When MQA was first released in 2014, sides were immediately formed between believers and non-believers. Although 2014 is only a few short years ago, in today’s digital revolution 2014 might as well be 1970. A lot of arguments against MQA centered on the perception that the technology was an attempt to corner the publishing rights market stemming from the Masters Authentication concept. The concept behind MQA Authenticated is to simply ensure the listener that what they are listening to is what the artist wanted them to hear. Like anything new or groundbreaking, time has a way of fleshing out the truth.
MQA is simply a way to have the best of both worlds – the highest quality playback of a recorded track in a storage format that is economical and easy to manage. But what exactly is MQA?
MQA Is Not A File Format
MQA is a codec that is carried by a FLAC (or similar) container allowing playback of MQA-encoded music on non-MQA licensed hardware players. MQA basically takes a digital music file and manipulates the digital data (1’s and 0’s) to preserve all of the musical, spatial and temporal data in a file that can be transported or stored in a standard digital storage file, such as a FLAC file.
Depending on how you play the file back, MQA is both lossy and lossless, but there is something else the MQA codec does that enables higher-than-CD quality even through a standard non-MQA playback device.
Even Without Data Compression A Digital File Is Somewhat Lossy
A digital file is lossy in the sense that once you run your music through an ADC, you no longer hear what “the microphone heard” without some additional filtering. When a recording is run through and analog-to-digital converter (ADC) a transient ‘bounce’ occurs within the ADC circuit that introduces temporal smearing into the stored file. This smearing is then carried through the digital-to-analog converter (DAC) and into your playback system. To make matters worse the DAC also introduces another level of temporal smearing. High resolution files (192k/24-bit) can eliminate most of this smearing, and there are set filters designed for each specific ADC and DAC circuit at the pro-level, but for the average music consumer, that smearing – regardless of how subtle it is – is there. The smearing causes us to lose the ability to focus on exactly where an instrument of performer is in relationship to us and to each other. This might seem like a small thing, especially if you only listen to music through a Bluetooth single-speaker system, but once you get to the point where how your music sounds is as important as what your music says, it becomes a big deal.
MQA uses a proprietary system to remove these temporal bounces, restoring the original temporal information, and we the music consumer benefit from this filtering even without a full-on MQA decode. MQA calls this ‘de-blurring’ and the process does exactly what the name implies.
Using a proprietary coding technique, the low-density data in the upper frequency range (above 11 kHz or so) is compressed into data streams that are embedded in the lower frequency bands preserving the original source data even though it is a lossy compression format.
The musical information (the instruments and voices, etc.) are not touched, but what is ‘folded’ underneath the noise-floor of the musical information is the spatial and temporal information that is what makes music move us emotionally. The sense of space of a musical performance and the air between the notes is what our brains translate into emotion. Needless to say, that information is pretty important but unfortunately in most digital conversion it’s the first information to go. You might say the digital revolution from the late 1990s until today has taught us how important air and space really is to a musical performance. It wasn’t until we got rid of it via lossy compression formats like mp3 that we realized just how important.
MQA music origami takes place in two stages. The first stage takes the very highest audible information (where the reverb and harmonics of the room live) and ‘folds’ it under the noise-floor of the high frequency non-musical information. The second ‘fold’ takes the previously folded information and places it underneath the noise-floor of the musical information. These folds are lossless and are returned to their original places through MQA decoding.
There are several music platforms and streaming services that offer the partial decode of MQA files (Tidal HiFi, Audirvana, Roon). The LS50 Wireless II is also an MQA Core Decoder for MQA files you have on your local server or storage system. If you want to fully decode MQA (returning the high frequency spatial information to its original position) you need an MQA-enabled DAC: Resolution will be maxed at 96kHz/24-bit which is still considered high resolution. Again, this is only an issue when playing back 192kHz/24-bit source files that were recorded, mastered and processed at that resolution. If at any point in the process the resolution is lowered prior to the file reaching you, you will only ever be able to retrieve the lowered resolution. This is where MQA really shines – the original resolution is preserved, and you can retrieve it easily with the right software/hardware combination. This is an important consideration when purchasing high-resolution music – where did the file come from and at what resolution was it recorded, mixed and mastered. This is the basic philosophy behind Master Quality Authenticated.
As we have gotten more comfortable with digital music technology, MQA has proven to be an important player in the preservation of high-resolution reproduction. At it’s simplest MQA delivers slightly better-then-CD quality with no special equipment or software, and at its fullest MQA delivers exactly what the artist wanted you to hear. It’s pretty much a win-win.