The Politics of MQA

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The Politics of MQA

The codec known as MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) is clearly in its ascendancy. The Big Three record labels have signed on, Tidal is streaming hundreds of MQA-encoded albums, and there’s a steadily expanding amount of audio gear capable of handling MQA, at all price-points. So it’s perhaps surprising that MQA has been met with a continuous flow of skepticism, derision, and outright fury by some audiophiles, both consumers and seasoned industry hands.

Or maybe it shouldn’t be surprising. The technology was developed by a team headed by Bob Stuart, an acknowledged authority on digital methodology—and experts in general are viewed with suspicion nowadays. (Seek out the new book The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols for a succinct but penetrating look at what’s happened to critical thinking in recent years.) With earlier fault-line issues in high-end audio’s 50-year history—tubes vs. transistors, analog vs. digital—the discussion centered on sound quality. In contrast, the MQA debate has focused on theoretical issues (at best) and (at worst) the integrity of those who are actually responsible for the technology as well as those who simply have something positive to say about it.

So, articles by professional engineers—with titles like “MQA: The lossy codec no end user asked for or needs”—have suggested that MQA is intellectually fraudulent, a lossy format that can’t possibly represent a step forward. Typically, these articles have little to say about how MQA actually sounds. But civilian enthusiasts, usually with even less hands-on experience with MQA, read them and then ring in confidently on electronic forums about the great hoax that’s being perpetrated on good but gullible people of the audiophile persuasion. Though the MQA critiques I’ve seen are conspicuously silent on the extensive psychoacoustic research that underlies the development of the codec, the theoretical objections to MQA do deserve a thorough consideration. But that discussion is difficult to have when the naysayers too often resort to ad hominem attacks on MQA’s principals and on prominent audio journalists, including TAS editor-in-chief Robert Harley and his capable counterpart at Stereophile. Bob Stuart, these forces hold, is motivated solely by greed and ambition; the audio journalists are obviously in his back pocket.

Another trope that runs through attacks on MQA is to characterize it as a cynically commercial enterprise: “0.1% innovation, 99.9% marketing,” as one online article put it. Obvious hyperbole aside, there’s a real irony here, considering fairly recent audio history. It’s widely appreciated that DVD-Audio failed and SACD has barely survived as a niche product, due, at least in part, to deficiencies in the way these formats were promoted when they were new. It should be acknowledged that some MQA demonstrations at shows and in dealer showrooms have been highly controlled events that have been structured to elicit a positive response from the audience in attendance. But to suggest that Bob Stuart’s diligent efforts to assure that his invention is heard and understood represent some sort of hucksterism is simply bizarre.

Finally, there’s the question of what actually motivates some of our fellow hobbyists to dismiss MQA unheard. It’s a phenomenon we’ve seen before with other advances such as DSP room correction, multichannel, and high-resolution downloads. All of these were democratizing developments that permitted sound-conscious music lovers lacking unlimited means to achieve sound quality of the highest order. Let’s face it: There are some audiophile elitists that are going to resent this challenge to their special status. Myself, I’ve had an Aurender A10 player equipped for MQA playback in my system for around a month and I’ve been able to spend hours comparing streamed MQA files with downloaded files of the same content at the same level of resolution. My assessment is that MQA is definitely different, and usually better. Not night and day better, but better. Think about it. This is music arriving in your room via the Internet, for a fairly minimal monthly charge—an exponentially increasing body of recordings for playback with sound quality that’s, at the very least, as good as the best present  high-resolution digital files. Imagine being told 20 years ago that this was the future of the high end. We all would have been astounded, energized, and maybe even joyous.

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