The NPR Music “How well can you hear audio quality?” quiz made me start thinking about some very fundamental issues associated with master quality audio (we didn’t get to listen to any high-resolution audio during their evaluations). One of the most critical is whether listening to audio in bigger bit buckets matters at all? Are we simply fooling ourselves when we start talking about all of the benefits of better quality sound? Will it really matter whether Tidal or Apple make available higher fidelity streams? Should equipment manufacturers and content providers get behind tests like the one held on the NPR Music page?
How about the whole concept of comparing sample A against sample B? I know the major magazines and plenty of other respected writers reject the A | B listening tests. They’re not ready to risk the embarrassment of getting things wrong. Or perhaps the methodology is flawed and producing skewed results. I failed to correctly identify half of the NPR examples…but I’m not embarrassed or troubled. As I think everyone except Neil Young will acknowledge, if there are differences between a well produced 320 kbps MPS file, a CD-Audio disc, and a high-resolution audio file, they are very subtle and without training and excellent equipment very hard to tell apart.
I’m a believer in high-resolution audio. I’m personally convinced that new recordings produced using 96 kHz/24-bit PCM and great care during the production process can eclipse standard resolution formats including analog tape and certainly vinyl LPs. Even if it is shown that fidelity is not dramatically affected by format, sample rates, word lengths, etc., I would still opt to record at 96 kHz/24-bits for the simple reason that it is easy to do and provides an increase in the potential fidelity of the recording (and playback). But that’s my limit. More and more designers and manufacturers of high-end equipment are going ahead with every higher sample rates and longer words.
Does anyone honestly believe that DAC with 384 kHz/32-bit PCM capabilities are going to improve their audio experience? And why stop there? Let’s just keep going and jump straight to 1576 kHz/48-bits! Bigger numbers are always better, right?
Here’s a little secret for all of you upgrading to ultra high-resolution audio playback systems. There are no commercially available records of pop/rock/country/urban or other genres that were recording at rates higher than 192 kHz/24-bits and virtually all new releases are being captured at 48 kHz/24-bits. And that’s not going to change anytime soon…if ever.
I’m shocked when I hear colleagues and friends utterly reject using direct comparisons of two different audio formats as “a useless exercise that will only result in consumers doubting the validity of high-resolution audio”. Sure it will. If there’s no audible improvement in using 384 kHz/32-bit PCM vs. 320 kbps MP3s, then a lot of business will be lost. As I learned from a major cable representative some moths ago, “telling the truth about high-resolution audio is bad for commerce”.
So all we have to do is continue to talk about all of the benefits of so-called “high-resolution audio” and jump on the gravy train. Stand by folks…you haven’t seen anything yet.