Before We All Move to High-Res Audio, There’s One Thing We Need to Do First

Having experimented with listening to High-Res audio over the last few weeks, I’m a convert. A return to proper high-fidelity!

I will, however, point out something rather odd: the best-sounding High-Res music I’ve heard come from records made prior to 1990. Why? Because beyond that is when record companies started screwing up the mastering process. Too much compression let to the Loudness Wars, which have ruined the sounds of many carefully-crafted rock records.

High-Res audio is only as good as the source material. If it’s mastered in a shitty way, High-Res is only goin to amplify that shittiness.  How odd that records made 25, 30, 35 years ago sound better than what we get today.

Which brings me to this article forward by Steve:

The audiophile world (small niche though it is) is buzzing with a renewed interest in high resolution audio, now to be known as HRA.

See, for example, Why the Time is Right for High-Res Audio, or Sony’s new Hi-Res USB DAC System for PC Audio, or Gramophone on At last high-resolution audio is about to go mainstream, or Mark Fleischmann on CD Quality Is Not High-Res Audio:

True HRA is not a subtle improvement. With the best software and hardware, a good recording, and good listening conditions, it is about as subtle as being whacked with a mallet, and I mean that in a good way. It is an eye opener. In lieu of “is that all there is?” you think “wow, listen to what I’ve been missing!” … The Compact Disc format is many good things but high-res it is not. It has a bit depth of 16 and a sampling rate of 44.1 kHz. In other words, it processes a string of 16 zeroes and ones 44,100 times per second. Digitally speaking, this is a case of arrested development dating back to the early 1980s. We can do better now.

As an audio enthusiast, I would love this to be true. But it is not. Fleischmann appears to be ignorant of the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem, which suggests that the 16-bit/44.1 kHz CD format can exactly reproduce an analogue sound wave from 20–22,050 Hz and with a dynamic range (difference between quietest and loudest signal) of better than 90Db.

Keep reading. Then you can learn how the Loudness Wars are screwing things up for Dave Grohl.  See what I mean?

But hold on: is the whole High-Res thing a scam from the get-go? One story says that even Neil Young’s own engineers aren’t sure if Pono sounds better than anything else.  And then Gizmodo really went to town on the technology.

Neil Young’s “high resolution” PonoPlayer goes on sale for $400 today. You shouldn’t buy it. The recalcitrant rocker isn’t wrong for wanting to reclaim audio quality in the digital age, but in the service of that goal he’s peddling junk science, and supporting expensive gear and music files you don’t need.

The story goes on to say that High-Res audio isn’t any better than CD quality. Oh, the sampling rates may be higher, but the human ear can’t sense any different in audio quality.

I beg to differ, though. I’ve actually done blind A/B testing and in the absence of all confirmation bias, I was able to pick out the file with the higher sampling rate every single time. As far as I’m concerned, this isn’t “junk science.” But hey, your ears may differ.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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