The huge Las Vegas Ferris wheel is just out my window at Bally’s Hotel and Casino as I write today’s post. I’m here because yesterday was the first day of the annual ALMA symposium just down the street at the Tuscany Convention Facilities and some months ago I was invited by their board to give the keynote address. This year the association of loudspeaker manufacturers decided that high-resolution audio would be the central theme of their annual event. The title “Hi Res Audio: A Bridge To Build Or A Bridge Too Far?” asks a familiar question. Their vice president attended a presentation I gave at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest a few years ago and was impressed enough to suggest to their board that I might be a compelling keynote speaker. I’m here because I gladly accepted their invitation.
And because the annual International CES 2016 show starts on Wednesday and I’m looking forward to visiting the Venetian Hotel in search of the latest on high-res audio and music. The “High-Res Techzone” room has been abandoned but there will still be a few panel discussions on Wednesday and Thursday.
I drove up from Los Angeles early yesterday morning in order to participate on a panel at the ALMA Symposium with Dr. Sean Olive of Harman International, Robert Stuart of Meridian and MQA, and Steve Temme who runs a testing lab called Listen. I had a few moments to chat with both Sean and Bob prior to the session. MQA will have a large presence at the Venetian Hotel as the company continues to ramp up their MQA initiative. I asked Bob about the questions I gave him back in June after the Newport Show and he assured me that he would respond by the end of January. I’m looking forward to reading his answers and including them in the Music and Audio Guide.
The moderator of the panel began the session with the most obvious and yet challenging question about high-resolution audio. He wanted each panelist to offer their definition of what it is and what the benefits of high-res audio are. I started the discussion with my usual definition.
High-resolution audio and music is sound that meets or exceeds the capabilities of human hearing. For me, it’s really that simple. This definition doesn’t specify any particular format, sample rate, word length, or anything else. It doesn’t talk about resolution or the particulars of any format. I’m simply looking for results. If there’s a format from the past that can match the “specs” of our ear/brain listening mechanism, it’s in. And likewise if a new format or hybrid format comes along that measures up, it’s welcome too.
Maybe it would be easier to define high-resolution audio by identifying what doesn’t measure up.
I don’t want to get wrapped up in discussions of real world circumstances or commercial considerations. I simply want the technologies involved in capturing and reproducing sound to be equal to or better than our ability to hear.
Steve Temme offered his assessment. He took a lower road and stated that he’s OK with “just good enough” sound. If it measures better than CDs then he would call it “high-res”. This includes moving the PCM digital specs higher than 44.1 kHz/16-bits.
Robert gave a 2-hour presentation earlier in the day (which unfortunately I missed because of my transit time) on capturing high-resolution audio. Like me, he doesn’t feel it’s necessary to bind “high-resolution” audio to any hard numbers. He’s looking for an “end to end” solution that accurately mirrors the sound produced during the session in the playback system. The sound or fidelity that the live instrumentalists or singers created in the original performance should be maintained through the production process and be indistinguishable from the source performance. This is tied very closely to the MQA philosophy and technology.
Finally, Dr. Sean Olive hit on a position someplace in the middle. His position is closer to the CTA/DEG/NARAS definition of fidelity better than “CD Quality”. Establishing a consistent set of standards is key to advancing the HRA initiative.
I wasn’t surprised by the diversity of opinions presented by the panel of experts at the ALMA event. Four presenters offered four different assessments of what is and what isn’t high-resolution audio. The panel was not populated by marketing types, bureaucrats, journalists, artists, rock stars, editors, or consumer electronics companies. The definitions offered came from highly qualified engineer types…and still we can’t agree on the most basic and essential concept of what is and what isn’t high-resolution audio.
It’s been 16 years since I started exploring high-res music technology and production techniques. Is there any hope that 2016 will see consensus on the topic? I doubt it.