Dr. AIX's POSTS — 10 February 2014

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My recent experience with Qobuz and their offering of standard definition files in high-resolution bit buckets brings up a few more issues. I noticed on their website that they offer a warranty, a sort of “Studio Masters Guarantee”. You can see the messaging all over the site…with many if not the majority of their albums are labeled as “Masters Studio Quality Guarantee” (interesting how the words are reversed in this phrase, when everything else is a “Studio Master”).

When you go to the page that explains the warranty, you get the following (through Google translate and lightly edited by me):

“Qobuz Studio Masters – The sound as it was recorded in the studio, delivered in its entirety. No compression. No concession. A file as supplied by the record label without any reprocessing. Albums at sample rates of 24 bits, with sample rates up to 192 kHz, each clearly indicated. Qobuz Quality Guarantee: one specific to Qobuz Studio Masters program for even more quality and safety of purchase. A wide selection of albums Qobuz Studio Masters already has the label “Studio Masters Quality Guarantee.” A team is dedicated to Qobuz Studio Masters albums. They check and test each source album one by one before the sale. Signal analysis, real-time monitoring, verification are part of routine checks. After these checks, the label “Studio Masters Quality Guarantee” is assigned to the album. Advantages – You can be sure of the sincerity of the products that are available. You can be sure of the quality of your purchase, and sustainability. You get a personalized after-sales service by mail and telephone as needed. In case of defective problem file*, your purchase is exchanged double value *. All download as Qobuz Studio Masters are compatible with the main players on the market.**

* Qobuz guarantees the quality of all releases with the designation Album Studio Masters Quality Guarantee. If you find any technical fault or sound compression on one of these albums, Qobuz will reimburse you 2 times the amount of your purchase as a gift certificate that can be used on any site within 3 months of receipt of the check.

** Windows Media Player, iTunes, Foobar, VLC, Real Player, QuickTime…the Iphone, Ipod, Ipad are nevertheless blocked files less than or equal to 24 bits / 48 kHz quality, except use a special application.”

If you are a customer of Qobuz, you might feel all warm and secure in the knowledge that there are professional engineers checking each track. As an audio engineer that actually did some checking myself (of the very first files that I downloaded), I’m dismayed that both projects were standard definition and didn’t actually benefit from the super high sampling rate.

So who’s responsible? The providers of the source files are the ones making the recordings and we assume they’re doing the very best that they can to supply the best possible versions of their products. But as the case of the Psalmus recording clearly showed, they decided to record in DSD, rolled off the DSD induced high frequency noise AND then offered to Qobuz a 192 kHz/24-bit PCM soundfile. Shouldn’t the engineers that are doing the checking at Qobuz have questioned the specifications and claims about the recording? I think they should. Just what are they doing?

At first blush, the warranty is a marketing ploy and nothing more. I would have to download and verify a lot more files to determine whether the Norah Jones album or any others are real high-resolution audio files. But I don’t want to spend any money on more downloads from Qobuz.

It all comes down to the term “Studio Master”, the one that Michael Lavorgna over at AudioStream thinks is the best choice to identifying the fidelity of a digital download. The folks at Qobuz (and other sites) are comfortable with accepting standard resolution files and offering them up as “Studio Masters” and charging more for them…even if they’re not really living up the new higher quality standards. Are they being untruthful? No. They accepted the files from Psalmus Records. They accepted that they were done correctly and they offered them as being legitimate 192 kHz PCM files when they weren’t. Their response? It’s not our fault…we marketed the files, “supplied by the record label without any reprocessing.”

There are no standards or accepted definitions for “Studio Masters”. And it’s pretty clear to me that the Guarantee or Warranty offered by the site means absolutely nothing when it comes to actually posting files for downloads. Does anyone really think that Qobuz would give me double credit for the cost of the questionable files (if I had paid for them) after I pointed out that the files were not really 192 kHz worthy?

If I wanted the best version of the Psalmus recording, I would simply go out and download or purchase a CD version of it. There is no advantage to buying it from Qobuz. No big surprise.

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About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(8) Readers Comments

  1. No big surprise indeed. Qobuz is just as Tricky Dicky as HD Tracks.

    How they can possibly write this:
    “Studio Masters Quality Guarantee.” A team is dedicated to Qobuz Studio Masters albums. They check and test each source album one by one before the sale. Signal analysis, real-time monitoring, verification are part of routine checks.

    …and then think it is an acceptable excuse, when caught out with CD-quality music on 24/192 files, to say that they took their supplier at his word, is hypocritical. Their “dedicated team” seems to spend their days with their feet up on the test bench, reading up on “How to Make a Million without Doing any Work” – French Edition.

    • It does beg the question of who is responsible for policing the content that is offered through a site. All any site has to do is be as honest as they can be and then who can complain?

  2. Maybe it is a deliberate scam, with a business model built on the principle that if enough people don’t complain, there’s plenty of money being made to pay off the few who do.

    • The folks at the questionable high-resolution digital download sites know the limitations of their offerings. They have license commitments and need to make targets. If you can’t tell the difference between a CD and an HD download then it’s because your ears or equipment are not good enough. Don’t you know.

  3. My take on the high resolution debate is that although the audio files are recorded at “standard definition” resolution – say the resolution of analogue tape – the greater bit depth and sample rate leads to a more natural presentation of the sound (by natural presentation read: sounds like real musicians playing real music).

    As an anology, think of a 1080×1920 pixel image which is reduced to 8 bit depth; for this image to appear acceptable it will need the introduction of noise (dither) but will still not look natural. If the image is then viewed at at it’s native bit depth of 8 bits per pixel (24 bit) it will not need dithering and will look as was shot (subject to manipulation in Photoshop et al).

    The debate is more complex than this in the audio domain since Nyquist theory suggests that the highest frequency in a waveform can be captures using a sampling frequency of at least twice this.

    The people at Linn Records to explain their take on this: http://www.linnrecords.com/linn-what-is-a-studio-master.aspx

    Personally I don’t think Qobuz are deliberately trying to mislead, I think they see high resolution audio as the photo analogy above.

    • Dave, thanks for your comment. I have a film analog of my own that explains things a little better, I believe. Imagine you’re going through a box of memorabilia and come across an 8mm home movie shot back in 1960 of a special family gathering. There are no pixels involved in film. Professionals shoot at 70 mm or 35mm. Documentary filmmakers used to use 16 mm and amateurs had little 8 mm cameras. The more surface area that was exposed to the light the more “resolution” was captured (funny the wider the analog tape track the better the dynamic range…double the wide and get 6 dB more!). You decide to share your home movie and make Blu-ray disc copies for your brothers and sisters. So you go to a professional post production facility and have them “telecine” the 8mm film to HD-Video at 1920 x 1080. Each frame is captured by a CCD chip at full high-definition (10-12 bit per pixel). You view the footage on their HD television and you’re surprised that it looks exactly the same as it did back in 1960…not better and no worse. You thought you would have a high-definition copy because the distribution file is at 1920 x 1080. But in reality, you have exactly the same “visual fidelity” as before. The image is still standard definition.

      I read the Linn article. It’s so full of incorrect information that I’ve decided I have to write a post about it. If a major company like Linn Records (and I must say that I like their equipment and the quality of their recordings) can’t explain the relative merits of a vinyl LP or analog master and a compact disc or high-resolution recording, then how are consumers supposed to get the facts. Very distressing…real today’s post.

      The Qobuz site are uninformed as well. I honestly don’t think they care about the validity of their offerings…it just doesn’t matter to them because they are a business. They are not passionate audiophiles in search of the ultimate music experience. Their quality guarantee is meaningless if they claim that there are audio engineers checking every “studio master”. What are they checking for? What happens is that the labels provide a file that lights up the “studio master” indicator (based on sample rate and word length) and they put a “studio master” tag on it. We deserve better.

      Sorry for the rant…just finished the last training run before next weekend’s race. Here we go.

  4. A quick reply:

    “You decide to share your home movie and make Blu-ray disc copies for your brothers and sisters. So you go to a professional post production facility and have them “telecine” the 8mm film to HD-Video at 1920 x 1080. Each frame is captured by a CCD chip at full high-definition (10-12 bit per pixel). You view the footage on their HD television and you’re surprised that it looks exactly the same as it did back in 1960…not better and no worse. You thought you would have a high-definition copy because the distribution file is at 1920 x 1080. But in reality, you have exactly the same “visual fidelity” as before. The image is still standard definition.”

    Agreed, although I would not be surprised as I would simply want to capture what was stored on the film and would not expect to get more out of the movie than it contained. Further, had a lower bit depth been used to sample the movie the original would not have been reproduced, but an inferior copy. I believe that this is the debate against “CD quality” music, by using lower sample rates and bit depths the argument is that the original studio master has not been fully captured, just as using a 256 colour pallet (8-bit) would not fully capture all the colours in a photograph or movie.

    • Dave, I agree. The term CD-Quality is a marketing scheme to make consumers believe that an album or track is up to the fidelity of a compact disc…but using much less bandwidth. It’s true that a lot of listeners can’t tell the difference…but it still matters that “CD-Quality” should more accurately be called “reduced resolution” since there is musical information that has been thrown away.

      If my family 8mm had been telecined into an 8-bit digital version, we would be getting less than we started with.

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