Are 24-Bit Downloads Good for Digital Music? Page 3

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(Above: The DVD-Audio release of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds.)

During and since my time at Dolby, I have participated in numerous comparisons between 24/96 audio files and the same files downconverted to 16/44.1. While I can't say that the difference was ever night-and-day, it was often readily audible depending on the recording. All of these comparisons, however, took place using high-performance audio gear in well-designed listening rooms. Would I have heard the difference in a file played off my Droid through Bluetooth headphones, or in my car? Hell, no. In my car, I can't even hear the difference between CDs and 128 kbps MP3s played from my iPod.

Fortunately, you can make the comparison yourself. The download service HD Tracks already offers a comprehensive selection of 24/96 material. There's a wide selection of material available, so you can probably find something you already own on CD. Rip the CD to your computer in WAV (not MP3 or AAC or WMA), then download the file and compare the two through your stereo or a good set of headphones.

MORE BITS = MORE DATA

Using any sort of lossy audio data reduction (i.e., compression) technology such as MP3 or AAC will likely negate any of the subtle benefits that an increase in word depth or sampling rate might deliver. In order to gain benefit from high-resolution 24/96 files, they have to be encoded in a lossless format such as FLAC or Apple Lossless.

Lossless compression tends to reduce file size by a ratio of about 2:1, compared to 5:1 for 256 kbps MP3. Add this increase to the greater amount of data required for high-res audio, and you're talking five to six times the required bandwidth and storage. This might not matter to you, though: Compared to that Netflix movie you streamed last night, this increase in bandwidth is insignificant, and that 500 GB drive on your laptop probably has plenty of room to spare for high-res audio. Suffice it to say, though, that you're probably not going to want to load these files onto your iPhone or Droid.

THE BOTTOM LINE ON BITS
For audiophiles who tend to do whatever it takes to get the best possible sound quality in their homes, the move to 24-bit sound would be a welcome development. In fact, in a world where sound quality usually seems dumbed-down to suit the most uncaring listeners, the move to 24-bit sound might seem a minor miracle. We'll have the security of knowing we're getting the best possible quality, and that's what being an audiophile is all about. Sure, plenty of anonymous trolls on the Internet will say we're idiots, but that's true of anyone who's an enthusiast of anything. If you're not derided by trolls, you're probably not doing anything interesting.

The financial effect of 24-bit downloads on the music industry, though, would likely be less significant than the sonic improvement you get by putting your speaker cables on little plastic sawhorses. It's extremely unlikely that non-audiophiles would pay any extra for 24-bit downloads, or that they'd buy more downloads even if they could get the extra resolution at no extra cost. As you can see here, the whole idea of owning albums in any form may soon die completely except among aging audio enthusiasts and retro-loving hipsters.

Given the failure of the disc-based high-resolution DVD-Audio and SACD formats, why would we believe the general public would ever care about better-than-CD audio? I've heard the cries from industry know-it-alls who claim those formats "weren't properly marketed," but as one of the guys who attempted to market DVD-A, who spent a lot of my company's money trying to sell it, and who worked with licensees who spent a lot more money trying to sell it, I can tell you that despite all our efforts no consumer I ever encountered ever gave a damn about it.

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