Sunday, 27 December 2015

MUSINGS: The Wisdom of Simplicity [RE: Hi-Res Audio]? And a Happy New Year!

Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.
--- Confucius
Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.
--- Albert Einstein (apocryphal?)
Only the simplest can accommodate the most complex.
--- Juni Kimura, 47 Labs / Sakura Systems
:-)

Let us ponder a few moments on the first "As We See It" column for 2016 in Stereophile. Humorously titled "To the Simple, Everything Appears Simple".

After reading it, I was thinking, what was this article about anyway? An admonition (based on some other Facebook comment) about the perils of blind testing? Another caution to listeners that A/B testing involves the activation of analytical brain networks rather than those we use to appreciate art? Yet another attempt to impress/convince readers that music in a high-resolution container is significant for the home listener (like comments and articles about the virtues of Pono and high-res on-the-go)? A fair warning about jumping to conclusions without considering nuances or alternatively an attempt at instilling fear, uncertainty, and doubt in what should be rather obvious observations?

As we sit here at the end of 2015, I remind readers that "high-resolution" audio has been with us now for a rather long time! Many of us interested in technology and the "cutting edge" have likely been listening, perhaps testing, and evaluating >44kHz and >16-bit audio for the last 15 years. We have seen technologies like SACD and DVD-A essentially come and either gone or linger in some state of stagnation. We have witnessed the promise of a better-than-CD but CD-compatible "format" like HDCD come and go. I suspect many of us bought "music DVD's" encoded in 24/96 or 24/48, stereo, and multichannel years ago to get access to that promise of high resolution and listen for ourselves to satisfy our own curiosity - way before the Hi-Res Audio branding hype or inflated expectations from "evangelists" like Neil Young or the corporate push (eg. Sony).



Today, we have thousands of albums available to buy on places like HDTracksProStudioMastersPonoAcoustic Sounds DSD, etc... A multitude of potentially better-than-CD quality files and albums are now available through downloads and rippable off SACD, DVD-A, DVD's, and Blu-Rays. And in the not-so-distant future, we hear the drum beats of companies wishing to sell us Hi-Res streaming (ie. Qobuz, forthcoming MQA/Tidal). Yet why is it that we still have editorials like this one in Stereophile trying to convince audiophiles of the merits of this great advancement in music quality? By now, should it not be self evident if indeed these high-resolution releases sound significantly better? Considering that they cost 50-100% more than the standard CD release (and cannot be resold "used"), surely these newer, more expensive music tracks must add value, right? As a consumer, this economic angle must also be a simple concept to grasp if it is to spark the desire of the masses.

With every successful step of the audio-visual fidelity technological evolution, did we have to go beyond the simple act of observation to appreciate that a new higher resolution format/generation was better than its predecessor? When we went from an average turntable to an average CD player, was it difficult to observe the improved noise floor, better dynamic range, reduced pops/clicks/distortions, and physical robustness of the format? Could we not simply appreciate that cassette tapes and 8-tracks were hopeless for high fidelity (but fine for portability those days)? When we switched from a VHS to DVD, was it not simply better looking? Did it take much blind testing to appreciate the resolution difference between DVD to Blu-Ray on a decent HDTV?

At the very least we can talk about diminishing returns, right? But that's not even hinted at by the editorial. Instead it delves even further into the dark art of meta-analytical analysis and claims some sort of victory on audible significance! The fact that meta-analytic statistical analysis of academic listening tests (likely controlled with very accurate gear and excellent room acoustics) is even needed to show whatever (likely small) effect size out of 20 previous reports is in itself evidence of  questionable real-world significance. (Did this analysis even makes it out to publication?) To many audiophiles who have spent time analyzing and considering for themselves the value of these supposedly "better" sounding offerings, the obviousness of the statement above I suspect is a simple conclusion to draw. For the vast majority of music, I believe there is simply no audible difference when one bothers to take the time to try a bit of unsighted listening.

However, in the spirit of the Einsteinian aphorism, let's not be too simple and consider some small but "complex" nuances to consider when it comes to hi-res audio...

1. Potential Objective Improvements: As I wrote many moons back, high-resolution formats can of course encode objectively higher resolution, more "accurate" audio. Considering that we do have excellent DACs these days capable of >16-bit resolution and 44kHz sample rate, there's nothing wrong I think with wanting to feed the devices with higher accuracy material. Sure, maybe pushing the Nyquist frequency higher and moving away from a "brickwall" filter could help eliminate concerns about digital filtering. Just remember the cost-benefit of this privilege and whether you're likely to hear a difference. Just because many DACs are clearly capable of >16-bit performance for example, doesn't mean high-resolution is needed for enjoyment (just ask the audiophiles who like the sound of the Playstation 1!). Also remember that for those using NOS DACs or devices with unusually weak digital filter settings at 44/48kHz (perhaps ironically, something like the PonoPlayer) high samplerate material will push aliasing effects further into the ultrasonic range and this could be beneficial.

2. Data Storage Wastage: I still consider lossless compressed (FLAC, ALAC, WV, APE) 24/96 a reasonable if not ideal target for audiophile listening. It doesn't waste too much storage space (unlike uncompressed DSD and 176/192+kHz), and captures much more than what humans can perceive even considering the discussions around time domain stuff like impulse responses some are prone to hype up. And before anyone mentions the Oohashi "hypersonic effect" as evidence of needing high sample rates, as I wrote before, I see no evidence to be impressed with that body of work.

Yes, I know hard drives are cheap... So what? Waste is waste and aren't we supposed to "reduce, reuse, and recycle" these days?

[Fun Fact: Not only is 24/96 "high fidelity" for humans, it's likely good enough for dogs as well. Research suggests dogs can hear reasonably well up to ~45kHz. Looks like we'll need 192kHz to satisfy the rats and mice though... And the DXD sample rate of 352.8kHz will satisfy everyone including bats and beluga whales.]

3. Garbage in... Garbage Out: If we have items 1 & 2 above covered and understood, then we're still at the mercy of the source material itself. As Mark Waldrep (aka Dr. AIX) has expressed many times in his blog, very few recordings are actually high-resolution. Even if you want to capture the extended frequency above 22kHz of analogue tape and vinyl, there's no reason to think we need more than 16/96. Similarly, I have downloaded many new recordings of the rock and pop genre as high-resolution files only to find that essentially none of them benefit at all (for example, Dylan's Shadows In The Night or Beck's Morning Phase - but these are just a couple of examples out of the multitudes). Classical and jazz music lovers are thankfully more fortunate. Does anyone actually think Adele's recordings released thus far in Hi-Res Audio relieve the fatigue of crushed dynamics in the mastering? Anyone actually think the new Beatles 1+ remaster sounds better because of 24/96 as opposed to the remastering process itself? And let's not forget SACD/DSD likely sourced from 44kHz material. Recently, a friend was disappointed by his download of Holly Cole Trio's Don't Smoke In Bed (AcousticSounds DSD64, 2012 remaster?) and we discovered it appears to be a 44kHz recording looking like it was re-recorded off analogue playback to DSD which added a bit of noise beyond 22kHz:
From "Don't Let The Teardrops Rust Your Shining Heart"... Notice drop off in frequencies terminating at 22.05kHz. Thereafter low-level noise that's essentially static on playback. Sure, it sounds fine... But so did the original CD release without the DSD contortions!
Of the 3 points above, clearly, item 3 remains the proverbial "elephant in the room". Notice how few writers talk about this apart from a few blog posts and more enlightened and IMO honest folks on forums (I appreciate Michael Fremer's articles expressing his suspicions around vinyl releases)! Instead audiophile magazine editorials and columnists for the most part would rather spend time on minutia like trying to convince us that there's some really complex side to Hi-Res Audio sounding better that folks are presumably somehow missing. In this way, they appear out of touch and unable to demonstrate an ability to actually critique claims made by the Industry. This is a disservice to Consumer interests and ultimately damages whatever (small) credibility remains at this point (because in essence they become an advertising arm of the Industry).

As I have said over the years, no matter how much hype is spewed, consumers are not idiots and market forces will eventually prevail. Given the current situation where it's a bit like the "Wild West" out there in terms of audio quality, I would not be surprised if after the "cool, I own Hi-Res Audio" factor subsides, folks seeking out and willing to pay for hi-res releases rapidly subsides (who knows, maybe this is already happening). Ultimately what we likely will see is a relatively small number of true high-resolution albums released every year supported by a small audiophile market of folks in-the-know... (Same as it has been for much of the last 15 years.)

A suggestion...

It doesn't help to just complain and moan without putting some thoughts toward a way forward. My feeling is that if we want to make this work in terms of selling an elevated standard of music, the solution has to be simple. One that sidesteps the jargon and can truly showcase better mastering using the high-resolution technology.

Don't sell container size, sell better quality mastering of a recording that clearly sounds better because it's more dynamic while in a larger container. 

I would love to see a 2 tier system for purchases and streaming of "lossless" new music covering the largest genres - rock, pop, R&B, and country (remember that classical music and jazz account for the lowest percentage of sales dollars and already enjoy good quality overall). Something like this:

Tier 1: Standard Resolution [SR] version - 16/44 CD-equivalent quality downloads and streaming.
     --- All significantly dynamically compressed masterings belong to this tier (eg. DR<10).
     --- All recordings originating from 16-bits, 44/48kHz.
     --- All analogue recordings due to limitations of the medium.
     --- This is what you hear on radio, buy either lossless 16/44 or MP3 and hear on free Spotify.
     --- Singles can be sold.
     --- Basic pricing similar to CD.

Tier 2: Advanced Resolution [AR] version - 24/96 lossless default "container size".
     --- Provenance clearly from a >16-bit and >48kHz digital recording+mix+master.
     --- Minimal dynamic range compression.
     --- (At least DR10, preferably DR12+ on average for the album.)
     --- Streaming where/when internet speeds permit.
     --- Make sure the tagging is done right and to set standards!
     --- You won't hear this version on the radio nor on free streaming. Premium streaming only.
     --- Full album purchases only to maintain artistic integrity. Keep it simple.
     --- Higher pricing - maybe 25-50% above standard resolution download/CD. 

By supporting an "Advanced Resolution" version of an album that actually sounds different, the industry can potentially do something good in promoting a return to a more natural and dynamic sound. Sell it as being the more "refined", "clearer", "classier", "elite", "deluxe", "advanced" version compared to what you hear in a car or through your earbuds on a subway. Also educate the artists and sound engineers and make sure they agree that the more refined sound is suitable within their artistic intent (they cannot be allowed to sell crappy recordings of poor production value as Advanced Resolution to maintain the integrity and intent of this category - quality control is essential!). The promotion of this kind of "meme" could help maintain interest in high-resolution audio while reorienting the trajectory away from even more "Loudness War" material. Imagine Adele's 25 available as both a DR6 CD/Standard Resolution for the average radio listener/driver priced at $12. And the Advanced Resolution DR12+ version for the "discerning" listener, collector, music lover, audiophile - you know, those with US$300 Beats Studio headphones and the $1000+ Hi-Fi sound systems at home - for $15. I'll happily go for the $15!

Of course for marketing, make sure to talk to the specialty audio stores to show them how to demo the Advanced Resolution versions (pump up the volume - notice the vocal clarity and dynamic bite compared to the Standard Resolution!). This will give them the opportunity to show customers just how awesome a good sound system can be with the right software. Talk to the mainstream technology websites to make sure they understand the difference - surely this will result in much better reception (unlike the David Pogue article because the difference in dynamics will be clear to anyone even if some might not appreciate the superiority yet). Word of mouth will also be a powerful force... I bet the Advanced Resolution releases will be very well sought after on Torrents and the darker side of the web as a proxy for desirability.

This is more the kind of system I had in mind back in May 2014 when I wrote this piece about Pono. Not more non-sense babble about 24/192, etc... and buddies walking out of cars spewing obviously unrealistic praise. It sure would be nice to see a real move towards "rescuing the art form" intelligently rather than meaningless soundbites. No more attempts at dissociating and promoting the size of the "container" from the quality of the actual "product" inside.

What do you think? As usual, feel free to discuss and especially to post links to evidence if you think I'm in error around my impressions and opinions.

Finally, as for life and complexity, I try to keep Confucius' comment in mind where I can! And just keep it simple. :-)

Addendum: What to do about Apple?
Keep it simple. UMG, Sony, and Warner only avails the Standard Resolution version for the iTunes store and Apple Music streaming as is currently. Since this is a new "tier" of product, until Apple modifies iTunes to accommodate lossless 24/96 downloads, automatic bitdepth/samplerate switching (no more Audio/MIDI fiddling), they can only have access to the lower standard. Apple will also need to ensure that their hardware like the iPhone is capable of 96kHz playback. I suspect Apple will follow the lead because of the importance of their corporate image of being technological leaders.

----------------------------

Looking back at 2015, I don't think it has been a particularly exciting year in the audio world in terms of new products, technologies and such... This is to be expected for a mature hobby. Pono Player is out. MQA remains MIA. One-port USB hubs and USB "filtering" tweaks seemed to be the talk of the town with testimonies of efficacy and no clear objective benefits. DSD playback appears to have reached its advertising apex and we're probably on the other side of the curve now (not surprising).

Nonetheless, I am excited about 2016! I am looking forward to the push towards 4K/UHD Blu-Rays. Affordable VR (like the hot Samsung Gear VR) could be interesting to play with in the days ahead. Despite my suspicions about MQA, I am curious to see how it performs and explore what it's doing in the time domain (given the proprietary nature, what looks like maximum 16-bit dynamic range, questionable "losslessness", I have doubts MQA qualifies for 'Tier 2 / Advanced Resolution'). As always, January brings with it the CES (Jan 6-9, 2016) and a glimpse at what the Industry has in store...

Hope you're all enjoying the music... Wishing you a Very Happy New Year and prosperous 2016!

PS: Got Star Wars: Battlefront (III) for Christmas for my gaming PC. Amazing graphics and tons of fun to be had online especially for Star Wars fans! My son loves it.



36 comments:

  1. Enjoyable read as always.

    "no matter how much hype is spewed, consumers are not idiots and market forces will eventually prevail."

    Oh, I don't know. The majority of the consumers just want convenience and do not necessarily care about sound quality that much. I remember having seen some evidence that kids prefer lossy and compressed sound because that's what they're used to.

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    1. Yes, convenience is important. That's why I think we keep it simple if we are to have "high resolution" succeed. Stick with 24/96 FLAC/ALAC or equivalent.

      -- 24/96 is universally supported by DACs (unlike MQA BTW)
      -- It doesn't take too much time to download these days
      -- Still allows a good number of tracks in a typical 64GB SD card
      -- Can be reasonably agreed on by both subjectivists and objectivists as being good plus it's standard in the studio setting

      So far, we actually have *not* challenged folks with "sound quality" yet because we have not bundled in a better mastering WITH the high-resolution file. Adele's 25 sounds great in 256kbps MP3, no different than FLAC because the music isn't challenging to compress! Likewise if we use the same Adele DR6 mastering for a typical HDTracks 24/96 release, there's no difference listeners are going to notice either!

      But if companies actually provided a *true* "Advanced Resolution" mastering at DR12, not so loud, more natural sounding, people I bet are going to be more apt to spend a little more, download a larger file, and value the 24/96 version. Simply because the difference will be obvious and marketable... A few challenges to overcome:

      -- The masses may need to be taught to appreciate the more dynamic mix
      -- Make sure the "Advanced Resolution" version goes upmarket! Create an actual niche; not the kid on his earbud, but the more sophisticated home listener and those willing to spend money on better headphones... Aim for the professional who's enjoying other "finer" things in life like a nice cigar, good wine, and vintage scotch :-). I believe there's a huge market there.
      --- Get Apple interested. Sony, UMG, Warner can still supply the "Standard Resolution" version for iTunes and Apple Music, but NOT the "Advanced Resolution" unless they allow hi-res lossless iTunes downloads. I don't think there's any other way to compel Apple to shift from AAC lossy.
      --- Have reasonable expectations. The industry needs to understand that yes, they will have to spend some money to do this *right*. Taking the same master tapes and converting to 24/192 might be cheap, but thoughtful audiophiles know this is a waste and the guy on the street isn't going to take notice other than the higher price!

      I can see a situation where the "Standard" version sells more in the beginning but as time goes on, as the listeners appreciate the more dynamic mix... The "Advanced" version takes over as truly the "definitive" cut. That is what needs to happen to "rescue the art form".

      And hardware manufacturers will rediscover the beauty of the "loudness" button again for those who want to add compression on the drive and in the subway :-).

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  2. BTW I'm curious, what made you spend the money on your testing equipment? How much did you invest in it? I'm grateful that you did and that you publish your results.

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    1. Actually, I did not spend much! My dad is a DIY kind of guy who's retired and makes his projects. He lives 4 blocks away so I could always drop by to borrow his stuff if needed.

      I already had the EMU 0404USB ADC/DAC before I upgraded my DAC. The time invested was mainly to learn about what to do and create some test signals myself for the standard battery I use. As you notice over the years, I enlarged the measurement repertoire as I incorporated more into it...

      I must also thank readers for suggestions as well as those I've had E-mail correspondence with for hints and tips!

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    2. As for *why* I did this... Basically I didn't want to be part of the audiophile "sheeple" any more.

      After reading the publications for more than a decade, "listening" to different power cords and claims of interconnects, etc... I recognized that there was no way to go forward as a sane hobbyist following the leading of the magazines and claims by many of the forum posters on the typical websites. I bought into SACD early as well as DVD-A within a couple years and recognized just how little benefit they brought beyond multichannel; thus my suspicions around these downloads.

      Out of the above, and as per the usual audiophile recommendation to "find out for yourself", I decided to start this blog to document the journey. To have "data" out there for folks to consider and hopefully use to challenge assertions (such as how much difference cables make). As always, I want people and manufacturers making claims to demonstrate the difference compared to what I found. Only then can we separate the "wheat from the chaff", real benefits vs. faith and testimony.

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  3. very thoughtful article. I've always been amazed at how good some internet music sounds. One of my favorites is the stream from the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. It clearly beats the sound quality of many CD's I have as well as some 24/96 and higher files. It's always made me wonder about the things you have commented about. I suppose the old adage " garbage in garbage out " holds true. Always enjoy your writing.

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    1. Thanks. As perhaps you can see, I've been envious of the expertise used in recording classical music and just how *good* they sound! Wish this care and appreciation of artistry could be applied across the board...

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  4. My only issue with what you're putting forward is the less dynamic version for the "standard" version and the better dynamics in the "deluxe" version. I say let all versions have the same "good" mastering. Only issue with that is high res then becomes a much harder sell. I've done a ton of blind abx testing with high res files downconverted to 320k mp3 and I always fail the tests. I've tested a variety of genres from a variety of "true" high res sources. My listening equipment is pretty good I listen thru an audioengine d1 and Audio Technica ATH-M50X headphones and if that setup isn't enough to tell the difference well then oh well for me.

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    1. That is EXACTLY why it's failing! Because people will not be able to tell the same mix apart whether MP3 320k or 24/96 FLAC. Expectations have to change but it will not be overnight. The current expectation for these loud mixes on the radio which competes with every other Loudness War mix can continue as is... Let folks like Vlado Meller play in that sandbox. But create a new and better version for those of us that honestly want to hear something different and objectively/subjectively better. Bring out the likes of Mark Waldrep, Steve Hoffman, Barry Diament, Kevin Gray among others to lend their "ear", experience and their engineering skills to produce and *teach* within the expanded "Advanced Resolution" sandbox.

      I appreciate that the music producers have to spend a little more to get the "Advanced" mix and that's why I think they should sell it at a higher price and achieve a separate income stream. Make 24/96 "part of the package" to satisfy the audiophiles and music lovers who care not only about how it sounds but also technically advanced for their expensive DACs and hi-fi systems. If people truly want to keep everything 16/44 with access to the "Advanced Resolution" mix because they feel they don't want/need the larger filesize, then they can buy the better version, take it and downsample it themselves with dBPowerAmp, etc.! Let them take that extra step as a choice for themselves.

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    2. I get what you're saying but as long as the high res has an extra cost to it. It's basically dead on arrival because the vast majority of folks nowadays don't care much about sound quality. A lot of it is because the loudness wars have destroyed the sound of music. Once high res audio is simply the standard with no additional cost it will take off. At the same time we should definitely push for more dynamic range in music as well.

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    3. Yes, financial incentive is a big one for sure :-).

      As a technological field, I think we should look for opportunities to "advance the artform":
      1. Push the status quo of sound reproduction hardware. >$300 DACs already achieve more than we need... Expensive headphones can sound amazing! Plenty of excellent speaker systems but I'm not sure how they're selling with the mass market consumer.

      2. Better mastering. Actual music that can benefit from the better hardware.

      Unless we move towards a better standard for (2), I really do not see why the average consumer would care about (1). And what financial incentive is there for the major music labels to "do it right" unless we acknowledge that this does take a little more money (no need to get greedy)!

      I actually do not believe hi-res will ever be the "standard". Simply because one will always fit more MP3/AAC into a memory card, and for the vast majority of applications, there's no reason to more than double storage space to go from 16/44 to 24/96 other than for the purpose of *quality*. And this "desire" for quality is one that the industry must foster after close to 2 decades of leading the consumer down the path of loudness expectations which does a disservice to many albums and genres.

      Already the vinyl market is catering to some concept of "quality" (another discussion altogether!) and look at the prices there... New albums start at >$20 around here. A 25%-50% increase in price going from a low-dynamic range album download to one that is audibly more dynamic I don't think is a big jump, and probably one that many of us would be fine in paying (cheaper than the sea of crappy mastering on HDTracks or Pono). Like I said, I bought Adele's 25 for $12 and if I could buy a better hi-res master download at $15 and enjoy it myself and in some ways "brag" to friends and play the superior version to them, that would be money well spent and a direction in hi-fi I would be happy to support!

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    4. I can get behind what you're saying I guess if the music industry can collectively pull their heads out of their posteriors and actually start mastering stuff better and market it better then maybe what you're saying could actually come to pass. Who knows? Hope springs eternal. As long as it has the "warmth" of vinyl we'll be in good shape. ;-)

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    5. Yup. That that is the real $1,000,000,000 question. Can the Industry get themselves out of the current state of craniorectal inversion?

      Band together towards an honest initiative to do it "right". Give music lovers (not just audiophiles but all those who had put their hopes into something like Pono) something "new", "clearly different" and "fresh". Do it *right* with maybe a centralized website and player software for PC, Mac, Linux linked to the the store (the files can of course just be portable FLACs, do they actually need all these middlemen like Pono, HDTracks, Acoustic Sounds?). Android app is a must and like I said, I think Apple/iTunes will follow if they don't come to the table initially. I could even foresee a system where you can have an "Advanced Resolution+" release in stores or online where for a few more dollars, one could also buy nicely printed cover, booklet, with a code to download. This would cater to those who want to own something physical and an option to vinyl.

      The options and possibilities are clearly there IMO. But do "they" have the courage to lead?

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    6. I have to say that I was thinking "Nooooooooo!" as I was reading the 2-tier suggestion.

      I really don't care if high res fails: the world will never notice it was ever here. I want CD quality, and I want competent mastering. I don't believe that it costs more to produce a higher dynamic range master. I would spend the rest of my music-listening life resenting that I was being blackmailed into paying more than I should.

      The solution is not a new "tier" but to sell only the high DR version at CD quality, and create a new industry-standard button on portable audio devices that limits the dynamic range for those who need it because of high background noise or because they prefer it that way. By all means sell a high res version for the obsessives, too - but I won't be buying it.

      When I read articles like this, I am glad that we are way past music's glory days and that modern music is generally bland and unappealing. Even if this evil plan takes off (or others like it) I can carry on listening to the old CDs and stuff that is already on existing streaming services - there's plenty more for me to discover.

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    7. I see your rationale of course. Yes, I wish we could just have 1 competent mastering... The simplest solution of all...

      But in the environment we're in, I really don't see how it would happen without creating an environment ("tier") where there could be some financial incentive.

      There is also a reason why I think a system like this should only apply to NEW material. The Industry needs to show *prospectively* and *deliberately* that it's producing to the higher standard. I think there are many people interested in QUALITY and this will bring them out of the woodwork without creating disappointment (ie. Pono). It will generate an interest in NEW MUSIC. I see sites like AudioStream trying to promote new albums with their "downloads of the week". I've tried a couple, but almost universally the quality is unlistenable for maybe 1 or 2 tracks at a time. As I said earlier, I think if packaged properly, we could also draw vinyl folks into the hi-res digital arena with an honest to goodness reminder that well mastered digital is undoubtedly of a higher fidelity.

      I don't know if music is past it's "glory days". Lots of great creativity around but not necessarily showcased very well. I've got a ton of the stuff from the 60's to 80's and these days looking for something fresh but can't bring myself to spending much money on crap sound - might as well just get the iTunes AAC single. Although we might no longer be in the glory of the golden days of rock, I do hope there is a way to escape out of the brutal Dark Ages and into a more enlightened and refined Renaissance. An emphasis on sound quality could be a nice foundation to start.

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    8. "I think if packaged properly, we could also draw vinyl folks into the hi-res digital arena ..."

      I think that MQA is being marketed with that in mind. It is not being promoted as a better compression system, but as a brand new way of storing and playing back music.

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  5. Based on my recent experience Christmas shopping at a big box electronics retailer I would say that 2 channel audio is pretty much dead or, at best, on life support. Aside from lots of cheap headphones and bluetooth speakers there was no interest in audio. The new standards for audio are the Apple earbuds and Bose bluetooth speakers- anything better is now "high end". Standard resolution CDs have been replaced by sub-standard resolution audio streaming, i.e. low bit rate mp3s, and even Neil Young isn't going to change that.

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    1. Hi jazzfan.

      And this is why the software industry should look into a higher tier of music quality! Give the hardware folks something exciting to promote beyond gutless Bluetooth speakers and cheap ear buds. When Blu-Ray came out, it invigorated sales of HDTVs. This is what a healthy industry should do. The audio industry looks like it's a race down to a disgraceful DR0 on the software side which perhaps not surprisingly results in bottom-of-the-barrel hardware. The expensive Sony Walkmans, A&K portables, even PonoPlayers look totally out of place and unnecessary with this kind of audio quality.

      True high quality music (not the typically mastered stuff we have today packaged in oversized hi-res containers) could drive the sales of better headphones and better hi-fi systems to allow the consumer to appreciate the dynamics and nuances. Music is primal and will always be a part of life and each generation. Hi-Res is about providing QUALITY in the form of nuance, subtlety and sophistication. It's time to make these qualities "cool" again... The industry needs to change its image from looking like money-grabbing recyclers of old music that gets ever louder, annoying, and "in your face" into something that at least seems to care about the sonic product and the different types of consumers.

      Of course Neil Young isn't going to change anything. He's clearly out of touch with the technology based on his comments. To make this sustainable, target the Gen X and Millennials - the Baby Boomers understands the importance of quality already. I doubt Young understood what he was getting into. As I said before, I respect the guy for his artistry but I don't think he had a clue about what he was doing promoting fat file sizes and huge 192kHz containers!

      "Hi-Res Audio" needs a clean reboot, refocus, and a new trajectory I think. The current "version" of what hi-res audio means I believe needs to just go away before it creates further discontentment and loss of goodwill with the consumers.

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  6. It is a good point about the repeated convincing that needs to be made for hi-res audio. It never needed to be done with the video formats; anyone with even far less than 20/20 vision could appreciate the differences. Yet with the audio formats if you question or post about the dubious nature of hi-res for consumer playback (I do think it has benefits in the recording/editing side to allow some headroom), your hearing or stereo system is put into question.

    Driving home your other point it really is about the mastering, the tape source used and the EQ'ing/compression that has been added. Some superb releases coming out of Japan on CD are very minimally processed reissues that are basically master tape -> DSD (because they also have an SACD version) -> DSD to CD. That is it. One example is the Allman Brothers Fillmore East album, much better than the older SACD and any vinyl record I have heard. However it's not sexy to talk about mastering or EQ'ing. Bringing up bigger numbers will impress audiophiles far more and this is how HDTracks and Pono drive their marketing campaigns.

    Archimago- I left a comment in your Acourate blog entry with a question about the Bob Katz gently rolling off EQ curve. If you get a chance I would love to hear the science or explanation behind it :-) Cheers.

    Happy new year to you and other readers.

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    1. Hi Brent. Thanks for the note. Sorry didn't get to the Acourate post! Distracted, will have a look :-).

      Thanks for the tip on the Filmore East. Will need to have a look at that... Back in the day (?2009) I was not quite enamored with all that Blu-Spec and questionable SHM-CD stuff as imports out of Japan (I remember the first SHM-CD I got was The Rolling Stones' "Shine A Light" - horrible mastering, certainly no better than domestic version). Maybe it's worth looking at those CDs again?

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    2. The vast majority of those SHM-CD are compressed with messed with EQ. The ones I am referring to are a "platinum SHM-CD" that started to come out around 2013 put out only by Universal Japan. The platinum part is another cooked up gimmick, but many of them utilize flat transfers of the master tape from either the UK or US. Best to search the Steve Hoffman forum thread to find out which are the ones utilizing flat transfers. BTW other companies hopped on the platinum bandwagon like JVC; avoid those. Those are using older remasterings which may be compressed.

      I have only bought the ones explicitly mentioned as flat transfers- Derek and Dominos Layla, Allman Brothers Fillmore East, all Stevie Wonder titles, and they are the best sounding versions I have ever heard. Dynamic, punchy, really nice EQ to sound natural and beautifully packaged to look like old vinyl albums. They sound more like older 80s CDs than remasters. Down side is they are expensive even with the weak yen.

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    3. Great! Sounds like I'll have to look for the "Platinums"!

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    4. DR database entry for Allman Brothers Fillmore East: http://dr.loudness-war.info/album/list?artist=allman+brothers&album=fillmore+east

      The MFSL Gold cd was my previous favorite version of this album. Not sure why the DR numbers are a point lower for a few of the tracks, maybe subtle EQ variations in the bass?

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    5. Thanks Brent!

      I know some folks have said good things about the SHM-SACD as well... Have you tried comparing the two?

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    6. I have not heard the SHM-SACD, but according to the folks at SH forum it uses the same mastering/transfer as the early 2000s USA SACD which from what I read is average at best.

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  7. Archimago, I want to add something to your excellent analysis of today's audio quality.

    In my experience, I found out that a CD format source (16/44.1) sounds better trough a multibit DAC, even if the measurements don't really support that. Maybe because we don't measure what's critical. The difference to a delta-sigma DAC is maybe in the way the dithering is done - a positive digital feedback mechanism that works perfect for static sinusoidal signals but it fails for fast variable musical signals. This is hinted in several white papers, like the one that ESS put out. Upsampling and digital filtering that format inside a small silicon chip is not improving the audio quality as expected. Only a dedicated DSP engine can provide a decent upsampling.
    When we move to a 24/96 format, the difference between a multibit and d-s DAC is vanishing. now, the internal filters are using less poles, ultrasonic noise is further away (and easier to filter).

    I really think that a 16/44.1 format should be listened either trough a multibit DAC or via a high-quality upsampler and interpolator (example Denon's Alpha Processing AL24).
    Otherwise, via a cheap d-s filter/dac combo, it will be sounding bad.

    Many people say that the 24/96 sounds better because of that fact - they are using d-s DACs that damage the feeble transients of the 16/44.1 musical program.

    Congratulations for your blog!

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    1. Bob Katz did some Youtube videos with Tyll Hertsens at Inner Fidelity, they had the multibit Schiit Yggdrasil in their blind test, they were not able to distinguish from other DACs.

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    2. I sometimes meet a British pop record producer at cigar tasting evenings in London. He is in absolutely no doubt about it - the culprits are the record labels, who instruct their appointed mastering engineer to "make it sound louder". All of the producer's efforts to craft a beautifully dynamic and lifelike recording are crushed like so many cockroaches in the mastering.

      Conclusion: it's not just the audiophile press and the snake-oil sellers who are impeding progress in audio fidelity.

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    3. Blind tests are disruptive for perception.
      I can sit back and let my brain pick a certain sound (for example the cymbals in Police's Message In A Bottle) and really pay attention to it. And I can hear differences.
      If I flip back-forth quickly between two sources playing the same song, I can't hear anything it's like the brain averages the sound.
      Unless is a huge difference, you will not hear it.
      But hey, blind-testing it's like a religion. Some believe in it without any reservations (or proof that is really working) and who am I to tell them different?

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    4. Thanks for the comments guys.

      Brent & Roderick: Yeah, I don't know about the difference between multi-bit vs. D-S DACs. The only multibit DAC I have tried in recent years is the lowly TDA1543 x 4 NOS DAC. These days, DACs like the PCM1795 (and possibly the Wolfson and ESS chips as well?) I believe use hybrid multibit and sigma-delta for excellent linearity (for the PCM1795, I believe the top 6 bits are discrete R-2R and the rest delta-sigma). I think it says quite a lot if Hertsens and Katz can't hear a difference (and I don't see where measurements suggest any specialness to multibit analogue output). Remember, I'm a computer upsampling + digital room correction (via JRiver) guy so the output I get is not "bit perfect" but tuned to my room which is IMO more significant than how the DAC is doing the job internally so long as I know the objective resolution is good!

      Sorin: Sure, blind tests can engage different cognitive processes than the default networks we use for music enjoyment. That's why I like measurements... Take the human cognitive process and biases out of the equation! The fact that blind-testing and measurements generally agree on what is/is not audible I think is a powerful combination though. The reports of folks perceiving something else more likely than not informs us of these other human biases rather than what is physically happening in terms of the actual digital-to-analogue conversion or sound waves emanating from our headphones and speakers.

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    5. I would have to respectfully disagree that DBX testing can only reveal large differences. If we write it off, then that leaves it wide open to people making claims of "night and day" difference with cables and all sorts of other tweaks. Multibit is a clever marketing trick, and my personal opinion on the matter is with more people moving to vinyl, digital manufacturers need that marketing hook to make their digital products sound more analog; hence multibit and touting an old technology, also in line with "what is old is new again" that is also quite a popular marketing strat.

      I did not know the ESS were hybrid multibit, that is interesting. I assumed it was pure delta sigma. Speaking to one of my engineering friends who is involved with high end he says there is nothing like the ESS stuff when it comes to measurements. The Bruno Putsys Mola Mola DAC is using it and it has stunning measurements. Same with the Merging DACs.

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  8. Happy New Year! One of my readers suggested I read your recent blog post...I'm glad that I did. It's very nicely done.

    Over the years, I've become more and more depressed about the prospects for "high-resolution" audio and music. My tenure on the CTA (CEA) Audio Board has ended as 2016 begins. There were a few influential members that didn't appreciate the honesty that I shared on my blog. My comments ran very counter to their nonsense. They aren't interested in actually promoting better sounding equipment and recordings. The only thing that matters is maximizing sales and profits for the members of the organization. Frankly, I was surprised...but I guess I shouldn't have been. If it means spewing double talk, creating misinformed marketing pieces, and lying to dealers and consumers about "hi-res audio/music", then that's OK with them. As long as it drives customers to spend more on imagined sonic improvements, it's all good.

    As for your suggestion of a two tiered system, it simply won't happen for a couple of reasons. The labels won't accept two SKUs for the same release and they won't spend the money to produce the two versions.

    However, the most important obstacle is the fact that no one cares. The artist, the engineers, the producers, the management, and the labels don't care about sound quality. They may think they do but their actions have shown over and over again that they only want hit records...aka money. Mastering engineers (I was one for 13 years) do what the labels want...and that means make the recordings as loud as possible.

    The prospects for high-res audio and music is pretty dim as we head into 2016. It's a rare recording that actually qualifies as better then CD quality. The mainstream will never go there.

    Cheers,

    Mark

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    1. Greetings Mark! Thanks for taking the time to visit and comment!

      I certainly appreciate the time you put into your blog and focusing on the details and nuances of hi-res audio including the recent nugget on Bob Katz's comments about the "hi-res mafia"... It reminds me of the utility of the old SPARS code to identify the steps used. Maybe something like this could be useful - Hi-res/H/H = "true" hi-res. Looks like Bob is doing something like Standard-res/H/H.

      In any case, as you say,the headwinds are sadly strong and not many folks higher up in the music industry seem to be fighting for sound quality beyond using the "hi-res" moniker as a sales pitch...

      Hope you have fun at CES this year and may 2016 be fulfilling for you and yours!

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  9. Well, what can i say? I completely agree with you. What we need is a standard for file format/resolution/distribution. And 96/24 is way more than enough for 99,9% of - dare i say - audiophiles in the world. Only a very small minority "hear" something more with more than 96/24 or DSD (note that i say someTHING, not music..).
    And like you said, the day i hear something with so much more quality (like it was for video with VHS to DVD to Blu-Ray) i'll buy it instantly. In the meantime i'll never pay a premium price for some old 1950/1960 recording "remastered in crystal clear 192/24".
    I'll just buy my CD's and rip it to my PC. Show me a real improvement, and i'll pay for it!

    Great article!

    Best regards!

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    1. Hey there VK! Happy new year to you.

      If the industry ever did have the balls to issue true hi-res "Advanced" dynamic masterings of music in 24/96, I'm sure folks like Neil Young will come around and complain about how this would be throwing away "50% of the music in the studio" because obviously he'd be able to hear it and it all started as 192kHz :-).

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  10. Great post! It perfectly explains how I feel about HiRes audio. I too suspect HighRes audio will fail because it fails to provide real value for the consumer. To me it seems like an act of pure greed from the industry trying to convince everyone to re-purchase their music collection once again in HiRes formats.

    I am frequently disappointed with consumer audio industry (even though I'm part of it). There are so many companies in this space, yet there is so little real innovation that brings drastic improvements to music listening experience. I think the only way to get the industry to care about sound quality, is an informed consumer who cares about sound quality. And the only way to get consumers to care is to have them experience the difference, and the difference needs to be drastic.

    I really enjoy reading your blog btw.

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