Convenience vs. quality no longer needs to be an issue when listening to music.
If you track the music industry through the decades that we have been buying recorded music there can be no disputing that the consumer has been short changed. In our pursuit of convenience we have had to accept – on the whole – a decrease in quality. A particular low point was the cassette tape which although it was easily available, had very little else going for it. The uptake of CD was primarily driven by the ability to skip tracks, more-so than the increase in audio quality. And if you consider the last ten years with the advent of downloading, and more recently streaming, convenience is the undoubted king, and quality has taken a nose dive.
Meridian Audio, with their launch of MQA – Master Quality Authenticated – lossless “encapsulation” technology is redressing that trade-off and hope to eliminate it all together. Meridian have thought BIG and gone to record labels such as Warner Bros. to get them on board allowing them go back to the original studio master recording and re-encoded their library completely lossless, replicating the music in finest detail.
So that’s great, it goes without saying that it sounds amazing, but being able to make music sound amazing is not such a new thing. The hifi industry is built on just that. Nowadays convenience is king and downloading, or streaming a file of the size we are talking about is surely going to be a non-starter? To give you an idea; the gorgeous “Dear River” album by Emily Barker can be downloaded as MP3 with a file size of 85.9MB (at 320k 44.1kHz for those interested), or you can have CD quality ALAC 16bit 44.1kHz and that file size is 237.8MB. If you want the Studio Master ALAC 24bit 96kHz then the file is a whopping 850.5MB. More importantly, you may be happy to commit the hard drive space to such a large file, but Spotify, iTunes and Napster certainly are not.
MP3 became a standard format because early (and in some areas currently) broadband speeds are extremely slow and MP3 files were able to pack a lot of information into tiny files that could be easily shared. On-line streaming services adopted the format because being tiny files they do not take up a lot of bandwidth and consumers were already accustomed to the compromise in quality and for most, convenience trumped quality. This has given us a generation of music consumers who have never heard their favourite track in full as the artist intended. As broadband speeds have increased there are some premium music streaming services such as Tidal that stream CD quality but streaming truly high resolution music is currently not an option. Tidal, incidentally are one of the first streaming services publicly committing to MQA
MQA is clever though and performs what was described to me as “digital origami” where the file is folded in on itself to make it smaller – about the size of a CD file – without loosing any of the information stored within. So what you hear is exactly what the artist intended in a file size that can be streamed.
Of course in order to decode the MQA file you will need a decoder in your hardware. For most it will come pre-installed just as is does for Dolby or DTS soundtracks on movies. Meridian have actually been putting the software in products in the run up to the MQA launch with a view to simply activating it when the time was right. Arcam are rapidly developing MQA capability as are Onkyo . Meridian’s own Explorer2 USB DAC with MQA is already available for just £199. and MQA encoded files are backwards compatible and will deliver CD quality sound where an MQA decoder is not present.
MQA are “authenticated” and therefore adds some security measures to the file so that they cannot be copied and shared thus protecting the music industry’s property, so they are happy. Streaming services are happy because they can charge a premium for being able to listen to better quality music. Hardware manufacturers have a new and exciting reason to talk to their customers again and entice them to buy their new MQA enabled widget and finally and most importantly, the end user wins because they can finally hear their music as it should be heard, every nuance and every emotion.
We will be one of the first venues to offer demonstrations of MQA as Meridian take it on the road in a series of MQA Roadshows through the UK. The date is to be confirmed but is expected to be mid March at our own studio in Ockley.
If you would like further information, please feel free to give us a call.