Mythbusting Tidal’s MQA Format – How Does It Measure Up?

MQA is an audio format that claims to use a unique “origami” algorithm, promising better quality and more musicality than other formats. At times, it’s been claimed to be a lossless format in so many words, and lauded by the streaming services that use it as the ultimate format for high-fidelity music. With the format being closed source and encoders not publicly available, these claims are hard to test. However, [GoldenSound] wasn’t born yesterday, and set out to test MQA by hook or by crook. The results were concerning. (Video, embedded below.)

To actually put the format through its paces, the only easy way available was to publish music to the Tidal streaming service, which uses the format. [GoldenSound] went this route, attempting to get some test files published. This hit a brick wall when the publishing company reported that the MQA software “would not encode the files”. The workaround? [GoldenSound] simply cut some audio test content into the middle of an acoustic track and resubmitted the files, where they were accepted without further complaint.

Testing with the content pulled from Tidal, [GoldenSound] found concerning evidence that the claims made around MQA don’t stack up. Significant amounts of added noise are often found in the MQA-processed files, and files served from Tidal are clearly not lossless. Additionally, MQA’s “blue light” authentication system, designed to guarantee to listeners that they’re listening to a identical-to-studio release, is demonstrated to be misleading at best, if not entirely fake.

Upon writing to MQA to get a response to his findings, [GoldenSound]’s test files were quickly stripped from Tidal. The company eventually disputed some of the findings, which is discussed in the video. The general upshot is that without open, transparent tools being made publicly available to analyse the format’s performance, it’s impossible to verify the company’s claims.

We’ve had fun looking at audio formats before, from the history of MP3 to musing on digital audio at truly ridiculous sample rates.

[Thanks to Chris for the tip!]

79 thoughts on “Mythbusting Tidal’s MQA Format – How Does It Measure Up?

  1. Audio encoding seems to be a lot like cryptography in the respect that every so often, someone comes on to the scene, touting a “breakthrough technology” that’s orders of magnitude better than the current standard…and then, someone takes the time to do some analysis, and demonstrates that some of the claims made by the newcomer are…optimistic.

    Very much worth watching and the evidence shown is persuasive.

      1. It was never universally applicable to start with.

        For most people it worked well enough for casual listening and anyone who claimed to be able to hear a difference was labelled a ‘Purist’ and/or other far less polite things…

    1. Audio stuff at the digital level always baffles me because, um… it’s kindof a pathetically low information rate – which is a point made in that video. 24-bit, 192k sampling is just… tiny. I mean, c’mon, we shuffle data vastly larger than that all the time, and I can buy chips that can transfer that data point to point on the crappiest cable ever with no effort. Even time transfer point to point (jitter) is essentially a solved problem at that level.

      The difficult part of audio is *all* analog. It makes *zero* sense to try to save space/bandwidth after you’ve gone through all the work to actually get something with 140+ dB dynamic range.

      1. It’s the compression thing…which is not unlike cryptographic systems (though the goal is different). There’s a lot of prestige to be gained by building a better compression scheme. What people often forget, is that compression is only half of the problem, decompression needs to restore the information with minimal distortion.

        Look up “Sloot Coding System” for a humorous tale of a “breakthrough compression technology”

        1. Sure, but the hilarious thing about this is that if I’m an audiophile equipment manufacturer or a recording studio I *wouldn’t ever want* a lossy compression scheme (which obviously is what a system where there’s any compression/decompression distortion is) because you’d never be able to show that it’s actually *better*. There aren’t any fancy pointless tests you can do, for instance, to justify higher-end, expensive equipment.

          I mean, if I’m trying to sell people stuff I’d start with a container that contains full multichannel studio recordings + mixing/selection information in some cryptographic container plus some dedicated ASIC/FPGA “reconstruction processor” outputting to DACs. Yeah, the end result would be exactly the same, but *there* would be justification for some magic “blue light.” Plus now your filesize is like, 20 times larger and you can charge more for it or something.

          1. Going back to the audio domain, it begs the question as to why any audiophile would put up with the decompression ‘algorithm’ applied to vinyl recordings.

            I am of course referring to the RIAA equaliser. What that does to group delay is anyone’s guess!

      2. Yep. With multiple terabyte-size HDDs now being standard, there is no reason anymore to save anything in a lower quality. 24 bit, 192k, flac’d.
        Sometimes i downsample to 16/44/flac, for on my phone or whatever where i still have tens of gigabytes of space.
        Maybe it’s different for streaming, but if i care so much about good quality i just download the thing.

          1. That’s a common misconception.

            There’s very little difference in the amount of data transferred between streaming and downloading audio which uses the same encoding method and quality settings, e.g. bitrate.

        1. The reason is well… reason. Even if we assume there are people who can hear difference between 44,1/16 and 192/24 that requires really high quality equpiment plus well prepared environment. Our home audio and mobile phones are nowhere near to that. Waste of space and money.

          1. I have a modest system by audiophile standards and hear and feel a huge difference between 16/44 And 24/192. 16/44 can sound great, but 24/192 can be phenomenal

          2. Nope. No way.

            If all you do is just *play* the audio, sure. Fine. But it’s similar to the reason why you need better color resolution than RGB888 gives you in games, even though it’s essentially fine for photos: when you try to algorithmically screw with stuff, you get obvious color banding. Similarly, if you *manipulate* that audio, say, rebalance it, alter it, mix it with other things, a higher-fidelity master would clearly be audible.

            I mean, the obvious example would be just (digitally) turning up the volume on an extremely faint portion of a recording, possibly to compensate for changes in one’s hearing over the years.

      1. How so, pls provide evidence of how it’s flawed otherwise do you seriously expect others to take you, a stranger online, at your word alone (especially after ironically telling others to not believe what they read online). And when I say evidence I mean measurements, calculations, data that contradicts what you are claiming is false, not just hand waving, angry diatribes and emotional arguments.

      2. No I did not say that it was flawed. I said that it would be insufficient to answer all questions/potential situations.
        MQA is a lossy codec. The point of the video was to prove that. The MQA encoder would NOT have fallen over in the way it did had it been lossless.

        The point is that MQA (and Tidal) are advertising either lossless or “better than lossless” content, and that is NOT what the user is getting. It is false advertising.

        How good/bad MQA is as a lossy codec isn’t really the point, because I wouldn’t want to have to use a lossy codec anyway, and seeing a lossy codec advertised as a lossless one is pretty bad.

    2. If you read MQA response they pretty much show the tester doesn’t know what hecis doing. And if you google his name he is on multiple sites ranting about MQA. The problem with his analysis is what we care about is the sound. Charts don’t tell you about the sound. And MQA sounds good to me. Sorry but this article is crap.

      1. So in a nutshell, discredit someone based on personal preference and smearing their name as opposed to looking at their data and charts which are inherently unbiased (much more so than a corporate entity who financially gains from spreading false info). But no, let’s crap on someone who provides actual data to instead be swayed by bias and emotion. If all you look for in music is that it sounds good then by all means good on you, but for them to make unsubstantiated marketing claims that can be dis-proven and attempt to stifle any attempt to do so is not just dubious, it’s actually illegal. Sorry but your opinion (and it is an opinion without any evidence beyond vaguely saying some stranger online doesn’t know what they are doing, as sort of “pretty much” “proven” by a questionable entity and that an article is crap) is simply crap.

        1. “ If all you look for in music is that it sounds good then by all means good on you”

          What on Earth else are you looking for in your music?!
          If it sounds good, listen to it. If it doesn’t, don’t; perhaps it’s over-compressed, or perhaps it was just rap music to begin with. Either way, who’s going to listen to it if it doesn’t sound good other than a pretentious audiophile?

          1. As a user that’s all that matters, that it sounds good to them. But as a company making marketing claims, they are held to the truth of their claims or they should be fined for false advertising. And any attempt to hide or prevent verification is unacceptable.

          2. I want my music in a lossless format for archival purposes. If I want to put a lot of music on a portable player without a lot of space, I can compress it as ogg at q5 or q6, and get around 5x as much music into the same space as I can with flac. Then if I want to play it on my friend’s player in his car that only works with mp3, I have a lossless source, and I can encode it for that.

            If I’m listening at home with my good quality headphones, I can hear it as clearly as possible, by listening to the original lossless material.

            a good quality ogg or mp3 file will generally sound good enough most of the time, but it is objectively, and subjectively worse than lossless, and something that has been transcoded from one lossless format to another is almost always obvious on any reasonably decent headphones. (decent, not necessarily expensive)

            I often hear tracks on spotify with obvious weird distortions, which 9 times out of 10, aren’t present when I listen to the CD, or flac file I have at home.

            high bit depths and sampling rates, OTOH, are a total red herring.
            I doubt anyone could tell the difference between a properly mastered 44/16 lossless file, and a 192/24 of the same material. (double blind ABX between 192/24, and same file properly resampled to 44/16)

            There may be many cases where the “high def” versions are re-mastered with better levels, less dynamic compression/distortion, etc. But in these cases, when it “sounds better” it sounds better because of the better mastering, and not the higher resolution.

            The extra sampling rate/bit depth does nothing but waste space.

          3. The company is not making false claims. The claims are being misinterpreted. Yes, there is added noise. That’s the secret sauce. The noise is shaped. This is nothing new. What is new is that the format has a fingerprint which can be used to authenticate the master recording that was used. Also new is the unique folding system that allows the format to degrade to lower resolution without modification and to play back as standard 16 bit 44.1K PWM. For the tester, if all they are interested in is what the file looks like, they are going to say the test fails. It is not lossless and no one has ever seriously claimed that. It competes with lossless. They’ve shown that you don’t need huge bandwidth to recreate the sound. The huge bandwidth of high res files is encoding mostly noise actually, and mostly inaudible. MQA is encoding noise that makes sense, and far less of it. Noise is not always bad. ADCs often add dither noise to the final result so that at lower volumes you can’t hear the bits popping on and off. As others have said, all that’s important is how it sounds. Admittedly that is hard to test, because it’s very subjective. Much like the claims of audiophile twats who insist that vinyl sounds better than digital.

      2. I have to say after over a decade of being on this site, I’ve never seen this degree of hand waving for a product. “Not a hack,” par for the course. “He’s wrong because I said so,” very rare. That crap may work over at Reddit or the YouTube comments but here, show your work. You’re dealing with people that with timers, transistors, capacitors, and free time can reproduce the ADC/DAC needed to record and play back high quality sound with plywood or anything else from the low bandwidth analog world. Are there flaws in his work? Only from a sample size for the audio and hardware, but that doesn’t invalidate his findings. It’s not like comparing two waveforms is mathematically difficult and he’s not comparing some low/high pass filters, it’s a straight input vs output from the magical black box.

        Show some respect.

      3. I think I found the same guy commenting here ( https://hackaday.com/Anno1543/De-revolutionibus-orbium-coelestium ):

        “If you read the Vatican response, they pretty much show Copernicus doesn’t know what he is doing… the problem with his analysis is what we care about is subjective perception. Science-y maths, equations and charts, don’t tell you about subjective perception. And it is obvious to me that the sun goes around the Earth. Copernicus’ article is crap.”

      4. Er, how do you think Bob Stuart invented mqa, or in fact how did anyone invent a working transistor. They probably looked at charts. The earth is not flat, and that’s a fact.

      5. Why someone bothers to listen to streamed sheit when listening to music is beyond me. If I listen to music seriously i use flac and headphones. When playing sounds to drown out background noise the compression carries little weight for me since im only noiseblocking anyways. The only thing that bothers me is joint stereo on mp3.

        1. “Why someone bothers to listen to streamed sheit when listening to music is beyond me.”
          Well, I actually found a lot of music I never would have found “only” listening to flac and CD …
          Streaming is wonderful to learn new artists, new albums, new styles.

    3. Musician and engineer here (always a risky combination admittedly). Look… no one cares about any of this. 99% of can not hear the difference between an mp3 and a wav. Trust me, they can’t. Music is a social good, not a quantum mechanics lab. I am fine with innovation, especially when it comes to music creation. But the format changes have had some consistent attributes no one here seems to give a shit about: they lower the take for creators, while they lower costs and increase control for publishers. At the same time, it has become very difficult to exist as a creator without a large amount of PR. Organic scene building is almost impossible when everyone’s eyes and ears are on their phones. Out here where people MAKE music, there are big problems which the format changes drive. MQA is bullshit, sure, and it is bullshit in a context of exploitation, algorithmic wage theft, and concentration of capital. Maybe go outside more?

      1. You assume it’s bullshit. Have you ever tried to hear the difference between a high res or analog master and an MQA? Bob Ludwig says he can’t. That’s good enough for me. I’ve never even heard an MQA but I’m excited about it.

    1. My favorite audiophile nonsense was a device that was intended to play four identical ordinary CDs at the same time, apparently because you’d only lose 1/4 as much audio signal that way.

      Not sure what I2BP is though – any more info on that one?

  2. The fact they rejected the original test files, and then delete the later test files tells all I need about how honest their claims are.
    If they had problem with the tests, they could have kept the summit-ed files and post what they thought was wrong in the tests, instead they try to hide the fact the tests even exist.

    1. The AK4191 is a digital modulator meant to interface to a separate ADC. The 64bits refers to internal digital filtering signal path and not the bit depth of the ADC.

      1. The AKM factory also burned down, so you won’t be buying that in quantity anytime soon. They make great DACs and it is a shame. Research ESS hump. There is now one main player in the market with design problems built in. AKM was the better choice.

  3. MQA has been the the reason for me to cancel my Tidal subscribtion after many years. After a bit of looking around on the internet, it seems I am not the only one. It is a premium price for lossless, while actually it isn’t lossle
    Without ‘MQA equipment’ you definitely get less than standard CD quality, since they “mis”use some of the bits for MQA ‘noise’ .

    1. I agree with you 100%. I am about ready to cancel my tidal as well. Between the lies about MQA compatibility and the never ending lies about atmos native content, I feel like I’ve been paying for years waiting for the payoff that’s been promised and it just never comes. There’s questionable sound quality, horribly questionable support for true multi channel atmos and what hardware will support it, and seemingly no end in sight. It makes me want to sue over the years of paying for a service that has yet to deliver on all the things promised in the bill of sale.

    1. This is mostly a news aggregation site, no? I don’t see the problem. If you want new and original content, maybe you could make some and submit it to the tip line. Just don’t post it anywhere else or people like you will complain.

  4. Thank you for objective view on MQA, it is a bit of black box and you do get the feeling that the quality is better. My observation is some are better than others, but again i think it comes back to if the original is from a master studio.

    I would like to get your recommendation on which one is better out of the streaming services, or maybe one should wait for Spotify HIFI to come out. From a hardware i got the KEF LS50 Wireless 2 and the sound quality on these are amazing. Yet i want to match it with some service which is high quality. Its shame the Tidal does not provide more information about MQA and equally force MQA to be more transparent.

    Thanx

    1. I think audio CDs are most cost effectively streamed to the listener by postal services. Couriers are often more expensive, but may not be as lossy.

      A pair of wires, combined with a CD player, is likely to be less lossy than anything streaming to a KEF LS50 Wireless 2 and can be plugged into the Aux jack on the back of the speaker. You’ll also get decent dynamic range.

    1. Unfortunatelly real life shows that marketing crap works perfectly and science is helpless against it. Look at the comments here on HAD – some people still defend the crap and even expect Golden Sound to correct his “mistakes”. I can only imagine what happens on audio voodoo sites.

  5. Testing? Objective, reproducible measurements?

    Waste of time! That’s going about it all wrong.

    No format will be truly audiophile quality until someone makes a vacuum tube based computer fast enough to encode/decode it!

  6. This really isn’t that hard to prove… Well, its quite trivial really.

    The moment audiophiles give up trusting their ears, they can start using algorithmic methods to prove lossy/lossless codecs.

    [Here is a Gnuradio flow](https://imgur.com/a/DMLR3ey) comparing the same song, one that is “high rate MP3” and the next is “64KB mp3”

    And if you don’t want to download and set up Gnuradio, here’s a [Peertube video] https://videos.trom.tf/videos/watch/457b99a5-e3ee-4cf7-951c-e250b6840724 of me showing how to do it.

    The expectation for a lossless encoding would be NO outputted data, since their waveforms would have annihilated each other. Any deviations are emitted as waveflow. And if you listen to it acoustically, is effectively white noise (expected with XOR). Note that even tiny deviations would show the codec is lossy – as in data is being thrown away. We don’t care the quantity or quality – a non-zero number of deviations is enough to show us their claim is blatantly false.

  7. Back in the day, I used oscilloscope to compare output from CD, MiniDisc and mp3.
    mp3 is crap below 8MB with high got cut off. Anyone with half a brain will hear the different.
    MD is pretty close to CD with some smoothing.

    1. MD (or whatever AAC it was) was surprisingly good.

      MP3s of that era were audibly crappy b/c of low bitrate. (Cymbals are a dead giveaway, if anyone puts you in a low-bitrate MP3 listening test.) But at 192k, they’re not so bad either, really.

      I store all my audio in FLAC. It’s really hard to beat bit-for-bit identical with the source, and 30% compression.

    2. ATRAC1 was pretty lackluster, but by the end of the MD’s effective life upgrades in the decoders made it sound pretty good.

      All of the ATRAC codecs were designed for RAM and CPU efficiency while being better quality per bitrate than ADPCM

      1. ATRAC3plus was pretty damn amazing; you could get audio roughly the same quality as commercial MP3 files (they were all around 192kbps or so at the time), but the file size would end up being anywhere between 1/2 and 1/4 the size.

  8. At least it’s not like that old image file compression scam that “compressed” images to incredibly tiny sizes, while shuffling most of the data off to a hidden file.

  9. When you suffer from a slight form of tinnitus anyway, fuck it.

    For me, digital audio is engineered to an end. It is a tiny amount of data. done. it is good. no loss, great. Don’t start about it again. thanks.

    Great tho someone actually tries to debunk false claims.

    1. Exactly. Most people have no idea about M-S mastering (Hackaday great article idea BTW) or compression or Eqing. Mastering engineers are solely there to make it sound good and sometimes that means ADDing harmonics or distortion.

  10. Are there any software-only decoders for this MQA thing or do you need a hardware decoder even on a Windows PC?
    Maybe someone just needs to do what has been done to many other proprietary media formats over the years and reverse engineer the thing…

    1. Full MQA “benefit” is a result of software unfold followed by proper rendering by an MQA licensed DAC. MQA does not license any DAC that has a post-processing digital-out. This should tell you everything you need to know.

  11. Did you confront What*HiFi magazine with your findings? They have repeatedly considered Tidal the best sounding streaming service and seem to push MQA masters as the pinacle of audiophile enjoyment. I do not agree (at best, it’s just incredibly loud) and prefer lossless flac from Qobuz or HRA streaming (Germany). Thank you for adressing MQA’s flaws this thouroughly.

  12. I see the author and many commentators missing the point. If your test is to look at the resultant audio file and compare it to the original waveform, the test is going to fail here. No one has ever seriously claimed that MQA is lossless. It competes with lossless formats. Yes, MQA adds noise. For that matter, dither adds noise. Noise is not automatically bad. In high bandwidth high res file formats like 24 bit 192 KHz PCM and their lossless compressed derivatives, most of what is being encoded is noise and mostly inaudible. That’s not even the highest bandwidth available. This really is the emperor’s new clothes. You cannot hear the difference. You cannot even really hear the difference between 16 bit and 24 bit audio at the same sampling rate unless you have a very high dynamic range and it’s played back really loud. The difference you hear is the noise floor.

    Back to MQA: it adds noise. The noise is shaped. This is nothing new. What is new is the unique fingerprinting that allows authentication of the original master. Also new is the folding structure that allows the same file to gracefully degrade and be played back as standard 16 bit PCM without modification. That may not sound quite as good as a CD master, but it’s not intended to. The claims are not inaccurate, rather they have been misinterpreted. What sounds good or right is difficult to test because it’s very subjective, much like the unsubstantiated claims of audiophile fanatics who swear up and down that vinyl sounds better than digital. I don’t claim to have golden ears, but I am an audio engineer with a degree in electrical engineering which was focused on digital signal processing. MQA has world renown mastering engineers on board. Who am I, indeed who is anyone, to argue with Bob Ludwig? When setup correctly, MQA is designed to achieve maximum clarity by reducing phase smearing to an absolute minimum. MQA has shown that you don’t need huge bandwidth to capture the essence of a recording. Their response to this test is intelligent and intelligible. I provide a link here:

    https://pastebin.com/2YfT6vfZ

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