MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) Tracks
You could call Tidal the Spotify for audiophiles.
The music streaming service owned by Jay-Z and a variety of other successful music artists distinguishes itself by offering uncompressed (lossless) 16-bit 44kHz audio quality and a selection of MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) albums in 24-bit up to 192kHz to its subscribers if you’re willing to pay the $20 monthly fee.
How to get the Best Sound out of Tidal HiFi?
When you’re paying the extra for Tidal Hifi it’s important that the signal is kept as clean as possible when going from source (Tidal) to your DAC. Otherwise, you’re better off paying $9.99 for the Premium (320Kbps) subscription.
Wait…!? What are you talking about?
Alright, this might sound confusing right now. I know. Why wouldn’t the audio signal be clean when playing music through your computer? Even when you’ve hooked up an external DAC to your system so the audio isn’t subject to electrical noise from the internal computer parts. It’s about what happens to the audio before it gets to your DAC.
When you use the browser version of Tidal, the audio is put through the Windows mixer before it goes to the DAC. Therefore there’s the chance the audio is altered (resampling, volume control, filtering). To keep the audio “bit-perfect” (none-altered) you can use WASAPI in exclusive mode. This makes sure Tidal is talking directly to the DAC without being affected by the various Windows mixing stages. This also means that you’ll get no sound out of any other application as long as Tidal is active.
Get the Tidal desktop app!
That’s right! Although Tidal advocates the use of Chrome as the only browser option capable of lossless streaming, it still must go through the Windows mixer. The desktop version is the only way to make a direct audio path via WASAPI exclusive mode. Also, if you want to take advantage of the MQA tracks, the desktop app is the only way to go.
Get the latest Tidal desktop app at http://tidal.com/us/download.
If you don’t have a Tidal subscription you can get a 30 days free trial for either Premium (320Kbps) or HiFi (lossless) at http://tidal.com/us/try-now.
Enable WASAPI Exclusive Mode
- Start Tidal Desktop App and go to Streaming settings by clicking on HIFI or Master on the bottom right (or via Settings)
- Make sure you’ve selected Master
- Select your DAC (I have the Dragonfly Red v1.0) and click on More settings
- Enable Exclusive Mode and only enable Force Volume if you control your volume on an external device
If you have a DAC like the Dragonfly Red or Black that supports MQA, then you want to mark Passthrough MQA. This makes sure that your DAC will do the decoding instead of Tidal (Hardware Decoding = faster!).
That’s all there is to it! Tidal is now operating in WASAPI exclusive mode. This ensures you get the best sound quality out of your Tidal HiFi subscription.
It is possible you get the following message when marking Use Exclusive Mode:
Remember, Tidal uses 16-bit 44.1kHz for everything except 24-bit MQA tracks and by using Exclusive mode, the audio cannot be altered. This means you’ll have to change your sound output settings to the appropriate settings.
Some DACs like the Audioquest DragonFly v1.2 only operates in 24-bit. Therefore if you have a DAC that only operates in a certain bit mode, you cannot use this with Tidal’s Exclusive Mode for songs that are 16-bit. Essentially this means you can only listen to 24-bit MQA tracks.
However, you can use certain software like JRiver Media Center v21 or above to send the audio stream to.
Output through JRiver Media Center
Doing this using JRiver Media Center there will be a direct path from the Tidal App to JRiver Media Center. When your DAC is 24-bit it will output the 16-bit stream (in case of non-MQA tracks) to 24-bit by adding 8 empty bits to it. Although the output is not bit-perfect, this will not change the sound quality.
If you don’t have a copy, you can download a free trial at https://www.jriver.com/download.html.
First, we need to check some settings in Media Center.
- Go to Options – Tools
- Under Audio select your DAC in WASAPI mode
- Under Device Settings select Exclusive Mode. (Only if you control the volume on an external device I suggest you enable Maximize device volume during playback.)
- Go to General – Features and select WDM Driver
That’s all you need to do in JRiver Media Center, so let’s go back to the Tidal Desktop App.
- Go to the Streaming settings and select JRiver Media Center XX and click on the wheel
- Make sure both settings are enabled (Again Passthrough MQA only when your DAC supports it)
- Go to your Windows Playback Devices
- In the Properties of Jriver Media Center device go to the Advanced tab and select 16 bit, 44100 Hz (CD Quality). Also, make sure both options under Exclusive Mode are selected.
Remember you always need to have JRiver Media Center started when using this method.
Your mileage may vary!
Whether or not you’re going to hear any difference depends on multiple factors. The most important thing is that you need a good pair of headphones or speakers. You’re not going to hear any difference using the built-in laptop speakers or the standard iPod/iPhone earbuds. Check some of my reviews if you need inspiration.
Secondly, you’ll need to listen to the music. Not just hear the music, but really listen to it. Sometimes it’s about subtle changes. A more open soundstage, a tighter sound overall, a bit more clarity… Small things you’ll unlikely hear when you’re focusing on something else and are using your music as background.
That’s all! You’re good to go. Listen to your favorite music and see if you can hear the difference! If you have any questions, let me know in the comments below.