Saturday, 21 January 2017

MUSINGS: On the ongoing push for high resolution audio... and the virtualization of media.

Thanks Sony for this BS diagram... Except for the most primitive non-oversampling (NOS) DAC's out there, more likely than not, DACs these days utilizing antialiasing filters of course do not output their analogue like these stair-stepped waves. Sadly, these kinds of diagrams often become the marketing material used to push hi-res! Can good outcomes result from marketing with dubious claims? (Didn't seem to help Pono, did it?)
I didn't have much time this week for any experiments/measurements. Alas, will be busy for a little while still. Which means it's a good time to put up a "MUSINGS" post based on comments and questions. Always fun to take some time to think and hopefully flesh out ideas a little more. In the post last week, I found these interesting comments worth spending some time on:

Tony R:
I have followed your blog for a while now, and have been particularly interested in your comments on MQA.

After reading this latest installment, I'm left somewhat confused...

My overwhelming impression is that MQA is offering audiophiles something they don't really need, and that if the mastering step of the chain was overhauled (getting rid of the loudness wars) then we would have extremely good audio anyway.

I feel that the full potential of even 16 bit CD was never fully realised due to poor mastering etc.


Teodoro Marinucci:
Archimago has already stressed that most of the problem of the CD are due to the poor recording, mastering, etc. ...
Me, on my side, I can witness that MQA doesn't do miracles, but it works.
With some good recordings one hears (with MQA) clearly a widening of the stage, more focusing of the instruments, more "air" (as we usually say).

Hi Tony and Teodoro,

Yes, for me the bottom line has always been that the giant elephant in the room when it comes to the limitation to high fidelity has been the overall poor quality of mainstream recording/mixing/production/mastering. I believe that if hardware and CODEC development including MQA stopped today, and resources were put into the production side with new recordings and proper remastering, in 10 years we would have significantly better sound in our listening rooms compared to the present course.

This is not unique to audio of course. Machines get ever faster, more precise, quieter, use less power geometrically. However the abilities of human creativity and discipline aren't as easily realized, nor do they keep pace with what engineering is able to accomplish with concrete trajectories once the underlying principles have matured.

No doubt, a big piece of what needs to be done is to stop the "loudness wars". Of course this doesn't mean I'm asking the Industry to ban the use of dynamic compression. The point is to use effects judiciously. If the artist desires it to sound compressed as per his/her artistic intent, then that's of course fine; I have no problem with The Black Keys having a compressed/noisy/lo-fi sound. The problem has always been that the loudness effect "infects" recordings whether it's the original artistic intent or not. One of the worst examples of this for me are with loudness war "enhanced" series of UMG remasters of the Rolling Stones albums back in 2009. I'm pretty sure that Some Girls from 1978 was not supposed to sound like the DR6 remaster when Mick and the boys put it together in the studio! A cessation of these "loudness war" atrocities will result in sound quality for mainstream music becoming more "natural" with full dynamic extension. This would be a great foundation for the cause of "high fidelity" and potentially pave the way for "high resolution" albums which could benefit from higher quality playback. I think it's important to stress the foundational aspect of doing this. Instead of making a quick buck, the Industry needs to think about the future IMO and start putting in the resources to reap rewards in the years ahead. This takes true leadership and vision and I'm not sure who out there in the Industry is doing this.

As for the potential value of releasing music in 24/88, 24/96, etc... This has always been the "cherry on top" for me. A form of "insurance" for the neurotic audiophile in me such that no matter one day how nice my soundroom is (however low the ambient noise and perfect the acoustics), or how great my gear (super duper low noise floor, fantastic dynamic power), the full resolution that the studio captured can be encapsulated in the "container" I purchased. Nothing more... I have no great expectation that my ears and mind are capable of appreciating the difference between 24/96 and a well dithered/downsampled 16/44. And even if I did notice a difference, it'll be subtle and won't "make or break" the ability to enjoy the recording. This is why I've always thought a "hi-res" recording should not cost much more than a standard CD (maybe 20-30% premium at most; a $10 CD should equate to maybe a $12-13 hi-res download), certainly not the 100+% difference we're seeing these days. "Hi-res" should IMO not be viewed as yet another opportunity to sell yet another copy of the same album, but selectively marketed in an honest fashion for well-recorded albums with potential benefit for the customer. This would typically exclude all "loudness war" masters, essentially all old analogue recordings, and of course early digital sourced from 16-bits. (It's also time for the audiophile press to be honest with their reporting and find the fortitude to side with the consumer.)

In the context of the above, I find the whole industry's drive to sell us "hi-res" recordings and desperate attempts at convincing customers of their relevance disingenuous by dissociating the crucial elements of the quality of the media and the quality of the hardware. As far as I can tell, the hardware side is already capable of high-resolution digital audio; no problem even at low prices. A push for mainstream "hi-res" media whether digital downloads, MQA, DSD-this-and-that divorced from a genuine shift in recording quality is simply trying to sell us something we've already bought. As I suggested above with the Rolling Stones example on CD, ironically, many times, what they're reselling is even worse than what came before - witness all the "remastered" but compressed "hi-res" on HDtracks in 24/96 or higher. Or the new music - does anyone think Bruno Mars' latest 24K Magic needs 24-bits? How about The Weeknd's Starboy or Beyonce's Lemonade?

Oh to hear the hypocrisy when some audio writers complain that the "younger generation don't get hi-res" or that hi-fi is "dying"? Come on Mr. Record Industry and Mr. Audio Writer; look at mainstream pop, rock, dance, and Top 40 these days. The young are being fed crappy recordings which you guys produced and the press barely ever criticizes (and in some instances even apologetic for it?)! This is NOT the fault of MP3, AAC, or whatever other lossy encoding might be used. To do so is scapegoating pure and simple. I don't know if the music industry has even taken seriously the idea that poor sound over the last few decades - which they allowed to happen if not actively encouraged - has actually been an element in their loss of revenue. Remember folks, some genres thankfully have been spared the loudness wars - classical and some of jazz. But these genres only account for a total of significantly <10% record sales these days. I think it's fair to say that the record companies have raised at least a generation of young people on loud, unnatural, and distorted music. They keep releasing it like that. And now they want to pull the wool over our collective eyes that because it's 24-bits and has higher samplerate but using the same or worse mastering, that something remarkable has changed!? [Note that I will give credit where credit is due. For example, I have found some improved hi-res releases out there. Wish there were more!]

Want to see another example of horrendous misinformation? Check out more Sony promo material, especially this:

Wow! You can drag that slider on the web page to "see" the waveform difference between the supposed "compressed audio" and the "uncompressed audio". This is yet another purposeful (or even worse, incompetent) confounding of dynamic compression and data compression. No, folks, compressed MP3 vs. hi-res waveforms do not look like that! All things being equal, if we're using the same audio editor and the waveform represented the same song, then the one on the left would be significantly volume reduced and dynamically compressed compared to the right. This has nothing to do with MP3, or "14 times the detail". This attempt at a visual analogy is even worse than the stair-stepped picture above! (This is similar to this video confounding the different types of "compression".)

What can I say... I guess lying is just part of advertising. The problem of course is that sooner or later, these desperate lies will destroy credibility and when respect is lost, it will take a lot to rekindle confidence. This is especially true I believe for something as subtle and precarious as the grossly empty promises of "high-resolution audio". Good luck with that, Sony... I suspect you'll need it.

Perhaps it will only be with failure of "hi-res audio" as it currently exists and the wasted resources poured into it that the Industry will "hit rock bottom" and change its perspective on what consumers might want. Honesty with marketing material would be a nice start.

On a somewhat different tangent, I think it's also worth discussing and thinking about this:
George Westbury:
I think that's where I fall on this too. To me streaming (or renting) is akin to FM radio. You go there to listen to new sounds and to develop new tastes, but when it's time to sit down with a glass of whatever and enjoy your own collection my own files come out. I have Spotify Premium for music discovery and I just don't see the hook on paying twice as much for MQA.
Teodoro Marinucci:
Sorry about that, but I completely disagree with you.
The model you describe is (as far I have understood from my daughter) the one of Spotify.
The model of Tidal could be completely different. More similar to the one of Qobuz.
Let me start from the beginning: I bought the vinyl of “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band” in June 1967 (I was 16).
Beautiful sleeve, with pictures and lyrics.
Then I bought it (again) in CD. Then (again and again) in 24 bits (remastered).
The sleeve ? first smaller, then gone !
Should I fight against this trend ? “Resistance is futile” (as a Borg said).
At the end of the story what we want is music well recorded, well mastered, & all that. I really don’t care of where it is.
After the crash of a hard disk, what is your main question ? I guess: “When I did my last backup ?”.
Me, I’m transferring all my (precious for me) work “on the cloud”. I purchased one year of 1 TB on OneDrive (or whatever you want) and my life is better.
Same for music. My beloved music is on some Tidal server, who cares if it is in Seattle or in Norway ?
The important thing for me is read “Diapason” and then discover that “Rachmaninov & Prokofiev: Works for Cello & Piano”, Johannes Moser - Andrei Korobeinikov, has been awarded of a “Diapason d’Or”.
I go to Tidal (or Qobuz): it’s there ! I listen to it, I like it, and I save it into “My Music”.
I buy it, in some sense.
Then there is the problem that the metadata handling of Tidal is rudimentary (I would like for “my Music” an user interface similar to the one of JRiver), but this is another story.
“Resistance is futile” …
No doubt, "resistance is futile" in that the world is "virtualizing" into computing systems whether locally on our LANs or on the 'cloud'. Print media has been brought online whether it's books, newspapers, or magazines. Music distribution in the form of file-sharing struck fear into the hearts of the record companies starting in the 1990's with Napster and continues to the point now where lossless downloads of almost anything one desires is available legally or over on the "dark side" of the web. Since the late 2000's with the availability of advanced video codecs like AVC/H.264, hi-res movies have joined the fold. I bet the quality achieved with HEVC/H.265 in an even smaller file strikes fear into the hearts of the movie industry as well at a time when high-speed internet has become essentially ubiquitous in the developed world (and some nations like Canada have considered it a basic service for each citizen). It's great that legal and affordable services like Netflix have taken on the challenge and have profited as an example of embracing the technology.

Nonetheless, despite this unrelenting trajectory towards virtualization, it's certainly not going to be complete within our lifetimes. Perhaps we are living in some form of a "golden age"; a time when we still have great freedoms to choose how we consume our media. Objects like books are plentiful, local stores full of used vinyl (and "comeback" of new vinyl), CD's, DVDs, Blu-Rays, and the nascent selection of UHD Blu-Rays are making their way into stores. A great time to be a consumer I think!

This freedom I believe is reflected in the exchange between George and Teodoro. How each of us negotiate the physical / virtual transition is in itself a subjective exercise in "valuation". Some might hate computers and will stick with their vinyl and CDs indefinitely. Some will go "all in", subscribe to TIDAL, or Apple Music, or Spotify and declare victory on having all the music they will ever need with music collecting becoming a point-and-click online exercise stored in playlists and "My Music".

Personally, I'm still in the middle for now :-). I think anyone who has transitioned to a computer music server obviously has embraced virtualization of their music library and the amazing convenience and quality achievable. But call me an "old fashioned" computer audiophile as I still find joy in running my own music server - hardware and all. There is fun in ripping CDs, even scanning artwork for me. I like troubleshooting and optimizing the system. And as I posted a few weeks ago, the systematic application of metadata tagging to my own albums the way I like them brings with it a level of personal achievement as a collector (remember, collect not hoard). In a way, it's like the vinyl folks with their rituals as a way to "connect" with the music and the system; to be a master over one's curated domain. Thus far, I feel limited by TIDAL and Roon (which I'll talk about more in the future with measurements and such). Like George, when it's time to sit in my soundroom after a long day, indeed, it is my personal music collection that emerges for the "serious" listening. Maybe this will all change in a few years, life is ephemeral, choices made around a hobby can be capricious; whatever helps to allow an audiophile to enjoy the music... :-)

 Enjoy...

9 comments:

  1. Monty Montgomery from Ziph.org has covered this in detail:

    https://wiki.xiph.org/Videos/Digital_Show_and_Tell

    Also, what kind of 'troubleshooting and optimizing' does your music server require? I'm still running a Squeezebox via an old W7 pc as a server and it just 'works' faultlessly.

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    1. Yup. Good video from xiph.

      Optimize in the sense of digital room correction and measurements as I previously wrote about. LMS works well but still at times have to manage things like BrutefirDRC plugin on the Linux virtual machine. Also, getting playback of multichannel (through HDMI) and DSD stuff (JRiver) still isn't as smooth as I'd like.

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  2. Yeh I guess I have an emotional connection to my digital collection since most of it came from CDs that I went to the store and bought then spent the time to rip. I guess it's the same as the connection to my speakers, my amp, my pre-amp, etc. My system and my music may not be the best but it's mine.



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    1. Hi George,
      Your post brought to mind the old saying: "Nothing worth having comes easy."

      Obviously I don't expect owning music should be a hardship. But back it the day, we all had to be more *deliberate* in owning the albums. Part of that I believe comes from the anticipation and pride of ownership. I remember working hard back in the day to buy a CD after school at the local mall. Memories of time with friends playing the "soundtrack to life". Heck, even copying a song took time with a blank cassette or wait for the nightly countdown to tape the song off the radio :-).

      I wonder if I would have the same passion these days if I started listening to music without that collection mindset. Suppose I were a young person these days and had access to all the music I ever wanted to hear because my dad has Tidal or I pay a small amount ($10) each month to Spotify. Or I just downloaded to my heart's content off the 'net. Or basically could hear the song or watch the video at anytime on YouTube. I suspect my connection to the music would be very different than how I feel now.

      I know the artists are unhappy about streaming revenue. But maybe it's just that there's too much product out there these days and access has become too cheap. Maybe we just don't "value" it like we used to. This again might point back at why vinyl is sought after these days.

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  3. Pride of ownership

    Hi Archimago, for me it was similar.

    When I was earning my first money, I was always looking forward buying one LP every Friday. And then sit together with friends and "celebrating" with seriously listen to the music, reading the lyrics and looking at the album art. And so I got close relation to each and every album I bought.
    I do not know where I would be nowadays, when I would grow up now, but looking at our children, there barely own any CD (leaving LP and Tape aside). Even with streaming and with possible high res, I do still "celebrate" ownership and do listen to new music in "single tasking".

    Anyway. Have a good week.
    Juergen

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    1. Hey there Juergen. Congrats on the recent CES showing!

      Well, I'll keep an eye on what my children are like in terms of their relationship with the music. My daughter seems quite interested in listening to music at 10 years old and I've given her an old DAP. I've noticed that maybe music videos have taken the part of the visual appeal of the album cover and reading liner notes. I've noticed that they will view the video once or twice then just listen thereafter... Of course the "sensual appeal" of music videos are much more profound than the album photos ever were especially these days with the female pop stars!

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  4. Well all my Albums, 10" Reel to Reel Tapes, Nakimitchi cassettes, CD's have bit the dust over time. Just lost in the shuffle of moving, upgrading or is it down grading to the computer age. And I miss some of the nuances, but not the immediacy of click on a good software provider, Tidal, Deezer, etc with another browser open on a 30" screen to do research while I listen. I came across a 3 TB HD from a friend of a Friend. Copy of his backup. 1500 movies. 250,000 mp3 I only wished that they were all 96/24, all metadata included. Uploaded all the music to iTunes Match. But I still find myself streaming Deezer Elite to a Sonos connect. Download my playlist of the month to a iPhone for offline Boat listening. Just trying out the Tidal Masters music from my Mac mini but as you have blogged on it is hard to put Lipstick on a pig original recording. Waiting to see if Tidal/MQA will stay around. Just looked at the reviews of the Auralic Aries Mini if MQA lasts. Already bought and sold the Pono player, Luckily it was a easy in and out and only lost $50. They would not sell content with a Canadian CC. It seems to many of us, Streaming Hi Res music is "Music to my ears" pun intended. What do you think the future will bring??

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  5. Regarding the Sony BS diagram at the top of this article, it is interesting that the first of the three diagrams, labelled "original analog recording", is just as erroneous as the other two.

    Because, if the diagram has accurately show the wave form with all the imperfections added by recording it in an analog medium such as analog type or direct to vinyl, then at the same scale as shown for the digital recordings and their 'steps', the analog wave form would show massive noise and scalar inaccuracies.

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