It’s not always easy being the audio guy at Mobile World Congress. Sometimes, inquiring about the audio side of all the phones, tablets, and other gear at the show can make you feel a bit like the only fish swimming upstream. But, rogues though we may be, there are still plenty of incredible audio innovations to be found in Barcelona each year. And this year — at the HTC booth, no less — I got to demo something that might well turn the world of hi-res audio on its head. It’s called MQA, and from what I heard at the show, it’s nearly magical.
A new way to render hi-res digital audio files, MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) makes files that are much smaller than today’s Hi-Res FLAC files. We weren’t given an exact number, but it looks like MQA will be about three times smaller than a comparable high-res FLAC file, meaning they’ll be pretty easy to take along. MQA was also born from a company with serious sonic pedigree, Meridian Audio,
responsible for several important audio innovations, including MLP (Meridian Lossless Packing), which is how lossless audio is delivered in DVDs and Blu-rays. So yeah, they’re kind of a big deal.
This isn’t the first we’ve heard about MQA, but it is the first chance DT has gotten to hear the file format in the flesh, so to speak, loaded onto HTC’s A9 phone as a proof of concept. And even in the quick demo (from a mid-level smartphone,) the sound quality was pretty astonishing.
My contact for the demo, an HTC rep named Liviu Barbat, brought several tracks to audition, all of which were hosted in MP3 and MQA versions so I could make A/B comparisons.
I started with Daft Punk’s Doin It Right, and the MP3 version was as you’d expect: flat and boring, with all the right pieces in place, and none of the excitement of live audio. Then I tried the MQA version, and everything suddenly blossomed. The whole track was suddenly much easier to hear — not louder, exactly, but closer. Bass was bigger and fuller, reverberating through the back of the stereo channels, but without becoming overbearing. Cymbal sustains trailed on for days, and details sparkled much more readily.
Next I called up Dave Bruebeck’s Take Five — sure, I’ve heard it a million times, but that’s kind of the point here. Again, the difference between the two versions was startling — not only was the track again closer, more defined, and more full, but the sound also pulled out more of that dusty goodness from the original recording. It simply felt and sounded more real, more dimensional. And, wouldn’t ya know, that’s exactly what MQA’s press material advertises.
The tech behind the process is complex, even in laymen’s terms, but the official pitch claims the MQA process first cleans up the distortion and “blurring” that occurs when an analog track is converted into the digital realm, creating a “truly accurate 3D soundstage.” It then uses a compression process MQA playfully calls “musical origami” to “encapsulate” all of the extremely high frequency info — the stuff our ears don’t so much hear on a conscious level, but our bodies feel in a live performance, which can later be decoded by MQA-enabled devices.
The company says that, even on regular devices, MQA files play at CD-quality, but on MQA-enabled devices “the full recording is unfolded to deliver the full performance.” Normally I’d write much of that off as marketing hyperbole, but this tech didn’t come from some unknown startup. And besides, your ears tell the story better than any marketing script ever could. The good news is that, essentially, any Android device can easily incorporate MQA-enabled technology.
By now you’re asking, “How the hell do I get these?” And that, of course, is the rub. For now, you can’t. HTC is thinking about acquiring the tech for its phones, but no decisions have been made yet. And even when they are, there’s still something of a shortage of traditional high-res tracks in comparison to CD and MP3 tracks at present. It’ll take MQA some time before the industry catches up.
That said, Liviu claims that all major labels and independents are currently vetting MQA, and it’s a good bet that even Sony, one of the “big three” major labels, will be interested as well — though there are complications involved there, since Sony has invested so much into building its infrastructure around the current hi-res format.
All that being said, MQA is the most exciting audio file format I’ve heard since the FLAC file was born. All audio lovers can hope for is that this information will get out and more people will get on board, because MQA truly is a revolutionary format; one that, I hope, will be available everywhere sooner than later.
March 1, 2016