LAS VEGAS – Save for hardcore audiophiles (and wannabe hipsters) who spin tunes exclusively on vinyl, we've all generally accepted a hit in music quality in exchange for the convenience of streaming. MQA is a clever compression method that has the power to deliver nearly lossless audio, even through streaming services. The technology has rolled out to professional audio companies over the last year, but soon, everyday consumers will have the ability to hear the difference for themselves.
I met with MQA at CES 2016, and I found that the company has made some great strides since I took a similar meeting last year. The core concept of MQA is still the same: By fine-tuning the timing of audio files rather than the frequency, MQA can deliver high-quality audio files without taking up much more space than a run-of-the-mill MP3. Generally speaking, the human ear is more sensitive to inaudible discontinuities in timing than slightly incorrect frequencies, but frequencies take much more data to correct.
To show how well the technology worked, the MQA representatives gave me a live demo on 2L, a Norwegian streaming music service. (If it helps, think of it as a less well-known Spotify.) 2L is one of approximately 150 services that have adopted MQA technology, although it is the first one aimed directly at everyday listeners.
To stream a file with the bitrate and frequency on display would normally take a 16 Mbps broadband connection: difficult under ideal circumstances, and absolutely impossible on subpar hotel Wi-Fi servicing a crowded convention floor. By using MQA, I was able to listen to a high-res audio stream on a 1 Mbps connection.
I listened to Enter Sandman by Metallica, Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits and a few classical music selections in order to get a sense of how well the live streaming worked. In the rock songs, the rhythm sections sounded vibrant, while the vocals were bright and clear. The orchestral pieces sounded balanced and appropriately nuanced. (Whether they sound much better than standard streaming files, however, I'd need a side-by-side test to determine.)
MQA talked a big game at CES 2015, but to its credit, the company has accomplished a lot of the goals it discussed. Expect to hear announcements about bigger partnerships in the rest of Europe and North America in the coming months.