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September 2014
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Getting Realistic About Hi-Res Audio
Article By Craig Allison

 

  Anyone who peruses the AV press knows that these days there is a lot of energy behind improving the median level of sound quality available to the public, with master tape grade downloads originating from a number of websites , most noticeably David Chesky's pioneering HDtracks. As well, Neil Young's high-res Pono player and their eventual matching music service are imminent: I'll predict success, that's all there is to say now. The public has already shown significant interest regardless of the inevitable start-up holes in the Pono cheese. Given the horrendous state of mass market music sound quality since low rate MP-3 and the "loudness wars" took over, we can definitely say that there are now hi-res flowers growing in the garbage dump. If enough flowers grow and are tended, it won't be a garbage dump anymore; that's my pet analogy on the subject.

But I am troubled by the critic and nay-sayers who publicly state that only certain types of flowers should be allowed to grow under the hi-res banner. This precipitous time for public audio progress is not a time for nit-picking due to vested interests; a "Big Picture" perspective is needed, and here comes mine after 30 years designing and vending high-end stereo systems and also a parallel career as a performing musician and recording artist. Once you've had the opportunity to visit a good studio and hear an original master tape, your ears will quickly understand that the freight train of audio has arrived at the station. Maximum bandwidth, big dynamic swings, beaucoup spatial information and natural tonality come along for the ride. But when it's consumer format time, be it CD, vinyl, cassette, or any of the playback formats we've enjoyed for most of our lives, the whole freight train has to be squeezed into the dining car! From one viewpoint, it's amazing that we all gotten so emotionally and financially involved with these limited signal capacity formats.

But now, today, 2014, we have the Holy Grail of audio increasingly available to us; you can download and play the music in it's original, master tape quality , and the hair WILL go up on your back the first time you re-discover the favorite music you know well. Computer audio has really grown up, and the hardware needed to bring this experience to your house can be had from price-points low to high, depending on which shelf you shop on. So with all this true progress, not hype, why are we hearing semantically-based arguments that when we hear "First Gen" quality, it still might not qualify as hi-res?

I answer this question with two of my own. First of all, what more can we possibly ask for than first generation audio quality? Yes, you can never get all the way to the wall, but a few centimeters is way, way better than 3 feet. As for physical formats, we have three that have unlimited signal capacity for all intents and purposes: SACD, which will be around for some time, DVD-Audio, which died stillborn and probably kept SACD from gaining wider acceptance, and the fledgling, Pure Audio Blu-ray discs as well. (I have three of these; first gen sound all the way.)  My second question admittedly has a bit of a bite to it. To all the fussy listeners who cut their teeth on vinyl and CD, say, Hi-Res, does it sound good enough yet for you to listen, or is there still some problem? Why make a problem out of those lovely flowers sprouting in the garbage dump?

Throw all these ingredients into the soup pot of interest, and what do you get? Public confusion is without a doubt perhaps the single most toxic element possible. When the public is confused, they either do nothing or simply keep to their existing habits; Apple gets richer for selling mediocre sound quality used only for background music. I can see it now; an uninitiated wants to buy music in a hi-res format, but has no idea what that means. Internet radio stations advertise 128kbps MP-3 as 'high-def'. Most music is also available in CD or MP-3 form, so if someone does not have a good grasp of  audio realities, they may feel they wasted their money, which no one (well, most folks anyway,) cannot afford to do.

Ok, there is still a bit too much computer fiddling needed to get the planets lined up optimally, but that is improving rapidly. But what should be rubber-stamped into the public is a very simple equation: First Gen = best sound possible = High-Res. Repeat: First Gen = best sound possible = High-Res, easily understood, eh?

Asking for the public to understand any more than that as a reason to go hi-res is a very bad idea, Big-Picture-wise. Go to any high-end audio show and you will hear Louie Armstrong. Yes, the tapes are old and analog, but strip away all the layers of crud and you will have an amazing experience. So what is this; semi hi-res? Cut me a break. Decades of public contact selling good hi-fi and playing live music have taught me a few things. All the advanced knowledge and understanding in the world will do you no good until it can be explained simply, in a way that virtually everyone can understand. This is the flop or fly of it all.

As a recording artist who paid for perfectionist recording methods and was radically fussy about master tape transfer to both vinyl and CD (I'm still a transfer freak today; only identical is identical,) I'll put it this way. Both my LP and CDs have been lauded for exceptional sound quality, and that's no brag, it was like having a baby, pain and joy in equal measure. Yes, they both sound excellent, but as good as they each sound, in my mind I am still comparing an expanded dining car to the whole freight train! Why? Because as I said above, once you've heard and felt high-grade master tape sound, you'll never forget it.

I strongly encourage ending all arguments about what constitutes hi-res audio. Once you hear this quality sound in your home, you won't be asking about 'provenance,' I'm sure. And in a short time, your ears, the most acute aural instrument in the known universe, will readily identify the audible difference first gen playback allows w/o any thought whatsoever except "This is dynamite."

For once in this twisted industry, let's be sensible or we will kill the future of great sound/great music in the traditional fashion of industry stupidity. First Gen=Best sound possible = High-Res. Frankly, I'd abandon any label that has the word 'high' in it. The public has been triple-pasted with that misleading term. How about "First Gen Sound." Who could ask for anything more? That's a lot of flowers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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