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New ESS Sabre Dac Chips To Feature Integrated MQA Rendering

by May 29, 2018
ESS Sabre DAC with MQA

ESS Sabre DAC with MQA

Since ESS Technology debuted the first generation of its Sabre dacs in 2008, these high-performance chips have found their way into an impressive assortment of popular audio products. Now ESS has announced new versions of the Sabre DAC that will feature built-in MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) rendering, lowering the bar of entry for audio hardware manufacturers looking to incorporate a very in-demand feature into their designs. The two companies have had a good working relationship for some time. The first consumer audio product to be certified by MQA was Mytek Digital’s Brooklyn Dac, which featured an ESS Sabre chip. Different versions of the Sabre chips are also found in Audioquest’s Dragonfly Black ($99) and Dragonfly Red ($199), two of the best-selling MQA-capable devices on the market. But these new Sabre dacs represent the first time that any chip-maker has been able to integrate MQA rendering into its own product, affording its downstream customers a relatively simple drop-in solution.

MQA is a complicated (and controversial) technology, but it can be broken down into a few basic steps. MQA (the company) creates digital audio files using a proprietary “de-blurring” process to improve their sound quality and then uses another proprietary encoding process (described by the company as “audio origami”) to reduce each file’s size by “folding” extra audio information into the signal. This MQA file can then be streamed or downloaded by the end user. On the playback side of things, the end user needs some combination of MQA-certified software and/or hardware to reap the sound-quality benefits to the fullest extent. The playback of an MQA file involves two separate steps, called “decoding” and “rendering.” During decoding, the extra audio information is unfolded from the signal, allowing the listener to enjoy higher resolution and a wider dynamic range. This process can be partially handled by software applications such as Roon, Amarra, and Audirvana.

The final step in the MQA playback process is rendering, and this is the part that must be executed in careful cooperation with the DAC. In order to ensure that the analog signal leaving the DAC actually sounds the way MQA wants it to, the folks at MQA have to be allowed to “look under the hood” of any audio product seeking certification. In the past, audio hardware manufacturers have had to send their completed products to be inspected and analyzed, so that MQA could hand-tune the audio signal to compensate for a given product's digital filters and other idiosyncrasies. The new Sabre DAC chips will remove this hurdle for manufacturers by integrating the rendering process into the chip itself. Designers of audio products will be able to offer MQA compatibility to their customers without jumping through any hoops, and without subjecting their proprietary designs to dissection by a third party. According to ESS, the new Sabre DACs will be ideal for digital headphones, portable audio players, and home audio gear.

Is MQA a must-have feature in your next audio purchase? 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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