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What is MQA? This new hi-res audio format is a game-changer

If you read about high-end audio, you’ve no doubt run into the alphabet soup that usually dominates the discussion: MP3, AAC, ALAC, FLAC, WAV, DSD, and so on. It’s practically endless. You’d think that with this many digital audio file types, we wouldn’t have need for yet another. However, there is one more digital audio file you need to know about: MQA.

Though it’s still far from a household name, like MP3, MQA is on the verge of changing the way we listen to digital music. It works with all our existing audio gear — even CD players — and can deliver a higher quality of audio than anything else you’ve heard.

How can it do that? How much does it cost? And perhaps most importantly, what gear do you need?

The MQA story is a complicated one. Stick with us, and we’ll take you through it one step at a time, with as little jargon as possible.

What is MQA?

MQA, which stands for Master Quality Authenticated, is the name of a high-resolution audio file format and a collection of licensed technologies for working with that format. It’s also the name of the company that develops and licenses those technologies. It was founded by Bob Stuart, the same person who founded legendary U.K. audio firm Meridian Audio.

Stuart’s accomplishments include the first digital active speaker, the first audiophile CD player, and the first digital surround processor. He also invented MLP (Meridian Lossless Packing), which is how lossless audio is delivered in DVDs and Blu-rays.

Why do we need MQA?

Most of the digital music we stream or download wasn’t produced by the artist themselves. MP3, AAC, and even FLAC files are created by third parties like Apple Music, or Spotify, from studio quality master digital files furnished by the music labels.

You might think that as long as these new digital versions were produced according to a set of standards, they’d be accurate representations — or at the very least, as accurate as possible. You might think artists would have an opportunity to hear those versions before they’re released. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case.

“There are some specialists that create [their own] AACs and MP3s,” Stuart told Digital Trends, “but when you consider that a label like Warner creates 57 different versions of every song, you can see that that’s really unrealistic.”

MQA solves this problem by inserting itself into the studio-based workflow. Using an MQA encoder, a producer can hear exactly what a track will sound like to the listener before it ever leaves the studio. Better yet, MQA-encoded tracks are delivered to streaming companies and download sites as ready-to-go files. There’s no additional conversion (or versioning) performed on these files, so buyers and streamers end up with a track that might as well have been handed to them by the artist, straight from the studio.

How is MQA more authentic?

As cool as it is to know that your songs have been given the official seal of approval by the artist, MQA offers more than just authenticity.

Because MQA is integrated into the recording process, it can do something no other digital format has yet to accomplish. Instead of simply repackaging CD audio into smaller file sizes, MQA actually improves on CD audio as a standard, by reducing something called time-smearing.

Time-smearing is a by-product of digital recording and playback caused by the use of filters. The details of time-smearing are difficult to convey without getting into a very technical discussion, so we won’t do that here. What matters is that most of us have never heard digital music that doesn’t suffer from the effects of time-smearing, and the difference is noticeable.

If you’ve got the time (and the patience), SoundOnSound has an incredibly in-depth look at MQA, including all of the details of time-smearing.

How does MQA reduce Hi-res audio size?

Audio quality better than CD? That’s cool you say, but what about hi-res audio?

In the world of digital music, there are two common ways of turning analog music into the ones and zeroes that computers, smartphones, and smart speakers can understand. They’re known as lossy, and lossless digital files. Lossy files, the most famous of which is the ubiquitous MP3, are designed to be as small as possible, so you can save tons of them to your phone, or stream tons of them from a music service without killing your monthly mobile data allowance.

However, lossy digital compression achieves that space-savings at the cost of audio fidelity. By discarding up to 90% of the details and nuance, you’re left with a song you can still recognize and enjoy, but is no longer an accurate representation of the original recording.

Lossless file formats, like FLAC and WAV, go the opposite route and favor pristine audio quality at the expense of file size. Lossless versions of CD audio tracks can be two to three times the size of even the highest-quality MP3. Lossless files can also be used for hi-res audio (audio that surpasses CD audio in detail) but the file size jumps even higher, making it impractical for mobile streaming unless you’re fortunate enough to have a fast connection and an unlimited data plan.

Is it possible to get hi-res quality from a smaller file size? Yes.

One example provided by MQA is Madonna’s Like A Virgin. When encoded into a hi-res FLAC file at 192kHz/24-bit, it ends up as 135.3 MB. The MQA version, which theoretically contains the same level of resolution, comes in at a relatively tiny 46.2 MB. Even when compared to a slightly lesser quality 96kHz/24-bit FLAC, the MQA version comes in at half the size.

Though it will never compete with MP3s for size, the MQA format delivers better quality than lossless files like FLAC, at much smaller file sizes.

The MQA format achieves this space-saving with some algorithmic magic known as folding. MQA tracks are delivered to the listener with all of the information required to reproduce their full, studio-quality experience, but that extra data — which pushes a track into hi-res territory — is “folded” into the track’s digital structure, where it lies dormant until it is “unfolded” at the other end by the listener’s digital audio device. This is the key to how an MQA file can deliver hi-res quality at a size that is comparable to a 48kHz/16-bit lossless file.

The first unfold (“A” in the diagram below), which you can hear on any device that can run the MQA Core Decoder software (like an iPhone with the Tidal app), delivers CD-quality sound. MQA claims it’s actually better-than-CD-quality because of the reduction of time-smearing we discussed earlier.

It’s next unfolds — the second and third unfolds (“B” and “C” in the diagram) — that give you a truly hi-res experience. These unfolds contain high-frequency info, some of which is only barely audible, and much that isn’t audible at all. Together, they not only enhance the main audible frequencies — leading to that feeling of richness and immersion — but they also help digital-to-analog converters (DACs) perform more efficiently, which again improves overall quality.

MQA music origami diagram

Unfortunately, the last two unfolds can’t be unfolded by software alone. They require dedicated hardware known as MQA Renderers and Decoders. We’ll talk more about these in a moment.

Though we’ve discussed MQA as a music format, technically speaking, it’s a format-within-a-format. In other words, those three folds we just discussed are hidden inside lossless file formats you’re already familiar with like FLAC, WAV, AIFF, and ALAC. MQA can even tuck its extra audio info inside of standard CDs. That’s why, if you were to download an MQA track from an online store, the file name isn’t “artist-song.mqa,” it’s “artist-song.mqa.flac,” or something similarly familiar.

The benefit to this Trojan Horse arrangement is that even if you don’t have the software or hardware to take advantage of MQA’s extra folds of audio info, these tracks will still play on any device that can read them. In other words, you can take an MQA-encoded CD, and it will play on a CD player from 1990.

How to enjoy MQA

As mentioned above, you can hear the first level of MQA quality — that first unfold — right now, with your existing gear. MQA CDs are one way to do that, but most people will want something more convenient. In the U.S., both Tidal and live-music specialty site Nugs.net offer MQA streaming. Tidal calls its collection of MQA tracks Tidal Masters, and they’re included in the premium Hi-Fi subscription tier.

The Tidal app for iOS and Android contains the software needed to perform the first MQA unfold, giving you that better-than-CD audio quality, though without the full benefits of the second and third unfolds.

Zorloo Ztella MQA USB DAC

To get the full, hi-res MQA experience, you’ll need an MQA renderer or decoder. For iPhone and Android users, the first MQA-rendering dongles are just starting to hit the market. The $99 Zorloo Ztella MQA Edition integrated USB-DAC cable is the starting point. iPhone owners will also need a Lightning-to-USB-C adapter, while Android users will need to buy the USB Audio Player Pro app (plus its in-app purchased MQA add-on) too — which overcome a limitation of Android’s USB audio-out protocols.

Another option is the $99 AudioQuest Dragonfly Black, a USB DAC that might be more flexible for those who want to stream MQA tracks from their computers as well as their phones.

Finally, if you’re ready to spend some serious dollars to upgrade your home audio gear for MQA, there’s a growing collection of Hi-Fi gear that can decode the format, including Bluesound, a whole-home wireless audio competitor to Sonos.

With support from all of the major record labels as well as Merlin, a service that represents indy artists, MQA should see increasing adoption over the coming months and years.

TV, too

MQA might not be limited to the realms of streaming and downloadable audio. Recently, Japanese broadcaster WOWOW conducted tests using MQA for broadcast audio, something that, along with Dolby Atmos, could have an impact on everything from movies to live simulcast performances.

MQA quality won’t translate over Bluetooth

Sadly, because the MQA format must remain intact until it is converted into analog audio you can hear, Bluetooth wireless speakers and headphones, as well as true wireless earbuds, can’t join the full MQA party. That’s because Bluetooth itself needs to perform digital re-encoding to send wireless audio from your phone to your headphones. This re-encoding disrupts the carefully folded MQA data, making it unavailable to your ears.

You can still enjoy the benefits of the first MQA unfold using Bluetooth, but the hi-res experience at this time is not an option.

How does MQA sound?

If you go to the trouble of signing up for an expensive streaming plan and buy the necessary hardware to play MQA tracks in their full quality, will you hear a difference?

Yes. Well, mostly yes.

Using an iPhone 11 with a Tidal HiFi subscription, the Zorloo Ztella dongle DAC, and a set of Bowers and Wilkins PX7 headphones (using the wired connection, of course), I went back and forth between the CD-quality and MQA versions of dozens of artists’ tracks. I sampled Green Day, Led Zeppelin, The Who, R.E.M, Heart, John Coltrane, Beck, and Billie Eilish, to name just a few. I then swapped out the Zorloo DAC for Apple’s own Lightning-to-headphone jack adapter, which is also a DAC, but not an MQA-compatible DAC, and repeated the process.

I even gave the Zorloo a whirl using a Google Pixel XL and the USB Audio Player Pro, just to see if it produced a different result.

The results? I thought the MQA version of most tracks was noticeably better, and not just by a small amount. MQA allowed each instrument and each voice to inhabit its own space, adding both depth and clarity. In some cases, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Snow (Hey Oh), the additional detail is striking, particularly as the song evolves from a single instrument to the full arrangement. You can continue to hone in on that first guitar riff even as it becomes just one of many overlapping sounds.

However, not all tracks benefit from the MQA treatment. I was hard-pressed to notice a significant difference when listening to most of Tom Petty’s songs. Older tracks by The Who like Pinball Wizard and Baba O’Riley were similar. I noticed a small improvement, but only just.

As with all discussions of audio, whether it’s a new format like MQA or a new set of headphones, the only way to know if you can hear a difference is to try it for yourself. One way you can do that — though it won’t necessarily offer you a chance to compare it to non-MQA audio — is to see if a Masters Session is coming to a location near you. These live-streamed concerts are produced using MQA and fed to a Bluesound dealer, giving you a chance to hear the difference for yourself.

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