iFi Journal

What is MQA and does it work with iFi DACs?


MQA is an award-winning audio technology that enables music fans to stream the original master recording into their home, car or on their mobile. In the words of Gilbert O’Sullivan, iconic Irish-born singer-songwriter, “The great thing about MQA is that it delivers the finesse that was there in the desk sound. It’s tremendous, it sounds really good.”

And the good news is it works with all iFi audio’s DAC products… Read on…

The science behind MQA

MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) was developed using new insights in digital coding and a deep understanding of how humans hear. While we tend to trust our eyes over our ears, human hearing is quite remarkable: you cannot see in the dark or around corners, however your ears can and they’re always ‘on’. Human hearing is also incredibly adept at determining where a sound is coming from – as sounds reach us, microseconds apart, our brains build a 3D soundscape. This timing sensitivity evolved to help us survive in the natural world by pinpointing, for example, the direction of a potential attack. Using this same faculty, we can position individual instruments at a live performance, and, with MQA, this crucial timing information is captured and preserved from the master recording, so it recreates the original performance.

How it works

The technology delivers the original sound, in the highest quality, with the most flexibility, using less data, while authenticating provenance. No other system can do this. MQA captures the original recording, ‘folds’ the file for efficient distribution, and ‘unfolds’ the file dependent on the playback set-up and device capability. Visit the How it Works section for a visual overview.

The best sound

MQA connects creators directly with their fans. Our label partners ensure the master recording is converted to MQA and delivered to the music service. On playback, the MQA decoder authenticates the sound using a digital display – either a light or a logo on the UI – so that listeners know they are hearing a true version of the original recording.

Some of the world’s leading engineers have endorsed the qualities of MQA, for example mastering engineer Bob Ludwig, “The thing about the authentication aspect of MQA is that I can know that the listener at home is listening to the identical analogue sound that I’ve approved, and that the artist has approved.”

Where to listen

The first major music service to adopt MQA was artist-owned TIDAL, which launched TIDAL Masters in January 2017. Since integrating MQA, TIDAL has won the title of ‘Best Music Streaming Service’ at the What Hi-Fi? Awards every year. The TIDAL app acts as a core decoder and works best when paired with an MQA-enabled DAC – such as the iFi range of portable DACs/headphone amps – which completes the final unfold for the optimal listening experience. In November 2020, TIDAL significantly boosted its Masters catalogue by adding millions of MQA tracks to its service.

MQA and iFi audio

All iFi audio DACs (excluding Pro iDSD, NEO iDSD and iDSD Diablo) are MQA renderers only and therefore require software such as Tidal to perform the decoding. Whereas the Pro iDSD & Neo iDSD are decoders and renderers, therefore can fully unfold MQA.

ZEN DAC V2 from iFi audio

So, what about the newly launched ZEN DAC V2?

MQA Decoder Implementation

The ZEN DAC V2 includes MQA technology, which enables you to play back MQA audio files and streams, delivering the sound of the original master recording. The LED glows green or blue to indicate that the unit is decoding and playing an MQA stream or file and denotes provenance to ensure that the sound is identical to that of the source material. It glows blue to indicate it is playing an MQA Studio file, which has either been approved in the studio by the artist/producer or has been verified by the copyright owner.

MQA Renderer Implementation

MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) ZEN DAC original version includes MQA Renderer technology, which can connect to an MQA Core signal (such as TIDAL) and complete the final unfold of an MQA file. This product will include ‘stream lock’ but is not able to decode an MQA stream or authenticate it.

Award-winning technology

Not only does MQA power many award-winning partner products and services – see the most recent EISA roll call and latest What Hi-Fi? Awards (both featuring iFi Audio’s ZEN DAC) – but the credentials of its founder Bob Stuart are well documented and celebrated. Most recently, Bob became the first audio engineer to ever receive the prestigious Prince Philip Medal from the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) in 2020. The RAE bestowed the honour in recognition of Bob’s “exceptional contribution to audio engineering which has changed the way we listen to music and experience films.”

To find out more about MQA visit mqa.co.uk

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