Dr. AIX's POSTS — 10 March 2015

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I don’t normally read the Wall Street Journal. However, a close friend does and he sent me a link to yet another article about the dubious nature of high-resolution audio. The article it titled, “Hi-Res Audio Hijinx: Why Only Some Albums Truly Rock”. The sentiment expressed by the author Wilson Rothman is largely in line with my own assessment. His subtitle says it all, “With all the buzz surrounding hi-res audio, music has the potential to sound truer than ever. But the path to aural bliss can be fraught with peril. The trick is knowing that not all hi-res albums are created equal. Here, your complete guide”.

The keys words are “potential to sound truer than ever” and “not all hi-res albums are created equal”. It’s certainly encouraging to read something where someone does a reality check on the emerging area of high-resolution audio and gets it almost right. Unlike the hack job that David Pogue and others have done.

Wilson’s a music lover with a wide range of musical likes. He had heard about the Pono initiative and decided to investigate whether he was “listening to the wrong music” as Neil Young told him at the CES 2015 show. Neil contends, “With MP3s, you could only recognize songs, you couldn’t hear them.” MP3s and even CDs have sucked the life out of recorded music, according to the rock icon. The inclusion of CDs in the “sucking life out of music category” is notable for reasons that I’ve spoken about previously…99.9 % of all of the tracks offered on the PonoMusic website are rips of CD. I guess they suck to?

Mr. Rothman decided to take the challenge. In his words, “I invited five colleagues to compare high-resolution songs from HDTracks.com with CD-quality and iTunes-download versions. One by one, my colleagues noted the excellent sound, the in-your-face highs and the oh-so-subtle lows. And one by one, each failed to guess which tracks were high-resolution. The truth was, it all sounded good.”

His comparison was more comprehensive than most. He acquired some “high-resolution” audio from HDtracks and compared them to a CD version and even iTunes “lossy” versions and still no one could tell the difference. The system that he used to do the initial comparison consisted of about $5000 worth of gear from KEF and NAD…not a high-end system by any measure. The tunes that he chose to compare? He didn’t specifically mention them in the context of the first setup but later in the article he talks about tracks by Norah Jones and Paul Simon. I can’t say for certain whether Norah Jones recorded in high-resolution digital but “Graceland” was definitely recorded on analog tape and mixed to analog tape and then mastered to vinyl LP. Later it was remastered for CD release and it was probably remastered for the HDtracks version.

Once again, what might have been an interesting test fails because the source materials were not vetted prior to the listening. Even when Wilson sat in front of pair of Magical Q7 Mark II speakers costing $229,000, he was not completely convinced that the subtle differences in “richness” were audible. In fact, when he auditioned the HDtracks downloads and compared them to the CD versions, “…we agreed that the CD actually sounded better”. This is not good news for the high-resolution download sites that are selling vintage recordings in state-of-the-art containers.

It’s the same old story. Where other authors stop and decry the failings of high-resolution audio, Mr. Rothman looks up stream and examines the fidelity of the sources…and he hits pay dirt.

To be continued.

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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.

(21) Readers Comments

  1. Plain vanilla today. I have here the downloaded from HD Trax, re-mastered ,Graceland as well as the first CSN album. I have heard both of these recordings hundreds of times on LP&CD.

    Through a reference-grade system, the playback of either is way, way better than any previously released version or format. Anyone can hear it, and no one has turned to me and said,”I don’t know, the CD sounds awfully good too.
    If it is agreed that neither CD nor LP signal capacity allows a master tape to be “cloned,” then why is there any doubt that a transfer that is in fact a virtual clone of the master tape will have more audio on it and sound noticeably better?

    • It’s called mastering…

      • Mark, there is no question that mastering is the key, indispensable work that takes a recording and puts it in shape for real-world release, we agree 200%.I too have made audiophile grade live recordings very carefully mastered for release on perfectionist LP and CD.

        I get the inference from you that whatever improvement I’m noticing is due more to re-mastering than 24/96 transfer. I can buy that, and hey, I think CD can be and often is an excellent music medium, contrary to all the very questionable slagging the medium has undeservedly suffered.

        One view of CD says that they did cut it awfully close at 16/44. Given the (general but not always) sonic superiority of SACD to CD, it does point to a limited signal capacity for CD just as the LP medium has as well.

        I often make this analogy for folks: The master tape is a freight train of sound, but for public release the freight train has to be squeezed into the dining car. A proper hi-res feed is the master tape, the whole freight train, in your living room. I think that in the two instances to which I have referred, the sonic thrills are a result of both re-mastering and, using a hack term, the increased “headroom,” or greater signal capacity of digital rates beyond. CD.

        • Mastering is a necessity for a certain type of audio release and completely counterproductive in other circumstances. I just wrote a piece about why mastering does more harm than good. I read an interview with Steve Wilson who expressed a similar point of view. Once an album is finished being mixed, it should go out.

          • Agree. The other bass-ackwards concept that much of the recording industry clings to is this idea of “translating,” and I’m sure you know what this means. Whether it’s running to the car to play an MP-3 of the mix, or a cassette in the old days, I continue to fault this method.
            If you make a recording that sounds fantastic on an honest, high performance stereo, it will sound good on anything, I’ll bet you my house. For all the monitors found in studio environments, a separate facility with a fine hi-fi system set up in an acoustically positive living room environment would let the studio guys know what their recordings actually do sound like. You use good speakers, although that model 801 is a bit dated and is known to be less than agile in the bass. But the ultra-loud playing models typically found in very good studios will not reveal the true sonic character and as a group lack openness and transparency, traded off for boxy honking at 120db. “Translating”…Yuk.

  2. after wasting much time looking for the answer to norah’s hi-rez provenance i found this — “Norah Jones’s only request when it comes to recording is that tracking is done to analogue two-inch, in this instance using a Studer A827 with Dolby SR in conjunction with an SSL 9000J desk”.
    http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/jul04/articles/arifmardin.htm

    bill

    • Bill, thanks very much. I wonder what she would say to hear her artistry in real HD.

  3. According to the prices listed in the article, I only get $2800 for the NAD/KEF system. While you, I, and likely most of your other readers have systems that are more revealing, and more expensive, the cost and quality of the test system would be a big step up for, what, 98% of consumers? Looking at the specs for the KEF R300 loudspeakers, the bottom octave is missing, but the high-frequency extension is to 28 kHz with a 3 dB window and 45 kHz when expanded to 6 dB. If a system better than this is required to appreciate the difference with high-resolution, then the market is very small indeed.

    • You’re right…the improvement, if any, is subtle and expensive.

  4. Glad I could contribute to the blog.

    • Thanks Doctor Jim! Dr. Larkin is a very close friend from high school and I’m impressed that he’s reading the daily blog. For the record, he’s also the one with the living room sound bar and ski buddy.

  5. This article is an interesting read as few journalists take the trouble to do this for music except perhaps some Hi-Fi ones.
    The fact that he does not appear to be a Hi-Fi enthusiast but enjoys music is great as he possibly has little bias and is able to hear some difference if any.
    Once again our old HD tracks is called to attention.

  6. Well written commentary on Mr. Rothman’s article. It is truly on point on the fact that not all hi-rez is so just by virtue of wearing the tag. The question is, how is the average consumer to know the difference before shelling the extra money for hi-rez. By the time he finds out through his ears his money is long gone.
    Perhaps there should be an agency regulating the level of resolution in the content, and anyone caught making false claims should face severe and steep fines and additionally refund the money to the purchasers of such material, to the point that it would make it economically unfeasible to take the risk of miss representing content. The proof should be on the dynamic range, and I am sure the technology is there to measure that.

  7. Good article but still avoids the whole real truth. There are some very good 30 or 40 year old analog master tapes out there. And using good digital transfer techniques some very nice HD files can be created. But they won’t sound any better than the CDs that MFSL was putting out years ago.
    You want a true beautiful sounding HDA final product, you got to start with a HDA original master
    But no one will tell the truth cause their big payday lays in reselling (again) all those 30 – 40 year old super hit mediocre sounding analog masters.
    Ole computer quip still holds strong garbage in – garbage out.

    • HD files cannot be created from analog tapes since the source tapes aren’t HD.

      • Exactly, but that’s what the marketers are calling them. Don,’t see any albums advertised as STANDARD DEFINITION over at HDTracks, Acoustic Sounds, Pono, etc.
        🙂

        • This is exactly the problem.

          • Burn em at the stakes. Neil Young first as he’s the one pandering the hardest on the respect of his name.

      • And you get labels like EMI releasing their back catalogue at a depth of 24 bits, yet the original masters would theoretically comfortably fit on 12 bits..

        • I’m talking the Beatles back catalogue BTW.

  8. Thank you again Mark for your efforts. I have to say that after reading your post, my blood pressure is in the region of 250 over 2.
    For God’s sake, I am over these bean counters. I would love each and every one of them to suffer at the hands of the public. It would serve them right if every album in their catalogues were downloaded from pirate sites. I have enough music to see out my days and would toast the demise of SONY and their like, if it meant the discontinuence of the strident crap they are currently dishing up. MP3, thy name is greed.
    When are these Cretins going to realise that music doesn’t taste like (or sound like) a packet of fish fingers.
    ART no longer lives here, in this graceless age.

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