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MQA: Is This Codec Masquerading As High Quality Audio?
Shane Berry on Sat, December 30th | 7 comments
In the quest for the next big thing, Meridian Audio created the MQA audio file format, supposedly high-res audio in a small size. But does it live up to the hype?

I recently did some research into the MQA codec and ended up going further through the looking glass than expected.  

MQA – Master Quality Authenticated – is an audio technology developed by Bob Stuart, co-founder of high end hi-fi manufacturer Meridian Audio. MQA enables delivery of studio-quality sound in digital files small enough to be streamed. 

High-res files are huge. Most of the file above a certain frequency is noise and, because linear PCM treats all information in the file as equal, this makes high sample rate files hugely inefficient, especially for streaming. Thus the allure of MQA; its ability to fold big files into smaller more manageable sizes, but retain all the “good parts” when unfolded at the end.  

MQA also guarantees a direct link between artist and listener in the form of an authentication feature. On playback device that supports MQA, a green light indicates the file is MQA, and a blue light indicates the MQA file has been approved at a studio or copyright owner level. So at first glance MQA is a high quality audio format that comes in a manageable size, and even promises to enhance existing audio by fixing errors in the authenticated original recordings and masters.

Sounds awesome! But is it?

Down, down, down.

According to whichever online rabbit hole you go into, it's either THE technology to make hi-res audio streaming a reality, or it’s a cynical, calculated “land grab” by MQA and big music labels to establish themselves as toll collecting gatekeepers for high quality audio. There's been a lot of interest in the tech since its announcement in 2014, and more so with streaming service, Tidal adopting in early 2017. So is MQA all it is hyped up to be? As it turns out, that is very hard to find out.

The reason it’s very hard to find out is because MQA has a completely divided base of detractors and supporters, and we’re not talking about anonymous audiophile forum users spitting on screens in neckbeard fury, we’re talking about heavyweights in the industry who either love it or hate it. 

At the start of researching this article, I felt like Alice going through the looking glass, but now I feel like Humpty Dumpty teetering precariously on the fence, unsure of which way to fall. On one side you have MQA itself, a perfect sheen of cutting-edge tech savvy and marketing prowess, with a bunch of high profile audio journalists and mainstream companies buying into and supporting their platform. On the other side you have high-level tech developers, reputable high-end manufacturers, and ultra-boutique hi-res audio services vehemently opposed to the whole idea.

So what is going on? 

For audio geeks, the MQA folding technology is fascinating. The metaphor they use is audio origami, “...essentially folding up a piece of paper, sending it across, and then unfolding it again so nothing is missing.”

Oversimplified, in a high sample rate file (96kHz/24 Bits and up), 5/6th of it is “just noise” above 50 kHz. MQA folds that high frequency information into the noise floor of a typical consumer sample rate (44.1 Khz/16 Bits), and then unfolds it back into the higher sample rate when decoded with the appropriate gear and software. If no decoder is found, it simply plays back at CD resolution meaning an MQA file is backward compatible and is not crippled by the lack of a decoder, the file’s high-res information is simply kept tucked away in whatever lossless wrapper the file came in, be it ALAC or FLAC etc. The best of both worlds it seems.

MQA has gone to considerable lengths to factor in psychoacoustics too. They specifically address an issue in digital audio called temporal blurring, so their compression deals with both the time and frequency domain. Due to digital limitations far too complex to go into here, digital audio suffers an unnatural phenomenon called pre and post ringing where recorded sound energy builds up before a sound actually begins and continues after the sound has stopped, something that is not observed in natural/live sounds. Post ringing - if observed naturally - is thought to be "covered" by the sound itself.

In other words, a digital signal tends to be spread out over a time longer than the original, and we may just be able to pick up on this unnaturalness. Existing studies into human sensitivity show the human ear can resolve timing issues of of 10µs or less, well within the time frame of measurable blurring. Through processes beyond the scope of this article MQA purports to address this issue, and they even claim to be able to compensate for “pollution” in the original masters. 

According to proponents, MQA sounds fantastic, but these sonic benefits are anecdotal and have yet to be proven empirically, but enough well respected ears in this field have come back with praise, so I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt on that front. Besides, I have not yet heard MQA on a compatible system so I cannot comment on that anyway.

But there are some other observations to make, unrelated to hearing, that raise the proverbial eyebrow about the other, supposed benefits of MQA. This is where the audio geek in me signs off, because at this point a few shadows fall across the whole endeavour, and MQA itself is casting them.

By far the darkest shadow is the level of control MQA needs to do what it does. Many consumers and manufacturers alike are hyper skeptical of the business model MQA is folded into, especially the amount of influence MQA will have over the industry if fully adopted. MQA vehemently deny the obvious implications of how their “end to end quality control ecosystem” could be turned into DRM, or be used to discriminate other equally viable audio options. They focus acutely on “quality”, but the “control” aspect is heavily buried within marketing noise. 

MQA itself may have good intentions now, but what happens if they get bought out by a larger entity with a less naive approach to the control tools MQA are so eagerly trying to install at every stage of music making, distribution, and consumption? Bob Stuart does seem quite sincere in his efforts to improve audio streaming quality, but there is genuine concern that his corporate partners and shareholders are after much, much more. 

I was willing to give MQA the benefit of the doubt on this front too until, through sheer synchronicity, I bumped into an audiophile at an art exhibition in Frankfurt who owns a Meridian Audio theatre system, and of course I immediately asked him his thoughts on MQA. His reply? “Ahh Meridian, the proprietary island.”, and he rolled his eyes. The conversation pretty much ended there.

Proprietariness is a core aspect of Meridian Audio, from non standard speaker connections to (obviously) tightly kept DSP secrets, and even though Bob Stuart goes to great lengths to point out that MQA is an entirely separate company from Meridian, it is no leap of the imagination that this “lock a customer into our ecosystem” business concept permeates MQA, and of course it is always for the greater good of the consumer. It's a smoother ride, as long as MQA holds the steering wheel the whole way of course, and collects a little gas money on the side for the trouble of driving your car for you. Understandably a whole bunch of people have an issue with that.

Another area of contention is MQA’s dance around the lossy nature of their codec. When the topic comes up, one gets the sense of dealing with the Cheshire Cat – a grin without a cat so to speak. Why? According to many experts, the math doesn’t add up, so why not just be upfront and say it’s a lossy format? Point out that it has massively greater benefits over traditional lossy formats - under the right playback and licensed conditions - and that the true benefits are primarily psychoacoustic phenomena.

And speaking of psychoacoustics, it is also pertinent to note that most advocates of MQA seem to have had the tech demoed to them on extremely high end Meridian gear, equipment designed to solve many of the issues MQA claims to “fix”, specifically time domain issues inherent in both digital and speaker designs. Listening to before and after files carefully prepared by MQA, on top-of-the-range systems costing upwards of $40 000, raises the question of whether it was the quality of the playback system rather than the benefits of MQA itself they were hearing.

All The King's Horses…

Should indie musicians, beat makers, and bedroom producers even care? No, not yet, unless you have a 40,000 dollar sound system in your lounge. It’s best to focus on great ideas, dynamic mixes, and watching those LUFS levels. Keep that music flowing. Also, personally, as an artist and music creator, I find myself throwing up into my mouth a little at the whole “artists are so important, and we care” schtick that pervades MQA and mainstream audio marketing, a saccharine rhetoric that has no real world benefits to the average artist – unless of course that artist owns the streaming service adopting MQA tech. 

At least the music will sound good amiright? In my humble opinion, music needs another proprietary hoop to jump through like Humpty Dumpty needs another wall, so this “egg” is quite happy to remain on the fence for now.

Learn more audio concepts in the Ask.Audio Academy:  https://ask.audio/academy?nleloc=topic/audioconcepts

 

Comments (7)

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  • peter jasz
    Intersting comments. Some good points. Some not. Namely: ".... so why not just be upfront and say it’s a lossy format? Point out that it has massively greater benefits over traditional lossy formats - under the right playback and licensed conditions - and that the true benefits are primarily psychoacoustic phenomena." (BUT, te term "lossless", as has been known/thrown around, is in fact NOT lossless at all -as Stuart and Co. have painstakingly discovered, carefully, professionally and 'scientifically' revealed -also heavily peer-reviewed. Indeed, MQA utilizes both newer pshcho-acoustic research but also mathematical/digital expertise/excellence. Mr. Bob Stuart is a highly talenetd and rightfully respected chap) Continuing, you say: " ... Due to digital limitations far too complex to go into here (THAT YOU HAVE NO CONCEPT OF), digital audio suffers an unnatural phenomenon called pre and post ringing where recorded sound energy builds up before a sound actually begins and continues after the sound has stopped, something that cannot possibly happen in nature " (Ummm, "something that cannot possibly happen in nature.", should read, PRE-ringing is not observed in natural/live sounds. The term "Post" ringing -if observed naturally -if thought to be "covered" by the soundf itself.) " (pre/post ringing) .... something that cannot possibly happen in nature ". (How do you know that it can't possibly happen in nature ?) " ...No, not yet, unless you have a 40,000 dollar sound system in your lounge". (A $40-K system is NOT needed to hear distinctions in sound quality; many can hear this watching Youtube video's -yes, over seventy-five dollar computer speakers). And finally, your brillioant conclusion: " ...In my humble opinion, music needs another proprietary hoop to jump through like Humpty Dumpty needs another wall, so this “egg” is quite happy to remain on the fence for now.". Right, at your 25-30 Y.O.A, you really are in a position to offer a (very) naive perspective. You state: "My humble opinion" ? There's no humility in your voice whatsoever Thanks for sharing. Now, go do some PS-3 Game reviews. peter jasz
    • 11 months ago
    • By: peter jasz
    Reply
  • Pamyxyy
    Peter Wrote: “Intersting comments. Some good points.” Thank you, Peter. Peter Wrote: “Some not.” Uh-oh... Peter Wrote: “Namely: ".... so why not just be upfront and say it’s a lossy format? Point out that it has massively greater benefits over traditional lossy formats - under the right playback and licensed conditions - and that the true benefits are primarily psychoacoustic phenomena." (BUT, te term "lossless", as has been known/thrown around, is in fact NOT lossless at all -as Stuart and Co. have painstakingly discovered, carefully, professionally and 'scientifically' revealed -also heavily peer-reviewed.” The peer reviewed papers are vague and full of tidy gaps. Don’t take my word for it, Hugh Robjohns points this out in his excellent article on MQA for Sound on Sound. He writes, “I’ve linked to the relevant AES papers and Meridian patents..., but be warned: they aren’t easy reads, and appear to be deliberately incomplete or strategically vague in places.” This vagueness is a perfect clash of business interests vs scientific method, which is fascinating in and of itself. And regarding the lossy/not lossy debate: John Siau of Benchmark points out that: “... the original 24-bit signal is never recovered. MQA does not losslessly preserve the original 24-bit signal. For this reason MQA is not truly a lossless system. At best, the MQA system losslessly conveys 17-bits at 96 kHz. Unfortunately this very complicated process is less efficient than lossless FLAC compression of the 17-bit file. It is also only slightly smaller than a FLAC version of the original 24-bit signal. MQA does not make it easier to stream 96 kHz files. With a 96 kHz 18-bit input, FLAC compressed MQA requires higher data rates than FLAC compressed PCM while delivering lower quality than 18-bit losslessly compressed PCM. MQA also requires special mastering and special playback hardware. Conventional FLAC compression requires neither.” Furthermore the ubiquitous MQA critic Archimago points out: “We sacrifice 24-bit depth to "typically 15.85 bits" (Bob Stuart's words), and encode the ultrasonic frequencies from 24-48kHz in a lossy fashion = MQA encoding & decoding… .” To be fair I also read through Bob Stuart’s own words in his extensive computer audiophile Q and A, and read a slew of pro MQA articles, and was not entirely convinced. So genuine learning question: how is the truncation of bit depth not lossy? Peter Wrote: “Indeed, MQA utilizes both newer pshcho-acoustic research but also mathematical/digital expertise/excellence.” I agree, from a technical point of view it really is freaking amazing what can be done with audio these days, mind boggling. Peter Wrote: “Mr. Bob Stuart is a highly talented and rightfully respected chap)” No argument there, I would genuinely love to have a cup of tea with him and geek out, but one does have to be wary of arguing to authority, and, as the old saying goes never ask a salesperson if you really need their product. Peter Wrote: “Continuing, you say: " ... Due to digital limitations far too complex to go into here (THAT YOU HAVE NO CONCEPT OF), “ Oooh-aaah! The least you could do is send some burn cream over. ;) Peter Wrote: “digital audio suffers an unnatural phenomenon called pre and post ringing where recorded sound energy builds up before a sound actually begins and continues after the sound has stopped, something that cannot possibly happen in nature " (Ummm, "something that cannot possibly happen in nature.", should read, PRE-ringing is not observed in natural/live sounds. The term "Post" ringing -if observed naturally -if thought to be "covered" by the soundf itself.) " (pre/post ringing) .... something that cannot possibly happen in nature ". (How do you know that it can't possibly happen in nature ?)” Fair point, thanks for the correction I will submit the relevant changes, your explanation is much more cogent. Peter Wrote: “(A $40-K system is NOT needed to hear distinctions in sound quality; many can hear this watching Youtube video's -yes, over seventy-five dollar computer speakers).” Show the controlled, level matched double blind tests that prove this in regards to MQA, and then we have a real discussion going. Peter Wrote: “And finally, your brillioant conclusion: " ...In my humble opinion, music needs another proprietary hoop to jump through like Humpty Dumpty needs another wall, so this “egg” is quite happy to remain on the fence for now.". Right, at your 25-30 Y.O.A, you really are in a position to offer a (very) naive perspective. You state: "My humble opinion" ? There's no humility in your voice whatsoever Thanks for sharing. Now, go do some PS-3 Game reviews.” Peter, this is highly uncalled for. Ask.Audio is a place of learning, discovery and community. No one here lays any claim to absolute mastery and knowledge of the field, least of all myself, and we all stand to grow and expand our horizons by helping each other out, not by being dicks to one another. I really do hope your New Year came in on a better tone than the one you are affording me. That said, I’m genuinely grateful for the notes on pre-ringing and post ringing, as you well know digital audio is a deep and complex topic, and not a day goes by that I don't learn something new. I am sure the same thing goes for you. As mentioned, I have already submitted an update with your suggested corrections to my editor. I wish you all the best for 2018. Shane
    • 10 months ago
    • By: Pamyxyy
  • peter jasz
    Hi Shane: It's good that you replied. A couple things: 1) The peer reviewed papers are vague and full of tidy gaps. Don’t take my word for it, Hugh Robjohns points this out in his excellent article on MQA for Sound on Sound. He writes, “I’ve linked to the relevant AES papers and Meridian patents..., but be warned: they aren’t easy reads, and appear to be deliberately incomplete or strategically vague in places.” (Hugh Robjohns; -who's he ? He writes, “I’ve linked to the relevant AES papers and Meridian patents..., but be warned: they aren’t easy reads, and appear to be deliberately incomplete or strategically vague in places.” More specifically, one can always determine someone's level of both education and understanding when statements such as " ...appear to be deliberately incomplete or strategically vague in places.” That's hilarious. It's "reads" as (and in fact is) an emotional outburst rather than a sensible (or even accurate) argument. Do have any idea know how clever Mr Robert Stuart is -and the deep rightful respect he (and team) has earned over decades of industry work and expertise ? Hugh Robjohns, Archimago -WHO are these folks? Qualifications please. When you are battling MQA-style smarts, you best have some recognized, respected and educated men. Tell us more (of these guys). "This vagueness is a perfect clash of business interests vs scientific method, which is fascinating in and of itself." The (your) "vagueness" is entirely hinged on Robjohns words -as you used in the above statement. And then you introduce John Siau (Benchmark Audio) ? Mr. Siau, right. Here;s a guy that if it doesn't "show" on an oscilloscope, it doesn't exist/matter. Great start. A recent Stereophile review of BM's DAC-3 is most telling. But more telling is Mr. Siau's confusion over 'transient/Impulse response' accuracy as revealed in Manufacturer's Response section -within the same issue. He begins (his 15/30-seconds) by introducing a analog circuit design (output stage) in trying to define a 'digital' phenomenon he ultimately describes as 'time-alignment'. And then reveals that linear-filters are the best. At the other end are company's such as Ayre, Bricasti (and many others) that go into great depth/detail revealing (with graphs/facts) that demonstrate clearly that 'Minimum-Phase' filters are far superior (in the time domain) than Linear-Phase.Additionally, listening tests are often used for correlation -a useless 'tool' to Siau) Of course, the sensible company's allow the user to select (based on their preference) a multitude of both MP and LP filters in their DAC's. But not Siau -he knows it all; no digital filter options for the DAC-3. His way or the highway. A long stretch or road beckons. But the best must surely be and saved for last, you tell us/me: ":To be fair I also read through Bob Stuart’s own words in his extensive computer audiophile Q and A, and read a slew of pro MQA articles, and was not entirely convinced." I see. YOU were not convinced ? Now's a good time Shane to reveal both your age and experience/expertise. Give us some of your credentials. peter jasz
    • 10 months ago
    • By: peter jasz
    Reply
  • Pamyxyy
    Hi Peter, It's funny that you mention Ayre because it seems as if Charles Hansen (RIP) was a very vocal critic of MQA. It really is a perfect little storm Mr Stuart has whipped up. Let's hope it's for the better of all in the long run. Anyway, having encountered your other posts on forums and posts related to MQA it is clear you are very much more invested on this topic than I, and I have more pressing matters to attend to. You win, I guess? Don't forget to send me some burn cream. Shane
    • 10 months ago
    • By: Pamyxyy
  • peter jasz
    Shane: You engage in a semi-technical discussion and then bow-out when I (rightfully) ask you for your qualifications -and age ? How professional. And telling. Instead of looking me up and my replies regarding MQA, you should invest your time in learning about the electro-psychoacoustic research utilized in the development of MQA. And while at it, develop some humility; re-read you writing and present a balanced article without your firm (unqualified) thoughts or remarks that "reads" authority-like. Ironically, I have no interest in MQA whatsoever -no 'skin-in-the-game' so to speak. I see it as a fascinating option for the music listening public. I have no MQA files, nor DAC. I do not know any MQA staff or have any other affiliation. I wish Mr. Stuart (and MQA team) the best, there are some bright minds in that organization, but won't lose sleep if MQA crashes -and fails. No one will go starving. What interests me are those masquerading as "experts", throwing around their (literally) two-cents of knowledge in an arena reserved for far brighter minds -and writers. Finally, you say: "You win ?" There's never any real winners, only degrees of losing; a 'team's' win may come at the great cost/loss of the losing side. Is that a "win", really ? Wrapping up, I strongly believe this exchange will make you a far better contributor as your writing career evolves. Now that's a win-win, I'd say ! peter jasz .
    • 10 months ago
    • By: peter jasz
    Reply
  • Rounik Admin
    Hey Peter, can we turn this down a notch? To be honest I've read through the comments and I'm not sure what the fuss is about. Shane is a good writer and if you're interested in knowing more about him and his articles for Ask.Audio (including his bio) it's all available a click away (his name under the article headline). For ease of use: https://ask.audio/author/shane-berry I don't think asking someone's age on the net in a forum is either relevant or appropriate. You're correct, Shane's article does combine research and opinion. But that's fine in my book. Another author might rave about MQA... still (hopefully) research and their opinion. :) Best, Rounik
    • 10 months ago
    • By: Rounik Admin
  • peter jasz
    Hi Rounik: As you wish. pj
    • 10 months ago
    • By: peter jasz
    Reply
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