Saving Hi-Res Audio

Hi-res audio is having problems. Not your garden-variety problems. These are the life threateningproblems. Where do I begin? Well, Neil Young used Kickstarter to raise $6 million to fund his Pono project and deliver it into the hands of music enthusiasts. Good for him. Good for music. Good for hi-res playback. Of course, nothing is ever that simple.

Mr. Young’s bright spotlight spilled over onto hi-res itself, and people took a closer look. For example, David Pogue conducted an informal listening test comparing Pono to an iPhone. In Mr. Pogue’s test, listeners preferred an iPhone over a Pono. Partly in response to that, hi-res audio is now urgently controversial.

Other listening tests are appearing, and a certain “piling on” appears to be taking shape. Some are calling Mr.Young a charlatan, or worse. In a follow-up article, Mr. Young responded to Mr. Pogue’s criticisms in a friendly and supportive way—you know, the way adults respond to each other. In the blogosphere, things are quite different. The formerly good-natured debates among audiophiles is taking a turn for the worse with commentary ranging from childish to downright unprofessional.

The world has enough worries and doesn’t need the supporters or denigrators of hi-res audio to add another one, particularly since hi-res audio is a prime example of a first-world problem. Seriously, can’t we all just get along? Apparently not, and the juvenile name-calling now popping up on everyone’s search engines is going to diminish hi-res audio.

The solution seems easy. Let’s set up some rigorous critical listening tests and determine how the sound quality of hi-res audio compares to a reasonable reference such as Compact Disc. Easy, right? Well, of course, it’s not, and it’s naive to suggest it.

Some argue that comparison testing is flawed and inherently fails to demonstrate the benefits of hi-res or indeed any high-fidelity playback. But unless you can demonstrate the improvement, why should people buy hi-res files? The retort comes quickly: Why stay rooted in the 30-year-old CD standard? Even if the difference is slight, let’s err on the side of caution and use hi-res.

I have a modest proposal. It avoids the central question because the answer to the question will never end all the arguing, which is an industry unto itself. Instead, I propose that those who stand to profit the most from hi-res make a short-term sacrifice, for a potential long-term gain.

My proposal starts with this premise: Consider, for example, your phone, your television, your computer or tablet. Each new generation is better than before; you expect that, and that’s why you buy into each new model. And, adjusting for inflation, the price of those products stays constant or, factoring in their improved performance, often drops.

Meanwhile, sellers of hi-res music want to charge you a steep premium for it. They cannot obviously demonstrate the benefit and usually don’t reveal the provenance of the product (a whole other kettle of fish), yet they demand a premium. So here’s my proposal: Sell hi-res music files for the same price as any other file. Once the cost issue is removed, maybe people will just treat hi-res files like any other, and tempers will calm. Then we can debate something really important, like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

My friends in the music industry, consider this: If people can hear the benefit of hi-res, they’ll buy more music—you win. If they can’t hear it, they won’t buy less music. Now, I don’t really care about music industry profits. I just want people to have a fair opportunity to listen as carefully as they want and never be disappointed. Also, it would be good if the zealots took a chill pill.

jmilton7043's picture

Why am I spending my hard earned cash on hi rez music?

Because I want to.

Craig Mecak's picture

But could you hear any difference between your hi rez and a good downsampled 16-bit 44.1kHz version under controlled, blind A/B listening conditions? That's the question.

chrisheinonen's picture

With the general public, which is who Pogue and others are talking to, the appeal of Pono has to go far beyond just having better audio quality. All the other factors that go into this, just beyond possibly sounding better, tend to get overlooked in the discussion.

So lets say you do hear a difference when listening to HiRes files on the Pono compared to your smartphone. What else does this experience entail for you now? First, you have to buy a $400 piece of hardware that fundamentally does something your phone already does. That's a bit of a strike against it. You also have to pay $20-25 for an album compared to $10 or less. What's more, many of your favorite artists or albums might not be available in HiRes at all.

So now you've spent a few hundred dollars, this to basically replicate the experience of a device and content you already own. You also have to carry around this device, with its inferior form factor, battery life, and user interface. Many of us were happy to only have to carry around a smartphone instead of a phone and an iPod, but now we're back to two devices.

If a new album comes out and you want to listen to it? You can stream it to your smartphone. You can download it from various music stores to your smartphone. Or you can go home with your Pono, connect it to your PC, and sync it from there. Are you over at a friend's house and want to share a song you heard? You can easily send the song from your smartphone over WiFi, or stream it over Bluetooth. Unless you have a cable handy, you aren't going to get it off the Pono as well.

Audio quality here is such a small factor in the decision. I'll listen to HiRes content at home sometimes, but I wouldn't pack a Pono around with me. I work remotely lots of the time and am very happy, even as an audiophile, to just pack a nice pair of headphones and stream everything through my laptop or phone. I can listen to anything I want, I don't have to carry an extra device, and I don't have to charge something else. I might be missing that last 5-10% of quality perhaps, but it's not worth the inconvenience to me. Until all of these obstacles are also removed from HiRes Audio (cost, extra equipment, portability, content) I don't know that it will grow that much. It's just a mistake to sell the problem as just that people don't hear a difference.

canman4pm's picture

As for all that, I still think some good, broad, high sample size A/B testing is needed. By someone (preferably more than one) with a good reputation for unbiased, scientific testing. Consumer Reports would be a good first choice. MIT, perhaps?

soundman45's picture

It's kind of funny how you don't see videophiles attacking the motion picture and video industry for making strides in the quality of film and digital reproduction.

Hi-rez digital audio is another story. Hi-rez digital capture for recording has been the norm in the pro audio industry for twenty years or more. It's the same analogy as to why the video industry started scanning celluloid film and producing hi resolution cameras for capture at 2k, 4k and now up to 8k. It's about resolution and capturing the information at the best quality for distribution at whatever bit rate. It really has nothing to do with what device the information is played back on which seems to
be what the debate is about here.

NoHoR56's picture

@ chrisheinonen You make some valid points, generally, about ancillary issues in handling high-resolution files that people who are "audiophile-curious" may forget to take into account, but I disagree with the position you seem to be coming from. High-resolution audio is about the audio quality. Period. It is not for general consumers. People get their panties in a bunch about high-res as if a whole new system is being forced down their throats and they're going to have to buy new hardware and the White Album again. It's not for average consumers. It won't affect them. They don't have to buy it, worry about it or be threatened by it. Sure, they need to know enough not to buy it, but that's it.

The Pogue test was a complete joke. He only used older analogue recordings (transferred to bigger bit-buckets) and so-so headphones. He asked average Joe's if they cared or could tell the difference. So, nothing they were listening to was technically high-resolution audio (recorded at 96/24 or above and played back at same) and he used a cheap Radio Shack switcher to run everything through. Again, it was a joke. Not the right material, not the right audience, not the right equipment. I think if a journalist made the points you are making to someone who had some chance of hearing the difference - and caring about it - it would be valid for them to consider the ramifications to other parts of their system. But that's not the same person who, out of the box, professes to not even give a damn. This is clearly not that kind of format. It's nuanced and it really depends on the provenance of the original recording. From a high quality recording - with mastering removed - there is something to be said for having a high-resolution file taken from it. It is for people who want the best version of a recording they can get. People who don't get it - or could care less - need not apply.

chizinks's picture

I got 2 of 6 but picked the 320K mp3 on the ones I got wrong.