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Meridian Audio's MQA technology is the best product at CES so far

Michael Brown | Jan. 8, 2015
Allow me to preface this by saying this is my opinion and not that of TechHive or PCWorld as whole, since I was the only editor there and Tuesday was the first day of the show.

Allow me to preface this by saying this is my opinion and not that of TechHive or PCWorld as whole, since I was the only editor there and Tuesday was the first day of the show.

With that out of the way, it will be hard to top the product demo that Meridian Audio put on for me yesterday. Meridian has an impressive track record for developing high-resolution audio-encoding technology. It developed one of the two mandatory codecs used in Blu-ray discs (they licensed the technology that became Dolby Pro HD), and they developed the codec used in SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc). To my ears, its MQA technology is even more impressive — and not just because of the sound quality.

MP3s became a thing because early broadband was extremely slow and MP3s could pack a lot of music into little tiny files that were easily shared. When online streaming services came along, they also adopted the MP3 format. It doesn't consume a lot of bandwidth, and people were already accustomed to the audio quality. The smaller the stream, the less bandwidth the service provider has to pay out. Back on the consumer, convenience trumped quality for a lot of people, and they soon forgot there was anything more.

Today's broadband is fast (although not as fast in the U.S. as it should be, but that's another story). And some premium music-streaming services — such as Tidal — are streaming CD-quality music over the Internet. But the file sizes for true high-resolution music (24-bit, 96kHz and higher) are just too big to stream at a reasonable cost. This is where Merdian's MQA comes in.

The technology

With MQA, the record label can go back to the recording artist's original studio-master recording and losslessly encode it to a file that's no larger than that of a compact disc. So what you hear on your home stereo or on your digital media player is of the exact same quality as what the artist heard in the studio when he or she created it.

This is a good time to let you know that MQA is an acronym for Master Quality Authenticated. I've already explained the "master quality" bit; "authenticated" comes from a sort of digital fingerprint that's embedded in the file. When you play the file back on an MQA-certified digital-to-analog converter, an LED will glow to provide confirmation that the artist, the recording engineer, or the producer have verified that what you're listening to was sourced from the studio-master recording.

And that leads up to my next point: You'll obviously need an MQA decoder to hear the studio-master recordings, but that decoder can exist in either hardware or in software (provided there's a processor with enough horsepower to run it). MQA, however, is also backward compatible. Play the file on something that doesn't have an MQA decoder, and you'll get at least CD-quality audio. During my demo, Meridian spokesperson Spencer Chrislu cheekily suggested that he thought it might actually be a little better than CD quality.

 

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