Let me investigate how much do we pay for using MQA
I was following MQA developments since 2014 with great interest, when it was first time announced and I learnt about it.
I wrote a summary of its technology in Hungarian 18 months ago.
Now it is the time check how licensees and we end-users, music listeners pay for using the technology.
These are the organisations that (can) pay for using MQA licenses:
- Labels (they do not charge any extra for their customers, the music listeners)
- Music distributors (they charge the musicians roughly 9–20 USD for an album, one-time encoding fee)
- Experimental AI-based cloud mastering services
For software licenses (the decoding component of MQA code, up to the first unfold):
Chip makers (code license for all unfolding steps)
DAC (and playback device) manufacturers:
- They can buy a chip (XMOS, ESS) to decode MQA. In this case, they possibly pay no license fee in the chip’s price, and they should license the MQA firmware from MQA. It should be the most frequent version.
- Alternatively, they can license the code directly from MQA, building their solution. It happens less frequently as it requires more development and implementation cost internally.
So where and how a music listener can pay for MQA?
There is no direct payment from me or from any end user to MQA.
An end user can pay for the playback software’s MQA decoding part (Tidal, Roon, Audirvana, Amarra, for example) up to the first unfold.
Tidal highest tier subscription did not change since roughly 2015, so I do not pay any extra for using MQA with Tidal, that I am listening to integrated with Roon where there is also an MQA decoding part (up to the first unfold, 96 kHz/24 bit). So theoretically, one can pay in Roon and Tidal as well.
The lifetime license of Roon originally was $499.99. It was changed to $699.99 around v1.5 software version. Since 1st of January, 2023 it is $829.99 or $12.49/month, billed annually if one is interested in the subscription, not in a permanent license.
We do not know if we pay any extra fee because of MQA. If yes, it is not more than a few cents or so monthly, if any, the price changes since MQA introduction were not significantly more than changes at similar services, without decoding MQA at all.
MQA unfolding can be switched off in Roon’s settings. It should be helpful if you have a DAC that can fully unfold all the steps. As Roon (possibly) reports its MQA on/off status to MQA, it will be reported as a non-MQA using Roon. Switching MQA decoding on or off does not change your fee, so it seems you do not have to pay for getting it on.
The possible estimated extra MQA cost in the case of DACs.
If the DAC uses XMOS (or ESS) chips, there is no DAC manufacturer licensing cost according to different forum posts, the manufacturer should have to license the chip compatible firmware from MQA. The exact licensing cost and method is not known.
The other potential cost item could be the implementation cost, which can slightly increase the price. However, most DAC manufacturers did not increase their prices because they expected more sales to cover the extra manufacturing cost. There is no significant implementation cost if MQA processing is built into the chip.
The design and development cost could be more substantial if the DAC manufacturer implements the MQA processing independently.
The price can be higher in this case.
However in the case of Gustard A22 DAC as an example, the very similar and newer successor A26 (with dual AKM 4499EX, XMOS 216) is even cheaper than the similar construction, dual AKM 4499EQ, XMOS 208 chip — based A22 was.
How much do we pay for MQA? Do we have any extra cost using it?
Generally speaking, we mostly do not pay any extra to use it. This is because the playback (decoding) software cost does not change with MQA decoding on or off in the playback software. The overall DAC pricing changes since 2015 shows we do not pay any extra in the case of our DACs as most of the manufacturers absorb its internal cost.
I found the highest-priced MQA option for a DAC from Metrum Acoustics, costing 159 euros. It is a complete upgrade card (not just a license fee) for 5300, 4800 euros priced DACs.
One can buy quite a few small MQA second unfold renderer DACs/headphone amps for around 100 USD, so licensing MQA could not be prohibitive, even at this very thin margin level.
The Zorlo Ztella MQA version DAC/Headphone amp (MQA + PCM-384K + DSD-5.6M with an Ess Sabre 9281CPRO chip) costs 30 USD more than Ztella Standard version with no MQA and with cheaper ESS Sabre 9270C chip. The chip price difference could account for some part of the 30 USD difference, not MQA only.
Tidal: MQA extra payment: estimated 0
Roon: MQA extra payment: estimated 0
Audirvana: MQA extra payment: estimated 0
XMOS, Ess Sabre chip user DACs: generally no extra cost, but in some cases possibly in the range of few tens of dolllars.