In the quest to properly, simply and accurately define what high-resolution audio is, I thought I would use a standard scientific technique and talk about what it is not. This comes as I communicated with several members of the CES Audio Board working group about the issue. I pulled up an old email from Dr. Sean Olive, who is the Director of Acoustic Research/Corporate R&D at Harmon and the recently elected head of the Audio Engineering Society (AES). I quoted a sentence that he wrote to me that addresses the issue of analog tape and vinyl LPs being considered “high-resolution”. Here’s the quote:
“It’s good to know there are still some labels left dedicated to making high quality surround recordings. I applaud you for educating people about what is and isn’t HD (analog tape/vinyl being an example that isn’t HD).”
So if you don’t believe me…then take it from Dr. Sean Olive (and plenty of others), a very prominent authority on acoustics, audio engineering and recording. Analog tape and vinyl LPs are NOT and never will be considered high-definition…except possibly by the committee given the task of defining HRA!
The world of source audio fidelity can be broken down into several levels of fidelity based on the era of the recording AND the equipment/techniques used to make a particular track. It’s hard for advocates of a certain “warm sound” to accept and recognize that their format of choice may not be included in the highest strata of fidelity from a technical point of view…but really who cares? If a particular format works for you then go with it. I’m just hoping that high-resolution audio can actually mean something.
So here’s my list of the top five formats that are not and never will be “high-resolution audio”:
1. Analog tape recordings – As we’ve seen over the last few days and in some past posts, analog tape has limited dynamic range (the equivalent of 12 to 12-bits of PCM digital and that’s the first generation master, will you will never hear.), has all sort of noise, is subject to distortion and speed variations and loses fidelity with each pass of the tape over the playback heads. It can sound wonderful and many, if not most, of the tracks/albums you purchase from HDtracks and soon Ponomusic will be from analog tape masters…not HD.
2. Vinyl LPs – Except in the case where a Direct Metal Master is cut while the ensemble is performing an entire side of an album, all vinyl LPs are cut from analog masters. And since analog tape is never going to be high-resolution, then vinyl LP copies aren’t either. In fact, analog tape does a lot better job of delivering fidelity because of the limitations of mastering for vinyl but we already know that. And by the way DMM aren’t high-resolution either.
3. Compact Discs – are the benchmark or par value in the fidelity arena. I consider a 44.1 kHz 16-bit PCM CD that has been recorded and mastered with care to be standard resolution. After more than 30 years and billions of replicated copies as well as burned CD-Rs, this is the measure of good quality sound…or at least it has the potential to provide excellent fidelity. It’s really a challenge to do better than the Redbook specification.
4. MP3 – and ALL the other “lossy” compressed formats that drove down fidelity in the search for portability, transferability (ripping CDs to give to your world wide web friends…think Napster and Bit Torrent) and file size (what would you rather have “perfect sound forever” or “10,000 tunes on a single iPod”?). It doesn’t matter if you encode at 64 kbps (the lowest HD-Radio flavor) or 320 kbps, a compressed audio file will still never be a high-resolution file. It might aspire to “CD-Quality” because consumers can’t tell the difference but to be accurate, a lossy file means something has been removed. I want everything that the artists and engineers captures…even if I can’t “technically” hear it.
5. Cassettes and 8-Track Tapes – in the interest of being inclusive and because I suspect there’s still of lot of dashboards with cassette players in them, audio cassettes, 8-tracks, miniDiscs and DCCs (digital compact cassettes) do not qualify as HRA. Just say no.
So there you have it, my list of formats that will never make in the world of high-resolution audio. But then you have to ask what’s left?
I’ll talk about that in an upcoming post.