By Marc Finer
Hi Resolution Audio Takes The Stage at CES
Hot topics at the 2014 International Consumer Electronics show, held in Las Vegas January 6-9 for 150,000 attendees, included everything from Ultra Hi Definition TV and smart watches to 3D printing and driverless cars.
In the midst of all of this, another initiative was unveiled that created particular excitement among music enthusiasts. Generally referred to as High Resolution Audio (HRA), it raises a number of implications about the future of music, audio devices and digital delivery.
HRA arrives more than a decade after the launch of the first MP3 music players and download services. While MP3s were a convenient way to carry a thousand songs in your pocket, that benefit came at the expense of sound quality, resulting in an entire generation of music enthusiasts who have never had the opportunity to experience music in full fidelity.
So do consumers still care about sound quality? Well, according to a recent study by the Consumer Electronics Association, nearly ninety percent of those surveyed cited sound quality as the most important criteria when it comes to their listening enjoyment. Moreover, sixty percent are willing to pay more for better sound, provided they don’t have to sacrifice convenience.
High res audio recordings have actually been available for a decade in formats like DVD-Audio and SACD. But in today’s world of downloading and streaming, millions of people don’t use physical media to meet their entertainment needs, and until recently, digital delivery systems and home networks lacked the bandwidth and storage capacity necessary to make HRA a reality.
All of this has dramatically changed, thanks to a variety of new HRA products entering the market. During CES alone, nearly 50 manufacturers displayed a wide range of HRA capable devices, from headphone amplifiers and USB drives that connect directly with your computer, to shelf top systems that come complete with amplifier and speakers. There were also HRA enabled Blu-ray players and home theater systems, along with enough digital to analog converters (DACs) and servers to delight any audiophile.
These new products are more compatible, convenient, and compelling than before and offer outstanding sound and value for consumers. Most of these devices can automatically play virtually every available hi-res audio format. They also support WAV and FLAC files as well as, along with low resolution codecs like MP3 and Apple Lossless.
These products simplify the way you transfer files to your entertainment system. Plus, their controls have been designed to be more intuitive, making it easier to access, organize and store your music collection. Many models also utilize metadata to deliver a wealth of supplemental information about the artist and the recording. And they incorporate the latest, most advanced USB and Wi-Fi technology, for greater speed and efficiency.
Best of all, there are thousands of high res music recordings now offered by major music companies and independent labels. Titles span every category and genre and are readily available from digital retail stores such as HD Tracks.
Within The Recording Academy Producers & Engineers Wing, leading producers and engineers are fully engaged in hi-res audio. This will enable digital enthusiasts to get closer to their favorite music and experience it the way the artist originally intended.
It all adds up to the incredible HRA experience that was dramatically on display during CES. But for high resolution audio, this is only the beginning. There’s much more to come!
"It sounds awful."
A good friend of mine spent a lot of money a few years ago on an aftermarket sound system for her beloved 1966 Mercedes sedan. Now, she's not a happy camper. A quick listen confirmed things. The sound quality was a notch or two above AM radio (hey, no offense AM).
A look at the gear and the installation left me a bit puzzled as the equipment was of good quality and the installation was a work of art. Perhaps a crossover failed, an amp fried or some cabling came loose. I asked her how it sounded when she first bought it. "Fantastic, but now it just sounds…blech." I thought "blech" was pretty charitable given the expense of the system. Yes, all the speakers seemed to be working, we could get more than enough volume and there was prodigious bass, but…
When I asked her to play some different music, she grabbed her iPod Shuffle to skip to another track. We listened to a few more songs from her collection, some sounded a bit better and some a bit worse. But none of them sounded that fantastic.
I retrieved a CD from my car (Thomas Dolby's wonderful "Aliens Ate My Buick") that I often use as a reference and the system sound came alive. Her jaw dropped and a huge smile lit up her face. "Wow! You fixed it. What was the problem?"
There was nothing wrong with the system; the problem was GiGo (Garbage in, Garbage out). Her music library was comprised of low resolution compressed music she purchased online. I held up her tiny music player. It is truly an engineering marvel. However, its diminutive size graphically underlined the toll that convenience and instant gratification had taken on her enjoyment. In squeezing her music down to fit into the miniscule player, she had lost some essence of the music.
Ironically, while the recording industry has evolved to better-than-CD quality High Resolution Audio, most listeners are only hearing worse than CD quality "lossy" music (which has been data compressed for portability and easy downloading).
So how does one avoid GiGo in today's music listening landscape?
1) Stop buying music that has been compressed in a lossy format. That includes AAC (most notably used in the iTunes store) and MP3 (used by Amazon, Google and most other services). Instead, look for retailers offering formats like DSD, FLAC and WAV. At a minimum, buy the CD. You can easily create a compressed version for listening on your phone but still have an uncompressed digital CD for home listening. You'll also be in a good position in the future when your music player isn't limited to lossy, compressed music files. Remember, once the music has been compressed with a lossy system, you can never restore what was lost!
2) Get a player that can handle High Resolution Audio formats from companies like Astell&Kern, FiiO, Pono and Sony. They start at under $200 and you will immediately understand what you've been missing, the sound is amazing!
Even if your current player or phone can't play High Resolution Audio (Hi-Rez Audio) like the old Mercedes system, most new AV receivers, Blu-ray players and computers can. In the not too distant future, we will see widespread support for Hi-Rez audio on most phones and portable players. In turn, retailers will offer uncompressed music and this sad chapter of compromised music listening will be history. Hopefully, many will offer a reasonable “upgrade path” for previous purchases and you won't be stuck with a compromised music collection or having to recreate your library from scratch.
As for my friend, she now only buys the “real deal” and she's eying a new portable player. I wish I had one of the new crop of Hi-Rez capable smartphones like the HTC M8 that can play Hi-Rez files (alas my carrier contract is many months from upgrade time). I'd love to see her jaw drop again listening to full fidelity even from a cell phone.
By Buzz Goddard - CEA Audio Board member and Guitar Junkie
I admit it, I love music. Music has followed and surrounded me my entire life. From my earliest memories I enjoyed the sound, the feelings and the experiences of music. I have made it and studied guitar, piano, brass instruments and played in a band both in and out of school. When no music is around I may hum, or whistle and like most have sung in the shower. I do not think I am unusual in the love of music, I think it is a universal part of the human experience. It is not just film or video but life with a soundtrack. So, it has been a great pleasure and bit of a mission to work on the improvement of the audio experience and fortunately my career has allowed me to move sound forward.
I worked for years in the analog world trying to control noise, boost fidelity and allow mobility to sound. While we made a lot of progress, the physical realities of vinyl records or cassette tapes remained an Achilles Heel to fully freeing the sound to move and play where and when we wanted. Fortunately, we were successful in developing digital recording and playback systems, and I am honored to have played a role there
Digital systems allow us to separate the content from the medium, so no more record scratches or cassette noise. The lack of physical parts has allowed us to make portable playback systems that don't skip or flutter. Today, more people than ever are listening to more sound, at more times and in more places than was ever possible before. While digital audio has made that possible it has taken some compromises and a lot of work.
The first digital recordings were under watch from content creators for fidelity to the music and experience. Almost all of us wanted to ensure that when we lost the scratches and noise, we did not also lose the life, air and experience of the music. We adopted the then 16 bit 44.1K sampling system as it pushed the limits of our technical capability at the time while giving us the full range of sound the human ear could hear and ALL the music. While some of the marketing speech may have been a bit hyperbolic we did feel we gave the world "pure, perfect sound forever" at least as well as we could. As with most things, we have continued to work on technology and today we often record at 24 bit with 192K sampling and sound continues to improve.
Meanwhile, one of the dreams of setting music free was to let you listen whenever and wherever you wanted. We tried making portable players, but those using CDs or tapes still suffered from the physical issues of moving motors and parts and the limits of how much media you could carry. The reality of storage cost and processor power meant the units we could build had very limited song lists, and with such little improvement in experience we could not improve the mobile music experience.
Then came the development of mp3, which as an audio subset of how we were digitizing video provided a highly efficient (translate low amount of data) alternative. mp3 and the other "lossy" compression variants changed a lot and we could make portable players that carried hundreds or thousands of songs in your pocket. History is clear, people loved it and so we have a world today that enjoys music all the time and everywhere.
Unfortunately though, mp3 and other variants throw a lot of data away in order to work. It remains amazing indeed that we can recognize and enjoy the music when as much as 95% of the data is gone. This is much like some of today's ads where we can recognize maps with very little data on them, but nonetheless much is lost. This is why I am so excited about the new High Resolution Audio devices and tracks that are now available. They keep our first promise of retaining the whole sound without the troubles of the medium, while also giving all the benefits of portability that mp3 offers.
Since the technology of processors and storage have advanced so much, we can now handle these larger files and pay no price in convenience for doing so. A Hi-Res player can hold hundreds or thousands of songs in your pocket and there is no reason popular streaming services or download sites cannot also adopt these formats. There is a whole of music too, as ALL music is recorded to start in Hi-Res.
All the sound, with all the convenience sounds good to me. So, as a music lover I invite you all to hear the latest and gain the immediacy of what your favorite artist or producer wanted you to hear. Bring more life to your music experience and own the sound as the artist intended. Please join me and let's listen. The differences are dramatic and obvious and the soundtrack of life just got better.
By Robert Heiblim
BlueSalve Professional Consulting and Interim Management
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