One of the trends at the International Consumer Electronics Show this year was a renewed push toward better-than-CD quality, high-resolution audio (HRA). In fact, there was even an entire section of the Tech Zone dedicated to “The Hi-Res Audio Experience” and several HRA panels, including one hosted by TWICE’s Joseph Palenchar.
According to the Consumer Electronic Association’s research, consumers are “ready to embrace high-resolution audio.” In fact, the CEA findings indicate that 39 percent of consumers with a moderate interest in audio are willing to “pay more for high-quality audio electronics devices” and nearly 60 percent “are willing to pay more for higher-quality digital music.” Even more impressive is that nine in 10 consumers claim, “Sound quality is the most important component of a quality audio experience.”
That’s all well and good, but does the public at large–specifically our clientele–need, want or even care about HRA?
The interest in better audio seems to be one of those things that is almost cyclical, coming back around with just slightly more frequency than Halley’s Comet. Remember things like Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab’s Ultradisc, DVD-Audio, Super Audio CD, or DTS 96/24?
While I’m personally a big fan of HRA–I have quite a few albums downloaded from hdtracks.com–I think that HRA has quite a few significant hurdles to overcome before it is able to be anything but a niche, audiophile curiosity.
Most people are content to receive their audio fix via streaming services now. Between Sirius/XM, Pandora, Rhapsody, Spotify, MOG, Songza, etc. this is the modern way most people listen. And currently there aren’t any streaming services that support HRA. (A French service called Qobux–unavailable in the States–does offer 16/44.1 quality FLAC files for €19.99/month.) For the public to really care about HRA, it will need to be widely available on the services they use and support. We’re seeing a similar thing happening in video right now with all of the attention that Netflix is getting in its support for 4K video streaming.
There isn’t any shortage of places to go on-line to purchase HRA albums. Between HDtracks, Acoustic Sounds, Blue Coast Music, SuperHiRez, iTrax, and even audio companies like Linn and Bowers & Wilkins, you can quickly fill a cart with as much music as you can afford. And that’s the next big problem: the cost. Most HRA albums cost between $20-25 which seems an extreme upcharge for purchasing data. Compare that to the cost of REM’s album, Murmur which is $24.98 (192/24) at HDTracks versus $9.99 at iTunes or $6.99 for the physical CD at Amazon. Or Miles Davis’ seminal Kind of Blue which will set you back $24.98 (192/24) at HDTracks, but only $6.99 from iTunes or $7.99 for a CD at Amazon. Or hi-res audio darling, Rebecca Pidgeon’s The Raven for $24.98 (176/24) at HDTracks, but $11.99 from iTunes or $9.38 for a CD at Amazon. In almost every case, there is a massive price disparity between HRA files and other versions. Where people will generally pay a few dollars more for a superior product–think of the typical difference in price between a DVD and Blu-ray–they generally won’t pay twice as much.
If you like sonatas, cantatas, and modal jazz, HRA has you covered. If you like listening to orchestras, quintets, sax or trumpet soloists and female vocalists you’ve probably never heard of, then HRA has you covered. If you like a selection of classic rock albums, then you might be able to find a couple HRA downloads to your liking. But if you want to hear anything current you’re likely gonna be totally out of luck. There are a couple of recent albums in the HRA roster, including Katy Perry’s, Prism, $26.98 (44.1/24) at HDTracks versus $14.99 at iTunes or $15.88 CD at Amazon; and Lorde’s Pure Heroine, $17.98 (48/24) versus $9.99 in iTunes or $11.88 at Amazon; but modern music has yet to be readily adopted by HRA.
It would be one thing if you could definitively say that every HRA download purchased would be the absolute best sonic representation of that recording and that despite the upcharge, you definitely got your money’s worth. If each HRA download was the audio equivalent of comparing a pristine 4K studio master to a VHS copy of an old film. But it isn’t. Reading album reviews from The Absolute Sound you regularly come across comments like, “I can’t recommend either SuperHiRez download of this album” or “there’s no getting around the fact that this is a disappointing outing for SuperHiRez” or “of the six new [hi-res] downloads out there, I heartily recommend just one.” Sucks to be the guy that bought one of the other five, I guess… There have also been a lot of complaints that some albums are merely hi-res upconversions of the original, Redbook CD recording and offer nothing in the way of sonic improvements. Without a real way to test or sample a recording prior to purchase, it is another of those things that can leave you with a mouse hovering over “Buy Now” wondering if you’re about to throw $25 into the digital garbage.
Until we enter The Matrix, the end of any audio signal chain will be our ears, and there is a definite limit to what we can hear. And, sadly, that limit only grows as we get older and lose our abilities to hear the highest frequency sounds. Where the “perfect” range of human hearing is often cited as 20Hz to 20kHz, many people over 20 would be hard pressed to hear any meaningful information above 15kHz, as our hearing starts to drop off at that age–few people over 20 hear up to 20,000Hz. And it is these upper frequencies that are supposed to benefit from the HRA’s greater range. There is considerable debate in the field as to whether there is even a need for anything better than CD’s 16-bit, 44.1-kHz resolution, with many claiming that HRA is outright snake oil. (Here is a recent post from CNET that offers several skeptical views on why CD quality is beyond sufficient.) A 2007 study conducted by the Boston Audio Society concluded that listeners couldn’t differentiate between the same recording on a CD and HRA, only correctly identifying the HRA version 49.8 percent of the time out of 554 trials. (Slightly worse statistically than if they had just flipped a coin.) “Our test results indicate that all of these recordings could be released on conventional CDs with no audible difference.” If the majority of listeners can’t hear a marked improvement on a typical audio system, then HRA will never be able to gain any kind of real following.
As purveyors of quality and performance solutions, it’s certainly in our interests to stay abreast of the latest industry developments and to support any technologies that promote and demonstrate better audio and/or video quality. Hopefully HRA will have enough industry and studio support behind it where it will be something that our customers come to us to experience.
John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.