What I Think, What’s New On Qobuz

By: Gary Alan Barker
May 20th, 2024

I wanted to take a moment and talk about one of the reasons that Qobuz is better than its competitors, and that is MQA. I hear you screaming, “But Qobuz doesn’t offer MQA!” Exactly, Qobuz only streams actual 24-bit/192kHz files, not 24-bit/192kHz compressed into 24-bit/44.1kHz files. Several years ago I was asked to listen to a 24-bit/384kHz compressed into a 24-bit/192kHz MQA file with and without MQA processing. The difference in sound was too great to be accounted for with the difference in sound between 24-bit/192kHz and 24-bit/384kHz, it almost sounded like a different mix (which is what several people thought was going on at the time), and it took me a long time to realize why.

MQA is a lossy compression system, but not in the way that you are used to, say with MP3 vs FLAC. MP3 and FLAC are data compression schemes that use a complex substitution code, a simple example is to convert from base two to base ten so that 1100011 becomes 99 hence five bits of data are removed, that is not how it is done, but it gives you the idea. MP3 can be thought of as rounding the numbers up thus some of the data is lost. MQA on the other hand converts a higher resolution (resolution in this case being number of samples) to a lower resolution in an optimized way. Essentially MQA uses an algorithm to determine which are the key samples and logs their position in the time domain, EG: it chooses the most important (according to whatever standard they are using to determine this) 40,000 samples out of the 192,000 samples and stores their position in time in the 4,100 samples that are set aside for data storage. What this means is that regardless of whether or not they are correct in their choices, the samples in the resulting 44.1K file will always be incorrect when played back through a non-MQA processor due to this intentionally created jitter. Hence, if you want to listen to streaming music without an MQA processor, you don’t want to listen to an MQA file. Also, just to set the record straight, an actual 24-bit/192kHz file is still preferable to a 24-bit/44.1kHz file even if it has undergone MQA encoding.

And now on to the music:

My first find for the month was “Fearless Movement” (24-Bit/44.1kHz – Qobuz) by Kamasi Washington. The opening track “Lesanu” starts with some light percussion and religious chanting, backed by distant crescendo orchestra, then evolves into some extraordinary and complex progressive jazz, with 15 players, 5 of which are percussionists I don’t exaggerate, along with a very tasty piano solo that devolves into Kamasi’s sax solo. Perhaps I should say lead instead of solo as throughout the song everyone is playing full bore as if they were all doing simultaneous solos. “Asha The First” which features an amazing Thundercat solo makes it clear that this is not a light listening, hear it all the first time, type of experience. The varied vocal styles from the opening R&B style choral to the Rap refrains in the middle add dimension to the frantic pace of the song. The transition to third track “Computer Love” is almost a shock, as it opens with a mellow horn trilogy that flows into a slow romantic ballad, which despite its pace is composed of intense virtuoso performances overlayed in a dense field of sound. Track four “The Visionary” is notable for being only a minute ten seconds long and it feeds into “Get Lit” which features George Clinton on vocals interspersed with D Smoke. “Dream State” is an ethereal almost ambient piece offering a jazz version of what could pass for Tangerine Dream. As it will take more than one listening session to do justice to this 1 hour, 26 minute, and 16 second masterpiece, I’ll pause here.

In the three-day gap between listening sessions, Qobuz put up 43 new albums so I decided to start with the newest release Shannon and the Clams’ “The Moon Is In The Wrong Place” (24-Bit/48kHz – Qobuz). The first track “The Vow” had a very early ’60s “On The Boardwalk” feel using many of the same progressions with a female vocal, whereas “The Hourglass” was more mid-’60s psychedelic and very ‘Doors’y, though obviously again with a female singer. This fast-paced mid-’60s underground psychedelic sound continued through “Big Wheel”, while “Oh So Close, Yet So Far” returned to the mellower Phil Spector flavor with a quick beach music beat. “UFO” was highlighted by a change in vocal with a deeper almost masculine voice, and a poppier ‘Strawberry Alarm Clock’ organ-heavy arrangement. If you ever wanted to visit an underground Go-Go Disco of the ’60s this is the album for you, with every track exploring a different aspect of that scene. And like that scene, not every track will be a gem, but they will entertain, there is even an acoustic/electric folk tune “In The Grass”.

For something completely different, there was “Home” (24-Bit/96kHz – Qobuz) as performed by the Miró Quartet. This opens with a composition by Kevin Puts (“Home”) which he orchestrated for string quartet, which is magically performed by the Miró Quartet which swings from sweet and mellow to manically energetic through its three movements. Samual Barber’s “Quartet No. 1: ii. Molto Adagio” follows this up, a gentle flowing layered piece. Next is “Microfictions [volume 1] (Caroline Shaw)” which has 6 movements and a short poem read at the beginning, followed by “String Quartet in B Minor, Op. 11 (Samuel Barber – 3 movements)”. It is amazing how much music can come from four simple string instruments, but the subtlety and emotion expressed in this performance is exquisite, though I do think the concluding “Over the Rainbow (Arr. for String Quartet by William Ryden)” sums it all up.

Reference system used in this review: LSA VT-70 Tube Integrated AmpAudio-gd R2R-1 DACBlack Dragon CablesCore Power Technologies A/V Equi=Core 1000Vera-Fi Audio VBH-1 (Vibration Black Hole) isolation feet, XSA-Labs Vanguard Loudspeakers, two Veri-Fi Audio LLC Vanguard Caldera 10 Active Subwoofers, and Dan Clark Audio E3 Planar Magnetic Headphones

HiFiAudio.Guru Playlist: https://open.qobuz.com/playlist/10673532

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