Wednesday 17 November 2021

As We Hear It 2021 (I): Maurizio C on MQA, some ideas about TIDAL, and a few words about audio journalistic legacy...

Generation 1 earphones! For distant aircraft detection apparently...

As you might recall, over the years I have incorporated contribution posts from readers here on the blog. The article that follows was something I wrote back in the summer (2021) but since I was sick and tired of more MQA talk, I held on to it from publication a few months ago. Well, I think the time has come now that a few of the thoughts I wrote about TIDAL have actually come to pass - TIDAL just announced today that the price is down to $10/month, with the lossless 16/44.1 tier, pushing MQA into the "HiFi+" tier for $20/month. We're not sure if the lossless 16/44.1 tier has dumped the worthless MQA-encoded "MQA-CD" content though.

Here's the article with some modifications in light of the recent news...

A comment about MQA leading into 2021; some thoughts about the future of TIDAL and on journalistic legacy...

Here's an E-mail I received in late 2020 from Italy.
December 27, 2020 
To: Schiit Audio, Linn Audio
CC: Archimago

Dear Alls,
I'm an Italian, 60 years old, music lover and Older Analog Hi-Fi Fan and only recently I have converted to digital music, listening almost exclusively through the streaming services (Spotify, Tidal, QoBuz, Amazon, etc.).

Among hi-res listeners, Tidal is the most famous and expanding but they are "Forcing" the exclusive use of MQA format, with large investments, marketing campaigns, reviews from important audiophile magazines etc ..
Unfortunately this Campaign is gaining the upper hand, so much so that MQA Logo is now coveted by both manufacturers and sellers...
Important and well-known companies, and small and unknown, so much so that even small Chinese companies advertise MQA in their products and even the latest DAC dongles necessarily include the logo of MQA and its light that makes you "Feel confident" about the audio quality you are listening to.

This is a real scam .. !!!

A "Damage" is being sold as a "Miracle" and everyone is forcing themselves to follow this path that imprisons music, forcing it to be in the control of MQA and to pay a tax for each passage in the musical line, allowing technical and economic Music's Supply Chain control (More than consumer DRM .. !!!)

Only a few brands (like yours) and few journalists (like Archimago) have publicly expressed themselves against MQA, but unfortunately today are only Isolated Voices, easily overwhelmed by the economic forces, advertising and MQA brand hype, which is easily taking possession of the entire field and that can inevitably oblige also your company to adopt it, under risks of substantial loss of big parts of market shares.

I believe that the only way to "Survive" will be to unite the forces of the producers and all the components of the Music Supply Chain (starting from the artists) who have no interest in having MQA extract a tax.

And this Audio Federation (including journalists such as Archimago), should produce simple and understandable Advertising Counter-Campaigns to convey to the end user the clear concept that MQA is useless.

I discussed of it with Archimago on his web blog. ..

He has proposed a slogan that seems clear and incisive to me ..

"Free the Music - NO MQA"

Thank you for the attention and I hope that this humble email can be an incentive to think about being able to "do something" for REAL Music Quality.

Wishing Merry Christmas Day and and a Happy 2021.

Best Regards.
Maurizio C.
Love the passion Maurizio!

Over the years, I have heard back from readers about MQA and all that it represents; Maurizio's comment here being one of the longer ones where he also reached out to a couple of the companies. I must admit that since around the end of 2018, after all the tests with devices, plotting out the MQA filters, the review article for Computer Audiophile/Audiophile Style, and seeing the RMAF 2018 talk that Chris Connaker did, it's pretty clear that there are other things in the world of audiophilia to examine and explore. As much as it would be nice to leave MQA alone, it's honestly very hard because there are many facets to that story that are emblematic of problems within the "audiophile culture/myths" and the media that enable it.

While this is a small hobby in the grand scheme (are there even more than say 150-200k "hardware audiophiles" in this world?), I do think we tend to be a vocal bunch and the tenacity of passionate hobbyists can make a difference to the success and failure of companies. It can certainly be frustrating for hobbyists to see "problems" like MQA yet feel powerless to change things especially when mainstream magazines seem biased and clearly advertising dollars are being used to promote questionable schemes like this.

2021 has brought a major shift with GoldenSound's publication of results from his submission of "music" to TIDAL and having a glimpse of what MQA/TIDAL did to the digital data back in April 2021. My sense is that this has further educated the public to its problems, and continued to sour the public sentiment towards MQA. The idea of MQA becoming some kind of single-SKU de facto standard for music doesn't appear viable at this point and I suspect there is a "critical mass" of consumers who would boycott companies if they were to adopt MQA content.

I don't know how much more money MQA Ltd. has to "burn" but I think the decline of MQA is inexorable at this point. With Amazon Music and Apple Music not in the MQA camp, Qobuz streaming lossless hi-res FLAC for years and Spotify strongly unlikely to care about MQA (why in the world would they want to pay to license MQA when they've been streaming open-source, non-proprietary, Ogg Vorbis for years!?), this leaves TIDAL as the only "pseudo-hi-res" outfit out there. While data is limited, I've seen this analysis of 2019 streaming numbers listing TIDAL "market share by revenue" as 0.58%. I'm not sure about the source of those numbers but <1% is probably for certain.

The fate of MQA is inevitably tied now to whatever TIDAL decides (there was talk of a non-MQA Tidal tier a few months back). Honestly, if I were Tidal in the face of fierce lower-priced competition like Qobuz, Apple and Amazon, I would strongly consider focusing on its strengths, competing for as many subscribers as it can ASAP based on what it's currently doing well at. Time is money and I suspect both, along with patience to grow a subscriber base might be running out...

Here are a few suggestions as an audiophile that I think might actually be beneficial for TIDAL to consider as one who has tried out each of the major audio streaming services in my region of the world.

1. Forget hi-res and just go 16/44.1 lossless like what Spotify is likely to do. Listener sentiment is not in favour of "hi-res" for "rental" streaming music. You might also save a few bucks with not needing to license the "hi-res" library from the music labels. Stream FLAC as you're already doing. Come back to 24-bits and >44.1kHz in time if there's ever meaningful demand; which is doubtful. (Nothing new here, as I had been warning all along since 2014.)

2. TIDAL should dump MQA ASAP (logical step with item 1). Clean the music library of all the supposedly 24/44.1 and 24/48 MQA-encoded junk. Get back to being "right" with audiophiles and get out of bed with MQA which I suspect on balance has been a liability for years. Stop wasting bandwidth and storage space - you might be able to reduce operating costs as well. I seriously hope TIDAL has not been paying royalties.

3. Focus on being the music streaming provider that is collaborative with third parties like Roon and with TIDAL Connect. Remind subscribers that TIDAL is able to provide lossless content to all kinds of higher-end partners like Cambridge, NAD, KEF, Bluesound, even inexpensive Raspberry Pi-based Volumio which most audiophiles are probably aware of at this point. Put energy into expanding this further with software and hardware companies. "Bit-perfect" content, numerous supported devices, "we're the friends of freedom and those desiring high-fidelity playback". Keep updating the computer and mobile apps (like bit-perfect Android app if this is true).

4. Drop the price to $10/month like the other competitors for a single tier. That's the market value for music streaming - like it or not, deal with it. Be like Apple by allowing the consumer to "opt in" to lossless if they want and know that they can support the speed and data cap on their devices. AAC/MP3 320kbps default already sounds very good; I bet many audiophiles will not hear a difference ;-).

5. Continue to expand Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio content - "Spatial Audio" stuff. This is where listeners will hear a difference and open up the next generation of products whether it's true multichannel rendering or virtualization of the soundscape through headphones. Ride the excitement which Apple is building and TIDAL might even be able to tap its artist-owners to create buzz among fans for "surround" audio. I don't know if they have any special pull anymore to have exclusive first dibs on content like multichannel mixes. Optimizing playback of this material could be a worthy focus for TIDAL and with its partners as per item 3. Multichannel streaming does not need to be lossless (stick with Dolby Digital like Apple Music to keep bandwidth down). [With the new tiers announced, I see that they're only putting Atmos/Sony 360 content on the "HiFi+" - IMO this is a mistake and cannot compete with Apple Music to stand out compared to the likes of Qobuz or Amazon HD.]

Seriously, if TIDAL would do these things (prove to me that MQA has been exorcised from the 16/44.1 stream), I personally would switch over to TIDAL in a heartbeat! (Alas, as a Canadian, after all this time, I don't think Qobuz will ever show up here.) The audiophile psyche has a soft spot for underdogs and "the little guy" who truly aims to excel by working outside of isolated ecosystems and supports the smaller companies that audiophiles tend to love.

Getting involved with MQA IMO was literally one of the dumbest things the company could have done and should have stayed FLAC lossless at 16/44.1; they consulted Industry-sponsored "yes-men" interested in dollar signs and friends like Bob Stuart willing to wine and dine, not with hobbyists who could smell the stench of the BS from miles away.

As much as I enjoy what Apple Music and Amazon Music HD are doing, the fact that they're not open to Roon has a meaningful effect on my quality of listening and appreciation of music. In fact, the way that Apple and Amazon cater to the masses results in blind spots which a passionate hobbyist will easily notice (for example, bit-streaming limitations of AppleTV, battles to get bit-perfect streaming on Amazon, likewise Apple Music issues). A TIDAL that "thinks different" compared to the likes of big corporations like Apple and Amazon I suspect will play well to those looking for an alternative to the usual "big tech" (yeah, I know, Square is involved here).

Obviously, change is difficult and who knows what kind of impetus TIDAL has these days to compete since their sale over to Jack Dorsey's Square. My sense is that change needs to come. In the last while we've seen stuff like Sony releasing MQA-encoded content to TIDAL; this seems like a waste of energy and resources, completely meaningless. I seriously wonder how many handfuls of people actually care at this point.

Speaking of Industry-sponsored "yes-men", congrats on 500 issues of Sterophile. However, beyond the celebrations, realize that MQA is also part of the John Atkinson (among others like Harley at TAS) legacy. Not exactly the best note to (gradually) retire on. One would have wished that with age comes a certain level of wisdom and insight, a courage and willingness to be honest with hobbyists whom he is/was supposed to serve especially in these last few years. Perhaps some day soon he can show the same level of honesty as his predecessor J.G. Holt.

Of course, whatever Atkinson may say as his final message to audiophiles, he is unlikely to surpass Peter Aczel. I would love to see him try though since whatever "last words" he might have to the audiophile community when the time comes will have significant impact on his journalistic legacy as well.
The whole notion of journalism being an institution whose fundamental purpose is to educate and inform and even, one might say, elevate, has altered under commercial pressure, perhaps, into a different kind of purpose, which is to divert and distract and entertain. 
--- Tom Stoppard

To end, a few months ago on Audiophile Style, I posted a comment directed at John Atkinson who had been interacting to some extent on the MQA thread over the years. I see he has "ghosted" the forum. I left a message that I don't think should be hard for him to simply respond to! Since comments can be easily lost in forums, let me quote it here for posterity...

Posted Saturday August 21, 2021 at 12:52 PM
Thanks John for the response. I've certainly seen the other link over the years.

I bet at this point you must be a bit tired about the "birth of a new world" quote (as I said in my original post, the whole "paradigm shift" thing refers to Harley). Alas, this quote from the first sentence of the article does make for quite an impressionable "sound bite". I appreciate that time has passed and it's possible that you've modified your position since then.

So just to be really clear about your stance in 2021 so those of us discussing MQA today do not misrepresent how you currently feel, perhaps you can just respond with YES/NO/MAYBE to these questions... I trust this should not be too difficult and take only a few minutes out of your day. More nuanced responses of course would be appreciated given your experience (especially for "MAYBE" answers).

1. Do you still think in 2021 (seeing that streaming audio has expanded to include lossless Qobuz, Apple, Amazon, upcoming Spotify) that the MQA codec (generally limited to Tidal, with some MQA-CDs out there) is "the future of streaming" that audiophiles should pay special attention to?

2. You mentioned in the article that the 1982 visit to Acoustic Research allowed you to hear DSP correction of "room acoustic problems", right before being blown away by MQA (thus implying some connection). Do you believe MQA has DSP technology that improves room acoustics?

3. After seeing what is known about MQA now, are you still thinking "WTF", and just as impressed by what was revealed to you that day on a technical level?

4. In your "Correcting the Source" section, you said, and quoted Meridian:

Meridian describes this as "taking an original master further, toward the original performance, in an analogous way to the processes expert antique picture restorers use to clean the grime and discolored varnish from an Old Master to reveal the original color and vibrancy of the work."

Do you think that this is true? That the technology has the ability to take a hi-res "original master" and move it towards this concept of an "original performance"?

5. With hindsight then, would you still say that the "launch of Meridian's MQA is as important to the quality of sound recording and playback as digital was 40 years ago"?

As a respected member of the audiophile press, writing for decades, exploring the technical performance of all kinds of devices over your lifetime career, I think many of us would appreciate your candid assessment of MQA in light of what clearly was extremely positive testimony laid out in 2014. As far as I can tell, I don't believe you have since said anything to question those impressions in that article.

Thank you for your consideration to have hopefully an open discussion and clear up any confusion/misconceptions.

Let's see if we ever get candid responses to questions like the above. As it stands, whether it's Atkinson hearing the "new world", or Robert Harley feeling it's the "new paradigm", they're basically elevating MQA to the point of suggesting it can be even better than the master tapes, those "crown jewels". So in essence:

Notice that the gentleman here is also subconsciously signaling the true value of MQA. Take heed all who invested.

Anyone honestly believe this still as we approach the end of 2021?

It will be interesting to see with the TIDAL announcement just how many people will happily pay twice the price to stay in the "HiFi+" MQA tier instead of just downgrading to the lossless 16/44.1 and save themselves $120/year. (There's also the "free" ad-supported tier in the US.) 

In the meantime, enjoy the music, dear audiophiles! Keep up the passion Maurizio from Italy...

One more thing... Let's be clear about a little lie.

MQA pseudo-hi-res streaming is lossy compressed and not capable of the kbps they're claiming here. At most, the MQA stream is stereo 24/48 = 2,304kbps from TIDAL (assuming no lossless compression). If anyone can show me something higher, I'd like to see it.

Unfortunate the extent these folks will go to to exaggerate the numbers!


  1. "Meridian describes this as "taking an original master further, toward the original performance, in an analogous way to the processes expert antique picture restorers use to clean the grime and discolored varnish from an Old Master to reveal the original color and vibrancy of the work."

    Ha ha ha ha ...

    So tell me, what is auditorily analogous to the dirt and varnish that accumulate on a physical picture? These are MODIFICATIONS to the original—just like MQA modifications!

    Ha ha ha ha ...

    1. Hey GW,
      I asked mQa for you, and here's what they said:

      "Yeah, well, you know, after awhile, the digital data gets all gummed up and stops flowing, dust gets into those bits, oxidation nibbles into the '1' and '0's so they end up looking like '7' and '8's.

      Of course, the music then gets all noisy and lacking in dynamics.

      mQa fixes this. Plus it adds the appropriate diopters so it's not blurry anymore. Neuroscience fact. --- Your pal, BS"

      As you can see GW, awesome stuff from top scientists/engineers. Birth of a new world, baby!

  2. MQuAck is dead, killed by Apple with a final blow by Amazon. Tidal is also deceased, or more accurately just a zombie. No IPO coming here; that was a fire sale. Roon is fine for mass market. 3Beez is the only system I've seen so far for serious collections. Unfortunately, it doesn't have the (also ex-Meridian) hype machine that Roon does.

    1. Thanks Terry,
      3Beez looks interesting and I remember reading reviews a little while back. However, as a hardware-software custom box, I think this limits the number of potential users. Plus limits the opportunity to try the software before purchasing...

    2. The brain behind 3beez is a PhD EE with quite a career. Unfortunately in some regards, also with zero marketing skills. I made this same point to him a while back since while that one interface board does contain IP, and could readily be re-packaged as a plug-in box, the principal value is in the software, which could be re-compiled for Win, Mac OS, etc rather easily. You may want to borrow a unit from him and see for yourself. My wife and I are planning a move to Spain in two years and will order one whe we are settled in. Meanwhile we rely on almost 12,000 CDs, DVD-As, SACDs ;-) Long live MQuAck!

    3. Yup, I agree Terry,
      If this doesn't take too much effort and it's as great as advertised, then he's really shooting himself in the foot for not just taking the extra mile to make it available for Win/Mac. Looks like this software has been around since 2015; that's a long time it could have been in competition with something like Roon.

      Have a great preparation for Spain!

  3. I saw the email from Tidal yesterday that let me know about the change in subscriptions, "you've been upgraded to TIDAL HiFi Plus at no extra cost!". Now that your post helps me to understand what that means, I can safely downgrade.

    1. Enjoy Doug,
      Yeah, unless you think you want to listen to their Atmos/Sony 360 content (not sure how much there is at this point), or donate to "Direct Artist Payouts", I don't see anything wrong with getting a 50% off!

  4. Just read the J.G. Holt link from above. Wow! He's spot on. Stereophile diverged greatly from those principles over time. In my household, HiFi isn't a thing for any family members except me. I've instilled a joy of music listening and diversity but convenience and cost trumps all of that just like J.G. said.

    I do have some optimism though. I'm encouraged by the objective-oriented audience with this site and others. There's a synergy between those sites and consumption efficiency that, I think, will resonate with a younger audience. Take your desktop rig for example. SMSL DAC, low-cost SMSL amp, reasonable headphones, and speakers. Curious about HiFi? Mimic that set up and you'll have a first class system regardless of cost.

    1. Thanks Doug,
      I think there is a synergy to be had among more objective leaning sites and writers. So long as we watch for the encroachment of commercial pressures and focus on the core tasks of journalism as per the quote in the text: educate, inform, and elevate, I think we'll be alright.

      Add to that of course an element of humility, skepticism, providing evidence and recognition of limits to hearing when we talk about "sound quality". I think we can certainly see a new generation of independent audiophilia that is willing to distance from Industry; seeking "true" high-fidelity sound with a healthier relationship with financial interests.

      That would be awesome IMO!

  5. The new less expensive CD quality tier may be a death knell for MQA. The Masters tier had few subscribers before. How many people will be willing to pay extra for it now over CD quality? Not many, I'd guess.
    It will probably generate close to zero NEW subscribers.

    BTW, acc'd to industry insiders (Lumin) at the Roon forum, recordings that are over 24/48 will simply be downsampled from MQA to Redbook for the "hi-fi" (not plus) tier. Plus, you will be getting MQA CD when it is there....

    Yes it is really time for Tidal to dump it and call only real hi-res "masters".
    My guess is it will happen when they see MQA isn't generating significant revenue.

    1. Yeah, that's what I'm hoping for as well.

      I applaud TIDAL for being the first to go into lossless streaming but I think they overshot by thinking that "hi-res" was ever needed or that the consumer actually cared to any significant degree to the point of adopting TIDAL in the race for market share. Whatever opportunity there was in regards to the hi-res hype has long passed.

      IMO, audiophiles who loved gear and knew about hi-res (very few listeners I bet) are the only ones who cared about anything more than 16/44.1. This was the main message in the failure of DVD-A and SACD. "Hi-Res Audio" was never needed and when you combine that basic truth with the compromised MQA system, it just became silly what TIDAL did.

      Hopefully in the next few months/year, the TIDAL "HiFi+" tier ends up orphaned by the majority of paying customers. Even better, TIDAL recognizes that MQA is a liability. That there are people (like myself) willing to jump on the service only if they can abandon MQA altogether and just give me lossless streaming of the CD data (not the awful MQA-CD bastardized data) because I want a streaming service here in Canada that can integrate into Roon.

      Even better still - move that surround content (Atmos/Sony 360) over to the "HiFi" tier of course.

  6. Too bad COVID-19 can't attack MQA !! I'm a Tidal subscriber since the beginning and I didn't mind paying 19,99$ to get CD quality streaming. But the more I see the MQA tag on albums I wish to listen to, the more I rage paying for that shit. So, if the ne Hi-Fi @ 10$ is actually true CD quality, I will be very happy to let my "Hi-Fi+" new privilege go. I assume that if we all Tidal subscribers do this, the message "No MQA" will be loud and clear: money talks!

    One other thing I'm really happy I discard: I no longer subscribe to Stereophile. Too turntable and vacuum tube stuff for a digital guy like me. Too much bullshit in equipment review, too much equipment that only Elon Musk can buy, not enough technical content. I do prefer reading much better audio content like we find in this blog. Thanks Archimago and keep up your great work !

    1. Yup DColby,
      "Money Talks". Get the message out, if subscribers dump "HiFi+" en masse, I bet the message to TIDAL will be loud and clear.

      This is as good an opportunity for the public to lodge their vote as anything I've seen with regards to MQA.

    2. Oh yes, agree with the Stereophile sentiment. Tubes, turntables, and unfettered luxury for little if any actual improvement in sound quality or useful features is just plain silly.

      While I still have the digital subscription for another year, I think I'll just let it lapse since I actually have not bothered to download the full magazine... Whatever's on the website for free is good enough to know what's going on with them.