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Sound and Vision: Does MQA’s woes spell trouble for the portable hi-fi experience?

OPINION: MQA Ltd entered administration after its biggest financial backer left, and that abrupt news left me feeling a little concerned about the future of wireless portable hi-fi.

If you’re someone who streams a lot of music, you probably have heard about MQA and may have conflicting feelings about it. While the goal of MQA to try and facilitate Hi-resolution audio over a wireless connection (whether that be Wi-Fi or Bluetooth) is laudable, there are many who’ve never trusted MQA’s claims or how it works. You can read more about it in our explainer.

Nevertheless, MQA entering administration isn’t great news. It’s been one of few audio brands trying to improve wireless audio fidelity in a practical way given the constraints of the portable music market.

That its biggest financial backer left suggests returns on investment weren’t enough, despite MQA’s recent partnerships like the next-gen hi-res audio headphones with PSB and Sonical, along with the new SCL6 wireless codec that was certified by the Japan Audio Society in 2022 implying progress.

It’s not the best news for the Tidal music streaming service either. It’s the service most associated with MQA, using it to stream content in higher than CD quality on its Hi-Fi Plus tier. A few days after the MQA announcement, Tidal CEO Jesse Dorogusker mentioned in a Reddit AMA that the option to stream hi-res audio in the FLAC format would be coming “soon” and that there’d be the option to switch between the FLAC and MQA.

Tidal MQA albums

This would seem great news, but FLAC files are large and the point of MQA was to make it easier to transfer large audio files from source to end user. FLAC requires more bandwidth and therefore eats up more data, so while you’re getting high-quality output, it comes at a cost.

And while Dorogusker also mentioned this is a concern writing, that FLAC “[is] a big file, but we’ll give you controls to dial this up and down based on what’s going on”, offering both feels as if it’s muddying the waters. Which offers the best experience? We’ll find out soon enough.

In recent years the “hi-fi” listening experience has moved towards mobile, and this is largely out of necessity and convenience. Traditional hi-fi isn’t sparking the interest of the younger generation who interface with content through mobile phones. But there are compromises inherent in being able to deliver high quality content through mobile, namely Bluetooth.

Advancements such as Snapdragon Sound have pushed a path forward but support is currently limited. And Bluetooth struggles to allow for high-quality streaming in the same way Wi-Fi can due to its levels of compression. It’s the reason why the likes of Apple and Sonos have always been sceptical of adding Bluetooth support to their products.

There are those looking to make an impact, but whichever path is taken, it’s a tricky landscape to navigate. Swiss company HED announced their Unity headphones (look out for that review) which incorporate their Full Fidelity technology that supports lossless sound up to 24-bit/96kHz resolution. The first question that comes to mind is how.

Details are still rather scarce, but it sounds like the headphones rely on a Wi-Fi connection where it can find one but use a Bluetooth connection where there isn’t. In that respect, it isn’t quite the game-changer the marketing might leave you to expect, especially with its support for SBC and AAC Bluetooth codecs. And the price of £1795 puts the likes of the Mark Levinson No. 5909 in the shade.

And that is my worry about hi-res audio in the portable sense. MQA at least tried to navigate its way through the maelstrom, but various roadblocks, whether file format, Bluetooth or expense are rising to make listening to hi-res more difficult and more expensive when we really need to be charting a path in the opposite direction.

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