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!
By Mark Waldrep
I love listening to music. The magic way that a great song or composition can excite and connect with both your emotional and intellectual self is something that I believe is unique to music. That's why I learned to play the guitar when I was a teenager and why I continued my studies in an academic setting years later (I ended up with a Ph.D. in composition from UCLA). I wanted; no I had to somehow be part of this incredible art form. After moving from the Midwest to Los Angeles and discovering that I wasn't the only one dreaming about a career in front of a microphone, I turned away from the performing and writing side of music and became a recording engineer and producer. I've been doing it for over 30 years now.
During my career, I've recorded and released recordings made on a variety of formats. I started with analog tape, purchased one a couple of the first Digital Audio Workstations (Sound Tools AND Sonic Solutions) back in 1989 and currently own and operate a state-of-the-art HD-Audio studio near Santa Monica. I also started a music label 12 years ago. When we first started, I released my tracks on DVD-Audio/Video discs. These days, my specialty label produces and releases new "high definition" audio recordings on Blu-ray discs, which is a great format for movies but is also capable of reproducing music in high definition. We also make them available through high-end digital download sites.
And we've garnered a pretty loyal following of audiophiles that seem to appreciate the unique "sound" of our tracks in both stereo and fully immersive 5.1 surround. It's feels pretty nice to get 5 star reviews or have a customer write the words "Holy Grail" in reference to one of our productions via email.
But there are a whole variety of labels (large and small), musicians, engineers and producers that produce and issue remarkable recordings that follow a different production trajectory than my own…and they appeal in their own unique ways. If your goal is to produce a "hit" electronic dance track, your sensibilities and production techniques will be tailored to meet that goal. Each "target" category demands its own production path. They are all valid.
I spent part of last weekend at the NAMM show in Anaheim, California. It's an annual event that brings out musicians and audio geeks of all stripes. As I made my way through the crowded halls looking for the latest gadgets in the recording arts, I happened upon Laurence Juber (who has recorded a number of projects with us). He's widely recognized as one of the finest finger style guitarists in the world and a former member of Paul McCartney's band Wings. After he finished performing, we chatted briefly and he told me that he had a new project coming out. He told me that it would be available as a vinyl LP as well as a traditional CD. The session tracks were recorded on a multi-track analog machine AND digitally at 96 kHZ/24-bits. He wanted to know if I would be interested in releasing the HD-Audio files through my digital download site. He went on that the 176.4/24-bit transfer of the mixed and mastered analog version "sounded the best" to him. I'm not sure that I would agree. The project that we did over ten years ago has become a "recorded guitar reference disc" for its dynamic range and extended frequency response. And I didn't do any mastering on it at all.
His assessment could have been the start of a passionate argument over recording formats. There are a lot of forum and FB discussions over vinyl vs. analog tape vs. CDs vs. DVD-Audio vs. SACD vs. Blu-ray or HD soundfiles. I've had these discussions and they never end well. Music software and hardware bring forth some of the most passionate arguments this side of politics and religion. When the plain fact is that everyone is entitled to enjoy music on whatever format works for him or her.
Just today I was reading a piece about a couple of producers that are using a 1940's era 78 rpm lacquer recording device to capture the soundtrack to their movie. Others are entranced by the "warmth of analog" while others appreciate the sonics of analog tape (yes, there are many reel to reel machines still in operation and individuals dedicated to playing quarter in analog tape). For me it's about the hyper realistic, purist sound of a voice or instrument delivered without the heavy processing that is part of most productions and in full surround. They are all "flavors" of sound to be enjoyed on their own merits. Some may measure better than others but the end result is the connection that a listener feels.
After a lifetime of seeing formats that deliver better and better levels of fidelity, we've actually entered an era when consumers have a choice between heavily compressed MP3 soundfiles for their portable devices (less than ideal fidelity) and ultra high end, surround music that is played at home or in high end car system. They're all flavors to be tasted and enjoyed. However, even lowly MP3 files can be infused with more fidelity and dynamic range.
The variety of formats available to music lovers is wider than it has ever been. You owe it to yourself to audition as many different "sound flavors" as possible. Who knows you might find a new "sonic food" that moves you in way you've never experienced before. I know that's what happened to me when I started producing and listening to new high definition, surround music tracks.
This season, the USA gets not one, but two CD-quality music streaming services: Tidal Hi-Fi and Deezer Elite.
Whichever service you ultimately choose, this is huge for music lovers. Going from a 320-kilobit-per-second (kbps) data rate to 1411 kbps overnight is the biggest sound-quality leap in music streaming ever, an improvement you will hear immediately. My casual direct comparison revealed that, in many cases, the streaming version sounded better than its CD counterpart. How is this possible?
A CD player is a machine with a lot of parts: laser components, laser drive assembly, disc drive motor, compact disc, disc loading assembly, power supply, digital audio section, analog audio section, internal wiring, external wiring, connection jacks, etc.
On the other hand, a streaming service just delivers the bits. Depending on the system, a streaming signal can stay digital all the way to the speakers. The fewer motors, jacks, electronics, moving parts, and wires you have between you and the music, the higher the potential sound quality.
Even if that’s debatable, one thing isn’t: Music is about to get fun again. Both streaming services boast in excess of 25 million tracks, meaning you will find something to like, guaranteed. (Who wouldn’t want to expand their music collection by at least 24.9 million songs overnight?) And what you like is going to sound amazing.
Which service should you go with?
Good question. One service claims to have millions more songs than the other. That may make a difference if you’re a completist. (How many ways can they repackage the same songs by Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Marley? Trick question. The answer is infinity.) But pretty much everything most of us want is on both services.
Here’s where you come in. Whether you’re a Consumer Electronics manufacturer, retailer, or end-user, CD-quality streaming should be a big deal to you. Audio was an essential part of our lives decades before video was even imagined. Yet, these days, too much of the home entertainment conversation seems to center around video. The recent explosion in headphones, portable speakers, and multiroom audio has introduced an entire new generation to the intoxicating allure of great sound, but the quality of online music hasn’t kept up.
Now we have a chance to level the playing field, elevating music software quality to the standard of music hardware, and at the same time swinging the attention pendulum a bit from video back to high-performance audio. Retailers know that there’s a slim chance of a customer walking in with their favorite CD, and that the chances of the retailer having the customer’s favorite music on hand (in full resolution) are also slim. With full-resolution streaming, you potentially have every song on earth — including your customer’s favorites — in your hand. For manufacturers, this means that your product can now be demoed with the quality control you’ve been missing for years. And for music lovers, this means you’ll be able to audition systems with music you know, allowing you to make truly informed buying decisions.
I’m positively blown away by the win-win-win prospects of better sound for manufacturers, retailers, and their customers. I now spend a good chunk of each workday basking in all the extra bits that my chosen higher resolution service delivers. Both new services offer a free trial, and that should be Number One on your entertainment to-do list.
By Charles Thompson for Sell-Through Solutions, Inc.