I was in a bit a hurry yesterday when I remade the Meridian MQA graphic showing “convenience” vs. “quality”. I simply copied their background grid and placed a new assessment in the middle of the boxes. The accuracy of the graphic certainly improved but apparently not by enough. Today I received the following email from John Siau, the head guru at Benchmark Media. I had no idea that he was a graphic artist as well as a brilliant analog and digital electronics designer.
I agree that the Meridian Quality and Convenience chart is wrong, but I am going to quibble a little with your revised chart, and offer a few observations:
1) You set CD equal to Reel to Reel. The CD has better SNR, lower distortion, and better time-domain performance (no wow and flutter). You could argue that Reel to Reel has better frequency response, although I would counter that it is less accurate in-band, and is subject to variations due to calibration of head alignments and noise-reduction systems.
2) You rated the DVD as “more convenient” than the CD. This is clearly not the case. Pop a CD into a player and it just plays. Pop a DVD into a player and wait, fiddle, wait and fiddle. DVDs always boot slower than CDs and it is often necessary to navigate menus before music will play. Sometimes a video monitor is required just to navigate the menus. DVDs do not come close to the convenience of the CD!
3) There are also quality issues with DVDs: DVDs do not necessarily contain high-resolution audio formats. Furthermore, it is often very difficult to get bit transparent data off of a DVD. When an external DAC cannot be used, the quality may be significantly less than what is obtained with a CD feeding an external DAC. Therefore a DVD is not necessarily higher quality than a CD. SACDs are especially problematic as there is no way to get the data to an external DAC. Quality is limited to that of the built-in DACs and these often do not even achieve CD quality.
4) Downloads, DVDs, and Steaming audio all share the top tier in quality. But there are much more popular low quality versions of downloads and streaming feeds. The quality of Spotify and Pandora are definitely less than the quality of a good Cassette. For this reason (and number 3 above) I have added a second quality line. My chart shows a Minimum Quality and Maximum Quality line. These two lines are required because these new distribution methods support multiple data formats.
5) What we see is a divergence of the quality curves. Cost drives the lower curve, while the demands of a small community of audiophiles drive the upper curve. Eventually the lower curve will move up toward CD quality as the costs of data storage and transmission decrease. For example, we have seen iTunes increase quality once or twice already. The sad truth is that most consumers do not have playback equipment that is good enough reproduce CD quality. This means that they will never experience an improvement if they download or stream a high-resolution format. For this reason, there will be very little incentive to push downloads and streaming beyond the quality of the CD.
6) Note that the convenience curve always rises. The slight convenience hiccup created by the DVD may explain its failure as an audio format.
7) Cost and convenience trump all other factors when delivering audio to the masses. High-resolution formats will only gain widespread acceptance if they are convenient and cheap. This means that high-resolution formats will only gain widespread acceptance if they are exactly the same cost as low-resolution formats.
Here is my chart:
Figure 1 – The Meridian illustration redone by John Siau with additional levels and more information.
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