potentially be even better!? Wouldn't I ultimately want that instead of yet another intermediate "format" with lossy compression? There's no reason to marry this de-blur processing with the partially lossy CODEC which my DACs can't decode. IMO this is no different than any of the myriad studio DSP plugins used in the production chain that can potentially make the music sound "better". This is why I've always felt that there needs to be a dissociation between the CODEC piece and the "de-blur" DSP piece as I suggested months ago. By all means, provide the de-blur processing as a tool on the production side for the artists and sound engineers so they can apply it to anything from CD-quality to DXD.
[Let's not forget that the significant time-domain errors inherent in speaker systems during playback cannot be cured by a universal de-blur algorithm in any event as discuss here.]
By the way, I see claims that a good portion of the Warner library has been converted to MQA. (According to Dr. AIX, it's only the already-digitized "hi-res" albums - presumably the same ones we can already buy as downloads these days.) Hmmm, if indeed 3500 albums have already been done as reported, who honestly believes they did this with all the care needed to input the time domain data to produce the best possible de-blurred output? Are all these albums "authenticated" - whatever that really means? This is all also assuming genuine "de-blurring" is even possible given the complexity of modern studio production!
2. It's a proprietary "format":
We've been very fortunate as audiophiles. All these years we've enjoyed openly compatible PCM and DSD files. In computer audio, all sorts of great tools have been made available for encoding, decoding, meta-data tagging, and format conversions. Who wants certain music files now wrapped up in a proprietary mechanism such that you would not be able to experience the full quality unless you buy specific hardware incorporating a license through a single third party? I trust the likely answer is nobody except those who can gain something - likely financially. If we are to voluntarily submit to a loss of freedom (ie. the freedom to pick whatever DAC we want to take full advantage of the files we purchase or data we stream), there better be a great reason!
The point is not that I refuse to buy new hardware. DACs break down and need to be replaced, we might want to treat ourselves with new gear. No problem. My opinion is that if MQA has so much faith in their overall process, they should release a computer software decoder so people will start purchasing the MQA files such that in time, those people can be enticed to buy MQA-enabled hardware because they've built up a library of convenient (smaller), good sounding files. The market will decide based on demand for playback. Things appear to be totally backwards at this point! Such and such hardware manufacturer announces MQA compatibility, but seriously, where's the software? As audiophiles, we are often reminded to put the music first because that's the goal of this hobby after all... Perhaps the industry should lead by example?
Just in case I come across as too critical, too quickly against MQA, realize that I have nothing against MQA or Meridian. I've always enjoyed Meridian's hardware when demoed at the local dealer, and I thought the MLP (Meridian Lossless Packing) CODEC used back in the days of DVD-A and still used as Dolby TrueHD audio on Blu-rays is a great lossless compression technique. I have no connection to them whatsoever which also allows me to be free to speak my mind without jeopardizing any relationships. In many ways, this saga of MQA reminds me of the whole Pono embarrassment and all those claims Neil Young made if we roll back the clock a couple of years. The likelihood of longterm commercial success of high-res in a Toblerone-shaped portable digital audio player with a "me too" online music store was tenuous then, and the likelihood of acceptance for "high-rezzy" streaming through MQA is highly questionable now. I frankly fail to see the consumer at large interested in a bump in streaming bandwidth (~50% beyond Tidal's standard lossless CD-quality FLAC) along with a not-quite-lossless "high-res" audio CODEC. As others have noted, this is a solution for a problem nobody really knew we had.
Looking at the writings of the audiophile press at least here in North America, has any writer demonstrated any criticism of MQA or penned a thoughtful opinion piece questioning the wisdom or claims? I sometimes wonder... If in this hobby there is no such thing as "freedom of the press" to investigate, question, even criticize, what becomes of the hobby? What happens to real innovation propelled by feedback and frank discussion? Where is leadership to advocate for things that matter - like maybe a relentless push to end the Loudness Wars or at least lobby for release of "uncompressed" masterings by the major studios?
These days, at least with the articles I see about MQA, there seems to be little beyond one big advertising spin by the "pros".
Bottom line: In the eyes of a consumer, MQA is a file type with partial lossy compression that you have to buy a new DAC for to gain full benefits. And claims of qualitative improvement based on various purported benefits still need to be substantiated.
** Regarding the lossy nature, in this series of articles in Stereophile, there was a quote from Bob Stuart:
As I was finishing the proof-reading, I realized that I ended this post on a rather negative tone. No, it can't end like this :-). Realize that despite the concerns I express above regarding MQA, and the direction of the press / audiophile reporting, I do believe we are living in a Golden Age of sound quality! The computer audio "revolution" piggybacked on the growth of Information Technology has brought us unprecedented access and quality of playback at remarkably low cost (just look at the Raspberry Pi 3/HiFiBerry DAC+ Pro article two weeks ago) whether the folks in the "high end" can admit it or bother to remove personal prejudices when evaluating. Not hard to imagine how this threatens some people in certain segments of the audio world. But for those of us partaking in the "music lover" and "hardware audiophile" hobbies, it's really great times!
Oh, one last thing before I go... Consider giving this album a listen:
|BTW... Back to mainly CD purchases for me. Burned by too many "hi-res" downloads with no evidence of better mastering for new music.|
Hope you're all enjoying the music!
PPS (Oct. 15, 2016):
I was reflecting on Jeffrey Barish's comment he left on the post last week. In the world of academics and research that I'm familiar with, it's important to remember that conflict of interest is not defined necessarily by actual conflict. Rather, recognition of perceived conflict of interest is enough cause for concern when it comes to credibility of one's findings and opinions. I hope that the audiophile press recognizes that.
I have heard press apologists state that in a good publication, there is a "wall" between the editorial and advertising sides of the enterprise. Seriously? When the advertisers are essentially the same month to month? The same people end up being friends in trade shows (fly fishing trip!?)? Benefits can be obtained through these relationships whether it's a round of drinks, a nice dinner, or a longterm "loan" of equipment "worth" thousands? Maybe a nice trip to the next product announcement?
I honestly do not see how this "wall" cannot be anything but rather permeable! Look, I'm not pointing fingers at anyone or any publication specifically... Rather as I said above, it's about perception and how that is vigilantly managed. The ability to manage this is the core of being a true professional with ethical obligations not only to the target audience as a journalist, but also to other members of the Industry.