AUDIO SHOWS Dr. AIX's POSTS — 16 January 2017

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I returned from the 2017 CES Show on Sunday afternoon a week ago after supporting the Comhear/MyBeam demo suite in the Venetian for the three days. Unfortunately, I didn’t get many chances to escape the craziness of the Venetian. But there was plenty to see, hear, and discuss within the halls of the 29th, 30th, and 31st floors. I was tempted but didn’t visit the AudioQuest or Nordost rooms. Can I assume that most rational audiophiles have already sorted out the realities of $4000 USB cables and putting added plugs into your power strip? I’m not going there. Let’s see if we can make it through 2017 without ranting too mkuch about the nonsense behind designer cables and the insane marketing campaigns that promote them (not to mention the magazines and websites that swallow their Kool Aid).

I should note that the show was smaller, less well attended, and had significantly less exhibitors than years past. It’s unfortunate that the high-end audio market has failed to excite young people but I guess it has something to do with the high prices generally associated with good sound, the poor fidelity of the music being released these days, and the attraction for convenience over quality. It also doesn’t help that both the hardware and software sides of market continue to promote the myth that Hi-Res Audio delivers a brave new work of increased fidelity.

This year’s CES show didn’t have Neil Young pushing his Pono initiative in one of the ballrooms in the Venetian. There wasn’t a TechZone dedicated to high-resolution audio like in years past. In 2014 and 2015, AIX Records was cajoled into participating in the HRA ballroom, raised some supporting funds through this website to make it possible, and saw virtually no upside for the effort. There’s nothing real about hi-res audio, the way that it’s been foisted on the marketplace.

But this year was different. The Digital Entertainment Group in collaboration with the major labels, some hardware companies, and even AudioQuest (yes, there are high-resolution cables apparently!) assembled an ambitious gathering in the central hall of the LVCC and dubbed it the “Hi-Res Audio Pavilion”. There were sections for the supporting vendors and a mock up recording studio in the middle of the layout to convince attendees that you can really hear what the engineers in the studio hear. And MQA was there pushing their “master quality authenticated” process, which TIDAL and others have embraced as a way to deliver better masters — and charge more for streaming music.

I saw Samsung there pitching their new sound bar and their process for upconverting regular 16-bit audio to 32-bits. They call it “Ultra High Quality” Audio but it remains to be seen how increasing the number of bits on a standard resolution recording transforms the original fidelity to anything other than a very big copy of the same fidelity. The only parties that might — might — benefit from using 32-bits are my colleagues. It’s pretty clear that most musicians, engineers, record producers, the labels, and consumers don’t really care about increasing the fidelity of music. If they did, they wouldn’t plaster the walls of their pavilion with recordings from 40 years ago and think that makes them hi-res music (a different logo for the content). Obviously, we all want the best possible reproduction of our favorite tunes — but simply putting them in bigger bit buckets, slapping an ever changing array of new logos on them, and promoting them through all sorts of media isn’t going to make one bit of difference.

The seems to be a collective effort to market hi-res music without any regard to whether it makes any difference. They’re all chasing the wrong end of the music fidelity beast. Instead of putting on slick presentations in expensive booths, or assembling a panel of so-called industry experts, they should start by creating recordings that actually possess better fidelity than we’re currently getting. They’ve defined all music ever created as hi-res if it’s delivered to you in a high-resolution digital container. I was unimpressed.

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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.

(35) Readers Comments

  1. Hello Mark
    Sorry to hear the event was lackluster. There seems to be a lot of new equipment available these days, but as you said, few new recordings worth looking at. I understand DSD has risen to 512K. Is this nothing but marketing?

    • You can pretty much assume that larger numbers are triggered by marketing departments and are the result of necessity. By the time you get to 96 kHz/24-bit PCM audio, you’ve reached a point where people and equipment are maxed out. DSD is such a non-starter for me for a variety of reasons. It doesn’t sound better (studies have shown that listeners couldn’t tell the difference between a high-res PCM file and DSD), you can’t work with it in the studio, it creates unnecessarily large files, and is full of ultrasonic noise. Who would want that?

  2. Mark, you did not have much to report on from 2017 CES I guess because there was no much to report on. Speaking strictly for myself, I have no interest at all in attending such a show because I don’t need the show to help me with anything I don’t already know, have, or need. I have and have had access to all the quality music I can possibly listen to from CD’s (unless there is a flaw in the recording, hi-rez made from original master tapes and studio 16/44.1 don’t improve sound quality – DSD is a farce – MQA is a marketing gimmick), I could spend the rest of my life auditioning new music by streaming Apple Music from my computer, I can rip CD’s into my computer as a server with perfect bit transparency, and I can listen to all this music wirelessly using my computer and Sonos Connect. Access, convenience, and quality readily available and made simple.

    • Thanks, you’re right. The audiophile business is eating itself with all of the unfounded claims and new format tweaks.

  3. You stated that “TIDAL and others have embraced as a way to deliver better masters — and charge more for streaming music.” . I have not seen any increase in price for MQA “Masters” on Tidal. Is this a fact that you are stating? Thanks.

    • You’re right they don’t charge extra for the Master on Tidal. But the tier that includes high quality streaming is already more.

      • Right now MQA is in a demo mode. I expect the cost to increase once it becomes standard fare. Why else would it be offered if not for profit?

        • I don’t think MQA will ever become “standard fare” or at least I certainly hope not. Why would the record industry want a single company with a proprietary technology to control access to the highest quality sound available? It makes no sense — especially as there is not audible improvement with an MQA file over a high-resolution PCM transfer of the original file. If the claimed “deblurring” is audible on standard-resolution files, I certainly didn’t hear it and if it’s that subtle, it’s not worth it. Instead, the music industry should offer better recording by offloading the mastering to our local devices. Let me chose how much dynamic range I want in my music.

  4. While the sellers of playback equipment will play the numbers game yet again, I have come to the conclusion that most of the damage is done by the time the music has got on to the CD/hi-res download. I have been astonished at what a difference good mastering can do, for example. Maybe that’s one reason why older mmusic is still so popular. So much music is level-compressed to death now, which is adding a form of distortion, that it’s hard to follow anything when actively listening. If the user is listening in a noisy environment, then let the player do the compression, I say.

    • If the input to the system is seriously flawed or overcompressed or overmastered, then the rest of the chain is limited in its ability to deliver great fidelity.

  5. This is the key to the whole thing “they should start by creating recordings that actually possess better fidelity than we’re currently getting”. Without this 16, 24, 32 bits, it doesn’t matter.

    • Yep.

  6. Amen!

  7. I must ask you does any of the hi-res stuff matter if there are only 15,000+ albums available? I believe them when they say the market for hi-res streaming is potentially 12 million people. But since 100 million people now pay for streaming who are they fooling? Seven out of eight people paying don’t care. And they still have to convince the 12 million.

    Finally I wrote a post declaring MQA vaporware on January 2nd. 1,200 posts and 33,000 views later….

    • There are actually far fewer than 15,000 high resolution albums. The ones claimed as Hi-Res Music by the DEG, CEA, and labels aren’t. MQA is unnecessary and doesn’t solve the production issues in commercial music.

      • If you could get me the numbers of 24/96 or greater hi-res albums it would be very useful.

        • Steve, it’s actually a hard question to answer. There’s one number (approximately 15,000) albums that have been transferred from analog tape to 96 kHz/24-bit PCM digital files. And then there’s the number of albums that were actually recorded at 96 kHz/24-bits or higher, which is about 2000. The transferred albums in high-resolution digital bit buckets will sound identical to the analog original — with all of the problems of analog tape (distortion, scrape flutter etc). The only real high-resolution albums are the new ones and they are the only ones that would benefit from MQA processing.

          • Thank you I had a feeling that was the case. Very similar to what Cookie told me at RMAF 2016 about DSD.

      • Yes, but it removes true lossless CD quality streaming from the consumer in a way DRM was never able to do.
        Now you can’t copy it cause you can’t have it in the first place.
        Then to get anything better you’ll pay $ for MQA to Meridian and the labels

    • LOL, I read your post about MQA. Interesting timing! 🙂

      I’m itching to get home and give it a listen for myself. Most people listening to it seem to think it sounds better than the CD quality albums but I want to compare with the CD rips I have myself. Interesting times ahead.

      Mark, have you tried MQA? And if you did, what do you think?

      • I have heard MQA demos at a few shows going back to the 2015 CES show. I was promised by Bob Stuart that his MQA team would process a number of my files and let me compare them to the originals. I uploaded a bunch of tracks to them and nothing ever happened. As for the demos of older analog tapes (Bob Dylan, Ray Charles etc), they sounded fabulous for standard-resolution recordings. Did they sound better than a high-resolution PCM or FLAC transfer? Absolutely not. Those who rave about the fidelity improvements offered by MQA are misunderstanding the technology. According to the inventor (who I interviewed for my upcoming book), the concept is simply to minimize the degradation of the original master as it makes it way from the studio to the end user.

      • Actually the timing was perfect and planned to be just before CES.

  8. Might as well record your message here Mark. You can then drop the needle on all that’s been said these past 3 years. Only the market driven procession of hardware exceeds the guiltless portrayal of hi-Rez.

  9. “There’s nothing real about hi-res audio, the way that it’s been foisted on the marketplace.”

    Is this a resignation to the truth? An admission? A dose of reality? An epiphany? But you already told us that in your lecture to the LA Audio Society. No one of the recording engineers who participated in your experiment could hear any difference between true high resolution or high definition or whatever you call it that you created and the down conversion to 44/16 even using headphones. This was among audio engineers, not tyros or people selling product to a market but engineers talking to each other frankly. BTW, this was the best test to make a comparison I’ve ever heard of.

    Is there hope for a better future for sound systems that will outperform the best we have today. I can tell you with 100% confidence that the answer is YES. But it will not come from doing what’s already been done only doing it better. It will come from an entirely different direction and the results will be radical. I don’t know when this will happen. There was no interest in my technology when it was patented in 1982 or since, and even I’ve lost interest in it having heard as much music as I care to. The only person you know who has had a demonstration of this technology was Paul McGowan. I thought jaw dropping was just a metaphorical expression. He doesn’t talk about it much but after hearing an opera at the New York Metropolitan Opera House he came away saying on his blog that the current state of the art is “canned music.” by comparison. Why is it so and what can be done about it? He seemed very disappointed that you didn’t shower him with accolades over his best sound system. Love me love my stereo system or recordings or whatever. Me, I have no emotional attachment to equipment, recordings, or even live music. I enjoyed it but a passion for it? No. I see it clearly for what it is, a pleasant diversion whether live or recorded, whether produced by humans or machines. It is the intellectual challenges I confront that enthrall me. Solving them is my ultimate high. The actual machines themselves, eh, not so much.

    • The quote you prefaced your comment with has a qualification that makes all the difference in its interpretation. The way the DEG, major labels, and trade organizations have specified and promoted high-resolution audio is problematic. They have lumped all recorded sound into the hi-res category as long as it has been transferred into high-resolution bit buckets. That makes it meaningless because as I’ve often pointed out, it the fidelity of the source that matters. That is the truth. However, there are some labels – my own included — that have produced and released real high-resolution audio projects that do have frequencies and dynamic range in excess of standard-resolution format like vinyl LPs, analog tape and CDs. I believe and it has been demonstrated at better than random chance, that real hi-res audio recordings can be detected over downconverted versions of the same tracks. Whether this is the result of the SRC or something else, I can’t guess.

      The reality of the hi-res audio business is one thing and the pushing of the boundaries with appropriate engineering practices and equipment, higher specification, and attention to maximizing fidelity are something different — and the music business is not interested in the latter.

      • The internet never forgets. Here is what you said Mark;

        “What about High resolution audio? Here’s are some authoritative quotes; “The honest truth is that at the end of the day if I played a 44.1,16 bit recording in here and I played my 96K 24 bit originals none of you could tell the difference. My friends in the mastering community can’t tell the difference.” “Guitar Noir is one of our best selling albums….notice that the full scale of 96 24 goes up to 46 khz. …there are frequency components that actually exceed 20 khz. But Mark you said earlier we don’t hear that. I don’t care. My definition of fidelity means that if it’s coming out of…..I’d like to capture it ….maybe, just maybe there is something going on in our brains…..” “Folks, we’re deluding ourselves….compact discs, this is our reference folks, this is our standard definition audio. It’s not hi rez, it sounds wonderful and anybody sits there and says oh yea, they can instantly hear the difference between a CD and a hi rez file they’re crackers, it’s not easy to do. We did tests. They played them through headphones, they played my 96K 24….downconverted from 96.4 to 44.1. Well guess what, every recording that they used as a test…”

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5S_DI99wd8

        You said no one could hear the difference. I took you at your word. The result is entirely consistent with the theory of measurement of sound and hearing. Now you seem to be arguing with yourself. As the lawyers say [sarcasm, no offense intended] were you lying then or are you lying now?

        • Not sure what you’re getting at there Soundmind. I know over the years you have referred to your technique – something about sound fields and vector component of sound… But I thought you said it could not be implemented, too expensive or something like that. Would love to hear more about it… But if it’s a technique that cannot be realized in the real world, then it’s just an academic curiosity, right?

          Anyhow, I always thought the video where Mark was talking about nobody being able to hear the difference with hi-res was referring to that venue. Not that nobody can hear a difference in all circumstances. My sense is that hi-res is subtle, hence I’m not too invested in it. Nonetheless, I am glad there are folks like Mark who work hard at producing music at the highest levels of available resolution!

  10. Right on Dr. AIX.

    BTW, I guess everyone knows by now that the Pono Music store website has been down for many months now and displays the message below. I miss ’em. They were a good and reasonably priced source for older music singles downloads at CD quality. Yeah, Apple offers even more selections but only at AAC 256 Kbps (yuk).

    Message:
    “Progress continues to move the PonoMusic store to a new content partner. We are in the midst of doing all of the needed engineering work to enable that. Once completed, you’ll have the ability to purchase our music in the US and Canada again and we will have the ability to begin expansion to other countries. This remains the top priority for the PonoMusic team, and we appreciate your continued support during this transition.”

    • The world is moving to streaming music over downloads. Pono lost their back end supplier and are trying to retool themselves to fit the paradigm. We’ll see whether it works. Their whole high-resolution aspect was a myth before and will remain a myth in the streaming world.

  11. Darko had an interesting status report on Tidal and MQA a few weeks back:
    thoughts?
    http://www.digitalaudioreview.net/2017/01/mqa-tidal-where-are-we-now/

    • Interesting read, if flawed on a number of the finer points (i.e. CD bandwidth is not 1.1 Mbps it’s 1.411 Mbps). What Mr Darko and other are missing is the fact that unfolding a standard-resolution sourced transfer with an extra ultrasonic octave or two doesn’t provide any fidelity boost. Why bother MQAing archival audio sources that don’t have any frequencies above 20 kHz? A properly done PCM to FLAC file is about the same size, open format, and equal in fidelity to the closed world of MQA. It’s a solution in search of a problem. I honestly don’t understand the reasoning behind it — other than licensing money.

  12. friendly suggestion: why not post that same comment on his site…am sure he’d appreciate any further clarification on this for us all.

  13. Hi Mark, are you feeling alright? Bloggo nomorrow?

    • Grant et al., I apologize for the lapse in posting. It’s been a little crazy post CES. I’ve been working on the book a lot, had a visit from my sister and her family (my niece and I ran the Pasadena Half Marathon together), school is back in session, spent a long weekend in Big Sky, Montana, and recently moved out of my office at the studio to my home on the west side of Los Angeles. I’ll get back to posting now that my computer is back online and my aching back has recovered.

  14. Here ya go… An objective evaluation of MQA using the Mytek Brooklyn DAC with built-in decoding:
    http://archimago.blogspot.com/2017/02/comparison-hardware-decoded-mqa-using.html

    Mark, you’re right IMO. MQA is at best about retaining the quality of the master, not some supposed “improvement” in the sound based on “de-blurring” and whatnot which I find no evidence for. Nor realistically could there have been…

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