I have not been an audiophile for 40 years. And I’m not a sound engineer. But I am pretty good at explaining things.
I’m in cybersecurity.
This explanation answers the MQA question for free.
- Do high-res audio formats actually matter?
- What matters more, recording quality or high-res?
- Is MQA hype or legit?
And I think I finally arrived at a concise answer to these questions, which is that many variables matter, including high-resolution file formats. But they matter in different amounts, depending on your current state.
Few religious debates are as fierce as audiophiles talking about what makes up a good listening experience.
Head-fi is Hi-fi but with headphones.
There are far more variables in the Hi-Fi and Head-Fi experiences than most realize, and depending on your current state the best way to upgrade varies significantly. Here are some examples.
- If you have consumer gear, the best thing you can do to upgrade your experience is to upgrade your gear
- If you have audiophile-level gear, the recording quality becomes the most important factor
- High-resolution files only matter if you’re doing everything else really well
- If you have a perfect recording and phenomenal gear, then (and only then) does high-res start to matter
- The more you improve one factor, the more important the others become
- If you have an average recording—or bad gear—high-res audio basically gives you nothing
- A phenomenal recording at 16/44 will sound vastly superior to garbage at 24/96
- MQA doesn’t sound great because of one thing: it’s a bag of tricks
- MQAs trick is to elevate multiple variables at the same time, and then add high-res as the cherry on top
This is simply a problem of misattribution.
There’s a metric for resolution, but not for recording quality.
People often hear high-res audio and say, “That sounds amazing!”, and then make the mistake of thinking it was because of being high-res. Which makes sense because that’s the only thing they can lock onto. There’s no way to check the metadata and see if something was a good recording or not.
Just because more high-res files sound good than low-res, doesn’t mean it’s the high-res that’s the difference.
What’s far more likely is that those who really care about making good recordings are more likely to release in high-res.
This applies to artists, studios, and music services.
This is why I’m somewhat in the MQA camp. Not because high-res is magic. Or because they have some other specific voodoo behind the curtain. I think they’re improving multiple variables—starting with the best recording they can get—and then releasing the result in high-res at the end. So, multiple small things that combine to be significant.
High-res and MQA doesn’t guarantee you’ll have a good experience, but it significantly raises the chances.
MQA/High-res doesn’t guarantee a good experience, but it gives you a much better chance.
The thing I like about high-res, and MQA, is that they signal a higher chance that the track will sound good. Most people think that’s because of the MQA or high-res pixie dust, but it’s far more likely that, for an artist, they simply care more about quality—including the recording—and for a service releasing these formats—picking good recordings is some part of the selection criteria.
In short, if you take an average 16/44 file and an average 24/96 or MQA file, you’re more likely to get a great experience from the latter. But only because they’re likely to have started with a good recording in the first place—and then maybe enhanced it later.
- Many factors contribute to whether a track sounds good or not
- For lower-end gear, the gear is the bottleneck
- For high-end gear, the recording is what matters most, then the gear, then the file resolution
- A great recording at 16/44 will be far better than an average recording at 24/96
- MQA, like high-res, has the ability to make a wonderful track into a spectacular track, but only with audiophile-grade gear and if the recording is top 1%.