Time to Reassess High-Res Audio

As every audiophile knows, the audio industry and, to a lesser extent, the music industry have been promoting the idea of high-resolution audio, typically using PCM digital audio at data rates of 24-bit/96-kilohertz or higher instead of the 16-bit/44.1-kilohertz rate used for CDs. For audiophiles, high-res is a done deal. They've got high-resolution capability in their systems, and many of them are buying high-res downloads from HDTracks, Acoustic Sounds and other download sites.

hgih-res.jpgFor years, though, there's been this idea that the general public would someday embrace high-res. Swayed by the idea of "master quality recordings" or "hearing the same thing at home that the engineers heard in the studio," consumers would demand high-res versions of the new releases they buy, and replace their old CDs with high-res digital files. This idea dates back to the days of the DVD-Audio vs. SACD format war of the early 2000s, and remained in evidence at last month's CES where the industry's new, official High-Res Audio label could be seen on numerous new products.

At long last, high-res audio is getting its audition with the average music listener, as Neil Young's heavily hyped Pono portable high-res player is hitting the market and getting its first major reviews.

Based on the first couple of articles I've read, it doesn't look promising.

Last week, Yahoo's David Pogue, perhaps the best-known tech journalist in the U.S., published his review of the Pono.  To evaluate it, Pogue had 15 people compare high-res files from Pono Music played on a Pono player to 256 kbps AAC files downloaded through iTunes and played on an iPhone. The headphone he used was the Sony MDR-7506, which has been probably the most popular professional headphone for about a decade and a half, and which is a far better headphone than probably 99% of the listening public currently uses. (He also did a round of tests with Apple earbuds.)

The upshot? Most of the listeners preferred the sound from the iPhone.

It's easy to criticize Pogue's test. It appears unlikely the levels were perfectly matched, because his test switcher didn't seem to have level matching and he probably had to use the rather coarse volume steps available on the players. Also, he had no way of knowing if the Pono Music samples and the iTunes samples were mastered to the same levels ... or if they were even from the same masters in the first place.

It's also easy for any audio enthusiast to say, "I would have heard a difference." But we're not talking about audiophiles. We're talking about average consumers, who are unlikely to be interested in (much less pay for) a marginally perceptible difference in sound quality.

Gizmodo's Mario Aguilar also published a takedown of Pono, citing various scientific studies and a general lack of any plausible reason why consumers would spend $400 for a portable player and $20 per download.

In various Internet forums, audio websites and magazines, audiophiles and audio writers have extolled the virtues of high-res audio. But the general public doesn't read these forums and publications. ("I tried reading a couple of your articles, but I couldn't understand any of it," is a common line I hear from non-techy friends and relatives.)

I have yet to read a credible explanation as to why average consumers would invest in high-res audio. All I've heard so far is the idea that people would buy into the marketing pitch of "master quality recordings" -- a pitch that got DVD-Audio and SACD nowhere.

In a column I wrote last year about the difficulties of selling high-res audio to the mass market, I cited three major problems:

1) You can't construct a demo that will convince people high-res is better, at least not without a stereo salesman there to encourage confirmation bias by telling them what they're going to hear.

2) When download sales are already declining as people switch to streaming, it seems highly unlikeliy that people could be persuaded to go back to downloads ... and to pay two or three times as much for them.

3) Few smartphones have enough storage space to store lots of high-res files.

That article got a lot of responses, including a few from people actively involved in promoting high-res audio. Not one of them offered credible solutions to these problems. At best, I heard something on the order of "We hope that will get solved."

Well, I see no evidence that these problems are being solved, or that anyone's even trying to solve them. Nor do I see any evidence that the general public is going to embrace Pono or any other high-res audio distribution scheme.

A new consumer electronics technology has to offer large and obvious advantages over an existing technology in order to succeed in the mass market. That's why CDs replaced vinyl, why DVD replaced VHS, why MP3 replaced CD and why streaming is replacing DVD. (Note that the last two examples actually reduce quality compared to the technologies they replaced.) The advantage of high-res audio over CD and even over 256 kbps MP3 or AAC downloads from Amazon and iTunes is small, and far from obvious.

As I stated above, audiophiles already have high-res audio. That's great. But at this point, it appears to me that high-res audio is about as likely to grow beyond the audiophile market as Ornette Coleman is to play at the next Super Bowl halftime show.

 

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