It’s finished. The HD-Audio Challenge II, my sabbatical research project from last fall, has run its course. It’s time to start presenting the data and the analysis associated with almost 500 responses. Among those that submitted their results were audiophiles, casual listeners — both young and old, as well as a few professional audio engineers. And while the age of the participants skewed higher than desired and are predominantly male, the truth is that audiophiles tend to be older men. We’re the target group that is supposed to care about fidelity. But with Amazon Music HD and other “so-called Hi-Res Audio” streaming and download sites marketing to ALL music listeners, HD-Audio trying to be ubiquitous. But is HD-Audio really sound better or is it merely a sale gimmick?
That’s what the study was supposed to help determine. Here’s the question: Would average music listeners be able to pick out a hi-res audio track over a Red Book standard CD version of the same master recordings using their own playback systems? Paul MacGowan of PS Audio said, “Oh God yeah” in one of his videos. My research survey, conducted over these last 8 months, arrives at a different conclusion. Hi-Res Audio or HD-Audio provides no perceptible fidelity improvement over a standard-resolution CD or file. CD-spec and hi-res audio versions sound identical to vast majority of listeners through systems of all kinds. I’ll present the track by track breakdown over the next few articles, but the responses present a picture that is undeniable. In fact, over 25% of the listeners that submitted their results indicated “No Choice” when asked to pick the hi-res track. People were honest and acknowledged that they could not tell the two different versions apart. And those that made a selection admitted that it “was virtually impossible” to detect any differences or “they were essentially guessing” which was which.
Hi-Res Audio or HD-Audio provides no perceptible fidelity improvement over a standard-resolution CD or file.Outcome of the HD-Audio Challenge II – Mark Waldrep
So it’s time to face the hard facts IMHO. Hi-Res Audio or HD-Audio, the much touted next generation in music fidelity, should NOT be a major determining factor when selecting which music to enjoy. As I’ve often stated in these articles, it is the production path that establishes the fidelity of the final master. Things like how a track was recorded, what processing was applied during recording and mixing, and how the tracks were ultimately mastered. If all of these things are done with maximizing fidelity as the primary goal, a great track will result. However, it’s very easy to destroy fidelity at any number of steps in the process.
Since the introduction of high-resolution digital methods for recording and reproducing audio emerged in the 1980s and practical distribution formats launched in the late 1990s, research has been conducted to determine whether and why “hi-res audio” is better than existing delivery standards. One of the most well-known among them was the 2007 AES paper authored by Meyer and Moran titled, “Audibility of a CD-Standard A/D/A Loop Inserted into High-Resolution Audio Playback”, which concluded that “… test results show that the CD-quality A/D/A loop was undetectable at normal-to-loud listening levels, by any of the subjects, on any of the playback systems.” Basically, what the researchers did was play a commercially distributed “hi-res audio” SACD (one was a DVD-Audio disc) directly through a very good stereo playback system and then through an A/D/A conversion chain running at Red Book specifications 44.1 kHz/16-bits. None of the listeners, which included “professional recording engineers, students in a university recording program, and dedicated audiophiles,” could perceive any differences. Sounds pretty convincing, right?
When I first encountered the Meyer and Moran study in the AES Journal, I faulted their process and paid only cursory attention to the conclusion. I believed that it was critically important to point out the fact that the researchers did not verify that the recordings they played during their study exceeded the fidelity of a compact disc! They assumed that the “hi-res audio” SACD albums being released by the record labels possessed greater fidelity than the previous CD versions. But they didn’t. They couldn’t since they were made using analog tape technology. So how is anyone supposed to hear a difference if both versions are identical? When released on the new SACD format, the fidelity of the mostly analog-based tracks — analog provenance — were not even up to Red Book standards.
I was not alone in dismissing the Meyer and Moran study. In 2007, I was convinced that high-resolution recording — real HD-Audio — would be perceptible. I recognized the shortcomings of their research and have written extensively about the important of “provenance.” If the original master of an album or track was produced prior to the introduction of high-resolution recording equipment, then it is impossible for that album or track to be considered “hi-res audio” in spite of the best marketing efforts of the labels and others.
So after carrying out my own research project, I am forced to agree with the conclusion of the Meyer and Moran research. I’m sure that I will become the target of similar criticism. Someone will insist that my files were’t typical, weren’t properly processed from 96 to 44.1 kHz, or that participants could have cheated when listening or submitting their results.
Additionally, the guru behind MQA — Robert Stuart — wrote in another AES paper, “… there exist audible signals that cannot be encoded transparently by a standard CD; and second, an audio chain used for such experiments must be capable of high-fidelity reproduction.” His position is untenable if the results of my survey are true. If real world audiophiles cannot hear a difference then there is no audible difference.
More to follow but I’ll leave you with another short MQA related item. In a previous article, I explained yet again why MQA is a hoax and not worthy of support by listeners and equipment manufacturers. In fact like hi-res audio, it is a marketing ploy designed to enrich its stake holders. You can read the article by clicking here. I received an email from a reader noting that the entire section of my piece was lifted by a member of a FB group and posted as a comment on their group without attribution of any kind. They omitted my name and there was not link to the original article. It did raise a great deal of controversy and there were lots of comments. MQA is a hot topic.
In order to read the post, I have to request and receive permission from the administrators to join the group, which was granted. So I wrote to the administrator:
“This is Mark Waldrep. I was informed by one of my blog readers that one of my recent posts about MQA was lifted wholesale from my blog and posted on your FB group…without attribution or a link back to my site. I find this somewhat disturbing and hope that you can ensure that your members respect the work of others. I am happy to contribute to your discussions and even allow quotes from my blog, but this was excessive. Regards, Mark”
I received the following responses from ORCHUN CAGLIAN, one of the groups administrators:
“I’m removing you from the group I also removed the post and the member too Dont contact me with an attitude again I dont want people like you in my groups.” (This is copied from his response … the lack of punctuation is his.)
Frankly, I was surprised at the response. It confirmed to me that some FB admins aren’t worth supporting.
Fourth of July Specials
This is the 4th of July! I’m offering a 50% discount on physical copies of the Music and Audio book. Now is the perfect time to read what has been called, “the gold standard” in audio reference books. Use coupon code “Fourth50Percent” at check out.
Streaming, Download, and Personal Audio – The New Book Is Coming
I’ve been spending a couple of hours everyday writing the new book — A Users Guide to Streaming, Downloads, and Personal Audio. Please visit the COMING SOON page and sign up for special discounts and early notification of the Kickstarter campaign. I expect to launch the campaign in the next few weeks.
iTrax.com is growing…and working!
The iTrax.com digital download site is growing everyday. I added another terrific Zenph piano recreation this week. This time it is the Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff.