What came before the MP3?

I'll give you a minute.


Actually, I can't even remember what came before the MP3.

In the late '80s, there was a push to make a standard digital format for broadcast, download and streaming. The Motion Picture Experts Group (MPEG) created basically three different levels of encoding for the standard: MP1, MP2 and — you guessed it — MP3. MP3 was at the time considered a way to drastically reduce the file size of audio files while sounding like a decent reproduction of the original for most people.

This last point is key to why I'm writing about MP3. It is by nature very lossy. While some A/B testing has shown it can be hard for the average listener to tell the difference, for a growing number of tuned-in audio fans, the sound quality is just not good enough.

But as you know, MP3 is the format that really gained traction among not just electronics makers but, most importantly, you and me. Its place in the advancement of digital music shouldn't be overlooked. It was and still really is the king of computer-based audio.

But I'm long enough in the tooth to remember another digital format that tried to take the crown from MP3. Anybody remember VQF?

It stood for Vector Quantization Format (who comes up with these names?). It came out in 1994, and its creators hoped its smaller file size and decent quality would help it overtake the MP3. Yamaha even marketed it briefly as a better alternative.

It failed. It's now obsolete, and nobody's heard of it.


Which just serves to show how hard it is to gain popularity as a format, even if the format is better than what's currently available. The problem with VQF (also known as TwinVQ) was that it was too proprietary. You had to go through one company to take advantage of it, and you had to use their player.

Likewise, you also had to search a bit to find VQF files, and they were scarce even when I was getting into it.

So when a high-end audio publication like The Absolute Sound devotes nearly an entire issue to the new and exciting format MQA, I hold my breath a little.

Thankfully, MQA has a bit more muscle behind it than VQF ever did. You've got equipment makers buzzing about it, and Tidal has announced it will roll out the format as an option for streaming.

And just four days ago, its progress took a giant leap forward. On Monday morning, Warner Music Group announced it will make its entire library available in MQA format.

Huge! Warner is one of the "Big Three" publishing houses and owns the rights to the Beatles catalog for instance. Who knows — they probably manage a couple other groups as well.

This means the MQA music marketplace — perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle when gaining traction with a format — will become very large very soon.

I will continue next week about the way MQA works and, best of all, how it sounds.

Sneak peek: The Absolute Sound said it sounds better than any digital format, even at the highest bit rates. Exciting!

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