I wanted to make sure and have time to visit the Meridian room in the Venetian Tower and chat with Robert Stuart, the main main behind the MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) technology that dramatically lowers the bandwidth (and storage size) of digital audio files. And by dramatic, it seems a 192 kHz24-bit stereo PCM file (or even 384 kHz) can be delivered as a data stream within about 1 Mbps…that’s less than a CD! Already there are some big announcements associated with this technology.
TIDAL, the Scandinavian streaming service that has been online for a few months with CD-spec streaming is among the first to state they have a deal with Meridian to include “high-resolution audio” to their streaming service. It will be interesting to see how TIDAL, who has been billing themselves as a “high-resolution music streaming service” will modify their marketing message and pricing when they start to offer streams sourced from higher sample rates and longer word lengths (the kind of “so-called” high-resolution files that are widely available from HDtracks, PonoMusic, SuperHiRez, and other sites…and which total about 10,000-15,000 albums or 100,000 tracks.). If moving from lossy streams to CD spec audio bumped the price by a factor of 2 (from $10 to $20 per month) was appropriate, then how much of a premium will the move to high-resolution analog remasters cost us? I’m keeping an eye out for their next move. You can watch an interesting interview with Pal Bratelund, Tidal’s Strategic Partnership Manager at What HiFi?
Robert Stuart was a panelist on a session in the HRA Marketplace on Wednesday and talked about the MQA technology. I’ll be posting the video of that session asap. I chatted with him briefly as he exited the room and asked when I could get a chunk of his time. He indicated Friday morning things in the Meridian room would be calming down, so I made a point of visiting in the late morning. They closed the door and an hour later I exited. It got a thorough explanation, demonstration, and commitment to have some of my files converted to MQA files. Robert also told me that they would send one of their portable players to me so that I could check it out in my own studio. I look forward to that opportunity.
In the meantime, Robert walked me through the thinking that went into the MQA development. He laid out the production path from recording or mastering studio to home listening as an “analog to analog” signal path with a challenging digital chunk in between. Their goal is to preserve the exact sound of the that final analog experience (even if it is being sourced from a digital audio workstation like Pro Tools) including the individual characteristics of the Analog to Digital and Digital to Analog converters. If the engineer, producer, and artist are listening in a studio equipped with dCS or Apogee converters, then the metadata about those devices will be “encapsulated” into the MQA sound file so that the playback mirrors exactly the experience in the studio…and at approximately one tenth the bandwidth.
I asked if this was basically a technique for getting 10 pounds of audio into a 1 pound container? He replied yes. But I really wanted to get to the bottom of the alleged improvement in the “fidelity” of the sound. If Pal Brateland of Tidal called it a “codec”, then I wanted to know how an encoding scheme could change or enhance the sound of the music being decoded? That’s when Robert opened the distance between his hands and told me, “we’re expanding beyond just the digital to digital steps in the production chain to include the analog front and backends.” I get it. There isn’t really any sonic improvement involved. Meridian’s MQA technology isn’t really anything more than a great codec that links information from the original session to the delivery DAC via metadata. The ADC and DAC are talking to each other. That’s pretty clever.
Then came the demonstrations…lots of them. I’ll give you my impressions tomorrow.