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.
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When High-Resolution audio is the subject of a news piece on NPR, you might start to believe that we've reached the tipping point and that high quality audio is poised to take the place of lo-fi, heavily compressed music files. I was certainly encouraged when I listened to Ben Johnson interview Neil Young about his new High-Resolution music player called Pono and accompanying High-Resolution digital music download site Ponomusic (slated for launch in October of this year). But just like any other new product or service, there's a lot more to learn about High-Resolution audio than a catchy slogan can deliver. "Rediscovering the soul of music" doesn't just happen by ripping compact discs and upconverting them to higher specs.
I'm personally thrilled that Neil and others at the labels, CEA and The Recording Academy have ignited the fuse on High-Resolution audio. My own record label AIX Records, Hi-Res digital music download site iTrax, and my daily posts at RealHD-Audio.com are just a few of the ways that I've been advocating for High-Resolution audio for more than 14 years. High-Resolution audio makes it possible to bring music recording and reproduction to new heights of realism and involvement. Really. Once you hear the real thing, you'll know immediately how much better the sound of recorded music can be.
Just today I received an email from an iTrax.com customer and musician who purchased and downloaded a new project that I produced for Sprint, the number three mobile provider in the world that is behind the HTC M8 Harman Kardon High-Resolution smartphone. The actual release isn't until Monday, August 18, but I previewed the project on HRA Planet, an information site focused on all things high-res. The new product is called the "iTrax - Sprint Ultra HD-Audio Sampler" and contains 18 Ultra HD-Audio stereo recordings in a variety of musical styles. Here's what he wrote, "Just bought the sampler in FLAC format & am working my way through each track. Wow! Tracks 1 & 4 are amazing! As a musician, hearing performances in current state of the art fidelity is inspirational. Thank you for your dedication to the faithful (transparent) reproduction of our art form."
Likewise, professional writers/reviewers for the audiophile magazines have been impressed. The Absolute Sound Senior Editor Andrew Quint came to the studio and listened to a number of our High-Resolution audio tracks in full 5.1 surround sound and wrote, "…the multichannel audio, emanating from five B & W 801 loudspeakers, is quite simply the most realistic and involving instance of recorded sound I can recall, from any source format." It's a good day when one of the major trade magazines recognizes that High-Resolution audio sounds better than vinyl LPs, CD and even analog tapes.
But the magic that can be captured and delivered in High-Resolution is not only the result of higher sample rates, longer wavelengths or any new digital delivery format. The reason that the authors of the previous comments were so impressed was due to the adoption of a new set of production methodologies…it's the way that the recordings are made, not the container that they are delivered in. I engineer and produce records that are notprocessed so that they punch through your car speakers or Beats headphones. My High-Resolution recordings are intended for listeners that want to capture and maintain the natural sound and dynamics of a singer and the band. That's where the magic starts and it's my responsibility to get it to you. You can get hear some samples at the RealHD-Audio.com site – just ask and I'll send you the credentials to our FTP site.
The purist style of recording doesn't work for every genre of music, but it does work for most. It should be offered in addition to the heavily compressed and lo-fi music that we experience on the radio or through the Internet. Music lovers everywhere should let their favorite artists know that they want great songs andgreat sound. High-Resolution audio has the potential to rock your world – check it out and prepare to be impressed.
By Mark Waldrep - CAE Audio Board Member and Producer/Engineer
iTrax.com / AIX Records Founder