From The Editor: The Tipping Point

Music servers and computer audio
From The Editor: The Tipping Point

High-resolution digital audio is rapidly approaching a tipping point. No longer a niche format for audiophiles, high-res is poised to become a mainstream alternative to MP3 and CD-quality audio. As I noted in my editorial in Issue 238, the major hardware manufacturers, music labels, and the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) have joined forces to educate the public about the more compelling listening experience that higher-resolution offers. A lot has happened in the six months since I wrote that editorial. Most significantly, the high-res download service Pono Music from Neil Young was launched with massive media exposure. The response to the Pono Kickstarter campaign was instant and overwhelming; Pono surpassed its $800,000 target in a few hours, and as of this writing has raised $6.2 million from more than 18,000 backers. Music fans clearly want a better listening experience and are willing to pay for it.

To illustrate just how far high-res has transitioned from the audiophile fringe into the mainstream, Sprint just announced a smartphone with high-res capability. The HTC One (M8) Harman Kardon edition can not only store and play high-res files (up to 192kHz/24-bit), but has been designed with an emphasis on sound quality. With a 192/24 DAC, dedicated headphone amplifier and premium Harman Kardon headphones, a circuit developed by Harman Kardon that improves the quality of older compressed files, and up to 160GB of storage, the Sprint phone is aimed at bringing high-res to the mass market. It’s as much an audio product as a phone. Sprint is also offering six months of free Spotify with the HTC One along with Sprint Sound Sessions, a package that includes premium streaming music services, a music store, and advanced access to new releases. Is there anything more mainstream than a Sprint mobile phone?

This move to make high resolution simple and ubiquitous is great news for audiophiles who want to tap into a large catalog of high-res music. There is, however, one potential pitfall; in the rush to meet the demand for high-res music the record companies are tempted to cut corners. Specifically, some “high-resolution” releases are nothing more than standard-resolution files that have been upconverted from the 44.1kHz/16-bit CD master to 96kHz/24-bit. Others were recorded or mastered in the days before high resolution, when 48kHz/16-bit was the professional standard (roughly 1980 to the mid-1990s). Although these standard-resolution files can be improved by upsampling, they don’t approach high resolution’s potential. Once a signal has been in the 48kHz/16-bit domain, it is forever and inexorably limited in sound quality—no matter that the file you downloaded is called “high resolution” and your DAC indicates that it’s receiving a 96kHz/24-bit datastream.

It’s obvious why some record companies have resorted to upsampling some CD masters to a high bit rate and calling the file “high resolution.” The cost and effort to upsample an existing 44.1kHz/16-bit file to 96kHz/24-bit is trivial. But to go back to the original source and remaster the title in true high-res is orders of magnitude more expensive and time-consuming. (For the record, I consider analog tape a high-resolution medium, and high-bit-rate files made from those analog tapes are truly high resolution.)

This practice, though limited in its scope today, is short-sighted and detrimental to the music, the artist who created it, the download sites, the consumer, and ultimately to the mainstream acceptance of high resolution. If listeners pay a premium for a high-resolution experience and that experience is disappointing, they will conclude that high-res isn’t worth the greater expense, longer download times, and increased storage requirements.

Although it’s easy to point the finger at the download sites, the problem is really with the record companies. The download sites are merely the retailers, reselling whatever files the record companies supply to them. It would be virtually impossible for the sites to investigate the provenance of every title they receive. It’s safe to assume, however, that high-res downloads from audiophile labels sold by an audiophile-oriented site are what they claim to be. But those titles will be a sliver of the market once high-res becomes ubiquitous. For high-res digital audio to engender mainstream consumer demand, the high-res experience must be universally and demonstrably better than standard definition across all titles and all distribution sites.

The last 20 years of exceptional technical progress have, ironically, been accompanied by a steady decline in the quality of music delivered to consumers. We’re now at the tipping point where that trend could be reversed. But the step forward is not a fait accompli. Let’s hope that the record companies recognize this monumental opportunity and deliver all that high-res has to offer.