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12 reasons why hi-res audio will never go mainstream

  • “I can hear things you c*n’t”. Introduced by Sony and later administered by the Japan Audio Society, an ‘official’ hi-res audio (HRA) logo sought to make it easier for consumers to identify hardware capable of reproducing content that offered (on paper at least) more musical information than the Redbook CD standard’s 16 bits and 44.1kHz.

    That was 2013. When I visited Yodabashi Camera’s flagship store in Akihabara the following year, the audio floor was awash with this same black and yellow imagery, especially the Sony section.

    Stateside in June 2014, the Digital Entertainment Group (DEG) and Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) joined forces with major record labels (Warner, Universal and Sony) to formally define hi-res audio for the US market: PCM files must have a bit depth of at least 20 and sample rate minimum of 48kHz to qualify as hi-res content. In less technical terms: “lossless audio that is capable of reproducing the full range of sound from recordings that have been mastered from better than CD quality music sources.”

    (CD quality is not hi-res audio.)

    Later that year, the Japan Audio Society extended their HRA logo’s usage to overseas markets. France’s Qobuz were approved by JAS to use it on their download and streaming site and shortly thereafter in the USA, the logo was green lit for deployment by CEA members.

    Per the CEA’s December 2014 press release: “The Hi-Res Audio logo, which currently is only available for use by JAS members, will be offered to CEA member companies via a licensing agreement with JAS for use in product promotion, advertising and merchandising efforts. In support, CEA will promote the HRA logo at the 2015 International CES®, produced by CEA, and throughout the coming year.”

    This week, hi-res audio software (downloads) gets its own official logo, once again by way of collaboration between the CEA and the three majors (among others). Download sites offering content that promises ‘better than CD quality’ via a minimum of 20bit/48kHz can now rubber stamp it with all new black and yellow approval. Expect to see the logo’s imminent deployment on websites like Blue Coast Music, HDTracks, Acoustic Sounds’ Super HiRez and Pono Music.

    The probable intent of this new logo is to simplify and to unify; to help consumers more readily identify hi-res audio content; to broaden its appeal and to sell more music. But to whom?

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    For audiophiles, listening to hi-res audio is a reasonably commonplace. Spreading HRA’s appeal beyond audiophile borders means confronting some seriously stiff, and probably insurmountable challenges.

    1) The library is too small. Music first, hardware second, format third. That’s my mantra. Beyond showing that which is technically possible, what point owning an album in hi-res PCM or DSD if one doesn’t dig the music in the first place? For the listener whose tastes extend beyond audiophile-approved recordings the catalogue of hi-res titles, especially in DSD, is dwarfed by its Redbook (CD quality) neighbour.

    2) The conversation is too loud. For hardcore hi-res Harrys the tail wags the dog. Music is refused or pooh-pooh-d on the basis of its delivery container specifications. These guys appear to be more into the technology than the music. They would have you believe that hi-res content is the be-all and end-all of the audiophile experience; that anything less is a waste of time. But is that really true? Look back at HRA’s comparatively small library size and ask yourself: does hi-res PCM and DSD command a disproportionate amount of the ‘better sound’ conversation? Such reflection brings us to our next challenge…

    3) Audiophile squabbling. The delta between a CD-quality file and its hi-res counterpart is small. How small? Small enough to ensure that even within the audiophile community itself a consensus on HRA’s benefits is always just out of reach. If audiophiles can’t agree that there’s an improvement to be had from going hi-res, what hope for Joe Public?

    4) Money. If you’re one of those people who believes the difference between CD and HRA is a reason to dig up the greatest audiophile cliche of them all – “night and day” – then I’d invite you to also tot up the dollar value of your audio system. I’m willing to bet it’s at least several thousand dollars deep, maybe tens of thousands. My point? Deluxe hardware is as much a prerequisite for realising the benefits of HRA as it is for vinyl. The entry-level stuff just won’t cut it. That means any incoming hi-rez-er needs more money than that demanded by the download itself.

    I argued as much following the launch of Neil Young’s Pono Player. David Pogue’s listening test for Yahoo! might have been flawed but it highlighted a key point: the alleged improvement brought by those 8 additional bits and a doubling of the sample rate isn’t easy to detect, even with pro-sumer hardware. Talking of extra bits…

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    5) More isn’t always more. Talk of hi-res audio brings frequent mention of “24/96” and “24/192”.

    The first number refers to an audio file’s bit depth: the amount of data used to capture each digital sample. A 24-bit file primarily promises more dynamic range than a file limited to 16 bits i.e. CD. Don’t agree? You might well be right or you might be wrong. Refer to point 3. audiophile squabbling.

    The ‘96’ and ‘192’ refers to the audio file’s sample rate: the number of samples per second. More samples = better, right? The answer largely depends on who you ask (again, see point 3). Getting technical: higher sample rates not only theoretically provide more musical information but they move the digital filter’s ringing to a higher frequency and therefore further beyond our hearing’s upper limit.

    Xiph.org’s Monty Montgomery argues that higher sample rates can actually sound worse than Redbook’s 44.1kHz whilst (much of) my own listening plainly contradicts his theorising. My advice: trust your own ears but also keep in mind point that the differences are subtle (point 4), even when played back through multi-thousand dollar setups.

    And then there’s the questionable provenance of files. Is the file being offered for sale an up-sampled version of a 16bit/44.1kHz original? Few downloads sites provide sufficient detail such that consumers can buy with confidence.

    6) 24/48 isn’t enough. Then there are the studios themselves over which most of us, audiophiles and curious onlookers, have zero influence. The majority of contemporary pop, rock and electronic releases – i.e. music that appeals to more mainstream tastes – rarely come to market in a hi-res audio format. CD quality is the best we can hope for (see number 1). And if your new favourite indie rock band does bring their freshest release to HDTracks, it’s usually 24bit/48kHz at best because a) it’s all that the artist’s recording budget would allow or b) the record company didn’t specify more bits and a higher sample rate from the mastering engineer or c) the mastering engineer didn’t think it worthwhile. Guess who knows more about hi-res audio: a mastering engineer or the average audiophile? Talking of studio work…

    7) Mastering often sucks. Next to hardware, the second biggest factor influencer of sound quality isn’t the delivery format but the quality of the recording itself. And if the mastering engineer chose to apply an heroic dose of dynamic range compression to your favourite album, why bother with hi-res at all? Flipping it around, the better the recording/mastering, the more likely the end user is to reap the benefits of HRA. But if the recording/mastering quality isn’t up to scratch…well, as the old saying goes, you can’t polish a turd.

    8) Your room matters more. Actually, I lied about the second biggest influencer of sound quality being recording/mastering. Well, at least partially. If you listen through loudspeakers, the size and acoustic make-up of your listening room messes more with what you hear than can be compensated by extra bits and samples in the source file. Big time digital streaming player Sonos recently introduced Trueplay, their own take on room modelling and associated DSP-fuelled correction. Keener observers will note that Sonos introduced this ‘value-add’ prior to hi-res audio compatibility which at time of writing remains M.I.A.

    9) No big backers. And like Sonos, Apple has also yet to back hi-res audio. Perhaps they just don’t see its mass market appeal? When we consider hi-res catalogue size (point 1) and the associated demand for costly hardware (point 4), can we blame them? Besides…

    10) 2 + 2 = 5. The maths behind selling downloads in a streaming world just doesn’t add up. The average hi-res download sells for upwards of US$20. That’s roughly on par with a vinyl record. In an ironic twist, many modern-day vinyl releases are pressed from the hi-res digital files found in download stores. But with a record, the buyer gets a physical object, pride of ownership, collectability and resale value. A folder of files might take up less space in one’s life but a hard-drive simply cannot compete with vinyl’s tangibility and associated playback ritual.

    11) 2 + 2 = 9. The maths stings harder still when a hi-res download is put next to Tidal Hifi or Deezer Elite. Would Sir/Madam prefer a sole download-to-own album in 24bit/192kHz or would he/she prefer a month’s access to stream millions of albums in CD quality? When a mainstreamer facing this conundrum learns of the need for a decent hifi/head-fi setup that may only reveal single digit percentile SQ differences (at best), inconsistent recording/mastering studio practices and HRA’s razor thin library, which option do you think remains the most attractive?

    12) It’s a streaming world. Meridian’s MQA is being loudly touted by the British audio company as the next big thing in file formats. Its promises are two fold: an ability to make existing CD-quality content sound better and an ability to ‘fold’ hi-res audio content into a Redbook-sized container. But there’s a wrinkle: an MQA-capable DAC is required to unlock the hi-res portion of each MQA-encoded file and a download is still a download whose appeal in a streaming world remains (effectively) audiophile only.

    MQA’s potential to assist with the broader market’s wholesale (and invisible) transition to hi-res audio, and without an uptick in data usage, shouldn’t be ignored. Is it the key to unlocking interest in HRA beyond beyond the audiophile niche? Perhaps – and only if it applied to streaming. That’s a big ‘if’.

    MQA_munich

    With download sales trending downwards, re-branding hi-res content is akin to deck chair rearrangement aboard a sinking cruise liner. Those who would argue that a little sprucing up never hurt anyone might be missing the bigger picture: what does broader market appeal really look like?

    The audiophile world would do well to look beyond the comfort of its dedicated listening room and Eames-replica chair.

    Newcomers don’t want to re-buy albums for the umpteenth time. They want to improve that which they already own. In the digital audio realm, the 12-step program begins with getting away from lossy sources like MP3 and AAC and into lossless formats like FLAC and Apple Lossless. That means Tidal Hifi or Deezer Elite and CD ripping.

    As well as the huge potential for improving on CD quality formats, the audio/phile world might be better off advocating the joys of stereophonic playback which is slowly being lost to a world of monoboxes like the UE Boom, Sonos Play 1 and even the Devialet Phantom. (Thankfully, two of each can be paired as left and right channels). How about a re-branding of S T E R E O itself?

    Beyond that, better speakers, room treatments and/or correction, a better amplifier, a better DAC, a better streamer – these upgrades will multiply the enjoyment factor of ALL music and not just a select few, predominantly audiophile-focussed recordings.

    Music first, hardware second…software third.

    Further information: Sony | JAS

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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