In general, I’ve been very excited about the penetration prospects for better quality audio. There are professionals and amateurs buzzing about the move away from highly compressed audio (both audio and data compression) into a new era of high fidelity. There is renewed focus on “better quality” from the folks at NARAS (the folks behind the Grammys), the Consumer Electronics Association, artists and manufacturers of playback equipment. I actually sit on the audio board of the CES and am a member of NARAS. I also have a lot of friends that are audio engineers and of course, I consider myself an audiophile. There are serious conversations happening about better quality productions. Finally.
For example, many companies at the upcoming 2014 CES convention in Las Vegas will feature “high-resolution” audio systems and software. Companies large and small will be part of large marketing campaign spearheaded by the marketing wing of the CES. The description that I received from them states it this way:
2014 International CES® – Hi-Res Audio Experience
Over the past decade audio content and devices have evolved tremendously. With more demand for higher resolution content and advanced portability, along with the support of every major and independent recording labels and production studios, the new generation of audio technology has arrived.
Explore the all new Hi-Res Audio Experience at the 2014 International CES®. You’ll discover clearer, crisper audio on the most advanced high-resolution audio (HRA) devices that are more convenient, compatible and cost-effective than ever before. Introduce yourself to the thousands of HRA albums already available across every music genre and dive into the digital music stores on-line. You’ll find your fit for your music lifestyle need.
(Reading these couple of paragraphs makes me wonder who’s doing the writing at the CEA. I’m not claiming to be a wonderful author but I would never have approved it as written. MW)
There will be an area inside the Venetian Hotel that will house companies like my own showing off Hi-Res hardware and software (I’m thinking about be part of the campaign but I can play anything, I can’t sell anything and the cost of a high speed internet connection to show off itrax.com will cost hundreds of dollars…we’ll see. Shouldn’t AIX Records just sign on to the T.H.E. Show at the Alexis Park Hotel?)
But I must say that I’m struggling with the message and the way that they various parties are positioning HRA. Let’s start with the new acronym “HRA”. I wrote about what terminology would be most effect for the new “better than before” audio standards. Someone has decided that “high-resolution audio” is the most appropriate way to market the new “better fidelity”.
I disagree and will continue to call it HD-Audio for the reasons that I discussed in the previous post. How many people reading this get anything from HRA…it sounds like a junior high educational program (I can remember SRA from my educational past…and I can’t even tell what it stands for).
Then there’s the whole notion of what actually constitutes “high-resolution” music. There was a program by the CEA some years ago that had all of the vendors in the space wearing “We support HD-Audio”…or something to that effect. As it was described to me, anything with specifications better than a compact disc qualified. The same concept is behind the “Hi-Res Audio Experience” (funny how that’s the name of my Intel sponsored demonstration disc from 7 years ago!).
The basic stipulation is that any music recording or any piece of equipment can be part of the new marketing program if they have specifications the eclipse the Redbook CD standard of stereo/44.1 kHz/16-bits. For example, a downloadable, 44.1 kHz/24-bit sound file is “Hi-Res” and so is a DSD transfer of a 50’s era “Living Stereo” analog tape. If I play 5.1 Dolby Digital, does that count as HRA? There are more channels than a CD.
The need for appropriate quality designations is more critical than ever. It requires that the recording process used for a particular production be included in the metadata…this is what I call the “provenance” of a recording. An analog tape can never match the performance of a real HD-Audio PCM recording.
What this new effort can accomplish is to make consumers of all ages aware that bandwidth limitations for downloads and streaming have advanced enough to allow us to get back to the quality that we had 40-50 years ago. When I had my $100 AR turntable, my self-assembled Heathkit Audio Receiver and my two ElectroVoice speakers, the audio fidelity was far better than anything I can purchase from the iTunes website today. It shouldn’t be this way. Are we supposed to celebrate the return of good quality audio?
Audio quality is the only media form that has regressed over the past couple of decades…and now sadly we are making a big deal about the return to that level of quality (well the truth is that with the loudness wars and over zealous mastering engineers…we’re not really getting there). The marketing people at the CEA are trying to do the right thing. But they are lumping everything and everyone together in the interest of harmony among member companies and leaving in place the continuing confusion that haunts music consumers. We need them to help answer the question about what is and what isn’t HD-Audio.
I received an email from an audiophile in Brazil with an accompanying spectrograph of a ZZ Top track that he purchased from one of the big HD download sites at 192 kHz/24-bits. He wanted to know why it showed 5 discrete ultrasonic frequency bands (non-musical), why there was not information above 20 kHz and why the waveform looked like a solid brick. He thought he was buying a hi-res track.
I explained that he purchased a heavily compressed, commercial recording made in the 70s that was subjected to sample doubling/upconversion and simply placed in a 192 kHz/24-bit delivery container. The actual frequency response and dynamic range were the same as the analog tape copy that was used to create the “hi-res” downloadable file. These types of emails are not uncommon.
We can and should do better. We should demand transparency and information over marketing fluff…but I don’t thing we’re going to get them.