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.