If high resolution audio and music industry were honest

July 31, 2020

What if high resolution audio player commercials and high resolution music services were honest? Of course, if people were honest in the hi-res audio business then there would be no 'hi-rez audio' - as nobody would care about hi-res audio players and hi-res music. The article and the title are inspired by the 'honest ads' series from the "Cracked" YouTube channel, especially their parody of cell phone ads:

"I am not really selling you progress. I am selling you the feeling of owning something new and cool."

Before we 'listen' to the testimony of our fictional insider - what the promotions and the press don't tell you - first some notes on the definition of high resolution audio. It's important to distinguish high-resolution audio from high-resolution music: high-resolution audio refers to the playback gear and high-resolution music refers to the recorded music. The definition of high-resolution audio is not too complicated: any gear with better than CD specs (CD: 16 bit / 44.1 kHz) is high-resolution. The definition of high-resolution music is the complicated one, because the full signal chain (ADC, recording & mastering format) has to be high-resolution. Many music sold as high-resolution is far from being hi-res. Even the original specs of high-res music (which is titled high resolution audio) only refers to the quality of the master and not to the quality of the source.

And we have millions of high-resolution audio formats from 16 bit / 48 kHz to 32 bit / 352.8 kHz. Currently the most popular is the 24 bit / 96 kHz and almost everyone means 24 bit / 96 kHz or higher by high resolution audio.

Let me ask you something. How important is it for you to hear the nuances of the original performance when you listen to music? If the answer is very, then let me introduce our new ultra modern Ultra High-Resolution Audio Pocket Box. Listening to music on this Pocket Box allows you to hear the subtle details that you would hear in a recording studio.

So let's discover some details about High-Resolution Audio. Don't be afraid it won't hurt as you don't have to read 500 pages with technical stuff and we can skip the math as well. I have generated nice charts and bar diagrams for you. You can see the difference between MP3, CD and High-Res Audio, don't you? What a difference! Oh, engineers tell me that my representation about digital audio is false... Never mind! Here is my answer for them: they are not audiophiles! And if you still don't understand from my bar charts, then this analogy will get you to the point:

comparing the quality of cd, mp3 and high resolution audio

Well, High-Resolution Audio is not a new technology, but we advertise as a revolutionary breakthrough. We just increased two technical parameters of the CD, the sampling rate and the bit-depth, because we think that the more is better. These formats have been used in studios and mastering for many years and now they are available for everyone.

CD is oldschool, High-Resolution Audio is fresh. Do you want to listen to Morse code or Mozart? Because it makes a difference! Are you a fan of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin or Dave Brubeck? We distribute their music in 24 bits and 96 kHz. Let's stop for a moment. We don't tell you that analog recording technology is limited to 14 bits, because 14 bits is the maximum that you can capture with analog tape machines. The rest of the bits only code noise and raising the number of bits to 24 doesn't add anything to the original. Yes, we sell a large amount of recording noise with music (so we could call ourselves noise and music industry), but you can't hear the noise in the songs due to your auditory system. The music simply hides the noise from your ears - this is what we call masking. And we add 'fade ins' and 'fade outs' so that you don't hear the tape hiss at the beginning and at the end of the songs and we put a nice label on it. Modern digital recording technology is way better, but it still doesn't use the theoretical maximum dynamic range of 16 bits, which is 120 decibels. Well, sometimes we slightly change the recording masters so you can hear the difference between different formats. We like this trick, we like confusion, because confusion is a big part of our business.

And we offer music and players with insane sample rates: 96 kHz, 192 kHz or even 384 kHz. Don't care about that the top of the human hearing range is 20 kHz and when people reach the age of 40 they can't hear tones above 16 kHz. If you are older than 40 then 32 kHz sampling rate is just as good as the 44.1 kHz. There is another shocking truth: there is NO signal above 16 kHz in many music, such as in piano music or chamber music and many classical tunes could be released at 32 kHz without loss in quality. We don't want to inform you about these facts, because we can sell all music in 96k and later re-sell in 192k.

And don't forget to buy the DSD version of your favourite albums. They are mastered differently, so you can hear some difference. Again, this trick with the masters keep the magic alive as long as we want.

We have added lossless 24/96k streaming services to our Ultra High-Resolution Audio Pocket Box. Don't worry about that streaming in 24bit/96kHz is not environment friendly as it consumes much more energy than streaming with a lossy codec. MP3, AAC and Opus are the green technologies for streaming music. High resolution music downloads don't make sense, but high resolution music streaming is silly: waste of bandwidth and energy.

And I have still something important to say. If CD quality is enough for you, then probably you are not true audiophile. In fact we never say that but we've built the entire High End Audio on this logic.

Marketing double-talks

High-resolution audio and high-resolution music downloads are the greatest scams in the history of audio and music industry. This madness was created mainly by well-known mega companies and not by small lunatic audiophile 'garage' companies (which is typical in the snake-oil audio cable business). The first high resolution audio format, the SACD (DSD) was designed to solve those pseudo problems that were attributed to the CD (e.g. filter ringing). DSD encoding is actually worse than high resolution PCM: a digital system with 16 bit resolution and 88,2 kHz sampling rate has similar bandwidth and dynamic range (with noise shaping) at half of the bitrate of the DSD (2.8 Mbps vs. 5.6 Mbps). DSD as a storage format is complete nonsense.

Bitrate and audio quality: Bitrate and audio quality are different things. Increasing the bitrate, bit-depth or sampling rate doesn't necessarily improve audio quality. More is not always better: if the improvement only affects that is outside the human hearing range, then it is irrelevant.

"You need a high-end system to hear the difference between the CD and Hi-Res audio." - an often repeated phrase which is nothing more than a foolish marketing double-talk. It's a bit ironic, that the opposite is closer to the truth. A poor quality amplifier or DAC may respond differently to high-resolution material (since it has higher nonlinear distortion or jitter, or higher distortion of poor quality digital filter) than a high-end gear. The 'side effects' in the electronics may contribute to false positive detection of high-resolution music. However, false positive errors are rare and placebo and confirmation bias are more common in non-blind tests.

Recording technologies and bit-depth (resolution)

An overview of recording technologies and why 24 bit makes no sense:

Technology  Bit-depth  
with noise shaping
70's analog tape records (AAD & ADD)12.79.7
80's analog tape records (AAD & ADD)13.810.8
80's digital tape records (DDD)14.311.3
16 bit/44,1 kHz TPDF dither1613
Modern digital recording with the lowest noise18.215.2
16 bit/44,1 kHz with noise shaping1916

Bit-depth of different recording technologies

Standard bit-depth: the noise floor is compared to the noise floor of a 16 bit/44,1 kHz TPDF dithered system or file. The bit-depth is calculated by converting the difference from decibels to bits. There is an alternative meaning of the 'standard bit-depth'. Let's take for example an analog recording with a noise floor equivalent to a noise floor of a 12 bit/44.1 kHz digital system or file. If this recording is transferred to 24 bit /44.1 kHz and truncated to 12 bits, then the noise floor of the original, the 24 bit version and the 12 bit version will be exactly the same!

Bit-depth with noise shaping: Noise shaping extends the dynamic range with 18 decibels at sampling rate of 44.1 kHz - so the noise shaping lowers the bit requirement with 3 bits.

Modern digital recordings have much lower noise floor than recordings made with an analog tape, however the dynamic range of digital recordings still doesn't exceed the theoretical maximum of 16 bit/44.1 kHz. Probably never will, as no one needs it.

How do digital signals really behave? How does pulse-code modulation actually work?

There is a huge amount of misleading information on the net about how digital audio works. Fortunately, Xiph.Org made a short, but informative video about pulse-code modulation (PCM). The point is that a digital system can behave in exactly the same way as an analog system - without stairsteps and timing errors.

Written by: Csaba Horvath

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