[ENG.] MQA: the end of a bad idea that claimed to answer a problem that did not exist?
A rather convoluted press release announces that MQA Ltd is now in receivership.
[ Some articles (only) of COUACS.INFO (A “Couac” is the French expression for a Bum Note) will now be available in English. Their title is preceded by [ENG.] The translation being done by “inhouse”, your indulgence is suggested!]
A rather convoluted press release announces that MQA Ltd is now in receivership.
I don't want to appear to be happy about the difficulties of a company, but what is surprising is not that MQA is now in trouble, but that MQA could have been in the news for so long and in such a hollow way, and find so many supporters in an industry (record companies, hardware manufacturers) that had so many other more important issues to deal with.
In a nutshell, MQA's technology aimed to offer a magic encoding for online music (download or streaming) that would allow to pass HiRes quality using less data and thus saving bandwidth, a perennial necessity that MQA seemed to believe in.Expressed in a more brutal way, MQA was thus compressing music, compressing it in a way that was supposedly not as bad as MP3, and in a more learned way, but compressing it, with HiRes in sight. And it did it in a certain opacity, in a proprietary mode, that is to say that any user, platform or record company would have to pay a fee to MQA for the use of its Codec.
When it was launched, I was surprised that MQA was born so late, in 2014, at a time when I had already been fighting for a long time at Qobuz to obtain High-Definition files from the record companies and that I was the only one to do so in Europe. It didn't take a rocket scientist to imagine that Moore's Law would also apply to mobile data, both technologically and financially for the consumer: that is to say that we would be heading towards a time when the number of GB included in your mobile subscription, and the price of this subscription, would become very secondary factors for all online music lovers wanting to stream from their favorite platform. From then on, the need to save on data would become superfluous. At that time, I was making very frequent Marseille-Paris TGV round trips, and the Gare Saint-Charles in Marseille provided a lavish and probably experimental 4G. When I noticed the smoothness of Lossless streaming with my Qobuz application in Gare Saint-Charles, I was convinced that MQA was useless.
Beyond that, MQA raised another question, a fundamental one: that of the opportunity and legitimacy that we, as record companies inheriting the work of our predecessors, and online music platforms, have to tamper with original masters.
This aspect of the question remains completely relevant, first of all with the Dolby Atmos promoted by Apple Music these days.
Numerama explains :
"The latest addition to the company's technologies, Dolby Atmos adds a new layer to the weave of sound that immerses the viewer in the film or series he or she is watching: in addition to the multiplication of points transmitted horizontally, the Dolby Atmos system adds vertical variations of sound. Briefly, if all the variations of Dolby Surround and then Dolby Digital made it possible to place the sound on a two-dimensional map, Dolby Atmos makes it possible to deploy it in three dimensions, in a "bubble". We then go from 5.1 to 5.1.2, the ".2" designating the 3D channels (we can go even further, depending on our configuration). For your ears, it is as if you were in the middle of a concert or the action scene of your movie or video game. The level of realism is increased tenfold, with a performance that lets you hear, for example, cars racing by, but also a helicopter flying overhead or a critter darting between your legs. The extra speakers also make for more accurate listening, with more nuance in the effects reproduced and finer acoustic benefits."
By passing recordings through the mill of a mysterious, automated encoding, without legitimacy with regard to the original recording, Dolby Atmos or MQA behave like Sunday painters who would like to improve or refresh the masterpieces of painting. Or, as France 2 so often does, colorize newsreels in its documentaries, thus distorting the way we look at these documents and at history.
I thought MQA's initiative was useless, for the reasons explained above. I also didn't like MQA's idea of putting recordings provided by the record companies through the mill of their technology, because I always thought that in online music everyone should do their own thing:
the record companies, provide good files with good metadata
the platforms, to offer an experience that satisfies their customers. No need for a third party in between to take money and complicate the supply chain.
In this case, at the time at Qobuz, if we had wanted to adopt MQA, we would have had to reintegrate the whole specifically encoded catalog, teach the existing applications to read this encoding and make it coexist technically (storage, broadcasting) with the non-MQA catalog: a real gas factory, whereas we had already inaugurated LossLess streaming as a world premiere, and the decision to launch HiRes streaming was more a question of opportunity and marketing temporality than a technological problem.
But there were plenty of people in the media who considered MQA's initiative interesting by copying the company's communication.
The very notion of "original master" is subject to discussion, and the respect we owe it, with. With time, original tapes deteriorate and there is no crime in reworking them to preserve their flavor, if this work is done with taste and expertise.
Stewart Brown, the late creator of the Testament label, told me the amusing story of the remastering in the 2000s of Karajan's famous 1956 recording of Rosenkavalier at Abbey Road Studios for EMI. The sound engineer for the remastering was the same one Stewart worked with for his own records, which is why he witnessed the scene, and also because he had recently reissued records of the singer. The restoration team had the bright idea of inviting Elisabeth Schwarzkopf to the session, in order to obtain her prestigious imprimatur and a photo to immortalize the session. The great, demanding but aging singer, whose hearing spectrum had weakened over the years, had pestered them so much and so badly that the first opportunity was taken... to put her back in a cab.
In other words, there is a professional look to be taken at a recorded tape, and this look is subtle, subject to evaluation: to inflict a standardized treatment on it is a fault.
But “idiophiles” have long been the easy target of equipment manufacturers and retailers of the MQA creators' genre, and even of specialized journalists, who promise them the experience of a concert at home, of "live" music in their own small apartments as if it were possible; as if the record itself (not the physical format, but the concept of a fixation within the four walls of a studio and with all the possible tricks or arrangements that technology allows) were not a sound object that has nothing to do with the experience lived in a concert hall.
The cult of the original master is therefore a fantasy. It is certainly preferable to listen to the music in an optimum quality format. If you can hear.
The cost of the material itself has become a non-problem, no matter what some press kit reproducers say. No, you don't need "expensive equipment" to enjoy HiRes files these days. The price of high-quality reproduction devices (DACs, headphones or amplifiers) has dropped dramatically in constant value since the 1970s.
I don't think I'm wrong in saying that for most classical music lovers, and not just classical music, spatialization is a gimmick that will be rejected or abandoned - for home theater lovers it's different.
And as for MQA, and to come back to our subject, this anecdotal technology will end up in the dustbin of HiFi history, along with so many other acronyms, systems announced as definitive, superlatives, revolutionary systems, and so on.
Thousands of hours have been spent on this thing, the MQA, that could have been spent on much more fundamental and still unsolved subjects in the field of online music.