We just recently covered a new portable DAC solution that was released into the market that offered support for MQA. A popular format of audio that has taken off over the last few years (although it’s been around for six years now). We have covered a number of devices that support this format and I noticed as it becomes more common, so does the question of what it is and what it brings to the music you listen to. So it was time to provide a quick explanation of what it is.
MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) is a method of high-resolution audio (HRA) encoding and decoding that aims to deliver the sound of a master recording in a file that is small enough to stream or download. It was developed by Bob Stuart, the co-founder of Meridian Audio, and launched in 2016.
One of the main challenges in delivering HRA to consumers is the large file sizes that are typically associated with such content. MQA aims to address this issue by using a proprietary encoding process that captures the full resolution of a master recording, while still maintaining a smaller file size. This is achieved through a combination of techniques, including lossless audio compression and advanced noise shaping.
When an MQA file is played back, the decoding process involves reconstructing the original audio signal using information that is embedded in the file. This process is referred to as “unfolding” and requires an MQA-compatible device, such as a smartphone, portable music player (ie, iFi Audio xDSD Gryphon, or FiiO M11 Pro) , or home audio system, to accurately recreate the sound of the master recording.
MQA has been adopted by a number of music labels and streaming services (including Tidal, Amazon Music Unlimited, and Qobuz), and is supported by a range of hardware and software products. Some critics have questioned the validity of MQA’s claims about the superiority of its technology, and there has been some debate about whether the differences in sound quality between MQA and other HRA formats are significant enough to justify the premium that is often charged for MQA content.
Overall, MQA is an innovative approach to HRA that seeks to deliver the highest possible quality audio in a convenient and easily accessible format. While it has its supporters and detractors, it remains a key player in the world of HRA and is likely to continue to evolve and develop in the coming years.
For now, though, it is offered in limited strides as services slowly decide to pick it up or not. Thankfully for those investing in compatible hardware/software, that list has grown. Originally, Tidal was one of the only avenues where the MQA format could be found. Additional services will likely pick it up as it continues to gain popularity. With the exception of maybe Apple, since it likes to lock out the rest of the world and replace it with its own proprietary formats.
Meanwhile, there are now dozens of portable players, DACs, network streamers, and amplifiers that have picked up support for MQA over the last few years. Showing that the format is definitely here to stay.