Hi-res audio and the hi-fi press: the problem with honesty

I have posted several articles on the subject of high resolution audio – here, for example. It is a subject that fascinates me. I enjoy music more if it is accurately reproduced, and regard sound quality as something worth paying for, but is it worth investing in high resolution formats such as SACD, DVD Audio, 24/96 and higher FLAC or ALAC (Apple’s lossless audio format); or is it better to concentrate on other parts of the audio chain, on the grounds that even lowly CD and 16/44 capture music with an accuracy close to the limits of what human hearing can perceive?

Many audio enthusiasts swear that high-res formats sound much better; but solid evidence for their superiority as a delivery format is hard to come by, and when you perform simple tests like converting a high-res format into one at CD resolution and comparing the two, it is often (perhaps always) hard to hear any difference. 

High resolution formats are of course a necessity in music production, where the sound will be processed, possibly many times over, before the final master is complete.

Alan Sircom is the editor of the UK audio magazine hi-fi plus. In a frank forum discussion concerning the challenges of editing such a magazine today he makes the following remark:

For all the enmity you and yours have toward the magazine, our biggest potential loss of readers right now is coming from my stance on hi-res. I still maintain that you are paying a premium for microphone thermal noise and – at best – a more careful mastering process. I know a lot of manufacturers of DACs who (privately) agree with me… but have to continue to develop their products from 24/96 to 24/192 to 32/384 to DSD-over-USB because the audiophiles (who, let’s face it, buy our stuff) will not accept anything less. This is a sham, especially as there is a better campaign to be had (something like “brick-wall mastering is worse than brick-wall filtering”, but more pithy). However, the upshot of the excellent exposé of the hi-res game by Hi-Fi News did not cause an army of hi-res-loving audiophiles demanding more from their hi-res, it caused some of them to consider Hi-Fi News ‘hostile’ to hi-res.

If true, this is a depressing situation. The goal of home audio is to achieve the best possible sound at home within your budget, which means investing in the technology that makes the most audible difference. It is not easy to discern what that is though, which is where an independent press has a valuable role to play. According Sircom, that is difficult to do in practice, because of the constraints imposed by the economics of advertising at one end, and a readership which does not always want to hear the truth at the other.

One thought on “Hi-res audio and the hi-fi press: the problem with honesty”

  1. Interesting blog. It seems to me to relate, in some ways, to the idea that vinyl is nicer than CD, because vinyl has lots of unavoidable 2nd harmonic distortion and noise (which, in blind tests back in the 1950s or 60s, Peter Walker or someone showed made music more “acceptable” to listeners). You get similar “improvements” from over-driven valve amps – although no vinyl or valve enthusiast will explain the effect in those terms. I’m sure hi-res audio can be “different” – thermal noise and/or better mastering would achieve that – but is it “better” because of hi-res techniques? “It seems to me that there’s nothing much new in the hi-fi press these days – it has always tended to be corrupted by the needs of the vendor to sell kit! Years ago, HiFi News used too be an honourable exception – perhaps it is again.

    I used to sell hifi, and IMO many of my customers simply wanted the “comfort factor” of following the latest HiFi fad rather than a more insightful musical experience. I’m amazed that people who pursue “super hifi”, hi-res audio or, for example, reconstituted mains current or digital leads with improved “sonic quality” seem profoundly un-interested in the characteristics of the microphones that capture their music or the microphone techniques used in the original recording. Whether or not “hi res audio” is “better”, I suspect that “ordinary” CDs could be improved to similar standards (in practice) simply by utilising the dynamic range CD is capable of; removing automatic limiters etc from the recording chain; and using a simple and sympathetic mic technique – such as carefully-placed crossed cardioids or fig8 mics. If I was asked to prove such statements, I’d resort to properly designed double-blind tests – using techniques which seem to work perfectly well for drug trials etc but, I’m told, can’t cope with anything as important as hifi….

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