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Tidal Adds Millions Of MQA Tracks From Warner Music Group

by July 08, 2021
Tidal adds millions of tracks

Tidal adds millions of tracks

It’s been four years now since Tidal began offering MQA-encoded music files to its subscribers. To those with the right combination of playback software and/or hardware, these files promise to deliver a high-resolution audio experience that is superior to what you’d get from other formats. For everyone else, these MQA-encoded files function just like any other 16-bit/44.1kHz CD-quality file, and can be played back on any digital audio gear. There has been plenty of debate as to whether (and how) MQA’s unique approach to digital audio delivers on its promise of providing superior sound from smaller files, and how it compares to traditional high-resolution formats. There’s no doubt that MQA has its share of fans and detractors alike. But the advent of MQA also came with another promise: that this technology could be applied to any digital recording ever made, and so there was effectively no limit to the potential catalog of MQA-encoded music. Other high-res formats, such as DSD, for example, have been held back by their relatively meager libraries of music. It doesn’t matter how great DSD can sound if the music you want to listen to isn’t available in the format. MQA, we were told, was different. Eventually, everything could be available in MQA. And the folks behind the technology — chiefly Meridian’s Bob Stuart — are obsessed with provenance, so each MQA file would be created using the best-quality digital master available. It’s an appealing future to imagine — one in which high-resolution audio finally becomes mainstream — but this part of the promise has taken a lot longer than many of us expected. Not long ago, a quick perusal of Tidal’s catalog would have made it painfully clear that only a small fraction of the streaming service’s 70 million tracks boasted MQA’s “master-quality” audio. Now, finally, that’s beginning to change.

 Tidal MQA My New Arrivals

Back in May of 2016, months before Tidal began streaming MQA files, Warner Music Group announced a a long-term licensing deal with MQA during the Munich High End show. In February of 2017, Universal Music Group announced a similar deal to license its extensive catalog of master recordings to MQA. Sony Music completed the trifecta in May of 2017. The digital rights agency Merlin, which represents thousands of independent music labels around the world, followed suit. It seemed that everything was in place for MQA, and that a deluge of MQA-encoded music would soon arrive. Instead, we got more of a trickle. Would we ever see the entire catalogs of these big record labels become available in MQA? The process has not been a quick one, but it’s now seeming more likely than ever before that this imagined future could become reality. If you’re a subscriber to Tidal’s $20/month HiFi tier, you might have noticed that the streaming service’s selection of available “Tidal Masters” tracks (that’s what Tidal calls MQA tracks) has recently grown by leaps and bounds. In fact, Tidal says it has added “millions of tracks” from Warner Music Group to its Masters catalog, from artists like Madonna, LCD Soundsystem, The Notorious B.I.G., and Missy Elliott, just to name a few. Interestingly, many of these new additions to the MQA catalog were never recorded or mastered in high-resolution formats, so the MQA-encoded files can’t deliver the greater bit-depth and higher sampling rates that we associate with better-than-CD-quality digital audio. But according to the folks at MQA, the format offers end-to-end system benefits that are “just as important when the sample rate is low,” allowing it to deliver “high-resolution experiences, (even) when the master is 44.1/16 (CD-quality).”

Tidal Masters offer the best sound available. As consumers' expectations of high-quality experiences increase, Tidal’s audio innovation sets the bar for music listening. Not only can members hear music exactly as their favorite artists recorded it, but with recent platform enhancements, the experience is as seamless as ever.

—- Lior Tibon, Tidal COO

What benefits does MQA provide, in terms of sound quality, when the original file was never high-res to begin with? In the early days of high-res downloads, it was not uncommon for an audiophile to pay extra for a given album in 24/96 or 24/192, only to discover that it had merely been upsampled from a standard-res source. Mercifully, MQA is transparent about its source material. If the original master was in 16/44.1, the MQA-encoded file will be, too. But MQA does claim to improve the sound of these files via a proprietary process that the company calls “deblurring.” When an analog signal is converted to digital, the analog-to-digital converters introduce audible artifacts in the form of “blurring” in the time domain. One of the core technologies developed by MQA is the ability to recognize and remove these time-smearing artifacts, thus removing the unnatural effects that they have on the sound. This deblurring process can be applied to CD-quality tracks just as easily as to high-resolution tracks. When a track is encoded into the MQA format, instructions are embedded that tell the playback software and/or hardware how to decode and render the file — that is, how to reconstruct the analog signal in a way the preserves the newfound clarity achieved by the deblurring process. MQA encoding also embeds a Provenance signature, so the end user can be assured that the entire delivery and playback chain has successfully recreated the music as intended. According to the folks at MQA, this process actually allows an MQA file to deliver an audible dynamic range that exceeds 16-bits, even when the source material was a 16-bit master.

Note: These claims are not without controversy as a Youtube channel called GoldenSound published their findings on how MQA affects the integrity of the audio files.

By paying great attention to the nature of sound and the way we hear, MQA opens a clear window and delivers all the detail and nuance of the original song. The music industry’s catalogue contains millions of significant performances from the early days of CD where, sometimes, the recording was created in 44.1kHz/16bit and no alternative existed. We are delighted that Warner Music Group is bringing this content to TIDAL.

— Bob Stuart, MQA Founder

MQA to "Improve" Old Audio Recordings?

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) tells us that roughly 70% of popular new releases are available in higher-than-CD quality. But more than 50% of all music streamed in the United States consists of older titles, and a high percentage of these only exist 16-bit/44.1kHz. There is essentially a whole era of CD-quality digital masters, spanning from the late 1970s all the way up to about 2010. (Some high-res content was recorded for the SACD and DVD-Audio formats starting in the late 1990s, but it took another decade before the trend of recording music in high-res became the norm for mainstream record labels.) Music from before 1977 or thereabouts was still recorded, mixed, and mastered in the analog domain. As long as the record label has kept the analog tapes in good condition, these old master tapes can deliver superb high-resolution audio, albeit with varying levels of tape hiss in the background. This new undertaking by MQA is intended to preserve that music in its original 16-bit/44.1kHz package, while making it sound as good as possible using modern technology. Unlike most “remastered” releases, the MQA versions seek to subtract errors, rather than add effects. These “errors” are not mistakes made by the engineers and producers who recorded, mixed, and mastered the music; instead they are the results of digital recording and production equipment that was much less sophisticated than what we have available today. In some ways, the relative simplicity of the gear used in the early years of digital might be considered a good thing. The music was less processed and less compressed than what we hear from most contemporary recordings. But early digital technology introduced what MQA calls “systematic defects that we are able to detect and correct.” (For a more technical look at these concepts, check out this AES paper by Bob Stuart and his long-term collaborator, Peter Craven.) MQA claims that the improvement to overall clarity in the sound is, in many cases, profound.

With the arrival of MQA, the provenance of the master would be the better standard for the industry to promote – not sample rate or bit depth. As demonstrated by Tidal Masters, MQA ensures that the Original is the Best.

— Mike Jbara, CEO of MQA

Tidal Ups its Library, Audiophiles Embrace?

Tidal MQA Arethra FranklinWith the addition of these millions of tracks from Warner Music Group, Tidal now offers the largest MQA catalogue outside of China, where the technology has been adopted more quickly than elsewhere. It seems likely that similar floods of MQA-encoded tracks could be coming from Universal and Sony, but time will tell. In the meantime, Tidal has responded to requests from subscribers who have asked for easier ways to discover new Tidal Masters music, and is now offering ‘Master Edition’ Artist Radio and Track Radio. These radio stations play nothing but uninterrupted MQA audio. Tidal is also offering a Master Edition of each subscriber’s personalized “My New Arrivals” playlist, which assembles newly-released MQA tracks that match the user’s listening habits.     

MQA’s Bob Stuart has an impressively long resume full of significant contributions to the audio world. He recently became the first audio engineer to receive the Prince Philip Award from the Royal Academy of Engineering, and as a co-founder of Meridian, has created some of the world’s best digital audio gear. Meridian created what many consider to be the first “audiophile” CD player in the 1980s, and the first digital surround-sound processor in the early 1990s. It was the first company to make DSP-based digital active loudspeakers for the domestic market. Stuart also invented an audio coding technology called Meridian Lossless Packing (MLP), which became the basis for Dolby TrueHD. But despite this remarkable track record, MQA has been met with what seems to me like an unprecedented level of skepticism and outright criticism from some other high-profile figures within the audio world. Some of this criticism focuses on the technical side of things. Stuart says that MQA is a lossless format in absolute terms, meaning that the final analog signal produced is complete and has not thrown away any of the musical information contained by the original file. Some critics point out that MQA’s “audio origami” — the process by which large, high-res files are “folded” into smaller files that are easier to store and stream — is technically a lossy one, by traditional data-processing standards, anyway. Paul McGowan of PS Audio mentioned this in a recent YouTube video, during which he made his anti-MQA position quite clear. Others, such as Schiit Audio’s Mike Moffat and Jason Stoddard, don’t like the fact that audio hardware manufacturers have to pay licensing fees in order to offer MQA support in their products. This type of arrangement is commonplace in the world of home theater (think Dolby and DTS) but less so in 2-channel audio, where open-source formats are the norm. Over the last few years, I’ve read negative reactions to MQA from other hardware engineers, including Bruno Putzeys, and the late Charley Hansen from Ayre Acoustics. I’ve also read accusations from Jim Collinson of Linn, that MQA is bad for the recording industry because it creates a monopoly, and is nothing more than “an attempt to control and extract revenue from every part of the supply chain.” And yet, for every critical voice, there is another equally respected voice supporting MQA. Mastering engineer Bob Ludwig has won 12 Grammy awards and is well-known among many audiophiles. He’s a vocal supporter of MQA. Stereophile’s John Atkinson is, in my view, among the most knowledgable and trustworthy journalists our hobby has ever known. He’s also a recording engineer. When given the opportunity to hear some of his own high-resolution recordings encoded into MQA, he heard improvements in the sound. My favorite high-end DACs (the ones I would buy if I won the lottery) are made by a company here in California called MSB Technology, which was an early adopter of MQA. It doesn’t seem like the controversy over MQA will go away any time soon, but if you’ve been curious to hear it for yourself, there’s now a better chance that the music you like will be available in the format via Tidal. How can that be a bad thing? Do you have an opinion about MQA? Share your thoughts in the related forum thread below. 

 

About the author:
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Jacob is a music-lover and audiophile who enjoys convincing his friends to buy audio gear that they can't afford. He's also a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.

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Recent Forum Posts:

gbaby posts on July 18, 2021 17:08
You down with MQA, hell no, no way. This is snake oil.
1Old_School posts on July 14, 2021 18:16
jcarys, post: 1492973, member: 88374
First off, I am a Tidal subscriber and I've been pleasantly surprised with the quality of many of the Master tracks and Atmos mixes. I guess my biggest question is why is MQA needed in the chain?
I have been a TIDAL subscriber since shortly after JayZ bought controlling interest. As an Army Reservist, TIDAL gave me my first ever military discount I received after mustering out in 1976; thanks JayZ and Beyoncé! So I enjoyed TIDAL for awhile - it was so much better sounding than Apple or Amazon MP3s (and I began buying music from Apple as soon as iTunes came on the scene-maybe 2003).
Suddenly there was MQA available via TIDAL. I had no way of rendering MQA music until my iPhone could do the first unfold. I listened on an OPPO BDP-103 on two different systems: Yamaha & KEF speakers; and on a hand built system by Odyssey Designs’ Klaus Bunge, including recently fully upgraded Stratos mono-blocks, pre-amp and speakers. Not every MQA cut was superior to the flac files we had been listening to for a year - but 90% of them were! So much so, that my listening partner in crime ordered a SimAudio Moon 390 Streamer/DAC so we could hear MQA in all its glory. And oh me droogies, WHAT GLORIOUS SOUNDS emerged, including the Ludwig Von.

I was not going to pony up for the Moon 390, so I continued reading and researching waiting for an Ethernet streaming device which could take an MQA stream from my router and fully hardware decode (NOT just RENDER) MQA files, using two Sabre ESS 9068 DACS. Received my set-up two weeks ago. GREATLY EXCEEDS ALL EXPECTATIONS - even those set by listening to MQA on Odyssey or Benchmark systems.

I don't need anyone to tell me what I should like or how MQA is lossy based on a poor understanding of the physics involved in psycho-acoustic enjoyment of music. I have five milk crates of vinyl records. I had a moving magnet cartridge which cost as much as a used car in 1986, and which would detect every single needle set down of a half-gram weighted tone-arm. The first CDs were shit - I sent most of mine back for a refund in 1985, but sound engineers figured out how to make them representative of a live concert.

I was in a band for 6 years. All I ask of music I listen to is that it is real - that it sounds like what I remember: the sound of brushes sliding across a snare drum or medium size cymbal or top hat; that the trumpet sounds like it is right next to me; that I can hear the reed vibration from a sax or oboe and almost tell when the reed is beginning to split because it has been shaved too thin.

MQA gives me that. When any particular cut doesn't sound right (generally to bright, brash, or sibilant) then I can substitute the FLAC file on my playlist. BUT distinguishing a cough in the audience as an actual cough rather than asking was a quarter inch phono jack just plugged in or unplugged from a mixing board, means MQA has been worth it for me.

For anyone wanting to do full MQA decode not using Bluetooth or WiFi, at a comparatively decent price, check out Gustard X-16 DAC; S.M.S.L. SD-9 Streamer. I'm using I2S streamer/DAC interconnect; DAC to amp, XLR. Quiet and exceptionally accurate. US Prices $450 and $400 respectively not counting interconnects (blue jeans cable; zeskit maya).

BTW - Bob Stuart was not the first developer of surround sound. I had a Fosgate decoder in 1984. q.v., https://www.audioholics.com/audio-technologies/surround-sound-upmixer
Paul Lane posts on July 12, 2021 03:53
lovinthehd, post: 1493401, member: 61636
Wow no Pet Shop Boys or Bananarama….and in the same sentence as Led Zeppelin. You have some eclectic taste there!
I’m a sucker for good British studio production..
lovinthehd posts on July 11, 2021 21:59
Trebdp83, post: 1493450, member: 43634
Use to get discs from Netflix but it became so difficult to get them. I actually forgot until recently that they still did discs. T-Mobile throws out free Redbox rentals about twice a month and use those and any points from paid rentals for free ones. I hate it when having to settle for DVDs but lately I’ve been surprised by the quality of some of them.
I've been a disc subscriber since almost the beginning….never really a problem except they try to hide it altogether with the separate site/managment….with blurays particularly I get a better experience via disk than streaming….and even sometimes for dvd….
Trebdp83 posts on July 11, 2021 21:42
Use to get discs from Netflix but it became so difficult to get them. I actually forgot until recently that they still did discs. T-Mobile throws out free Redbox rentals about twice a month and use those and any points from paid rentals for free ones. I hate it when having to settle for DVDs but lately I’ve been surprised by the quality of some of them.
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