Thoughts on Hi-Res Music and Audio – An Insider’s Perspective

Let me start by saying I have deep respect for all music and audio lovers and their various points of view. There is nothing in my experience more personal or varied than taste in music and sound, and one aspect of our shared passion is that we debate and argue approaches and results. In the end, we all get to enjoy the sound and hopefully have a good time.

I have been following and working with this passion for some decades now and have had a ringside seat for many of the changes in audio formats we have all seen and heard in these years. My conclusion remains that if the sound and music delight you, I am happy and there is no “wrong,” even if it is fun sometimes to fight about it.

I operated a retail audio store in the 1970s, worked for CBS/Pacific Stereo, went on to be a manufacturer’s rep and had the honor of working for Denon during the birth of the Compact Disc. I was the vice president of the Compact Disc Group and did a lot of work on birthing this first effort in consumer digital audio. Not everyone liked, or likes, digital audio, but it has enabled many more people to listen to more music in more places at more times than ever before. That is a fact even if your love is analog and you listen to tapes or spin vinyl.

In the 1980s Denon had the chance to record the first performance at the rebuilt Semperoper (Semper Opera House) in Dresden, bombed to the ground in World War II and rebuilt in 1985. It was a performance of Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz.

I had the honor of knowing and working with Dr. Takeaki Anazawa, the builder of the first digital audio recorder, who oversaw this recording work. It was a very revealing recording even by today’s sonic standards. You see, after we did the first live recording we realized there was unwanted noise in the mix.

It turned out that the sound of the air mover in the HVAC system could be heard during the recording and so it had to be done over with the HVAC system turned off, which meant the recording was done in a more heated and stuffier environment. None of the engineers had considered this, as in their normal previous practice this sound would have been lost in the noise floor of the recording. However, these new 16-bit recorders offered much wider dynamic range and so revealed this sound, unwanted or not. Anazawa told me then it would take 30 years for the entire engineering and production chain to learn what they now had to work with in this new digital recording medium. How prophetic a prediction that was.

An early digital recorder, the Mitsubishi X-850.

One of the technical benefits of digital audio was that it promised almost no noise and the widest dynamic range, unmatched by analog audio and its associated limits – benefits that were independent of anyone’s audio preferences for either format. However, digital also allowed producers and engineers to record at ever-higher levels without distortion. Perhaps this was part of what Anazawa had warned about and at first it led to loud, then ever-louder recordings. The loudness wars that have followed have been with us for most of the last 30 years as producers have sought ever-louder tracks in the effort to attract listeners’ attention. Too bad.

Digital technology has evolved and changed over the years, now giving us up to 24-bit resolution, but also spawning lossy formats such as MP3 (derived from the MPEG 1 and MPEG2 Video standards (actually MPEG Audio Level 3). These formats are remarkable in ways both good and bad. Good in that MP3 enabled the commercial practicality of portable digital players such as the iPod and others that have allowed listening to digital audio on the go, with the ability to listen to and instantly access thousands of songs.

The advent of MP3 and other formats such as AAC also came with the (amazing from a technical standpoint when you really dig into it) perceptual coding that, while allowing us to recognize and often enjoy the music, did so by throwing away 75 – 95 percent of the data. A compressed file is simply not the original and depending on the recording, may sound quite different from the original, regardless of whether you enjoy hearing it.

This change in the quality of what people listened to can be said to have resulted in more than a generation of music lovers becoming acclimated to listening to often poorly produced and recorded sound, sometimes not well-produced to begin with and then even further degraded by truncating the data by converting it to a compressed audio format. We gained music everywhere, but somehow lost the original sound and the ability to hear it at its best – as many of you readers know well. That said, I do not indict compressed sound per se. It has resulted in the availability of a remarkable amount of music. However, as a tradeoff music buyers and owners are being shortchanged.

During all of this period digital recording technology and techniques have continued to improve, and we can now enjoy listening to high-resolution digital audio. Today, studios commonly record at a 24-bit depth with sampling rates up to 192kHz. We know that 32/384 is in the on-deck circle and the quality of high resolution digital recording is truly stunning using the best approaches that have been developed. Just listen to some of the impressive work from Ray Kimber or Mark Waldrep and his AIX Records.

Many artists, producers and engineers have caught on to the benefits of hi-res. Dr. Dre became well aware that his fans were not hearing what he created for them in the studio, and the same for Snoop Dogg to name just two examples. While you may or may not listen to their music, you should know they and other artists have become very serious about hi-res audio and spend hundreds of hours in the studio making the sound just so, for the benefit of their listeners. Fans want to hear the artists’ sonic vision and hear it at its best.

Around six years ago enough artists and producers started talking about hi-res audio enough to get things really moving. Perhaps it was the popularity of Beats headphones, and although I do not prefer their sound, at least some of the Dr. Dre and producer Jimmy Iovine-driven initiative behind Beats was to get listeners to hear better sound, imperfect as that sound might be. Whatever the reason, the move toward hi-res was born.

Starting about 2010 I attended multiple events that demonstrated these considerations. In one studio session, the engineer and producer for Norah Jones’ hit “Don’t Know Why” ran synched tracks from various streaming services and at various bit rates from low-res MP3 to higher-res (320bps) MP3 up through CD-quality and to the original Hi-Res Audio feed right off the mixing console. In this case, the differences were stark and extremely revealing. We in the audience heard not only the “air” around the music and heard the image expand, but what was mixed as background sounds resolved into what we could distinctly hear as individual backup singers and instruments. (Keep in mind that will not always be the case as not all recordings are this complex, or sadly, well done.)

At another session at Jungle City Studios NYC we heard from a field of engineers and producers including Mark Waldrep and many other luminaries, who were involved in the remastering of Stevie Wonder’s classic Innervisions album. The CD version sounded dead compared to the original vinyl record, but with the hi-res digital remastering using up-to-date techniques, not only was the “life” that was heard on the original vinyl restored to the sound, it was now available in a format that could be accessed and heard on multiple devices and on the go.

Jungle City Studios, New York. (Also featured in article header image.)

Many have suggested or insisted that 16-bit, 44.1kHz CD sound quality is good enough. But keep in mind that the very term “CD quality” sound has lost much of its meaning over the years, as even the most execrable equipment using very lossy sonic approaches has sometimes been labeled “CD quality” by disingenuous marketing types. In order to promote something better the industry agreed to use the terms hi-res audio and more informally, hi-res music for formats that have a greater than 16/44.1 resolution.

There are endless arguments about the best approaches to hi-res audio, the ability for listeners to hear the difference, whether FLAC or WAV files are the best to use as source files, what sampling rates are needed, if the bit depth matters and much more. There remain arguments about what hi-res really is at its core. And of course, that hasn’t stopped some companies from turning out poorly-produced “hi-res” recordings. All of these considerations are interesting and valid to some extent, but for me none of them approach the main reasons why hi-res is important.

When the iPod and other portable players were first introduced, MP3 and other compressed audio formats were needed because the limited storage capacity of the players. Using uncompressed audio files would have meant 30 songs in the pocket instead of hundreds, but today storage costs are negligible and processors are much faster so on-the-go listeners can also enjoy hi-res audio thanks to portable players from Astell & Kern and others. Also, more listening than ever is being done through streaming services, and should those listeners be denied hearing the “real thing” when hi-res audio is available?

Some argue you cannot hear the difference between hi-res and other formats. Some say you must have a very good audio system to get the full benefit of hi-res. (I would say of course you should.)

But I think the real reason for hi-res is about “getting what you paid for” when it comes to hearing the music. Would you be happy with reading an edited book with pages and sections missing? Are CliffsNotes good enough? And what if you do get that upgraded gear? Will you want to listen to lesser-quality audio files through your revealing equipment? Whatever the situation, in my view hi-res audio means being able to hear the music the way it was meant to be heard.

Hearing an audio format that is faithful to what came off the mixing board in the recording studio is a great leap up in sound quality. We have never had that before, and now services like Qobuz, Deezer, Tidal and Amazon are bringing us there or close to it. Whether you hear the difference or not, whether the recording or performance requires it, whether you have the correct gear or not, now people are able hear the “real thing” in all its musical glory.

A few final thoughts: It is true that many of the hi-res files now available are derived from older recordings. It is also true that many of these recordings were originally done in analog, or are recorded at 16- or 20-bit. What is also true is, as discussed earlier, many of these digital recordings suffered from poor recording techniques, as Anazawa presciently pointed out. As a result, today many of these older recordings have been reproduced in hi-res by going back to the original master recordings and remastering and fixing many of the sonic problems. Is “improving” the originals good or bad? I say it is good, because new listeners and those who listen via hi-res streaming will enjoy the benefits of what has been learned and adopted.

With all that said, I think it’s healthy to continue to talk about, even argue about the way forward in digital audio technology. Like discussing fine wine, we may never agree, but the discussions will hopefully be productive. And who knows how far hi-res audio may continue to evolve?

Now I am going to listen to Qobuz some more, as their selection of hi-res recordings is much bigger than mine!

 

Robert Heiblim is co-founder and principal of BlueSalve Partners, specializing in consumer electronics product development, marketing, consulting and other areas. He is the Chairman of the Audio Division, and also Chair of the Business Council of the Consumer Technology Association and a CTA board member.

Mr. Heiblim has more than 35 years of industry experience and has worked with clients including AT&T, Sony, Panasonic/Matsushita, Best Buy, Harman International, Sonance, Klipsch, D&M Holdings and numerous others. Previously, Mr. Heiblim was CEO of etown.com, president of KH America and president of Denon Electronics. He served as the Audio Division Chair for the then EIA/CEG (CEA) and as Vice-President of the Compact Disc Group that facilitated the move to CD and consumer digital audio technology. Heiblim continues to work on developing digital technologies.