HRA for the Masses

Ask virtually any music listener if they own any high-resolution audio files, and they’ll likely give you a blank stare, wait a beat, and then maybe come back with a question like, “You mean like CDs I put on my computer or something?”

For the record, high-resolution refers to music recorded at better than CD’s 44.1-kHz/16-bit quality, usually 96-kHz/24-bit, typically written as “96/24.” (See my high-rez audio audio primer here).

While those in the know swear by high-rez audio’s better quality, espousing its open, airy dynamics, superior sonics and detail, and generally more lifelike “you are there” quality, it is certainly still anything but widespread. In fact, I’d estimate that high-resolution audio currently holds the same kind of audiophile status that Laserdisc once enjoyed amongst videophiles. And we saw how that worked out for LD. (Rest in peace, old friend. You served us well!)

It also isn’t new. In fact, better-than-CD-quality audio formats have given it the old college try multiple times over the years via Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab’s Ultradisc, DVD-Audio, Super Audio CD, DTS 96/24, etc. High-end audio processors, streamers, and DAC manufacturers have also been touting their high-rez capabilities for a while. Still, formats built around better sound have never managed to break into the mainstream, MP3/streamed audio is “good enough,” and high-rez audio seemed destined to whither as another niche product.

However, I started noticing a new push toward high-rez audio’s wider adoption beginning at last year’s CEDIA Expo when Sony made it a major part of its booth and press presentation with the introduction of several new high-rez audio-capable components. While Sony isn’t new to the high-rez audio game, having been at the forefront with SACD, they seem ready to give it another go.

According to CEA research, consumers are “ready to embrace high-resolution audio.”

Fast-forward to the 2014 International CES. An entire section in the Tech Zone was dedicated to it called “The Hi-Res Audio Experience.” Rebranded by the Consumer Electronic Association (CEA) with the hipper acronym, HRA, several manufacturers showcased the latest technologies and gave consumers a chance to experience the highest-quality audio for themselves. There were even three special HRA panels including, “Meet the Hi-Res Music Creators” moderated by Sound & Vision’s very own music Jedi, Mike Mettler.

According to CEA’s research, consumers are “ready to embrace high-resolution audio.” In fact, the CEA findings indicate that 39 percent of consumers with a moderate interest in audio are willing to “pay more for high-quality audio electronics devices” and nearly 60 percent “are willing to pay more for higher-quality digital music.” Even more impressive is that nine in ten consumers claim “sound quality is the most important component of a quality audio experience.”

Certainly this push for greater public awareness—and the allure of people claiming a willingness to pay more for music!—will give the music industry more motivation to get behind HRA and give it a better shot at more widespread adoption this time around. Also helping is easier access to HRA via download services like HDtracks, Acoustic Sounds, Blue Coast Music, iTrax, and others. Now instead of a hit-or-miss selection at a local music store or waiting days for a shipment, you can be enjoying HRA in a few minutes with just a click.

Another boon is the proliferation of affordable devices—A/V receivers or streaming music players—that can stream and decode HRA FLAC files (often the format of choice) or play them via a connected USB drive.

A new Website, hiresaudiocentral, launches this spring to further educate and drive HRA’s awareness. According to Mettler, the site’s chief content officer, “The site will provide all sorts of content for new hi-res consumers and audiophiles alike—download and playback primers, hardware and soft ware reviews, interviews. In short, anything and everything that reflects and promotes the power of listening to and enjoying the substantial aural benefits of hi-res audio.”

Mettler perfectly sums up the benefits of HRA by saying it provides “the consumer the benefit of connecting more directly with the emotion and feel of music the way it was recorded, mixed, and mastered. The intent of the musicians, engineers, and producers comes across truer than ever in hi-res. And once you experience hi-res, you’re hooked.”

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COMMENTS
Ethyl's Fred's picture

..."those in the know" know that higher than CD resolution offers no audible differences, which is why the formats always fail.

http://www.aes.org/e-lib/browse.cfm?elib=14195

Todd Sauve's picture

Here, HEAR!

I really do wish Sound and Vision would give up on trying to con its readers into believing that this so-called "hi resolution" music was anything more than another heaping pile of marketing baloney perpetrated on the listening public by the electronics industry and their lackeys in the press.

Come on you guys, this getting terribly old and tiresome!

dommyluc's picture

On Amazon last year, I purchased the 5.1 channel SACD of "Dark Side of the Moon" for $10.99. When I see it on the hi-res sites, they want about $30 to download the hi-res FLAC version. Pardon my French but, WTF?
If hi-res is to ever become the standard in the audio world, they'd better lower the price.
I recall when Blu-ray was first introduced, and all the companies thought they could charge $25-$30+ per disc for the new format (Sony and Disney were notorious for this), but consumers wouldn't stand for it, and now you can find great Blu-rays for less than $10. Why should hi-res audio be any different?
Just like hi-def video, hi-res audio should be the standard, not some rarified, exotic fruit for audiophiles only.

Todd Sauve's picture

Maybe you guys are actually pulling an April Fools joke on us with this "hi res" gibberish???

savage's picture

Buy what sounds good to you. I hear a huge difference between CD's and DSD downloads. I hear a huge difference between CD's and LP's and the quality of the system they are played on, despite the law of diminishing, makes a huge difference too.

Wish I could afford what really sounds good to me. I'd love a full library of LP's and DSD's and I'd use CD's as decorations.

But that's why there is so much variation in the market... each to their own ears and preferences.

Todd Sauve's picture

It is amazing what we convince ourselves of when it comes to listening to audio. Go read the AES report cited in the first post.

Ethyl's Fred's picture

You are correct that it is your business what you spend money on. But when a supposedly informative publication uses meaningless terms (exactly how does something sound "open" or "airy"?) while claiming to be "in the know" they are doing a disservice to their readers who really are looking to be informed. Show them the legitimate scientific testing as well.

Markoz's picture

I own over 500 CDs and a substantial number of SACDs. Some of my very best CDs are as good as the SACDs but overall I will take the SACDs every time. When the SACDs are recorded in surround that is even better!

Those of us with higher end equipment tend to forget that with a regular home system many of the differences, subtle even on high end systems, are completely lost.

I am a perfectionist and small differences mean a lot to me. They don't to most people.

Higher end recording systems can partially ameliorate mediocre recording technique and I, for one, would like anything that can squeeze out just a bit more quality from the recording.

John Sciacca's picture
If you read the entire report from the JAES cited in the first comment, you'll read this passage (which would certainly also pertain to HRA downloads): “Virtually all of the SACD and DVD-A recordings sounded better than most CDs—sometimes much better.” This has been attributed to “engineers and producers being given the freedom to produce recordings that sound as good as they can make them, without having to compress or equalize the signal to suit lesser systems and casual listening conditions. These recordings seem to have been made with great care and manifest affection, by engineers trying to please themselves and their peers.” (I wrote a blog post on that study which also includes a nice comment from Sound & Vision's Michael Riggs: http://johnsciacca.webs.com/apps/blog/show/4731135-jaes-i-don-t-care-what-you-say-i-say-it-s-better-) So, even if it isn't the higher resolution and additional bits that make the recordings sound superior, the quality of the recording or engineering absolutely can and does, and ultimately, isn't getting the best, most accurate-to-the-original-recording into your ears the most important thing? If nothing else, you should all at least go to www.hdtracks.com and download their free HRA sampler to experience it for yourselves. It costs you nothing. Regards, John Sciacca
Ethyl's Fred's picture

But that is not what your article says. The "those in the know" section and the Mettler quote attribute the sound differences to the high-resolution formats themselves and not to the different masters used.

The push should not be to move to higher resolution formats. That is just a waste of resources and money. The push should be to get releases using the superior masters that can be played on existing equipment. No need to force the consumer to pay for new equipment that offers no audible improvement over existing equipment (proven scientifically time and time again when the same master is used). That money should be spent on well mastered CDs that are audibly indistinguishable from higher resolution formats. Isn't the music what is ultimately important?

Todd Sauve's picture

John, you are not taking responsibility for what you have said! Clearly some recordings sound better than others but it is not the supposedly superior high bit rates and greater depths that are producing this. It is the care in the actual recording of the music and the mixing and mastering of the final product.

When you put these superior recordings on regular old 44-16 CDs they sound EXACTLY the same as they do when put on SACDs, DVDAs or any other "high rez" medium you can come up with.

It is really disappointing that you and many other so-called "audio journalists" spin these half-baked stories to a gullible (and often too young to know better) audience, convincing them that the only way to get excellent sound is through these higher bits and depths. Why work for a magazine that pushes these lies? Or do you simply not care and only want to maintain that current pay check? It is colossally disappointing that so many people don't care about their personal integrity in this day and age.

spookytooth's picture

Since 24 bit is a sham... Why wouldn't any professional sound engineer be caught dead recording in 16 bit?

Rich67's picture

Whether HiRes is better or not it will always have a vanishingly small audience of the high end guys (or girls)looking for the holy grail of perfect sound. Most of the "masses" music listeners are more concerned about portability than absolute fidelity. This vast majority pays the bills. HiRes will always be the proverbial pimple on a gnats a.., never a mainstream product. There is simply no interest.

spookytooth's picture

I can hear an enormous difference between CD audio and a 24 bit .wav. All I can say is you must all have some inferior equipment. I would add that the terms "airyness" and "transparent", like "bright", "harsh" and "mellow" have been widely used to describe sound quality for years. I guess the real head-scratcher is... Why are so many hung up on a media format that no one is being forced to adapt to?

The real difference is in headroom. 16 bit audio has a low headroom which requires the signal to be compressed. 24 bit audio has a much larger dynamic range and much wider frequency range.

All of you guys hating on this... Please, don't buy it. The rest of us will embrace it. Recording standards have been taking step after step backward for decades; it's refreshing to see someone trying more it forward.

chrisnick's picture

This is a bizarre chain. The difference between 16 and 24 bit music is night and day. It's not a topic to be debated.

It's just simply true.

And hopefully we will find some way out of this ridiculous step backwards we've taken in the last 30 years to a far inferior music listening experience. CDs are awful. If you don't think that, you've just got used to it, or never knew better.

If you haven't tried 24 bit, please do. You'll love it.

Sandy Sandman's picture

In my experience, with my equipment and recordings, 24 bit audio is noticeably superior to 16 bit. But regarding the technical argument related to bit depth and that it only affects the noise floor, I'm not sure that tells the whole story.

For those who are old enough, you'll remember back when Microsoft Windows and many graphics cards could only display 8-bit color. That meant that along the whole color spectrum, there were only 256 colors to choose from for any given pixel when rendering a picture. These days the typical image file has over 16 million colors at its disposal. The difference isn't in the spectrum of color. It's in the number of points along the spectrum. 24 bit images are much more accurate reproductions of their source material than 8 bit images.

It's the same way reproducing an audio signal. The higher the bit depth, the more accurately you can represent the original source material's sound wave. To give you perspective, 16 bit is like measuring in 1 yard increments, whereas 24 bit is like measuring in 1/8 inch increments.

It's a big difference. One of the things that characterizes it is instruments stand out individually rather than blending and obfuscating one another. Depending upon the recording, you can sometimes hear things in a mix that you were never able to hear, and lyrics oftentimes become easier to understand. I listen to some HDTracks recordings of albums I initially had on vinyl in the 70's, but have listened to on CD since the 80's. And the new high definition versions bring me back to the same rich listening experience I had with the vinyl so long ago, which I hadn't realized had been absent.

Like most people, I was thrilled with CDs when they first came out because they eliminated all the noise of vinyl, its wear and tear and other issues. 16 bit was state of the art. But that was 30 years ago! In data processing terms, that was longer ago than the stone age. It's way past time to move on.

By the way, if you have a blu-ray player, you listen to 24 bit audio all the time, as that's what the audio tracks are. And they do sound better than DVDs.

Bansaku's picture

For anyone who can not tell the difference between an album presented in genuine 24-bit (not that up-resed dithered crap from HDTracks) your equipment is simply not capable of reproducing the sound as intended. As many have stated, it's not the 'numbers', rather the mastering. Take Muse's new album, 2nd Law as an example; it is a modern release mastered with modern knowledge. My CD copy, while sounding pretty awesome, simply can not compare to the sonic quality of the pure 24/96 version of the album. What sounds better you say? EVERYTHING! First off, when I play audio via Toslink from my computer through my receiver I use the 'Direct' setting with ZERO EQ adjustments. The CD version compared to the 24/96 sounds weak, muddled together, and 2D. The 24/96 version has a much larger sound stage, vocals sound 'pure' and organic, texture is beautiful, instrument positioning and transparency are as close to life-like as it comes. 24/96 is absolutely NOT a gimmick if done proper! What is a gimmick are these so called HD players, like the one in this article. A $200 netbook is capable of delivering 24/96 audio just fine, with most receivers (stereo or multichannel) made in the past 10 years can easily handle the signal. :P

Ethyl's Fred's picture

What's bizarre is the notion that personal anecdotes and rudimentary understanding digital signal processing debunks rigorous scientific studies, or that better equipment will somehow remove the fundamental limitations of a human sense that has been conclusively demonstrated in the scholarly literature numerous times.

Superior mastering is not a gimmick. Claims that better than Red Book compact disk resolution is needed to fully convey that better mastering to within the limitations of human hearing is. If you believe that you can show this to be incorrect, I suggest that you submit your analysis to The IEEE Transactions on Signal Processing or The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. Let us know how the peer review comes out.

vqworks's picture

I don't think you need to even look at the history of the market for hi-res formats to see why it still won't catch on with the masses (but it helps).

Now more than ever, low cost hardware and software is mandatory for any format to survive, whether it's hi-res or not. Especially at a time when there are so many consumer electronics vying for the typical consumer's dollars. The general consumer has a choice of not just buying hardware that has an audio-only function but he or she can buy a tablet or smartphone that delivers audio that is "good enough" for them. The items may not be identical but there is a definite correlation in the demand for them.

There's no question that the only way to survive is to offer something at ridiculously low prices. After all, the general consumer has been spoiled by low-priced Chinese manufactured equipment. The CEA findings are suspect.

When any manufacturer these days pushes audio-only hardware and/or software and content is pricey, the manufacturer is doomed. Many audiophiles can appreciate the difference (big or small) that a hi-res format can make but if their charged big bucks to obtain it, a good portion of them will fail to adopt it. Never mind the general consumer.

Worse yet, most of the current generation of audiophiles, including editors of high-end audio publications, can only compare or describe sound in subjective terms. They don't seem to have any objective measurements to justify any claims. So smart audiophiles have even less of an incentive to buy into a pricey new format.

By the way, if the new hi-res offerings are just up-sampled offerings, then the audiophile would probably feel cheated. As a whole, I do believe an improved re-mastering of material generally does make a bigger difference in sound quality.

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