MQA aims to “fundamentally change the way we all enjoy music”. It’s a method of digitally capturing and storing original master recordings as files that are small and convenient enough to download or stream
MQA stands for Master Quality Authenticated. Founded in 2014, it is an audio format for high-resolution audio streaming and downloading. It aims to deliver the (authenticated) master recording in a file small enough to stream. MQA, a company born and bred in the UK, says that it improves resolution by correcting time-based errors that cause audio blurring – see ‘Time machine’ for more. To ‘unlock’ the full studio quality of the file, you need an MQA-supporting device; however, all MQA files play on all digital music devices. Read on for more on how to extract maximum performance from MQA files.
TIDAL Masters. To hear MQA, check out the TIDAL music streaming platform. Subscribe to the TIDAL HiFi Plus tier, play a TIDAL Master track, and you are listening to MQA. The TIDAL app (PC and Mac on desktop; Android and iOS on mobile; and Chrome or Firefox for web players) integrates the MQA core decoder and performs the first unfold of an MQA file. Pair the TIDAL app with an MQA Renderer product, and the latter completes the unfolding of the MQA file.
A crucial part of MQA’s elevator pitch is how its patented process improves your digital music’s ‘timing’. Recent hearing research, says MQA, shows that humans are much more sensitive to sound in the ‘time domain’ than the ‘frequency domain’. Huh? Consider this – when a twig snaps in the forest, humans can immediately locate where it is. That is about timing, not frequency. MQA says traditional digital audio capture methods create timing errors, reducing naturalness. When MQA encodes audio, several things happen, including the ‘deblurring’ of the source to remove these audible artefacts (introduced by analogue-digital converters, mixing and mastering). MQA aims to get the timing right, boosting audio quality, especially realism.
Once it has captured the recording, MQA tech ‘folds’ the audio file, making it easier to stream. MQA-supporting gear can then unfold the file to deliver the best possible listening experience.
MQA, rather neatly, calls this process ‘music origami’. MQA’s folding technique, pitched against other digital formats, is a less data-hungry system.
MQA files can be packaged inside any lossless container – including FLAC and WAV – and will play on any digital music device. So, even on the non-MQA supporting kit, you should experience – in MQA’s words – higher than CD quality. Pair the MQA music file with an MQA decoder product (see Core Decoder, Renderer, and Full Decoder entries), and you can experience different levels of ‘file unfold’.
A music file can be altered after release – trust us, it happens – and the listener is rarely aware. MQA-supporting kit uses visual signals to ‘authenticate’ that you are hearing the original file. Check your gear’s manual for specifics, but the blue light is the, er, gold standard. The blue light confirms ‘MQA Studio’, verifying that the sound you are hearing is exactly as played in the studio when the track was completed.
An MQA Core Decoder product outputs at 88.2 or 96 kHz. An MQA Core decoder product could be in the form of hardware, such as a digital audio player. It could also be a media player, for example, Audirvana and Roon. MQA Core Decoders also come in the form of streaming services and desktop and mobile apps, such as TIDAL. So, the TIDAL app is a Core Decoder and performs the first unfold of an MQA audio file.
Pair an MQA Renderer product with an MQA Core Decoder product and the Renderer can complete the final unfold – up to 768 kHz – and deliver a fully decoded MQA experience. MQA Renderer products tend to come in portable forms, such as USB DACs and headsets.
Products with a full MQA Decoder unfold the file to deliver the highest sound quality. At this playback level, MQA says that we are hearing what the artists created in the studio – with precise file and platform-specific DAC compensation and management. MQA full decoder products include high-end DACs and Bluesound’s wireless multi-room line.
The popularity of music streaming and digital downloading continues to increase, but CDs haven’t gone away just yet. Indeed, some say that a CD revival is (quietly) underway. MQA-CD is just what it sounds like – MQA files contained on a CD. Any CD player can play an MQA-CD, and, MQA says, it’ll deliver an audible improvement compared to a ‘regular’ CD. Pair the CD player with an MQA-enabled DAC, or indeed an MQA-enabled CD player, and you can fully decode the disc to reveal the ‘original hi-res signal heard in the studio’.
MQair (that’s the brand name, by the way; its official name is the slightly less catchy SCL6) is a hi-res wireless codec from MQA Ltd, the maker of MQA.
Note MQair and MQA are different: MQA is an audio tool that aims to fix audio problems in digital masters. MQair is a real-time delivery codec that seamlessly scales up or down – so it adjusts to changing data speeds – to achieve the best sound over Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
As well as swallowing less of your data allowance, MQA says that its file folding/unfolding technique is the green way to stream hi-res audio, reducing the carbon footprint of high-resolution audio by as much as 80%. How so? Based on an analysis of millions of songs, MQA has discovered that in a typical 192kHz 24-bit audio file, music uses only 20% of the data capacity; the remaining 80% contains no music information. If you didn’t think that streaming was an environmental issue, think again – the ecological cost of today’s streaming-centred music business is twice* as high as the CD era.
Devine, K. (2019). Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music. (The MIT Press).