Having been involved in high-end audio for many years as an audio engineer, record producer, writer, and having garnered a reputation as somewhat of a contrarian when it comes to some well-established norms in our hobby, I receive a fair number of emails from readers wanting my input on a specific piece of equipment, audio format, or technical issue. If I believe I can contribute something valuable to the discussion, I respond (which you probably guessed is most of the time).
Recently, I was asked to chime in on the continuing insistence by several high profile “experts” on the issue of high-resolution audio. As most of you know, I’ve spent over 20 years engineering, producing, and releasing native high-resolution audio recordings on my boutique label AIX Records and the newly relaunch iTrax download site. I have been a strong advocate for high-resolution, surround music. I’ve read numerous AES Journal articles, had discussions with industry luminaries like the former president of the Audio Engineering Society, Sean Olive and Robert Stuart, the person behind MQA and the head of Meridian Audio.
In addition, I’m friends with other individuals involved in the dissemination of important information on high-end audio. Fred Thal of ATAE is one of the world’s authorities on analog tape recording, Archimago’s blog is a must read for those seeking unbiased facts about audio, Ethan Winer, The Audio Expert, is a valuable and trusted resource, and John Siau, the head of Benchmark Media Systems, writes and posts white papers that provide insights into a variety of subjects. These are experts that you can trust.
But there continues to be regular stream of sales pitch videos, interviews with “experts”, admin posts and comments on FB audio groups, online magazine reviews written by unqualified audiophile society presidents, reviews that sound like they’re authored by marketing professionals not journalists, and even academic papers that present incorrect or misleading information about high-resolution audio. Why do these sources of misinformation persist?
Paul McGowan, the very public face and owner of PS Audio and a friend, addresses the issue in a 5-minute video posted on March 23, 2020 on his regular YouTube channel. In a video titled “Is high resolution audio snake oil” at about 2:53 seconds, he states without hesitation when referring to high-resolution music, “Can we hear a difference? Oh God yeah.”
I’m not sure who the “we” is that he’s referring to but it’s certainly not members of the audiophile community. Paul should give the HD-Audio Challenge II a try. If he’s like the 350 other individuals that have participated in the survey and submitted their results, he might rethink his pronouncements on high-resolution audio. The audiophiles that have downloaded the 20 tracks and spent time carefully listening on their own systems have averaged around 40% in correctly identifying the high-resolution masters over CD downconversions. In fact, there are dozens of respondents that stated they couldn’t tell them apart at all. And remember these are real high-resolution audio — the same native high-res, 96/24 bit master from which a CD-res downconverted version was created. This is a comparison that is tough to find in the commercial world.
You’ll undoubtedly see comments like this, “for me, I just got the DSOTM and WYWH Pink Floyd tracks in 24/96 and I have the originals. Big difference. There were literally sounds that you couldn’t hear in the low res.” Unfortunately, a comparison of a remastered release vs. an original vinyl LP is meaningless.
There was one individual that scored a perfect 100%. I was somewhat shocked and dismayed until I read his comments. His methodology ignored the requirement that participants use only our ears — no analysis is allowed. He stated, “Comparison of A/B several times, taking a specific part with higher dynamics (15-20 seconds) and choose the one with the highest peak level which is given on JRiver DSP Studio Analyzer shown during playback. I used realtime switching between tracks comparing the peak level of 15-20 sec parts with higher dynamics. In fact, the determination of HR version by listening parts of the track and comparing A/B was confirmed or decided by the highest peak level if i could not hear any difference.”
After I read his note, I went back and checked ALL of the files and sure enough the absence of ultrasonic information in the CD version reduced the peak amplitude by as much as .2 dB. That’s not very much and for all of those that didn’t looked at their peak meters while listening, the difference seemed not be audible. But I went back and changed the gain on the lower tracks so that they matched. The files now have exactly the same duration, same levels, same everything except the original sample rate and word length — the two essential parameters of hi-res audio.
When reading reviews, watching videos, or listening to experts that immediately pivot to pitching their own products beware! I get it. The reason that Paul or other experts spend time and resources posting daily articles/videos, posting conversation starters on their FB Groups, or writing articles/reviews for online publications is to drive more traffic to their sites, build brand recognition, and ultimately sell more of something. For Paul, selling more PS Audio equipment keeps his company in business and his employees paid. For FB admins, it’s about clicks and member counts. Magazines offer articles and reviews to engage readers and sell advertising — it’s all about click throughs and site views. It boils down to money.
I get it. And I’m guilty of the same thing. I want my blog to attract readers. I want people to purchase AIX Records albums or iTrax downloads and I would love readers to buy the Music and Audio: A User Guide to Better Sound. But my livelihood doesn’t depend on selling another disc, download, or book. If I never had to mail another package, my mortgage, credit cards, and other obligations would still get paid.
But it does cause me concern when I see “so-called experts” recommending and selling audiophile grade fuses, gold-plated duplex boxes, expensive “directional” power cords or interconnects, RF generators or bogus acoustic treatments, CD demagnetizers, and other hocus pocus. Audiophiles deserve better. Websites, magazines, and independent experts should be more transparent when they offer advice and then turn around and offer a FREE 30-day trial for their new $3500 power cord or $5K DAC. There are things that matter a lot in this hobby and things that don’t. Experts don’t always tell you which is which.
RIP Ian Whitcomb
Dominic Robelotto, a former student and engineer at AIX Media Group, texted me early this morning to inform me that Ian Whitcomb had died. He was 78 years old. Apparently COVID-19 was not the cause of his death, he had been in ill health for a while and suffered a stroke in 2012. Ian and the Bungalow Boys were featured on the AIX Records “Turned On Alley” and was the special guest on Fred Sokolow’s AIX Records production along with Junior Brown. Another loss for music and for the AIX family or artists.
A Music and Audio User Guide 30% OFF Special Continues
In these challenging times, all of us are being asked to sacrifice and find ways we can help others. I have talked to a few of my musician friends over the past couple of weeks. They are really struggling because ALL their gigs have been cancelled or delayed. Guitarist Dorian Michael, a very close friend and artist on AIX Records, was here recently and told me that he’s taking on students and teaching via FaceTime instead of traveling up and down the west coast doing concerts as he had planned. And who knows how long this situation will last?
So I encourage you to support the artists on my label by buying a disc or asking for a music download (more on that in a moment). I will extend the AIX30Percent coupon until the “stay at home” orders are lifted.
In addition, I’m discounting paperback copies of my book Music and Audio: A User Guide To Better Sound by 30% for the same duration. Use the coupon code MAAG30Percent during checkout. Note that this applies only to the paperback version. But anyone that purchases the paperback will get the eBook in PDF format as well.
I will donate 25% of the sales receipts to an as yet to be determined GoFundMe campaign in support of struggling musicians.