I had planned to write a blog today about the changing landscape of high-resolution audio and how participants in the HD-Audio Challenge II might approach listening to the multitude of files that I’ve made available. However, having recently had a brief conversation with my friend Norman Chesky of HDtracks at the New York Audio Show, I empathized with his concern that Amazon Music HD’s entrance into the music streaming business is a game changer. How are small, innovative companies like his supposed to compete against one of the largest companies in the world? It’s obvious, they can’t.
David and Norman Chesky were among the first to make available “high-resolution transfers” of the catalogs of the major labels. They built a respectable business for audiophiles interested in downloading the best possible transfers of classic albums. I’ve downloaded more than a few and enjoyed them and been willing to pay the premium price on occasion.
I’ve also been critical of the promotion of these clearly standard resolution recordings incorrectly recast as “high-resolution” by HDtracks and plenty of other providers. Why do these companies feel compelled to elevate virtually the entire catalog of standard resolution, analog tape-based recording to a level that they don’t deserve? Because they believe that audiophiles and music lovers will buy into the myth that older recordings — with fidelity “locked in” at the time of the original recording — in high-resolution bit buckets are better than what we currently have. As wonderful as the classic albums of the 60s and 70s recording sound, they will forever be standard-resolution recording because they were produced prior to the era of “hi-res audio”.
This morning, I received an email from HDtracks with the graphic above. I also received a couple of emails from readers that also received the email questioning whether Jimi Hendrix ever recorded in “Ultra Hi-Res”. It should be obvious to anyone familiar with the artists listed above that most of them didn’t produce any “ultra hi-res” albums. I understand that Amazon’s decision to falsely market Redbook or CD spec audio as HD is causing headaches for HDtracks and others but does it really help audiophiles to change the definitions of what is and what isn’t HD? I don’t think so. But I do feel some sympathy for HDtracks. Demand for physical discs and high-resolution downloads is diminishing. Streaming is the dominant method of music consumption.
Trolling or Truth Telling?
Earlier this morning, on the Hi-res Digital Audio Discovery group FB page, a member commented about the advantages of 96/24-bit audio over 48/24-bit in reference to a new Coldplay album. He wrote, “I think 24/96 is much better file.” And given that I’m in the midst of the HD-Audio Challenge II survey (for more information and to sign up, please visit by clicking here), I thought I would put my two cents into the conversation. I responded:
Mark Waldrep 96/24 is much better? If the original recordings were made on analog tape (usually involving several generations!) and then digitized at 96/24 the fidelity doesn’t improve from the what it was originally. This is the hoax of virtually all so-called “hi-res” music…the provenance is NOT high-resolution. If anyone believes that 24/96 is “much better”, I would encourage you to participate in a survey that I’m conducting. I’ve made 20 tracks from my 96/24 AIX Records catalog available in the original 96/24 and as 44.1/16 Redbook files. You’re free to download them and see if you can tell them apart. Visit http://www.realhd-audio.com/?p=6713 for additional information and to sign up.
I commented further on a follow up post:
The streaming services get what they get from the labels. It’s on the labels to knock off the upsampling shenanigans:
Mark Waldrep You’re right that HDtracks, Qobuz and Tidal get their source files from the labels but it’s the services that perpetuate the myth of hi-res for their own gain. Just this morning, HDtracks issued a newsletter moving everything from Chet Baker to Jimi Hendrix to “Ultra Hi-Res”. The whole thing — hi-res music and MQA included — is a marketing initiative to get people to pay more for the fidelity that was locked in at the time of the original recording.
I regard these responses as polite, reasoned, and accurate. But they (and a previous post about Qobuz , read here if interested.), set off a couple of very harsh comments. The first from David Solomon, Chief Hi-Res Music Evangelist at Qobuz, wrote:
David Solomon It’s no wonder that you’re kicked off of almost every site you post. FYI… Studios have been recording in Hi Res for many years… You would think someone would have shared that with you, except no one that matters will even talk to you and apparently you only read your own book. So sick of your self-promoting nonsense and vile attacks…. Hi Res files come directly from the labels in native form… you know, the ones ppl used to have to pay big dollars.
[MW] I didn’t respond on the FB page but feel obliged to do so here. No one likes to be criticized. First, I have never been kicked off any FB or social media site because of something that I’ve written. I don’t get angry and go on lengthy rants, I avoid personal attacks (what good has that ever accomplished), and I don’t use foul language. As a professional recording engineer with over 45 years of experience, I know what happens in studios. David’s right that the labels provide the source files but as I’ve shown in the past that doesn’t mean that they are bona fide hi-res music. Are we supposed to blindly trust the providers?
[DS] We never up or over-sample. That is so 90’s. Furthermore,
[MW] I never stated that HDtracks, Qobuz, Amazon Music HD, or Tidal modify or change the files they receive. I know they provide the original files as downloads or streams without upsampling them. As for “oversampling”, that’s an entirely different process and may, in fact, improve the fidelity of a file. But I believe the companies have to accept some responsibility for the files they promote. Merely accepting assurances by the labels that what they deliver is high-resolution isn’t sufficient.
[DS] I have never once heard a system or recording you’ve ever done that sounded correct, but have never said this online until now. A hack w a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I would be embarrassed to sit behind a system you set up… and is why no one ever invites you in their room any more. You sound intelligent, but the proof has been established many times. You’re just bitter. So sad…
[MW] Then David resorts to very personal attacks against me by criticizing the sound of the audiophile recordings in the AIX Records catalog (including many that have won 5 star reviews and “best of” awards from magazines and consumers) and calling me a “hack”. Obviously, no one likes to be attacked and my truthful observations with regards to Qobuz and others promoting “so-called” hi-res music could be taken as trolling if you represent one of the companies in this market. As I begin to dial down my very successful career in audio and music production, I’m very proud of the many accolades that fair-minded, audiophiles have expressed to me. I captured the following customer at the recent Capitol Audio Fest.
[DS] I hate even putting this out because you are the king of trolls… Even though I have despised almost everything you do and or say, I have never once put out that I think you are full of shit. Ever tried restraining yourself instead of spewing toxic posts at every turn… ? You promote you and only have interest in what you do. You could give a crap about the industry as a whole. Seriously can’t believe someone hasn’t blocked you from this site already. I’m sure it’s only a misplaced insult or two away… Get a life.
[MW] Apparently, David “despises almost everything” I do or say and resorted to an expletive to describe his opinion of me. I’m honestly surprised by his reaction as I believe I try to provide balanced information relevant to audiophiles and the topics at hand. Sure I’m interested in exposing audiophiles to my recordings and my book but I my livelihood doesn’t depend on books sales or income from the 100 or so albums I’ve engineered and produced. I believe that informed audiophiles can save money, get better sound, and avoid falling for the hype that comes with this hobby.
What was very surprising was the response from the Admin of the site. He wrote the following:
[FK] Sorry Mark Waldrep – I am with David Solomon on this. You have constantly self-promoted for your book, and your A/B test is so hopelessly flawed that it proves absolutely nothing. I was hoping you’d take the hint that you are tilting at the windmills.
Getting to the “fidelity that was locked in at the time of the recording” is a complex task with vintage recordings and has been the holy grail all along. Sampling hardware and technicians in the last 5 years seem to have finally gotten to a point where we are not just able to get the best possible reproduction, we are also able to get entire new mixes and amazing 5.1 versions that sound better than ever before. If those are sampled and mixed at 24/96 then preserve it, and move the industry towards the new normal so prices can also normalize. Labels can downsample for CD and streaming and allow people the choice of which version to get. That is the tide that lifts all boats. The guys and gals on this forum that really know what they are talking about are just sitting back and grimacing, while the newbies are just getting more confused by your auto-repeat attacks.
Documented provenance is a much more important topic.
Hopefully, the knowledgeable members of this FB group know the difference between facts and marketing speak.
Qobuz, other streaming companies, and all small digital music retailers are under a lot of pressure because of the entry of Apple and Amazon into the streaming business. It’s not hard to see why they reduced their prices to match the subscription rate of Amazon. Competing with Amazon is a lost cause. I would encourage people to continue to support Qobuz and HDtracks instead of Amazon.
In reality, all companies involved in streaming or downloading music are at the mercy of those providing the music — the big labels. They simply pass along and market the music they are given. Now that we have moved past compressed formats like MP3 and have established Redbook quality as the norm for streaming, the factors that will determine market winners and loser will be things like integrity, customer service, user experience, size of catalog, ease of use, and ultimately value.
It is my firm belief that we should really forget about hi-res audio and focus on maximizing the quality of the transfers to digital (getting the best analog tape to PCM digital masters), advocate for less audio compression, and insist that the artists/engineers/producers and labels release better sounding recordings.
And David, I am sincerely sorry if my posts were perceived as insults. They were not meant as such.
HD-Audio Challenge II Continues
Almost 500 individuals have signed up for the HD-Audio Challenge II. If you’re interested in participating, please sign up below or visit the original launch page. I’ll be writing more in a few day about how to listen and compare the files in the study. Stay tuned.
Holiday Sale on the Book and AIX Records Continues
Discounts have been extended until the end of November for the all AIX Records releases and the Music and Audio: A User Guide to Better Sound. Use COUPON CODE AIX191101 for 25% off all AIX Recording and MAAG191016 for 50% off the paperback version of the book. The holidays are fast approaching…shop now for the perfect audiophile gift.
Following the success at the audio trade shows in DC and NYC, quantities of the book are limited. Make sure you get your copy in time for the holidays.
Thanks as always and Happy Holidays!