Affordable DAC darling Schiit Audio has posted a statement outlining why it will not support MQA audio. The company feels there are too many unknowns to embrace the format, which promises to squeeze the quality of a 24-bit/352kHz recording into a much smaller container, primarily by preserving the timing information contained in a hi-res recording.

I've been following MQA since it was announced back in December 2014 , and I attended the first press event in NYC as well as subsequent events at CES 2015 and CES 2016. In that time, I have not heard a convincing demo of MQA—the A/B demos the company provided thus far have been sighted, and invariably involved a compressed MP3 at a low bitrate (128 kbps) versus MQA. I don't consider those demos to be valid since I have already used blind testing to determine that I can easily and reliably differentiate 128 kbps MP3s from 16/44.1 lossless (CD-quality) audio.
The track selection from an MQA vs. MP3 demo. Note the use of 128 kbps MP3 files.

When I interviewed Bob Stuart about the lack of a convincing A/B comparison , his reply was that soon DACs supporting MQA would be available, and I'd be able to perform that test myself. Well, the day is coming. Soon I will have an MQA-capable DAC and all the hi-res-capable gear needed to give it a good listen—I'm looking forward to that.

There are various facets to Schiit's argument against MQA, and some of them strike me as quite reasonable. Jason Stoddard, the company's co-founder, gave five reasons he is taking a pass on supporting MQA:

1. "We believe that supporting MQA means handing over the entire recording industry to an external standards organization. MQA wants: licensing fees from the recording studios, licensing fees from the digital audio product manufacturers, hardware or software access/insight into the DAC or player, subscription fees from every listener via Tidal, and/or royalties from purchases of re-releases by the recording industry."
2. "Our experience with standards-driven industries is sub-par. Consider the surround market. Companies making surround processors now have to support a dizzying array of different standards, none of which is a market differentiator, and the exclusion of any single standard can mean commercial failure. The result is a market in which competition is stifled and consumers are confused."

3. "We don’t believe MQA is a differentiator for high-end DACs if it is available on phones. Consider SRS, the Sound Retrieval System, as an instructive example. Before being acquired by DTS, it claimed to be on "over a billion devices." However, there is little evidence any consumers considered SRS a must-have, differentiating technology."

4. "We consider MQA to be yet another 'format distraction' that makes high-end audio more confusing and insular. This is a reflection of our position in the market—nearly 1/3 of our revenue is from $99 and under products, and we have one of the youngest customer bases in the industry. It is our experience that when someone starts getting into great audio, they just want a product that will make their current music sound better, rather than one that requires additional investment in streaming subscriptions or new releases."

5. "We feel that, even from a market perspective, many questions need to be answered. When will we see MQA on Tidal? At what cost? What percentage of the library will be MQA? How many releases should we expect to see from Warner in the next 12 months? What will be the cost? Again, a historic example may be cautionary. Consider Sony and DSD. DSD is a Sony technology that they promoted, and yet they released very few recordings in DSD."

Jason's partner Mike Moffat was equally critical of MQA, noting that "In addition to the market questions outlined by my partner, there are many performance questions that cause great concern. Actual decoded bit depth for both MQA and non-MQA DACs, claims of 'lossless,' the need for MQA to tweak their decode algorithm for a specific DAC..."

I found Mr. Moffat's comment about actual bit depth and his questioning whether MQA is truly lossless to be rather interesting. Pragmatically speaking, the compression ratio achieved by MQA is enormous, well beyond what's typically achievable with typical lossless algorithms.

Has MQA cracked the code when it comes to audio compression? Is 1.5 Mbps all the bandwidth anyone will ever need to deliver 2-channel music? I've read the opinions of various respected reviewers and found there is no current consensus—Robert Harley at The Absolute Sound outright states that to his ears, MQA sounds better than original studio masters do. Stereophile's John Atkinson is more circumspect , noting that MQA can't actually reproduce the original studio master and that it has an "effective resolution" that's less that 24-bit. Dr. Mark Waldrep goes a step further by suggesting (in this article) the purported benefit of MQA—reduced ringing—is inaudible.

As far as I'm concerned, the jury is still out of MQA's efficacy when it comes to improving audio fidelity. It's hard enough to reliably discern 320 kbps AAC files from lossless CD-quality sound. Schiit Audio's statement rejecting MQA offers food for thought to anyone already invested in a 16/44.1 library. Ultimately, the audible benefit of MQA is a topic that's far from settled and that could clearly benefit from further discussion, scrutiny, and listening tests.