MQA (for Master Quality Authenticated) is interesting – in the sense that it’ll certainly cause more than a few furrowed brows and some heavy-thought frowns. The idea, as I understand it, is that high fidelity can be far more effectively encoded and delivered than it is currently. But that’s really only part of the problem.
The analogy we were given was one of dilution. Imagine a glass of water. Not a clean, clear glass, but something filled with black sludge and rank-smelling. Appetizing, right? Not. Anyway, high-resolution audio is very like to pouring clean water on top of bad. All of the problems are still there, but the hope is that in the resulting mix, they’d be a bit less noticeable – even if the resulting glass were now absolutely enormous. The argument continues by suggesting that cleaning the water in the first place would have been a much more straightforward solution, and that done, the result would likely have been a far more palatable concoction.
The MQA mantra, then, is “remove the bad stuff first”. What “bad stuff”? Well, that wasn’t precisely unraveled, but “distortion and ringing” were singled out. What I think is being targeted is the “mastered for iTunes” — that is, MP3 encoding, where dramatic compromises maybe-possibly get introduced in a nod to convenience (and reduced file size). What MQA does, by contrast, is propose a dramatically more efficient way to capture and compress data files (for streaming service delivery, presumably, but also for local file playback) so that no such radical degradation is ever required — and storage space requirements are still reduced. The files can also be digitally signed and flagged in such a way that the author — engineer and artist – can guarantee to the listener that the resulting file being played back is precisely what they wanted you to hear. That is, that no one monkeyed about with it by compressing it and tossing “valuable sonic information” or resample/upsample it and attempt to pass that off as something it was not. That last bit is the “authenticated” portion of the MQA standard. To get these benefits, then, you’d need MQA content generated by producers and an MQA decoder.
MQA has had several years of work-in-progess, so this isn’t just pie-in-the-sky – “many labels” have already signed on and general availability is coming.
For the technically minded, MQA is PCM-encoded, so DSD material will need to be encapsulated — it isn’t necessarily ruled out as a supported format. The container, however, is FLAC. And other than the encrypted author’s authentication, there will be no DRM in MQA.