Here’s the second part of the FAQs that I’ve prepared for the upcoming “Consumer Guide to High-Resolution Audio”. The first part was posted yesterday and can be read by clicking here.
6. What is Master Source Quality?
A “Master Source Quality” music file is a transfer of the best available copy of a particular track or album. For example, if the best master analog tape of a Beatles track was transferred to a 96 kHz/24-bit PCM digital file and made available to consumers, it should be referred to as “Master Source Quality” not “High-Resolution Audio”. The fidelity of today’s recording equipment is improved over the analog decks from the 1960s and offers artist, engineers, and producers the potential for greater fidelity. It is, of course, their choice to take advantage of it or not.
7. What hardware do I need to listen to High-Resolution Audio or Master Source Quality?
Consumer electronics companies have introduced new products that can play higher spec sound files. However, compact disc players use 44.1 kHz/16-bit PCM audio and thus cannot playback HRA files at 96 kHz/24-bits or higher for example.
There are new optical disc players (DVD and Blu-ray) and portable players that can play High-Resolution or Master Source Quality audio. High-end equipment makers have raised the bar with external Digital to Analog Converters (DACs) and several cell phone companies offer high-res models.
Recently, streaming services like Orastream, Tidal, and Qobuz have begun to offer higher quality music on demand. However, virtually all of the content being streamed as “high-res” is only “Master Source Quality”.
8. Where can consumers acquire High-Resolution Audio and “Master Source Quality” music?
Higher fidelity audio was introduced on competing physical disc formats back in 2000. Sony and Phillips developed the SACD format, which uses a different encoding scheme than most audio products. It’s known as DSD. Warner Brothers and Toshiba backed the DVD-Audio format, which used the same discs specs as DVD movies but added High-Resolution Audio capabilities in full 5.1 surround sound. Outside of the audiophile community these physical formats never developed a following, and with the increasing popularity of downloading and streaming, all physical formats are fading away.
The first High-Resolution Audio download site in the U.S. was launched in the fall of 2007. iTrax.com is still around today and offers real High-Resolution Audio files in stereo and 5.1 surround. Other sites like HDtracks, ProStudioMasters, HighResAudio, and PonoMusic entered the market and offer “Master Source Quality” albums from the major labels under licensing agreements. These tracks represent the best available versions of many familiar albums but they are not new recordings done in real high-res.
The era of streaming “High-Resolution Audio” is coming. There are technologies that allow better quality music to be delivered to your portable device and networked home server. Tidal and MQA are working together to deliver “Master Source Quality” audio. However, the limiting factor remains the fidelity of the original recordings, which are not real “High-Resolution Audio.
Consumers are confused and misinformed. There are logos for hardware that specify one set of requirements for hardware and a much lower set of requirements for the music content. It’s buyer beware in the search for better fidelity audio files.
9. What types of music are available in High-Resolution?
If we adhere to the definition offered at the beginning of this FAQ section, most of the “High-Resolution Audio” is classical, jazz, or acoustic. These are the typical audiophile genres.
Commercial recordings of rock, pop, urban, folk, country etc. are not being produced in high-res. And even if the engineers and producers increase the sample rate and use longer digital words while making albums, the actual fidelity of the delivered master is severely limited…the goal is not to create the best sounding records but the ones that are the loudest and will sell the most.
10. What are the future prospects for High-Resolution Audio?
HRA has not been properly explained or implemented. It is a marketing initiative developed by the music industry organizations and the major labels to derive additional profit from their existing catalogs without actually improving the fidelity of the music being streamed or downloaded. There are a few audiophile labels pushing the boundaries of audio fidelity but they don’t record celebrity artists or present popular genres to consumers.
The sites that offer High-Resolution Audio have catalogs containing about 15,000 “Master Source Quality” albums. If a site claims to have 2 million tracks, they’ve included CD rips in their offerings, which are exactly the same as the CDs that you can purchase at WalMart…except they will cost you two to three times as much.
The audiophile labels that are actually delivering real High-Resolution Audio has produced approximately 2000 titles.
High-Resolution Audio’s future is not bright. It will not expand to include mass consumers. It does not elevate the music listening experience unless you acquire real high-res recordings, play them in a high-end system, and know what to listen for.