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Meridian’s MQA demo at Audio High in Mountain View, CA

IMG_9115On April 16th Audio High was the location for was the first publicly-hosted demonstration of Meridian’s MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) high-resolution digital audio format. There was lots of music, great food and drink, very comfortable surroundings and many friendly and knowledgeable people. Audio High and Meridian did an excellent job of making everyone feel at home. Personnel from AH and Meridian’s Ken Forsythe and Brad O’Toole mingled with the throng and answered questions throughout the evening.

In the introduction, MQA was explained by Ken Forsythe as a “new music ecosystem”: audio is encoded to MQA from the studio (or live) source, then “authenticated” by the artist or, presumably, the producer or engineer, and then marketed and distributed to digital providers — who then sell it to consumers as downloadable or streamable content.

Provenance was a word heard several times. At the root of the MQA concept is authentication. There’s a significant number of high-resolution files of questionable native resolution and sourcing being offered on certain high-res digital services; MQA aims to eliminate any such doubt.

The listener needs MQA software and/or hardware to play the files back as originally encoded, but they’re backward-compatible and will play at 16/44 or 48 on any device that can handle standard lossless formats — you don’t necessarily need a Meridian DAC or Meridian speakers to play the files (but, of course, Meridian wouldn’t object to that sort of thing).

Which brings us to the playback system used for the demo:

IMG_9103* A Meridian 818V3 preamp ($16,000) updated with two new processor boards and a beta version of the MQA decoder. If you’re an 818 owner, Meridian will make available (ETA June) an upgrade kit containing the necessary boards and firmware; it’ll also include Lipsync for video source audio latency and two-channel DSP room correction.

* Two Meridian DSP 8000SE speakers ($80,000). The enclosure includes a preamp/DSP module, and each drive array of the 3-way system has a dedicated DAC and 150-watt class A/B amp. An LED readout on the speakers’ front displays the format and resolution of the source.

And if you’re a bit hesitant due to the price, keep in mind that your 80 grand buys you these speakers in just about any color you like — as long as it’s in the 270-shade Meridian palette, of course.

IMG_9097Music was delivered from the 818 to the speakers via Meridian’s SpeakerLink, a CAT5-based cable. Streaming was handled by the Meridian Control 15 ($7500). Files were sourced from a QNAP NAS. The Meridian Core Control interface was also running on an iPad that was being passed around.

As mentioned earlier, MQA playback isn’t hardware-dependent; the decoding can be done by software. There was talk of apps that would enable MQA files to be played back on an smartphones and tablets. There could also be, I assume, an MQA plug-in for JRiver Media Center and the like for home systems. And there’s already plans for Tidal to experiment with streaming MQA. Filesize is touted as one-fifth the size of that of an AIF or WAV file; this is certainly an advantage when it comes to streaming, especially via mobile broadband — where most consumers do their listening.

Back to the presentation. Robert Silverman was in attendance, introducing the MQA files of his recent studio performance of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Other demonstration tracks? Norah Jones, Diana Krall, will.i.am. (“That Power” featuring Justin Bieber), Blake Shelton, Dave Brubeck (guess which song?), Blood, Sweat and Tears “Spinning Wheel”, Elton John “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”.

Control 15 browser displaying MQA content.

Control 15 browser displaying MQA content.

How did MQA sound under these…controlled conditions?

I wanted it to be amazing.

It sounded good. Sometimes more-than-good. Bass-dominated tracks like the will.i.am tune had remarkable dynamic range and tight low-end slam. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” a song I could have comfortably never, ever heard again, suddenly sounded impressive. There was a preternatural space and air between the instruments that gave the song depth. During the playing of the Beethoven sonatas, Silverman’s piano sounded like a piano, and by that I mean it almost sounded like he was there playing it.

No doubt Meridian’s $110,000 system was showcasing MQA at its best. The presentation and the possibilities it afforded were intriguing, and, in the true show biz tradition, the demo left me wanting more:

* I’d like to experience music encoded in MQA in an intimate, near-field setting. Audio High’s showroom is excellent, but it’s a big, (roughly) square room with carpeting and pretty quilt-like wall hangings. I’d love to hear MQA in my living room, with all the space’s warts, acoustic-nightmare corners and oh, yeah, that problematic picture window constituting 75% of the back wall, too.

* I want to hear MQA played back through a more conventional amplifier/speaker combo. I trust that Meridian’s DSP8000 speakers are innovative. They certainly sound wonderful, especially those 3 side-firing woofers. The traditionalist in me, however, has reservations about mounting an amplifier (or amplifiers) within the speaker enclosure, for reasons of vibration and RFI/EMI, among other things. I admit to being bigoted regarding the ancient audiophile concept of “separates;” color me a Luddite in that respect.

* A nicely-unpacked, stable download is one thing, but I’m eager to hear music that I like and know well streaming Tidal-style through the above, as well as through a decent portable device (Pono?) with a good pair of headphones (Pono’s development team reportedly negotiated with Meridian before settling on Ayre for the innards of the final Pono design. Perhaps MQA was the reason Pono and Meridian diverged; I speculate that Pono wanted a more agnostic range of digital formats).

* I’d enjoy the opportunity to compare MQA side-by-side to DSD and high-res WAV/AIF.

(I’d also like a vacation home on the north shore of Kaua’i, if you’re taking notes. Beach access, some jungle acreage and an orchid shadehouse would be nice, too).

IMG_9098I asked Meridian’s Brad O’Toole about user-level encoding — would the consumer be able to transcode his or her own sources (such as an LP rip) or existing audio files to MQA, sort of like the way PS Audio’s Directstream transcodes to DSD on the fly? The answer was no. Ken Forsythe elaborated: “With MQA there is no transcode; the original lossless format is “encapsulated” or placed into the MQA box. This is a part of the compatibility aspect in that whatever format goes in come out.”

MQA really is a brilliant concept: vertically integrate and increase the value of Meridian’s existing hardware line using proprietary studio-level mastering/encoding, a delivery and distribution channel, and software for the end user. Apple would be proud of such synergy. If Meridian can market streaming high-res effectively and honestly, managing user expectations with a minimum (or complete absence of) hype — yes, I’m looking at you, Pono and Tidal — the future of MQA will be very interesting.

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More:

Stereophile: I’ve Heard the Future of Streaming: Meridian’s MQA by John Atkinson (December 2014)

The Absolute Sound: Robert Harley Listens to Meridian MQA (December 2014)