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HRA: Hi-Res Audio, Hard Road Ahead?

Posted on April 10, 2014 at 12:55 AM

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.



 

Streaming

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.


Price
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


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Categories: April 2014, Music

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1 Comment

Reply Michael Riggs
6:18 PM on April 14, 2014 
The most important consideration should be that "high-resolution audio" is unnecessary. If, for example, you create a CD from a 192-kHz/24-bit master without tinkering with the audio in any way other than the conversion to 44.1-kHz/16-bit format, the CD will sound exactly like the master. A couple of friends of mine proved this a few years ago, by means of double-blind comparisons and presented their findings in a paper published in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society. Speaking personally, about 20 years ago I had an opportunity to listen to 96-kHz/24-bit masters produced by an audiophile record label through a signal chain that included a dCs processor that enabled us to change the sampling rate and bit depth on the fly. We had to take the word length down to 13 bits to get an obvious change in sound quality. I did think a couple of times that I could hear a tiny change in the character of cymbals when we dropped the sampling rate down to 44.1 kHz (but not 48 kHz), but if it was real, it was elusive. Given how digital audio works, this should not be surprising. Raising the sampling rate extends the frequency range that can be reproduced, but that's all it does. It doesn't improve the sound quality at lower frequencies. With modern converters, a 44.1-kHz sampling rate gets you to almost 22 kHz -- a frequency a small number of people may be able to hear when they are very young. Few people above the age of 30 have appreciable hearing above 16 kHz or so. Increasing the bit depth lowers the noise floor and thus increases the available dynamic range, but again, that is all it does. (More technical explanation of why all this is so available on request. A key point, though, is that digital-to-analog conversion is not a connect-the-dots process. A properly dithered CD-quality audio stream is indistinguishable from an extraordinarily clean and accurate analog audio stream.) Room noise, microphone noise, mixing-desk noise, and other noise sources make it very, very difficult to achieve a recorded dynamic range that exceeds that afforded by CD, even if you actually wanted it. In practice, you probably don't. CD allows a dynamic range of almost 98 dB, which is already way wider than people are comfortable with in a domestic setting. Going to 20 bits allows reproduction of a range from just perceptible to threshold of pain. A 24-bit dynamic range (if it were actually achievable) would allow a dynamic range that could cause instantaneous, permanent deafness if actually exploited. It's not possible, however, to make an A/D converter that can deliver an actual dynamic range beyond 22-bit-equivalent at room temperature; you'd have to run it in liquid nitrogen to get the thermal noise down. So the whole 24-bit thing is kind of a joke from the get-go. This is not to say that HRA recordings don't often wound better than their commercial CD equivalents. My friends who did the careful comparison noted this, but also that the reason seems to be that the HRA tracks were mastered differently, apparently on the assumption that the consumers would care more about sound quality than perceived loudness. So we don't really need HRA, just something more along the lines of the original Mobile Fidelity concept applied to CDs and compressed audio files. There is no technical reason a 256-kbps AAC file should not be nearly indistinguishable by ear from a 192-kHz/24-bit original.