Dr. AIX's POSTS — 14 June 2014

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The CEA is going to do a market research project on high-resolution audio. I talked about this in a previous post (read it here). However, the previous conference call happened before the announcement/press release from The Recording Academy, DEG, CEA and major labels on June 12 that “defined” high-resolution audio and the four audio descriptors that indicate the provenance of the music you purchase online. As I’ve thought about the press release and the research project, it seems that we’ve gone about the process in reverse. [BTW The press release can be downloaded from the FTP site, if you haven’t found it online.]

Doesn’t it make sense to do some research about the high-resolution audio market, customer awareness and future opportunities before making a blanket statement about what it is and isn’t? Given what I heard on the phone during the conference call AND the months of calls/meetings that preceded the press release, a research project about what the insiders know about the issue would have been appropriate. When one person says that high-resolution audio is PCM at 192 kHz/24-bit at the start of the call and then we find out from the labels that any digital delivery file with better than CD specs should be considered a “high-resolution audio” file…it means there’s still a lot of confusion. And I doubt that it will clear up any time soon.

I plan to drill down in the “definition” of high-resolution audio and the four descriptors as handed down from on high from the DEG, NARAS and CEA in a future post, but for now my focus is on doing meaningful market research to determine just how much people know about it, whether they are willing to shell out premium money for supposed “better fidelity” and if the extra time, space and hassle that accompanies high-res audio is worth it.

So before I set up a poll full of questions about high-resolution audio, I thought I would reach out to all of you and ask what you think the CEA research arm should ask. To get us started here’s 20 questions that I think should be considered. [Remember this is not for you but for the average music listener.]

1. Have you ever heard of high-resolution audio?

2. If so, what do you know what it means?

3. Have you experienced high-resolution audio?

4. If so, what did you hear and what system was used? Did you hear it on headphones, a home theater, in a car or a showroom, for example?

5. Would you be willing to pay more for high-resolution audio?

6. If so, how much more?

7. High-resolution files can be 2-4 times larger than standard MP3 files. Would you be willing to download and store high-resolution files on your music players that are much larger than MP3s?

8. If you were unable to tell the difference between a good quality MP3 file and a high-resolution file, would you opt for the higher spec file or continue to be happy with MP3s?

9. Would you be willing to replace some or all of your existing music files with high-resolution versions of the same tunes?

10. If you were given a choice between music in MP3 format or high-resolution and the only difference was the size of the file, which would you choose?

11. Please rank the following attributes from most important to least important:
Technical Specs
Cost
File Size
Convenience
Fidelity

12. Do you listen to streaming services like Pandora or Spotify?

13. If yes, do you think the sound is acceptable?

14. Do you listen to vinyl LPs?

15. Do you think vinyl LPs are the “best fidelity” that can be achieved in music reproduction?

16. Have you heard of SACD or DVD-Audio?

17. If so, can you share what you know about them?

18. Do you know anything about DSD or PCM recording formats?

19. Where and on what devices do you normally consume music?

20. Would you prefer to listen to higher fidelity music on a portable player or a Smartphone?

So these are some of the things that I would like to know about high-resolution audio and the listening habits of music listeners.

Please share you thoughts as comments or privately. I’m going to set up a poll and see if we can’t get some preliminary information to share with the CEA researchers.

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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.

(22) Readers Comments

  1. Mark, question #10 seems to be misleading because it’s not possible for an mp3 and high-res file to be exactly the same except for size – unless an HR file such as 2496 or DSD is upconverted from an mp3!

    Otherwise great work as always, and thank you for relentlessly championing some sanity in this area.

    • Thanks for the feedback…I agree the questions needs some tweaking.

  2. Yes I purchase and listen to hires music files but only at home on equipment capable of defineing the hires files. I only use a phone as a phone, Don,t need to be smart or deliver music, and no way I’d ever pay a $230 a year premium for the piviledge of doing so. I use a Tracfone at .10 cents a minute and that fulfills all my mobile communication/ media delivery needs..
    I’m just a cheap dinasour

    • OK Sal…but imagine my surprise this morning to get a phone call from my son Michael from Zurich, Switzerland. His cell phone service doesn’t work there and there’s no way he’s going to call on a land line. He used FaceTime on the WiFi and the call was as clear as a bell and free (except for data charges). I know they’re expensive but I couldn’t imagine being without my Smartphone to video whales, the new puppy we saw this morning at the farmer’s market and being able to find out anything at anytime.

  3. That’s a good list of relevant questions as all the industry seems to care about is how much money they can make with as little effort as possible. If enough regular listeners prove they’d like and pay extra for true hi rez audio they might jump in.
    They all gave up on hi def and just want to repackage and claim its HD when they know its not but most user don’t have a clue or care it seems. I’d love to get more music in the quality you produce, or at least close, and hope this shoves them over the edge before my ears give up on me.

    • It ain’t gonna happen. Sadly, the industry isn’t on board with high-resolution audio…only in the name and potential profits from their catalogs.

  4. So. HRA should only be about defining both the delivery modality, and the provenance of the original recording upon which it is based. Consumers should be advised z(warned?) thst a HRA does not automatically mean “better” sound. Let’s continue rating recordings for sound and performance, as TAS does now.

    The rest is YMMV, as they say. Good work once again, Dr.!

  5. An excellent set of questions!

    How will the participants of this future survey be selected?

    • I want to get a survey or poll out to as many non-audiophiles as possible. I figure I’ll send it to my mailing list and ask them to forward it to their music loving friends. We’ll see.

  6. Regarding poll questions on high-resolution audio (and thinking like an average listener who wants great affordable sound): Very worthwhile survey (assuming you can get it to non-audiophiles) – it’s important to understand whether people know–or care–that they are missing something in our sound-polluted era.

    This “average” listener may not be attuned to what “great” sound is: The may have to be reminded (concert hall, nature), because most of us grew up with few examples of it. I thought that moving from iPhone earbuds to Bose QC, or better speakers in my car, was moving up to great sound. If we can’t hear the difference between 192 KB MP3 and 16-bit 44.1KHz WAV, we may be very puzzled why anyone would think of paying more for high-resolution audio. We might just think we need to replace the bookshelf speakers we’ve been dragging around since college with $1000 speakers and keep playing MP3 through them. If we did that, our music would sound far better and we’d think we had great sound!

    I would be cautious about asking “Do you know what X is?” (Q2) because they might say an incorrect “yes.” You could have a question 2A “If yes, do you think it means…” then give four possible choices.

    Q17 has an unstructured text response, which can’t be captured in a way that the answers can be aggregated (an example of ‘aggregated’ is “When asked ‘what is your favorite type of cuisine: Japanese, American, Mexican, Thai, Other,’ 15% responded ‘Japanese,’ 30% American,’ 20% ‘Mexican,’ 25% ‘Thai,’ 10% ‘Other.'”)

    Thank you for your great work – always both entertaining and educational!

    • Thanks for the input…this is the first iteration of the questions. And I know there are too many.

  7. Hi Mark – I think your questions read like a mid-term exam. IMHO, you need will need to use fewer questions. As for me personally, I have purchased a few SACDs and DVDAs, but very few. My primary interest is in getting 5.1 sound mixes. As far as Hi-Rez versions of tunes I have already purchased, ]perhaps multiple times if you include LP then CD then digitally remastered etc…], I am through with that sh**. I have not heard enough of a difference between regular CD and Hi-Rez. It’s not worth it to me. I am far happier listening to even faux multi-channel [think Dolby Pro-logic II on a 10-year Yahama receiver] than I am worried about ‘improving’ my experience with higher rez. Thanks for listening and even more for “teaching”. Love the blog!

    • I guess that’s the college professor coming out. I’m with you on surround but didn’t go there with this survey.

  8. 1. Yes
    2. I think so.
    3. Yes.
    4. Downloaded files from HDtraks and other sites. Blueray discs. AIX discs. DVDs via Oppo player and Thiel speakers or Smyth Realiser through STAX phones
    5. Yes.
    6. 25% or so.
    7. Yes
    8. If I were unable to tell the difference I can’t see why I would not stick with MP3s
    9. Yes, but I don’t have many MP3s. I mostly listen to discs.
    10. I can’t see that anyone would choose a larger file just for the sake that it is larger. Don’t quite get the question. But as written, I would not change from MP3s, if I ever listened to them.
    11. Fidelity, Convenience, File Size, Cost, Specs
    12. Spotify
    13. The sound on Spotify is not great. But I do listen from time to time on my computer, not fed to my main system. I would love if the product was better, but the choices are excellent.
    14. No
    15. No
    16. Yes
    17. SACD is superior to regular CDs in sound, and has the capability to record multi-track material. DVD-Audio also superior and can handle high resolution material
    18. Not a whole lot, except that DSD is the rage right now.
    19. These days at home I mostly listen on a Smyth Realiser with calibrations made at AIX or Acoustic Zen. I also have a generation 5.1 Ipod and some very expensive earbuds by Sony (535) for outdoors. On the iphone I have recordings ripped via Itunes – uncompressed files.
    20. I would prefer it if I could listen to higher fidelity recordings on my ipod.

  9. Very good questions Mark. CEA already knows a lot about their audio market. However, sometimes it is surprising to observe that basic quantitative data do not support the more refined research. So before attempting to know how much one would be willing to “shell out premium money for supposed “better fidelity”, I would suggest these questions:

    People listen to music in several circumstances. Even though I am not, I believe that most are content with the mp3 quality for listening on the move or CD quality for listening while doing something else. Therefore, one could suppose that only a segment of those who regularly enjoy music listening sessions would seek for better fidelity. So, the CEA should attempt to know how large is the crowd who is looking for improvement: “Do you care about listening music in a fidelity that is as close as technically possible to live instrumentalists in your home?”

    Then, there are all sorts of limitations to fidelity. Among those who say they really care about fidelity, what aspect of music reproduction is the most urgent to address: “Are you happy with the quality of the current music productions, formats, supports and equipment or are you constantly trying to improve one of those aspects, in order to get closer to the feeling of live music while sitting in the best seat?”

    And then, the immersion question. HRA for the music we love would be great for those who answered “Yes” to the previous questions. But, many people believe “high fidelity” means “stereo”. It would be good to know how many, amongst the improvement seekers, the proportion that, on top of HRA, would prefer surround to stereo mixes: “Would you rather listen to your favorite music in stereo or in surround sound”

  10. First, love the newsletters. Very informative and interesting. For the topic, I feel that honestly people have been getting, if you will, not the whole album, or, not all of the music. I really believe that they should release the music at the same price paid today for music, not more. With over 900 CD’s in my collection, the mastering varies from acceptable to awful. When I heard my first high res album, I was blown away, then angry. I felt that the high res album is the experience that all artists should demand thier audience gets. So much more feeling comes from the wider soundstage and higher bitrate. But you are correct, having provenance listed and better mastering will be needed first. The questions you list are good, but let’s get the artists to insist on better quality, then work from there.

    • Mastering is an “art” and necessary for commercial recordings intended for radio play. However, it has become the final stage in sucking the life out of a well mixed record.

  11. As a music listener and a future audio engineer, I think the questions seem excellent and they are very well structured.

  12. Mark,

    As usual your illumination of an area (HD-Audio aka HRA) where you are an expert, and less influenced by commercial considerations than most of your peers, is interesting and educational to those of us that read your newsletter. Thank you for your efforts.

    If the CEA wants to get the most out of a survey of “average” music listeners I hope they will be consulting with a survey expert about conducting such an effort. I am not an survey expert, though I know that the way the questions are asked, and the choices for answers, are equally important as the subject of the question. Quantitative survey results that can be used to truly advance the HD-Audio/HRA effort for all stakeholders will be an immense improvement over the current state of misunderstanding/misinformation that seems prevalent.

    Sincerely,
    Robert

  13. Hello Mark,

    Interesting questions! Seemed rather long at first glance. So, because I am retired and have time to do interesting things, I decided to take the survey to find out how long it would take me. Let me mention that I purchased four discs from AIX and will be giving you a report after careful listening. I am about half way through that now.

    1. Have you ever heard of high-resolution audio? Yes

    2. If so, what do you know what it means? Yes, I am an engineer and learned about the subject.

    3. Have you experienced high-resolution audio? Yes

    4. If so, what did you hear and what system was used? Did you hear it on headphones, a home theater, in a car or a showroom, for example? So, that’s actually three questions.

    Some HD recordings (DVD-Audio, SACD and Blu-Ray HD audio) sound better than 16 bit 44.1 kHz. This is especially evident in the high frequencies, like cymbal edges, brushes on cymbals and the higher overtones of violins. I also hear differences in the human voice, especially female. I have conducted many tests with family and friends. I take a cut from an excellent sounding 24 bit 96 kHz recording and create 16 bit 44.1 kHz, 320 kbps, 256 kbps, 192 kbps and down to about 48 kbps using Audacity. I do that as just an example of how the sound changes with further and further compression. Most can hear the difference between 24/96 and 16/44.1. Those who can’t usually hear the difference at the 320 kbps MP3 recording.

    The system used is my “reference” system which is in my home theater where I have a Pioneer Kuro plasma as the display. I consists of an Oppo BDP 105 with a 2 TB external hard drive. I have no actual preamp, only a self-designed and built box that has input switching, a stepped (1.5 dB per step) using RN60D metal film resistors and the crossover for the sub-woofer. Amps are Power Twins (monoblocks) by Princeton Design Group. The speakers are Clements RT-7 towers. It is a long discussion, but I come down on the side that puts their financial resources into stereo rather than spreading it through multiple channels. The RT-7s image very well and set up a very deep sound stage. Finally, my sub-woofer. It is something I am very proud of; all that have heard it say it is the best they have heard. I designed it and my wife and I built it. I used the woofer section of an Altec Lansing 604E 15” studio monitor in a 12 foot transmission line.

    As a point of reference regarding the quality of the sound, I have another system in our Game/Exercise room. It consists of an Oppo BDP-103 SE and Pioneer amplification. I designed and built the speakers. It sounds like a table radio in comparison to my reference system. It is hard, even for me to tell the difference between CD and HD on this system. I think this is why there are so many HD debunkers that say you can’t hear the difference. They have never heard a comparison on an audiophile quality system.

    I am a person who finds headphones very uncomfortable. So, I do not listen that way.

    Is there a car audio system good enough to tell the difference between CD and HD? I doubt it!

    I occasionally stop in our local Magnolia Theater at Best Buy and ask them play the best they have regardless of price. To date, I have not heard anything as good as my reference system.

    5. Would you be willing to pay more for high-resolution audio? Yes, and I do! I have been buying DVD-Audio and SACD since they came on the market. Now, I also look for concerts on Blu-Ray with one of the lossless formats. Love it when they include 24/96. These days, I also download HD files.

    6. If so, how much more? Up to two times

    7. High-resolution files can be 2-4 times larger than standard MP3 files. Would you be willing to download and store high-resolution files on your music players that are much larger than MP3s?
    Yes, and I do. When you have a player like the BDP-105 that can play from a, let’s say, 4 TB drive that costs around $100, it’s no big deal to do it that way. In fact it is desirable, I don’t have to get a disc down from the shelf, insert it in the player and put it away when I am done. I also like being able to back up the files. If a disk goes bad (or you make it go bad by accidentally scratching it) you have to buy it again – if you are lucky enough that it is still available. Some of my DVD-Audio collection is “out of print”.

    8. If you were unable to tell the difference between a good quality MP3 file and a high-resolution file, would you opt for the higher spec file or continue to be happy with MP3s?
    If my hearing ever gets bad enough that I can’t tell the difference, I would probably be satisfied with the MP3. No, let me take that back. If a person who could tell the difference would be listening, I would still go for the higher quality.

    9. Would you be willing to replace some or all of your existing music files with high-resolution versions of the same tunes? Yes, I have!

    10. If you were given a choice between music in MP3 format or high-resolution and the only difference was the size of the file, which would you choose? HD of course. Folks better get cracking on those lossless CODECS!

    11. Please rank the following attributes from most important to least important:
    Technical Specs 5
    Cost 2
    File Size 4
    Convenience 3
    Fidelity 1

    12. Do you listen to streaming services like Pandora or Spotify? Spotify

    13. If yes, do you think the sound is acceptable? Yes. With me the music is more important than the quality of the sound. Spotify is a vast resource of music I like that is not available in HD.

    14. Do you listen to vinyl LPs? No longer. Started listen in the 1960s. LPs sound much better than CDs played on early CD players. I remember spending weeks modifying my Sony CDP-102 just to make it sound “barely listenable”. After DVD-Audio and SACDs came along with much better players, the drive on my turntable gave out and I did not replace it. Anyone interested in a used Ortofon cartridge?

    15. Do you think vinyl LPs are the “best fidelity” that can be achieved in music reproduction?
    No! I am clearly in the digital camp. Although, to be fair, I have not heard a $200,000 phono. When I was playing both LPs and CDs I found that each had its strengths. CDs had better s/n and dynamic range, but they had an annoying “edge” to the music that made LPs less fatiguing to listen to. HD audio with today’s quality players give me the best of both worlds. The BDP-105 has even eliminated most of the “CD edge” that annoyed me so.

    16. Have you heard of SACD or DVD-Audio? Yes

    17. If so, can you share what you know about them? No, would take too long. As an engineer who studied digital signal processing under Alan Oppenheim at MIT and a career in signal processing and recover from noise, I could go on and on.

    18. Do you know anything about DSD or PCM recording formats? Yes. Comment: DSD sounds closer to HD PCM on my BDP-105 than it did on my BDP-103 SE. I have studied your spectral analysis and like what you are doing. However, I am sure you know, there are other things that affect the sound, like harmonic and intermodulation distortion, including Doppler distortion (FM) in speakers. I am retired and just enjoying the music. I find you work very interesting but wish someone will tackle these issues as well.

    19. Where and on what devices do you normally consume music? Usually my reference system or car stereo. I don’t listen to Podcasts in the car. I have tried but find that I am too concentrated on driving to follow the conversation.

    20. Would you prefer to listen to higher fidelity music on a portable player or a Smartphone? No. I use Thinksound monitor (their best) ear-buds, but usually listen to internet radio or Podcasts, like Home Theater Geeks, where I first heard your voice!

    I tried to give reasonable detailed answers without going overboard. I think less detailed answers may not be informative enough. It took me close to an hour, more time than most people would be willing to devote (I think). If I was not really interested in what you are doing and helping you, I would pass.

    Perhaps some fairly detailed multiple-choice questions would be more appropriate.

    Regards,

    Roger Jones

  14. Mark, you’re on the money as usual. I may pay post later to concentrate more on your specific questions, but in general they look fine with one significant caveat.

    That caveat is that with this survey (as with many) one implicitly assumes that consumers know what they want, or know what they are missing. This aspect is a big deal in areas of innovation. Google “do consumers know what they want” and you’ll get a host of insightful links, especially related to Apple, on how understanding what customers really want is much more important than what customers think they want, under certain circumstances.

    I can’t point to anything specific or definitive other than my gut because of the lack of robust audibility tests on HRA, but HRA strikes me as an item that most consumers literally don’t know what they are missing, and therefore consumers are severely limited in knowing what they want and prefer and under what conditions.

    Put another way, imagine how the (in)famous Coke versus Pepsi tests would have gone if the tests were just paper surveys instead of an actual taste test. You’re probably chuckling at that, as you should.

    I certainly don’t want to demean surveys or your effort or intent. I just want to stimulate thinking on what any result actually means relative to the customers’ knowledge of what you are asking customers to compare. In the case of HRA, I think customers may not know what they are missing and value until they can hear the difference (or lack thereof).

    …and as always, this brings us back to the imperative for a rigorous test of HRA and what is truly audible and under what conditions – no news to you, of course.

    • I like the Coke vs. Pepsi analogy…and I completely agree that I’m going to have to do a taste taste as a component of any research. My current thought is to compare the same tune in three different master configurations. I’m going to take “Mosaic” and provide it unmastered, soft mastered and heavily mastered. I’ll put them on the FTP site and let readers take a listen. It should be interesting.

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