MQA with authenticated DAC and RPi

Volumio Information

Volumio Version: 8.78
Hardware: Raspberry Pi 4 with Tidal connect (HiFi sub)
DAC: ifi Zen DAC (MQA authenticated)

Hi - can anyone let me know whether I should be expecting this setup to fully unfold MQA?

to be clear - I recognise that there has been some discussion about this, and it’s nearly but not quite obvious.

I think the essential question is - does the Volumio player (in Tidal connect mode, having been triggered to play by the Tidal app) decode the MQA track in a way that the downstream DAC can recognise and further unfold it?

Essentially - the MQA light on my DAC is not lighting up which means it isn’t seeing an MQA track. The Volumio app is reporting ‘higher that CD’ - ie often 48 khz 24 bit - rates, so it is doing more than nothing, but on tracks that I know unfold to higher rates (96 and 192 khz) I don’t think it is working. However I don’t know for a certainty that this isn’t how it should be working - although Darko’s news item did seem to suggest that the MQA light on a USB DAC should light up.

This is either ‘Eureka’ or ‘Close but no cigar’ for me - it would be great if anyone could confirm what should be going on here…
thanks.

you could only catch mqa if you have your volumio at 100% but mqa is not always higher,
if the master is 44 khz you only get 44 khz

Hi I understand this frustration as I also use ifi gear ( idsd micro) . If you have the latest firmware driver installed the ifi unit will not change colour. However, the device you are using for tidal connect will report whether you are using mqa or not.

Is the Zen able to do a full MQA decode? I can’t determine from their web product info.
Volumio will pass the MQA file to a fully capable MQA dac to be decoded. Volumio doesn’t do the first unfold to pass off to your dac for further processing. So, if your dac is just a renderer (needs something to do the first decode) it won’t show MQA in this method.

Found this on the what hifi forum:
“iFi should clearly declare in the ZEN dac specs that it is only an MQA renderer, not a decoder, thus it will not be able to perform MQA unfolding if you don’t use a software to perform the first unfolding (like Tidal app, Audirvana, …).
It is very disappointing this kind of misleading information by iFi”

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Many thanks for the contributions.

dknk - my conclusion is similar, but I find my disappointment is aimed at Volumio - it seems to me that Volumio is only doing MQA passthrough, not decode - so the ifi DAC is not getting a decoded file and is therefore not unfolding it.

My testing:

I have a Raspberry Pi 4 running Volumio
I have this outputting audio via USB to an iFi Zen DAC - which is an MQA authenticated renderer.

I have Tidal (HiFi subcription) running on an iPad

  1. play track on Tidal app and switch output to Volumio in Tidal connect mode.
    Effect - music starts playing - volumio registers that it’s better that CD quality, but the DAC does not show MQA detected.

  2. play same track on Tidal app but connect iPad directly to the DAC by USB.
    Effect - music starts playing - volumio is not involved - and the DAC MQA lights up to show MQA. However - using 4 USB cables and WiFi means that the track kept pausing. Need to do more testing to see if this was the cables or the WiFi - downloading the track seemed to help, which obviously suggests the WiFi

  3. play same track - via Volumio - direct and with no involvement from Tidal or iPad.
    Effect - music starts playing and no MQA light.

  4. as a control - use Roon. This involves the same hardware - but with the Raspberry Pi running Roon Bridge under Linux and the iPad running the Roon app to call up a Tidal track via its own app. This time the Roon app is the decoder and it handles all the networking via its own proprietary protocol.
    Effect - music plays and the DAC light shows MQA - plus the Roon app gives a full breakdown of the playback chain and reports exactly what is going on at each stage.

So - the Tidal app on the iPad is acting as decoder (this is not the case for the Tidal app on Android, as Android audio output on USB is different - I believe like Direct Show in Windows) but the Volumio app is not - whether direct or via Tidal connect.

Ie - in order to properly unfold MQA using Volumio - with the convenience of Tidal connect - you need a full fat MQA device which is capable of acting as decoder and renderer - these are expensive to the point that using a Raspberry Pi becomes non sensical.

My aim is to make no compromises on quality within reason, but maintain convenience in the sense of using a tablet for interaction.

Previously I had ruled out Volumio because I didn’t like the interface or search (which I still don’t) and was really impressed with the news about Tidal Connect. That seemed to solve all my problems.

But - it doesn’t.
I’ll still need to cough up for a Roon licence. Or - get a better quality long USB extension

Have you read this post here about your DAC? It seems it is not capable of fully unfolding MQA, and would need Volumio to do the first unfold.

MQA is a proprietary format, and it would be illegal for Volumio to do the unfolding without an appropriate licence.

chsims1 - many thanks - that would have saved time…

totally confirms what I thought was going on - Volumio is not acting as a decoder - Roon does - but that is one reason it’s so much more expensive.

The terms involved do not help - and one of the criticisms that I think is valid about MQA is that it is so damned impenetrable.

It would be far easier if they talked about ‘Decoding’ and ‘Unfolding’ as different things. Then the fact that a renderer can do unfolding - but only unfolding - would make sense.

I also think that my DAC cannot fully unfold - but I mean a different thing by it - there should be the first unfold to 96/24 - but there should be further possible unfolds to 192/24 etc - but here you don’t get simple answers, and the sound is awesome whatever is really going on, so I’m not motivated to complain.

But - for me anyway - this all means that Volumio is not a solution…

I won’t bother saying that:

“one of the criticisms that I think is valid about MQA is that it is so damned impenetrable”

is possibly by design. :sunglasses:

In Tidal there are fewer 192 MQA files to be found. The ones I’ve found are older recordings strangely enough. Most newer MQA recordings that I listen to unfold to 24/96 or 24/88. Try this one for a test, Fleetwood Mac - Kiln House (1970). It unfolds to 24/192. I have a Gustard X16 dac ($500 usd from Amazon) doing the full MQA decode attached to a Rpi 4 via USB and Volumio.

Oh - for sure

cards on the table - I love the sound of a nicely unfolded MQA track - but I love the sound of the same track recorded to a 96/24 or better yet 192/24 FLAC file.

But - high resolution music is so much better than 44/16 - and that is far better than compressed beyond the CD quality standard.

I was listening to stuff than Chesky records did in 2 channel 96/24 which could be played with a standard DVD player in 1998 - the mess of DVD audio vs SACD (I had a universal player) was so disheartening it put me off music for at least a decade - part of what has been so nice personally recently has been discovering how far digital audio has come in the last 10 years or so.

MQA for me is about discovery - I have all my DVD-Audio disks ripped and playable from server using JRiver, but discovering how engaging Tidal masters could be - coupled with the combination of suggestions, and that it was driving the re-mastering of a ton of classics … it was a revelation!

And don’t forget that Meridian were behind the codec used in DVD-Audio too - I’m sure that there is still some bitterness about that that drives some of the hate.

I cannot be bothered with any of it - MQA will not be for everyone for a bunch of reasons - but there is absolutely no doubt at all that it works (if you define ‘works’ by - can it sound great?) - and it can be acquired surprisingly reasonably.

If volumio offered a plan with an MQA decoder (recognising the additional cost to them) that might fly - or if Tidal were to allow decoding in connect mode only - where Volumio is only passing the file from a Tidal app which does have decoding capability - that might also work.

I’m not knocking Volumio - I actually think this falls to Tidal to make it clear what the restrictions of Tidal connect are.

back to the Mac -

The surround sound mix of Rumours is still one of the best arguments for multi-channel audio…

Thanks - I’ll check it out now…

dknk -

listening now - for what it’s worth, my primary listening route is through a hip-dac (another ifi product, with MQA and balanced headphone output) and Sennheiser 660s through a custom balanced cable.

and - yeah - on the Tidal app I cannot tell exactly what is going on beyond the fact that the dac recognises the MQA stream - but it sounds just lovely …

so - if nothing else - I have another Fleetwood Mac album in master quality that I didn’t know about.

That was worth the effort by itself… :smiley:

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If you look, all of the early Mac albums are MQA. Stevie Wonders early 70’s albums are MQA and sound great.

The latest version of Volumio on a RPi4 using Tidal Connect passes bit perfect MQA to my SMSL SU-9 which does the full decode/unfold.

As mentioned elsewhere I now get a better sound from the RPi4 using a high quality USB cable to my DAC than coaxial from the Allo DigiOne HAT.

Bye Bye Roon.

I have a Gustard X16 dac that does the MQA full unfold as I mentioned earlier in the thread. I have it attached to a Rpi 4 via USB and Volumio, and it’s surprisingly very good sound.

I also have an Auralic Aries G1 streamer to play with as well. The G1 is over 35 times the price of a Pi4 with a Flirc case. The sound difference is NOT 35x better using the same USB cable into the same dac. The Auralic Aries G1 is nice looking, has a display, is well built, and a premium product. It’s over priced for what it does in my opinion and may be sold or another dac will be bought so I can keep both in two systems. I will wait a few weeks to be sure that the Rpi/Volumio is a keeper and I continue to like the SQ it puts out.

So in your opinion how better is the auralic? I also considered a Lumin or auralic but there is a huge difference between them and the pi so if the difference is not huge it is not worth the money.

Ha Ha - so - guess what popped up on my news feed this morning?

iFi are bringing out an update to the Zen Dac in May - the key difference being that the core chip is upgraded to a 16 bit (this is the control chip - not the DAC itself - the key transform happens with more bandwidth - the tech behind it as all laid out in detail) …

which allows it to function as a decoder as well as renderer for MQA

now - this DAC is about the same cost as a year’s sub to Roon, and it sounds fabulous…

so, the game is back on…

The Auralic Aries G1 certainly looks the part on my hifi stand. It looks like it belongs with my other higher end gear. It is stable when doing its thing streaming, no real problems for me and has a high overall build quality.

I’ve played with a Rpi 3 and 4 for a few years so familiar with the different OS offerings and hats out there. I have a DigiOne Hat and a Hifiberry Digi + hat. Both seem to work perfectly even though I was never really completely happy with them when playing audio. Could not say exactly why.

I recently bought a new RPi 4 with 2 gb ram and a Flirc aluminum case, installed Volumio, and for the first time used no hat. Just hooked my USB cable (AQ Carbon .75m) to one of the USB 2 ports on the RPi. I also am using a better RPi external power supply than the basic supply, specifically, a Teddy Pardo 5v/3a.

I attached the USB cable to the Gustard X16 USB input. The Gustard has an apparently very good USB implementation (low jitter and noise, etc) so I think this is key.

I won’t say anything at this point about how much better one is over the other as it’s only been a couple of days with the new RPi setup.

I will say this, if I somehow could set up a proper blind listening test using the same USB cable into the Gustard dac and switching between the RPi and Aries G1 doing just the streaming duties, I presently feel that I would not be confident as to which streamer is active. It’s close.

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One question pls.,
If you listen same song in mqa format then in flac hi res, 96/24 or 192/24 which format is more nice to ears? Mqa or hi res?
Thanks for your response.

This is almost perfect flame bait - but I’m sure that wasn’t the intent.

Short version - I doubt most people could tell in a blind test. For me, the few songs I have that I think are authored to the same source standard - I slightly favour the MQA version, but I’m also completely sure that this is my own bias talking, and someone who thinks MQA is proprietary nonsense is likely to swear that the FLAC file sounds better.

It’s a huge difference between CD quality and high res (on a well recorded track)
It’s a significant difference between MQA played without being decoded and being properly decoded and unfolded, and being handled properly (will definitely sound worse than the equivalent high res FLAC)
There are then reports that the MQA played over ROON sound better than without (because it handles all the digital transport timing)
Beyond that - you are quickly into diminishing returns.

Then - some of the information in the MQA file (reported as distortion, possibly with some justification) is there to inform high-end DACs (which I definitely don’t have) how to set up the filter to best handle the track - and that may or may not colour the sound in some way on equipment that is of lesser pedigree.

At this point - room acoustics and your own hearing capabilities make far more of a difference than the switch between FLAC and MQA.

but - either way - both sound amazing …