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Meridian reveals MQA studio-quality music streaming technology

Tom Morgan
5 Dec 2014
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Meridian's new high resolution format could be the next radical shift for music downloads and streaming

Sound quality is a hot topic right now, with streaming services like Tidal promising better than CD quality Sony pioneering Hi-Resolution downloads, but a British audio company has just announced a new technology that could leave the competition in the dust. Cambridgeshire-based Meridian Audio revealed MQA, a method of compressing music without compromising sound quality, at a high profile event last night attended by big names from the music industry. There's definitely buzz around the tech, but what is it and how does it work?

Meridian founder Bob Stuart, the man who developed the lossless digital compression format that would later become Dolby TrueHD, led a team of engineers in developing MQA, basing their research on neuroscience and psychoacoustics rather than frequency graphs and oscilloscopes. MQA, which stands for Master Quality Authenticated, aims to deliver files with the size of a typical MP3 download or stream, yet contain all the subtle nuances of the original recording. This is made possible by not treating audio frequency and timing data equally, but focusing more on the timing data, to which the human ear is reportedly 2-13 times more sensitive to versus frequency.

Essentially data that would normally be stripped by a traditional MP3 encode is instead folded in on itself to occupy the frequency spectrum otherwise inaudible to the human ear. When a device can't play the full high quality stream, the file only plays the basic (yet still CD quality) track, but when correctly decoded, the track is played in its full quality. The result is a much smaller file, but one that still contains all the information from the original recording.

That means streaming high quality audio is much easier. MQA is able to stream music at 1Mbps - roughly the same bandwidth required for a CD-quality file but much smaller than a hi-resolution, 24-bit/96KHz audio stream which typically uses 4.6Mbps. We got to hear streaming quality MQA tracks by Bob Dylan and Daft Punk, both encoded from the original studio master files. The clarity on the Dylan acoustic track was astounding, and Daft Punk's Get Lucky sounded almost exactly like the 24bit/96KHz high resolution FLAC we've been using as a test track for some time.

Switching from Meridian's ultra-premium speakers and headphones to our own pair of trusty in-ears, we could still hear a remarkable difference between the MQA-encoded download of Metallica's Enter Sandman and our own MP3-encoded version. Vocals sounded clearer, cymbals had more punch and the entire mix felt expanded compared to the basic MP3.

Unlike current hi-res audio downloads, which need devices that support specific file formats to enable playback, MQA won't need dedicated hardware either. MQA takes a PCM audio source and delivers PCM audio when played back, regardless of file format; the data can be stored inside an existing lossless file type, such as FLAC or Apple Lossless (ALAC), and can be decoded by a mobile app or desktop software. On devices that can't decode the full quality track, MQA files will play in lower CD quality - meaning you'll be able to play MQA-encoded discs in your car stereo.

We spoke to several music industry executives at the launch event and it's clear both artists and record labels are excited about MQA's potential. Hardware makers, music streaming services and production studios all need to get on board for the platform to succeed, but with more detailed promised in January at CES 2015, we shouldn't have long to wait until the first MQA tracks arrive.

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