So it seems that the audio quality of consumer digital music recordings is once again in the news. This time, musician Neil Young recently revealed that he and Steve Jobs had been discussing a way to distribute "high-quality" digital audio - with a resolution way beyond that of MP3s and other compressed formats, and even CDs - to the masses.
It's not clear if he has a particular technology in mind. Only that he's basically proposing that the audio quality of consumer recordings - and associated playback equipment - be equal to that of the original master recordings. Why? Because, MP3s and other formats are only capable of capturing about "5%" of the audio content in an original recording. And CDs aren't capable of much better at only "15%."
Young has never been a fan of digital audio, much less of MP3s. And, apparently, neither was Steve Jobs, despite having been credited with creating the device - the iPod - that has done so much to popularize compressed audio formats. According to Young, when the late Apple CEO went home to listen to music, he listened to vinyl - not digital files or CDs.
So with such luminaries apparently behind the idea of a new hi-res digital audio format, are we perhaps on the verge of a(nother) revolution in consumer audio? Before getting too carried away it may be helpful to examine some of the premises behind this latest push:
- Digital formats are "degrading" our music quality. The main punching bag here seems to be MP3s and other compressed (lossy) formats. The problem here is that there is no one quality level for such formats, yet most critics treat them all as if they are like the poorly encoded, low-bitrate examples that were ubiquitous when MP3s first became popular. Yet encoders and bitrates have improved to the point now where hard-core audiophiles are hard pressed to tell the difference between lossy (256-kbps) and lossless files in ABX listening tests. This certainly is a far cry from comparing the sound of a former popular portable music format - the cassette tape - to that of the "hi-res" medium of its day - vinyl. The cassette tape didn't ruin consumer audio, and neither will MP3s.
- Digital formats are still technically inferior to analog (vinyl). This myth still appears popular for a couple of reasons: 1.) A subjective preference for the sound and accompanying rituals of vinyl playback leads some to believe that the medium is therefore "objectively" superior, and 2.) a continuing misconception that while CD audio is limited by its Redbook spec of "only" 16 bits and a 44.1-kHz sampling rate, vinyl (and analog) is somehow capable of infinite resolution and is thus technically superior. This is, of course, nonsense. At least Young appears to be pushing for a new digital format, so does not seem to be against digital in general.
- Consumers need/want hi-res audio. What Young is advocating appears to be a hi-res digital format that offers recording studio-level quality - that is, 24-bit, 192-kHz resolution. Yikes. This would require huge file sizes. More important, would it offer any real advantage to consumers - or, as Young puts it, let them hear "real music?" Maybe to those that have a recording studio in their home! Otherwise it's simply overkill. Where are the listening tests that show that hi-res audio is clearly audibly better than the CD format? I'm all in favor of higher-quality audio, but even more so when it can be shown that it actually makes an audible difference!
That said, Young and I would probably agree on one point: When are lossless music files going to be available as downloads from the major music service providers? Just because I may not be able to tell the difference between a 256-kbps MP3 and its lossless version in a blind test doesn't mean I want to be restricted to only being able to download the former. So for now, I'm mostly continuing to buy (used) CDs and encoding them to the lossless FLAC format for my own music library.
And that's the point. High-quality audio is still available - including even hi-res formats beyond CD quality - and isn't going away. In fact, despite the doom crying by Young and some in the media, this latest push for an improved format is evidence in itself that it's more technically feasible than ever to achieve a previously unheard of level of audio quality both in the home and on the go.
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