Music streaming services are now the main medium through which many of us listen to music. Most, such as the market-leading Spotify and Apple Music, offer standard, lossy compression music streams, whether 256kbps or 320kbps, AAC, MP3 or Ogg Vorbis. Some, such as Tidal, Amazon Music HD, Qobuz and Deezer, also offer higher, CD-quality streams. Spotify is set to join that crop later this year with its Spotify HiFi tier, too.
But what about hi-res audio (by which we mean above CD quality)? The first service to offer hi-res streaming was Qobuz, followed by Tidal and, more recently, Amazon. Our favourite music streaming service, Tidal launched its now-established Tidal Masters hi-res library four years ago, and it uses MQA technology to make it possible.
So what is MQA audio? How has it helped hi-res streaming become a reality? And what other music listening experiences is it behind?
What is MQA?
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, without the sonic sacrifices traditionally associated with compressed files.
MQA claims its tracks use 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.
How can you listen to MQA?
Rather than being a new file type to sit alongside FLAC, WAV et al, MQA files can instead be packaged inside any lossless container such as FLAC, WAV or Apple Lossless. You will need compatible hardware, such as a music streamer or portable music player, or software such as the Tidal desktop app, to decode the MQA files.
And this is no pie-in-the-sky promise; the hardware is available. And, now we're some years into its existence, there's plenty of it.
The Pioneer XDP-100R and Onkyo DP-X1 were among the first MQA-compatible portable audio players, and that's since been expanded to include various players from Pioneer, Onkyo, Astell & Kern and Sony – including the Award-winning Sony NW-A55L and Astell & Kern A&norma SR25.
The LG V30 became the first globally available smartphone with MQA in 2017, and the format has since found its way onto its LG ThinQ successors, as well as the Essential phone.
As for hi-fi kit, MQA compatibility is only going one way – up. MQA-supporting products include desktop and USB DACs such as AudioQuest's DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red and Cambridge Audio's DacMagic 200M; music streamers like NAD C 658 and Technics SL-G700; and hi-fi systems including Dali Oberon 1 C and KEF LS50 Wireless II. Meridian, iFi, Arcam, Bluesound, dCS, Moon by Simaudio, Mark Levinson and Audiolab are also among MQA's product partners.
Where can you find MQA music?
If you don't have any of the above hardware, then you can still play Tidal's "millions" of Masters tracks through the Tidal desktop, Android and iOS apps, which can decode and play them through your, say, phone or Macbook.
These apps can complete the first 'unfold' of MQA file decoding, outputting streams to a maximum of 24-bit/96kHz. However, the only way to entirely unpackage an MQA file for playback, and therefore give you a more accurate representation of the file, is by pairing the app with a MQA-compatible product (as listed above) that takes the decoding process away from the software (the Tidal app).
Tidal HiFi subscribers can now easily 'cast' MQA Tidal Masters from the app to compatible kit that can decode them thanks to a new feature called Tidal Connect. Essentially Spotify Connect for Tidal, it allows the native Tidal app to be a controller for connected devices – like Chromecast can, only Connect supports Tidal's MQA and Dolby Atmos Music catalogue. Unsurprisingly, many MQA-supporting hi-fi brands are supporting Tidal Connect.
With major music labels such as Universal, Warner Bros and Sony Music offering music in MQA, we wouldn't be surprised if more music streaming services got in on the action too. Deezer announced a partnership with MQA back in September 2017, but all has gone quiet on that front since.
Actual MQA music files are available to download from the likes of Highresaudio, Onkyo Music (powered by 7digital), and 2L, as well as e-onkyo music, Kripton HQM's store and groovers (Japan). And if you're looking to play such purchased files through a PC or laptop, dedicated desktop music player software, such as Audirvana and Roon, also support MQA. While more niche, physical MQA-CDs are also a thing.
What about MQA Live?
MQA has also been experimenting with “original quality” real-time concert streams with its MQA Live technology, which it has demonstrated at various trade shows in recent years.
The point of Live is to create a virtual gig experience, allowing people to listen to their favourite bands’ live performances if they can’t attend the event themselves.
To do this, MQA has made a live encoder box that connects to a venue’s audio system and is able to send what is being played to the chosen delivery platform of the venue. MQA claims the encoding process “preserves audio quality and addresses bandwidth issues”.
In 2020, MQA channelled this experience into a new format – The Masters Sessions – through a partnership with one of its hardware partners, Bluesound. These sophisticated audio soirees comprise live concerts, streamed in MQA studio quality, to over 140 esteemed audio dealerships around the world, played through each dealer's Bluesound MQA-enabled audio players. These dealers have included eight Sevenoaks Sound and Vision stores, in Bristol, Chelsea, Sevenoaks, Reading, Oxford, Solihull, Cambridge and Manchester. The initiative is still young – only a few sessions have been hosted so far – but there are more to come!
In support of the UK artists that were set to play at SXSW in March but couldn't because of the Coronavirus pandemic, MQA partnered with the British Music Embassy and us (!) to live stream mini concerts on the What Hi-Fi? YouTube channel using MQA tech.
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 properly play hi-res music via a third-party app and portable DAC.
Rumours have long since suggested Apple is planning to deliver hi-res audio through Apple Music, but we aren't holding our breath. Instead, we've established an effective (if not particularly elegant) workaround on how to play hi-res music on your iPhone.
Could Apple one day use MQA and deliver hi-res music? It seems unlikely in the near future, but, as goes the expression, never say never.
One thing's for sure, for anyone with an interest in audio quality, MQA is a technology that demands to be heard. Want to know more? Head over to the MQA website here.