Simon Cohen / Digital Tendencies
With regards to discussions of digital audio, you’ll shortly run into an alphabet soup of acronyms: MP3, AAC, ALAC, FLAC, WAV, DSD, and so forth. It’s virtually infinite.
You’d assume that with this many digital audio file varieties, we wouldn’t want one more. Nonetheless, there’s yet another digital audio file you should learn about. It’s known as MQA.
The claims for MQA are spectacular. It’s an audio format that may be downloaded, streamed, and even performed from a CD, and but it’s additionally purportedly able to delivering hi-res audio from a file that’s lower than half the dimensions of different codecs. Its creator additionally says that if you hearken to MQA, you’re getting precisely what the artist meant as a result of as soon as an MQA audio file leaves the studio, it’s by no means touched once more by the artist’s label, a streaming service, or another third occasion.

Can it actually try this? How will you hear MQA for your self? And why is Neil Younger so indignant at MQA that he pulled his complete catalog from Tidal in protest? We’ll cowl all of that and extra however be ready for an journey — the MQA story is an advanced one.
What’s MQA?

MQA stands for Grasp High quality Authenticated and is the identify of an audio format and a group of licensed applied sciences for working with that format. It’s additionally, considerably confusingly, the identify of the corporate that initially developed and licensed these applied sciences. That firm was based by Bob Stuart — the identical one that based the U.Okay. audio agency Meridian Audio and invented MLP, the lossless audio expertise on the coronary heart of DVD and Blu-ray audio — however all of its belongings have been not too long ago acquired by Lenbrook, the Canadian proprietor of Bluesound, NAD, and PSB Audio system. Because the acquisition remains to be very new and plenty of particulars about how the enterprise facet of MQA will evolve over time are nonetheless unknown, this explainer nonetheless refers to Bob Stuart and MQA (the previous firm) as the first sources of information on MQA. We’ll replace this text as these particulars emerge.
For now, we’ll keep centered on MQA, the audio expertise.
The MQA audio format has a number of parts that make its creators imagine it’s distinctive:

In the course of the creation of an MQA file, filtering and processing are utilized to appropriate an issue that may occur to any digital audio, often called time-domain smearing. MQA calls it “de-blurring.”
The recordsdata are about the identical measurement as a lossless, CD-quality FLAC file, and but Stuart claims that by way of a course of known as music origami, it may well ship sound high quality that’s corresponding to a a lot bigger, hi-res lossless FLAC file — if the supply itself is hi-res.
An MQA file (or stream) possesses a kind of digital fingerprint. When the file is obtained and processed by appropriate audio gear, this fingerprint acts as a type of authentication, letting listeners know that they’re listening to the identical model that the artist or engineer created within the studio. We’ll focus on why this may matter to you later.
MQA solely permits MQA-approved and licensed units to totally decode MQA tracks. Stuart says it’s a essential step with the intention to handle the processing variations between varied digital-to-analog converters (DACs).

What makes an audio file ‘genuine?’
LightFieldStudios/Getty Pictures
Your first response to the notion of authenticated audio recordsdata may be to roll your eyes. In any case, if you happen to can hear the track you wished, does it actually matter if it’s been authenticated?
MQA argues that it does. Stuart claims that a lot of the digital music we stream or obtain shouldn’t be the direct product of the artists themselves. Utilizing the studio masters, quite a lot of variations get created, typically by third events. Artists and their producers not often get an opportunity to listen to these variations earlier than they’re made obtainable to the general public, which creates the likelihood that the songs not sound the way in which they did within the studio.
As a result of MQA recordsdata are digitally signed once they’re created within the studio, it means two issues. First, when the artist creates an MQA file, they will preview what it should sound like on quite a lot of totally different playback units. In the event that they don’t like what they hear, they will strive once more. Second, the MQA file you obtain is the very same file that the artist signed, and when you have appropriate software program or {hardware} you possibly can even see a color-coded model of the digital signature (we’ll focus on these coloration codes later).
MQA critics argue that whereas this authentication angle is a reliable profit, too typically MQA recordsdata will not be created by the artist and even an engineer, which undermines the worth of authentication. Some critics have additionally advised that it’s surprisingly simple to change the contents of an MQA file with out disrupting its digital signature.
De-blurring the time-domain
Within the means of digitizing analog audio, filters are utilized which might trigger one thing often called time-domain smearing. It’s a slight discount of the velocity at which some frequencies are processed. The result’s an audio sign that’s much less correct to the unique supply materials. Performing the conversion again to analog can, in some circumstances, make this smearing worse. We’re speaking extraordinarily tiny fractions of a second, however the working idea is that our brains can detect it and we favor how music sounds when this smearing isn’t current (or is at the least significantly decreased).
Whether or not you agree with this idea or not, Stuart says time-domain smearing can have an effect on any digital audio — together with CD audio — not simply streaming digital music. As a result of the MQA encoding course of contains extra filters designed to appropriate smearing, Stuart claims this course of, which he calls “de-blurring” makes MQA — even with out its different claimed advantages — a better-than-CD-quality format.
If you happen to’ve obtained the time (and the persistence), SoundOnSound has an extremely in-depth take a look at MQA, together with the entire particulars of time-smearing.
Music origami
Warner Bros.
There’s an important scene within the 1997 film Contact the place astronomers work out {that a} mysterious transmission from outer house is definitely an encoded sign of one of many first human TV broadcasts (eerily, a 1936 recording of Hitler from the Olympic Video games). Not lengthy after that preliminary discovery comes a second, extra profound revelation: Hidden within the broadcast is a set of encoded directions for constructing a machine that can let people meet the species that despatched the sign within the first place.
An MQA audio file works equally. If you obtain or stream MQA, you’re truly downloading or streaming a 24-bit file in one in every of three frequent lossless file varieties: FLAC, ALAC, or WAV. Due to some intelligent engineering, these 24-bit recordsdata can nonetheless be performed by tools that’s restricted to 16-bit playback, like a CD participant or a non-hi-res digital audio participant.
If the unique grasp recording solely exists as a CD-quality, 16-bit/44.1kHz file, there are successfully no audio advantages to the MQA model apart from the claimed enhancements of de-blurring. They will, nonetheless, with extra software program or {hardware}, be authenticated.
If the unique grasp recording exists as a hi-res file, the MQA format can embrace that additional data too — with out making the file itself any bigger — which might later be extracted when you have MQA-compatible software program or audio tools. Stuart calls this hiding of additional data “music origami” (after the traditional Japanese artwork of paper folding).
CD high quality and hi-res high quality in a single file?
To attain MQA’s small file measurement, the best frequencies (B and C) of the unique recording are losslessly hidden within the inaudible parts of a CD-quality file (A). MQA
Within the MQA world, every audio file comprises three ranges of knowledge. When MQA recordsdata are created within the studio, the second and third ranges (areas B and C within the diagram above) are encoded and saved in an space of the recording that comprises quantity ranges far beneath the vary of human listening to. In the event that they’re current within the grasp recordings, these are the parts that make an audio file hi-res, versus merely CD-quality.
A fast be aware on these diagrams: They signify the audible frequencies captured throughout studio recording. That is totally different than the sampling frequency (fee) used when that recording was digitized, though audible frequencies and sampling charges are each expressed as kilohertz (kHz).
The decoding of every stage is called an unfold. The primary and arguably most vital unfold could be carried out by software program or {hardware}, however the second and third unfolds can solely be carried out by MQA-compatible {hardware}. We’ll focus on the software program and {hardware} extra in a second.
The primary unfold extracts each extra bit-depth and pattern fee, bringing the audio again as much as hi-res high quality with a pattern fee of both 88.2 or 96kHz.
At this level, you should use any DAC to transform the digital audio into analog audio so you possibly can hearken to it. Nonetheless, if you happen to possess MQA-compatible {hardware}, the MQA stream can proceed to the second and third unfolds, which resurrect the remaining hidden audio data.
These remaining unfolds additionally allow you to hear the unique pattern fee if it was increased than the 96kHz supported by the primary unfold. Stuart says that whereas three unfolds are typical, many extra unfolds could be added. If the unique pattern fee was 768kHz (for instance), 16 unfolds are used.
Impossibly small recordsdata
Picture used with permission by copyright holder
If you happen to’re aware of hi-res audio, you might be questioning why anybody would go to all of this hassle folding up additional data in a CD-quality file when each FLAC and ALAC (and DSD) are all able to delivering 24-bit/192kHz-or-better, lossless hi-res audio?
One motive is measurement. MQA illustrates the distinction in file sizes utilizing Madonna’s Like A Virgin. When that track is encoded right into a lossless, hi-res FLAC file at 24/192, it finally ends up as 135.3 MB. The MQA FLAC file is available in at simply 46.2 MB — roughly the identical measurement as a 16-bit/44.1 lossless FLAC file.
If you happen to imagine Bob Stuart’s declare that the MQA FLAC file will sound nearly as good or higher than the lossless, hi-res FLAC file at 24/192, MQA turns into a no brainer for a streaming service like Tidal, which will get to vow its prospects hi-res audio whereas solely paying for a 3rd of the bandwidth per track that Apple Music or Amazon Music should pay if you stream lossless hi-res tracks from these companies.
Nonetheless, that is the place we get into the primary of a number of controversies which have dogged MQA because it started: mathematically, a lossless hi-res FLAC file and an MQA file will not be the identical. The MQA encoding course of makes some qualitative judgments about which elements of the unique recording could be safely discarded with out altering the sound. Technically, this makes MQA a lossy type of compression.
The controversy then turns into a query of whether or not or not there’s such a factor as a lossy format that may sound nearly as good (or presumably higher) than a genuinely lossless format. Evidently, MQA’s supporters assume the reply is sure, whereas many die-hard members of the audiophile neighborhood reject such a notion, claiming that any lack of data from the unique recording is an unforgivable sin.
Neil Younger may be probably the most well-known individual among the many anti-MQA crowd. In a 2021 weblog submit on his web site NeilYoungArchives, the people singer wrote “MQA is the corporate supplying expertise to Tidal. In their very own official descriptions, they go into what they did to my unique recordsdata. They altered them and cost a royalty. I really feel that my grasp recordsdata are by no means improved. They’re degraded and manipulated. I made them. I do know the distinction. I can hear it.”
The place can I stream or obtain MQA songs?
Tidal’s HiFi Plus subscription tier, which is presently $20 monthly, is by far the simplest strategy to get your fingers (and ears) on MQA. Tidal has hundreds of thousands of tracks in its so-called “Tidal Masters” assortment, and it provides many new albums in MQA format each week. Nonetheless, in April 2023 Tidal introduced that it might start including hi-res lossless FLAC variations of tracks to its HiFi Plus tier, and has since began changing MQA variations of its track catalog with FLAC variations. Although Tidal hasn’t stated it plans to get rid of MQA, if the present pattern continues, the format will successfully stop to exist on the service inside a couple of years.
Nugs.internet is the opposite streaming service that helps MQA. In contrast to Tidal, which focuses totally on studio recordings, Nugs.internet is the place for dwell music followers to get their favourite performances streamed in MQA.
Radio Paradise not too long ago adopted the MQA format for its 4 blended channels, although the MQA streams are unique to Bluesound’s BluOS units for the second.
Streaming stands out as the best strategy to hear MQA, however these websites are the place to go if you happen to favor to personal and obtain your music:

2L, a Nordic label specializing in classical, jazz, and folks
e-onkyo music, a Japan-based music obtain web site (presently restricted to residents of Japan, sadly)
HDTracks, in all probability the most important catalog of downloadable MQA content material
Nugs.internet doesn’t simply stream dwell music, it additionally affords downloads
HighResAudio, a Germany-based web site for all hi-res codecs
Sony Music Choose maintains a hi-res audio catalog with MQA assist

Lastly, when you have a CD participant or a CD drive you should use to tear CDs to your pc, an MQA CD may be the way in which to go. They’re not precisely simple to return by, however if you happen to’re ready to do some searching, begin right here: Amazon,, and eBay.
Software program and {hardware}
Simon Cohen / Digital Tendencies
Right here’s what you should know concerning the gear required to hearken to MQA.
As we talked about within the music origami part, undecoded MQA recordsdata could be performed by all kinds of {hardware} and software program. MQA CDs will work in any CD participant. And if you happen to downloaded an MQA monitor from a music obtain web site in FLAC format, any software program in your telephone or pc that may play FLAC recordsdata will have the ability to play them.
Nonetheless, if you wish to unlock the extra data tucked away inside an MQA file and/or if you wish to see authentication affirmation indicators, you’ll want some particular {hardware} and/or software program.
MQA’s necessities begin with the primary unfold, which decodes a portion of the hidden data often called the MQA Core. Both software program or {hardware} can be utilized to carry out this primary unfold.
From a software program perspective, Android customers can obtain USB Audio Participant Professional, whereas Mac and PC customers can subscribe to both Roon or Audirvana — two paid digital music playback platforms. If you happen to’re solely thinking about streaming MQA, the Tidal app on Android, iOS, PC, and macOS, and the Nugs.internet cellular app for iOS/Android may carry out the MQA Core decode.
On the {hardware} facet, solely a class of units often called full MQA decoders can carry out the MQA Core unfold. They will additionally carry out the extra second and third (or extra) unfolds, which makes these units the popular selection for audiophiles. These full decoders are available quite a lot of styles and sizes. Astell&Kern’s moveable digital audio gamers are full decoders, as is the Ifi Go Bar DAC/headphone amp which might plug into any pc or smartphone. You’ll additionally discover full decoders in audio receivers, hi-fi DACs, and community media streamers like Bluesound‘s assortment of wi-fi multiroom audio merchandise.
There’s additionally a hybrid strategy. If you happen to select to make use of a software program decoder for the primary unfold, it may well ship that MQA Core sign to one of many {hardware} units listed above, or you possibly can go for a devoted (and often extra inexpensive) system often called an MQA renderer. Renderers, just like the very cheap Ifi Go Hyperlink ($59) must have the primary MQA unfold carried out by software program, however as soon as they obtain the MQA Core sign they will carry out the extra unfolds.
Bob Stuart says that this hybrid strategy will allow you to hear MQA recordsdata at their most high quality, however he nonetheless maintains that full decoders provide an enchancment in sound high quality.
One factor that MQA renderers can’t do is provide the authenticity element of the MQA expertise. As a result of they don’t carry out the primary unfold, there’s the likelihood that the MQA Core sign they’re working with didn’t originate with the creator. It’s additionally unimaginable for a renderer to know if it’s working with the unique pattern fee.
What do these coloration LEDs imply?
Cambridge Audio
Though the magenta-colored LED mild is the one you’ll mostly see on MQA-compatible rendering units like DAC/amps, there are literally a number of LED colours related to MQA. Right here’s what they imply:
Inexperienced: That is utilized by software program or {hardware} that may carry out the primary MQA unfold (MQA Core). It tells you that though the MQA file being decoded could be authenticated, the recording engineer hasn’t declared the monitor to be the definitive model of the recording.
Blue: That is utilized by software program or {hardware} that may carry out the primary MQA unfold (MQA Core). It signifies an MQA Studio monitor, which along with being authenticated, can be thought-about the definitive model of the recording. In response to Bob Stuart, “The sound you might be listening to is precisely as performed within the studio when the music was accomplished.”
Magenta: That is utilized by an MQA {hardware} renderer (or a full decoder) when these units obtain an MQA Core stream from an app or one other {hardware} system that has carried out the primary unfold. It signifies that the stream has been appropriately encoded as an MQA file, but it surely can’t authenticate it or inform you whether it is an MQA Studio monitor.
MQA high quality gained’t translate over Bluetooth (but)
Sadly, as a result of the MQA format should stay intact till it’s transformed into analog audio you possibly can hear, Bluetooth wi-fi audio system and headphones, in addition to true wi-fi earbuds, can’t be a part of the complete MQA occasion. That’s as a result of Bluetooth itself must carry out digital re-encoding to ship wi-fi audio out of your telephone to your headphones. This re-encoding disrupts the fastidiously folded MQA knowledge, making it unavailable to your ears.
You possibly can nonetheless take pleasure in the advantages of the primary MQA unfold utilizing Bluetooth, however the hi-res expertise shouldn’t be but an possibility.
This may increasingly change sooner or later. MQA (the corporate) introduced in 2022 that it had created a brand new Bluetooth-compatible codec often called MQair. Among the many enhancements that MQA claims MQair possesses over competing codecs like Qualcomm’s aptX Adaptive or LE Audio’s LC3, is that it may well maintain MQA (the format) intact over a Bluetooth connection.
Since that announcement, MQA has determined to market MQair below its technical identify as an alternative: SCL6. Even supposing SCL6 has been granted a wi-fi hi-res audio certification from the Japan Audio Society, thus far, no producers have included SCL6 assist of their audio merchandise. Nonetheless, Lenbrook cited SCL6 as a key MQA asset when it introduced its acquisition of MQA.
How does MQA sound?
Simon Cohen / Digital Tendencies
If you happen to go to the difficulty of signing up for an costly streaming plan and shopping for the required {hardware} to play MQA tracks of their full high quality, will you hear a distinction? In all probability. Will you want what you hear? That’s a more durable query to reply.
For me, the reply is sure. Properly, principally sure.
Utilizing an iPhone 14 with Tidal HiFi and Apple Music, an Ifi Go Hyperlink DAC, and a set of Sennheiser HD 660S2 open-back headphones, I went forwards and backwards between the lossless CD-quality and MQA variations of dozens of artists’ tracks. I sampled Inexperienced Day, Led Zeppelin, The Who, R.E.M, Coronary heart, John Coltrane, Beck, and Billie Eilish, to call just some.
The outcomes? I believed the MQA model of most tracks was noticeably higher, and never simply by a small quantity. MQA allowed every instrument and every voice to inhabit its personal house, including each depth and readability. In some circumstances, just like the Crimson Scorching Chili Peppers’ Snow (Hey Oh), the extra element is hanging, significantly because the track evolves from a single instrument to the complete association. You possibly can proceed to hone in on that first guitar riff even because it turns into simply one in every of many overlapping sounds.
Nonetheless, not all tracks profit from the MQA therapy. I used to be hard-pressed to note a big distinction when listening to most of Tom Petty’s songs. Older tracks by The Who like Pinball Wizard and Baba O’Riley have been related. I observed a small enchancment, however solely simply.
As with all discussions of audio, whether or not it’s a format like MQA or a brand new set of headphones, the one strategy to know if you happen to can hear a distinction is to strive it for your self.
About MQA the corporate
Till 2023, there wasn’t that a lot to say concerning the company entity often called MQA, apart from it owned and licensed the MQA expertise to the assorted trade gamers that use it. Nonetheless, in early 2023, MQA introduced that it had entered into administration — a British model of Chapter 11 — after dropping one in every of its largest monetary backers. This prompted MQA to hunt a purchaser, which it will definitely present in Lenbrook in September 2023.
The acquisition brings some short-term stability to the MQA ecosystem as there’s not the specter of insolvency or dissolution of the corporate that owns the mental property tied to MQA’s portfolio of codecs and different belongings. Nonetheless, the scenario with Tidal stays an issue. As the only largest supply of MQA content material, if Tidal continues to make MQA variations of its track library unavailable to subscribers, Lenbrook might want to strike a brand new take care of one other streaming service or probably begin its personal.
We’ll replace this explainer as we study extra.

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