Why Hi-Rez Audio Still Struggles

December 2015

Over the last couple of years, the Consumer Technology Association (until recently called the Consumer Electronics Association) and the major record labels have been . . . I don’t want to say pushing high-resolution audio (HRA), but at least making some effort to promote it. However, a couple of events that took place over the last two weeks have me wondering if this technology really has enough merit to succeed on a large scale.

Early in November, the CTA released the results of its latest audio-related marketing research in a report, Consumers Journey to Purchase -- Audio. I haven’t read the full report, which costs $999 for non-CTA members, but I did receive CTA’s press release about it. Here’s the key quote about hi-rez audio: “Interest in HRA is notably strong, with more than 53 percent of consumers who purchased an audio product online or in-store in the past year interested in HRA. . . . The study finds, however, that consumer interest in HRA can falter when equipment and software upgrades are needed.”

Consumers Journey to Purchase -- Audio

This is like saying, “Our survey shows men would be interested in having a physique like Matthew McConaughey’s, but their interest can falter when healthy eating and long hours at the gym are needed.”

Sure, consumers might not need a hardware upgrade to get hi-rez audio -- their computers can already do it, and so can recent A/V receivers. But a software upgrade will be needed. It might be free, but it still requires effort to install, plus time to become familiar with the new user interface, which may not be as friendly as iTunes or Amazon Music. And, of course, the digital files the consumer plays have to be repurchased, at a typical cost of $18 per album.

If hi-rez audio really has benefits that would allow it to achieve success beyond the audiophile market, why not phrase the survey question to reflect a real-world situation? We all know why -- because a real-world question would sound something like this: “Would you pay $18 for a subtly better-sounding version of an album you already own, or that you can play for free on Spotify or YouTube?”

My sanguinity about the future of hi-rez audio took a further hit at a demo last week at Capitol Studios (yep, the studio in the Hollywood building that looks like a stack of records). The primary purpose for the event was to promote Ultimate Ears’ new UE Pro Reference Remastered custom earphones. I’m excited about the Remastereds, which, like the original Pro References, were tuned in consultation with Capitol Studios engineers, but which use a new balanced-armature driver to extend their high-frequency response from about 14 to 18kHz, and employ a new 3D-printed driver mount that should ensure a more consistent response from unit to unit. But much of the event centered around a demonstration of hi-rez audio that left me puzzled.

Capitol Records

A nondisclosure agreement prevents me from revealing the specific music I heard, but I can describe the demo. Crowded into the control room of Studio B, I and the other attendees heard an LP of a recording made at Capitol in the late 1950s. Despite the expected scratches and pops, it was easy to hear the detail in, for example, the brushed cymbals. The recording exhibited a nice, enveloping stereo soundstage.

Then we heard an early-1980s CD release of the same recording, which, like many early CD releases, had been processed to remove tape noise. It sounded lousy, with much of the soundstaging and treble detail lost.

Then we heard what was described as “the most commonly downloaded version” of the recording: an MP3, created using who-knows-what source material and who-knows-what encoder at who-knows-what data rate. It, too, sound lousy: voices and horns were coarse, and the bass was rolled off.

Then we heard a yet-to-be-released hi-rez version remastered at (as I recall) 24-bit/192kHz. It sounded great, with all the detail of the original, and none of the LP’s scratches and pops.

All of which is like saying, “My sports car is faster than your sports car. To prove it, I’m going to race my car against a Chevy Spark.”

Brent Butterworth

All that this demo proved was the considerable skills of the Capitol Studios engineers. A legit demo would have compared the 24/192 version of this new remastering with the same recording downconverted to the CD data rate of 16/44.1, or even an MP3 at a reasonably high bit rate. Later, I downloaded the version of this recording that’s available on Amazon Music: a 209kbps MP3 of a late-1990s remastering. It sounds quite good -- more detailed and enveloping than the early-1980s CD, with a much fuller sound than the “most commonly downloaded” MP3 -- and, of course, with none of the LP’s scratches and pops.

I’m sad to say that none of this surprised me. Most of the demos I’ve heard of hi-rez audio have consisted either of illegitimate comparisons such as this one, or of playing a hi-rez audio file through a high-end audio system with no direct comparison to a lower-resolution version.

I don’t want to discourage audiophiles who buy hi-rez files from HDtracks.com or Blue Coast Music or wherever, and play them back through elite equipment. The technical merits of this are still debated, but -- as pointed out in “The Audibility of Typical Digital Audio Filters in a High-Fidelity Playback System,” a 2014 Audio Engineering Society paper by Helen M. Jackson, Michael D. Capp, and J. Robert Stuart (better known as Meridian Audio co-founder Bob Stuart) -- “it is possible, with considerable effort to ensure a transparent replay system, to discriminate the difference between a selection of high-quality 192kHz/24-bit music signals and the same audio with standard production processing applied.”

But if hi-rez audio really delivers a substantial benefit, why not let it succeed or fail on its merits? Why does this technology need to be coddled through the use of carefully worded survey questions and demos stacked in its favor?

. . . Brent Butterworth

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