Part 2 – We Go Deep into the World of Those Opposed to MQA & Bill Leebens Speaks with GoldenSound
STRATA-GEE: This is the second installment of our series on the controversy engulfing MQA, conducted in partnership with guest poster Bill Leebens. In this post, you will learn more about those who are critical of MQA, with some going on the record for the first time for this story. MQA has been controversial almost from the beginning – with an intense opposition that ebbs and flows over time. But as we told you in our introductory installment (see MQA Controversy – A True Audio Breakthrough? Or a Marketing Scam?), a recent YouTube video critique from an audiophile not involved in the audio industry, has spurred a huge resurgence of interest (that video had over 267,000 views!), in part because of the perhaps naive but seemingly earnest reasonableness of “GoldenSound” and the heavy-handed backslap from MQA.
Learn more on why some oppose MQA
Henry Kissinger allegedly once said, “University politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.” Yes, both the origin and the exact wording are in dispute. Get over it, there is still truth there.
If there is a realm in the audio world that seems the domain of academicians, it’s digital audio: the AES Journal in the last 40 years has featured more differential equations and Fourier transforms than discussions of sound quality. It seems to be distasteful to even discuss sound as a physical phenomenon.
Personal Attacks of Bewildering Intensity
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that discussion boards on digital audio are filled with personal attacks that bewilder with their intensity, allied to topics that can’t be described in an elevator pitch, much less understood. And that brings us back to MQA, and the recent resurgence in the controversy surrounding it. In true academic style, this installment will be somewhat lengthy, and perhaps a little repetitive – but we’ll try to keep things moving.
Through the years, there have been plenty of folk in the audio biz who have expressed wariness or skepticism over MQA, raising philosophical objections, commercial concerns, dislike of sound quality—you name it, somebody somewhere disliked it and felt free to express their feelings, at high volume and at very great length. Those feelings may or may not be valid, depending on your point of view. As mentioned last time, the floodgates reopened on the topic because of a YouTube video posted by a young economics student who had long been involved in music and audio, and was curious about MQA’s claims, and its workings.
The First GoldenSound Video
If you haven’t seen it, the first video by “GoldenSound” can be viewed below. In putting together his video critique, GoldenSound did something quite clever and that no professional reviewer thought of – he submitted music files to be published on the Tidal streaming service that included embedded test-tones and other features designed to test the effects of MQA processing. You can learn of his process and findings by viewing the video below.
The video generated a lot of views and a new wave of online audio blog discussions about the relative merits or demerits of MQA. It even generated a response from MQA’s founder, Bob Stuart, which you can see in its terse and pithy entirety here: https://bobtalks.co.uk/a-deeper-look/all-that-glitters-is-not-golden/.
GoldenSound Video #2 Responding to the Bob Talks Reaction
As you’ll learn from my discussion with GoldenSound below, even though he had not originally expected to do so, he ended up responding to MQA’s blog post in another widely viewed video critique.
Feel free to go through all with a fine-toothed comb and draw your own conclusions. The point is that a YouTube poster who had previously averaged about 1,000 views on his videos, suddenly had a video with over a quarter-million views. One might infer from such that the topic already interested or concerned a whole lot of folks.
The GoldenSound Interview
I talked with “GoldenSound” – he prefers that you know him only by that name – and our exchange follows. The well-modulated dulcet tones you hear in the video are exactly what I heard over Zoom; if nothing else, he has a future doing voice-overs for Jaguwar:
Were you surprised at the amount of attention your first video received?
I was VERY surprised. When I posted that video I had around a thousand subscribers, and most of my videos would get around a thousand views or so. I figured that given the topic it’d likely get viewed a bit more than a normal review, but certainly was not expecting it to get the level of attention it did.
When you set out to make the first video, did you think of it as simply informative—or cautionary, or both?
I think it is both, I set out with the intention of performing a test that no one else had done. I felt that it would be interesting, and whatever the results happened to be, would contribute to the conversation around MQA with some good evidence.
In the end it turned out that the result of my tests showed and reinforced much of what others had shown before in other ways, most importantly, that MQA is not lossless.
There is a line between ‘fluffy’ marketing which is fine, and in this industry where everything is inherently quite subjective, is ever-present. But making a claim that a product sounds wonderful or warm or dynamic is very different to making an objective claim that a product has a certain performance spec, in this case, being lossless.
These claims should always be taken with a pinch of salt no matter what they are. Manufacturers SHOULD be called out when they give specifications that are untrue, it’s just dishonest and will lead customers into buying something thinking it is better than it truly is.
If a car manufacturer sold a ‘turbocharged’ car, which later turned out to NOT have a turbo inside, people have every right to be annoyed about that. It doesn’t matter if it’s still a great car, a fast and agile and all [a]round wonderful machine, the marketing was a lie and some people will have bought that car based on that false claim. The fact that it goes 200mph does not change the fact that this “turbocharged” car has no turbo.
The cautionary tale is that specs and claims of any product should always be double-checked, because they are not always true. And especially when a company makes it VERY difficult to actually test something, it suggests there is a reason they don’t want you to….
The tone of vid 1 struck me as outrage mixed with disappointment. In your second, after MQA’s reaction, you seem resigned and almost amused. Why was that?
In the first video I was quite shocked, I’d sort of expected MQA not to be lossless, but I didn’t expect all the issues I encountered to come up. And I was angry that many consumers, including myself at one point, had been misled into paying extra for something based on what appears to be false claims.
I was also rather disappointed that MQA didn’t respond more constructively. In their email to me and their ‘bob talks’ response, they focused much more on trying to discredit the testing rather than offering any alternative evidence or means of proving the claims. There was no real progress toward transparency made which was what frustrated me.
In my eyes, people’s money had been taken based on false or heavily misleading claims and that was a real shame.
For the second video, I was resigned to the fact that MQA was not going to offer any middle ground, access to testing, or real transparency of any sort. And that was made clear by their response once again focusing on trying to discredit me and the tests I conducted, rather than offer any evidence to show that their product does what they say. This is a recurring theme it seems, such as when they tried to counter the concerns about the ‘leaky’ filter design raised at RMAF 2018 by questioning who the source was, rather than actually addressing the concern.
They provide convincing looking explanations in their response that don’t actually hold up once you properly look at them, and they still rely on unproven claims of things such as ‘deblurring’.
And so whilst I didn’t really want to make a 2nd video as I don’t like spending hours working on something inherently rather negative, I felt that it was important to say something and leave the door open as wide as possible for MQA to be transparent and so I offered several easy ways for them to provide concrete evidence that MQA is indeed lossless.
As I mentioned before, all I asked for from the get-go was transparency. Myself and others have raised substantial concerns which fairly conclusively disprove their claims. The ball is in their park to provide real evidence to the contrary now and attacking those who are raising concerns won’t fix anything.
The MQA reaction to your video seemed to combine disdain, antagonism, and threats (“libelous”). At the same time, it seemed to avoid a direct response to most of your observations. Did you expect a different reaction from them? If so–what did you expect?
I’d agree completely. It was a long and clearly quite carefully constructed response which didn’t actually address or disprove the concerns raised by me and others at all. I didn’t actually expect MQA to respond at all, and was very surprised when I saw the bob talks blog. I’d expected that they would either simply not address the video at all and try to just let any attention from it fizzle away, or that they would make a statement with some fairly clear evidence of…something at the least.
I certainly wasn’t expecting the response they put out and if I’m honest I think it did more harm than good. Some of the statements in that response were in my opinion so clearly crafted to imply one thing whilst leaving legal wiggle room for them to say they didn’t actually claim what they were implying that they must have underestimated the intelligence of the average reader if they felt that people wouldn’t notice.
After the post came out I had quite literally dozens of people on forums, discord and via email mentioning the “MQA files are delivered losslessly” quote alone, before my part 2 video came out.
To an outsider—albeit one in the audio biz—the response from the public to your vids seems almost completely positive. Is that how it’s seemed to you?
This was actually the most surprising thing about the video. I’d expected to get a LOT of negative reaction to it. I had expected that many MQA fans would be vocal in their defense of MQA, but I was pleasantly surprised to see how positively people responded to the video.
There have been the vocal few who are very defensive of it of course, though in most of those cases not for reasons that I actually discussed in my video. The most common defense is that they simply like the sound of MQA, which is totally fine. As I mentioned in the video, anyone can and should be free to listen to what they enjoy the most. But it becomes a problem when that product infringes on the ability of others to choose if they do or do not wish to use it.
You SHOULD be able to choose MQA if you like it. But you should NOT be forced into paying more for a product because it has MQA included with no ability to opt out, and you should not HAVE to stream MQA versions of songs because there is no lossless version available.
Given that there are now numerous streaming services offering hi-res, how do you perceive the future of MQA?
I think that MQA is likely to struggle. Their company filings are public and it is clear they are losing a LOT of money. They have investors which will carry them through for at least a year or so, but beyond that, it’s hard to see how it can survive unless something drastic happens.
Their business plan seemingly relied on MQA ‘snowballing’ and becoming quite dominant as a format, and omnipresent in audio hardware. But with Apple and Spotify both offering their own lossless streaming platforms, that throws one enormous spanner in the works. This will be a struggle for Tidal as well as MQA as Apple and Spotify both have some serious pull. Even as an audiophile myself, the only thing keeping me subscribed to Qobuz at the moment is the Roon integration.
Time will tell if Spotify integrates MQA, but I can’t ever see Apple working with them. Not because of anything to do with MQA specifically but just because Apple typically prefers to just make their own alternative to something rather than work with third parties.
Not to mention, Tidal themselves are now offering subscription tiers that exclude MQA. Meaning there is little left to ‘push’ MQA to the masses and I personally cannot see how in the current market climate MQA can move from where they are now to where they need to be to make a profit.
What have you learned about MQA from having done these videos? Is there anything you’d like the public to know about your reasons or motivations for doing the videos?
I can’t say I’ve learned too much about MQA specifically. The testing for the most part just provided more evidence for existing concerns.
But as to why I made the video, it’s twofold.
Firstly, because I felt it was fascinating. I love tinkering with and looking deeper into anything to do with audio. MQA was an interesting product no matter what I or others feel about it and it was worth looking into.
One of my biggest issues in audio is that there is not much room for a curious middle ground. People tend to lean heavily into a ‘just use your ears’ or ‘measurements are everything’ camp.
And there isn’t much room in the middle to sit and go ‘hmm, this R2R DAC measures worse but sounds better than this Delta-Sigma DAC, let’s find out why that is’. And I want to make some videos to try to change that and encourage others to explore, poke at, and test things more, and challenge popular assumptions for which there isn’t much evidence.
And secondly, because false marketing irritates me. This isn’t anything to do with MQA specifically, and there are products that I like a lot which I’ll without hesitation call out false claims made by the manufacturer. In fact I have a review coming up soon for a product which will be my go-to recommendation for its price point, cause it sounds wonderful, but the review will also talk about how one of the major selling points of the product is completely untrue.
Manufacturers should be honest about what they’re selling.
Let me conclude by thanking you for your time and thoughtful explanations of the evolving issues you faced in making your case on MQA.
Others in the Anti-MQA Camp
As mentioned, from MQA’s outset, many have expressed concerns over it, both inside and outside the biz. One of the first companies to reject MQA was Scottish manufacturer Linn, which historically has been the focus of a lot of controversy themselves. The title of their initial salvo, “MQA Is Bad For Music. Here’s Why” left little doubt regarding their view.
Schiit Audio (snicker if you must), led by digital pioneer Mike Moffatt and fellow engineer Jason Stoddard, made it known early on that they wouldn’t support MQA: https://www.schiit.com/news/news/why-we-wont-be-supporting-mqa
One of the most consistent and visible non-fans of MQA is PS Audio’s CEO, Paul McGowan. His Daily Posts and “Ask Paul” YouTube videos made it very clear early on that he didn’t like the sound of MQA, or the involvement required to implement it—but ultimately, PS products offered MQA, due to demand for it. Here is just one of Paul’s videos below.
(Full disclosure, if it matters: I was Director of Marketing at PS during the period of debate regarding MQA, and its subsequent licensing.)
Industry CEO Explains MQA Fails to ‘Meet the Threshold’ of True Innovation
Digital audio company Exogal’s CEO Jeff Haagenstad echoed the feelings of a number of companies I spoke with – but interestingly enough, Haagenstad was the only one willing to go on record. This is excerpted from a much longer statement:
“In the case of MQA, there were a lot of aspects we were uncomfortable with. Having to hand over all the Intellectual Property around our proprietary DAC to a company with a historical connection to Meridian was uncomfortable. The fact that in testing, we were not achieving the same results as claimed was uncomfortable. We were repeatedly assured that if we handed over the IP, MQA could be “tuned” to our DAC architecture. Also, the backbones (1GB home internet, 4G mobile, etc.) for streaming high resolution files had improved dramatically to the point where you can stream true high resolution music, in a car speeding down a freeway, with no losses or glitches, seemed to obviate the usefulness of a semi-lossy compression scheme. Since we had a lot of questions around both the business issues and the technical efficacy and usefulness of MQA, we decided to roll the dice and pass. We weren’t making a judgment on whether or not MQA was an actual innovation, it just didn’t meet the threshold that EXOGAL has set for what qualifies as innovation for us, our products, and our target customers.”
Audio Bloggers Weigh In on MQA
And of course, the online commenters have their say as well.
“Archimago’s Musings” has appeared as a Blogspot since 2012. The heading on the site says, “A more objective take on audiophile topics among other topics.” Through the years he has taken on technologies he views as deficient or overhyped, as well as companies that he views as disingenuous or misleading. MQA – both the technology and the company – have frequently been targeted. In an entry from 2017, he wrote: “I don’t like talking about MQA based on my general impression of what they’re trying to do and the way they try to convey supposed ‘value’ to the audiophile world through their advertisements and sponsored articles in the audiophile press. Nonetheless, sometimes it’s just necessary [italics his] to comment and more importantly to put some of the rhetoric to the test. There appears to be a remarkable schism between those who advocate and praise MQA and those who have concerns. I’m pretty sure there are many wishing that MQA would just go away instead of complicating music playback with yet another questionable variant.” See more here: https://audiophilestyle.com/ca/reviews/mqa-a-review-of-controversies-concerns-and-cautions-r701/.
According to the “About” page on the AIX Records site, Dr. Mark Waldrep is “the head of the Audio Recording area of the Division of the Digital Media Arts Department at CSU Dominguez Hills, founded and manages AIX Media Group, AIX Records, and iTrax.com, the world’s first high definition, surround music download site.” Waldrep records music in 96/24 PCM, and through the years has come out against higher-rate hi-res recording as being unnecessary, decries DSD, and following early curiosity about MQA, became an ardent opponent. He has frequently linked to or featured Archimago’s criticisms of MQA, and recently lauded the GoldenSound videos on his blog: https://www.realhd-audio.com/?p=7258
Editor of Audiophile Style Says that MQA is a ‘Solution in Search of a Problem’
Finally: the website Computer Audiophile and its subsequent incarnation Audiophile Style have been harsh critics of MQA for years, and Editor Chris Connaker was the presenter during the MQA-related dust-up at RMAF a few years back. His statement regarding MQA is surprisingly moderate and focuses on control issues. By agreement, it is here presented intact:
“I’ve always looked at MQA as a solution in search of a problem and a Federal Government style approach to music playback as opposed to letting the states (equipment manufacturers) decide how best to digitally process audio. In addition to manufacturer choice limitations, MQA Ltd’s stated goal of providing record labels with a single deliverable MQA file for all services removes consumer choice for playing non-MQA music. Many consumers are taking advantage of the expanding application of digital signal processing for convolution, room correction, Dolby ATMOS audio, and user-selectable filters, all of which are incompatible with MQA. For many consumers who’ve lived through proprietary music formats, and some who turned to piracy because of it, the time to use freely available technologies that have proven extremely capable over two decades has come. Newer isn’t always better, especially if there’s a tax associated with it like there is with MQA.”
Next Installment – MQA Supporters Have Their Say
This installment has focused – at great length! – on the critics of MQA, and the recent resurgence of criticism of MQA, indicating that an undercurrent of interest and concern has long existed. The next installment will focus on the enthusiastic supporters of MQA in both the audio and music worlds and a long chat with founder Bob Stuart.
A Bill Leebens Guest Post
Bill Leebens has been a published writer since the age of 15 and has worked in audio since he was 16. He edited Copper magazine while at PS Audio and has also worked in automobile racing, medical imaging, and even as an IRS tax examiner. Bill lives in Colorado with two impatient dogs and several very patient humans.
Reach Bill: firstname.lastname@example.org