Dr. AIX's POSTS — 11 June 2014

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I wouldn’t have taken the time from my vacation to participate in a CEA conference call, if the call wasn’t a discussion of a study by the association on high-resolution audio. No, they’re not doing the rigorous study that is so desperately needed…the one that would actually determine whether high-resolution (audio at 96 kHz/24-bits or better) is perceptible. Instead, what the lead researcher described was a market survey for HRA. A study of this type will be tremendously important as well.

So after saying goodbye to my recent graduate and daughter (they headed back to Boston) and transiting to Martha’s Vineyard for a day of roaming around the island, I sat on a bench outside of a candy/fudge/ice cream shop (there are lot of these around here) with my iPhone glued to me ear to participate in the call. There were well over a dozen different companies involved from major car companies, consumer electronics companies, professional electronics companies, representatives from the recording academy and several CEA staffers. However, only a few of the people on the call were involved in the working group that has been working on the definition of high-resolution audio. The work product from that group has not yet been distributed outside of the organizations involved in its creation and the major labels, so most people didn’t have the same frame of reference.

There were at least 4 different statements made describing what high-resolution is. I don’t recall who said it (there were many new people involved in the call), but the first reference to a HRA called it “anything at 192 kHz/24-bits”. A person from a professional hardware manufacturer stated that “24-bits 48 kHz” had been established as the minimal specification for high-resolution audio by a major CE company. The soon to emerge standard from CEA/DEG/NARAS working group has a lower standard and I’m advocating form 96 kHz/24-bits. DSD wasn’t discussed during the call.

If there is this much confusion about what HRA is among people that are supposedly in the loop, then what hope do we have for rallying around a meaningful definition?

The purpose of the call was to identify the “top three” things that manufacturers want or need to know about high-resolution audio. There was discussion of surveying awareness of high-resolution audio among audiophiles, among music enthusiasts of different demographics and what thresholds of size vs. quality would acceptable? The automobile company was concerned about storage capacity and accessibility of high-resolution music in cars. I was particularly intrigued because he mentioned that his company could install specialized “high-end” components in a car but if there’s no content capable of showing it off, what’s the point? He put his finger squarely on the most important aspect of HRA.

Numerous manufacturers are rushing to market with “High-Resolution High-Fidelity” or “Audio Reference High Definition” portable music players (I got these terms from an email I got from Amazon that contained a long list of players I might be interest in). But what are these folks going to play on their new hardware? A ripped CD or “high-resolution” tracks made from older analog tape masters that have limited fidelity?

This issue is at the core of the whole rush to high-resolution music and it’s rarely a part of any discussions. What I DO hear…and heard again yesterday…is that there is an audible difference between the usual MP3 and AAC files loaded into our portable players and uncompressed versions of the same music (although I did hear from a group of audiophiles that evaluated the “Mosaic” track and one of ten people picked the MP3 file as the high-res version). We need to get to uncompressed files but should avoid elevating a standard definition recording to high-resolution status. High-res needs to mean something.

What I heard on the call was pretty disheartening. Confusion, politics, marketing and spin are the dominant factors in the HRA debate…nowhere is anyone talking about elevating the quality of recorded music beyond the fidelity that we’ve have for decades.

We’ll all be buying new “high-resolution audio” players to play the same old stuff.

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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.

(10) Readers Comments

  1. There is always some chicken & egg problems with any new format. Will people buy players when there is no content? This happened with CD’s, DVD’s, Blurays & now 4K video. The same is going to happen with “high-resolution” music. I have to laugh when people get all excited over remastering decades old Led Zep albums. Just how much can be accomplished in the remastering given the source material available? Sooner or later, we (hopefully) will have new material being recorded at 96 kHz/24 bits and kept in the digital domain all the way through the distribution process right up to the point it goes through one quality D/A converter and gets output to an amp. Unfortunately, there isn’t going to be any truly high resolution audio from the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s & 00’s.

  2. Confusion, politics, marketing, certainly. how about deliberate, mercenary and unashamed?

  3. Two thoughts.

    First, any old material remastered as HD (192K/24bit) will be as good or better than any lower res version we’ve ever had before. We’ll effectively have the sound of the best vinyl possible with the portability and low noise of digital. I’ve already started repurchasing my favorite tracks as HD when I can. I rebought much of my vinyl as CDs and I’ll likely rebuy it again as HD.

    Second, I can’t imagine HD in a car. There is so much noise in a car that standard CD’s sound only marginally better than 8 Tracks or cassettes when played at 70 mph. Anybody that’s serious about HD in a car must be out of their mind, unless they spend a lot of time parked in the driveway.

  4. Hi Mark,
    I’ve been receiving your daily posts since the beginning and I know where you’re coming from.
    Been around the bend in audio a bit myself!
    There is no way around this fact:
    The radio drives what the majority of listeners are exposed to in the music fidelity realm.
    So,
    Why would radio listeners care how much better their music could sound if it was in 24/96?
    They are not going to spend more money on high res equipment when most of them are more than happy to have a 12″ sub and ear splitting volume levels! They go home angd listen to their budget priced surround sound TV system and love the movie sound tracks blowing them away with the volume and sub bass blasts.
    Come on man, your appealing to a lunatic fringe ( of which I’m a part I admit) but to commercialize HD audio?…. Not in my life time I’m betting.
    Sorry, I hope I’m wrong but I don’t think so.
    Best od luck though, I’m an audiophile from 1973 ! Nothing would be as gratifying as seeing hi- res being appreciated by the masses.
    BTW high resolution audio is a moving target.
    Best Regards,
    Craig

  5. “We’ll all be buying new “high-resolution audio” players to play the same old stuff..”

    I understand your frustration, Mark. At the same time, and having done serious A/B listening comparisons on numerous redbook CD releases vs. “remastered for HD” releases on HDTracks, I have to say that the remastered HD tracks definitely sound better (than those that have redbook originals from years ago).

    Granted, when I convert the “remastered for HD” tracks to 44.1k/24bit or 48k/24bit, I cannot tell the difference from the HD 96k/24bit downloaded track, though both sound better than the original redbook master. For me the remaster does absolutely sound better than the original redbook track. The point is, that in the remastering process, recording engineers are using the latest technology to make their stuff sound better than it did originally. This is not a bad thing.

    On this end, I even created a set of mastering tools for my ‘own’ recordings that can make any track sound ‘better’ in almost any listening environment (within reason).

    Having the industry come together to generate ‘new interest’ in better sounding recordings is a good thing, regardless of the angle. I have many records from the 50’s and 60’s that have all kinds of claims on their covers about how their recording processes are better, in one marketing or technical claim or another. Back then there was an ‘awareness that created interest in better sounding recordings and playback equipment. Creating interest in Hi Fi is hardly a new thing, but in my opinion is good for everybody listening as well as everyone creating better equipment and better recordings.

  6. Will be interesting to see how this unfolds, but the predicament you outline doesn’t sound like there will be much of an accurate and scientifically grounded definition to HRA. I sincerely hope your input will punch through the wall of snakeoil and vested interests.

    Cheers

  7. Mark, glad to see that you’re involved in the discussions for whatever they are currently worth, which isn’t much at this point as you’ve pointed out. Perhaps the next time marketing/definitions etc are discussed, make the point that setting standards/terms/definitions/marketing etc ahead or an actual rigorous study in what is actually audible and under what conditions is likely very counterproductive to promoting HRA. Marketing the new world before exploring it can only result in a tower of marketing babel.

    But maybe the people you’re talking to aren’t astute enough to know that the goal of a race is to get to the finish line first. I’ve encountered many such workers who think a fast start is the goal or their problem, and getting to the finish line first (a successful HRA market) is not their concern, and see a good foundation (in this case, of understanding audibility of HRA) as a step back, sideways, or going slow. If this is the case, my experience says you won’t be able to change their goals and instead need to change who you talk to who share your goals.

    Another likely response to an urgent call for a rigorous audibility study may be “but we don’t know what the result will be”. And that’s exactly why it needs to be done – there is likely much to learn. The point is that learning would probably make all the current definition etc discussions much, much simpler and clearer. How much content above 22k matters? We don’t know. At what level? We don’t know. Under what ambient conditions? We don’t know. Without those understandings, any definitions etc need to cover all circumstances and conditions, and that’s extremely difficult. A rigorous study would likely narrow what matters most and make marketing much, much easier.

    You know what also might happen as a result of a rigorous study? One might actually find attributes of music and test samples that benefit the most from HRA. Wouldn’t that actually help marketing? That’s how mp3(LAME) got much better over the years, and mp3 is a key part of the competition. Put another way: without such a study and samples, how do the genius marketers plan on easily demonstrating in an honest way how HRA sounds better? Words don’t and won’t sell better sound: better sound sells better sound.

    Perhaps the elephant in the room is that the likes of Sony have already decided what matters and what doesn’t for HRA: it’s misleading stairstep curves, DSD mumbo jumbo, and other babel. It is extremely unlikely that anything rigorous and insightful can be made to align with the existing mumbo jumbo. Knowing this, the likes of Sony will politely nod in agreement for calls for rigorous studies, pause a second or two, and return to the conversation of how to define everything without such a study. I can only recommend you drink early and often and then don’t drive if forced down that path.

    Keep up the great work and fight the good fight without getting too discouraged!

    • Thanks for the encouragement. You make many great points in your comment. I’m still hoping to do the rigorous study that you talked about…it has to happen. But for meantime, this study will help answer some questions. I’m going to write about this in the next few days.

  8. I suddenly stopped receiving your emails in early June. Are you still doing them?

    • Bill, your email is still in the system. Check you spam folder.

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