Even better audio: can anyone tell the difference?


Like Heinz’s famous range of condiments, there are some 57 varieties of digital music format currently available. Most are open-source and free for music companies and fans to use. They run from highly-compressed and dull-sounding MP3 to huge WAV files, bulging with juicy music data.

A new and widely, though not universally, acclaimed digital format developed by a 70-year-old British electronics engineer might not then seem to stand a chance of capturing a slice of the market — not least since it is a paid-for software.

But the invention of Bob Stuart and a 29-strong team is gaining remarkable traction. Mr Stuart’s MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) format has just been adopted by Alibaba’s Xiami music-streaming service, with its 14m subscribers in China.

That deal, Mr Stuart says, could earn him “several millions” a year in royalties. It would enable him to start recouping the £25m that went into developing MQA, which he funded in part by selling his high-end HiFi company, Meridian Audio, in 2014.

MQA promises to replicate the “emotion” of a live performance or studio master-recording, even when listened to on mobile phones. Extra audio quality, Mr Stuart claims, can even be teased from old magnetic tapes, 78rpm records and music cylinders.

Additionally, MQA files are “folded” in such a way — he calls it “music origami” — that they are under half the size of rival high-resolution audio formats. This means, when downloaded, you can get more, and arguably better, music on a device.

MQA’s Xiami contract follows agreements with Warner Brothers and Universal Music in the US to apply the format to their back catalogue as well as new music. Tidal, the high-quality streaming service partly owned by the rapper Jay-Z newly features MQA.

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The software is popular in Japan, especially when encoded into CDs, which are still popular in the market. Elsewhere, Mr Stuart says some broadcasters are considering using a version of the software, MQA Live, to transmit concerts.

But is MQA better than the competition?

Most people probably cannot hear the difference between one HiFi product and another. Leading scientific sceptic James Randi once offered $1m for a journalist to submit to a blind test of speaker cables. No one accepted the challenge.

Yet I think one can tell the difference. I pay £19.99 a month to Tidal for their highest quality Masters version, because it streams MQA. To me, it has a clean, rich quality I enjoy. I probably would not pass a blind test of MQA against another fancy format. Similarly, I prefer more expensive wine without being able to explain quite why. I like to believe I’m experiencing the best.

Audiophiles are notoriously discordant. For all those endorsing MQA, there are some online angrily decrying it. Yet others post passionate arguments that all high-resolution audio is nonsense and only a dog or a scientific instrument could tell the difference.

“Human perception is complex,” Mr Stuart told me. “There are ways neuroscientists can convince people they’re drinking coffee when they’re drinking tea. But we love the art of what we do, the bringing of pleasure through high quality to millions of people. For those millions of people to translate into millions of dollars of revenue is almost secondary.”

“The jury is still out,” says Thomas Steffens, founder of Primephonic, a new Netherlands-based, classical-music, streaming service. “When you listen to MQA against the best format we use, I would almost say it’s a matter of taste . . . I like MQA’s vision, I hope they will be successful producing the highest audio-quality possible, but it would be a big technical overhaul for us to adopt it.”

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It seems that the new digital music format MQA could yet become a valuable, invisible, supply chain-free export for the new-format, post-Brexit UK. But like post-Brexit Britain, it is not yet clear who is going to like it.

jonathan.margolis@ft.com



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