Dr. AIX's POSTS — 14 April 2015

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A writer for a major news outlet contacted me a few days ago. He was looking for information on the world of high-resolution audio and specifically about the hype about so-called “high-resolution” audio downloads. He is not an audiophile or musician, just a guy researching the business and technology angle of this emerging market. A friend at a major company suggested that he contact me to get an honest appraisal of HRA. I was quite happy to chat with him on the phone. And today we spent a few hours talking and checking out high-resolution audio.

He was very interested in downloading a few tracks from PonoMusic to see if they actually are better than previous versions. So he opened up a new profile at PonoMusic and proceeded to purchase a couple of albums and a few isolated tracks. After the tracks had been downloaded to my studio MAC, I opened them up in Adobe Audition and showed him the spectrographs. After a little comparison and training, it was very obvious that things at PonoMusic (and the other high-resolution digital music download sites) are not exactly as advertised.

There are three levels of audio fidelity available to consumers. We’ve talked about these on many occasions but here’s what I explained to my visitor. The lowest fidelity digital files are “reduced resolution” and are typically encoded using a “lossy” algorithm such as MP3, AAC, or .OGG. No matter what bitrate is employed, this type of file always lacks some audio information as a result of the data compression.

The second fidelity level is called “standard resolution” and includes analog tape, CDs, and vinyl LPs. All of these formats fail to meet the fidelity of human hearing. They may deliver wonderful sonics but when it comes to specifications they don’t measure up. There will be plenty of contrasting opinions but this is how I categorize fidelity and formats.

Then there’s the world of “high-resolution”. These are exclusively recordings that have been made at the time the musicians were present on equipment operating at 96 kHz/24-bits or higher (although moving to 192 kHz is already overkill).

When it comes to purchasing high-resolution digital music, most of the so-called “high-res” music offered are transfers of “standard definition” analog tapes and therefore are “master quality” but do not reach real high-resolution specifications.

The issue of including millions of CD rips on the PonoMusic site is what it is. I’m done talking about that. If you want to pay premium prices for the same fidelity you can get from a $5 CD from Wal-Mart, then go right ahead. But what my visitor wanted to know was whether a 192 kHz/24-bit transfer of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” album from the early 1970s benefits from being placed in a 192 kHz/24-bit bucket or whether a CD could produce identical fidelity.

The first thing that we did was visit the PonoMusic website. The headline, “Highest Resolution Music Available For Over 2 Million Tracks and Growing” is located next to the 3D graphic showing the colored bar graph of audio fidelity as provided by streaming, downloads, CDs, etc. (which is a very misleading graphic…aren’t sites like PonoMusic downloading files up to 192 kHz?). I haven’t been to the PonoMusic site in a while and was honestly surprised to see the change in messaging. They used to say the tracks available on the site were “high-resolution” and Neil has repeated said that CDs are lowest “high-resolution” audio he’s willing to put on the site. But now they’ve qualified their offerings as the “highest resolution music available”. Pono’s claim is factual but very misleading.

Saying highest resolution is very different than high-resolution. When you say “highest available”, there is no assurance that the tracks are high-resolution at all…just that they are best version they could locate. In fact, as we’ve seen and which was confirmed today after our purchases…99% of the tracks on PonoMusic are merely CD rips. They are the highest resolution available according to PonoMusic, but they are certainly not high-resolution versions.

But what about those that have 192 kHz/24-bits next to them. Are they better than the standard resolution sources they came from?

I’ll show what we purchased today in the next installment of this post.

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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.

(17) Readers Comments

  1. Hi! Kinda on point. There was an extensive article in the latest Absolute Sound about Meridian’s MQA. I would be very interested in your take on it. It is “master quality”, not HRA; although, I have seen MQA and HRA in the same articles and blurbs. I’d really like to know what you think about MQA. Thanks!

    • I have to get a copy…or find the studio copy and read it. I recognize the amazing leap forward that MQA makes possible but I’m less excited because there’s no much content that is actually HD and therefore the advance doesn’t help that much.

  2. “highest resolution music available” my butt!
    The part most disturbing is that they COULD have gone back to the labels and searched for the very best existing masters, done whatever they could to get the best possible sound off them, and then done the DAC. Something along the lines of what was done by MFSL back in the day.
    But they didn’t, I’ll bet even money what you find is a straight forward CD rip and then an upsample to the resolution they want to sell. That’s the only case possible, no physical way possible a few million tracks could have been remastered and released during the time that has passed in the creation of Pono, or HDTracks for that matter.
    Personally I find this situation close to a legal case of fraud.

    • Sal, they are not in the business of remastering or re-transferring older masters. They get what they get from the labels and put them out. The stuff on HDTracks and PonoMusic that are actually new transfers can be quite good but definitely not HD.

      • “The stuff on HDTracks and PonoMusic that are actually new transfers can be quite good but definitely not HD.”

        New transfers with improved sonics over the Red Book releases, or just upsampled 16/44 files? You yourself always refer to what they’re selling as CD Rips?

        • Sal, PonoMusic sources recordings from two suppliers. The first are the major labels. The mastering rooms at UMG, Sony and WB transfer analog “masters” to high-resolution PCM files. They do not remaster them. Whatever the fidelity of the original master is then sent to the download company. HDTracks, PonoMusic and the other licensees. These can be marginally better than the same program on a CD but only because the frequency response of analog tape has the potential to go slightly above 22 kHz. The files I looked at the other day only had hiss above 20 kHz…so the improvement is pretty slight if any.

          PonoMusic also sources files…which are rips of CDs…through their connection with Omnifone. These are exactly the same fidelity as the CDs no change. And they make up 99% of the PonoMusic catalog.

  3. I’m confused. A couple of days ago you were very very positive over the Tom Petty ‘Hi Rez’ downloads at 24/96 from HD Tracks. Today you state these older master tape based releases can’t be Hi Res as they were not recorded to 24/96 originally. What gives?

    • I liked the improvements due to less harsh mastering that I hear on the Tom Petty album that I downloaded. I explained that they aren’t HD tracks but as good as can be expected. I’ve been consistent about that since I started writing about this topic.

  4. Lumping CD’s, analog tape, and vinyl together as ‘standard res’ formats (as is done in this post) would seem, on the face of it, to imply that these three formats deliver equivalent fidelity to each other. I would assume the hierarchy would be: CD (if digitally mastered, at least) > Analog (master) tape > Vinyl.

    I don’t think that’s what you meant but I think the difference between Redbook audio and vinyl is at least as big as the difference between hi-res and Redbook, and maybe more.

    • The formats I grouped together are all standard definition. But they are not identical in fidelity, you’re right. Most older vinyl came from analog tapes. New CDs can eclipse both vinyl LPs and analog tape. But none of them reach the standard of high-resolution, if high-res is defined as as meeting or exceeding the capabilities of our ears.

      • CDs have the capacity for greater dynamic range, but analog tape and vinyl have the capacity for wider bandwidth.

        • I’m stated that previously. However, analog tape and vinyl LPs have other problems that CDs don’t. In any case, they all fall far short of real high-resolution.

  5. Does a new digital mastering of a first generation analog tape delivered in a ‘high resolution’ format have the potential to sound better than the same delivered in CD spec 44.1/16? That’s a question I would like an answer on.

    • It does. But only if the original analog tape has fidelity the eclipses that of a CD…and sadly many or even most do not.

  6. I have a slightly different take on the CD quality tracks that Pono has made available for download. Some of the material is available on a per track basis, which is cost effective if you are not interested in the entire album, and also because of the disappearance of CDs in general, Pono has material available for CDs that are no longer in print. This includes such jazz artists such as Shirley Horn, Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, etc, that are readily available on ITunes at 256 k quality, but not elsewhere at CD quality. What is clunky about the site is you can’t just browse for High Resolution Audio, you are forced to view the CD resolution material along with High Res. There does not seem to be a tremendous about of High Res material available. The classic albums of the 70s and 80s are nice, but are just the best transfer available, they are not high res from start to finish as is possible today. There are no details of how an individual recording was made It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. The record companies should be thankful for paid downloads of any quality, and if they are making more money from high quality downloads, hopefully that provides enough incentive to produce more.

  7. On a few occasions, you mentioned that you were going to create a website that showed spectragraphs of music files. It seems to me that if you did this, you wouldn’t have to spend so much time trying to make people understand about the differences in all these various files. If done right, you could create a website that everyone goes to as the reference for hi-res audio files and user reviews. I know I would benefit from such a website. If your website was popular enough (thus generating lots of traffic), do you think the advertisement income would cover the costs of purchasing the music files and running the website?

    Didn’t HDtracks talk of showing spectragraphs for their downloads at one point in time?

    • I’m working on the HRADB.com site as part of the HRA Planet.com site. It’s coming although very slowly. I’ve never heard about HDtracks doing spectra.

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