If you care about the audio quality of the music you listen to, you’ll likely come across high-resolution audio formats like FLAC, WAV, and AAC. Streaming services are now starting to offer these hi-res audio options to people who have the audio equipment to enjoy them.
TIDAL Masters is TIDAL’s take on Hi-Res Audio streaming. It offers tracks in MQA audio format, but the format is quite controversial.
Let’s learn a bit more about TIDAL Masters, how MQA differs from other Hi-Res Audio options, and why it’s so controversial.
What is TIDAL MQA?
TIDAL Masters, also known as TIDAL MQA, is a program that lets you stream Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) tracks. These tracks are in high resolution with better than CD quality sound.
MQA is a program that authenticates and transmits master recordings directly from artist to listener. The program includes an audio format for packaging sound and a set of technologies for compressing and decompressing the packaging without reducing the original quality.
Unlike other hi-res audio formats, MQA is not an audio format applied at the end of the production process. Instead, MQA is integrated into the studio setup. So an artist can preview an MQA track and make sure it sounds as expected.
Once the artist authenticates the melody, the MQA audio file is then passed to streaming services like TIDAL for playback.
TIDAL claims that its Masters program tracks are up to 24-bit/352kHz. A standard CD quality audio file is 16-bit/44.1kHz. However, you won’t always get the full 352kHz signal because the actual resolution of the melody depends on the source.
How does MQA work?
As we mentioned, MQA is more than an audio format. It is a complete authentication, packaging and audio transmission system directly from the studio to the listener.
When an artist creates a recording in the studio and embeds it in an MQA file, the melody undergoes what MQA calls “folding”. Although not entirely accurate, you may understand that folding is a term for lossy compression to reduce the size of the main record.
If you want to play an MQA file, you need software or hardware with a built-in MQA Core decoder. The TIDAL app has the Core Decoder, so it can unfold an MQA file.
When you listen to an MQA song from TIDAL Masters, the app performs the first deployment of the song. The first unfolding reveals an audio recording of superior quality to that of a CD. The result of the first unfolding is an audio file at 88.2 kHz or 96 kHz.
Taking it a step further, if you have access to a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) or headphones with an MQA renderer, you can further unfold TIDAL’s main signal to experience the pristine master recording with up to 352kHz.
Finally, you can get an external DAC with a full MQA decoder if you have the resources. Such a DAC can fully unfold an MQA file and reveal what the artist has created in the studio.
MQA uses a lot of technical jargon to describe the MQA audio format and its accompanying set of technologies, and it can quickly get confusing.
Simply put, a music file created in the studio is packaged in an MQA audio format which is then decoded by specialized software/hardware to reveal sound that sounds better than CD quality.
What is the difference between TIDAL MQA and Hi-Fi quality?
MQA is not TIDAL’s premier high-quality audio format. The streaming service also offers Hi-Fi quality songs. The main difference between the two is that Hi-Fi quality offers songs without any compression at CD quality, 44.1 kHz, and MQA offers audio representative of the original source.
Compared to Hi-Fi quality, you can stream TIDAL Masters titles at up to 192kHz.
Then the Hi-Fi quality audio is lossless. In other words, there are supposedly no compression artifacts. However, MQA tracks are lossy due to the bending the tracks experience.
Benefits of using TIDAL MQA
MQA tracks on TIDAL are not available with the standard Hi-Fi subscription. You must subscribe to TIDAL HiFi Plus to access MQA tracks. Let’s see if the benefits offered by MQA are worth the premium that TIDAL demands for it.
The first benefit of using MQA is the significant increase in audio quality over regular CD quality audio. MQA’s promise to play music exactly as the artist intended makes MQA stand out from other Hi-Res Audio formats.
Then files in MQA format are almost half the size of normal FLAC files of the same resolution. This is the main reason to use MQA over FLAC or WAV.
Finally, according to MQA, the benefits of MQA can be enjoyed by anyone, even people who don’t have access to audiophile-grade equipment. This is due to the absence of temporal smearing. Temporal smearing refers to the delay between the arrival of notes at the ear. The greater the delay, the less accurate the soundscape.
Simply put, with reduced smearing time, listeners get a better stereo experience because they can pinpoint instrument locations precisely, resulting in greater immersion.
Why is TIDAL MQA controversial?
TIDAL Masters is just a service that provides MQA tracks to listeners. The real controversy lies in the MQA audio format itself.
The controversy surrounding MQA has two main fronts. The first is that MQA’s claim of significantly better audio quality compared to CD quality is misleading. Second, MQA is a worse alternative to open source audio formats like FLAC.
The controversy surrounding MQA’s audio enhancements or lack thereof is complicated. While some users swear by the format and its ability to deliver pristine master recordings, others argue that the format actually degrades quality.
For example, in a detailed audio analysis by MQA, YouTuber GoldenSound posted a song on TIDAL Masters and analyzed the format in detail. As you’ll see in the video below, the conclusion criticizes how MQA handles sound.
Finally, as many people have noted in audiophile circles, MQA sets a bad precedent for the industry because it is closed source. Anyone who wants to use the format must pay a license fee. Even if we assume that MQA has all the benefits the company wants us to believe, it’s bad to lock technology behind licensing fees, especially when competing formats offer the same functionality for free.
So, while MQA is steadily advancing, the format is far from a challenge for high resolution open source formats such as FLAC and WAV.
Choose MQA if you can catch a minute difference in audio detail
Amid discussions of lossless and lossy quality, high resolution, and CD quality, we often forget to ask the real question:
Do Hi-Res Audio options like MQA really make a difference?
As unambitious as that sounds, the answer is: it depends. If you have high-end audio equipment, you may be able to take advantage of the increased audio fidelity offered by high-resolution formats. On the other hand, even with high-end equipment, some people won’t hear much difference between ordinary MP3, FLAC or MQA.
You know MP3, but what about AAC, FLAC, OGG or WMA? Why are there so many audio file formats and is there a better audio format?
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