MQA Playback & Support
The intent of this post/thread is purely to explain/discuss the requirements for playback of MQA content as it relates to DACs and software that either do, or do not, specifically support it. My goal in this is to avoid repeating this information in every review of an MQA-capable DAC.
Do not take this thread as any kind of endorsement for, nor condemnation of, MQA on my part.
Also note that I intend to keep this thread focused on discussions about the “how-to” for MQA playback and how/where it does/does not work – as well as for questions about specific DAC/software compatibility and/or how to configure (or troubleshoot) things in a given system to make it work.
Discussions of MQA of a qualitative, philosophical, relevance, value and/or in-depth technical nature belong in a different thread (or threads) – and will be moved to such a thread should they wind up in this one. There is no issue with having such discussions – just not in this particular thread. One starting point for those sorts of discussions is here.
What is MQA?
MQA, an abbreviation for “Master Quality Authenticated”, is a means of encoding, and decoding, audio data, filter-settings and authentication information within an otherwise standard PCM audio file/stream. It allows for “normal” playback on non-MQA aware/enabled hardware/software, as well as “enhanced” playback with software and/or hardware that is MQA-enabled or aware.
You do not need anything special to play MQA encoded files. They will work on normal DACs and with normal software players just fine. If you want to take advantage of the MQA features/encoding then you need either a software player that can do MQA “core” decoding (e.g. the native TIDAL desktop client), an optional MQA-rendering-capable DAC or an MQA-enabled DAC that can do full-decoding.
The examples below are the most common concerns/situations encountered when considering whether/how you can play MQA-encoded content:
Someone with a normal DAC (be it an ODAC or an Yggdrasil) and a TIDAL premium subscription can play MQA material at up to 24 bit/96 kHz, without any additional software or hardware.
Someone with an MQA “Renderer” device (e.g. an AudioQuest Dragonfly or iFi Nano iDSD Black Label) and a TIDAL premium subscription can play MQA material at up to 24 bit/384 kHz, with MQA filtering and “temporal de-blurring”.
Someone with an MQA “Full Decoder” (e.g. a Meridian Explorer 2 or iFi Pro iDSD) can play MQA material at up to 24 bit/384 kHz with MQA filtering and “temporal de-blurring”.
All of the above scenarios will work regardless of whether you get your MQA content via TIDAL premium streaming or by purchasing MQA-encoded material. They will also work irrespective of whether you choose the native TIDAL desktop client, Roon, Audirvana+ or Amarra as your player.
Can I play MQA encoded content?
You do NOT need special hardware or software to play an MQA encoded file/stream. If your system can play standard 16-bit, 44.1 kHz PCM content (which pretty much everything can), then MQA files will play back just fine as you are.
MQA content can be housed in any lossless PCM container/format, typically FLAC.
Any player that can play that container/format will work fine – and will treat the contents as a normal 16/44.1 FLAC file.
Do I need special MQA hardware/player software?
Only if you want to be able to expose/access and play the MQA-encoded/filtered content in your MQA source material.
Where do I get MQA encoded content?
While there are a few online stores that sell MQA-encoded files, the largest source for such material is via TIDAL streaming. You need to be on their “Premium” tier, and have “Master” selected as your Streaming Audio Quality.
Note that this option is only available via TIDAL’s desktop client not on their mobile apps or the browser interface)!
Can I use software EQ with MQA?
And always NO if you’re using a full MQA decoder.
Applying EQ to the audio data changes its contents and the MQA encoded data is no longer recoverable. The file will play as if it were a non-MQA-encoded file in this case.
If your player software supports EQ (or can host plug-ins that do), as long as the “Core Decoding” is done prior to EQ being applied then it can apply EQ to it’s output. However, if you do this you cannot then use an MQA renderer to do the rest of the decoding.
Can I use software volume control with MQA?
And always NO if you’re using a full MQA decoder.
Applying volume control to the audio data changes its contents and the MQA encoded data is no longer recoverable. The file will play as if it were a non-MQA-encoded file in this case.
If your player software supports volume control, as long as the Core Decoding is done prior to volume-control be applied then it will work However, if you do this you cannot then use an MQA renderer to do the rest of the decoding.
Understanding MQA Playback
In addition to the basic 16/44.1 PCM data, MQA files embed multiple levels of “folded” information. Typically, there are two levels of “folding”, sometimes three. Each level of “unfolding” is supposed to result in higher-resolution replay. The first “unfold” will yield an 88.2 or 96 kHz output. The second and third can take that to 176.4, 192 kHz or higher.
There are four ways to play MQA content:
- Core Decoded (software decoding)
- Full Decoding/Full Decoders (hardware decoding and rendering)
- Core Decoded (software decoding) + Renderer (hardware rendering)
First Unfold (“Core Decoding”)
The first level of unfolding is referred to as “Core Decoding”. This can be done in hardware or software.
This means that with an ordinary non-MQA DAC, and player software that can do “Core Decoding” the streamed MQA content from TIDAL will play on your existing DAC at 88.2 or 96 kHz instead of the normal 44.1 kHz.
For example, the “Master” quality version of Muddy Water’s “Folk Singer” will play back at 96 kHz via a player that can do “Core Decoding”, even on a non-MQA DAC.
Various players and streaming clients can do this first-unfold, including the native TITAL desktop client, Audirvana+, Roon and Amarra.
Second & Third Unfolds, Filtering, Deblurring & Authentication (“Rendering”)
After the first unfold, whether it is done in software, or internally by an MQA-enabled DAC, additional unfolding is possible – which yields yet higher bit-rate playback (I’ve seen files indicate they were playing at 384 kHz here). After which MQA-specific filters are applied (the file determines specifically which) and additional DAC-specific processing occurs.
Additionally, the file can be “authenticated” at this stage as having been unaltered from the studio-provided copy. There is usually a dedicated indicator for this - typically a blue-dot, light, or an MQA logo.
This second (and subsequent) stage of processing is referred to as “Rendering” and is only supported in hardware.
MQA Renderers vs. MQA Full Decoders
DACs and similar audio components can either implement the full MQA decoding/rendering chain, or can simply implement the final rendering stage.
In the first case, “Full Decoding”, the full MQA decoding/processing is applied by the DAC itself and does not need a special player or software to feed it. This allows for sources, streamers and tranports that don’t support, or pre-date, MQA to play MQA-encoded content and have the DAC do all of the necessary MQA decoding and rendering.
Examples of devices that perform full MQA decoding include: Meridian Explorer 2, Pro-Ject Pre-Box S2 Digital, Mytek Brooklyn+, iFi Pro iDSD and Sony NW-WM1Z.
In the second case, “Rendering”, the hardware requires that Core Decoding has been applied by the source/player. This obviously means that the source/player must be MQA core-decoding capable.
Examples of devices that can act as MQA renderers include: AudioQuest Dragonfly Black & Red and iFi Nano & Micro iDSD Black Label.