This article originally appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of WiFi HiFi Magazine.
In late June, Mike Jbara, CEO of MQA Ltd. joined Greg Stidsen, Director of Technology and Planning for Lenbrook International, at the Alumnae Theatre, a converted firehall in downtown Toronto, for a presentation on "Achieving Studio Master Quality at Home" to Toronto's Music Technology MeetUp.
Jbara joined MQA in mid-2016, after 20 years at Warner Music Group, where his most recent role was Executive Vice President, Technology and Business Process.
After Stidsen and Jbara had finished setting up the Bluesound/PSB system they used to play a selection of MQA tracks to the audience, I sat down with them for a wide-ranging discussion on MQA. The interview, which has been edited for clarity and brevity, also includes e-mailed responses to some follow-up questions I sent Jbara after the event.
Have you been surprised by the vitriol of the debate around MQA?
No. The community that tends to have the most fun with this always has a topic to argue about. If it wasn't MQA, it would be something else. The audiophile community has argued among itself for a very long time about individual ideas of the pursuit of perfection.
However, the element that MQA has brought to the foreground is an overused traditional definition of "lossless," because that definition lives purely in a digital domain. MQA's goal is an analog-to-analog lossless experience. When Bob [Stuart] started putting these technologies together, his thinking was that thing that we're calling the high-resolution master could be better. If we remove the problems, we're going to get closer to the original performance.
My understanding of the way the encoding process works is that it applies a secondary filter that seeks to undo undesirable filter artifacts that occur during A-to-D conversion. The effect is to perform what MQA calls "temporal unblurring."
That is a very good way of putting it. There is a front-end process, a set of MQA technologies, that have certain properties associated with their filters.
The MQA [encoding] tools were developed with the ability to allow batch encoding in today's digital supply chain. As well, studio tools were created for new projects, whether it's new recordings in the digital domain, or analog transfers. Additionally, we provide monitoring tools that enable mastering engineers to emulate the MQA file's sound during the process.
We are working to increase the supply of MQA-enabled studio gear. We will be putting more of the MQA technology in hardware, rather than expanding the functionality of our DAW [Digital Audio Workstation] plug-in.
Most MQA releases I see on TIDAL appear to be the same as high-res downloads available from stores like HDTracks and Pro Studio Masters, and non-MQA FLAC streams from Qobuz. Am I correct in assuming that the MQA streams and their FLAC counterparts come from the same source, with MQA processing being added for TIDAL's Masters version?
Yes. We wouldn't want anyone to be claiming that there's one digital master for one purpose, like a FLAC download, and another for another purpose, like a TIDAL stream. I would say that MQA has been more outspoken about the importance of provenance. We're encouraging people to go back to the best approved master they have.
"The potential of the big streaming services going into better-than-CD quality is very high. Every one of those services understands that more engagement with music is part of their long-term livelihood." Mike Jbara, CEO, MQA Ltd.
Do labels tend to have a consistent workflow that make it doable to makes a good guess about the filters used in A-to-D conversion, so they can apply an ideal filter to address artifacts created during the recording process?
Each of them has had our encoding tools for quite some time, and they've all given us feedback during the development of those studio tools. They're familiar with what they're doing, and they've made choices to install our tools into their supply chain process. Whether or not they profile each project perfectly is probably less important, because with the AI we have in our encoding process, we're constantly learning and updating our tools, based on the different densities that we're seeing inside those projects.
As far as I know, most recordings are now made at high sample rates, which leads to the question, why are A-to-D filtering artifacts even an issue?
First of all, a lot of finished masters are still coming out at 44.1 or 48/24. Many of them have components with even lower resolution. We have a mixed bag of things going into the final master. We think there's a lot of timing information that will improve the digital masters at that resolution, regardless of what it might look like on a spec sheet.
We've been talking about what goes on in the encode end. What happens in the decode process, after the unfold?
Think of the render piece as matching output to the DAC. Any software-based decoder doesn't necessarily know about the DAC being used for playback. We're passing on enough information that the file identifies itself to the software decoder as an MQA file, and the decoder simply unpacks it. In the rendering step, the MQA file tells the DAC how it wants to be played.
In the past, when Bob addressed this kind of question, he's said about 70% of MQA's goodness comes from the upfront [encoding] process. That is why we can play an MQA file on a non-MQA and deliver a better-than-CD experience, even though it's playing essentially at Red Book level. The 30% in the rendering process is taking advantage of what we learned during the encoding process to do the decode.
My understanding is that TIDAL has about 11,000 MQA-encoded albums on its Masters tier. How quickly can we expect the amount of MQA content to grow?
All of the labels have publicly said that they are doing new releases in MQA, and many of those are in the hands of mastering engineers who have MQA tools. Over one million tracks have been encoded in MQA; and with each week of new releases, that number grows. The decision about which titles go to which streaming and download partners is one the labels make, not MQA. Therefore, the current catalog of MQA titles in services is a small subset of those that are ready to go.
TIDAL is still the only major source of MQA content. But Deezer announced plans for MQA over a year ago. Do you have any idea of when other streaming services will adopt MQA? And is there a timeline for TIDAL to release an MQA-capable mobile app?
There's nothing that I can share with you now, but I can tell you we have some big front-end announcements happening before IFA, both expansion of existing relationships, and new broad relationships.
In late June, MQA's Mike Jbara (right) and Lenbrook's Greg Stidsen (centre) participated in a panel discussion on achieving master-quality audio at home to the Toronto Music Technology MeetUp, a group co-founded by legendary Toronto DJ Alan Cross (left).
What's the potential for MQA, in particular, and high-res audio in general? Is there a significant body of people who actually care about this? Or are compressed sources like Spotify good enough for most people?
The potential of the big streaming services going into better-than-CD quality is very high. The question is, how do we use that as an opportunity to get consumers excited about better sound? The good news is every one of those services understands that more engagement with music is part of their long-term livelihood.
Why do we need MQA for this? Why add another format? Why not just FLAC?
The problem in the past has been that quality and convenience were seen as enemies. MQA absolutely addresses that. You get all the convenience, and you can bring the quality with it. Services and copyright holders are starting to understand that they need to get people to engage more with music, because other categories are eating into the consumer's discretionary time. Not just how people spend their money, but how they spend their time. Even if the share of consumers might be small, they have to get ahead and start to exceed people's expectations.
It's not just sound quality. It's using metadata to do something dynamic when we find out the things that you enjoy. The innovation will accelerate because the labels and content services realize they've got to go there. They're just trying to figure out how to message it.
Many of them believe in the authentication piece: telling the artist that they're going to be able to give their fans the definitive version. That's probably the most important marketing they can do.
This messaging shouldn't come from a technology company, because it will sound like a bits-and-bytes conversation, rather than an artist saying to a fan, "Here's how to listen to my music." That happens when the bigger services come on board, because artists will spend their energy to support that kind of experience.
Also check out a debate between WiFi HiFi contributors Gordon Brockhouse and David Susilo about the merits of MQA.