The rise of streaming services has revolutionized the way that we listen to music. Gone are the days where you have to rip your CD collection to listen to them with your portable music devices. But despite the convenience of music streaming, audiophiles still find a lot of the mainstream services to be lacking in sound quality.
But, with the recent advancements in technology, there is now a new way to stream lossless music efficiently. This new file format is called MQA and is widely supported by most modern audiophile devices. This article will delve deeper into what MQA is, its disadvantages, and the devices that support it.
What is MQA
Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) is one of the newer file formats that has been popping around in audiophile circles. Without going into too many technical details, MQA is basically a container for lossless files. It aims to capture the original mastered recording and distribute it in a more convenient fashion.
As a result, MQA files are smaller in file size compared to traditional lossless file formats such as FLAC and WAV. MQA also claims that it won’t have the same audio degradation typically associated with traditional file compression.
This is a game-changer for music streaming services since they wouldn’t need as much bandwidth as they would with traditional lossless files. It is also beneficial for the end-users since they won’t be consuming as much data as they would with streaming lossless files.
However, it is still technically considered a lossy format, which has sparked some debate among audiophiles. We will talk more about some of the negative aspects of MQA later in this article. For a more technical and detailed explanation, head on over to the official MQA website.
What are the Disadvantages of MQA
One of the biggest disadvantages of MQA is the need for an MQA certified device. This wouldn’t be an issue for audiophiles who already own MQA certified devices. However, casual users who use their smartphones or laptop probably do not have a device that can fully take advantage of MQA.
Another disadvantage of MQA is the current library. Don’t get me wrong. There are lots of great-sounding MQA albums that can easily be streamed on services such as Tidal. However, since MQA is still not the standard format for modern recordings, there is a big chance that your favorite artist’s albums are not in MQA.
Physical MQA albums are also quite limited. There are well-known albums that are in this format, but as previously mentioned, it is highly unlikely that more artists will adopt this format for their physical releases.
Now in terms of sound quality, there have been some debates regarding MQA’s negative impact on sound quality. Despite MQA’s claims, some users have stated that MQA sounds muddy through their systems. Others have claimed that the MQA version of their favorite albums sounds worse compared to other lossless file formats. Due to the different experiences of the end-users, we highly recommend trying MQA files with your system first.
Lastly, not all companies are supporting MQA. Chord is one of the major audiophile companies that still refuses to add MQA integration to their devices despite its massive popularity in recent years.
MQA Ready Devices
Modern audiophile equipment such as DAPs, DACs, and DAC/Amps are now supporting the MQA format. Here are some well-known products that support it:
Fiio is a well-known brand that produces some of the best DAPs and DAC/Amps in the market. They have been bringing innovative products that punch way more than their price point ever since their inception in 2007. Today, their mid-range and flagship offerings are worthy contenders to big brands such as Sony and Astell & Kern.
Their latest generation Android-based DAPs features global support for MQA. This means that streaming apps such as Tidal, third-party music player apps such as UAPP, and their native Fiio Music app fully support MQA unfolding.
What makes their current generation DAPs special is the speed and smoothness of the UI, the sharpness of the display, and the eye-catching design. In a lot of ways, their M series DAPs resemble modern smartphones.
But aside from the design and form factor, Fiio’s M series DAPs are powered by the latest AKM DAC chips and THX amplifiers. This gives them unparalleled sound quality, driving power, and synergy with high-end IEMs and headphones.
If you want DAPs that can seamlessly play MQA without any hiccups in any kind of scenario, then make sure to check out Fiio’s devices.
Another great DAP and DAC/Amp manufacturer is iBasso. This company was founded in 2006 and is one of Fiio’s main competitors. They are also well known for bringing high-quality DAPs as well as being one of the first to adopt the modular amplifier module system on their DAPs.
This modular amp system can still be seen in their latest high-end models (DX220, DX220 MAX, DX200, and DX150). This system makes iBasso’s DAPs versatile since you don’t need to immediately upgrade your DAP if you are looking for a different sound signature. You also do not need to attach a separate headphone amplifier or DAC/Amp in case you need more power for your headphones.
And in addition to the great sound quality of their players, iBasso is also well known for the design of their DAPs. They are one of the few companies that are utilizing a 1080p display on their DAPs, making them rival smartphones in the same price range.
If you find iBasso’s modular amplifier system and design language, make sure to check out their latest offerings.
Astell & Kern
Astell & Kern is a luxury brand that is widely considered as the pioneers of the modern digital audio player market. Unlike the two brands that we have covered, the South Korean brand only started making high-end DAPs in 2013. And since then, they have been on top of the market, only being rivaled by other high-end brands such as Sony.
What makes Astell & Kern special is the attention to detail to the design of their DAPs, the unparalleled sound quality, effective and well thought out software, and the premium price.
Of course, Astell & Kern’s current lineup fully supports MQA. These devices also support streaming applications such as Tidal, which can easily be installed without any hassle or compatibility issues.
Overall, if you want a premium DAP with unparalleled performance in software and sound quality, then Astell & Kern is undoubtedly one of the best DAPs that money can buy.
iFi is a well-known brand in the audiophile scene. They produce some of the best DAC/Amps and always provide the best value both in their entry-level and high-end offerings. iFi is also a well-known competitor to brands such as Chord Electronics who are responsible for hits such as the Chord Mojo.
However, unlike Chord Electronics, iFi’s products fully support MQA. This can usually be confirmed when the LED light on the products change color.
iFi’s DAC/Amps are quite versatile. They offer products for any type of use case scenario.
If you need an entry-level desktop setup, then the Zen DAC or Zen DAC + Zen CAN stack will suit you for MQA streaming. If you want a transportable setup, then the iFi Nano BL and iFi Micro BL are great.
And if you need a more portable setup, then the xCAN, xDSD, and Hip DAC are great feature-packed choices. Overall, if you need MQA capable DAC/Amps for portable and desktop use, make sure to test out any of iFi’s offerings.
AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt
Another brand that supports MQA is AudioQuest. And one of their most popular DAC/Amps is the ultraportable Dragonfly Cobalt. The pitch of the Dragonfly DAC/Amps is their ultraportable design.
The size of the Cobalt is similar to the ones found on most USB Flash drives. This makes it incredibly easy to carry around with you. Additionally, the included DragonTail adapter makes the Cobalt readily usable with smartphones and laptops that support USB Type-C.
Despite the Cobalt’s size and small form factor, the sound that it produces is still top-notch. It easily rivals most desktop and portable DAC/Amps. Its sound is very clean and prevents any leak from the source device or the power supply. That is impressive, especially for the size of the Dragonfly Cobalt.
Of course, it won’t have as much power output as its competitors. This is expected given the Cobalt’s small size.
But overall, if you are looking for an extremely compact device with MQA support that can instantly make almost any headphone or IEM sing, then the Dragonfly Cobalt is the perfect device for you.
Where to Get MQA Files
MQA isn’t as common as FLAC, WAV, DSD, MP3, and other common audio file types. However, they aren’t that hard to find either.