The Name Game: High Resolution Terminology

What are we going to call audio that promises AND delivers better fidelity? Is it enough to say High Resolution Audio? As most readers of this website know, HRA means absolutely nothing. All of the specifications (with ever large numbers!) and format acronyms only contribute to confusion and mistrust in what could be a major boon to the music business. What format at what specification level can deliver the best reproduction of a selection of music?

I was in favor of calling recordings that deliver fidelity exceeding that of standard compact discs as HD-Audio. It still seems like the right decision to me in spite of the CEA’s recent push for HRA or High-Resolution Audio. But there are plenty of other terms and names floating around. I read a recent post by Michael Lavorgna over at AudioStream that discusses this issue and I think he’s got it all wrong.

The title of his article is “What’s in a Name? HD, HRA, DXD, DSD…” You can link to it here. The title alone is enough to make me do a double take. On the one hand he includes generic descriptions of better quality audio (the HD and HRA acronyms) but continues on with specific encoding formats…these are distinctly different things. Oh well.

He goes on to advocate for calling the whole high-resolution audio initiative “Studio Master”. His choice is not new. There are plenty of companies that have used variants of this term. Astell & Kern talk about Master Quality Sound or MQS, Neil Young has submitted a trademark request for SQS or Studio Quality Sound, high quality download websites like QoBuz and Linn use Studio Masters and then there’s the actual meaning of the term, which audio engineers refer to when they’re delivering a finished project to the record label (but as I explained previously…there are usually 3-5 different studio masters produced during a mastering session…read the article here).

Then there’s one of my favorite terms…CD-Quality. Doesn’t a CD produce sound at 44.1 kHz/16-bits of PCM resolution? It’s simple to turn that into a potential fidelity level with 22.050 kHz of frequency response and 96 dB of signal to noise ratio knowing how PCM works. But to call something CD-Quality has generally been associated with compressed formats like AAC or MP3 striving to live up to the quality of a compact disc. When you hear an ad or someone talk about CD-Quality it means that they can’t really measure up but want you to think that they do. Using CD-Quality is meaningless.

Studio Master is a component of this new focus on audio provenance and does deserve a role in the world of better fidelity. We all want to be able to get a great copy of the Studio Master. But remember studios have been producing Studio Masters for a very long time…and they represent a very wide diversity of audio fidelity. Just because something is a Studio Master doesn’t mean that it will sound good. It might sound terrible! It all depends on the intentions of the artist, engineer and producer AND their talents, the era that the recording was produced as well as the type of equipment that was used during the recording.

The terms Studio Master and CD-Quality cannot be used to define or describe the fidelity of an individual track or album, as Michael seems to say when he lists three levels of quality:

Studio Master
CD-Quality
MP3/iTunes/Amazon

This list confuses things more than it helps. As I stated above, Studio Masters (if you can even identify WHICH Studio Master you’re getting!) can be great or terrible so that that term out, CD-Quality is also because it is ambiguous and MP3/iTunes/Amazon lumps together a compressed format and a couple of distribution channels. Although they haven’t done it yet, Apple’s iTunes could actually allow us to download a Studio Master.

We have to think in completely different terms. I share my terms tomorrow…

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.

6 thoughts on “The Name Game: High Resolution Terminology

  • February 4, 2014 at 2:14 pm
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    Dear Mr. Waldrop,

    I wait each day for your posts on audio. They are informative and enlightening (even if I don’t always agree)!

    On your latest missive entitled The Name Game: High Resolution Terminology you state:

    Studio Master is a component of this new focus on audio provenance and does deserve a role in the world of better fidelity. We all want to be able to get a great copy of the Studio Master. But remember studios have been producing Studio Masters for a very long time…and they represent a very wide diversity of audio fidelity. Just because something is a Studio Master doesn’t mean that it will sound good. It might sound terrible! It all depends on the intentions of the artist, engineer and producer AND their talents, the era that the recording was produced as well as the type of equipment that was used during the recording.

    It’s so true that the Studio Master may be of dubious quality. So much of what we hear, as you state, is a combination of talents; the artist, the recording engineer, the microphones, room, board, the producer and ultimately the mastering engineer. But that is true of anything that is labeled HD or HRA as well! Recording at higher sampling rates doesn’t insure a great recording because we still rely on the talent and the equipment. I guess Studio Master works for me because it at least implies that what I am hearing is, for the most part, is the best copy of what the artists and engineers heard in the studio and is what they intended. And that’s all I ever wanted.

    I remember hearing, many years ago at an NAB or AES show an analog reel to reel tape copy of an early Beach Boys master played over large JBL professional speakers . I was floored by the sound. There isn’t any Beach Boys LP, CD, DVD-A I ever heard that sounded like that. Give me that and I will be ecstatic!

    Best Regards,

    Craig Simon

    Reply
  • February 4, 2014 at 2:35 pm
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    I think the the meaning of some terms we currently use will become increasingly dynamic. For instance, if Apple moves up the minimum AAC bit rate to 384, then “Itunes” will come stand stand for at least adequate fidelty vs. storage requirements.
    I love the fact the you revel in just how many masters can be made, and from what perspective. I too want music to be more then traditional stereo…meaning involving/enveloping.

    Keep up the great work! Love the dialogue!

    Barry

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  • February 4, 2014 at 2:40 pm
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    I like the term audiophile recording, but this may not capture what you are wanting to delineate. For me an audiophile recording can be HDCD, SACD, a higher resolution recording, DSD, whatever. But it captures the notion that the recording is intended to be of the highest standard in terms of attention to the end result.

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  • February 4, 2014 at 2:40 pm
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    I like the term audiophile recording, but this may not capture what you are wanting to delineate. For me an audiophile recording can be an HDCD, an SACD, a higher resolution recording, DSD, whatever. But it captures the notion that the recording is intended to be of the highest standard in terms of attention to the end result.

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  • February 4, 2014 at 3:43 pm
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    Hey Mark,
    For me the question would be what’s in a name? I would say that I would conceder myself an “audiophile”, but after reading the remarks made in recent post I feel maybe I will pull back a little from that moniker. As mentioned before I had but one goal in mind in 30+ yrs. that was to try to reproduce what ever I was playing back as close as possible to the original. Not having a lot of cash to through around I did not get caught up in a lot of hocus pocus. I did play around with cartridges and alignment and EQ’s and such. I also spent some cash buying some mobile sound fidelity vinyl. But thank God that’s all behind us now, DAC to ADC some nice sounding speakers and wala.
    I am anticipating what tomorrow’s post shall bring, but I think I like the word “REAL”, Real 24/192, Real 24/96, Real DXD, Real DSD, Real CD, you get my drift. If somehow the word could mean what the word means than again wala.

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