The news this week included the announcement by Spotify is upgrading the fidelity of their music streams to “CD-quality.” I watched a video by John Darko, read the press release about Spotify Hi-Fi and another article on CEPro by Robert Archer, and was so thoroughly disgusted at the inaccuracies included in a piece titled “High-resolution audio: everything you need to know” written by Verity Burns and Becky Roberts on WhatHiFi that I had to post a lengthy comment pointing out a few of the issues. Why is it so hard for “professional” writers to get a grip on real facts when they write about the latest marketing initiative pushed the hardware and software companies (actually it’s been around for almost 20 years but only recently seems to be getting some traction). Don’t they realize that the information they are disseminating is almost word for word the spin put forward by the companies? I know everyone wants to have something to say but when authors simply repackage a company’s press release, I have to wonder about the future of audio journalism. Do your research, talk to real experts, and challenge the hyperbolic claims made in those releases.
While I generally dismiss anything the John Darko says, at least he acknowledged that virtually all of the so-called “hi-res” content on Qobuz, Spotify, and the other services isn’t really high-resolution. He claimed 90% of the 70 million tracks available are limited to CD-quality. And he’s right. Robert Archer, the author of the piece at CEPro, is confused about the term “CD quality.” I’ve talked about this before. He wrote, “Spotify’s newly announced Spotify Hi-Fi is an upgrade that will be available to users shortly, and the popular streaming audio company says the service will provide listeners with a CD quality (16-bit/44kHz, 1,411kps bitrate) level listening experience. Here’s what he — and many other writers — fail to understand. There is the Red Book or CD-Audio specification, which provides all of the physical, logical, and electrical details about the compact disc. The CD-Audio specification delivers 2-channels of 44.1 kHz (not 44 kHz)/16-bit linear PCM encoded audio at a bitrate of 1411.2 kbps (44100*16*2). However, “CD-quality” audio is defined as audio that is perceived as equal in fidelity to the Red Book specification. It’s not required that it actually be CD-Audio spec. If a group of listeners hears a 320 kbps org vorbis audio steam and is unable to reliably identify it as a lossy encode then it is deemed “CD-quality.” The download and streaming companies have been using this descriptive — and deceptive — term for years. It is not what the Red Book describes.
The WhatHiFi article makes an attempt to define high-resolution audio. They reference the June 2014 press release issued by the DEG, CEA, Recording Academy, and the labels, which establish hi-res audio as anything “better” than CD-quality (there’s the same erroneous definition again!). The authors continue with a simple explanation of sampling frequency and word length. They wrote, “The more bits there are, the more accurately the signal can be measured in the first instance, so going 16bit to 24bit can deliver a noticeable leap in quality.” I would challenge the authors to take the HD-Audio Challenge II, the survey I created in 2019 to test whether hi-res is perceptible vs. CD-Audio spec audio. As most of you already know, the results showed that even experienced audiophiles and professional audio engineers using state-of-the art, expensive equipment did no better than a random coin toss at picking the native hi-res audio files. It seems to me that writing there is a “noticeable leap in quality” is at best wishful thinking and at worse outright lying. Finally, they listed a number of the “main file formats” associated with Hi-Res Audio including MQA. They wrote that MQA is, “a lossless compression format that efficiently packages hi-res files with more emphasis on the time domain.” Missed it again. It is not lossless unless you think slicing off 7 bits from the actual data words to make room for their “origami” magic qualifies as “lossless.”
I know I’m always harping on the BS that seem to dominate audio articles, FB posts, and Youtube videos, but I have a very hard time accepting that this is the state of information in our hobby.
Here are the facts you should know:
- All download and streaming services get the same masters from the labels and make them available to subscribers at varying quality levels according to their own business model. Once they all arrive at CD-Audio spec, we’re getting everything “the artist intended.”
- Virtually all of the masters offered by these companies are not bona fide hi-res audio productions. They are “hi-res transfers” of older non hi-res masters. Does anyone think a 192 kHz/24-bit transfer of a recording made in 1932 is hi-res? What about an analog tape track from the 60s?
- CD-quality is not the same thing as Red Book standard – CD-Audio specification audio. Anything less than 1411.2 kbps is NOT CD-Audio and will require a codec — lossy or lossless — to deliver it. Most CD-quality audio is encoded at 320 kbps.
- Qobuz, TIDAL, Deezer, Amazon Music HD, Apple Music, and now Spotify Hi-Fi are delivering standard-resolution audio NOT HD! And it’s OK because no one can tell the difference anyway — remember the HD-Audio Challenge II. Just because they label it HD doesn’t make it so. Amazon Music HD shifted all CD-spec audio to their HD category. Why? Because they want us to think it’s better.
- The fidelity of any audio reproduction is established at the time of the original recording and the master is delivered to the label NOT by the platform that ultimately delivers it to you. They can only make it worse. Sure, TIDAL, Apple and the others want us to believe we’re at the dawn of a new listening experience a high-resolution experience, but it’s all marketing nonsense. A well made recording at Red Book specification can sound astounding and is sufficient to meet even the most discerning audiophile. Just think of all of the bandwidth and storage we’re saving.
- Avoid MQA, DXD, DSD and stick with good old PCM. It’s been the standard in the industry since the 70s and will continue to outclass all of the newcomers.
The move to CD-Audio specification streaming is to be applauded. We aren’t stuck with Lo-Fi MP3, AAC, or Org Vorbis files. But moving beyond Red Book audio is NOT necessary. The artists, engineers, and producers know that incredible recordings can be delivered at CD-Audio spec. It’s the marketing departments and the uninformed that continue to push for formats and standards that don’t move the needle.
I’m a Private Pilot!
I started flying gliders in the summer of 2018 with the goal of becoming a private pilot with a glider certification. I had to take 2019 for medical reasons but started soaring again last summer. I’m thrilled to tell you that on Friday, February 26, 2021 I passed my oral exam and check ride and became a private pilot. I’ve worked really hard on this over the past few years. There’s a lot of detailed information to learn and flying skills to be mastered. My father was a bomber pilot during WWII and became a corporate and ultimately a check pilot for GM before he succumbed to cancer at the age of 43. And my aunt received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010, 60 years after her service as a WASP during the war. My half brother’s widow informed me after my posting on FB that he and his sister were also trained as pilots. I’m so happy that I’ve reached this first milestone on the way to more time learning to fly.