A very common complaint from purchasers of “high-resolution” music is that they don’t sound any different than the CDs or even vinyl LP versions. As a result they feel ripped off…not a good sign for high-resolution audio/music. I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve received from people feeling that they’ve been cheated. This is especially true of the albums that have been newly transferred from analog master tapes to high-resolution PCM bit buckets. Whether there is any perceptible difference is not really the problem when a potential customer is thinking about making a purchase. The real issue is whether they will be happy with the “high-res” sound when they hear it through their own system.
The various download sites offer 30-90 second samples of the music. These files are not the “high-res” tracks that you’ll receive after you’ve purchased the album. They are “lossy” MP3 files. I went to HDTracks and ProStudioMasters and auditioned the second tracks from James Taylor’s new records, “Before This World”. It was notable that HDTracks provided a 30 second sample from the middle of the song and ProStudioMasters played a 90 second sample starting at the beginning of the tune. I’m not an expert on copyright law, but something in the back of my memory tells me that 30″ is the limit for “fair use” in quoting music. I like the longer sample (and I offer much longer samples on iTrax) but I’m not sure it’s legal.
In addition to the files being different lengths, they were different in fidelity. The production people at HDTracks are preparing 320 kbps MP3 files while the ProStudioMasters engineers have opted for very low quality 192 kbps MP3s. I guess they figure that listeners wouldn’t really care about the quality of the samples. I certainly do. I analyzed both sample files. Here are the spectra:
Figure 1 – A spectrograph of an MP3 at 320 and 192 kbps. [Click to enlarge]
MP3 files at 320 kbps are very hard to distinguish from 44.1 kHz/16-bit CDs. So the quality of the sample files being played by HDTracks is as good as it gets. But the samples are not what you purchase. So how about HDTracks and the other “high-res” download sites give potential customers a preview of the “high-res” tracks instead of the “lossy” compressed streaming files that they currently provide?
It’s not trivial to stream 96 kHz/24-bits PCM files (and remember some of the files available at these sites are offered at 384 kHz/24-bits…which is completely ridiculous!) but it’s not difficult at all to make short segments of the final “hi-res” files available through other means. The sites could offer access to an FTP site or deliver files via Dropbox or other similar methods. Allowing potential customer to get 30 seconds of a the real file and listen to it in their own system would be a huge step forward for High-Resolution Audio.
No one could ever complain that they didn’t know how good (or bad) an individual albums or track sounded because they would have the ability to hear it prior to purchase. Think of it as a free sample of a new product at the grocery store…try before you buy.
The high-res download sites could do this tomorrow…but they probably won’t. The samples on my iTrax site are encoded as MP3 files at 320 kbps, which is really good (kudos to HDTracks) setting up a mechanism for real high-res samples would be better.
Step 3: All high-resolution audio files should cost the same as the standard-resolution versions.