By Lam Seng Fatt
We live in exciting times. Today may just be the day that the music world as audiophiles know it will change. For the better? I do not know yet.
Meridian, the British high-end company, has launched Master Quality Authenticated (MQA), which is a new digital encoding format which will improve sound quality and make downloads and streaming faster.
Okay, you have heard all that before? But, wait a minute, this is Meridian, the company that made the respected DSP8000 active speakers and the excellent 808 CD player. Meridian also invented Meridian Lossless Packing, a lossless compression technique for compressing PCM audio data which was used for DVD-Audio and Dolby TrueHD, which is used in Blu-ray. HD DVD also uses MLP, so Meridian is no stranger to inventing innovative technology.
Bob Stuart, co-founder of Meridian Audio, said in a press release, “MQA brings together the three ideals of studio-quality sound, convenience and end-to-end authenticity. It uses a completely new concept of capturing the total essence of an original recording and conveying it all the way to the listener, assuring that what they are listening to is identical to the master recording.”
There are several advantages to Meridian’s MQA:
1) It is backward compatible. If a music file with MQA encoding is played with a DAC that does not accept MQA encoding, the core PCM file will be played at its native resolution.
2) The MQA file size will be smaller than other hi-res files which makes it more convenient and faster to download and stream.
3) It is a lossless format and can be delivered via any commonly-used lossless format such as ALAC, FLAC or WAV.
Meridian apparently has the backing of the music companies and if things work out right for Meridian, we will see more hi-res downloads or at least CD-quality downloads available from music download sites as well as hi-res songs from music streaming sites.
Stuart says: “In production and among audiophiles, there has been a kind of ‘arms race’ to capture at higher sample rates or data rates, believing that the bigger the numbers, the better the sound. Yes, higher sample rates can make improvements to the sound, but most of the ‘encoding space’ created goes unused. It’s like putting the music into a bigger box, most of which is empty – it’s inefficient and because you can’t tell where the music’s essence is, it’s hard to lift it out undamaged.
“MQA has been confirmed over years of development and in listening with artists, mastering engineers and producers around the globe. MQA is innovative, enabling and exciting.
“MQA begins with the sound that’s been signed off by the artist and producer. Every last subtlety of that master recording is captured using a new sampling method that can resolve the finest time divisions we can hear and deliver them in your player. We call the process ‘Encapsulation’: it is informed by the latest neuroscience and psychoacoustic research that shows how we identify and locate sounds, and that timing details of a few microseconds are important. This new technique combines this extreme level of time accuracy with authentic dynamic range.
“MQA also uses innovative lossless processing to build a file or stream which also delivers sophisticated metadata: details of the recording, instructions for the decoder and D/A converters plus how to create an authenticated exact reconstruction of the original analogue signal. MQA can be delivered inside any lossless container, e.g. as ALAC, FLAC, or WAV.
“Unlike the huge files from super-high-sample-rate systems, the MQA file is extremely efficiently encoded and yet it contains and protects all the sound of the original.
“MQA is decoded by a simple decoder – which can be an app, a software player or hardware – and it reconstructs the exact sound approved in the studio along with an indicator to authenticate that what you are hearing is a true rendition of the original master recording; it works for all masters between 44.1 kHz and 768 kHz sampling.
“MQA has another unique feature: the decoder gives the highest possible sound quality, but you may not yet have a decoder everywhere you listen – in the meantime the MQA file plays on normal equipment but instead of ‘studio’ you get ‘CD’ quality.
“However you listen, with MQA you’ll experience a clear, accurate and authentic path from the studio all the way to your listening environment – at home, in the car, on the go – and you’ll know because MQA means master quality – authenticated.”
According to www.stuff.tv, Meridian’s MQA fits into a 1Mbps stream – the same space taken up by a common lossless CD-quality file. It’s vastly less than a 24-bit/96KHz hi-res audio stream, which tips the scales at 4.6Mbps.
“So, how? Digital music has until now been captured in a way that places equal importance on frequency and timing data. Meridian suggests that studies in neuroscience and psychoacoustics prove that this is the wrong approach – focus more on the timing data, and the ‘essence’ of music is captured in a vastly more efficient manner. The upshot is that hi-res audio music files, and any other existing digital music formats, are ‘doing it wrong’ right from capture – which means that any MQA file will need to be encoded direct from studio masters.
“Perhaps most compelling of all is that MQA can be delivered inside existing lossless container file types such as ALAC (Apple Lossless), FLAC and WAV, and is streamed as PCM, just like the data on a CD. Meridian says it can be decoded by something as simple as a mobile app, but also that it’ll play (albeit in lesser CD quality) on devices that don’t have any means of decoding it too. Your in-car CD player, for example: MQA-encoded discs are eminently possible.
“Industry presence at the launch event suggests that there’s huge support for MQA, both from record companies, digital music services and hardware makers.”