Tidal, MQA & DSD — the comprehensive review

The MQA website

I wrote this article, because my article on Tidal and the research for that led me to conclude that there is really no alternative high-res alternative for audiophiles who want to discover and listen to new music with the best possible quality with the least friction.

So, it becomes imperative that I dig deeper into MQA and swim towards the high-res format wars to research whether it is all worth it — or not. Should I continue with Tidal, and just download the best music from there as high-res files? if so which format should I use, and with what resolution?

I read up more about MQA in the past few days and that made me test Hifi vs. Master tracks on Tidal. The power button on the Chord Mojo shows red for Hifi and 96 for Master tracks when playing back tracks. Music sounds really good after the DAC and the phone has been given some time to “warm up”. I have distinctly felt that it is only by afternoon that I get clear, water like fluid music from my system.

Color codes for Audio on the Chord Mojo

One thing I did notice today is that the master tracks sounded significantly better than Hifi. They are louder, but also more clearer, warmer and the music seems as clear as FullHD vs. 4K in terms of what was missing in Hifi and what was present in 4K.

It is clear that an external DAC improves the sound quality on an iOS device for sure. The next step was to find out a good MQA DAC at a reasonable price point which also measures well:

After much research on the MQA website:

I pretty much went through all the companies and DACs in the list. They are all super expensive. The only one which I found which had a reasonable price was the SMSL M500:

  • The numbers speak for themselves better than a reviewers ears
  • The only other alternative is the super-expensive (for me) Topping D90 with MQA which also has very, very good reviews.
  • My own in depth review of the m500 can be found here.

What I wanted to know at this point was how the sound compared to the Chord Mojo. I could not find that review anywhere, hence I decided to investigate this myself.

Please read my article on high-res audio before proceeding further:

One of the conclusions I have reached is that we should use Tidal & MQA for music discovery and listening to popular music, while trying to find the DSD for the music we particularly like.

DSD should be the ultimate goal of our listening setup. I know there is not much DSD material out there, which in a way makes the search easier, because we know only few artists will have albums in DSD format.

What I am really trying to say here is that pick a service to discover and listen to music at the best quality you can: which would be Tidal + MQA which gives you 24 bit, 192 KHz resolution along with the benefits of deblurring as Bob puts it. For the best music on Tidal, if you want to enjoy it even more — just pick the best resolution out there, which is DSD if they have it, and ignore everything else, because you really should not need more than 24 bit, 192 KHz unless you are one of those people with discrete components each of which costs more than $1000.

If you don’t have cash to burn, don’t spend more than $1000 on every individual component to have a multi-thousand dollar setup. If you were to press me, I would say the only $1000+ component which I would recommend getting are the two way Focal Beryllium speakers which is about $1500. Don’t get into debt for the music. Only buy what you can afford — someone will always have a more expensive system than you have.

While I was researching MQA, I also came across references to DSD. So, I had to compare Tidal Masters vs. DSD at some point:

Bob Stuart from MQA has done a few interviews on Youtube. It is a bit hard to follow, but keep watching, and you will start to understand a lot of it — especially if you have a degree in Electronics like I do. Among the things he mentions in one of the videos is how sounds above 20 KHz cannot be heard, but when they are cut out, that changes the sound of the recording — just like I mention in my articles:

John Darko has posted two videos, which are a bit harder to follow, but if you watch the first video before these, you will start to understand:

I have to say, I get it — I do understand what he is so patiently explaining over & over again. Honestly, there is a lot of misinformation about MQA out there. It is hard to explain — you have to hear it in his own words.

If you don’t go through the trouble of listening to what he has to say — fully, you cannot throw stones at MQA.

I think it is also very important to watch the below video which goes further into Tidal and MQA and the relationship between them.

In a nutshell, they invented MQA to improve high-res sound quality, and they were able to get some compression along the way to help streaming, using the Origami like unfolding process.

Here are a few more articles on MQA, because you need to have a lot of patience and time to go through all those videos:

A simple introduction:

The MQA unfolding process:

On the other hand, if this much detail is not enough, I found this article interesting too, if you are upto it:

To me, MQA seems to be a lot of trouble to try and improve the flawed PCM encoding process. It would really have been worth it, if they had been able to develop an Origami unfolding process to be able to stream DSD — call is MQA-DSD if you want to.

DSD is able to record the full amplitude of the sound wave — and even Bob says that this will be a more accurate representation of the original analog waveform which is necessary to reproduce it properly. All this effort basically is to try and fix something which is flawed.

It does not make any sense to me, because Bob himself talks about the bad effects caused by shearing off the frequencies in the original wave form.

My conclusion for MQA is that it is better than what we have out there, except for DSD — both technically, as well as if you listen to it. I do think it sounds better than regular PCM hi res files which are not “de blurred” as Bob mentions. I tested on Tidal Masters with a full MQA decoder DAC.

So, I would recommend listening to Tidal on MQA, unless you don’t use Tidal and mostly have non MQA files (FLAC/ ALAC) — in which case, you want to hear and see if you prefer MQA over other formats and make the decision yourself — music is highly subjective anyway.

I believe, mostly understand and agree with what Bob says — except that, I believe when you can find it DSD would be better, because it simply does not have any of the problems which MQA addresses and needs to “fix”, except for taking up large amounts of digital storage.

Note that Bob does not directly address the comparison with DSD anywhere (probably because it did not work out, and he does not want people to compare MQA with DSD), except to imply indirectly that he had to work with something “backwards compatible” and not a completely new format which no DAC/ player can play — which I think points to DSD.

I downloaded DSD files for Norah Jones from the Acoustic Sounds website after going through their DSD section to find an artist I like.

  • Tidal Masters was harsh, even broken audio at some points (not sure why). Note though that this was not 192 KHz — only 96 KHz because the Chord Mojo cannot unfold MQA.
  • DSD played through Onkyo HF Player on iOS via Chord Mojo was crystal clear, clean, and did not have the harshness of Tidal.

I plan to listen more and update this article soon…

The only major artists with DSD downloads available were Michael Jackson (Thriller) and Norah Jones (a few albums). I don’t believe in buying different versions of music I already have — so I got two of Norah’s albums I don’t have as samplers to test out, because both of them are also in Tidal.

It is not true that DSD versions are not available for major artists. I remember picking up an SACD of Celine Dion — All the way a long time ago. In reality, there are plenty of SACD albums out there with people who purchased it a while ago. Most of the CDs in the stores at the time were SACDs. Apparently, nobody has put those versions out for download anywhere. And the SACDs are quite expensive now. I still have the SACD, but I don’t have a player for it. It does not seem worth the effort to get a player when reasonably priced SACDs are not available anymore.

  • I have not tested it out. But this Sony Blu-Ray player is a relatively new player which can also playback SACD.
  • Not all Sony players can playback SACD.
  • Reading many, many articles online, one reason to buy an SACD player is that not only do you get DSD, but in many cases the music is also 5/ 6 channel surround sound. Just note that in that case, you will need to send the signal either via HDMI or via discrete analog channels — which means you cannot use your expensive DAC in between unless it can decode surround sound.

Initial sound comparison between DSD & MQA with full unfolding for Norah Jones shows that the sound is almost the same. It is very, very hard to make this out, but it seems that DSD maybe ever so slightly more sweeter, without a very, very slight harshness to the “tips” which full MQA at 192 KHz still seems to retain. This is very, very slight and not something which you can make out unless you are really trying very hard to make out the difference between the two formats. DSD is ever so little softer, gentler — almost like it has rounded corners which are more musical. I am listening to a guitar, I can almost feel an effect like it is live. Yes, the guitar in MQA sounds a little more artificial while DSD sounds very real, very, very life like in comparison. Wow — I used to think you needed very expensive speakers to hear that effect. The individual strings sound very, very well defined almost surreal in comparison to MQA which is very good, but not surreal — not magical — nor like she is right there in front of you with the instruments around you.

So, it seems that even the lowest quality DSD sounds better than the best quality MQA for sure, although fully unfolded MQA is better than the partially unfolded one. I heard stuff in MQA I have never heard before, except for DSD which was better.

This pretty much confirms everything I have written about so far.

One of the things you might ask is whether this is a big deal at all — especially if you are just an informal listener.

What I can say for sure is that in the better system, music is more enjoyable than before, and what you did not notice, or like before, becomes much, much more likeable and you really start to dig into the individual instruments and the vocals.

It changes the way you listen to music, and it lets you listen more — whereas in the past it may have fatigued you and you just went ahead and stopped listening for the day after an hour or so.

July 13, 2020

Listening to some freely downloadable DSD 11.2 Music from a nordic website.

Wow! I have never heard music sound so sweet except from a live environment.

I agree that the sweetness comes from the fact that the signal is not rudely cutoff at 20 KHz causing distortions in the mid-range and above. MQA helps with the problem, but DSD does not even have that issue anymore! If you see the signal of the DSD file, you will notice how it does not cutoff the high frequencies at all, and hence they extend in some cases all the way upto 33 KHz.

DSD makes the piano feel soft & glittery. You can hear the sound of the “hammer” hitting the “harp” inside the piano. This is the kind of thing which makes you sit up right and carefully listen where in a normal recording it would just be ho hum and make you feel sleepy. The “edges” of the sound are clear, soft, well defined and musical — something I have never heard from any kind of recording before DSD.

No doubt, the effect is enhanced significantly by the Martin Logan Motion 15i, which can go all the way upto 25 KHz with their brilliant AMT tweeters!

I might want to get a super tweeter to go all the way upto 33 KHz — just not sure if that is really needed with the AMTs are super tweeters in many ways.

On a side note, if you are playing back DSD files locally via the DAC, be sure to put your phone in Airplane mode because otherwise each time you get a notification, there is a disturbance in the sound because the DAC switched from DSD to PCM every time the phone or iDevice plays any other sound.

This is probably an additional reason why the Onkyo HF Player app talks about damaging your system, and the prime seat app asks you to use Airplay mode.

July 30, 2020

(To be continued…)

“If you see something that’s not right, not fair, not just, do something about it. Say something. Do something.” — Rep. John Lewis

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store