Is MQA the Future of HD Music?

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Is MQA the Future of HD Music?


MQA-logo-thumb.pngPono was an enthusiastic flop, so what makes anyone think that MQA will fare any better? Unlike Pono, which promised the world and delivered a pretty good player and a piss-poor musical ecosystem, MQA can not only save the streaming services millions of dollars but also end all this waste of consumer time and energy on whether WAV, FLAC, AIFF, or DSD is the best format for music. With MQA-encoded files, the format doesn't matter!

What is MQA? Actually it is several technological advancements rolled into one. MQA, which stands for "Master Quality Authenticated," is a method of folding a high-resolution digital file into an envelope that is no bigger than a standard 44.1/16 FLAC file. It does so by packing the high-resolution information beneath the noise floor of the 44.1-kHz file. In addition, MQA uses a set of specially developed algorithms to remove temporal distortions created by the analog-to-digital converters used on the original recording. According to MQA's reference materials, "traditional digital filters have an inherent flaw in the time domain--and it is one that we feel is at the root of many of the audible shortcomings that people have heard in digital audio over the years. These digital filters have a problem with 'ringing,' where an audio impulse rings after the event (post-ringing) but also before the event occurs (pre-ringing). So, instead of one clear impulse, we hear a 'smearing' of the information in time, compromising the soundfield." MQA was developed by Robert Stuart, who was also responsible for many of Meridian Audio's previous technological advancements like MLP (Meridian Lossless Packing) and Meridian's proprietary Apodizing filters, but MQA is a separate corporate entity from Meridian Audio.

MQA will make your current DAC obsolete. Yes, I know that sucks. You might start to hate MQA. But hold on, aren't you sick and tired of buying Dark Side of The Moon again and again and again? You bet your ruby-tipped stylus you are. So here's the deal: Tidal has promised, in the very near future, to begin streaming MQA-encoded files to your MQA-aware and MQA-compatible DAC at the highest resolution it can support--which can be exactly the same format and bitrate as the first-gen digital master--yet the file will take up only one-tenth of the bandwidth of the comparable and original 256X DSD master file. Because MQA folds the high-resolution information into the noise floor of a 44.1/16 or 48/16 file and then unfolds it at its destination, it saves a ton of bandwidth and storage space. While storage space may not matter much to end users anymore, it matters a lot to the server farms that store and supply the streaming services' data. And the final result will sound better...

Did that last bit catch your attention? An MQA-encoded file can sound better than the original master file from which it was sourced. How is that even possible? It's easy if you understand the principal failing of all digital recording: the lowest-level signals have the highest distortion levels. Digital does a great job of recording loud signals, up to the point where the signal clips. Just before that fatal point of clipping, digital has it all over analog when it comes to recording loud stuff. Soft sounds, on the other hand, are where digital just sort of blunders its way through because it doesn't have enough signal to tell the difference between sound and no sound, so it "improvises" with dither to fill in an excess of 00000s. What if we could go back and remove the noise that's affecting the quietest parts in the recording? That would (and does) sound better, don't you think?

If you want a detailed technical explanation of how MQA works, I can recommend two sites to visit. First, for those who like videos, take a look at Robert Harley's post on The Absolute Sound's website. Then take a look at his technical article about MQA here. Finally, if you like questions and answers, take a look at this interview with Robert Stuart on The Computer Audiophile's site. If you read through these articles, you will have a good idea of how and why MQA works and understand how vitally important its acceptance will be for the music industry.

So, for the big boys, MQA offers a cheaper way to store and deliver high-resolution files. Perhaps more importantly for music lovers, we have a no-muss, no-fuss way to get hi-res without having to deal with different formats and all the insecurities of never knowing whether the recording is really a bit-perfect copy of the original file. "Master Quality Authenticated" guarantees that you are getting exactly what the studio created because the studio or label that created the music confirms the MQA verification and authentication. Finally, the provenance of a recording won't be in question. If the little MQA light on your MQA-compatible DAC lights up, it's a bit-perfect copy of the original, whether the original was a WAV, FLAC, DSD, or AIFF file.

MQA could fail to catch on if Tidal decides that it doesn't want to use the technology, but the chances of that happening are pretty slim to none--considering that Warner Music, which has a huge catalog on Tidal, has already come on board with MQA. On the consumer hardware side, although currently there are only six MQA-enabled DACs or portable digital players available, over 100 manufacturers have signed non-disclosure agreements and plan to introduce MQA-compatible components in the future. By this time next year, MQA will certainly be a more recognizable acronym. It may not yet be ubiquitous, but at least it will be much more common and far more useful to end users and record labels than that over-promised and under-delivered audio novelty called Pono.

Additional Resources
MQA Partners with Warner Music Group at HomeTheaterReview.com.
Bluesound Adds MQA Support to Its Wireless Music Players at HomeTheaterReview.com.
Apple Rumored to Be Launching 24/96 Streaming in 2016 at HomeTheaterReview.com.


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