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About High Quality Music Streaming

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Black headphones in front of a music streaming screen

Streaming is the future. The music industry loves it, and the customers love it too. However, in the musical space a new business model can only be called a business model if it actually pays off for the artists as well. In this regard, streaming has yet to stand the test. All the income a streaming service generates through ads and monthly subscription fees ends up in one big pot, as we explained in a previous article about streaming payment structure. It’s then distributed amongst the rights holders (labels, performing artists, publishers and songwriters). The more money that lands in the pot the better it is for artists and songwriters.

It is for this reason that lossless streaming seems like an attractive option, not only for audiophile listeners but also the artists, as the subscription fees for HD streaming offers are usually double the price of a regular subscription. Ergo more money ends up in the pot. But there isn't only lossless CD quality (which comes at 16bit/44khz for all you techies out there). There is also true high-resolution streaming (at 24bit/192khz) which sounds even better than CD, and could thus be a reason to convince even more people to pay a premium price for streaming. But true high-res files are much bigger than CD quality files and therefore take up too much space to be distributed via stream, which is why true high-res audio offers came in the form of downloads until now.

But those days are over. Meridian has come up with a solution that claims to offer both: a lossless listening experience and a file size that can easily be distributed via stream.

Some basics

If a sound recording is transformed from analogue to digital and back to analogue, information gets lost. It's just inevitable. Or at least it was until Meridian, a British company founded by audiophiles Robert Stuart and Allen Boothroyd, came up with a solution that promises to actually deliver sound losslessly from analogue to analogue: Master Quality Authenticated (MQA). And they claim that it is possible while keeping the bit rate that is needed to transmit the file between 1.1 and 1.5 Mbits/sec (so not more that a CD quality file would require). This would mean that even streaming services could continue to offer what is the most convenient form of enjoying music to customers, only now in a quality that has never been heard before. What is more, through MQA's master authentication feature, artists can finally make sure that the exact master they spent countless hours, sweat and tears to create will be the one that reaches the end consumer.

There are a couple of streaming services that already promise a lossless music experience to their customers. One is Wimp, or Tidal as the service is called in the US, the other is Deezer Elite. They both stream the FLAC format, which according to Spencer Chrislu, Director of Content Services at Meridian, the company behind MQA, is a “wonderful technology”. But FLAC is just the container. “It will give you back the information that gets put in. So if the information is a very large file from a 192/24 master recording it will do it's best to make it as small as possible, but it will still be much bigger than an MQA file. And if you put in something that has some loss in the container, FLAC will give you back all the losses that were there in the original input. It's the input into the FLAC container that is important here”, Chrislu explains. This is where MQA comes into play.

The technicalities

MQA uses modern findings in neuroscience and some in psychoacoustics. Says Chrislu: “To boil it all down, what the research has found, is that the human being's ear and ear brain interaction is far, far more sensitive to timing information than it is to tonal information."

“Think about it: You can hear around corners, you can hear perfectly in the dark, it informs you about the environment. And it turns out that music sits between the environmental and speech recognition that our brain processes. Humans can resolve anything between three to ten microseconds, which is critical. If you put that back into a frequency domain, ten microseconds would for example be a bandwidth of 100 kilohertz that we are perceiving. Now we're not saying that we can hear tones that are up that high. But the research has shown that we can actually perceive the envelope of the sound, the transient detail that's there in the sound.”

How to create a lossless digital music experience

MQA took this knowledge and looked at the basics of digitalising music and the things that get in the way of the timing information in the digital file, which, according to Chrislu, are mostly brick-wall filters and some of the quantisation that's been done while sampling the analogue signal to create a digital equivalent. These things “pollute” the file, for example with a non-audible but measurable “ringing” before and after the actual sound.

So far, the recording industry has been trying to improve those polluted files through higher and higher resolutions, higher frequency sampling rates and larger bit depths. And there are incremental improvements when you do that. But to use Meridian founder Robert Stuart's analogy: “If you have some polluted water, one way of improving it is to put it in a larger jug and pour in more clean water. The original water is still polluted. It might be diluted in the larger container but it is still polluted. What MQA looks to do is actually remove that pollution from the beginning."

“The term resolution is not necessarily about higher sample rates or larger bit depths or even the word lossless. It's about being able to resolve two things, and understand that they're two different things instead of one thing that's been smeared together”, Chrislu continues. “So in pictures we think of different colours or edges, different shades of grey. In audio it's actually things that happen in time. One thing that happens slightly before or after another thing, or in a different space.”

This information has been lost in traditional digitalisation because nobody focused on it in the first place. MQA preserves this timing information, which creates a lossless music experience, because our ear is able to resolve the sound like it has never been able to before.

The reason MQA is able to keep the file size small is because it folds all of the above mentioned information like an origami puzzle in the encoding process. The information will be in a file that isn’t bigger than a CD audio quality file. To unfold it again a MQA decoder is needed, and since we are talking about software here it can be integrated in any streaming service.

How could high quality streaming affect artists’ back pockets?

Why is all of this so significant? Artists earn most from streaming if premium customers play their music. The share rights holders receive from paid streams is higher than the one from ad funded streams. That share is even greater, of course, if a premium customer is paying $19,99 for a subscription instead of the regular $9,99.

Lossless audio is one of the reasons why a streaming service may ask for that amount of money. But using MQA's technology should be in the interest of artists for another reason, as well. Once the artists say, “This is my master tape, this is how I want everyone to hear it”, they can digitally sign the file. The information will get encrypted and locked inside the file. When it arrives at the consumers' end and hits a MQA decoder, it will signal to the consumers that they're getting the exact master sound that the artist created in the studio, hence the term master authentication.

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