Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) is an audio codec using lossy compression and a form of file fingerprinting, intended for high fidelity digital audio internet streaming and file download. Launched in 2014 by Meridian Audio, it is now owned and licensed by MQA Ltd, which was founded by Bob Stuart, co-founder of Meridian Audio.
MQA was launched on 4 December 2014 at The Shard in London, although the concepts underpinning the development had previously been the subject of a presentation to the Audio Engineering Society British Section (10 June 2014) and a paper (published 8 October 2014) presented at the Audio Engineering Society 137th Convention in Los Angeles, CA in October 2014.
MQA was demonstrated to visitors to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 2015. Several download/streaming services, playback system manufacturers and record labels have subsequently announced support for the technology, including Pioneer Corporation, Onkyo, Meridian Audio, 7digital, Norwegian label Lindberg Lyd (2L), Mytek and others, with Warner Music Group announcing the signing of a "long-term licensing deal" with MQA at the Munich High End show in May 2016.
In May 2016, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), in cooperation with the Recording Academy Producers & Engineers Wing, the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM), and DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group, announced that services providing music encoded in MQA are eligible to carry the industry's official logo mark for "Hi-Res MUSIC".
In March 2018, MQA launched "Live", a virtual concert-going service designed to preserve the original sound quality of live performances. While playback will be available on any device, only devices compatible with MQA's proprietary codec may access the stream's "full quality."
MQA encoding is lossy; it hierarchically compresses the relatively little energy in the higher frequency bands into data streams that are embedded in the lower frequency bands using proprietary dithering techniques but after the decoding the result would be the lossless archive.
After a series of such manipulations, the resulting 44.1 kHz data, the layered data streams, and a final "touchup" stream (compressed difference between the lossy signal from unpacking all layers and the original) are provided to the playback device. Given the low amount of energy expected in higher frequencies, and using only one extra frequency band layer (upper 44.1 kHz band of 96/24 packed into dither of 48/16) and one touchup stream (compressed difference between original 96/24 and 48/16) are together distributed as a 48/24 stream, of which 48/16 bit-decimated part can be played by normal 48/16 playback equipment.
One more difference to standard formats is the sampling process. The audio stream is sampled and convolved with a triangle function, and interpolated later during playback. The techniques employed, including the sampling of signals with a finite rate of innovation, were developed by a number of researchers over the preceding decade, including Pier Luigi Dragotti and others.
MQA-encoded content can be carried via any lossless file format such as FLAC or ALAC; hence, it can be played back on systems either with or without an MQA decoder. In the latter case, the resulting audio has easily identifiable high-frequency noise occupying 3 LSB bits, thus limiting playback on non-MQA devices effectively to 13 bit. MQA claims that nevertheless the quality is higher than "normal" 48/16, because of the novel sampling and convolution processes.
However, unlike other lossy compression formats like MP3 and WMA, the lossy encoding method of MQA is similar to aptX, LDAC and WavPack Hybrid Lossy, which uses time-domain ADPCM and bitrate reduction instead of perceptual encoding based on psychoacoustic models.
While the technology has received little comment in the general and mainstream press, it has been exalted by the audiophile and hi-fi press. Robert Harley, editor of The Absolute Sound has referred to it as "The most significant audio technology of my lifetime". Editor John Atkinson writing in Stereophile magazine following the UK launch in December 2014 wrote "In almost 40 years of attending audio press events, only rarely have I come away feeling that I was present at the birth of a new world."
MQA has received criticism from various sources within the music industry.
Audio product manufacturer Schiit Audio announced that it will not be supporting MQA due to, amongst other reasons, the understanding that "…supporting MQA means handing over the entire recording industry to an external standards organization."
In a blog post title "MQA is Bad for Music. Here's why" Hi-fi Manufacturer Linn Products criticises MQA's licensing requirements, asserting that MQA is "...an attempt to control and extract revenue from every part of the supply chain, and not just over content that they hold the rights for." After having discussed several disadvantages for both the artist and the consumer Linn concludes that as a consumer you will "…pay a higher price for the same music, and you'll pay more for your hi-fi system too. And even if you don't buy into MQA, everyone will get less innovation, creativity and poorer music as a result."
In an interview for online publication Positive Feedback, engineer Andreas Koch is critical of MQA due to its lossy algorithms and compression, along with its licensing requirements; also saying that a format such as this "does not solve any problem that the world currently has." Koch was involved in the creation of the Super Audio CD, the development of the Direct Stream Digital codec, and is co-founder of audio product manufacturer Playback Designs.
An article titled Digital Done Wrong on the International Audio/Video Review web site, concluded that MQA is founded on a fundamentally unsound understanding of correct digital audio processing and found that playback of a sample MQA encoding demonstrated gross distortion and reconstruction failure. It did however comment that some listeners may find the technical defects of MQA encoding subjectively pleasing.
Some critical comments have been made in online forums such as the Audiophile Style forum and in audio magazine website comments, and a few writers have expressed concern in some areas. Over 80 detailed questions, some of which voiced these concerns, were submitted to the editors of the Audiophile Style forum and subsequently addressed in detail by the creator of MQA, Bob Stuart, in an extended question-and-answer article.
Hardware and software decoders
Hardware decoders are manufactured by Pioneer, iFi Audio, Onkyo, Mytek, Meridian, Cocktailaudio and Bluesound. Selected Meridian products will support MQA thanks to a firmware update. On software side, the desktop application by Tidal supports MQA.
Commercial MQA-capable playback devices require payment of a royalty to MQA Ltd per unit sold. Based on information from Auralic, a manufacturer of Audiophile Wireless Audio Streamers, Meridian Audio prohibits digital output of unpacked MQA in any digital format, only allowing the unpacked data to be fed to an on-board MQA-compatible DAC and output in analog form. Some claim this to be a kind of DRM process, which allows a proper MQA file to be authenticated and the full quality of the signal decoded only on commercially licensed equipment.
- "Is MQA DOA?". Retrieved 3 February 2017.
'MQA is not lossless.'
- Radding, Ben. "Studio-Quality Music Streaming Coming Soon From MQA". PC Mag. Ziff Davis. Retrieved 15 April 2016.
'MQA is a digital encoding and playback service, standing for Master Quality Authenticated, which aims to deliver master studio quality sound in a file that's small enough to stream or download.'
- "Meridian Launch MQA 'Master Quality Authenticated' Audio Format". HiFiCritic.com. 7 December 2014. Retrieved 11 May 2016.
- Stuart, Craven, J Robert, Peter. "High Resolution: Capturing the Moment". Audio Engineering Society UK. AES British Section. Retrieved 11 May 2016.
- Stuart, Craven, J Robert, Peter. "A Hierarchical Approach to Archiving and Distribution". Audio Engineering Society. Audio Engineering Society Inc. Retrieved 11 May 2016.
- Waldrep, Mark. "MQA at CES 2015: Part II Listening". Real HD Audio. Real HD Audio. Retrieved 11 May 2016.
- audioXpress Staff. "Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) Launches Major Partnerships and New Development Platforms at CES 2016". audioXpress. audioXpress. Retrieved 13 May 2016.
- Music Business Worldwide. "Warner becomes first major to sign deal with HD music firm MQA". Music Business Worldwide. Music Business Worldwide. Retrieved 11 May 2016.
- RIAA News. "HI-RES MUSIC INITIATIVE EXPANDS TO INCLUDE MUSIC STREAMING SERVICES". Recording Industry Association of America. RIAA. Retrieved 19 May 2016.
- Roberts, Becky (Mar 19, 2018). "MQA Live promises "original quality" real-time concert streams". What Hi Fi?. Retrieved December 18, 2018.
- Darko, John. "An inconvenient truth: MQA sounds better!". Retrieved 27 May 2020.
the MQA encoding process is lossy – it is no longer the studio master as archived by the record label
- "MQA The Facts vs the fiction". Retrieved 5 May 2020.
'the result is the same as lossless compression'
- Dragotti, Pier Luigi (November 24, 2009). "Sparse Sampling: Theory and Applications" (PDF). Imperial College London. Retrieved 11 March 2018.
- Oñativia, J; Dragotti, PL (February 2015). "Sparse sampling: theory, methods and an application in neuroscience". Biological Cybernetics. 109 (1): 125–39. doi:10.1007/s00422-014-0639-x. PMC 4315512. PMID 25452206.
- Christoph Engemann, Anton Schlesinger (2017-12-30). "MQA - A clever stealth DRM-Trojan". 34C3 (video). media.ccc.de. YouTube tGJ5eW-gBxA.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
- Harley, Robert. "Master Quality Authenticated (MQA): The View From 30,000 Feet". The Absolute Sound. The Absolute Sound. Retrieved 11 May 2016.
- Atkinson, John. "I've Heard the Future of Streaming: Meridian's MQA". Stereophile. Stereophile. Retrieved 11 May 2016.
- "Schiit Audio, Headphone amps and DACs made in USA". schiit.com. Retrieved 2017-03-22.
- "MQA is Bad For Music. Here's Why". Retrieved 2017-03-22.
- Koch, Andreas (2017-03-16). "My Questions and Answers (MQA): An Interview with Andreas Koch". Positive Feedback. Retrieved 2017-03-23.
- "Digital Done Wrong". International Audio/Video Review. Retrieved 18 April 2018.
- Miska. "Some analysis and comparison of MQA encoded FLAC vs normal optimized hires FLAC". Audiophile Style. Retrieved 11 May 2016.
- Stuart, Bob. "A Comprehensive Q&A With MQA's Bob Stuart". Audiophile Style. Retrieved 11 May 2016.
- Cox, Joe (31 January 2017). "MQA audio: What is it? How can you get it?". What Hifi. Retrieved 11 February 2017.
- Smith, Adam (5 January 2017). "Tidal adds hi-res audio streams with 'Tidal Masters'". What Hifi. Retrieved 11 February 2017.