What to make of the new “mu­sic origami?”

HWM (Singapore) - - Think -

By Kenny Yeo MQA sounds promis­ing, so does this mean that you should head out and pur­chase a new DAC? Not so fast.

MQA is the lat­est ab­bre­vi­a­tion to be thrown around in the world of au­dio. What is it and what should mu­sic lovers and au­dio­philes make of it?

MQA stands for ‘Mas­ter Qual­ity Au­then­ti­cated’ and it was launched by prom­i­nent English au­dio hard­ware man­u­fac­turer Merid­ian Au­dio, to­wards the end of 2014. Since then, it has gath­ered in­creas­ing sup­port from record­ing la­bels and au­dio hard­ware man­u­fac­tur­ers. The “Big Three” record­ing la­bels, Uni­ver­sal, Sony, and Warner, have all pledged sup­port for MQA. More per­ti­nent per­haps is that Tidal is al­ready stream­ing MQA ti­tles over its on­line mu­sic stream­ing ser­vice.

In a nut­shell, MQA is a new au­dio codec that aims to bring high qual­ity, high res­o­lu­tion au­dio to mu­sic lovers with­out the large le sizes as­so­ci­ated with tra­di­tional high res­o­lu­tion au­dio codecs and files. This is done us­ing a process MQA calls “Mu­sic Origami,” where mu­sic data is com­pressed and folded to cre­ate a sub­stan­tial smaller file. On the lis­ten­ers’ end, this file can then be “unfolded” back to its orig­i­nal res­o­lu­tion us­ing an MQA-cer­ti­fied dig­i­tal-to-ana­log con­verter (DAC).

MQA’s “Mu­sic Origami” process sounds sim­ple. For ex­am­ple, a high­res­o­lu­tion 24-bit/192kHz file can be folded twice. Once to 24-bit/96kHz and then down to 24-bit/48kHz. The re­sul­tant mu­sic file can be half to a third of the orig­i­nal file size.

This mu­sic file can then be played on any de­vice, but an MQA-cer­ti­fied DAC can see that it is a MQA file and then un­fold it back to its full orig­i­nal res­o­lu­tion. On non-MQA-cer­ti­fied de­vices, the play­back res­o­lu­tion will be the fi­nal folded res­o­lu­tion, in our ex­am­ple, 24-bit/48kHz. But if you have a mu­sic player app that sup­ports MQA, like Au­di­varna or the Tidal desk­top app, the app can han­dle the first un­fold to of­fer play­back at 24-bit/96kHz. Both sam­ple rates are equiv­a­lent or higher than CD qual­ity au­dio.

In other words, an MQA-cer­ti­fied DAC is re­quired to fully en­joy the ben­e­fits of MQA. But just as cru­cial is that you can still lis­ten to mu­sic even if you don’t have MQA-cer­ti­fied gear — just at a lower au­dio qual­ity level.

MQA sounds promis­ing, so does this mean that you should head out and pur­chase a new DAC? Not so fast. This isn’t the first time the mu­sic and au­dio in­dus­try has seen the in­tro­duc­tion of new tech­nol­ogy. Re­mem­ber DSD, SACD, and the MiniDisc? Where are they now? The truth is that no one wants to re­pur­chase their au­dio equip­ment and their mu­sic col­lec­tion just to lis­ten to their fa­vorite mu­sic, es­pe­cially when ex­ist­ing tech­nol­ogy works just ne. Think about it: do you even worry about de­vice com­pat­i­bil­ity when it comes to play­ing mu­sic? No, you just play it on what­ever de­vice you like. With MQA, you’ll need to get a cer­ti­fied de­vice to reap the re­wards. And we haven’t even got to the sup­posed ben­e­fits of MQA. How many ca­sual lis­ten­ers can even tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween a CD qual­ity file and a high-res­o­lu­tion MQA file? I’m guess­ing not much.

Still, that’s not to say MQA won’t take off. With the sup­port of the ma­jor record­ing la­bels, any­thing is pos­si­ble. But for now, we ad­vise au­dio­philes and mu­sic lovers to sit tight and take a wait-and-see ap­proach.

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