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Can This New Music Format Finally Fix 'The MP3 Mistake'?
The world of audiophilia has well-documented problems; prohibitively expensive gear (ahem), a high informational barrier to entry ("Do I need a pre-amp for my turntable?" is but a prologue), the re-purchase of music in high-fidelity formats (replacing vinyl with CDs, CDs with vinyl, vinyl with hi-res, hi-res with vinyl). More generally, there's a permeable membrane between fact and fiction in this world.
Maybe that's why high fidelity -- or hi-res if you're talking about its digital iteration -- listening has had some failures in recent memory. Most notably, Neil Young's startup Pono, which he launched about two years ago during a keynote at SXSW. Despite the filmed testimony of a large group of artists as to how beautiful things sounded on the device, the company is clearly not thriving. Billboard recently attempted to contact Pono via fax machine (the primary contact method listed for the company on its website), but received no reply. Anecdotally, have you ever seen someone rocking out on their Toblerone in public?
Regardless of its success or failure, there's no denying the passion for "proper" listening with which Young presented his vision, and he's not alone in wanting music fans to hear (sorry, experience) the full sonic breadth of his and others' work. But we've long lived in a world of MP3s, streams of even lower fidelity and white plinky plastic earbuds that offer up a sound akin to blowing through a reed of grass. What all three do, however, is make music perfectly portable -- access to what we want to hear when we want to hear it is not even an afterthought, it's an assumption. Anyone who hopes to unseat these incumbents needs to accept that if it forces a new device on us, or the requirement of expensive headphones, the average person isn't going to care enough to adopt. (And many say it doesn't matter if you do.)
"Convenience trumped fidelity as the most important characteristic that people felt was important for people to enjoy music," Craig Kallman, chairman and CEO of Atlantic Records, tells Billboard. "Now is when we finally have the technological capabilities and the bandwidth capability to deliver people a convenient experience that also includes a true high-resolution audio result at the same time."
Enter Master Quality Authenticated, or MQA, a new type of format that provides elasticity to music streams. What that means: If you've ever streamed Netflix and the quality was breathtakingly sharp, then took a nosedive because of connection problems, this is essentially what MQA allows for high-resolution music. The format has the potential to bring far higher quality sound without sacrificing the portability and ease of streaming -- if labels and streaming services decide to use it. Kallman is, of course, convinced they will.
Kallman spent five years in contact with the technology's creator, Bob Stuart. "MQA [finally] was in a place where we could start conversations together of how we could really help bring high-resolution audio into the digital music marketplace," says Kallman. "I think that started almost five years ago... it took about five years for it to coalesce, to see the end zone where we could actually bring this to market as an industry." Kallman says he's given the record industry's foremost leaders test drives of the tech, and its reception has been very warm. "This is a no-brainer, where do I sign up," was the response he describes.
So why did this no-brainer technology spend so long in gestation? Because it's very complicated to develop, and not easy to explain, either. David Hughes, Chief Technology Officer for the RIAA, describes a very complicated series of data "origami" which allows the format to hide its hi-res information. (If you dare: "In a nutshell they take the audio, and everything that is above 48kHz and 96kHz, they take that portion of the data and they hide it below the noise floor of the 48kHz/24-bit section, and then you draw a line where 48kHz sampling is hidden kind of like a watermark below the noise floor of the main file, then anything above 96kHz is reduced to a small number of bits.") Essentially, if the bandwidth is available, MQA unfolds. If it's not, it doesn't.
The result is higher quality sound -- regardless of how you listen. "If i'm in a car and I play an MQA file, it will sound better than an MP3. People will enjoy the music more at a visceral level," says Hughes. "In those meetings on the West Coast," says Kallman, "people were pretty struck by how clear it was, even on the basic out-of-the-box Apple stuff."
Now comes the hard part: business. Kallman is boosting the project, but no businessman invests for free. One source says they wouldn't be surprised for labels to seek a cut of the elastic pie in order to undertake re-processing their catalogs in the new format. (When they can -- many records in the '80s were recorded in a relatively prehistoric version of digital that will never be high-res.)
MQA works with some new research, unknown at the time of the MP3's development, on how our brains process audio information. "What does the brain not hear?" asks Hughes, in reference to creation of the MP3. "They made some assumptions that are probably not great. 'A typical person's hearing ranges between this and this, so cut it out.' What they didn't realize is that sound is a much more holistic thing." A lot of the things that they cut out of the sonic profile of MP3s turned out to be key to our brains' holistic construction of what we're hearing -- those tinkles at the top and those rumbles at the bottom affect what we feel in the middle.
So, it turns out, we hear a lot more than previously thought. Maybe sometime soon we'll actually hear it.