When did high-resolution audio begin? There’s a great deal of confusion regarding the start of high-resolution audio recording production and distribution. As I sat next to Ryan Ulyate on the recent CES HRA panel on the people creating high-resolution audio, I was surprised at his answer to the first question. When the panel was asked about when and where we got involved with high-resolution audio, Ryan answered, “I’ve been making high-resolution audio records since 1979.” Knowing that a 2″ analog tape machine has limited dynamic range (60 dB without noise reduction) and that subsequent mixing and mastering transfers only diminish that further…sometimes much further…I think it’s wishful thinking to believe that everything recorded during the analog tape era (which persists for many) qualifies as high-resolution. I certainly agree that some absolutely amazing recordings were produced on analog equipment, but there are very real technology constraints (and a magic “sound”) that limit these machines as compared to modern high-resolution PCM digital hardware.
And then the guys on the retail panel starting talking about how they’ve been in the high-resolution audio business since the 70s. They assume that selling the best, high-end equipment of the time qualifies as high-resolution. It would also mean that we’ve made no progress in the production and delivery of great sounding recordings. Of course, it’s debatable whether the technology has been used to produce better sounding records, but we do have the ability to make recording with higher fidelity than we had previously. As great as you think your vinyl LPs sound, they fall far short of “sound that meets or exceeds the capabilities of human hearing…my definition for HRA”. In the end, we may have to face the facts that high-resolution audio doesn’t matter. I certainly think that’s going to be the case with the masses. The can’t tell the difference between lossy compressed files and aren’t going to spent tons of money to move the needle just a little bit.
The first time I heard the term high-resolution audio or my preferred high-definition audio, was in 1995 when progress on a new high capacity optical format was brewing inside of both Sony/Philips and WB/Toshiba. Their competing formats, MultiMedia CD and SuperDisc respectively, finally merged as the DVD-Video format in the fall of 1995. The new movie disc would be able to handle lossy surround sound encoded in Dolby Digital but was also capable of 2-channel stereo PCM up to 192 kHz/24-bits! Whoa! For the first time, engineers and labels were able to release recordings that had greater fidelity than a CD. In fact, Michael Hobson at Classic Records made a bunch of analog to high-res PCM stereo transfers and sold them as DAD (“Digital Audio Discs”).
Nobody was making new recordings at 192 or even 96 kHz and converters had just started extending past 16-bits in those days but the potential was finally there to record and release “high-resolution audio”. I would accept that date as the starting point for HRA. Anyone citing an earlier date is dreaming…and even 1995 is a stretch. The actual date for the arrival of high-resolution production systems and consumer hardware didn’t happen until 1999. That’s when Sony and Phillips rolled out their first SACD player and about 10 discs, all of which were transfers of older analog tapes.
DVD-Audio was introduced in the middle of 2000 with more transfers but most with 5.1 surround mixes.
So we’ve been talking about high-resolution audio for about 15 years. There will be those claiming, “of course, analog recordings are high-resolution…after all they have infinite resolution, right?” Sorry wrong.
The history of high-resolution follows a long and tortured path…one that is still struggling for its day in the sun. With competing definitions, confusing logos, and research studies that prove the opposite of what we want…it’s going to be a long time before it’s done right. If it happens at all.