As the founder of music technology firm MQA – and before that of Meridian Audio – Bob Stuart has plenty of views on audio quality and the evolution of music services.
This week, he shared them in a keynote interview at the Music Ally China Digital Summit, for which he was interviewed by Vickie Nauman, founder and CEO of CrossBorderWorks. Stuart started by looking back to the early days of digital music.
“My work began in the analog era, before digital existed, and when digital came obviously we were very interested in it, because digital has a promise that we can store the music without damage, and we can transmit it easily without damage,” he said.
“Those are real benefits, but even at the beginning of digital people were arguing about the sound quality. Was it as good as analog, you know?”
Stuart cited the transition from vinyl to CD as a “hugely important” moment for the music industry because – and vinyl lovers may want to look away at this point – “it brought a very clear sound, a better sound, and a more robust form of distribution to everybody”.
However, he also looked back to the period around 2000 when he and his peers were exploring a next step “from CD to high resolution” only for technology to take another course.
“We ended up with the internet and piracy, and MP3, and that was a huge fall in quality for everybody. No question about it,” said Stuart.
“At one level, the journey that we’ve taken from the consumer’s point of view is: every time we give a choice of convenience over quality, it seems that convenience has been chosen and sound quality has often suffered,” he continued.
“All the way through the whole era of MP3 and the beginning of streaming, sound quality has been lower than it was back in the 1990s, 1980s with compact discs. So that’s kind of strange, and at one level we’re almost back to where we were in 2000 in terms of sound quality.”
MQA is one of the companies trying to push things on again quality-wise, at a time when three of the biggest audio streaming services – Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music – have all launched (or in Spotify’s case are about to launch) higher-quality offerings.
Stuart talked about the key challenge he sees in improving the quality of digital music now: bandwidth.
“We can have more bandwidth and that does allow you to send higher quality, however what we mustn’t do, I think, it’s quite incorrect to do, is to use too much data,” he said.
“Because we can make a recording in the studio, and we can record it at a low sample rate or at a high sample rate, and the higher the sample rate we use, you get an improvement in the sound, but you also use a lot more data.”
“One of the interesting problems that’s going to be facing us, I believe, is that the internet is using a significant percentage of the energy of the whole planet. It’s measurable, and so a streaming service actually has a carbon footprint, which is something that is often not talked about, how much is not only the cost of streaming, but what is the environmental impact of that. So that’s important.”
Stuart made MQA’s pitch for its technology: that it can offer better quality audio without hogging data. “The more clearly you hear the music, the more you enjoy it and the better emotional response you’re going to have to it,” he said.
“I don’t think anyone ever asked for lower quality. It’s just one of the things that happened, and we’ve been pushing really hard for a decade to raise the standards, and I think we’re seeing it. The consumers are responding to it.”
In the west, MQA is associated with streaming, but in Asia it has also been working with other formats. For example, in Japan, where streaming is still in its nascent stages in terms of market share.
“A completely unexpected and extraordinary development for us was the labels wanting to put MQA onto discs. So, there was the thing called an MQA CD,” said Stuart, adding that there are now nearly 1,000 titles available.
“That’s really turned out to be quite successful. It sounds sort of retro from our perspective, but the the MQA CD has actually been introduced in the last year to China, and it’s done really quite well,” he said.
“We’ve got several titles going in, and 100,000 discs sold in a few months, so that’s fascinating. There’s also a stronger interest in downloads.” And also in ‘DAPs’ – digital audio portable devices, like iPods but bigger – which are being used in China too.
“We have like at the last more than 80 models of this pocket music devices that are various qualities, ranging from a couple hundred dollars right up to a couple of thousand dollars in retail price,” said Stuart.
“People enjoy listening like that, and it’s disconnected from their phone, because obviously your phone is doing other things, and you want to look after your data plan. But that’s the trend that we see quite strongly.”
In China, MQA was also a partner for streaming service Xiami, until its owner Alibaba shut it down early in 2021. It was much smaller than the biggest services in the country, but in hi-res music it was an innovator.
“They’ve temporarily stopped because of some changes with legislation in streaming in China, but we’re really hoping that that, or some other service, will get back on board again,” said Stuart.
He also suggested that global streaming services, when they offer higher-quality audio, are seeing a demand for it from listeners, even if it’s only a small part of their catalogues.
“If you looked at the catalog of something like TIDAL, you would say ‘Well, maybe only 10% of their content is in high resolution’, but when we look at the RIAA numbers, they would tell us that 70% of what is actually played is in this higher quality. So, the most relevant content is in modern higher quality, and that’s very exciting for us.”
There’s a lot of excitement around ‘immersive’ music in 2021, from Apple Music’s spatial audio to the potential in games and virtual worlds. Stuart offered a warning to the industry to approach this area carefully, however.
“My particular perspective on that is immersive sound is great and 3D sound in MQA is superb, but if you try to do immersive at the expense of quality, let’s say rather than using your bandwidth to transmit high quality, you dumb it down to have more channels? That’s not so good,” he said.
“In truth, in immersion – an immersive sound – you need even more precision than you do with two channels. So to do immersive properly is a step that needs to be done carefully, otherwise we’ll end up reissuing everything in dumbed-down music, and in three years, four years down the road will say ‘Hang on a minute, didn’t we just do an MP3 again with the sound?’”
“We do tend to make mistakes several times, and then we realise ‘Right, we’ve been here before.’”
The Music Ally China Digital Summit was held in association with MQA and sponsored by Blokur and Fuga. It is also part of the IMX (International Music Expo) event which takes place in October.