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.