Dr. AIX's POSTS — 09 September 2016

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I usually take the time to watch the September Apple event. I haven’t had a chance to check out the entire presentation but I did watch the opening few minutes of CEO Tim Cook’s keynote during which he said, “We’ve always had a deep love of music. It’s inspiring. And it’s such a key part of our product experience.” Then he continued providing updates on the Apple Music service, which he claimed has 17 million subscribers. If I had driven Mr. Cook to the auditorium, I would have asked him why Apple keeps pushing down the fidelity of music played through their devices? I mean it should be obvious to any Apple follower that they are moving in the wrong direction when it comes to audio quality. The new iPhone 7 and it’s move to wireless communication between the device and the new AirPods Earphones moves the quality needle down instead of up. Maybe when Bluetooth 5.0 comes along we’ll get real high-resolution specifications but in the meantime, there’s no reason to get excited about the new iPhone if you’re turned on by music fidelity.

By losing the wires, they’re bound by the transmission protocols in use by the telecommunications industry. That is currently Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. They claim to be able to run 48 kHz/24-bit WAV or AIFF files on the new W1 chip but the source coming from Apple Music or iTunes is much less than that and the uploads from the record labels don’t cut it as well. The fidelity will remain at AAC quality at 256 or 320 kbps. And that fidelity is perfectly fine for the vast majority of tunes consumed on portable devices. Remember Hi-Res Audio and Hi-Res Music are myths promoted by the labels and consumer electronics makers to generate higher profits while doing nothing for the fidelity of the source materials that are released from the major labels.

Already companies like Astell & Kern are busy introducing products that can work around the new iPhone. They announced the XB10, which connects via Bluetooth 4.2 and provides headphone devotees a method to maintain their wired connections. How do they deal with Bluetooth well known sonic limitations? They — and plenty of other companies — “solve” the problem by using aptX HD, a Qualcomm technology after their acquisition of CSR. When you read about aptX HD, you notice the copywriters step very carefully around the issue of fidelity and focus on bit length and distortion levels. AptX was touted as capable of “CD-quality”. The enhancements incorporated in the HD version bring the virtual bit length to 24-bits. Too bad none of the music you will ever stream or download contains 24-bit quality. In fact, the dynamic range is steadfastly less than 16-bits. It’s all a game of numbers.

In the article I read about aptX and aptX HD, it was curious to see Dr. Stephen Smyth’s name associated with its early development in the 1980s in Ireland. This is the same Dr. Smyth of Smyth Research that is behind the A8 and new A16 Room Realiser. It’s a very small world when you’re dealing with cutting edge and innovative audio technologies. Their Kickstarter campaign eclipsed $330,000!

Apple has more money and resources than any company on the planet. They’ve got plenty of very smart audio engineers — including Tomlinson Holman of THX fame — and music people (Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine). So why can’t they be a leader in portable audio quality instead of keeping the brakes on development of devices that produce better sound? I’m saddened by the continual meaningless claims of “high-resolution audio” by companies, engineers, experts, and writers that can’t distinguish between the same old audio quality and audible higher quality.

I doubt that it will ever change. Slick animations and clever ad campaigns won’t improve recordings made by an industry that is content with the same old over compressed hits.

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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.

(20) Readers Comments

  1. I longer get disappointed by the poor quality of AAC from an iPhone. Music for the masses wont be there for at least another decade or until an underdog tries to capture market share by doing it right.
    If you are relying on your mobile device to provide your hi res music you will be disappointed. Hi res comes form having your ducks in a row and using other products and other music sources. It’s not that hard and not too cheap but it can be done and the results are really enjoyable, at least for me.
    I came to the realization that very few millennial’s even know what hi res sounds like when an employee at the office turned to me and said we should have some tunes while we do this project. She whipped out her single speaker iPhone and started streaming mp3. They all started dancing and wiggling around none the wiser. Too bad its their loss. I wish they all could be exposed to the good stuff, but then it wouldn’t be free and believe me they want free.

  2. Or you could look at it this way. Apple’s new wireless Air Pods are ACC 256kbps the same as Apple Music and iTunes Match. Now they have the whole chain the same. Once this is accomplished then Apple can move the resolution up as demand allows and when they can keep the wireless headphones at the same fidelity. It has to be done wireless to have a large enough potential market.

  3. How does Sony LDAC technology fit in here? Is it just aptX by another name or something else?

    • The folks at SONY have been the most aggressive hardware company to push hi-res audio. LDAC is touted on their website as “LDAC is an audio coding technology developed by Sony that enables the transmission of High-Resolution (Hi-Res) Audio content, even over a Bluetooth connection.” If the original content isn’t 24-bits worth of dynamics then why worry about streaming it? THis is just more hype to sell more hardware.

      • No you’re wrong I tested both Sony Hi-Res Hi end product is best. The Hi-Res on Sony mobile phone is an entry level only that’s why you could not hear anything. If you want to hear Hi-res invest in Earphone not just ordinary 50 bucks or less USD. Try HD 800 by Senhiezer or T1 by Beyerdynamics you can hear the difference from your unit and other best audio products in the market like Astern and Kern or Lotoo Gold.

        • I’m glad that these devices are working for you. I would counter that the reason I don’t hear any difference is because the source masters don’t have any high-resolution content to make an A&K or high-end SOny device light up.

          • I think playing mp3 type in high res player is a bit stupidity why buying hires product for low quality audio.

  4. Really … Has Apple moved away from Hi-Res Audio?

    Your closing paragraph of:
    “I doubt that it will ever change. Slick animations and clever ad campaigns won’t improve recordings made by an industry that is content with the same old over compressed hits.”
    is more of a broader statement of the state of music industry as opposed to Apple themselves.

    I think the subject for this post’s content is more directed at the fact that Apple hasn’t done anything to advance their delivery of music files in either lossy or HRA formats from their store. They is no indication that Apple has moved away from what they currently support for HRA.

    I am not an Apple fan boy, but I have always believed that audiophile and HRA with respect to wireless sound reproduction were like oil and water, especially any product that is using “public wireless spectrum” as would be the case with the ISM radio bands. Delivering products like wireless ear buds is to address a specific connectivity requirement, and has no relevance on the current methods to efficiently deliver or store music (ie. lossy compression formats). As a matter of fact, I cannot equate any past or current “earphone” apparatus from Apple as being of Audiophile quality, so I doubt there has been any deviation.

    Mastering for iTunes as per “http://images.apple.com/itunes/mastered-for-itunes/docs/mastered_for_itunes.pdf” still spells out best practices of delivering hi-res masters (24-bit, 96kHz) to Apple. Sure Apple currently down converts the masters for current Apple store/radio transport and storage models (lossy AAC 256), but that doesn’t mean that they can’t change the delivery/storage format to be more hi-res compliant unless the music mastering wasn’t mastered correctly in the first place. And it doesn’t mean that you can’t add your own HRA content directly to the device via iTunes.

    What should be noted is the new iPhone 7 has doubled its storage capacity which would be an enablement for providing the storage capacity that is required to supporting HRA.

    Now if you want to make this about Apple products not supporting Hi-Res music, let’s look at the issue where past and present iTunes still doesn’t support the FLAC file format being added to your Library, BUT that does not say they are moving from HRA either. iTunes does support adding HRA files in either WAV and Apple Lossless formats. This is not conjecture, I tested this as I composed this post using a 24-bit, 88.2 kHz track that was in WAV format and also converted to Apple Lossless format and was able to add the files to an iTunes Library. Unfortunately, past devices have not supported playing Apple Lossless files with sample rates greater than 48 kHz, but they do support 24-bit/48kHz which IS an HRA format. The vague technical specifications for the iPhone 7 do not indicate any variance from the past, so until someone can verify whether or not the iPhone 7 is no longer supported 24/48 the subjects assertion is misleading.

    What would be newsworthy is reporting whether the new device(s), or the audio interface on the Lightning connector can handle HRA files greater than 24/48 now, or handle 24/48 better than they used to.
    I think it’s hard to assert that Apple is moving away from HRA, especially when you reference a 3rd party product that leverages the HRA capabilities of the new iPhone. At best the assertion should be that they are staying the course and not expanding their support/output fidelity for HRA.

  5. Why, you ask? Because Johnny Ives runs the Apple show as much as Tim Cook. Ives and Jobs were/are obsessed with the form factor – everything else takes a distance second or third backseat. The form factor dictates sales and up-sales at Apple. Always has.

    First, the sleek bit of kit. Then, when one traditional function/port is dropped, the up-sale happens. In the iPhone 7’s case, bluetooth headphones. Remember Firewire? Dropping the CD/DVD drive? Every display port under the sun: mini DVI, mini-display, lightening, etc. All those carry a cord or an adapter, and in Firewire’s case, a small ecosystem of peripherals – now deceased. In the case of CD drive’s demise, a larger bandwidth internet router was needed to handle additional downloading.

    I’ve owned Apple’s since the Lisa. But I’ve always recognized a marketer when I saw one. (For a healthy take on marketers, search Bill Hicks on marketing!) Apple simply puts a ‘turn key’ product out there. Sometimes a bit innovative. Mostly not. It might be the key to a silly, suburban McMansion – but unless one has the time and patience to figure out the spaghetti code of Windows – it’ll do in a pinch.

  6. I have gotten to the position that this never going to change no matter how much it is discussed. The average consumer, who far far outnumber those that have an opinion on the subject, just don’t care. They are perfectly happy with the AAC or mp3 format and the resolution it delivers. As critical as I am about the sound of my system I have to admit that most of the time those formats are “good enough” for me and what I am attempting to listen to. Gone are the days when I have time to sit and listen to music for any length of time, rather for me it’s usually an ancillary activity to something else I have going on (such as listening in the background while I type this post!).

    Given the provenance of most of the available music, which you have discussed many times, those formats generally will deliver most (if not all) of the music to the listener anyway in my opinion. The average listeners are oftentimes in environments where they could not hear the nuances of the music files anyway. Again, they don’t seem to care. Apple must recognize this and of course they tailor their products to the masses.

    There are already products out there that will work with the new iPhone configuration to deliver higher quality sound. AudioQuest has updated their Dragonfly to work via the Lightning connector for connection to headphones of all quality, and Oppo has their HA-2 headphone amp for this same purpose (this is the device I have chosen as it also acts as a battery charger for my phone if needed). I understand Apple had to license these devices in a way that the stored music on the phones is sent to the device as a file to be processed externally as compared to just sending the processed music to a headphone jack (whether it is the old analog jack or the new Lightning to analog jack). I do hear a significant difference in testing for myself between the file as played by an app on the phone as opposed to being processed and played via the headphone jack on the Oppo.

    For those of us who care about the sound, I would submit there are those types of solutions available. I hold no hope the companies will step up to address this in any way though!

  7. On the other hand, one of the principal reasons that Apple has done away with the analog 3.5mm audio connection and moved to the digital Lightning connection for audio is just to provide better audio. I don’t know what the specs for the Lightning to 3.5mm adapter are, but if they aren’t up to audiophile standards, there’s an opportunity there for audiophile accessories. The iPhone is now just a digital audio source, with no significant limitation on what digital audio files may be used, and users may either use the D/A processor in the Lightning to 3.5mm adapter provided with every iPhone or use whatever other D/A processor they prefer. That seems like a big step up from having only the 3.5mm connection. I don’t think we would want to say, for example, the Apple is moving away from better audio because it doesn’t provide audiophile earphones with every iPhone. Wireless is a somewhat different matter. You have to balance the amount of data being transmitted with the battery life of both the iPhone itself and the earphones, and this depends on the best chip technology reasonably available. In this iteration of technology, with Apple’s own wireless Airpods, with their custom-designed chips, I think they’re expecting only about 5 hours of battery life. That’s already a significant compromise. There’s no reason not to expect Apple to keep improving its audio; it certainly hasn’t been backtracking, and it’s certainly kept improving its video, not to mention just about everything else. As for iTunes, it was my understanding that Apple was asking for the best source files it can get—up to 24b, 96kHz, which I think I’ve learned from these posts is all an audiophile need ask for.

  8. For your amusement… enjoy! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9oUUNb7aybA

  9. Since the loss of Steve Jobs, Apple has been a company in technological decline, buoyed by its ever faithful, and massive, following, who will seemingly accept whatever Apple releases simply because it’s an Apple product. These new headphones are profoundly ugly, whatever their technical limitation.

    My business requires me to own an iOS device and I am writing this on a very recent iPad, but I’d much rather be using an Android device in terms of ease of use and visual quality etc.

    In short, Apple keynotes no longer excite like they used to and, as often as not, feature tech that’s been launched elsewhere, but without the marketing fanfare.

    I strongly suspect that if Jobs were still at the helm that we would indeed be in the age of hi-res audio at Apple, as Jobs would have been able to sell that in a convincing way that the current powers that be seem to be incapable of. They seem to permanently be playing catch up without his inspiration.

    Unfortunately, until Apple adopts hi-res standards, at whatever level, their impact will be severely neutered. It’s an irony that the company that essentially led us down the path of compressed audio will quite possibly be the last to improve upon it.

  10. @Mark
    On a sidenote:
    It seems that Apple did not buy Omnifone – who did?
    Where do the streaming services get their files as of today?

  11. Look at the audio specs for the new LG V20 smart phone

    – 32-bit/192kHz audio
    – B&O Play certified
    – 24-bit/48kHz audio recording
    – Active noise cancellation with dedicated mic

    Now look at the rest of the specs. Watch out Ted Smith, you may have met your match 🙂

    http://www.gsmarena.com/lg_v20-8238.php

    If this is the future of smart phones, it could be the death knell of high priced so called high end audio. And you can even make phone calls with it.

  12. Mark, have “courage!” 😉

  13. As someone who would have been called an Apple fanboy for many years, I have to say that I have found myself disillusioned by most of what the company does these days. As such I have sold my iPad Pro and MacBook Pro, replaced them both with a Microsoft Surface Book and am very happy with it. I still have my 27″ iMac Retina for working on, but will I buy another when the time comes?

    I also sold my iPhone 6+ and replaced it with a Sony Xperia phone which is capable of playing back all of my 24bit and DSD music files without having to convert them first. I no longer have to have my music in iTunes now either as I moved to ROON about a year ago. Apple Photos, dumped that too….

    I am not alone in this transitions as many other people I know are doing the same. Everything Apple do of late seems so contrived. Maybe I am just cynical, who knows, but the over use of superlatives in every key note speech is simply too much to tolerate over and over. The current TV ad for the iPad Pro claiming it is now a computer because it has a keyboard says it all about what Apple thinks of it’s customers: i.e., “If we say it the loyal followers will believe it”…..well guess what Tim Cook, no we will not, not anymore.

  14. I wouldn’t worry too much about Apple’s low-res audience. They’re already contented POWs of the Loudness Wars. What’s the point of increasing the bit depth of insanely compressed music?

    All discussions of file quality must finally take us back to mastering. Mastering is down for car-wreck impact now — for slam, for emergency ward fizzle. And looking at the top selling music, I’m not sure it matters if its fans’ ears bleed.

    Seriously — does anyone really think Britney or Beyoncé need 24-bit releases? Sixteen bits is already being generous.

  15. I did not read all comments so forgive me if this has been mentioned, but from the looks of it the main lack of focus on anything other than lossy format from Apple is probably as much their dedication to working from “cloud’ storage and streaming (also lossy) from net services vs local device/expandable storage. We are close to the point where even mobile bandwidth capabilities would enable streaming and real-time transcoding of remotely hosted source material…but there is still a little ways to go.

    I’ll stick with my cheap throw-away Androids in the mean time as my mobile solution. 128GB (soon to be 256) of wav/flac/dsd in my pocket, and usb otg capable with external dac out of the box

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