Dr. AIX's POSTS — 16 January 2016

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I’ve known that I was getting close to 1000 articles for a while now, which is admittedly a completely artificial milestone but seems worth noting regardless. I’m very pleased that this site seems to have established itself as a resource for those seeking honest information about the world of high-resolution audio and music. As I look back over the nearly three years of posts, there are some topics that have remained relatively constant and others that have evolved.

Unfortunately, we are no closer to having a definition of high-resolution audio or high-resolution music than we were three years ago. The familiar organizations, their leaders, and the minions that accept or encourage their spin machines are very active these days. I continuously run into comments by individuals from organizations making statement such as “HRA files are all BETTER than CD and most are 24 bit depth…” Cheer leading for HRA based on ridiculous statements like that drive me crazy and I’m sure that my insistence on facts rather than what’s best for “commerce” was the reason that they “uninvited” me from their organization. They didn’t want the truth three years ago and they still don’t.

Three years ago, I was more excited about high-resolution (although I called it high-definition audio, which still makes more sense since resolution really shouldn’t be applied to audio…especially digital audio) music than I am today. My former optimism has been tempered by the counter productive actions of PonoMusic and others that want to claim the high ground and then shovel 2 million ripped CDs off as part of the “world’s largest catalog of high-resolution music”. And the press, organizations, equipment makers, and most consumers are complacent bystanders.

Recently, I had the chance to chat very briefly with Bruce Botnick, the former Pono Music VP, Content Acquisition. He was in Los Angeles meeting with some engineers at one of the studios in my complex. And note that I learned that he’s the “former” VP of Content Acquisition because he’s no longer working at Neil’s start up. I searched the web and was unable to confirm his departure. He’s isn’t listed on the Pono website anymore. I don’t know whether he left of his own accord or was laid off but I discovered that virtually all of the artists that Pono approached…10 out of 10…weren’t interested in revisiting their former masters in the quest for higher fidelity. And this just to transfer and remaster those “classic” recordings in so-called “hi-res” to rediscover the “soul of the music”.

If artists, engineers, producers, music fans, and distribution channels aren’t interested in higher fidelity audio, then why should the mass market care? The hardware people want “new and improved” to sell more equipment…and they seem to be succeeding. Just look at all of the high-resolution products that were on display at the CES show. I spoke to a number of vendors about their products. Many didn’t have a clue about what high-resolution audio meant. All they knew what that it was important for them to get on board.

Bigger numbers are fueling the paper chase to “better sound”. There are a whole bunch of new products coming out that have embraced 384 kHz/32-bits. Never mind that there are no files available at these ridiculous rates or that it won’t mean anything in terms of fidelity.

Happy 1000 posts!

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(23) Readers Comments

  1. Bruce Botnick is a genius. His work with the Doors and Jerry Goldsmith are amazing.

    • Absolutely agree…he’s one of the best.

  2. Bruce B left Pono on Novemer 10, 2015, of his own accord. Here’s his last post:

    “For the past year and a half my passion has been with Pono in helping to raise the awareness of Neil’s dream of High-Resolution music in every home. My mission has always been to bring the truth in provenance to the forefront so that I too could enjoy music again as the artists; producers and engineers always intended it to be heard.

    Like the call of the siren, I’ve been getting very itchy to make music, and the time has come for me to get back into the studio. I’ll be leaving Pono as my 24 bit a day and night job, but I’ll still be flying the flag of Pono and High-Resolution music on high and you’ll still find me lurking on the community.

    Malama Pono. Bruce”

    • Thanks very much for finding and sending this along. I suspect that the financial struggles that Pono is experiencing were part of his decision as well.

  3. Mark, I for one enjoy your no-nonsense approach to telling it like it is. I have heard about the failure of Pono Music, and am willing to bet that many artists, engineers, etc. are frustrated with the current state of what is accepted as “good” sounding music by the public. Financial return may be considered too low for the effort and time it would take to properly remaster in new formats. Do you think it’s possible that artists, engineers and record companies are waiting for some not yet developed technology that will be the “Holy Grail” of music formats, before investing serious time and money?

    • I don’t think they’re waiting. We already have the means of production to knock your socks off with fidelity, involvement, warmth, clarity, and depth…in fact, we’ve had that ability for a long time. It doesn’t require high-resolution audio or even digital. It can be done using analog tape or vinyl but only if the intention of the production is to have incredible fidelity. Sadly, that’s not a goal of most productions. A Metallica record doesn’t warrant huge dynamic range and extended frequency response. It would love to hear some metal in full surround, however.

  4. Hi Mark

    Congrats on 1000. I think I’ve read 999!

    I have learned from all your writings exactly what you have explained over the years that Hi Res music as a definition is not necessarily the resolution of the music that is “contained” in the file that is downloaded most typically at 96/24.(or other values higher than 44/16 CD quality). The 1970’s 80’s music that I download from HD tracks or ProStudio masters etc at 96/24 I originally did think were HRA. Since you have explained the reality of the definition of HRA I now listen with a more critical ear to the sound and evaluate the quality as I feel it is, not Hi res or Lo res etc.

    I have found however, that I prefer the downloads that come from these so called Hi Res sites rather than the iTunes or similar download sites. This is not ALWAYS the case but I would say that out of every 100 downloads, 90 of these purportedly Hi res downloads are cleaner and have more dynamic range than the typical iTunes download of compressed lossy file material and therefore they do sound better.

    Those comments “HRA files are all BETTER than CD and most are 24 bit depth” are clearly ignorant of the technical facts and I agree that the technical definition of Hi Res is meaningless in all these downloads, BUT they are better sounding and are probably worth a few dollars more than the lossy downloads.

    The marketing term “download CD quality” would obviously be more accurate, but most people think anyway that iTunes downloads etc are CD or Analogue quality or “whatever”. In my experience the average music listener just listens to the downloads and if its a well mastered track contained in a lossy file, he/she doesn’t care what resolution the file is since it still sounds good in the earphones.

    But the concept that HD Tracks has brought to the market is still an audio step up and I for one really enjoy these downloads sound quality, which is often better than the comparative CD since it is or may have been remastered for the new lossless file container, and the DACs today are often better than the CD Players’.

    If we agree that the technical definition of HRA is usually wrong, then it is just a case of rewriting that definition to define” better than lossy” or “remasterd for download” or a combination of those 2 technical changes from the typical lossy files (mp3’s etc). And use the HRA definition only for the true HRA source material that is contained in the lossless file.

    That to me would be a more useful argument to put forward for marketing this downloaded material or even the streaming at CD quality from Tidal. Its all about finding another market to resell the music to.

    The fact that HRA terms are used to differentiate the lossy mp3/itunes downloads or streams, is as you have clearly stated an easier way of marketing this difference between the initial lossy downloads and now typically the lossless Flac downloads.

    Your knowledge of this differential would be an excellent point of discussion even if the term Hi Res is not specifically used to define these improved downloads. And then to explain that a true Hi Res download would be even better, would a) be clearly understood and b) open another level of marketing for “even better sounding downloads”. 3 Levels of downloads/streaming: Mp3/iTunes, CD or analogue, Hi Res. 3 different prices. (Tidal seems to get it)

    You have pointed out correctly that the sites should define the source of the tracks on the track description.

    In Summary:
    The definition of the potential quality of the sound of the track being downloaded should be marketed not by the file containers resolution but by the fact that the track is uncompressed, its original recorded resolution and remastered if it was. In marketing jargon thats being consumer oriented not product oriented like PONO and those irritating comments pertaining to “Our Hi Res downloads are as the Artist Intended”. I would hope their initial CD or Album was as the Artist intened in the first place.

    • Thanks for the comments. I think your points are correct. I’ve been trying to differentiate things over these past 10-15 years but the clouds are still there. We can only get the best possible fidelity from any given track. Could producers and engineers do better? Yes, they could but they have no financial or professional incentive to do so. They work for the record labels. And the artists don’t really care either…they either don’t know or are just in it for their ego and the money.

  5. Hi Mark, and congratulations on writing 1000 posts worth reading, and that only do good!! It’s an achievement!!

    I wanted to ask about what you mentioned in an earlier post: “MQA has also secured some important strategic “playback partners” including Pioneer, Mytek, Onkyo, Bluesound, Meridian (no big surprise there!), Auralic, Aurender, Ixion, Kripton, Berkeley Audio Design, and Imagination.”

    I wonder if you could inform us a little about the process and compromises that are involved in companies like Sonic Studios and the component manufacturers mentioned, getting MQA.
    Why must the MQA format be adopted by manufacturers? Will it remain a proprietary feature of these components? Will I be able to play MQA with my Audirvana player, iTunes or VLC? And do you think that most manufacturers will be forced to opt-in?
    I’m thinking of a company like Benchmark, for example, that only added limited DSD capabilities to their DAC2 series, for convenience of to give users the option to play native DSD. I haven’t heard the opinion of a guy like John Siau on MQA, regarding quality, relevance or convenience.

    I understand MQA is basically shrinking big HRA files – makes me kinda wanna shrink audiophiles too, lol – in order to stream them, and containing information that will guarantee and certify provenance and losslessness (damn, that’s a new word altogehter, lol). But this inevitably brings us to the question about how hard it is to falsify the info, etc., and as with any certification or guarantee, the question of how trustworthy it is, etc.

    I am asking all of this, because I am in favor of open hardware and software, and valuing the rights of consumers to control their gear vs companies controlling consumers through restrictions and DRM. I think the proprietary world of restrictions, digital hand-cuffs and draconian copyright laws, has to be dealt with just like copyright and abusive industry practices that exploit musicians and criminalize consumers.
    I don’t use streaming services and refuse to, not because I wouldn’t like to have the access they provide – that’s something I totally support – but because I won’t stand for another and worse business model than the previous one of selling physical media. I see the internet and digital technology as the potential to leave behind all of that once and for all, and to free both as universal and free access to music as possible – just like with books in libraries – as well as to provide a model in which musicians profit and benefit directly from their work, without middle-men and direction from producers, etc.

    If MQA is yet another ploy to tap into the middle-men structure and which gives nothing to musicians or consumers, then I believe it is also important to oppose it.

    Cheers!

    • MQA is an end to end solution…similar to MLP (one of Meridian’s former technologies used for DVD-Audio). The original file is encoded in a proprietary format and then decoded in the hardware or software at the reproduction end. That requires the end delivery platform to secure a license…which is how Dolby, DTS and MQA earn revenue. It’s a very good way to make money…ALL of the hardware has to have the decoders even if they are used. MQA will get paid on a per unit basis.

      • It’s important to add that the file will still play on non-MQA equipment, it will just be at “CD quality”. That’s different than a completely closed format. MQA-compatible equipment lets you unlock the higher end of it and the MQA features, such as provenance confirmation.

  6. Celebrate your accomplishments! You’ve enlightened many people to the concepts and benefits of a better recorded/listening experience (including me). Your brutal honesty has shaken a lot of trees and I for one thank you for that. My only observation,that you can take with a grain of salt, is don’t use the professional acquaintances you profess as peers in the quest for higher resolution and then get on your soapbox to condemn them for their take on how it should be done! As an observer, it’s your way or the highway and I can’t imagine your peers haven’t read your posts and questioned (Why am I friends with this guy?) There are many ways to skin a cat…keep that mind open

    • Thanks Matt.

  7. Hello Mark
    Keep up the good work, and weather people agree or not the discussion is important. I have also noticed equipment manufactures going higher and higher with the numbers. Some CD players up-sample by design, claiming better fidelity. I can respect an engineering decision that makes a product less expensive or more reliable, but audio improvements can only be subjective to the end user, especially if they go above normal human hearing. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer stores where one can test drive this new gear.

  8. 1000 posts and still going strong – congrats!

  9. I’m not sure if congratulations are in order as you’ve had to pay a high price in many ways for the honesty and truth you’ve published in this blog.
    But you deserve our highest level of gratitude and innumerable Thank You’s for letting those who will listen understand the true reasoning and direction that some of those in the audiophile community use to try and take the path to tomorrow.

    • Thanks Sal.

  10. Like the folks above so eloquently expressed, congratulations on your one thousandth post! It’s not a meaningless milestone for your audience, Mark. I appreciate that you have the balls to go against the grain in a tight knit industry at some real risk to your livelihood. The good news is that it’s hard to argue with what’s truthful, honest, and science. The fact that your relentless pursuit of the aforementioned ideals is a strong testament of honor over mere profit. Don’t misunderstand me people, there’s nothing at all wrong with making a good living, especially when you are driven by a passion. I doubt any of your regular readers, listeners, and consumers have any problem with the success you deserve. I watched the interview with Katz and was immediately offended when he mentioned the High Res Mafia, how dare anyone try suppressing the advancement of better audio, particularly someone in the biz. Until the industry embraces the honesty of provenance, those manufacturers & labels with a few exceptions (i.e. AIX) must be looked upon as deceitful. There’s just no nice way to say it, nor do I want to be nice, the technology is here and people are sick of the deceptive practices.
    I’ll say it till the day I croak, thanks Mark for what you’ve done for those who care.

    • Thanks Bruce.

  11. Mark, this line from your article defines the problem:

    “Unfortunately, we are no closer to having a definition of high-resolution audio or high-resolution music than we were three years ago.”

    The reason there’s no definition is because the very concept of “high resolution” is flawed. What’s really needed is to define the minimum standards by which audio quality is not compromised. Anything “better” than that is unnecessary and just wastes bandwidth. So what is the minimum needed for a recording / distribution medium to not color the sound even a tiny bit? I imagine most people here know the answer, but few are willing to acknowledge the truth even to themselves.

    • If the technology that we use to capture, post, and distribute music has the potential to meet the capabilities of human hearing, I’m good. Anything less is a compromise…and in this day and age unnecessary. As far as specs, that places things clearly in the PCM camp at 96 khs/24-bits. CD come dangerously close in the real world…but it’s so easy to move to the next level, why not?

  12. As far as I know CDs are good enough to be fully transparent, not just “dangerously close.” I’ve never seen a report of someone being able to identify when a 44/16 “bottleneck” was inserted into a playback chain in a proper test. If you know of a legitimate test where someone could tell when a 24/96 playback was reduced to 44/16 I’d love to know about it. I’m not trying to be a jerk! I honestly want to know if it’s ever been proven that 44/16 is insufficient for transparency. As for “why not” the reason for me is simple economics: 1) 24/96 uses 3.26 times more bandwidth and storage space, and 2) buying all my CDs again would cost several thousand dollars.

    • Ethan, I’ll stick with “dangerously close” because of the improvement in the specifications…especially the ability of 24-bit converters (and yes, I know they fall short of the theoretical limits) to allow lower noise floors and more dynamic range. I agree that virtually every release could live comfortably within the specs and sound of a compact disc but there is more available “fidelity” in a 96 kHz/24-bit PCM file. It’s easy to do, the equipment is available, it’s cheap, consumers can access it, and the bandwidth increase is trivial. As for buying you catalog again, don’t. The fidelity of all of your CDs won’t improve by putting them in a larger bit bucket. But recording like my own and others do deserve…and require…the added dynamic range.

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