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TIDAL Masters (MQA)

March 27, 2017

It has been a couple of years, but I finally made it back to an Audio Society of Minnesota meeting. The topic of the meeting was HRA (High Resolution Audio) streaming. The master of ceremonies was Oliver Masciarotte who is the most knowledgeable guy I know regarding digital music.

Oliver’s focus was TIDAL’s new Masters product.  TIDAL (a streaming service) has teamed with MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) to provide a “better than CD quality” streaming service.  When TIDAL first hit the market their shtick was that they had CD quality streaming (at a premium) vs. the MP3 quality of Spotify.  Then they became famous for becoming Jay Z’s artist friendly streaming service.  Now they are doubling down on high-resolution.  They have two tiers of service:  a Spotify quality service ($10) and a Hi Fi service ($20).  The Hi Fi service has been enhanced from just CD quality to include an MQA option on some recordings.  MQA is currently only available on the desktop (at some point it will be available on mobile devices too).

MQA is not just another audio codec like MP3, FLAC or ALAC.  It is a codec, but it is also a music product: guaranteed master-quality recordings directly from the master source using the master’s same resolution.

To get the most out of MQA you need a MQA enabled DAC.  But you can get at least 24 bit/96 kHz quality via the TIDAL desktop application without any special software or device.  A  24 bit/96 kHz recording has an audio resolution 250 times that of CD quality (16 bit/44.1 kHz ) and takes up about three times the space.  However don’t expect to notice that much of a difference.  I have DVD Audio and Super Audio CDs (SACD) that are at this quality and they sound great – but they are only slightly better than CDs (to my ears – true golden ears say it is profoundly better).  MQA has lovers and haters.  The lovers say this is what we have been waiting for: high-resolution on demand with access to a large catalog for twenty bucks a month.  The haters note that MQA has created a monopoly and licensing scam on every link in the music distribution and reproduction chain (the labels are paying, the streamer is paying the equipment manufactures are paying, thus the consumer is paying).  As usual reality is somewhere in between.

I have had a couple dalliances with TIDAL.  The first was when it came on the market and I concluded the Hi Fi service was not worth it.   The second time was recently due to the exclusivity of some of its artists.  Once some of these artists decided to also make themselves available on Spotify I dumped TIDAL again. Well this MQA concept has got me thinking of giving TIDAL a third chance (they have a 30 day free test drive period).

Oliver demoed the service at the Audio Society of Minnesota meeting.  Frankly, it was tough to A/B compare (unfamiliar stereo and unfamiliar reference material). On certain sample material it was noticeably better, but not the kind of difference you would hear between a low quality MP3 and a CD.  Keep in mind in this situation “low quality” is CD quality.

Expect an update post in a few months on TIDAL Masters after I have had a chance to give the service a serious test drive. I would love this concept to work.  But I am prepared for disappointment: it won’t be that amazing, the number of MQA tracks will be too few, an additional (costly) device will be necessary to truly appreciate, etc. I hope this is the future.  I worry that there is not  a consumer mass market for audiophile streaming.  Without a mass market this concept will become expensive, or worse, it won’t exist at all.  It is going to have to become easier – there needs to be a killer delivery system that will be easy to use and sounds great for both the casual listener and the audiophile.  Today, this kind of thing takes too much effort for anyone but a hobbiest-audiophile.

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