Insider debate over sound quality measurements, audio formats, and compression rates often fails to capture the experience of falling in love with an artist, a lyric or a song. The science and technology of audio in the digital age, although necessary, doesn’t fully connect everyday people to a particular song or piece of music in a way that is as deep or as lasting. But it could.
I fell in love with music when I was very young, and music has shaped my life and career in countless ways. It’s generally agreed that the sound quality of music was deeper and richer in the era of vinyl and analog, but it was also a time when listening to an album was an experience. Years later, I still have vivid memories of the first vinyl record I ever played without help of my parents – The Beatles ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. The heft of the record, the detail of the album art, the printed lyrics and liner notes, the changing shades of the vinyl as the needle worked its way through the grooves, and even the feel of the carpet under my feet while I sat and listened all combined to create an incredibly rich and emotional experience. As I got older I purchased many albums and consumed everything about them. Album covers became art in my room and each new album became a personal event that to this day sparks memories.
Fast forward to the age of algorithmic compression and digital distribution via the Internet. For the mainstream consumer, compression technology has done wonders for discovery and ease of access. And after years of trial and error on the part of the content owners, music can now be easily purchased, stored and played virtually anywhere. As well, more on-demand and streaming music is available to consumers than ever before. But that freedom of access comes with hidden costs, most obviously and tragically the reduction in overall sound quality. Compressed content lacks richness in sound and is usually light on context. In making music more portable, we’ve moved farther and farther away from the artists who make the music and allowed the act of listening to become more passive by an order of magnitude.
Most of us know this. As rational agents we believe that we’re making a rational exchange: pristine audio and immersive packaging for instant access to music that we could never have found, let alone heard or purchased back when physical media was all we had. It’s not a bad deal. But the thing is, it really doesn’t have to be this way. The experience and quality of listening in the digital age can and should be better, and we don’t need to wait for improved technology to make it happen.
Here are three key components of the infrastructure already in place today that support higher quality and deeper context around music.
- High resolution audio support is becoming more common across the music ecosystem. Smartphones, tablets, speakers and A/VRs are now equipped to decode up to 192Khz/24bit lossless audio and more music is being released in high res thanks to initiatives like the HRA. Online music subscription services like Qobuz and WiMP Music now stream 44.1 khz/16 bit CD-quality to hundreds of thousands of paying subscribers today. Once the domain of audiophiles and niche enthusiast who spent tens of thousands of dollars on top-of-the-line audio equipment, High-Res audio is now accessible to everyday listeners via accessible (lower cost) hardware devices and services.
- Ubiquitous Wi-Fi is already in most homes and in the next few years will be present in portable devices like headphones. Wi-Fi-enabled speakers and audio devices are easier than ever to set up and use, and protocols like Wi-Fi Direct provide dead-simple and virtually instant network access to consumer electronics. Compared with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi offers higher data throughout and greater range in the home. Bluetooth can’t stream a lossless FLAC file at all, but with Wi-Fi you can actually stream multiple lossless songs at the same time to different rooms and zones throughout the home. Bluetooth isn’t going away anytime soon, but as the wireless whole home audio market gains momentum this holiday season grows bigger in 2015, Wi-Fi audio will provide consumers with an alternative with obvious quality benefits.
- The Internet of Everything. As all of the things in the home become aware of and communicate with each other, they can create new experiences around music. AllJoyn™, an open source software framework for the IoE from the Allseen Alliance offers CE and white goods manufacturers a common language for interoperability, discovery and communication for devices in a connected home. At Qualcomm Connected Experiences, where I work on a whole home audio platform called Qualcomm® AllPlay™ (www.qualcomm.com/allplay), we use AllJoyn. AllJoyn makes it possible to allow connectivity between different brands of AllPlay devices, but also to interact with other IoE devices like TV’s and soon light bulbs. With AllJoyn and AllPlay, album art and song meta data can be shared with smart TVs with webOs from LG. Those TVs then become big displays for album art. Imagine a smart light bulb that is able to “hear” the metadata of a song and dim, change color, pulse, or turn off based on the music it “hears.” Digital album covers and mood lighting – two simple but impactful bits of context that today are being re-introduced to the music experience with little to no effort on the part of the consumer.
When the MP3 codec blew the digital music market open in the late 90s, it was rightly viewed as a revolution. Today, we’re in the midst of a new “renaissance.” After years of being starved by compressed audio absent the context that made music an experience, consumers now have the ability to discover (and rediscover) the richness and depth that were stripped away. I still spin records at home and immerse myself in printed album covers and liner notes because I’m a sucker for analog. But now have I far more options to experience my music and I’m falling for it all over again.
By Gary Brotman
Brotman is Director of Product Management at Qualcomm Connected Experiences.
Opinions expressed in the content posted here are the personal opinions of the original authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of Qualcomm Incorporated or its subsidiaries ("Qualcomm"). The content is provided for informational purposes only and is not meant to be an endorsement or representation by Qualcomm or any other party. This site may also provide links or references to non-Qualcomm sites and resources. Qualcomm makes no representations, warranties, or other commitments whatsoever about any non-Qualcomm sites or third-party resources that may be referenced, accessible from, or linked to this site.
The concept of Hi-Res audio has been around for some time and we experienced various format modifications such as SACD and specialized online stores offering enhanced downloads for a “CD Quality” music experience. We are now moving into an era where Hi-Res audio files are available to a larger audience through a myriad of sources. Subsequently, new gear with the capability to provide playback of Hi-Res audio files is becoming readily available in smartphones and other devices without a cost premium.
The next generation of music lovers may have only heard about CD’s and occasionally caught a glimpse of an album in their parents’ music collection. We are poised at a critical junction whereby the music industry has the opportunity to potentially generate incremental revenue through the sale of Hi-Res downloads, many of which were previously purchased under older formats.
More importantly, we are at the threshold of introducing new music enthusiasts to a level of sound quality where they experience the sound as it was meant to be.
In the end, we all have our favorite music and we have it because we relate to the words and the sound in a way that is important to us as individuals. We enjoy the sound with enthusiasm because it strikes a chord that allows us to engage in the experience.
We experience this interaction because The Sound Matters!
Let’s bring others along for the ride!
Frank Parrotto is COO of Matrix Advisors, LLC, a Professional Services organization providing strategy and product development services to the Consumer Electronics Industry.
Opinions expressed in the content posted here are the personal opinions of the original authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of Matrix Advisors, LLC. The content is provided for informational purposes only and is not meant to be an endorsement or representation by Matrix Advisors, LLC or any other party. Matrix Advisors, LLC makes no representations, warranties or other commitments to any third-party sites or resources accessible or linked to this site.
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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