Hi-Res Democratization

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Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio
Hi-Res Democratization

had an email exchange with a reader who was intrigued by the idea of MQA but skeptical that it could work in practice. His skepticism stemmed from the belief that the claims made for MQA simply seemed too good to be true, along with his exposure to a strong dose of vitriol from naysayers on Internet forums.

To recap, Master Quality Authenticated is an encoding and decoding technology that delivers true high-resolution audio in a file size that can be easily streamed. It is based in part on entirely new research into human hearing as well as on novel digital sampling techniques for natural signals developed for cutting-edge medical imaging and astronomy. MQA’s stated mission is to deliver studio-master sound quality to listeners in a convenient format that anyone can enjoy. Beyond its superior sound quality (even compared with high-bit-rate PCM), one of MQA’s great benefits is that a single distribution file works for all listeners, from the audiophile decoding it through a Berkeley Alpha DAC Reference MQA Series 3 in a six-figure reference system, to a Millennial listening to earbuds through his phone, and everything in-between. The MQA file decodes automatically when it sees a decoder for true high-resolution quality, is backward compatible with non-MQA DACs (with better-than-CD sound quality), and scales to whatever distribution channel and playback device it encounters. The whole process is completely transparent to the user. You simply stream MQA and get better sound no matter what the distribution platform or playback device.

The reader bought an Aurender A10 server with an integral MQA DAC and couldn’t be more thrilled. After a few months of enjoying much of his favorite music streamed in MQA via Tidal he wrote to me again, bewildered as to why anyone would be opposed to what can only be described as a miracle of modern digital-audio technology and a boon to music lovers. 

I think that a large component of the backlash comes from early adopters of high-bit-rate PCM who invested a considerable amount of time, money, and ego acquiring the specialized expertise and hardware necessary to download, store, manage, and play back high-bit-rate PCM files. As a non-computer-expert who struggled to play hi-res files in the early days, I can attest to the formidable challenges. (Does anyone remember the Reference Recordings HRx discs?) Many of the early adopters were computer geeks who viewed their capability as elevating them above the great unwashed masses. Plus, it was comforting to them to see very high bit rates and massive file sizes because of the prevailing assumption that more bits equal better sound. Absent a deeper understanding of what’s important and what isn’t in digital audio, file size became a proxy for resolution. 

Now along comes a technology that delivers better sound quality than their massive PCM files, requires absolutely no expertise, is inexpensive and convenient, has a low bit rate, and to top it off, is readily available to everyone. With a couple of taps on a smartphone, any kid can stream audio that sounds better than the high-bit-rate files the early adopters worked so hard to acquire. In a single stroke, MQA democratized high resolution and obviated the early adopters’ elite status.

Rejecting an audio format, or embracing one particular format to the exclusion of all others is, however, not isolated to MQA’s opponents. There are many examples of audio tribalism: DSD is better than PCM so I’m listening to nothing but DSD; PCM is better than DSD, so I’m rejecting DSD; standard resolution digital audio is perfect, so I’m ignoring hi-res; every digital format sounds terrible so I’m listening to nothing but LP. The list goes on and on. 

But that’s the wrong way to think about audio formats. To me, the format is secondary to the music. If given a choice I’ll always select the better-sounding format, but I would never deny myself potential musical pleasure because of the delivery format. In a given day, I may listen to standard resolution streamed from Tidal decoded by an AudioQuest DragonFly Red, FM radio, a well-worn 45-year-old LP, a pristine 45rpm LP reissue, MQA decoded by a Berkeley Alpha DAC Reference, high-bit-rate PCM streamed from Qobuz or stored on an Aurender W20 server, DSD, CD, SACD, MP3-quality audio via Bluetooth in my car, and whatever highly compressed audio formats accompany the staggering variety of outstanding musical performances on YouTube. 

We should embrace the idea that democratizing sound quality serves audio technology’s overarching goal—connecting artists with listeners—and that ultimately music trumps formats.

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