Music streaming services are becoming the main medium through which many of us listen to music. Last year, paid-for music subscriptions rose by 38 per cent to a total of £829m, accounting for 62 per cent of total recorded music revenues in the UK.
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 Tidal and Qobuz also offer higher, CD-quality lossless streams.
But what about hi-res audio (by which we mean above CD quality)? The first service to offer hi-res streaming was Qobuz, through its Android app, and Tidal became 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.
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 five 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 the Pioneer XDP-30R, Onkyo DP-S1, Sony's flagship NW-ZX300 and WM-A40. Sony's MQA support continues with the £8000 DMP-Z1 digital music player (launched at IFA 2018) and its NW-A50 Walkman series.
Technics's SU-G30 network streamer can also be added to that list, as can its SL-G700 SACD player and network streamer, which made its debut in prototype form at IFA 2018.
The list goes on to include Bluesound's Generation 2 Award-winning multi-room streaming products, and hi-fi components by the likes of NAD, dCS, Moon by Simaudio, Mark Levinson and Audiolab. Select Astell & Kern portable music players will get MQA integration too.
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.
Where can you find MQA music?
But what about when you're on the go? As of earlier this year, the Tidal Android and Tidal iOS apps now also support Masters, allowing the majority of smartphone users to play the hi-res streams straight from their handset into their ears.
As with the desktop app, the Android and iOS 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 based on your system characteristics, is by pairing your smartphone with an MQA-compatible DAC (as above), taking the decoding process away from the software (the apps).
Having re-branded its CD-quality HiFi tier, Deezer is the latest music streaming service to get in on the MQA action, too.
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.
What about MQA Live?
MQA is also promising “original quality” real-time concert streams with its Live technology, which MQA demonstrated at the Munich High End Show.
The point of Live is to create a virtual gig experience, allowing people to listen to their favourite bands’ live performances in their “original quality” 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”.
MQA music can be played back on any device, although only MQA-supported products (of which there are now several, some of which are included above) and software will be capable of unpacking the MQA stream’s full quality.
Whether this will actually land in people’s laps, and whether it will eventually be available within Tidal or Deezer is yet to be announced. For now, the experience is limited to being demoed at tech shows, such as CES, IFA and High End Munich.
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.
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 serious consideration. Want to know more? Head over to the MQA website here.