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Lenbrook buys MQA

The curious plight of MQA

As many readers will have seen in the hi-fi press and group forums, MQA was placed into administration on the 6th of April. Rather than rehash the press release of this news, The Ear thought that now might be a good time to look at what the company set out to achieve, were those goals reached and what the future may hold for the business.

The MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) codec was launched in 2014 by Meridian Audio and championed by company founder Bob Stuart as the future of hi-res audio. By 2017 many of the major labels, most significantly Warner Music, had agreed to record and remaster music using the MQA codec, which led to some of the big names in audio getting behind the format. Some notable exceptions include British companies such as Chord, Naim, Cyrus and Linn. Linn released a well-publicized statement, warning of the costs and potential level of control MQA was attempting to place upon the music industry. Of primary concern was that both recording studios and end users were expected to invest in equipment capable of encoding and decoding MQA, with the company receiving a fee from both.

The format attempted to deliver high-res files using little more than the bandwidth required to stream or store CD quality FLAC files. The smaller file sizes are achieved by compressing the higher resolution part (the extra high frequency and bit depth data) of a high bit-rate file, which compatible equipment will unpack to the original resolution. MQA claimed that encoded files would still sound better than standard CD rate files when played back on non-compatible equipment. By 2017, most households had internet connections with a bandwidth capable of streaming full-fat hi-res files and many people felt that MQA was attempting to fix a problem that no longer existed. To balance this argument, it’s possible to see the benefits of smaller files when using a mobile network.

For fans of high-quality streaming in the UK, MQA is synonymous with Tidal. Tidal launched their premium Tidal Masters tier in January 2017. Currently all Tidal Masters recordings use the MQA format. A sizeable part of Tidal’s library is dedicated to MQA titles and for certain titles, these are the only hi-res versions available for streaming. Tidal’s streaming competitor Qobuz is not known for supporting MQA, and you will see no mention of the format on its site. However, their library does contain a handful of MQA titles, such as recordings from the 2L label.

Hi-res download suppliers HD Tracks and have MQA titles available. A quick Google search reveals that the Chinese streaming service Xiaomi Music and US-based have a significant number of MQA titles. While researching this article, I was surprised by how many MQA CDs are available. CD players capable of decoding MQA CDs are available from Technics and Luxman, among others. There have also been several vinyl releases, notably from the Montreux Jazz Festival, where MQA was used in the mastering process.


One of MQA’s claims was that its encoding and decoding process allowed the music to be reproduced with superior timing qualities. With little or no technical evidence on how this was achieved, such claims were difficult to accept. We at The Ear believe that accurate timing is crucial to an enjoyable musical performance but have yet to be convinced of MQA’s superiority in this regard. In some cases, listening comparisons suggest the opposite is true.

Last November, the company announced the launch of a new hi-res wireless codec called MQair. MQair claims to allow the high-quality transfer of PCM and MQA audio files up to a maximum resolution of 384khz, over Bluetooth, wi-fi or ultra-wide band wireless connections. The system can send high-quality audio wirelessly to headphones, wireless loudspeakers, and from your phone or tablet to your streamer. The system uses adaptive bit-rate technology, varying depending upon the quality of the connection, with a peak rate of 20Mbps. The MQair moniker has now been dropped and the format is now known as SCL6.


What does the future hold for MQA?

Tidal, one of MQA’s biggest champions, have announced that for the first time, they would be offering traditional hi-res FLAC files on their streaming platform in addition to existing MQA content. Could this be the final nail in the coffin for the format? We understand that MQA has posted considerable losses over the last few years. The decision to put MQA into the hands of administrators appears to have been triggered by their biggest backer, Reinet Investments withdrawing their support.

The big question is whether the company will sell the rights to SCL6, which appears to be its most valuable asset. Should this be on the cards, it is hard to guess what may happen to the MQA format. Despite question marks as to whether the MQA codec delivered upon its original claims, we at The Ear believe in consumer choice and hope that a solution is found for the company’s current plight.

Chris Baillie

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