Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.
Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.--- Albert Einstein (apocryphal?)
--- 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 HDTracks, ProStudioMasters, Pono, Acoustic 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:
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.