Even a casual review of the usual audiophile websites, trade magazines, consumer electronic equipment ads, professional organizations (think: NARAS or the CTA), or content providers like HDTracks, Qobuz or the new Amazon Music HD streaming services reveals a substantial level of interest in hi-res audio, hi-res music or HD-Audio. No matter what you call it, high-resolution audio is being aggressively promoted as the next major advance in music listening.
I was there at the introduction of this “new and improved” audio technology back in 2000. In fact, my specialty audio label, AIX Records, is responsible for some of the very first albums recorded and released using 96 kHz/24-bit PCM on the newest incarnation of the DVD format – DVD-Audio discs.
Since that time, I’ve watched as the music and consumer electronics industries have embraced and promoted hi-res audio. I’ve been a strong and vocal advocate for real high-resolution recordings, given keynote addresses, served for five years on the high-end audio board at the CTA, wrote a comprehensive, 880-page book called Music and Audio: A User Guide to Better Sound, and participated on numerous panels focused on better fidelity and hi-res. And I’ve also been a sharp and vocal critic of the numerous false representations made by organizations, services, and industry types anxious to profit off of hi-res audio and music. It’s way past time for a reality check of what is and what isn’t high-resolution AND if it actually matters to audiophiles.
Back in the early summer of 2014 after a series of protracted discussions, conference calls, and compromises, a press release titled, DEG, CEA, The Recording Academy and Major Labels Reach Agreement on Definition for High Resolution Audio was issued with minimal fanfare. The formal definition they agreed to was intended to “convey a clear message” to all interested parties. It defines high-resolution audio as “lossless audio that is capable of reproducing the full range of sound from recordings that have been mastered from better than CD quality music sources.”
The next paragraph adds: “In addition to this definition, four different Master Quality Recording categories have been designated, each of which describes a recording that has been made from the best quality music source currently available. All of these recordings will sound like the artists, producers and engineers originally intended.”
The gist of the press release says that a recording with specifications better than “CD-Quality” qualifies as a “hi-res audio” track or album AND can be accompanied by the associated “hi-res audio” logo. Despite numerous inconsistencies and problems with the proposed definition, it has been widely accepted by almost everyone concerned — until very recently when Amazon moved the goal posts and began labelling CD-Quality as HD and real HD-Audio as “Ultra HD”! And Yes, they actually did that.
For those of you unfamiliar with the specifications spelled out in the Redbook, the document Sony and Phillips wrote to lock in all aspects of the Compact Disc format, it calls for stereo programming at a sample rate of 44.1 kHz and 16-bit words encoded using PCM. Launched in the fall of 1982, it has been the dominant music delivery format until very recently. In 2019, streaming music officially eclipsed the venerable Compact Disc. Distribution of music on physical media is dying, if it’s not already dead even if audio enthusiasts deny such facts.
The introduction of the DVD-Audio and SACD in 2000 was intended to replace the Compact Disc. Both of these new formats promised higher fidelity, optional 5.1 multichannel surround sound mixes, and new hybrid capabilities. For example, the discs that AIX Records released had programming on both sides of the disc. The real high-resolution tracks — the 96 kHz/24-bit stereo and surround mixes — were encoded using MLP (Meridian Lossless Packing) and found on the DVD-Audio side and the videos and bonus features could be played back on existing DVD-Video machines from the other side of the disc. The battle between SACD and DVD-Audio raged on for a number of years until both disappeared. File downloads in both encoding schemes made physical discs obsolete.
I’ve written almost daily on my RealHD-Audio.com blog about high-resolution from 2013. I applied the term “provenance” to the music productions and pointed out that an analog master from the pre-digital age transferred to a 96 kHz/24-bit PCM bit bucket maintains the same fidelity as the original analog tape. It doesn’t magically elevate the fidelity to that of a CD and therefore can’t legitimately be called a “hi-res audio” track according to the definition above. I was told at the time by members of the high-end audio board of the CEA/CTA, being truthful about real world music fidelity would be “bad for commerce.” In other words, the member companies would make less profit if they were honest about the fidelity of rereleases of analog masters at higher sample rates. Shortly thereafter, I was unceremoniously “uninvited” by the board because I wasn’t willing to sign on to their disinformation campaign. A campaign that continues to this day.
The confusion associated with hi-res audio is out of control these days. It turns out that the “hi-res audio” logo, which was developed by Sony, was intended to apply to hardware only. Any time you see the logo on download or streaming music services like Qobuz or Amazon, it’s being misapplied. In fact, there is a logo for “hi-res music” but it’s not nearly as pervasive and not as “cool” as the Sony design. And now Amazon Music HD is confusing things further by elevating CD fidelity to HD status. Why would they do this? Because they want everyone to believe that the fidelity of their service is better than what we’re used to getting from our compact discs and existing systems. It’s good for commerce to say your albums are HD. It’s not so good when you start to realize that the whole ‘hi-res” music thing just might be a hoax.
I have been a strong advocate for real high-resolution recordings, ones that were captured at the time of the original performance using high-resolution equipment. AIX Records, 2L, MA Recordings, and many other specialty audiophile labels actually produce and release hi-res music. But the major labels generally do not. They repackage, remaster, and rerelease analog albums in hi-res, digital bit buckets but the fidelity of their reissued catalog will never reach the potential of a bona fide HD recording. And new productions are rarely recorded at greater than 48 kHz/24-bits, mastered to within an inch of their “dynamic range” lives, and pushed out with management – NOT artist – approval. I was a mastering engineer for years. I can tell you that the artists were pretty much never there for the final mastering sessions.
My enthusiasm for high-resolution has diminished in recent years. After reading numerous studies and articles on the topic, I’m inclined to agree with those that believe Redbook CDs are sufficient to capture all of the fidelity we need when listening to recorded music. I do believe that audio engineers reap tremendous rewards by using high-resolution specifications during recording sessions but that doesn’t mean that delivering 96 kHz/24-bit WAV or FLAC files to consumers makes any perceptible difference in the final listening at home. I understand that this position goes against the industry position. In fact, it rejects 20 years of my own thinking. I’ve spent millions of dollars and thousands of hours producing and releasing over 75 real high-resolution albums. Did I waste all that money and time?
What could possibly bring me to reverse my own strongly held position? It was a study – a survey that is happening right now. As part of a sabbatical I was granted during the fall 2019 semester from my college professor gig, I’m conducting a survey open to all music listeners. Those who sign up are provided access to 40 full length, downloadable music files.
There are 20 different tracks from the AIX catalog of new 96/24 masters in a variety of genres including rock, folk, classical, jazz, and country. Half of them are the original native 96/24 versions and half have been carefully down converted to Redbook CD quality – 44.1/16. Participants are encouraged to play these files on their own systems using speakers or headphones. Systems can be as simple as a DAP or as elaborate as a fully tweaked out audiophile rig costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. The only requirements are that you confirm that you are hearing the playback at 96 kHz/24-bits (some system down convert automatically) and that you do not analyze the files using any software or hardware tools. No looking at peak levels or peeking at the spectral distribution. The guiding rule is to just use your ears.
After you’ve finished listening, you’re asked to submit your answers using an online form. You will be asked to identify which of the A or B versions you believe is the high-resolution original master. The music industry claims you’ll experience a new level of fidelity with hi-res audio and new hi-res capable hardware. This survey may provide additional information to the hotly debated topic of whether hi-res audio is real or not. In any case, it will be fun to test your own ears with some award-winning recordings from the AIX catalog.
I want to encourage everyone to participate in the survey. You can sign up to receive the files by visiting this page on my blog site — HD-Audio Challenge II. The survey was launched in the fall and will conclude in March. Already over 700 people have accessed the files and almost 200 have submitted their results. The more people that participate, the more data we’ll have and the stronger the case whatever the result show.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the fidelity we experience at home or in our automobiles is less dependent on the specifications of the recording or delivery format and far more dependent on the skill of the recording engineer, the sensitivity of the producer, and the desire of the record label to maintain the best fidelity possible through the production and distribution phases of a release. Sadly, very few recordings make it to the public “as the artist intended.”
Hi-res audio will undoubtedly continue to be the “shiny object” in the marketing of new hardware and content. As an insider, my advice is to be skeptical of the messages coming from the music and consumer electronics industries, from journalists and online magazines, and experts with an interest the additional “commerce” generated by the marketing of “hi-res audio.”