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MQA - HOW DOES THAT WORK?

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

Currently, there are a lot of publications and discussions about the "dying" of the MQA format (including the process of bankruptcy of the organization that developed the format and its owners). However, since it still exists and its fans continue to use it, I took the right of posting information about it. Personally, I like the MQA format, and I don't fully understand why people talk about it so much and scold. Just there is another format that allows lossless audio through online streams. BTW, I use Tidal streaming, and Apple Music as well.

A couple more words. For example, MQA uses the Codec FLAC as a container. And MQA is just a new method of real-time "zipping-unzipping" of High-resolution digital audio that is created with a PCM.

And let's just enjoy it as an additional possibility for our favorite music listen.


Some additional links from my FB Group:


In the future, I will try to provide new information about the MQA and the state of affairs.

And now, let's talk about him and get acquainted with a couple of articles below about MQA.


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What is MQA?

MQA stands for Master Quality Authenticated, and it is an end-to-end streaming technology that can transfer high-quality audio over a Bluetooth/Wi-Fi connection to a smartphone or audio device. The Authenticated part means you are listening to an official MQA recording. It’s a solution to a very ‘now’ problem in this era of Hi-Res Audio as to how can you deliver top-quality lossless sound without using up data allowance or having to constantly buffer.

Who made MQA?

MQA was developed and founded by Bob Stuart, who has had a hand in several notable efforts in the world of digital audio, work that includes the development of the lossless compression technique behind Dolby TrueHD as well as co-founding British hi-fi company Meridian Audio, who you may be familiar with from their work with LG on their true wireless earphones and soundbars.

Where (and how) can we get MQA?

To bring Hi-res Audio to the masses, you need a delivery system and at this moment in time, Tidal music streaming is the main proprietor of distributing MQA music files to its subscribers. Tidal only uses MQA for its high-resolution audio files, essentially anything above CD quality lossless, which means MQA support is tied to its HiFi Plus tier that costs £19.99/month after the 7-day free trial elapses. Tidal is one of few music services to make use of Master Quality Authenticated files, branding it as Tidal Masters. You can spot Master Quality Authenticated content by looking for the Master logo next to albums and tracks, or by looking for curated MQA playlists.

Other services that support MQA include US-based nugs.net, Chinese download store Sony Select and Japan-based e-onkyo music (the latter doesn’t allow for the purchase of music by international buyers).

And of course, there’s the point of origin itself. Sony Music, Warner Music, Universal Music and Merlin (which acts on behalf of independent labels) are licensed partners, and thus encode their music libraries in MQA and supply them to the music services to kickstart the whole process.

How does MQA work?

There are three steps to the process of, erm, MQA-folding, a music album/track. The first part is capturing the recording’s resolution and timing – all the nitty gritty details that make it what it is – to preserve the audio at its highest quality. The next step is to package and transmit the audio by using a unique ‘origami’ folding technique that packs – or ‘folds’ – the studio recording into a smaller file for transmission. The third part is to ‘unfold’ the music file, thus presenting the music at the studio quality levels it was captured in.

Where things become slightly complicated – or potentially confusing – is on a hardware level. There are mentions of compatibility and needing a decoder to fully unfold the origami technique, requiring specific hardware to do so. According to MQA, this is not the case. Sort of…

MQA says you don’t need a decoder to play back audio in its ‘standard’ quality, so regardless of what device you have, the file can be played back, and it’ll ‘adapt’ to the playback device to offer ‘higher than CD-quality’ regardless of the equipment you’re listening on.

But if you want to go full send, as they say in motorsport, then there are three categories of MQA-enabled products that offer different levels of ‘unfolding’ files. It does sound a little complicated but bear with us, it’ll make sense.

Option number one is an MQA Core Decoder such as Tidal or media players like Audirvana and Roon. These services and media players unfold the MQA file once to reveal better audio quality.

Option number two is to pair an MQA Core Decoder like the ones mentioned above with an MQA Renderer. A compatible renderer could be a device such as the iFi hip-dac 2 or AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt DAC, and this would fully unfold the MQA file. An example of this would be a smartphone running Tidal paired with the Earmen Sparrow portable DAC.

Option number three is the MQA Full Decoder. This refers to products that deliver the highest possible sound quality with MQA, devices that can present fully backward compatible studio quality sound such as Bluesound’s wireless multi-room speakers and higher-end DACs and CD players. With this option, the full decoder sits at the heart of your set-up and you can choose to add more products if you want. Think of it as buying a vinyl record and then choosing to build your system in the way you want.

Is MQA worth it?

At its heart, MQA is all about making access to high-quality music easier. If you want high-resolution audio but without the quirks or kerfuffle that comes with it, then MQA offers plenty of conveniences. Of course, to get the best from it, you’ll need to best equipment possible, but MQA can scale to different use cases, and if all you have is a Tidal HiFi Plus subscription and a mobile device then you should be able to hear the difference compared to lower quality bitrate tracks. The real question is will you be able to hear the difference? People can become fixated on the differences between different formats when differences in performance could be down to whatever kit you’re using. MQA preserves the quality of music from end-to-end, aiming to do as little damage to the signal as possible, and that sounds worth it to us, but as always, the proof is in the pudding or in this case, the hearing.


 

MQA technology captures and authenticates the sound of the original master recording in a file small enough to stream at high resolution, allowing listeners to feel that they are in the studio with the performer.

How we listen to music has transformed significantly over the years: now most of us can access songs whenever and wherever we want to listen to them. In general, downloaded audio or streaming services offer listeners standard, compressed files that weren’t produced by the artist themselves but created by third parties from studio-quality master digital files, often leading to inaccurate representations of the audio. The graph shows the information capacity of 192kHz, 24bit PCM, and the audio within it. Region A is the conventional audio information; Region B, higher in frequency, manifests temporal microstructure in the sound; Region C carries noise consequential on the transmission sampling rate

Launched in 2015, Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) digitally captures and stores original master recordings as files that are small and convenient enough to download or stream. It captures archives efficiently, distributes music with the highest possible sound quality, and then optimizes it for each playback device. This end-to-end system removes unintended artifacts of the technology employed in real-world recording, distribution, and playback.

Although commonplace, converting audio to digital (and back) is imperfect and can limit sound quality. Conventional digital (PCM) is convenient for signal processing but inefficient for storing audio information. For example, lossless compression – which allows the original data to be reconstructed – can store an archive of CD audio in half the space, at an average data rate of 750kbps. However, when higher sampling rates and more bits are used to improve resolution, the PCM file becomes unwieldy. It can represent sounds that are quieter than atmospheric noise or at inaudibly high frequencies. With high resolution, the appropriate audio information captured can increase to around 1Mbps, but a lossless file may use 5 to 10Mbps to deliver it, violating a key engineering principle that the channel capacity should match the signal.

MQA solves these problems in two ways, starting with ‘encapsulation’, which identifies the audio information in the recording; preserves the temporal microstructure; and avoids noise-modulation artifacts. Next, a process called ‘music origami’ makes the file smaller by ‘folding up’ extended-resolution information, while packing it underneath the standard audio, below the level of silence. This fits the audio information into a small lossless PCM file of low data rate (typically 1.2Mbps) that is more efficient to stream or download, yet higher in quality than prior methods.

Finally, signaling is added, inaudibly embedding metadata about the recording, playback instructions for the decoder, and a provenance signature. This is completely removed by MQA decoders but remains accessible even if a 24-bit stream is cut down to 16 bits (for example when played over Wi-Fi). Even in these circumstances, the MQA system preserves a large part of the music’s temporal microstructure.

This master file, which contains the entire performance, can be checked by the producer for several playback scenarios and authenticated for accuracy on playback. MQA can be played on a Hi-Fi, a smartphone, a portable player, in the car, in a PC, on a Wi-Fi speaker or Bluetooth headphone, and is also backward compatible, giving higher than CD-quality even on a device with no decoder.

Products with a full MQA Decoder unfold the file to deliver the highest possible sound quality. At this level of playback, listeners hear what the artists created in the studio.

Bob Stuart, the creator of MQA, has been awarded the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Prince Philip Medal for his exceptional contribution to audio engineering, which has changed the way we listen to music and experience films. He is a graduate of the University of Birmingham and Imperial College London, where his studies included psychoacoustics and electronic engineering. Bob is an expert in audio coding and was the brains behind MLP (the audio technology at the heart of DVD-Audio, and now part of the Blu-ray Disc specification). And he is, crucially, a dedicated lover of music.



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Disclaimer:

To prevent the "holy war" to start, I'll warn you right away - your opinion is welcome, regardless of whether it coincides with the publication or not. But any attempts to arrange insults, mock, or accusations will be stopped!


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