Hi-Res Audio HAS Specifications!

My last post was about honesty in audio. And I’ve written extensively about trust and integrity in all things music and audio in previous articles. The topic is especially poignant in this age of blogs and “fake news”. But it’s rare when a highly respected individual in the high-end audio world tries to change commonly accepted definitions as part of a pitch for his company’s process. But before I go into the details, let’s back up a little and review a few established facts.

Video Resolution – SD, HD, & UHD

I’m going to slide over to the world of video because the concept of resolution is easier to understand and to experience than recorded music. And because the attachment of specifications literally defines the quality of the visual experience we enjoy when we sit in front of our monitors. I’m old enough to remember the early days of broadcast television presented on small CRTs (cathode ray tubes) and I remember the very day that my father brought home a color television! It was a family affair watching Ed Sullivan on Sunday evenings and later the first generation of Star Trek in the late 60s. The quality of those early TV watching sessions was tied to the specifications of the source content, the strength of the over the air signal, and the ability of the television set to present the program. All of these components contributed to experience.


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More Pixels – Higher Resolution!

Standard definition televisions — defined by the NTSC standard in the U.S. — established the “resolution” of a TV screen as 720 x 486 lines. The move to high-definition television broadcasting and home theaters some years later pushed the “resolution” to 1920 x 1080 (with progressive scanning and widescreen aspect ratio) and recently 4K or UltraHD increases the number of pixels (and the bit depth behind each one) to 3840 x 2160. Obviously, there’s a lot more to the quality of the experience than just these numbers (gamma, black level, lumens etc.) but I think it’s obvious the move to more and more pixels has improved the “resolution” of the visual aspect of television viewing. And we’re not that far from 8K which quadruples the number of viewable pixels yet again!

Specifications matter. The quality of our television viewing experience has improved precisely because the specifications associated with the entire production chain have improved — bigger numbers mean more resolution! In the digital world, having more data DOES NOT guarantee the resolution of a particular piece of media will be high-resolution but if insufficient data is used to encode any type of media the experience will not reach high-resolution standards.

This notion is consistent with my oft stated position that standard-resolution piece of media — visual or audio — when encoded into a high-resolution digital container remains standard-resolution. The fidelity or accuracy of any recorded analog experience is established at the time of the initial recording and with few exceptions cannot be substantially improved later. The master analog recording of The Beatles “White Album” will forever remain standard-resolution. The 50th anniversary collectors edition that I purchased for the 5.1 surround Blu-ray disc is standard-resolution despite the marketing and promotional materials that talk about it being “high-resolution”. This does not diminish my enjoyment of the new release!

Bob Spins MQA

Bob Stuart, the principal inventor and proponent of MQA and the head of Meridian Audio in the UK, would have us ignore specifications in discussions of high-resolution and focus on analog audio experiences instead. His recent piece on the “Bob Talks” blog section of the MA site is titled, “Insight – High Resolution (Intro)” and features the subtitle, “High resolution is an experience, not a specification …” His opening line contradicts all of the work that the DEG, NARAS, and the major labels put into defining high-resolution audio as recordings with specifications higher than Compact Discs. As readers know, I have real problems with the definition as it has been applied in practice but the underlying insistence on using higher sampling rates and longer words when digitizing analog audio signals provides potential real world benefits for recording engineers AND consumers. If we don’t employ high-resolution specifications, the potential for high-fidelity recording and reproduction is unnecessarily constrained.

Bob is right when he states that “high-resolution can’t be guaranteed by sample rate or bit-depth” but it is also correct to state that sufficient bandwidth, dynamic range, and fidelity are impossible without high sample rates and long words. I once had to work on a CD-ROM project with a sample rate of 11.025 kHz and 8-bit words — the sound was terrible because of the limited specs.

Bob Stuart is a pitch man for a process that is completely unnecessary, closed, doable with other open source methods, and which utterly fails on its technical shortcomings. Read the articles by knowledgeable audio designers and digital engineers. If the source masters aren’t high-resolution then what benefit will the MQA “origami” folding provide?

The summary line of Bob’s article — which moves to the visual analogy also — states, “high-resolution is an experience, not a specification – the best 100 Mpx camera fails to deliver with a dirty or out-of-focus lens or on a misty day.

My response would be that high-resolution is also impossible if a Fisher-Price toy digital camera is used to photograph a beautiful garden or landscape. Specifications make a high-resolution experience possible. Forget the pitch about MQA and recognize that high-resolution PCM audio at 96 kHz/24-bits is more than enough to capture the music we produce AND that 44.1 kHz/16-bits is indistinguishable from higher rates when reproduced.

It hard to push back against a gentleman that I consider a friend. But the spin machine on MQA — which I regard as a solution in search of a problem — rolls on. The reality is MQA is a business venture bent on maximizing a financial return and not an audio enhancement technology.

9 thoughts on “Hi-Res Audio HAS Specifications!

  • Resolution has to do with the size of increments. Our photographic processes whether wet chemistry photography, analog television, or digital television are made of of individual elements or pixels. The resolution of a lens or human eye is measured by angle. The smallest increment of the angle of one pixel to the next that you can see is the maximum resolution of your eyes. If a given number of dots or lines are on a screen the angles between them depends on how narrowly or widely they are spread out and the distance you are from them. So looking at an 8K television image on an 85″ TV set may have no higher perceived visual resolution than say a 4K television image on a 36″ screen seen at the same distance. So the key to resolution is increments.

    How many increments are there in loudness in RBCD? over 64,000 over a 96 db range. How small an increment in time can it switch from one loudness to another? 1/44,100 of a second. So the question is does that exceed the limits of the capabilities of human hearing? IMO the answer is yes.

    I understand Dr. Waldrep’s point, if the fidelity is not in the source, the capability of the reproduction channel only has to exceed what’s in the recording. So if you are listening to a 78 RPM record that has a frequency range of 20 khz and a dynamic range of 96 db the capabilities are far beyond what you could possibly get out of that recording. Similarly if a recording made in the 1960s that had a frequency range of 20 khz and a dynamic range of 60 db were played on this system it would be adequate in frequency range and more than adequate in dynamic range resolution. The requirement for the lowest requirement of a playback system for such a recording is further clouded by wow and flutter of the original tape which reduces the need for frequency resolution, and the dynamic compression or lack of dynamics inherent in the music that reduces the need for dynamic range. Harmonic and IM distortion reduces the need for amplitude resolution. Therefore to use hi definition to reproduce these recordings is of no benefit at all. As Dr. Waldrep said you are just paying for a lot of extra zeroes.

    Does high resolution or high definition have subjective advantages over RBCD that justify it? Well that is debatable but quoting from Dr. Waldrep’s talk to the LA audio society some years back he said: ““The honest truth is that at the end of the day if I played a 44.1,16 bit recording in here and I played my 96K 24 bit originals none of you could tell the difference. My friends in the mastering community can’t tell the difference.”

    I have studied MQA technology and IMO it can’t work as claimed. Audio oragami violates the Shannon Nyquist criteria. A failed solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

  • Thanks for the article, Mark…

    Yeah, you tell ’em :-).

    Perhaps it’s not surprising given that the audiophile world seems to operate to such a large degree based on unsubstantiated “faith” rather than actual reality-based evidence that MQA is even still being promoted… Albeit this article is from BS himself rather than the usual suspects in the press.

    Remarkable that MQA would continue to perpetuate their own myths so unabashedly! MQA fails to maintain the “specifications” in every dimension of “hi-res audio” when fed with a high quality source… It cannot maintain uncompromised bit-depth, it cannot keep the full frequency response without resorting to some kind of lossy reconstruction, it IMO fraudulently insists that it’s capable of 176/192/352/384/etc… when all of that beyond 88.2/96 “first unfold” is simply upsampling with a poor filter that adds imaging distortions to look like there’s something up in those high frequencies.

    Stuart is simply trying to move the goal post now by claiming that he’s targeting the “analog” domain (whaever that means exactly is opaque) because he *knows* he can’t win the “digital” argument and that his claims such as being “lossless” are simply false.

    That this kind of nonsense continues is a testament IMO to the failure of the audiophile press. They have been “captured” by an Industry willing to say and do whatever they think they can without broad repercussions. It’s good to be an “audiophile” who loves seeking out good quality reproduction and love music and the sound…

    What’s shameful and of embarrassment is that so much of the press (thankfully not everyone) that supposedly speaks on behalf of the hobby is so inept that they couldn’t do the right thing years ago and stopped this MQA nonsense within the first 6 months of having access to the files and hardware! Now hardware manufacturers are incorporating MQA to tick off a checkbox really only because the public continues to be reminded of this “feature” every month within these magazines… What a waste of money (to license the feature from MQA) and resources which could be used for other technical purposes I’m sure.

    On yeah, then there’s the part to MQA and it’s worthless “authentication”, security signatures, unnecessary compression for modern streaming, etc… But this is getting too long :-).

    All the best to you, Mark… Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks Archimago…it’s especially hard to push back against Bob. He was a friend for a very long time and was very generous in giving me some Meridian equipment. But having been part of this whole “hi-res” thing since the beginning, it’s hard to see the falsehoods that continue to circulate among the press, professionals, and consumers.

      • Hi again Mark,

        I appreciate how difficult this would be for you being in the industry these days. Not only would this be difficult for your relationship with Mr. Stuart but it does also put you at odds with what the press are promoting… Plus you’re no “friend” of some of these audio “societies” and the shows they put on (especially cable demos)!

        However, recently I have been digging into Marcus Aurelius again :-). TRUTH, HONESTY (to tell the truth), and being REALITY-BASED are clear qualities of character we all should strive for and I appreciate your focus on these traits as well.

        Again, keep up the good work. And I do hope that in time the press, the Industry and those who take up the hobby as participants can get a bit closer to these ideas… While nobody’s perfect, clearly at this point in history, many are far from these landmarks. Not just in the relatively shallow waters of audiophile but also in the greater society.

        • I really do appreciate your support and the kind words. In fact, it has been very challenging to try and counter the nonsense that seems to be all around us in the audiophile marketplace. Thankfully, in pro audio things are much better — not ideal — but we avoid most of the craziness of the audiophile. I get that the press depend on the advertising dollars and want to avoid biting the proverbial hand that feeds them. I know many writers and they tell me confess to being under considerable pressure to see the positive side of products they review. As for the societies and organizations, I’ve been persona non grata in my local group. However, I was somewhat gratified to learn from an insider that the president of the local society thought that the inputs to speakers — the “+” and “-” terminals meant that they expect DC current on their inputs! Really. This is the guy that writes ridiculous cable reviews for Positive Feedback Online and spews forth on Facebook on a regular basis. At least some of the people in his society know he’s a fraud. And the cable guys have threatened me with legal action when I’ve pointed out their fake demos! Thankfully, a honest lawyer and audiophile took up my cause. He wrote to them explaining that he would welcome a court hearing on the benefits of power cables. We’ll all show up and the company would have to demonstrate that power cables change the amplitude of the output…they backed off. It’s just the way my father taught me over 50 years ago. Always tell the truth. Your reputation can be lost in an instant but it takes a long time to establish. Thanks again to a fellow fighter!

          • Hi Mark,
            LOL. *President* of the local society thinking +/- speaker terminals expecting DC current!

            I guess he might like the sound of DC offset in his music? Maybe the folks at Synergistic Research got to him thinking that their Made In China DC wallwart-powered cables actually sound better…

            I imagine that if we were living in the 60’s to maybe early 80’s, audiophiles would have had at least some electronics background to uniformly call BS on that kind of thinking. Unfortunately whether due to the educational system or just because the audiophile media is so filled with the nonsense like what this guy’s writing, there is no divide between truth and fiction left. And what is left of “leaders” in the audiophile hobby who can’t strongly stand up for simple factual truth without being swayed by commercial interests?

            Glad you have good representation if it even needed to go that way. Yeah, put the cable peddlers on the stand and let’s see if their arguments impress the courts!

            Likewise, keep up the good work, Mark. If there’s anything I can help with, feel free to contact me…

  • Soundmind

    The first and most important decision you have to make is what is your goal for an electronic recording/playback system for music. If it is purely for enjoyment then the results are entirely subjective. There is no one best answer because only you can decide what pleases you and what doesn’t. What pleases you may not please someone else. Or what pleases you now might not please you at another time. This is common among audiophiles who are constantly shopping, trading, comparing, looking for something they like better. The accolades in magazines and advertising don’t help much. Steve Guttenberg recently wrote a post where he went to great effort to hear a pair of speakers called DCM Time Windows in the mid 1970s based on a rave review in a magazine from someone whose opinions he respected. Having no car he went to great effort to go by train to the one dealer out on Long Island who sold them in the NYC area and had a pair to demonstrate. When he got there with his recordings in hand, his high expectations were totally crushed in the first seconds of hearing them. Evidently the dealer wasn’t surprised. I only heard them once myself at a trade show very briefly and as I recall I thought they were pretty good.

    The affliction doesn’t just affect hobbyists, it affects hobbyists turned manufacturer as well. Take the case on one famous speaker designer who passed away recently, Arnie Nudell, founder of Infinity and Genesis. Arnie was an aerospace engineer turned speaker designer and his best designs were always no compromise efforts. There was the Infinity Servo Static 1, a triamplified electrostatic system with a large servo controlled woofer. It was improved as the Servo Static 1A. The concept was abandoned for the Infinity IRS speaker, an imposing set of four ceiling high towers with six 12″ woofers per channel, one of which was servo controlled (the others were assumed to perform similarly) and line arrays of ribbon midranges and tweeters in a semi-dipole configuration. Then came IRS II, III, V, Genesis 1, 1.2 and Genesis Dragon all based on the same idea only each one an improvement over the others. His close friend Paul McGowan acquired a pair of IRS V he’d always lusted for and could finally afford to buy (only 58 pairs were ever made) and he fully restored them with Arnie’s help. Then Arnie began work on the IRS killer which he was working on at the time of his death. Paul has them and is now working on an IRS killer killer. Where does it end?

    Paul’s goal, like mine, Arnie Nudell’s, and Harry Peterson’s is to recreate the sound of live musical performances from recordings. Paul used to go to NYC once a year to help a friend who ran the NY Marathon. One year he went to the New York Metropolitan Opera as he had transformed from rock ‘n roll fan to opera fan. He saw a performance of Turandot, a controversial opera by Puccini which you may have to get used to before you appreciate its remarkable music if you are ever going to like it at all. He ran back to Boulder Colorado to compare what he heard live with his best efforts at the time with his Infinity IRS V system. His honest comment about the best efforts he and his highly skilled colleagues had produced over a lifetime was “curses, canned music.” Yep, that’s right. For his goal his best sound system ever at the time was a dismal failure at achieving his goal. And it wouldn’t have mattered what speakers, amplifiers, wires, or anything else he had because the state of the art isn’t nearly up to the task. It’s hard work to build a better speaker, amplifier, or whatever than your last best effort but it is much harder to figure out the root cause of your disappointment and what if anything you can do about it. I’m not talking about hyperbole, I’m talking about genuine science and engineering. I’m talking about a lot of mathematics, physics, and electronics for analysis and synthesis.

    The said truth is going down the path this industry takes, if Paul’s goal is your goal then you can’t get there from here. Not by that route. Among the despondent critics who were honest enough to admit the truth was Gordon Holt. Such high hopes in the 1960s and 1970s only to be dashed by the 1990s and 2000s.

    What is your goal? Are you getting closer? Are you fooling yourself that things you think work actually don’t? And a question that most engineers must eventually face is what are the tradeoffs in cost, reliability, flexibility, and many other factors that influence engineering decisions.

    • Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. As you know, I do not subscribe to the notion that an engineer’s job is to capture and recreate a live musical event. That might be a reasonable goal for some in the jazz and classical markets but it is far from the goal for commercial audio engineers and producers. I’m very confident that my recordings are among the finest ever made in terms of fidelity, spatial engagement, balance, emotional impact etc. The specifications are certainly among the best…and I believe that matters. I married an opera singer and have a PhD in music composition…I know a fair about opera.

      • Soundmind

        I think we are in agreement. As I pointed out in this post the first decision is your goal. Your goals are different from mine so your methods and how you judge the results will be different. There is no right or wrong to it, just differences. However, once upon a time my goal was the goal stated by the industry. IMO that problem beat those working in the industry to a pulp. They are as clueless today as they ever were. But times change, markets change, preferences change and your goals are more in line with what the overwhelming majority of the market wants. I’m just an old dinosaur. But I did have a lot of fun pursuing my own path and frankly I think I found my way to that goal far more closely than others seeking it. I trust that you have achieved your goal and don’t dispute that it is a worthy accomplishment to satisfy your customers in your market. I hope you find profit in it. I didn’t. No one was remotely interested in what I was doing..


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