MQA: High-res audio breakthrough
What Master Quality Authenticated is and how to get it
In a Nutshell
MQA — short for Master Quality Authenticated — is a new way to experience high-resolution audio.
MQA encoding folds studio-quality audio into files that are small enough to stream (or store in large quantities on a portable device). But the encoding process doesn't just make hi-res music files smaller. It makes them sound much better, too.
You can buy a limited selection of MQA downloads now. They play through any equipment that can decode lossless file formats (WAV, FLAC, and ALAC). When played through equipment that can also decode MQA, the sound quality is breathtaking.
But sound quality alone won't give MQA mainstream appeal. That should happen when a much broader selection of MQA music is available from streaming services.
Major music industry players such as the Warner Music Group and the TIDAL streaming service have signed on, so music lovers may not have to wait much longer for an easier way to enjoy hi-res audio.
What is MQA?
MQA was developed by Meridian Audio Ltd., a UK company renowned for their high-performance audio gear. MQA was designed to deliver higher sound quality from digital music while keeping file sizes as small as possible.
By using MQA as part of the mastering process, the track is marked as the version approved by the artist or label. In other words, what you hear when the track is played through an MQA-enabled player is what the artist intended. MQA-enabled players have a status light that confirms the track is MQA, and that all the information contained therein is being decoded.
How does it work?
MQA captures musical detail that’s typically left out of a digital audio file. It encapsulates that missing data into an inaudible portion of the file (without increasing the size of the file). A component with an MQA decoder retrieves the missing information and integrates it into the audio presentation.
So what does it sound like?
With MQA, you should notice an increased spatial depth of the sound field, and instruments and voices sounding more natural and realistic. At CES 2016, Absolute Sound editor Robert Harley listened to a sound demonstration which compared original high-resolution recordings with MQA-encoded versions.
"We first listened to [a] spectacular opera recording in [its] original 88.2kHz/24-bit format. Then, seconds into the MQA version, my jaw dropped — literally. MQA’s dramatic superiority made the original high-resolution file sound like a pale imitation of the performance... Before the music even began the hall sounded larger, with the acoustic better defined. A glare was stripped away from instrumental textures, leaving behind a gorgeously liquid rendering of timbre. The positions of instruments on the stage, and of the musicians within the acoustic, were precisely defined.”
- Robert Harley, the Absolute Sound
read the full article: MQA: On the Threshold
What gear do I need to play MQA?
If your digital music players can play WAV, FLAC, and other types of high-resolution files, then they can play the MQA-enhanced versions, too. Without an MQA decoder, you hear the file in the usual way.
“There is an analogy here with the LP record: one inventory that can be played on mass market players, yet responds with increased quality for those who invest in better players”
- John Atkinson, Stereophile
read the full article: I’ve Heard the Future of Streaming: Meridian’s MQA
So what devices have MQA built-in?
There are currently both portable players and home audio systems that offer MQA playback. You can find a complete listing on the MQA website. Below are the products Crutchfield offers.
MQA is incorporated into Roon music management software. (Read more about Roon here.)
Sony NW-A45 Walkman® high-resolution digital music player with Bluetooth® and FM tuner
Sony NW-ZX300 Walkman® high-resolution digital music player with Bluetooth®
Through a software upgrade, all Bluesound multi-room audio components are now MQA-enabled.
Where can I find MQA streams?
TIDAL now offers TIDALMASTERS MQA streams to their HiFi service subscribers. Tidal says the MQA streams include “thousands of master quality albums,” accessible only through the TIDAL desktop application.
In September 2017, Deezer announced that they would be increasing their MQA-encoded offerings on their Deezer HiFi subscription service.
You’ll need a USB DAC (digital-to-analog converter), such AudioQuest's DragonFly Red or Black plugin USB DACs to hear MQA-encoded tracks in their full glory.
Where can I find MQA tracks?
Onkyo Music has a section devoted to MQA tracks.
The German-based site High Res Audio also has a dedicated MQA download section.
Small independent audiophile-oriented record labels were among the first to sign on to MQA, adding it to their mastering processes. European labels such as Eudora Records and Berlin Classics offer several releases, as do American high-fidelity labels such as ECM, Sono Luminus, and Delos Productions.
Three major labels have entered into long-term licensing agreements with MQA. Warner Music Group, which includes Atlantic Records, Nonesuch, Electra, and Reprise signed in 2016. Universal Music Group, which has Interscope, Geffen, Def Jam, Verve, Blue Note, and EMI in their roster, signed in early 2017. Sony Music, which includes RCA, Epic, and Arista, also signed in 2017.