I’m thrilled that so many audio enthusiasts have expressed an interest in taking the High-Resolution Challenge. At last count, I’ve supplied the FTP credentials to over 300 interested readers. And I’ve started receiving responses. I’m not going to reveal the correct answers or otherwise discuss the results but I thought I would talk about a specific case in some detail because this person managed to get all 6 correct! Brodie was the first person to identify the high-resolution files in every case. So I wrote back and asked that he please confirm that he didn’t analyze the files or peek at their spectra. He assured me that he hadn’t. But I found his descriptions interesting and thought I should share them here. I have been thinking about writing a quick guide on what to listen for when experiencing high-resolution audio. The files downloaded from the FTP site may be your first encounter with real high-resolution audio. Really! The stuff you get from HDtracks, HighResAudio, SuperHiRez, and other download sites typically lack sufficient fidelity to be considered hi-res music.
Here is Brodie’s email (I have removed elements that would identify which tracks are which in the challenge):
Many thanks for the ftp access. I’m enjoying listening to some beautiful recordings tonight. So imagine the scene. A 63 year old man who has listened to far too much loud music in his teens and twenties sitting in a rather harsh listening space. In front the equipment is an ebay purchased $250 HP Elite Book pro taking the sound via HDMI into an Emotiva XMC-1 preamp that is performing the D to A conversion. The analog domain is a pair of Emotiva XPR-5s using two channels to bi-amp a pair of trusty 20 year old Tannoy System 12 DMT Mk II studio monitors some 15 ft away. These are augmented with a pair of Tannoy ST-50 super tweeters. The room has dry-wall ceiling, walls and behind me is a glass wall. Floor is carpet, on the walls at the first reflection points are two native American rugs that cover 6ftx4ftx2in rockwool batting.
Can I hear a difference? Well, everything at my age says that I shouldn’t – especially as I find it very difficult to follow a conversation in a noisy bar – so much so that the bar’s acoustics became more important that the craft beer being served, but I do. All the example tracks are just fabulous, but there’s something about one of each pair of them that makes them stand out to me, so are my pick as the Hi-Res version of each track. Here’s my “guesses” as to which track is the Hi-Res version and why I picked it as such.
Tune 1. the guitar strings have more attack as does the percussion and the cymbal has an edge to it that’s lacking in Version X.
Tune 2. less than 10 seconds into the track and brass section is just so much more alive. The sax has an edge to it that’s missing from X. The high-hat is crisper. Track X sounds muted by comparison.
Tune 3. again it is the grip and smack of the percussion that makes me think this is the Hi-Res version. The rim shots plus the guitar just come over more realistically.
Tune 4. Drums and cymbals just sounds more realistic, more detailed, plus I think there’s a bit more dynamic range in the percussion.
Tune 5. Now this was a tough one there’s almost nothing in the first 15 seconds to choose one over the other. Then there’s the flutist’s breath, the “shewesh” which stands out as different between the two versions. Then I go back to the presentation of the cymbals and the vocals at about 90 seconds into the track – so I’m picking X as the Hi-res version.
Tune 6. Ah the Brandenburg Concerto, a tune I’ve heard before. But who was clomping around the studio? I once heard an audio engineer/speaker designer say the phrase “Smack and Grip”. The system must be able to handle the transient sounds (smack) while at the same time controlling the drivers (grip) so as not to muddy the sound. This track is a real test of both smack and grip. Version X’s presentation of the harpsichord was, to me, a lot cleaner than version X. The initial attack of the violins was however much open and airy.
Mark, you’ll have to let me know how I did. Everything says that at my age there’s no way that I should be able to hear any difference between these tracks. But I did. I hope the descriptions above make some sense. I’ve had a thoroughly enjoyable evening listening to some great recordings. I love the way that AIX recordings are close mic-ed and get the best possible sound captured before the room starts to become too much of an instrument in its own right.
Earlier I used the adjective muted to describe what I was hearing. It’s a bit similar to the difference between wearing glasses or contact lenses. Both help correct my vision, but I see better with contacts rather than glasses. You will need to confirm this, but I think I hear better in Hi-Res too.
Redbook CD specification was and still is rather good especially at covering music recorded onto tape. Everything gets captured. So much music today with auto-tune and techno tracks rather than people who can sing in tune backed by bands that play instruments other than synthesizers frankly don’t need to be recorded at more than CD spec. But there is still an audience for great music played well. I’m still not into downloads – preferring to buy physical media and rip my self. Plus I spend a portion of the year in Wyoming where the internet is still very hit or miss. Our service craps out every day there. Nor am I a part of the Vinyl resurgence. Pops and clicks, static and they warp and wear out – which counts them out for me. Well recorded PCM makes me happy.
Once again, many thanks for the files. I shall audition them with friends and see if I can’t get some buddies hooked on AIX and proper Hi-Res audio too.
PS. My only “snake oil” in use tonight was a) each amp is fed by it’s own dedicated 20 amp circuit from the breaker box, oh and the interconnects are Kimber Heros. The bi-amp set-up uses balanced for the high frequencies and regular RCA phonos for the lower frequencies. These feed the two cross-over inputs on the monitors. The HDMI cable is 4K compatible – but who needs 18 Gb/s to get the audio through from source to D-to-A converter.”
So there you have it. Brodie describes hearing distinct differences between the files. I may send him another set of 5-10 tracks to confirm his abilities…we’ll see.
When listening to the files, simply relax and let the music deliver its message. Let yourself become sensitive to increase dynamics — the louder transients will hit harder you harder in the high-resolution versions. If you have supertweeters or headphones that extend into the ultrasonic range, you might feel more clarity, sparkle, or additional crispness in the sound of cymbals and metal instruments. They sound less cluttered and more transparent.
As I was walking along the beach this morning, I thought about adding another variant to the mix. What you’re hearing with the existing files does not represent the realities of the commercial music business. The CD version has far more fidelity than virtually every CD you’ve ever hear. But what if I create a “commercially mastered” version of these tracks. I would do what I used to do for The Allman Brothers, Bad Company, Kiss, and others — smash the dynamic range, hype the high frequencies and boost the bass. Listening to typical CD fidelity vs. a real high-resolution track would be eye opening.