Music streaming services are slowly but surely becoming the main medium through which many of us listen to music. Just last year, revenues from streaming overtook revenues of physical formats, hitting $1 billion for the first time.
Most music services, such as the market-leading Spotify and Apple Music, offer standard, lossy compression music streams, whether 256kbps or 320kbps, AAC, MP3 or Ogg Vorbis. While some, such as Deezer Elite, Qobuz and Tidal also offer higher, CD-quality lossless streams.
But what about hi-res audio? The first service to offer hi-res streaming was Qobuz, through its Android app, and now Tidal has become the first to deliver hi-res audio streaming on desktop, launching its Tidal Masters service at CES 2017. And it uses MQA technology to make it possible.
So what is MQA audio? And how has it helped hi-res streaming become a reality?
What is MQA?
Meridian says MQA will “fundamentally change the way we all enjoy music”. It’s a new method of digitally storing recorded music as a file that’s small and convenient to download or even stream, without the sonic sacrifices that are traditionally associated with compressed files.
Meridian says an MQA file requires a similar bandwidth to that required for CD-quality streams. So if you’re able to stream Tidal’s hi-fi tier with relative ease then the new Tidal Masters tier using MQA shouldn’t be a problem.This means hi-res audio streaming can become a reality, with songs being able to be delivered exactly how they were recorded in the studio, without requiring huge amounts of bandwidth to deliver.
More after the break
How can I get MQA?
Rather than being a new file type to sit alongside FLAC, WAV et al, MQA files will instead be packaged inside any lossless container such as FLAC, WAV or Apple Lossless. This means you could potentially stream hi-res audio through an iPhone, with the compatible hardware.
That hardware will need an MQA decoder, but that decoder could find its way into pretty much any type of audio product: whether a hi-fi streamer, portable music player or even in-car audio system. Alternatively, the decoding can be done in a desktop app such as Tidal or Audirvana Plus3.
And this is no pie-in-the-sky promise, the hardware, although limited, is already available. The Pioneer XDP-100R and Onkyo DP-X1 were among the first MQA-compatible portable audio players. Thanks to firmware updates, select Meridian products can also play back the format - these include the Explorer 2 USB DAC, Prime Headphone Amplifier, 808v6 Reference CD Player, 818v3 Reference Audio Core, Special Edition Loudspeakers and its 40th Anniversary Systems. If you have any of these devices, you can find the firmware updates here.
And at CES 2017, Tidal announced it would become the first streaming service to use MQA in order to stream hi-res audio, with the launch of Tidal Masters. You can now listen to hi-res MQA tracks using the Tidal desktop app.
Will Apple support MQA?
While we’ve been able to get native hi-res audio support on Android devices from Samsung, Sony and LG, the Apple iPhone has only been able to support hi-res music via third-party apps and compatible headphones with a Lightning connection.
Rumours have since suggested Apple is planning to deliver hi-res audio through Apple Music, but we wouldn't hold our breath on that one. It has been claimed that Apple would use the Lightning connection, coupled with hi-res support built-in to a new version of iOS. Could Apple one day use MQA and deliver hi-res music? We shall see...
One thing's for sure, it seems MQA is a technology to watch for anyone with an interest in audio quality.