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The Myth of High-Resolution Audio And Why It Matters For YOUR Recordings
Have you seen the new gold and brown “Hi-Res Audio” logo on a website or a new piece of high-end audio hardware? Maybe you learned about “high-resolution audio” from Neil Young and his Pono initiative, the one that resulted in the 3rd largest Kickstarter campaign in history. Jay-Z’s purchase of TIDAL attracted mainstream press because his site offers “high-resolution” streaming of over 20 million albums. It would seem that “high-resolution audio” has arrived.
Unfortunately, it’s all a myth…a mix of opportunism, greed, spin, ignorance and arrogance. Basically, the push for “high-resolution audio” is a clever marketing campaign cooked up by a few self-appointed experts supported by the major labels and music organizations to get you to repurchase “high-resolution” versions of the older standard resolution catalog at premium prices.
High-resolution audio does exist but it’s not the content that available on Neil Young’s PonoMusic website. Do you really think that playing lossless CD quality audio files on a very expensive portable device will magically transform the 44.1 kHz/16-bit PCM files into audio nirvana? Even the portion of the PonoMusic catalog that sport 192 kHz/24-bit specifications aren’t any better than the analog versions that we had 40 years ago.
I’ve been recording and producing real high-resolution audio since 2000, when two competing optical disc formats intended to replace the compact disc. Sony and Phillips developed the Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD), a 2.8224 MHz 1-bit DSD-based scheme while the DVD Forum and the rest of the audio industry moved forward with high-resolution PCM digital audio. Both formats offered 5.1 surround and stereo music mixes.
Music consumers were pitched a new “advanced resolution” audio experience. Higher fidelity was promised because of the new higher specifications and in the case of DSD, a whole new method of encoding audio that was “closer to analog.” It’s true that these new formats offered the potential for greater audio fidelity than what we were used to and that 5.1 surround mixes were more involving than traditional stereo. Unfortunately, all the releases in both SACD and DVD-Audio were sourced from existing catalog masters…meaning the fidelity of the sourced analog tapes was already “locked” in at the time of the original sessions. The potential of the new formats was lost by focusing on older “classic” albums from The Doors, Queen, and Fleetwood Mac rather than making new high-resolution recording using 96 kHz/24-bit PCM or DSD.
It may be hard for some to accept but a recording made on a 2″ 24-track analog tape machine, mixed to another analog tape and finally mastered to yet a third analog tape master doesn’t begin to compare to the dynamic range available on a 16-bit PCM system…if it matters at all to the producers and engineers. And it gets even better when recording engineers are given additional headroom with 24-bits during sessions. The point is that the “high-resolution audio” albums that are derived from analog tape recordings can only achieve the fidelity of analog tape. I would think this notion would be obvious, but that not what Neil Young, Jay-Z, Sony, and a host of other high-res advocates are saying.
Neil Young has rediscovered the “soul” of music with his PonoPlayer and the music files that he sells at PonoMusic. If you purchase Harvest at 192 kHz/24-bits, are you likely to hear the “soul” of the music over the original vinyl LP? No. There is no sonic information above 20 kHz and the dynamic range doesn’t require anywhere near 24-bits. Neil’s selling very large bit buckets that aren’t even half full. And he’s not alone.
Of the 2 million tracks available on PonoMusic, only about 15,000 are new analog conversions to 192 kHz/24-bit PCM from the analog master tapes. The rest are ripped from CDs, which is a format that Neil railed against as having killed music for decades. Now 44.1 kHz/16-bits (which can sound amazing when done right) is “the highest resolution available” and dominates his catalog. That may be a true statement but it strikes me as deliberately deceptive and vague.
The 192 kHz 24-bit FLAC downloads of analog masters should be called “master quality sources” instead of “high-resolution audio.” The fidelity is as good as we’re ever likely to get. It’s the sound that the artist approved at the mastering studio but it’s not the same fidelity as new high-resolution formats are capable of. It’s only new recordings that are specifically produced to maximize fidelity that will benefit from 96 or 192 kHz sample rates.
Are their artists, engineers, producers, and labels interested in using all of the potential fidelity of the new formats? Yes, but they don’t work with Dave Grohl or Taylor Swift or Georgia County Line. Labels like Norway’s 2L, Channel Classics, Linn Records, Sound Liaison, MA Records, and my own AIX Records achieve amazing results by minimizing dynamic processing and exotic plug-ins. If you haven’t taken the time to hear a real high-resolution audio track, you might want to stop by my daily blog site (realHD-Audio.com) and click on the FREE HD-Audio tracks banner. The music may not be to your taste, but I guarantee you’ll never hear fidelity like this.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Waldrep, Ph.D., is founder, president and chief engineer of the specialty audiophile label AIX Records and iTrax.com. These two companies produce and distribute award-winning, high definition audio/video music recordings on DVD-Audio/Video and Blu-ray discs as well as downloads through the Internet. His most recent project is a new book, “Music and Audio: A User Guide To Better Sound” and accompanying Blu-ray disc. More information can be found at www.musicandaudioguide.com.