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April 2019
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Senseless Rambling
Did Someone Drop A Turd In The Streaming Music 'PunchBowl'?
Confused about Hi-Res Music formats? So am I.
Editorial By Steven R. Rochlin

 

 

  First I need to say those familiar with my Senseless Rambling articles know there's going to be some streaming thought-processes as this article is written. In fact this article has been written, re-written, thrown away, then reborn, then thrown away again and now once again reborn. Does that make sense? No? Hmmm... and if you felt that was confusing....

The realities of today do not reflect those of tomorrow, or a mere year or three from now when everyone has then-modern 5G and WiFi-6. First let's start off with a bit I wrote so fast that the very kind people of MQA (thanks Sue Toscano), which in hindsight was a bit embarrassing as more editing wasn't done before sending it off to them for a bit of corrections and fact-checking. Below is the bit of this article where Sue and friends with MQA helped out. Have left their edits there in whole, so think of the below bit as a tag-team of writing between myself and MQA.

 

The Future Is MQA
While there may always be debates of exactly what delivers the ultimate in modern sound quality, there is no doubt the MQA format will most probably be the music BUSINESS' choice for the future of Hi-Res Music. This lossy* format may appear alongside 24-bit/192kHz lossless music for newly-released content, however, we all must remember there are decades of older music that was recorded on lower-quality digital formats and analog tape. The sheer power of the music industry is not one to be underestimated.

MQA technology, developed from Bob Stuart's extensive work in high fidelity audio over the past 40 years, has brought us such widely-used technologies including as MLP (the audio standard for Blu-ray now known as Dolby TrueHD). As the co-founder of Meridian Audio, Bob was amongst the first to offer high resolution digital directly to loudspeakers to take advantage of modern digital processing. While this is the norm today in many concert venues and recording studios, it was revolutionary in the nineties.

Decades ago we had high resolution DVD-Audio that basically seemed to go nowhere as Sony's proprietary SACD / DSD format continues to sell today. The same could be said about the industry accepted standard of HD-DVD, as that went to the wayside for Blu-ray movies. If you're sensing a theme here, it is that creating their own formats is a dominating force within the industry today. As the new norm, surely MQA will be working alongside the 256kbps / 320kbps lossy compressed file types being widely available for purchase and streaming of today. Been saying to my Muse / Wife Heather that it feels like life is now running in circles (or Westworld 'loop'). Perhaps one day MQA will be the sole high resolution music format delivered to music lovers worldwide.

MQA began with an idea where higher frequency content was 'folded' into a more bandwidth-friendly delivery format. With little high frequency audio content from 24kHz on up within most recorded music, it makes little sense to employ a codec that delivers these frequencies losslessly, and thus consumes unnecessary bandwidth. Furthermore, other benefits of MQA are a deblurring technique that delivers accurate timing information. Basically, the human ear is highly sensitive to time and phase, and so ensuring the most accurate of digital music's timing is preserved.

While there have already been an abundance of pros and cons, and threads on discussion board about MQA, as the soon to be widely accepted industry standard, there's no stopping progress. One thing is for sure, MQA is better than basic mp3 and other file types that deliver at most 320kbps lossy music. MQA is also better value as music lovers get to hear their fave tunes as the artist intended.

Once Sony** and Apple are fully aboard, MQA will be a dominant force within today's digital / streaming music scene just as Blu-ray and, to a lesser extent, SACD / DSD provide today. MQA might not be the very last music format you'll buy; yet it should provide better sound than CD does today and that is a step in the right direction.

 

*Notes on Lossy/Lossless and MQA-encoding

** Sony Music and Sony hardware are both current partners of MQA.

 

How We (MQA) Work With The Record Labels
Our goal is to bring listeners the sound of the studio and older recordings from the Archive. MQA has sophisticated tools and methods to recover recordings from all eras including cylinder or shellac, analogue tape or digital right up to modern 768 kHz PCM or quad DSD.

Our viewpoint is that 'Resolution' is a concept of Perception, best interpreted in the analogue domain. This pioneering insight is better aligned to listening experience than to digital domain definitions of quality. As a result, we don't include or exclude recorded material on the basis of digital file format or parameters such as sample rate or bit depth. Instead, we focus on temporal resolution, noise stability and analogue blur.

MQA is concerned with one thing only: 'Is this the definitive version signed off by the artist, producer or mastering team?'

MQA provenance recognizes that great music may only be available in early analogue or early digital or Redbook CD format; such recordings, if vouched for by the rights holder, can be marked MQA Studio and enjoy the profound sonic benefits of the MQA chain.

Take a look at what leading mastering engineers think about MQA:

 

 

 

Is MQA Lossless Question
This question often seems to assume that lossless is always best but in fact all "lossless" does is to take some bits and to reproduce those same bits at another time or place. If that's all you wanted to do, FLAC would be fine and there would be no need for MQA. The team behind MQA understand not only lossless compression but also lossless processing and data burying.

There is a fundamental difficulty if we focus solely on strict lossless delivery. It is understood that a digital distribution system (including MQA) can be lossless in distribution and therefore requires lossless delivery. The problem is that the result is not delivered today; current DACs do not have lossless behavior in the digital domain and all behave differently. Also the replay chain has several (sometimes unintended) places where losslessness breaks down.

So MQA is set up to deliver a 'closer-to-lossless' digital path up to the DAC modulator with the goal of approaching analogue-to-analogue 'lossless' within appropriate thermal limits, including protecting the signals above 'acoustic absolute zero'.

 

ADDED NOTE: Thanks again Sue for cleaning up my mess of unedited streaming thoughts. And now some 'unedited' Senseless Rambling from Yours Truly (uh oh!).

 

 

My Feelings And Thoughts Below
Yes my friends, the shit just got real and about to 'spit' some truths that I feel need to be said. Look, truly do not want to write about what you're about to read. If we put our heads in the sand or fingers in our ears while screaming la-la-la-la then you are, in a sense, an accessory to the proverbial murder of the future in streaming high quality music as the artists intended us to hear. And since you've already read this far, have a feeling you truly care about music, perhaps you love it! For some of us, music is a much-needed 'food' that feeds our soul. It is akin to human rocket fuel!

The sheer power of the music BUSINESS is not one to be underestimated. They control what music billions of us hear each day. Make no mistake, they will do whatever it takes to maximize profits too, as companies naturally tend to do to benefit their endeavors (and shareholders). If history is any guide, then yes proprietary schemes 'win' due to... licensing fees (SACD over DVD-Audio for example).

 

So... Where's The Turd Steven?
"(Industry person's name removed) then turned the panel to one of their first major announcements – the creation of yet another definition. Long-time Strata-gee readers will recall the excellent guest post by Len Schneider discussing an earlier announcement regarding the definition of Hi-Res Audio, as well as specific descriptions of music provenance. This original post sparked a vigorous debate among our readers that ran almost 40 posts long."

A great article titled "Dazed and Confused About Hi-Res Audio? Here’s Help…" by Len Schneider and thread well worth your time reading imho. Go on, click this link, a new browser window should open, and when done close that window and you'll be right here where you left off. Len Schneider wrote a wonderful article (many of us within the industry miss you Len).

And now please read "Hi-Res Audio: On the Fast-Track or Stuck in the Mud?" by Ted Green

 

A Tinfoil Hat Might Is Needed
This is just speculation, and perhaps one (logical) conclusion if we're going to play the game of hypotheticals, so get the tinfoil hats ready folks! Did the person(s) who came up with the definition of exactly what many of us assumed to be Hi-Res Music purposefully put a turd in the punchbowl? And what motive would they have in doing so? Originally, upsampled CDs would qualify as Hi-Res Music. IKR!?! Do these people currently work for major music labels? Do they care about the provenance of delivering true high resolution music, or do they care more about what is best for the music BUSINESS?

 

 

Does same entity consult / help / work with MQA too? Tinfoil at-the-ready, was the bar for Hi-Res Music set so low as to basically be a near freebie to whatever most labels already have on-hand? In other words, 24-bit/44.1kHz or upsampled CDs are / could be / was Hi-Res Music and that helps to tout more music titles available in Hi-Res Music versus setting the bar at 24/88 so that proper remastering would need to be done? Of course this remastering has costs, and the music BUSINESS rightly would want to recoup their investment. 

Is upsampled CDs 'fair' to mark as Hi-Res, of course not and so that was solved-ish. We should also remember that some early digital recordings, which might be 'lost' forever in the quagmire between CD's 16/44.1 and 24/88 (i.e. 24-bit/48kHz). Also, whomever is behind writing these specs was incredibly smart in avoiding certain 'hard rules' and, let's ask ourselves this: If a music label breaks these 'rules', are there any penalties for doing so? What we should all understand is that where is / are the incentive(s) into 'getting it right'? Again, remastering costs $$$.

Ok, setting the bar at 24-bit/88kHz might seem to be a big ask for some, yet if Hi-Res Audio hardware must meet 24/96 as a minimum, then 24/88 could be considered a compromise yet at some point we have to get real and say, yes, this sounds stunning even if it is a 'baseline'. Yet with the bar set so very low for Hi-Res Music at what appears to be 'anything better than CD resolution', of course those who truly love music will clamor for something, anything better from a more reliable 'Authenticated' source (MQA).

 

Modern Remastering, The Most Important Factor IMHO
Have a feeling most of you reading this would agree that the importance of modern remastering is far more important than an ever-higher sampling rate. The good news is that, we hope, record labels are no longer just sending upsampled CDs and calling them Hi-Res Music. So if you're going to take the time, energy, and resources to remaster (analog) music you may as well do it at the best / highest ADC (analog-to-digital converter) bit and sampling rate possible. This may be the very last time those old analog tapes can handle the wear and tear, plus aging of magnetic tape is obviously a factor too (material science). Now is the time!

 

We must remember that Hi-Res Music streaming services and sellers generally take the word of record labels and believe whatever file res they send as gospel.

We must remember that Hi-Res Music streaming services and sellers generally take the word of record labels and believe whatever file res they send as gospel.

We must remember that Hi-Res Music streaming services and sellers generally take the word of record labels and believe whatever file res they send as gospel.

 

Yes, many of us are tired of reading analysis of these new Hi-Res Music digital music files being posted to show proof of their low-res reality. Am not being critical about the desire to analyze, yet am saying we're tired am having a nagging feeling to analyze these files to begin with because we're in doubt of the provenance of the music's source to make said Hi-Res Music file. Yes, we audiophiles desire transparency, especially if we're paying more for these Hi-Res Music files and additional costs for that 'Premium / Gold' subscription for Hi-Res Music streaming. And yes high-end audio'ers, it feels like we're back to 'this-or-that' file type is better because it's the circle of audiophile life. In a sense, are we once again stuck in a Westworld loop of new audio formats?

 

Let's carefully read the below:

"Who controls the past controls the future.
Who controls the present controls the past."
― George Orwell, 1984

 

Oops, wrong quote? Sorry about that. Eh hem, let's try this again.

So who helps in influencing music here within the United States of America? According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which is "the trade organization that supports and promotes the creative and financial vitality of the major music companies. RIAA members comprise the most vibrant record industry in the world, investing in great artists to help them reach their potential and connect to their fans. Nearly 85% of all legitimate recorded music produced and sold in the United States is created, manufactured or distributed by RIAA members." RIAA say that "lossless audio capable of reproducing the full spectrum of sound from recordings which have been mastered from better than CD quality (48kHz/20-bit or higher) music sources which represent what the artists, producers and engineers originally intended."

If the source is an upsampled CD to 24-bit/881.kHz, does that qualify as 'better than CD quality 48kHz/20-bit"? Of course not, so we should never expect to have that occur, right? Full spectrum of sound generally means 20Hz to 20kHz we all assume. See, this is where Steven kinda losses his mind (don't you first need to have a mind to 'lose' it?) 

 

If hearing range is widely considered 20Hz to 20kHz, why is it trained listeners swear that upping it to 40kHz or high delivers a better sense of air and extension?

Is this due to bone conduction studies that say we can hear up to 50 kHz (perhaps higher!). Am not going to bore you with my young years of hanging around audiologists, am the curious type after all. On a personal note, perhaps it is because as a percussionist I hear cymbals, crotales, etc live often enough to know true frequency extension. For me, it is not ear training more so than something heard at school in my youth all the way to today within my home for many decades as a musician. Perhaps this is why during the era of CD my ears preferred silk-dome tweeters, whereas now I prefer ribbons / Air Motion Transformers and the like, though am impressed by current generation of beryllium and others that produce frequencies above 20kHz.

 

 

 

As For Formats
There was a massive amount of money generated from licensing the CD format. So remastering did produce additional profit to the music BUSINESS. While many of the younger audiophile hobbyists might not recall living the DVD-Audio versus proprietary SACD saga, and the suddenly cancelled HD-DVD party at CES, yet we know which format 'won'. For the record, I felt HD-DVD would be 'the chosen one' as would DVD-Audio. Errrrt, was wrong on both accounts. So with that in mind, and third time is a charm they say, am picking MQA as the 'winner' for Hi-Res Music due to it being (in a sense) what SACD was at the time it was launched.

Hi-Res Audio does have a get-out-of-jail-free card by simply saying at the very beginning "In principle, the definition of 'Hi-Res Audio' is based on the announcement of Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association (JEITA) on the March 26, 2014."

Saying "In principle" gives a nice guideline, yet perhaps not a hard-and-fast rule. So that's the hardware folks. But, frankly my dear, does it really matter within today's landscape of DAC manufacturing? Nope, not one bit! Or should that be 24 bits? (LOL, itty bitty geek joke). Let's not fool ourselves, as pretty much every modern DAC meets or exceeds JAS' Hi-Res Audio spec, in principle. Virtually all modern DAC chipsets from a variety of vendors available Q1 2019 easily exceeds JAS' specs. This is great news as Hi-Res Audio for a DAC means virtually nothing today since DAC chip specs are already meaningless due to them all able to process natively at 24-bit/192kHz at a minimum.

Many ADC/DACs can do 32-bit/384kHz. If done purely digitally within a DAW or the like, the limit is, well, only in your processing power plus as the software allows (64-bit/786kHz, 128-bit/1536kHz...), yet let's remember that we are limited by the source file. Anything above that is, well, debatable.

 

WARNING: Crazy Idea Senseless Rambling Alert!
Unless we're talking going waaay back to the original multi-track master tape and then 'redoing' all the effects and other processes so the 'raw' original track is recorded with the newly overlaid 32-bit/384kHz plug-in 'effects' in a high bit and sampling rate. That, my friends, could produce an epic 're-master'. Yes, one could argue about limitations of the original 'raw' musical instruments/etc multi-track master tape recording resolution. We audiophiles like to argue over these details, yet at what point is good good enough? None of us old-timers can deny that a higher resolution recording, when recorded and mastered well, tends to sound better than lesser source files. And then we have the romance of the vinyl LP... Sometimes being an audiophile is quite perplexing.

 

So where were we? Oh yeah... JAS' specs are desirable for a minimum 40kHz for speakers, headphones, etc, so that's good news and refreshing . Wasn't that where i was? Perhaps not. Hmmm...

 

Who Cares? Today Virtually No One Knows About Hi-Res
Visit your local mall and ask shoppers about Hi-Res and see what they know about it, if anything at all. Sometimes my Muse/Wife Heather gets a bit embarrassed as she knows I might randomly ask people a question or two if they know about ________. Generally, can't recall anyone saying they know about Hi-Res. Maybe your Apple <cough> genius </cough> knows? Ask them and find out for yourself.

 

If you ignore proper education and marketing, how do music labels expect people to know Hi-Res even exist?

If you ignore proper education and marketing, how do music labels expect people to know Hi-Res even exist?

If you ignore proper education and marketing, how do music labels expect people to know Hi-Res even exist?

 

 

For now, Hi-Res Audio and Hi-Res Music marketing terms lay in a wasteland for most humans on planet Earth. Does this make you scratch your head and wonder what the major recording labels have been doing, are doing now, and why? While we can't change the past, we can demand better for the future. Ah yes, here is where that quote goes:

 

"Who controls the past controls the future.
Who controls the present controls the past."
― George Orwell, 1984 

 

And so if MQA is basically going to 'win' due to there being a better financial benefit to proper remastering and licensing fees, we should demand they use these financial resources to educate the public. Am sure many of us would donate $10 if we knew it went into a pool of funds to promote the benefits / life enjoyment / Fuel via higher quality music.

 

As a side note for this Senseless Rambling article.... Hey, you didn't think you'd read an article by me without... Oh look, a shiny thing! 

 

An 18 Year Young Girl Breaks Steven's Heart
Another factor is that, and to be blunt, some people couldn't give a crap about 'better' sound quality because it seems they don't hear it or they just don't care enough about it. That's a big turd in the punchbowl! As much as it frustrates me to say this, my Muse/Wife Heather's now 18 year old daughter who has lived with us for many years has incredible hearing, loves music, and sings to it multiple times a week while in her bedroom (brings a huge smile to me face). Yet recently we changed TVs upstairs from the aged Pioneer Kuro plasma TV to a 4k Samsung. Yes, a sad day yet the Kuro was getting on in years and this is just a 'minor' setup for her to watch Netflix, play video games, etc. With the Kuro for video display I had ELAC tower floorspeakers hooked up for audio with an amp I had here. A 'more than half decent' system for a teenage girl imho. This point is that for many years she has heard a great little system in her own part of our home, plus of course the Big System within our home's livingroom.

When we swapped to the Samsung 4k video monitor I never hooked up the speakers (long story, I get busy here). After a week or three I went upstairs to ask her something and realized the ELAC speakers were still not hooked into the new TV system. Asking her if she missed the better sound of the ELAC speakers versus the stock Samsung in-TV 'horrortone' speakers, she looked up at me and broke my heart by saying "I don't care, it sounds ok how it is now."

C'mon, how can you compare in-TV speakers to the truly lovely-sounding ELAC towers?!? So yes, not only do I get that some music lovers don't seem to hear (or care???) about sound quality, given the completely cost-free choice for better sound for her music, movies, video games, etc... Heather's daughter didn't care about the sound as long it made some semblance of sound she could hear. Am not sure what this paragraph has to do within the 'gestalt' of this article, yet it is a factor of what those of us who do hear a difference have to respect others not hearing (or caring) about sound quality.

Even when it (painfully) hits home. So yes, an 18 year young girl 'broke my heart'.

 

BTW, am going to show her what's what (because I'm stubborn dammit, no surprise there), as just spoke with dad and he's bringing back my sexy 'vintage' Italian-made Synthesis Naïf Nimis integrated vacuum tube stereo amplifier. These pics don't do it justice to how lovely it is, and when using the knobs, etc it tactiley feel soooooo good to the touch too! Cutest lil' colorful tube amp I have to drive the ELAC floorstanders. Yeah, that'll show her! LOL!

 

 

Anywho
Am still a big believer that bandwidth is a non-issue going forward. As an example, with Verizon's Go Unlimited plan there was data throttling with 4G after you used a certain amount of data (22GB of high-speed 4G LTE data per month, while the Above Unlimited is curbed at 75GB), yet for $10 more a month we can (soon) enjoy 5G's immense bandwidth, low latency, and there will be no data throttling no matter how much bandwidth you consume. Verizon says, "5G data usage with the moto mod is unlimited with no data de-prioritization". Yup, faster Internet speeds with lower latency, no limit on data consumed and no limiting data prioritization.

One of the big problems, imho, is Apple. Sure you may love their devices and how they all work together, yet keep in mind Apple also holds some big-arse keys to the proverbial locked doors for many (mainstream) music lovers. If Apple is not onboard with Hi-Res, then there goes a big opportunity to at least have consumers learning about (and hearing) Hi-Res. Maybe we audiophiles are right now being treated as early adopter Beta testers, and so once solidified with bugs sorted out the music BUSINESS will then start their big push. Wonder how much money they plan to invest into a big Hi-Res push to the general public?

 

"The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."
― Hunter S. Thompson

 

There are so very many changes going on right now within the seedy underpinning of the music industry that who knows where all this will land in the next three years. There's a lot at stake here, and if history is our guide the codec with the most financial benefit to the music BUSINESS will win over a royalty-free and open-source codec. We do indeed live in interesting times.

What is the root of all evil today according to Pink Floyd?

 

Sadly, there is no 'happy ending' to this Senseless Rambling article for today. Let's hope Q4 2019 or during 2020 will bring good news and (some) stability to the fragmented and ever-changing music BUSINESS of today.

 

I Have An Idea! MQA 2.0
While I highly commend MQA for doing things losslessly during the remastering chain, how about we skip the compression scheme and go right to lossless now... or better still offer both! At least offer true lossless as an option like is done in apps where you can choose the streaming rate of your music for Wi-Fi and cellular. Or are we to wait for MQA 2.0 Lossless after a few years when MQA of today has run its course and there's yet another opportunity to once again (re)sell / offer you what you already had yet want 'better'? Think of it like the two or five times you have (re)purchased Dark Side Of The Moon or Kind Of Blue. The problem there is old-school buying / owning music is not what many/most kids today generally do. Let's plan ahead today for a better tomorrow. Pretty please with sugar on top and a cherry do not wait many years for MQA 2.0, go ahead and release the very best true lossless remastered music you can right now! I double-dog dare you :)

Qobuz offers some 24-bit/96kHz and higher lossless music files. My heart wants Qobuz to get the nod, yet my deep frustration makes me saying today that virtually anything is better than MP3 / AAC 320kHz; even CD resolution is a step up for many who might not have never heard a CD(!). So yes, there's an internal struggle going on inside of me. Considering I was wrong about HD-DVD and DVD-Audio, am going to pick MQA for the win this time around. They say third times a charm. Only history will once again prove if I'm a three-time loser, or for once got lucky.

Even the losers get lucky sometimes.

Insert Tom Petty song running through your mind here :)

 

 

 

"Writing is the flip side of sex – it's only good when it's over."
– Hunter S. Thompson

 

 

 

 

After many decades of enjoying music via hi-fi gear, have grown tired of living in a loop of audio formats. Today am a bit more than three decades away from truly playing the real thing, so am moving back to making music of my own via an extensive percussion / drum kit (still being built). It's pure Madness!

 

As always, in the end what really matters is that you...

 

Enjoy the Music,

Steven R. Rochlin

And I find it kinda funny, I find it kinda sad
The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had
I find it hard to tell you, I find it hard to take
When people run in circles it's a very very
Mad world, mad world

Enlarge your world...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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