Music streaming services are 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. Some, such as Deezer HiFi, 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 - it launched 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?
MQA aims to “fundamentally change the way we all enjoy music”. It’s a method of digitally storing recorded music as a file that’s small and convenient enough to download, or even 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.
More after the break
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. 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 the Pioneer XDP-30R, Onkyo DP-S1, Sony's flagship NW-ZX300 and WM-A40. At IFA 2017, the LG V30 was officially announced as the first globally available smartphone with MQA.
Technics's SU-G30 network streamer can also be added to that list, as can Bluesound's Generation 2 Award-winning multi-room streaming products, and hi-fi components by the likes of NAD, Moon by Simaudio, Mark Levinson and Audiolab. And the full list of partners and list of products is growing.
Select Meridian products can also play the format via software updates - 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.
If you don't have any of the above hardware, then you still have the simple option of the Tidal desktop app, which can decode and play Tidal Masters files, powered by MQA.
Where can you find MQA music?
Having recently re-branded its CD-quality HiFi tier, Deezer is the latest music streaming service to get in on the MQA action, too. Despite there being no official confirmation that hi-res streaming is 100% coming to Deezer, you'd have to imagine this is the first step.
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 via the Lightning connection.
Rumours have since suggested Apple is planning to deliver hi-res audio through Apple Music, but we wouldn't hold our breath.
Could Apple one day use MQA and deliver hi-res music? Not this year, but we shall see if things change in the future.
One thing's for sure, for anyone with an interest in audio quality, MQA is a technology that demands consideration.