The Move to Make Hi-Res Mainstream

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The Move to Make Hi-Res Mainstream

The consumer-electronics industry and the record companies see high-resolution digital audio as an opportunity to deliver better sound quality to music listeners, and thus attract a larger audience. Toward that end, Sony, Universal Music Group, the Digital Entertainment Group (DEG), and the Engineers and Producers Wing of the Academy for Recording Arts and Sciences (the Grammy folks) held a symposium on high-res audio on June 1 in the fabled Capitol Records Studio A. The studio’s hallways were lined with photos of artists who recorded in the studio over the last 60 years, including Sinatra, Dean Martin, Dylan, The Beach Boys, Judy Garland, Zappa, and countless others.

The event was kicked off by Marc Finer, Senior Director of the DEG, who introduced famed producer (and now President of Blue Note) Don Was. From Was’ perspective, delivering music in hi-res is an important step in connecting the artist with the listener. He noted music’s powerful ability to communicate, and even to change people’s lives. Blue Note has been at the forefront of hi-res, digitizing its entire catalog in consultation with Blue Note engineer Rudy Van Gelder.

We were shown the Consumer Technology Association’s latest market research on music listeners, which indicated that a surprising percentage of the general public rank sound quality as an important attribute of audio equipment or music format. In a survey of 8000 consumers who were asked “What feature would motivate you to pay for a streaming service?” the number one response was “sound quality.” Finer noted that music fans pay large amounts of money to attend concerts—so price is not the primary concern of music consumers. Moreover, he noted that the Sony hi-res listening stations at Magnolia retail locations had been so successful that they are expanding the program.

The industry has responded with a pair of logos to designate music as “hi-res” (defined as a minimum sample rate of 48kHz with 20-bits of resolution), and audio hardware capable of conveying hi-res music. Sony is leading the charge into high-res players, demonstrating during the symposium a wide range of hi-res portable and home players along with the world’s first in-car hi-res player, the RSX-GS9. The latter was demonstrated in what had been the “Magic Bus,” an over-the-top car-audio system designed and built by Jon Whitledge. Sony and Whitledge have joined forces to demonstrate Sony products in the Magic Bus, now emblazoned with Sony graphics.

The technical, artistic, and business elements of the recording industry appear to be aligning behind hi-res. During a panel called “The Prospects for Hi-Res Music,” the panelists were unanimous on the need to move beyond standard-resolution digital. The panelists included Jim Belcher (VP of Technology and Production at Universal Music Group), Maureen Droney (Managing Director of The Recording Academy Producers and Engineers Wing), and Nate Albert (Executive VP of A&R at Capitol Records). All expressed the need for delivering better sound quality to listeners. Belcher noted that UMG has been transferring its catalog to hi-res (192/24) for some time. When asked about Master Quality Authenticated (MQA), Belcher said that the sound quality was “very good” and that the format “could be viable for streaming,” but added that UMG was not ready to make an announcement regarding MQA. Belcher noted that UMG’s embrace of hi-res was driven by consumer demand for better sound quality. All the panelists agreed that delivering liner notes and information about the recording was of paramount importance. Liner notes engage listeners more deeply with the artist, and provide a path for discovering new music. Still, conveying that information to listeners is a technical challenge.

After the panel discussion we separated into groups and listened to Sony’s latest hi-res players, the Sony/Whitledge Design car system, and then to various transfers of the same recording. In the Capitol Records’ control room we heard four different versions of an old mono Sinatra track, each taken from a different era (vinyl, CD, remastered CD with noise removal, and a 192/24 hi-res file). The CD and remastered CD were the worst, with the hi-res file sounding infinitely better than any of the others. The difference in sound quality was stark.

The take-home message from the day is that the record labels see sound quality as an important factor in engaging listeners with music, and with expanding their business. With the labels behind hi-res, and affordable and ubiquitous hi-res hardware from the electronics giants, the future may be bright for music enthusiasts.