It’s always been easy to start a fight in an audiophile bar, pretty much from back when Edison invented the phonograph (well, his version of it, but that’s a tale for another time). Back in those times, audiophiles (but they called them music-lovers back then) would argue about which needles sounded the best, the ones made of bamboo, or those made of steel. (And they did call them needles back then… the word ‘stylus’ only came along many years later.)

When the phonogram was electrified, the opportunities to start fights in audiophile bars increased enormously. Direct drive vs. idler (rim) drive. Belt drive vs. direct drive. Triodes vs. pentodes. Valves vs. solid-state. Class A vs. Class AB. Class A vs. all the other amplifier Classes (Class-D, Class-H, Class G, etc). And who could forget CD vs. LP? That one’s still raging. Cassette vs. Elcaset. CD vs. MiniDisc. 

And then there was MiniDisc vs. DCC. The so-called ‘Digital Compact Cassette’ wins my double prize for the worst format ever invented as well as the most short-lived format ever released. It was also probably solely responsible for Philips’ downfall in the field of consumer electronics. To be accurate, I don’t think anyone ever fought about DCC. Everyone except Philips could see that it was doomed even before the first (and almost only product) embodying it went on sale. Funnily enough, a bar would be a good place to argue about DCC because although the technology failed, a technology invented to manufacture the special record/play heads required by the DCC format is now used to manufacture the filters used to remove yeast particles from beer, which has resulted in clearer, better-tasting brews.

But if you want to start a fi ght in an audiophile bar in 2018 you just need to stand up and yell out: ‘I hate MQA!’ John Atkinson, the editor of Stereophile magazine, who’s been refereeing audiophile bar fights for more than 35 years, says he’s witnessed more angry arguments about MQA than just about any other subject. Google MQA and the first page will give you one link to a Forbes Magazine article saying how MQA is delivering ‘Studio Quality sound’ and another to an article on Linn Products’ website titled ‘MQA is Bad for Music. Here’s why.’ Click on another of the links and you’ll get told that MQA is ‘a method of digitally storing recorded music as a file that’s small and convenient enough to download or stream without the sonic sacrifices traditionally associated with compressed fi les’ and that when you play an MQA file, you’ll hear music ‘exactly as the mastering engineer heard it in the studio.’ (Mmm, that one sounds eerily familiar.)

Jim Collinson, of Linn, explains MQA this way (paraphrased, because he takes two pages to do it): ‘You have to pay MQA for a licence to build recording equipment using the process. You can’t make software that processes MQA without paying for a license. Artists have to pay to use the MQA logo. Service providers who stream MQA have to pay for a licence. Hi-fi manufacturers selling MQA-compatible components have to pay for a licence.’ Collinson’s conclusion? ‘MQA is an attempt to control and extract revenue from every part of the (music) supply chain.’

Supporters of MQA like to claim that MQA files can be played back without MQA-equipped equipment. John Siau of Benchmark Media Systems says this is true, but if you do, sound quality suffers. ‘If you try to play MQA audio in an incompatible environment, you are left with 1–3 bits of semi-correlated pseudo-random noise,’ he writes on his website, adding ‘that has the potential to diminish your experience.’

You can read Siau’s technical analysis of MQA HERE. I’d suggest reading it carefully before you pick your next fight in an audiophile bar. # greg borrowman