Dr. AIX's POSTS — 20 July 2015

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The emerging “hi-res” audio/music segment of the music and consumer electronics industries is in trouble. Inconsistent messaging, confusing terminology, conflicting logos, bad definitions, bad user experiences, and misleading descriptions have thus far characterized the efforts. If the organizations, download sites, celebrity endorsers, and labels actually knew how much negativity there is among their potential customers, they might stop and consider making some fundamental changes to their businesses.

The first and best thing they should do is to stop calling everything “high-res”. The term has lost its meaning, if it ever had any in the first place. Thank you Neil Young and Jay-Z. It’s become nothing more than a marketing term intended to convey to consumers a level of audio fidelity that has previously been unattainable. The public was supposed to associate “high-definition” or “high-resolution” with a meaningful increase in quality…a better entertainment experience. Consumer electronics companies and their trade organization were successful with high-definition television. And it looks like ultra high-definition television is likely to be a consumer hit as well. There are logos, specifications, demos, and spin happening in the world of better imagery. So why shouldn’t these same organizations and CE companies use a similar strategy to launch “high-res audio/music”?

The primary reason is because high fidelity audio is already available to the masses and has been for many years. I grew up with vinyl LPs and analog tape. These formats are capable of great HiFi sound when properly done. When confronted with the proponents’ version of “high-res” music, consumers just can’t tell any difference between what they’ve been listening to and the new version…even professionals can’t reliably perceive the “very subtle” differences that real high-resolution audio provides. If the content used during “CD vs. Hi-Res” shootouts doesn’t possess anything that enhances the fidelity, then why do the comparison in the first place? This describes the oft-quoted Boston Audio Society “research study”.

I believe we’ve been oversold on the concept of “high-res” audio or music. Up to this point, the messaging has been almost entirely fluff and spin instead of factual and transparent. The definition of high-res audio is a case in point. The DEG, CEA, NARAS, and labels definition issued a year ago can be boiled down to “better than CD”. Any release delivery format from any source with specifications that exceed 44.1 kHz/16-bit PCM fidelity qualifies as high-res. Then came the hi-res audio logo, the one that the JAS controlled (after Sony developed and promoted it). The CEA got on board and proclaimed that domestic hardware companies and “content” providers could license the logo. This became problematic when the requirements turned out to be much more stringent than the “better than CD” crowd. So now we have two sets of specifications and two logos, each with their own requirements. How’s a consumer supposed to make sense of that?

So I suggest abandoning the term “hi-res” and simply providing a brief description that consumers could use to make their own evaluation of whether a file or device produces a musical experience that they enjoy. Virtually all of the content on HDtracks, PonoMusic or the others online downloads sites came from older sources…ones that may or may not have state-of-the-art fidelity. The provenance labeling could simply state that the source was a “remastered digital copy of the safety copy of the master” or “transferred from the analog master at 96 kHz/24-bits”. I was pushing the idea of a “hi-res transfer” category a couple of weeks ago. Seems like a pretty good compromise to me.

Imagine if HDtracks stopped insisting 1960s recordings from the Beach Boys are “high-res” and simply said they were the best available transfer from an analog master to hi-res PCM digital files. Could any customer really complain that they got ripped off if it was explained to them what the entire provenance or production chain was for a particular item? I don’t think so.

This is just the first of the ten items on my list. Stop calling everything high-res and just describe what you’re selling in the most transparent terms possible. Lose the confusing term.

Step 2: Allow potential customers to hear brief samples of the music they want to purchase in the final file format…i.e. 96 kHz/24-bit PCM.

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About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(23) Readers Comments

  1. I could not agree more.
    I have already written before, that I am not interested in any logo – I just want to know the provenance of the music/the files.

    • Branding and logos have their place…and I’m not convinced that they won’t apply in this space. But they’ve blown it with the current effort.

  2. It’s clear from your post that most of the music I want to listen to is only available in 2-channel CD-quality discs or download. Your really hi-res recordings are best heard in at least 5-channel surround from download or blu-ray. Is there any amp/preamp/dac I could add to my system that would handle both types of source with good quality? (I know I need to have at least 5 channels of amp for the surround.)

    • I’m not sure I would agree that real high-res is best in 5.1 surround. That’s my own personal preference but others may prefer stereo. The Oppo BDP-105 or 103 have the ability to act as converters in both stereo (balanced) and surround.

      • Thanks

  3. Mark,
    I fear you may be howling in the wind. Unless consumers band together to insist that the provenance of recordings be given by all those in the supply chain nothing will change. I don’t think that many artists even care that the recordings be true to the studio sound. Everyone is just trying to drive the costs down and the profit margins up. Even the critics are mostly interested in content not quality. So where is the consumer going to get protection? Perhaps the truth in advertising squad of the federal (US) government.

    • I recognized a long time ago that my thoughts on this subject are not likely to produce any meaningful changes in the high-res market. The NARAS people are trying to get the provenance thing sorted out. The artists are probably the last person that will care…they like good sound but are audiophiles.

  4. Mark
    This comment is not related to the current article.

    Did you notice that Cookie has decided to identify the source of the tracks before they are converted to DSD ?
    Please look at the Beeth Symph 9. She clearly states that the original source is 96/24 and that it is up-sampled to DSD. She then goes on and indicates that the 96/24 sounds better than the DSD.
    Interesting !

    Mark

    • You know…I did notice that information in her recent newsletter. The PCM source sounds the best but the DSD copy (through analog conversion) costs the most. Go figure.

      • The web site page for this recording states “After several blindfold tests, it is our opinion that the 9624 WAV files sound the best, followed by DSF and after that the FLAC 9624.” The bitstream for the FLAC 9624 PCM file when decoded should be identical to the bitstream from the 9624 WAV PCM file, so according to this web site the same bitstream sounds better than the DSF file when it is packaged as a WAV file and worse than the DSF file when it is packaged as a FLAC file. With any decent DAC there should not be any difference in the sound of the WAV and FLAC files, but even if there were such a difference, you can just use software to convert the FLAC file to a WAV file before playing the file.

        I do have concerns about how the FLAC files are produced. The web site states “The DSD and FLAC files are considered second generation and made from conversions using our Blue Coast conversion methods.” I don’t see any valid reason for considering a FLAC lossless compression of a WAV file to be second generation since the decoded file is identical to the WAV file data. The conversion to DSD will not be identical to the WAV PCM data and it is second generation. If the decoded FLAC file is second generation, and when decoded it is not identical to the WAV file, then the “Blue Coast conversion method” for a FLAC file is not a lossless FLAC encoding of the WAV file.

        On pricing, here is my attempt at explaining the pricing rational. The WAV file costs less than the DSF file, as Mark indicated, and the FLAC file costs less than the WAV file. Even if the decoded bitstreams are identical, you can justify charging less for the FLAC file than the WAV file due to the reduced bandwidth required to download the FLAC files. So if file size is the basis for the differences in cost, then the DSF file, being larger than the WAV file, will cost more. If file size is the basis for download file cost, then cost cannot be used as a measure of which file will sound the best, and this gets us to why sound quality of the files is listed separately from the prices.

        • It is very confusing and demonstrates a general lack of knowledge on a number of issues. When described as “second generation” it’s because they go through a series of conversions…and every conversion lessens the fidelity. The WAV files are the best of the best. The FLAC files are identical to the WAVs…they have to be or they are not lossless. The conversion to DSD is done through an analog transfer…a DAC and ADC to DSD 64 or DSD 128. How can that be worth more other than through the hype machine>

    • LOL! Cookie SHOULD have said the the 24/96 file was DOWNsampled to DSD, not upsampled! 😉

      • You’re absolutely right…although this happens a lot among the DSD crowd. They believe that bigger, noisier files, are somehow an upgrade…and should be more expensive.

  5. What are “Alive in studio or alive in hall” vs. “analog (state of the art)” vs “digital (in all its shapes and forms known)” rendering is understanding required and every listener’s formidable challenge.
    Provenance is “when, where, how, who, what” or “clear, concise, complete, correct” listing.
    Until included, there is no possibility to define resolution, other than, God’s given resolution, nature, at its best. Analog Master, CD Quality and Provenance aside, when streamed, is CD, not HI FI, as CD was never HI FI, until someone made it so.
    Unless the CD, the source file played, is not a CD, but is another form of disc file, for example, DVD Audio, or of another file type of audio rendering, a file that is other than CD (as industry deified it back when laser was in its infancy) is just that.
    HI FI came long before CD and Analog even before it. Both will have been long gone before the next generation of laser, digital, analog quality is universally achieved or made available for mas consumption.
    I dare say, such leap remains far beyond our horizon, and is undiscovered.
    I suggest we enjoy what we have, and, never lose hearing our call for ever grater advancement and achievement.

  6. “Imagine if HDtracks stopped insisting 1960s recordings from the Beach Boys are “high-res” and simply said they were the best available transfer from an analog master to hi-res PCM digital files. Could any customer really complain that they got ripped off if it was explained to them what the entire provenance or production chain was for a particular item? I don’t think so.”

    Your right, but if honestly on provenance and the ultimate sound quality of the file was revealed who would still be willing to pay the premium prices? That would be a suicidal business move on the side of HDT and the rest, just ain’t gonna happen, too much greed involved. I’ve bought tons of used and new CDs off ebay, in second hand stores, etc for under $5, Then I rip em to flacs and donate the CDs to the church thrift ship.
    I must have been having a senior moment recently when I paid $19.95 for the Animals Retrospective from HDT, I knew better.

    • Stay tuned for the rest of the 10 things the industry should do to fix high-res…one of them is charge the same as standard-resolution. The greed is more on the labels than on the distributors…

  7. Hi Mark,

    You said:

    “When confronted with the proponents’ version of “high-res” music, consumers just can’t tell any difference between what they’ve been listening to and the new version…even professionals can’t reliably perceive the “very subtle” differences that real high-resolution audio provides. If the content used during “CD vs. Hi-Res” shootouts doesn’t possess anything that enhances the fidelity, then why do the comparison in the first place?”

    And maybe that’s where it all lies and we simply have to go back to making sure that an absolutely exemplary recording, that REALLY contains what we could call substantial material above 20kHz is also actually audible. Audible enough for there to be “anything that enhances the fidelity” in the first place.

    Why not record instruments that really produce enough sonic material above 20kHz, record it with the best mics possible, preAmps and AD/DA converters (DPA 4004, Earthworks QTC40/50s, etc.; Benchmark or Millenia preez, Benchmark AD/DA converters, etc.) and make a sufficiently well set up test to determine if we really can take advantage of recordings with ideal provenance that really are above 20kHz?

    Maybe we have been fooling ourselves into the illusion that we can hear something that we actually can’t, and it’s time to admit it, despite the thousands of dollars we could potentially make on it.

    Cheers!

    • Camilo, I have already made almost 100 recordings in the way that you suggest. I would love to do a rigorous test but it takes money and time. In any case, the perceptibility will always remain in question. It’s the production techniques that can maximize the differences…not the formats. That’s why Cookie’s recordings are so good…she knows how to produce great sounding tracks.

  8. In the early years of CD I used to see a letter code printed on the CD and booklet such as: AAD or ADD or DDD. The jazz label ECM still does that until today. If that could be re-introduced for HighRes downloads it will be helpful to get some clue about the provenance of the music.

    • This was the old SPARS codes. There is merit is appropriating some of this thinking.

      • It actually tells us as much if not more than all the twisted logos, etc that have appeared in the last couple years.

        • And for the D one could even add the bit depth and sampling rate. So when the sampling rate in that logo says 48 kHz and the album is offered by the vendor with 96 kHz sampling rate, everybody kows it’s upsampled.

          • There is a way to categorize each stage of a production but I believe it’s going to take more than the old SPARS code of three letters. And it becomes even more challenging when section of tracks are samples from old MP3 that are worked into a tune that’s produced at 96 kHz.

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