Like it or not, audiophiles, it's time to embrace another highly promising audio technology. Go ahead and roll your eyes; I can't say I blame you. And when all that eye rolling is done, it's time to pay attention to MQA.
MQA, which stands for Master Quality Authenticated, is an audio coding format that promises delivery of master-quality music in a file that's small enough to stream easily. MQA accomplishes the lossless streaming of high-resolution audio by using a form of audio origami that, when properly and fully decoded, has the potential to sound better than conventional Compact Discs. Files are sourced from a master that has been approved (or authenticated) by producers, music companies, and musicians. In theory this ensures that you are listening to a reproduction of exactly what the artist intended, preserving details without using lossy algorithms that can leave music sounding flat, unemotional, and uninspiring. (You can learn more in Steven Stone's original story, Is MQA the Future of HD Music?)
Early technology adopters who live on the bleeding edge always pay the price when things don't work out. Just ask fans of SACD and DVD-Audio--two other highly promising audio formats that were colossal commercial failures. I personally have a collection of over 100 SACD and DVD-Audio discs. Sure, you can still buy universal disc players that support SACD and DVD-Audio playback, but the major labels no longer produce software in these disc formats, despite the clear sonic benefits.
What makes MQA different? Well, for one thing, it already seems to be on the path to success. Let's consider the positives. First of all, MQA requires little investment by consumers. You can purchase an MQA-friendly USB DAC like the Meridian Explorer2 for about $200. Plus you'll need a subscription to an MQA streaming service like TIDAL, which currently has a fairly robust library of Master titles in its inventory--and more titles are being added daily.
The streaming services should all love MQA because they can embrace the technology with little to no investment in new infrastructure (think storage and bandwidth). In the past, record companies had to invest thousands of dollars to bring SACD and/or DVD-Audio content to consumers and then charge upwards of $30 per disc in the hopes that consumers would replace their existing audio collections. In retrospect, it's easy to see why those formats were doomed from the start.
On the content end, all three major music labels--Universal, Sony, and Warner--already have announced support for MQA. The legacy libraries from these labels have mostly been fully digitized, remastered, and catalogued for a digital era. Their investment to support MQA is also relatively small. Newly recorded material can be coded and distributed in MQA for a few additional pennies of studio time.
Finally, music software apps like Audirvana Plus 3, Roon, and TIDAL's own desktop app currently support MQA. The home audiophile who embraces the digital age can partially "unfold" an MQA file using available playback apps and stream music up to 24/96 without buying an MQA decoder.
It seems, at this point, like most of the critical pieces are in place for MQA to succeed. However, some significant challenges and questions remain. The biggest question in my mind is, "Will the average consumer care?" In any business, every great product or technology should solve a significant problem. From the perspective of average consumers, does MQA solve a real problem, or will they remain content with the status quo? Are the current streaming audio formats simply good enough? Only time can answer that question.
Sadly, most young people today grew up and still live in a "quantity over quality" world where MP3 files seem to fit the bill. If Apple and iTunes Music has taught us anything, it's that convenience wins over quality nearly every single time. Many Generation Yers and Millennials have probably never heard recorded audio in ways that Generation Xers and Baby Boomer have. When these young consumers listen to music encoded in MQA, will they hear a difference? Will they be emotionally moved to want more? The jury is out. The good news is, most young people already subscribe to some form of music streaming service. MQA is already offered through TIDAL and is coming to Pandora--so the average consumer could be exposed to MQA in the near future without much effort required.
There are other challenges, as well. In my recent visits to CanJam in New York City and Axpona in Chicago, several DAC manufacturers expressed no intention of embracing MQA unless serious consumer demand appears for the technology. Will this present a classic chicken-and-egg problem? You can count on two hands the number of DACs currently offering MQA decoding technology, and most cost well into five figures. But MQA continues to add hardware partners, recently announcing the addition of Mark Levinson, AudioQuest, dCS, MOON by Simaudio, and TEAC.
MQA may also attract a well-financed, highly dominant competitor in Apple. Will Apple support MQA or establish its own high-resolution streaming service? There have been rumors of the latter. It is likely critical that iPhones natively support MQA to help ensure the format's success. I believe support from Apple would represent a major tipping point in MQA's favor; if the Cupertino-based technology giant sees a major profit opportunity by leveraging iTunes with MQA, it could represent a major win for MQA.
As with the introduction of any new potentially game-changing technology, the landscape is complicated and tenuous. You are probably thinking, how does the technology sound? A Mytek Brooklyn DAC currently resides in my audio system as I prepare for a review. Without giving too much away, I recently put on The Breeze: An Appreciation of J.J. Cale by Eric Clapton & Friends, and I was really impressed by the audio quality before I even noticed the blue light on the Mytek DAC confirming that it was being streamed in MQA. I had no idea when I put it on. It was one of those unexpected moments as a music fan that left me feeling that perhaps we are on the precipice of something truly exceptional.
• MQA Announces New Hardware and Software Partners at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• MQA Announces Partnership with Universal Music Group at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• TIDAL Adds MQA Recordings to Its Premium Tier at HomeTheaterReview.com.