About five years ago, Meridian released MQA (Master Quality Authenticated), promising that when you listen to audio in that format, it would be the absolute best, true-to-life version of the recording. But has it lived up to the hype? I have my reservations.
Way back then when I was given the chance to listen to MQA (A/B comparison), the difference was quite big – with one caveat. The MQA file I listened to was compared to the same song compressed in MP3 at, if I remember correctly, 160 kbps. Every now and then, I’ve come across new MQA demos. But none have been a direct comparison with a non-MQA file of the same bit-depth and sample-rate, never been level-matched, or never been double-blind tested. From my personal A/B testing (level matched to 0.25dB accuracy) they sound different. Not better, not worse, but different.
Further, in my opinion, the entire concept of MQA doesn’t really mean it is the best of the best. Let’s say I produce a song, and I don’t want to sell the best quality now, but I want an MQA logo. I can do that simply by going through the MQA process, which includes compressing the music file into MQA and, of course, paying a fee. Then, when the song is played through an MQA-enabled unit, the listener will see the MQA light on and expect, or at least think, that they’re listening to the best quality of the recording. As Bob Stuart from MQA told the music industry, “MQA is saving your crown jewels (read: original untouched master)” while at the same time telling the consumer that MQA is better than the original master. How can it be? How can a file, just because it has MQA certification, be better than the original? That can only happen if something has been changed from the original.
Consider another scenario: I mix my own song and someone else masters the mix, which is common for song releases in different countries. Obviously they will sound different. What if one person has the budget to make the song MQA-certified and the other doesn’t? Then even though I’m the creator of the song, the other person can pay to have their version be MQA.
This has been the case for many album releases in different countries. For example, Def Leppard’s Hysteria U.S. vinyl release is the the official master version, while the German vinyl is considered the better/preferred one of the recording, or the “hi-res” option. Another example is Warner’s release of the Charice CD, which carries the same name both in the U.S. and the Philippines. Both were released at the same time, and mixed by the same studio, and the same person. One version is geared towards the South East Asian market, and the other for the North American market. Which one should Warner choose to be the master for MQA? There can’t be two MQA files (conceptually) for a single album. Out of the approximately 800 albums released in MQA, logically they are questionable in nature when it comes to the “master quality” part. I don’t think ZZ Top, Black Sabbath, Bjork, Bread, B-52, Chicago, Faith No More, INXS, and Iron Maiden were ever involved in high quality recording, let alone the MQA process.
From the technological side, I find MQA to be flawed. More than 15 versions of Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue have been released over the years, with each release better than the one before, and the original master released in stereo and mono (just like the early years of The Beatles’ albums), both mixed differently. Even when you look at the master itself, which one is the correct master? Also, every subsequent release has been marketed as the best version of the recording. So this year, they claim the version to be the best and pay for the MQA certification, and three years from now, they release a sonically better version of it but don’t want to pay for the MQA certificate anymore. Then the non-MQA version will sound better than the MQA one, both technically and subjectively. Is there a method to pull the MQA “process” out of the older version and move it over to the newer version? No! Why? Because MQA compression also implements MQA filtering. And that’s where I also have an issue.
To simplify things, you have a pristine master, approved by the songwriter, performers all the way to the engineers and the studio itself, and you run it through a filter. How can that be master quality anymore? The untouched version will be the master, the MQA file will be the filtered version.
Then, there is the MQA system flaw. MQA is not, in my opinion, lossless. MQA claims it uses “neuroscience” to achieve the efficient compression technique, and says the processing is lossless. But a quick look at the methodology through the 2013 U.S. Patent Office filing clearly show that the files will be truncated before being streamed and unpacked (as opposed to being compressed and unpacked). Just like MP3, once you truncate the original file, that part of the file is gone forever, regardless the amount of restructuring on the other side. And also just like MP3, MQA compresses music by truncating certain components of sound through perceptual encoding. To paraphrase someone from MQA: when the lossless version of a song in the MQA format is released and you already have the same song in FLAC with the same bit-depth and sampling rate (but without the MQA logo), at best, you will get identical sound quality (at best) from an MQA file.
Interestingly, at Munich High End 2018, which took place earlier this month, MQA and all of its partners seemed to have been keeping a low profile. Even after many companies displayed the MQA logo at their booths, most presentations were still offered using vinyl or CD, regardless of the music style.
So, is MQA a bad format? No, that isn’t what I’m saying. It’s much better than MP3, and it sounds very close to lossless. In fact, it’s the best lossy compressed format out there to date. If you prefer the sound of MQA-encoded files, by all means, go buy them. But don’t think that it is the most authentic and measurably best version of the recording you buy.