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Robert Harley Listens to Meridian MQA

London, 4th December 7.30pm GMT – Tonight, Bob Stuart, founder of Meridian Audio, launched MQA (Master Quality Authenticated), a revolutionary British technology poised to change the way people enjoy music all over the world. The launch, hosted in The Shard, was attended by key music industry executives, artists, and commentators.

Developed by Meridian, MQA is a breakthrough technology to reverse the trend, in which sound quality has been continually sacrificed for convenience. Vital elements of our music have been thrown away to fit thousands of songs into a pocket or millions in a cloud. With MQA there is no sacrifice; it brings us right back to the enthralling sound of live music. MQA captures and preserves nuances and vital information that current music files obscure or discard, but in a file that is small and convenient to download or stream.

MQA allows listeners to experience every intricate detail the microphone heard, offering music fans the purest ever sound. And it’s based firmly in science. For the first time in history, music fans will be able to hear at home what the artist created and approved in the recording studio, and MQA confirms its exact delivery.

Bob Stuart, the pioneer behind MQA technology said: “Music lovers need no longer be shortchanged; finally we can all hear exactly what the musicians recorded. MQA gives a clear, accurate, and authentic path from the recording studio all the way to any listening environment—at home, in the car or on the go. And we didn’t sacrifice convenience.” Stuart also advised that “the announcement of MQA is really about the future of recorded music. Music is important to us all. When the sound is authentic it is more involving, we understand it better, and enjoy it longer. MQA is already receiving broad support from the music industry, artists, recording and mastering engineers, and record labels.”

MQA will be available early 2015.

Robert Harley Listens to Meridian MQA

At the 2014 CES I experienced an extended, private audition of what was hinted to be a radically different digital-audio encoding scheme that had been under development for quite some time. That encoding system, which has just been announced (see accompanying story), is called MQA, for Master Quality Authenticated. We’ve posted Meridian’s explanation of the technology in both the short and more detailed versions. In essence, MQA is a proprietary digital-encoding technology used in the recording or mastering stage. When an MQA-encoded recording is played back through a consumer-audio product with MQA decoding, the result is, according to Meridian, a vast improvement in sound quality over even the highest-resolution formats extant. An MQA-encoded recording can be played back without an MQA decoder, but without the full quality of which MQA is capable.

MQA samples the audio signal in three different ways, and then encapsulates the three signals into a bitstream that fits in a conventional 96kHz/24-bit package that can be stored or transferred as a FLAC, ALAC, or other lossless file format. We’ll cover MQA in more detail in an upcoming issue of The Absolute Sound, but in the meantime I can report my listening impressions of what was then a work-in-progress.

At the demo nearly a year ago, Meridian co-founder Bob Stuart was mum on the details, but I surmised that the system was a complementary encode-decode technology that delivered better-than-high-res quality in a standard-resolution or moderately high-resolution bit-rate. Stuart made a few comments that led me to that conclusion, including a reference to his belief that most of the massive number of bits generated by 192kHz/24-bit encoding are useless baggage rather than conveyors of real musical information. He also pointed out that the neural pathways from the ear to the brain are quite low in bandwidth, which suggested to me the line of research Stuart had been pursuing—namely that the type of information received by the brain is more important than the sheer quantity of information. Stuart has a long history in academic psychoacoustic research, so it’s no surprise that he would base a new encoding technology on how we hear rather than simply by pursuing refinements to existing digital architectures.

The sound of MQA, reproduced through a pair of Meridian DSP7200 loudspeakers, was simply stunning in every way. I heard a wide range of music, from full-scale orchestral to voices to a very quiet piece by the Modern Jazz Quartet from the 1950s. I can still vividly recall the delicacy, ease, and resolution of the cymbals in the MJQ piece. I was also struck by the precision of their placement and how they appeared to float in the air against a completely silent background. The treble was totally unlike any other digital I’d heard, completely free from the metallic hardness and artifacts we assume are part-and-parcel of digital audio. Instrumental timbres were so naturally rendered to be almost eerie in their realism. Voices had a stunning palpability and immediacy that were all the more realistic for their compact image size and the sense that they were surrounded by a natural acoustic. It’s interesting that, as I recall the experience, my sonic impressions were so striking that they are still vivid nearly a year later—yet I can’t remember any other demo I heard at the show.

I came away from the listening session with more questions than answers, but now that Meridian has announced MQA, it all makes sense. We need much more time with MQA to fully assess its potential, but count me as extremely optimistic about the potential of a technology that leapfrogs the limitations of existing architectures to deliver a listening experience that transcends the highest of today’s conventional high-res formats. The big question will be whether the music industry gets behind MQA to create a critical mass of MQA-encoded titles that will drive hardware manufacturers to include MQA decoding in their products. It’s an enormously ambitious project, but one that could revolutionize music distribution and playback. 

By Robert Harley

My older brother Stephen introduced me to music when I was about 12 years old. Stephen was a prodigious musical talent (he went on to get a degree in Composition) who generously shared his records and passion for music with his little brother.

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