LAS VEGAS – Much like anything else in life, when it comes to digital audio, you have a choice: quality or quantity. Sound files often gain marginal quality increases by increasing file sizes exponentially, and audio company Meridian believes that enough is enough. Its new audio compression technology, MQA encoding, provides rich, lossless sound at about the size of an average MP3.
I met with Meridian and Pure, its partner in the MQA project, at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2015, and got to learn about the philosophy and technology behind the new compression technique. MQA sounds great, through a combination of scientific research and clever technological applications.
Generally speaking, companies improve digital audio by fine-tuning a piece's frequency, but recent neurological research has suggested that the human brain is actually far more sensitive to tiny inaccuracies in timing. Reducing timing errors (in microseconds — too fast for any human to consciously hear) is much more space-efficient that refining frequency, and helps give MQA bang for its aural buck.
The other side of the equation is compression. MQA compresses and encodes files like FLACs and AACs in much the same way as DVD and Blu-ray audio files: small and lightweight, but capable of full lossless audio with the proper decoder. If MQA becomes as ubiquitous as Meridian hopes, media players and streaming services will provide this decoder; if not, MQA will still function, but they won't sound much better than a normal MP3.
I got to listen to an MQA/MP3 comparison for myself in two different pieces of music: Beethoven's Emperor Suite (Piano Concerto 5, Opus 73) and Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits. The difference was not night-and-day, but the Emperor Suite had a much richer middle section, especially its violas and cellos. Likewise, I heard the rhythm guitar section in Sultans of Swing much better than I've ever heard it before, and each lead guitar twang sounded extremely crisp.
Meridian is currently in talks with major audio manufacturers, so it's hard to say when MQA technology might hit the market. If and when it does, your ears will probably be able to tell the difference right away.
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