High-resolution audio will never become a mainstream phenomenon. It just won’t. And it’s not because David Pogue, Seth Stevenson, and Brent Butterworth have written uninformed articles claiming that high-res recordings don’t matter or that listeners failed to hear a difference between the output of their iPhone and a new Pono player. The primary reason that high-resolution audio recordings and in fact, the whole high-resolution initiative is bound to fail on mainstreet is because there is no compelling difference between standard and high-resolution audio recordings. We…the advocates for high-resolution audio and the audiophiles that are with us…are kidding ourselves if we think that our non-audiophile friends are going to spend more money on high-resolution versions of the records we love. Even if you agree with me and other believers that there is merit to the whole high-resolution thing, the fact remains that it’s “subtle to hear” any improvement or change by moving from 44.1 kHz/16-bits to 96 kHz/24-bits.
Helen M. Jackson, Michael D. Capp, and J. Robert Stuart investigated whether subjects could tell the different between high-resolution sample rates and down converted versions of the same tracks and Robert presented a paper at last October’s AES Convention on their results. I attended the session. It was given the “best paper of the show” by the society. The title, “The audibility of typical digital audio Filters in a high-fidelity playback system” says it…and their conclusion was “there exist audible signals that cannot be encoded transparently by a standard CD; and secondly, an audio chain used for such experiments must be capable of high-fidelity reproduction.” There is little doubt that under the right circumstances that there are differences…but not enough to warrant the kind of wholesale marketing push that is being attempted.
The organizations, companies, artists, websites, reviewers, and labels that are promoting high-resolution audio don’t have a clue how misguided their efforts are. They believe the road to high-resolution audio success will happen by adopting a common logo (although the current high-resolution has multiple definitions), taking a well-equipped motor home to malls, audio trade shows, and universities to play CDs and then high-resolution downloads, and setting up events with artists like Neil Young to act as cheerleader-in-chief for high-resolution audio. The average consumer…and it turns out the tech press as well…don’t believe there’s any difference. And the country agrees.
Instead of concentrating on selling older recordings remastered to 192 kHz/24-bits, we should be pressuring the labels and artists to make better recordings. It is possible to do better but the industry just isn’t interested in higher fidelity recordings.
I have a Grammy-winning audio engineer friend that raves about the sound quality of my tracks. He’s just recently been hired to produce and engineer a new project for a legacy band that had some hits 15-20 years ago. In spite of his enthusiasm for high-resolution and surround music mixes, he’s located a studio in east LA that has an old Neve console, lots of classic analog processors, spring reverbs, and vintage microphones where he wants to work. Here’s a guy that has the opportunity to make something really special in high-resolution and he retreats to the comfort and familiarity of old gear. Pretty disheartening.
We need to reel in our expectations…and so far we haven’t.