decades of fun

The New Kid On The High Resolution Block – MQA

Well this is getting interesting. British company Meridian has come up with something that goes beyond just a format or delivery mechanism, and also involves lossy compression, yet it still looks like a potential future audio technology we need to pay attention to.

They looked at the details in the delivery of masters from studio to mass duplication, and they are trying to correct lots of things all at once, while at the same time using some new compression styles and a hefty dose of DRM to sign off on the copy.

You thought Pono was ambitious? Neil just wanted people to play stereo FLAC’s on a real player so he built one.

The MQA concept has several interesting pieces. I’ve literally heard about this today and these are first impressions. If it has any traction I’ll probably post more.

  1. They are remastering from originals, and they are claiming to have far better results than the original based on their knowledge of the ADC used for the current versions. According to Meridian, only a few ADC chips were used through the 80’s and 90’s and they’ve reverse engineered them into their MQA mastering process. They claim the labels have kept very good records on what ADC encoded what sessions, so if they can go back to analog they do, and if they have digital source they can reverse engineer some of the deficiencies of the original ADC printed in the session. They are also trying to get the original artist to “sign-off” on the MQA master, where applicable.
  2. They are then encoding this file for delivery, and allowing other people to encode/decode inside of their file formats. So there’s partnership possibilities.
  3. Their encode is claiming to be lossless, like FLAC and ALAC, but there’s some question to those details.
  4. The player has to decode the signed version so there’s DRM on the player.
  5. That’s it – no hardware, no player, just the format.

So why the big deal? What could it possibly do better than FLAC? OK, copy protection. That’s a big one. But people are claiming huge increases in sound quality based on #1 above. The mojo with the ADC’s and the reverse engineering of flaws (where need be) is something that no one else has attempted, as far as I know.

The real interesting part is that the gain in sound quality is apparantly coming from the spatial and soundstage. Listeners are hearing huge sound stages with amazing detail that engineers claim is due to the sync between ADC and DAC.

Nice cans
Nice cans

Doubly interesting is that sound quality appears to be tied to the sample rate, not the bit depth, allowing the lossy part of the codec to hide distortion after the 18th bit. A high quality MQA file might present as 16/192. Confused yet?

If early reports are true and it really does make the masters sound better than even a 24/192 FLAC, then it’s like stepping up the master quality with added DRM, and the labels seem interested.

It is not compatible with PonoPlayer but perhaps could be with a firmware update. Meridian hasn’t released much information on the player/decoder part of this ambitious system yet.

It also begs the question — couldn’t they just remaster at that wonderful quality to 24/192 FLAC?  It sounds like the damage they are correcting is fixed and then encoded into their proprietary format. They could just fix it and release as FLAC, no?