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.