DSD, PCM, and MQA: What Are the Differences?

For the modern audiophile, there's much more to sound than just pressing play. The encoding of your audio file can significantly affect your listening experience. In this article, we'll dive into three common types of audio encoding--PCM, DSD, and MQA--to help you better understand their impact on your sound.

PCM (Pulse Code Modulation)

Explain Like I’m an Expert

PCM stands for Pulse Code Modulation. It's a method used to digitally represent analog signals, in this case, sound. In a PCM stream, the amplitude of the analog signal is sampled regularly at uniform intervals, and each sample is quantized to the nearest value within a range of digital steps.

PCM has been the standard for CD quality audio and offers a broad compatibility with almost all digital audio systems and platforms. However, its representation of analog signals isn't perfect. The process of converting analog sound to digital introduces a type of noise called quantization noise.

Explain Like I’m Five

Imagine you're taking a picture of a landscape. You could draw it pixel by pixel (tiny little squares) to create an image. PCM works in a similar way. It samples or "captures" tiny pieces of sound at regular intervals and turns them into digital data. This is like the backbone of digital audio, and it's what CDs and most digital audio files use.

But there's a little hiccup. When you try to convert these "drawn" or digitized sounds back into smooth, flowing, natural sound, you get some noise. It's like the roughness you'd see if you try to draw a smooth curve with tiny squares.

DSD (Direct Stream Digital)

Explain Like I’m an Expert

DSD, or Direct Stream Digital, is a different method of encoding audio into digital format. Instead of capturing the amplitude of the audio signal at uniform intervals as PCM does, DSD captures the differences between the amplitudes of the audio signal at a much higher sampling rate.

The primary advantage of DSD over PCM is the higher sampling rate, which can provide a more accurate representation of the original analog signal. However, DSD files tend to be larger than PCM files, which can be a drawback for those with limited storage space.

Explain Like I’m Five

Imagine you're drawing that landscape again, but this time, instead of drawing it pixel by pixel, you capture the differences between the colors. If the sky is a little more blue than the grass, you capture that. This is how DSD works. It captures the changes in sound rather than the sound itself.

This method gives you a high-resolution audio file, but the trade-off is file size. Because it captures so much detail, the files can be quite large. If you have limited storage space, this could be an issue.

MQA (Master Quality Authenticated)

Explain Like I’m an Expert

The final encoding we're covering is MQA, which stands for Master Quality Authenticated. MQA is a relatively new audio codec that aims to package high-resolution audio into a file that's small enough to stream.

One of the key benefits of MQA is that it delivers high-resolution audio with a smaller file size compared to other high-resolution formats. However, to fully experience the benefits of MQA, you need both a music source and a playback device that supports MQA.

Explain Like I’m Five

Now let's think about a different scenario. You want a picture of the landscape, but you also want to send it to your friend over a slow internet connection. You need the picture to be good quality, but also small enough to send quickly. This is where MQA comes in.

MQA is a relatively new type of audio encoding that packs high-quality audio into smaller files. It's great for streaming high-quality audio, but to get the full benefits, both your music source and your playback device need to support it.


Each type of audio encoding comes with its strengths and weaknesses. PCM offers broad compatibility, DSD provides a high sampling rate, and MQA packs high-resolution audio into smaller files suitable for streaming. Your preferred encoding will depend on your listening habits, your hardware, and your dedication to the pursuit of high-quality sound.

We encourage you to explore the different types of encoding to find what suits your listening preferences best. Browse our collection of DACs to find the perfect hardware to support your preferred encoding, and join the audiophile community in the ongoing quest for the perfect sound.