What is MQA Audio?
MQA (or Master Quality Authenticated) is a new format for high-resolution audio streaming and music download. Technically it’s an audio codec -- a way of packing large analog-quality songs into digital files small enough to download or stream from a mobile device.
This is the simple and straightforward answer. But here at Audio Advice, we not only love the gear and the specs, we love the music itself -- so let’s dig a little deeper into what MQA is and what it means for the industry and the way we listen to music. To understand MQA, we need to take a step back to the live performance.
What is it about being at a live event that makes us feel more involved in the music? We are either tapping our foot, getting up to dance, or slipping into the musical trance that takes our mind off everything but the music. Is it the volume? The range? The dynamics? Our opinion is that it is none of these. What is it then? Well, it’s the emotion in a live performance you can just sense.
So what gets lost when we hear a recording of the same thing? For years and years, we have felt it was the timing of the sounds. Our brains seem to be very sensitive to this. Back in the days before CD, we felt the turntables that spun the most true revealed the musical emotions better than those that did not. We especially disliked direct drive tables due to the fact they were constantly correcting the speed and thus really messing up the timing.
When CD’s first came out, all of this emotion was gone. Sure the sound was pure, dynamic, wide in range and silent, but it was just missing something. The CD mastering format takes samples of the music and a lot of them. But it’s still missing some of the music. We felt like it was those tiny timing changes that allowed you to sense more of the music. As better and better CD players emerged, the engineers figured out parts of this and yes, they got better.
Then we had iTunes. A super convenient music format that took away about 90% of the fine musical details in its compression process. The pro was you could have tons of music in the palm of your hand, but to anyone with a critical ear, it just did not sound very good/
Flash forward to today and vinyl and turntables are selling like crazy again. We think one reason is that vinyl playback on a great system connects you more to that sense of timing.
The other segment of the market that is flourishing just like vinyl is streaming music. For a music lover, you just can not beat a streaming subscription. For $5-$20 a month you literally have access to almost all the music in the world. Every time I go to Tidal I feel like I am in this massive library and can wander the music aisles sampling and discovering new music.
Streaming is a fantastic way to experience a ton of music, but just like compressed files on the iTunes store, you are missing that emotional feeling when you compare them to a great vinyl or digital system.
What does this have to do with MQA?
Well, everything! They say technology is moving faster in some cases than humans can adapt to. Well, with MQA, bring it on!
MQA was invented by the team at Meridian in late 2014. It is now owned by MQA Ltd. There was a small buzz about it at CES 2016 and a far bigger buzz at CES 2017. The reason for all this talk was the announcement of over 5,000 albums being available on Tidal streaming in MQA.
MQA promises us that nothing will be missing from the original master tape, yet it can be delivered in a digital format that has a file size no bigger than a standard CD.
The process starts with the original master tape. All of the subtle timing details that would normally eat up a ton of data space are folded into the file via using MQA technology. This file can be delivered inside any of the three popular compressed formats of FLAC, WAV, or Apple Lossless. This music file can be played back on any conventional system and will offer you slightly better sound than a non-MQA version. It’s totally backward compatible.
However, the real magic occurs when you have a system capable of unfolding the file with all of the timing details. When you have a streaming device capable of unfolding the MQA data, the music is transformed. You will feel like you are part of the recording and get that same feeling of a live concert.
Right now, due to the newness of MQA and the fact content has just started to appear (although in pretty mass quantity and growing on Tidal) there are not a ton of DACs on the market capable of MQA. The AudioQuest Dragonfly Red and Dragonfly Black can unfold MQA along with the Bluesound products from Lenbrook, and some of their higher-end NAD series.
Why we’re excited about MQA
To put it simply, MQA has combined the best of both worlds. Tidal’s selection of MQA files is growing like crazy. Initially there were just a few small niche companies doing MQA, but when the Warner Music Group which includes the labels of Asylum, Atlantic, Big Beat, Canvasback, East West, Elektra, Erato, FFRR, Fueled by Ramen, Nonesuch, Parlophone, Reprise, Rhino, Roadrunner, Sire, Warner Bros., Warner Classics, and Warner Music Nashville announces they are diving into MQA, that is a HUGE deal!
Right now the cost of entry to try it out is a $99 AudioQuest Black, a computer, and a free 30-day Tidal trial. Connect it up to your system and give it a whirl. Of course, just like with everything in the electronics field, you get what you pay for in most cases and upgrading to a better streamer/DAC will get you even better sound.
We think MQA is going to be around for a long time and expect to see more and more companies add the unfolding technology to their systems.
You have the beauty of a streaming service with more music than you can ever hunt down, combined with that “live” sound we all love that you get out of a good vinyl rig or very high-end digital system. What's not to like about MQA!