[Editor's Note: As you may have read in the last few months, there is a new variety of "MQA-CDs" released into the wild. Here in the West, we have seen the new release by Steve Reich Pulse/Quartet contain MQA encoding (playback FFT commented on here). In Japan, a series of MQA-CDs have made their way into public hands from Warner, called "MQA x UHQCD" (UHQCD stands for Ultimate HiQuality CD) which is basically a combination of MQA encoding + "better material" on what is still basically a standard "compatible" CD with 16/44.1 PCM data at premium prices. I guess this kind of thing still interests Japanese audiophiles!?
Techmoan did a review of these which IMO missed the mark as the reviewer clearly does not understand the limitations of MQA itself and believes it really is a "high resolution format" which is IMO false as previously discussed. He also used a glitching portion of Brothers In Arms as a gauge that the MQA-CD sounds "better" through the Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 rather than normal playback (clearly the MQA decoding and filtering changed the output amplitude on the Box - the MQA playback sounded louder).
Techmoan's video did not really compare actual CDs already on sale for years with these new MQA/UHQCDs using higher quality equipment - he just used a computer setup and headphones, obviously having trouble getting things working. To "fix" this situation, here's Agitater and his buddies on Steve Hoffman's Forum! With his permission, I've posted in full his detailed listening sessions conducted with audiophile friends on very high quality systems. Slight editing with headings added for the blog format. A beautiful write-up that just had to be shared and not get lost within a message forum!]
Asked and answered . . . Here are my music listening group's listening notes and conclusions about the following four UHQ/MQA-CD releases. The albums are, in order below Moanin' by Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Blind Faith the eponymous album by the early supergroup Blind Faith, Getz/Gilberto by the studio trio of Stan Getz, Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Aja by Steely Dan.
Here's the DAC. It's a MyTek Brooklyn DAC+ with fully switchable MQA filter. Note the little, blue MQA indicator light. It was used in all of the listening sessions in a variety of systems, and acquitted itself brilliantly. Note that one of many peeves related to MQA DAC implementations is that the MQA filter can't be turned off and is applied to all streams including non-MQA (standard?) CDs. MyTek made its licensing deal with MQA, obviously, but in the process has retained its own superb filters. That's my Benchmark DAC3 HGC (unused in these listening sessions) below the Brooklyn DAC+.
We used the Brooklyn DAC+ in six different systems (listed at the end of this post). The DAC and the CDs were the two consistent factors from system to system and from listening room to listening room. The six people in the group listened to all of the CDs on all of the systems at least three times. I collected all the listening notes and eventually selected one song from each album as representative of the album as a whole. The small control button to the immediate right of the Brooklyn's LED screen activates the MQA decoder function, and the large control knob can then be used to turn the MQA filter on or off depending on which CD we were playing. I did not bother wasting anyone's time with listening to regular CDs played with the MQA filter still on. Regular CDs - MQA filter was turned OFF/DSBL; UHQ/MQA CDs - MQA filter was turned ON/ENBL.
I. Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers - Moanin'Although I've never been a huge fan of Art Blakey, he was a rock solid, innovative and very well-liked jazz drummer. His years with various players in The Jazz Messengers produced a lot of great music. But I've still never been a Blakey fan.
The regular CD is the Rudy Van Gelder Edition, remastering in 1998 in 24-bit. The UHQ/MQA CD liner and outer jacket did not provide any mastering information in English (but in may be there in Japanese). If anybody on the forum speaks Japanese, I'll be happy to send them clear photos of the liner notes to see if there's any mastering information [Ed: feel free to leave a note in the comments also of course if you want to see this].
These notes are in reference to the title track, "Moanin'".
RVG Edition (1998): The Lee Morgan trumpet entrance and break are lovely. His staccato accents are smooth and crisp. Benny Golson's sax break is lovely, with all the natural note and resonance detail, and the rasp around his mouthpiece. The piano, as recorded originally by RVG, has a nasal timbre that doesn't benefit from this special edition. It's still nasal and doesn't do justice to Bobby Timmons' excellent playing. The piano is also just on the edge of still being in tune. When Timmons starts chording during his solo you can hear the breakup and distortion as the mic(s) overload in places. It's too bad because it detracts from a very, very good solo. With the original LP, if your turntable is not perfectly speed stable the piano on this album can sound really wobbly.
UHQ/MQA CD edition (no mastering information): Same volume level as the RVG Edition. No difference in the Morgan trumpet solo. Blakey's cymbals are stepping noticeably on Golson's sax break - the cymbals sound natural enough but there's a hissing presence to them that doesn't exist on the LP, original CD release or the RVG Edition. The cymbals interfere with the sax. Nobody liked it. Golson's sax sounded rawer but less natural (all of the guys in the listening sessions go to a lot of live concerts: symphony, jazz, opera and ballet; two of the guys still play piano). Timmons' piano is slightly less nasal in timbre, but is unfortunately also reedier and thinner. The treble distortion on the sforzando chords and accents is still present in full.
The overall impression was, and I quote... "Sorry, which CD is which again?" It was hard to tell them apart in any meaningful way. Flip a coin to make a choice, but of the six different listeners altogether, four chose the RVG Edition.
II. Blind Faith - Blind Faith
Supergroup Blind Faith never amounted to much. The band's one and only album initially did okay for them, but gathered a cult-like following for many, many years (decades) afterward. Three of the tracks are very good - even great by some measures. I was hooked into a radical underground thing when the album was released in '69. The fifteen minute long closing track, "Do What You Like", became an anthem of sorts for the fractured remains of a drug-decimated Digger culture, the politically charged remains of the drug-addled hippie movement, and the fifth estate drug and counterculture advocates who were shifting their academic focus from acid and world peace to things much more difficult to control.
These notes are in reference to "Do What You Like", the very long, last track on the album.
CD Release (first edition, 1986), mastered by Dennis M. Drake: Unlike the very average sounding LP that suffered from wild variations in pressing quality, the first CD release (which I still have after all these years) was also never hailed for its stellar sonics, but it was significantly better than the LP thankfully. Steve Winwood played guitar in various spots on various tracks, and also played Hammond organ and an RMI Electra-Piano. Defining the sound of the RMI Electra-Piano is like trying to herd cats - that is to say, difficult. No matter what stop/voicing switches are engaged, the sound varies all on its own in the space of two bars of playing. I understood the attraction of that particular keyboard. It captured the attention of the few creative players who were willing to let the thing create new blends and sounds all on its own. The original CD catches all that nuance quite audibly. Winwood's solo at around 02:20 is woolly on the LP and on this CD, but the organ and keyboard background in the mix also underpins all of the driving rhythms in the tune. Clapton's solo starting at about 03:45 has a recognizable air and reverb that was part of his signature sound at the time. It's a very nice solo that feels live. Grech's bass solo at 05:40 or so is clean, clear and takes you on a spacey sort of ride for a couple of minutes. Baker's drum solo at 08:50 is smooth, well-blended and builds smoothly into a driving, metronomic pounding that is clearly detailed and leads back into the main theme when Clapton and Winwood re-enter. The cymbals are thin, lacking impact and depth. The very long "Do What You Like" background chant is natural sounding and hypnotic.
UHQ/MQA CD, DSD flat-transferred from analogue master tapes (2013) by Seth Foster at Sterling Sound, NYC: Same volume level as the 1986 version. The file was edited in DSD in 2013 by Manabu Matsumura at Universal Music Studios, Tokyo. Winwood's solo is still woolly. The Ric Grech bass solo sounds slightly more forward in the mix, and steps out of the tune itself in a way that is basically unmusical. Nobody liked it - it sounds almost as though Grech was recorded in a different acoustic environment. The long "Do What You Like" background chant sounds compressed and the voices sound less natural and less present. Ginger Baker's drum long drum solo sounds more lifelike and the cymbals have more crispness and depth.
The overall impression was . . . inconclusive, except for Baker's drum solo on the one tune. There UHQ/MQA CD didn't offering anything notable enough for anyone to stick a crowbar in their wallet to lever out the (U.S.) twenty-seven bucks needed (plus extremely expensive shipping charges) to order the thing from CDJapan.
III. Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto - Getz/Gilberto
The Stan Getz/Joao Gilberto collaboration produced some wonderful music. Stan Getz was at his lyrical best, Gilberto was in perfect form (as was his wife, Astrud Gilberto, singing "Corcovado" and "Girl from Ipanema"), and the original LP was very well produced. I have an original pressing from 1964 that came from a relative's collection, and it still sounds very good. There have been no fewer than forty-three releases of this album since 1964. But the Lasting Impressions Music (LIM) CD release has always sounded best to me. The LP is still great and it is of the time, but the LIM CD version remastered by Takeshi "Hakkaman" Hakamata stands above the rest for its care and attention to the music and its respect for the excellent original mix.
These notes are in reference to "Girl from Ipanema", the first track on the album.
LIM CD release (2009) remastered by Takeshi "Hakkaman" Hakamata: The male vocal by Joao Gilberto is clear and smooth in his signature, mellow tenor, while Astrud's lead vocal is open, full and natural and almost lazy in its intonation. The female vocal is supposed to be languid and sexy and that's exactly what it sounds like on the LP and on this CD. There's plenty of space around her voice, and I think the idea was to record her almost as if she was singing alone in a spotlight. It has always worked for me that way, and it was one of the many reasons that the album became one of the jazz best-sellers of all time. When Getz takes his first solo, the Antonio Carlos Jobim piano recedes smoothly back to let Getz' delicately precise blowing shine. The soundstage is realistically wide, so it's easy to envision the players and singers in the studio in proximity to each other. Getz' sax is resonant and sweet, and you can hear him working his reed and letting his perfect pitch work through the rhythms of the relentlessly pressing bossa nova-like beat.
UHQ/MQA CD (2018) release: According to my Scosche SPL meter (dbC), peaks were 3 db hotter and the overall level 3 db louder. The soundstage is narrower by all accounts compared to the LIM CD and also compared to the LP and the (2002) SACD and the (2012) Analogue Productions/Harmonia Mundi releases (additional CD versions owned by various members of the listening group). The soundstage also sounded as though all the instruments were lined up side-by-side in a line; not unpleasant but also without the natural feel of all the other versions we heard. There's nothing wrong with the soundstage per se, but it doesn't have the realistic feel of the LIM CD (or any of the others mentioned). Astrud's voice is too crisp, without the languidly sexy feel it needs for the tune to work and for the lyrics to sell. The same goes for Getz's sax because instead of sounding lyrical, it's crisp to the point of being brittle and unpleasant especially during his first solo. It's full enough, but also so crisp that it no longer sounds like a natural sax; it almost sounds like a synth.
The overall impression was . . . if you're going to remaster one of the best-selling and most atmospheric jazz albums of all time, you better get it right. The MQA gang did not get it right, and if it's not as good as a dozen or more other releases, what's the point? Fail. The (1992) Verve CD and the (1994) Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab both sound better and can be found used for about five bucks apiece. Get one of them if you don't already have this superb jazz CD in your collection.
IV. Steely Dan - Aja
Even though, in my opinion, Aja was not one of Steely Dan's best albums, it had a lot (and still has a lot) to offer. The production quality of the original (1977) LP was superb, and showed an attention to detail that set a new benchmark for that sort of craftsmanship both in the studio, in the mastering suite and at the pressing plant. The (1984) MCA version on CD and the (1988) Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab release on CD were even cleaner. The Aja album doesn't really go anywhere, but as a blues/jazz/soft rock fusion experiment the original LP presented some serious musical contrast to the jazz/rock brilliance of Return to Forever who were surging at the time. 1977 was a very good year for music.
These notes are in reference to "Josie", the last track on the album.
MCA Records (1999) Digital Remaster by Roger Nichols on CD: Overall great balance in the mix, but every listener commented that by contemporary standards the entire track seems bass-shy. I agree, and I always wished that Jim Keltner's kick drum had more body and that Chuck Rainey's bass guitar had been given just a bit more clarity and presence in the mix. The drum work is crisp, maintains a vice-like grip on the beat and helps create a drive that is unmistakably Jim Keltner's signature. You can feel the emotional effect of his pickup when he restarts the tune after the pause near the end, one of the unique aspects of "Josie". The natural-sounding horns are a Steely Dan signature too, and provide an important part of the jazz feel that sometimes gets submerged in the mix but which never quite goes away. The guitar solo (by Dean Parks? Larry Carlton?) is slightly recessed but clear and well crafted with excellent detail that provides all of the character of the instrument being played.
UHQ/MQA CD, (2018) DSD flat-transferred from analogue master tapes by Seth Foster at Sterling Sound, NYC. Edited in DSD by Manabu Matsumura at Universal Music Studios, Tokyo: Same volume as the MCA 1984, 1999 and the MoFi 1988 releases. Overall the same great balance in the mix, but everybody commented that this version is also just as bass-shy as the 'conventional' versions. The guitar solo is still slightly recessed but also still clear and well crafted just like the previous releases. Basically, "Josie" and all the other tracks sound identical in every respect to the conventional CD releases.
The overall impression was . . . what's the *$%!@#* point? All this fuss over UHQ/MQA CD just to get . . . the same thing we've already got multiple times over? By my count, there are twenty-five separate releases of Aja, all of which are precisely as good, some of which have extra liner notes and photos and technical information too, and all of them available for less money than the UHQ/MQA CD version. Fail.
The bottom line during a three week period needed to do eight listening sessions was that a bunch of guys whose music listening and appreciation experience I respect began questioning my sanity. "Why bother with this?", they began asking, "when it's obvious that these releases for the Japan audiophile market are just another example of pointlessly pricey audiophilia that has no real reason to exist?" Good question.
Note the comments I included above about the LP versions of these albums. Those comments are also culled from the listening group. The original Moanin', Getz/Gilberto, and Aja LPs are fine examples of just how good these things could be for projects in which producers really cracked the whip or engineers were in the groove and when musicians and the man in the booth were tuned in to each other. The CD releases already on the market have been criticized by all manner of audiophiles and technophiles intent on making CD a pariah. The fact remains that all of the CD versions we used for the comparison sessions are terrific - musical, musical, musical. The MQA versions fall short not because they're bad, but because they're merely almost the same (with the exception of the Getz/Gilberto MQA CD which is obviously audibly worse).
The audio systems consisted of:
Marantz SA-14S1 SACD player
Kudos Cardea Super 10 speakers
MyTek Brooklyn DAC+
Audio Research (ARC) CD3 MKII
Audio Research (ARC) REF 3 preamp
Jeff Rowland 625 S2 power amp
Ethera Vitae speakers
MyTek Brooklyn DAC+
Ayre Acoustics CX-7e CD player
Audio Analogue Maestro Anniversary integrated amp
Harbeth Monitor 40.2 speakers
MyTek Brooklyn DAC+
Simaudio Moon Evolution CD player
Naim Supernait 2 (with HiCap power supply) integrated amp
Audio Note AN-E/SPe SE speakers
MyTek Brooklyn DAC+
Oppo UPD-205 disc player
T+A P3000 HV preamp
T+A A3000 HV amp
B & W 805 D3 speakers
Archimago's note... In closing...
As I said, beautiful write-up and work, Agitater et al. out in Toronto. This is the kind of background research, writing, and critical listening review we rarely see; the kind of sleuthing audiophiles should be involved in given the love of music and high quality sound systems at our disposal. No question IMO this kind of examination of products needs to be done given the hype out there around MQA-CDs (and UHQCD) as some kind of "new physical audio format" (as per Techmoan). Again, a real shame that the audiophile press doesn't seem to engage in actual critical listening, nor ever seem to offer any open criticism of an encoding system known to have clear technical limitations and which many of us have now heard and found either to have no benefit overall or worsens the sound.
For those of you technically inclined, the result from Agitater and friends is of no surprise! Remember that MQA-CD is simply 16/44.1 PCM that might be mastered differently to change the sound which is why it's so important examining which mastering was used as Agitater did. However, since the data must include the MQA control stream somewhere (MQA identification, crypto signature, instructions for dithering/noise shaping/filter selection), this means that one of those 16 bits will be used to contain MQA data instead of your usual music data, making the resolution at best 15-bits. And since there are no lower 8 bits like in "hi-res" MQA at 24/44.1 or 24/48 to unfold the ultrasonic octave, the only pseudo content above 22.01kHz is the result of the leaky filters used by MQA (not even a lossy reconstruction). There is absolutely no justification for calling these MQA-CDs "high resolution" at all! If anything, technically, they rob resolution from standard CD!
Enough said, I think... Back to my previously scheduled vacation. As I said last time... Next time, let's listen to some jitter effects ;-).