I recently purchased a very fine album of historical and musical significance. It was actually an MQA file that I downloaded from Onkyo Music. The album is called Tutu, named after Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. It was the last major album recorded by Miles Davis. A combination of Fusion Jazz and Funk, some critics dismissed it at first. But like many of Mile’s albums it was a trendsetter. The music may seem a little dated now by some, with its use of various synthesizers, but Mile’s horn will probably never be dated. He won a Grammy for his performance on this album.
I very much like the music and the sound of the album. i wanted to have a copy with the high quality sound and was not disappointed with this MQA version.
Not long after purchasing Tutu I discovered that Amazon was now offering a remastered 180 gram deluxe vinyl version of Tutu.
I really did not need another copy of Tutu. The vinyl would cost $16 more that the MQA file. But I am afraid that temptation got the better of me. Which version would be the best sonically? Why not do a direct comparison?
There are some inherent problems with any comparison of this nature. Most albums, vinyl or otherwise, have been digitally recorded from the beginning of the 80’s onward. Albums released before 1980 by labels such as Mercury Living Presence and RCA Living Stereo are clearly superior sonically than any of the early CD’s. This is true for vinyl records which were released after 1980 as well.
Tutu was released in 1986. It was an vinyl, digitally recorded, album. MQA has processed the original recording with its own proprietary digital format. We will be listening downstream from all of this. But downstream it is! This is how we listen to much of our recordings these days.
What about playback equipment? A five-figure turntable, tonearm, phono cartridge will extract much more of the recorded sound from the grooves than a typical record playback system. The difference is quite audible. The question is how much we may want to spend or can afford to spend on our components.
On the digital side, there are expensive DAC’s which are often more capable than the cheaper ones. The critical conversion from digital back to analog sound is handled by the DAC and thus the quality of the DAC is important. Are we to employ just high end equipment in our comparison test?
I decided for this comparison test to use reasonably priced equipment that people just getting started in vinyl might have. I chose the $100 Audio Technica AT-LP60 belt driven turntable, which sounds very good for the money. On the digital side I used an AudioQuest DragonFly Red DAC which is an excellent DAC, but certainly not state-of-the-art. My digital source was my downloaded MQA file of Tutu, running on my MacBook Pro laptop through Audirvana Plus (which is state-of-the-art for computer music players). If there is any inherent advantage here it would probably be on the digital side. The vinyl version of Tutu may hsve too much of a handicap to overcome. We shall see.
Amazon was out of stock, but finally may 180 gram vinyl copy of Tutu arrived. It was beautifully presented in quality record selves. A quick listen told me that the remastered recording was well done. It definitely sounded like a quality record. Miles was coming through with great clarity and the overall sound seemed balanced and transparent.
I liked the sound of the MQA version of Tutu very much. Let me say that Miles was in fine form. I liked the funky arrangements and the synths. Miles knew when and how to compliment beautifully all the other playing on the album. But I was not prepared for the what I heard when running a comparison test of the first track (Tutu) compared to the vinyl. A am going to spare you the audiophile talk, covering the frequency spectrum from bottom to top. I will say that the vinyl had more weight in the bass but was not quite as tight. (A state-of-the-art turntable, tonearm, and cartridge would most probably have eliminated any advantage that digital seemed to have here.
Let me just say that the vinyl was more alive. It was more engaging. It was more musical. It was more fun. It drew me in and I did not want to switch to anything else. Some will say that old-timers are just used to the sound of vinyl and that is why they like it. Maybe, except young people are now gravitating to vinyl. Over the years, listening to great playback, the ears become educated. They settle for a certain quality of sound and expect to hear that quality repeated. When it is not repeated a profound disappointment can set in.
I wanted the MQA to sound better. I was rooting for it. I like the convenience of digital. It does not excite me to clean my records and carefully take the albums out of the sleeves. I do enjoy the cover art and I do like looking back through old vinyl albums which bring back fond memories. Nevertheless, I want up to date quality sound. And vinyl is still king, my friends. I am a little sorry to have to report this.
Of course, not all vinyl pressings are good. Old vinyl that has not been properly cared for cannot compete. But I have some very old vinyl made before the digital age which has been properly cared for. Some of these recordings are selling for around five hundred dollars on eBay – not just because they are old and rare, but because they just sound good!
What does this say about MQA? Digital audio has been flawed from the beginning. MQA seems to correct some of the flaws and offers a way of avoiding them with future digital recordings. Nonetheless, apparently a rudimentary turntable, tonearm, and phone cartridge setup is able to extract more musical content out of a well-recorded vinyl record than MQA is able to pull out of digital recordings. The application of MQA may be a boon to streaming music because its reduced file size over other high definition formats. In terms of our overall musical enjoyment of digital recordings, more refinement may be required.