The Wall Street Journal published an article written by an avid music lover his take of high-resolution audio. And the results weren’t good news. You can read the piece called, “Hi-Res Audio Hijinx: Why Only Some Albums Truly Rock” by clicking here and the first part of my article here. Essentially, Wilson Rothman expressed a very common opinion that “so-called” high-resolution music downloaded from the usual suspects doesn’t guarantee an upgraded experience. He tried listening on a $5K system and then again on a state-of-the-art $250,000 system with his friends and couldn’t convince himself that there was more music…or “richness” to be found in the high-resolution versions. And he’s right.
In part II on this WSJ article, I’m going to discuss the second portion of the article, include some comments by other engineers, and get back to the issue of provenance. I was heartened to learn from a reader that the Norah Jones track “Feelin’ the Same Way” was, in fact, produced on an analog 24-track tape machine. There is an article written by Tom Doyle at the Sound on Sound website about Arif Mardin that includes the following statements:
“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.
‘We eventually go to Pro Tools,’ says Mardin. ‘but only after we’ve done all the session in analogue. I obey the artist’s wishes and she wanted that. If you ask me, I’m all for using the latest technology. I’m not a those-were-the-good-old-days person. The only thing is, if I’m using the newest technology, the sound has to be sweet. There were a lot of new technologies in the ’80s and ’90s, digital tape recorders and things like that, and the sound was terrible because the converters weren’t good’.”
We haven’t talked about Dolby SR noise reduction. This was one of the best noise reduction schemes ever invented for multitrack analog tape machines. It was hugely complicated and required top-notch technicians to calibrate the system but it did push the dynamic range of analog tape very close to CD spec.
In reality, Wilson didn’t ever get the chance to experience new recordings that were done using high-resolution audio equipment. Perhaps if he and friends checked out Laurence Juber or John Gorka instead of Norah Jones and Paul Simon from analog originals, he would have endorsed HRA.
To his credit, he continued his exploration into high-resolution by looking at the sources that are used to create the new high-resolution tracks. He correctly answers his own question of why a high-resolution audio download could actually sound worse than the corresponding CD this way with a quote from renowned mastering engineer Bob Ludwig, “The answer lies in the version of the recording that was used to make the CD or hi-res files, said Portland, Maine-based mastering engineer Bob Ludwig.
This information should come as no surprise to my readers but I can assure you that there are lot of professionals and consumers that haven’t figured this out yet. Bob continues by confirming my own thoughts about whether all music should be concerned with high-resolution or stick with the sound that works best for that genre of music. Jazz, acoustic, and classical music definitely benefits from high-resolution recording and reproduction but Nirvana…not so much.
Ultimately, the catalog of so-called “high-resolution” classic albums is highly dependent on the decisions made during the remastering process. Here’s a very telling paragraph from the WSJ piece:
“This is most apparent on some classic albums that have been remastered in the past decade or two. For instance, when you compare the original 1986 version of Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ to the 25th-anniversary edition, released in 2012, you’ll find that the new tracks are much louder even though you haven’t touched the volume knob. Mr. Ludwig said that the new version was known for being highly compressed, which would mask the benefits of hi-res; this would explain why I didn’t notice a difference in hi-res. (A Sony spokesperson said that the 25th-anniversary edition that the hi-res was created from was approved by the original producer of ‘Graceland’, Roy Halee.)
So there you have it…there are no guarantees that the new “hi-res” items available on the popular download sites are going to possess higher fidelity than your original vinyl LP or CD. In fact, it’s assured that ALL of these early albums will only measure up to the audio fidelity of analog tape, which is no capable of reaching high-resolution standards. No marketing campaign, demo, or rigorous study is going to change that.