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July 2016
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A Meta-Analysis Of High Resolution Audio Perceptual Evaluation
Article By Joshua Reiss


About the Author
Joshua ReissJoshua Reiss is a British author, academic, inventor and entrepreneur. He is best known for his work in intelligent audio technologies and his co-authorship of the book "Audio Effects Theory Implementation and Application". Reiss holds degrees in Physics and Mathematics, and a PhD in Chaos Theory. He has been an academic with the Centre for Digital Music in the Electronic Engineering and Computer Science department at Queen Mary University of London since 2003, holding the position of Reader in Audio Engineering, and Visiting Professor at Birmingham City University. Reiss is an Enterprise Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering[6] and has been a governor of the Audio Engineering Society from 2013 to present.



There is considerable debate over the benefits of recording and rendering high resolution audio, i.e., systems and formats that are capable of rendering beyond CD quality audio. We undertook a systematic review and meta-analysis to assess the ability of test subjects to perceive a difference between high resolution and standard, 16 bit, 44.1 or 48 kHz audio. All eighteen published experiments for which sufficient data could be obtained were included, providing a meta-analysis involving over 400 participants in over 12,500 trials. Overall, the results showed a small but statistically significant ability of test subjects to discriminate high resolution content, and this effect increased dramatically when test subjects received extensive training. This result was verified by a sensitivity analysis exploring different choices for the chosen studies and different analysis approaches. Potential biases in studies, effect of test methodology, experimental design and choice of stimuli were also investigated.


1. Introduction
High resolution audio may be loosely defined as those systems and formats that are capable of rendering beyond standard quality audio, i.e., more than 16 bits, and/or more than 44.1 or 48 kHz sample rate, as used in Compact Disc (CD) or 'ordinary' Digital Video Disc (DVD) quality audio. Yet many believe that this standard quality audio is sufficient to capture all perceivable content from live sound. This question of perception of high resolution audio has generated heated debate for many years. Although there have been many studies and formal arguments presented in relation to this, there has yet to be a rigorous analysis of the literature.

By analysing the data from multiple studies, it should be possible to come up with more definitive results concerning the perception of high resolution audio. For instance, several tests used similar methodologies and so it might be possible to pool the data together. In other cases, data is provided on a per subject level, which could allow re-analysis.

Here, we provide a meta-analysis of those studies. Note that this is far more than a literature review, since it compiles data from multiple studies, performs statistical analyses on this aggregate data, and draws new conclusions from the results of this analysis. Meta-analysis is a popular technique in medical research, and has been applied to the evaluation of music information retrieval techniques [1-3]. The term has also been applied to primary analysis of the performance of audio feature extraction techniques within a general framework [4]. But to the best of our knowledge, this represents the first time that it has been applied to audio engineering research.


1.1 Reviews
There are several overviews of the field of high resolution audio, relevant to this work. A special issue of the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society was dedicated to the subject [5], although none of the papers therein was focused on the question of perception. [6-9] all gave detailed descriptions of suggested requirements for high resolution audio formats and systems. [10, 11] provided reviews of high resolution audio perceptual evaluation. [12] gives guidelines and recommendations for high resolution audio listening tests. Together, these works serve as an excellent introduction to the subject and the important research questions.

[13] provided a systematic review of studies concerning the health effects of exposure to ultrasound. The studies reviewed showed that it may be associated with hearing loss, dizziness, loss of productivity and other harmful effects. However, some of the reviewed studies defined ultrasound as beyond 10 kHz, thus including content known to be audible. And all studies discussed in [13] focused on prolonged exposure, especially in the work environment.


1.2 Identification and selection of high resolution audio studies
In total, 80 relevant references pertaining to high resolution audio perception were found, from which we identified 18 experiments suitable for meta-analysis. This section describes the search methods used to identify relevant research, as well as the selection criteria for inclusion or exclusion of studies in the secondary and meta-analysis.

The review papers mentioned in the previous section may be considered the starting point for this work. We searched through all references they cited and all papers that have cited any of them in order to identify any relevant experiments. For all of the papers identified which concerned perception of high resolution audio, we then repeated the procedure, searching all citations therein and all citations of those papers. This procedure was repeated until no new potentially relevant references could be found. Potentially relevant experiments were also found based on discussions with experts, keyword searches in databases and search engines and the author's prior knowledge. The same iterative search on the citations within and citations of those papers was again applied to these additional papers. In total, 80 relevant references were found, of which there were 51 papers describing perceptual studies of high resolution audio.

No experiments published before 1980 were considered. A study of potentially relevant references showed that they mainly assumed that content beyond 20 kHz would be unnecessary, and may not have had sufficiently high quality equipment to reproduce high resolution audio anyway [14-21].

Several potentially relevant references could not be found. These were all non-English language publications. Furthermore, they were often presentations in meetings and so may not have been formally published. But in all cases, the authors had English language publications and it appeared that the English language versions may have described the same experiment.

There may also be relevant experiments that were overlooked because they had an unusual methodology, were described in an unusual way or presented to a very different audience. This is most likely the case for works published in physics or neuroscience journals. However, for all the relevant experiments that were found described in such places, though they dealt with aspects of high resolution audio, they did not focus directly on the most fundamental questions with which we are concerned, that is, the discrimination between standard quality and beyond standard quality audio with real world content.

Many publications treated results for different conditions, such as different stimuli or different filters for sample rate conversion, as different experiments. Since these experiments generally have the same participants, same investigators, same methodology etc., they were grouped as a single study. Where the experiments involved fundamentally different tasks, as in [22-24], these were treated as different studies.

Studies focused on auditory perception resolution were not considered. Such studies may suggest the underlying causes of high resolution audio discrimination, if any, but they are not directly focused on discrimination tasks. Similarly, experiments involving indirect discrimination of high resolution audio were excluded because an indirect effect may be observed or not, regardless of whether high resolution audio can be directly discriminated. In particular, brain response to high resolution content may not even relate to perception.

Studies focused on discrimination between competing high resolution formats, or on discrimination when only low resolution content is used, are not applicable since they either don't address detecting a difference between those formats and standard resolution, or intentionally don't use content that would effectively demonstrate such a difference.


]Within the studies focused on perceptual discrimination, we identified at least 21 distinct, direct discrimination studies. Three of these [25-27] were excluded because there was insufficient or unusual reporting that would not allow use in meta-analysis. Figure 1 presents a study flow diagram showing how the studies were selected for meta-analysis.


1.3 Classification of high resolution audio studies
Table 1 provides a near complete listing of all perceptual studies (i.e., listening tests) involving high resolution audio. Studies generally are divided into those focused on establishing the limits of auditory perception, and those focused on our ability to discriminate differences in format.



1.3.1 Auditory perception resolution studies
In the former category, several studies have focused on bone conduction, where the transducer is placed in direct contact with the head, e.g. [28]. This assisted form of rendering high resolution audio does not correspond with typical listening conditions, though it is possible that bone conduction may assist perception over headphones.

However, the majority of perceptual resolution studies have been concerned with time and frequency resolution. A major concern is the extent to which we hear frequencies above 20 kHz. Though many argue that this would not be the primary cause of high resolution content perception, it is nevertheless an important question. [36, 37, 39, 40] have investigated this extensively, and with positive results, although it could be subject to further statistical analysis.

Temporal fine structure [73] plays an important role in a variety of auditory processes, and temporal resolution studies have suggested that listeners can discriminate monaural timing differences as low as 5 microseconds [31-33]. Such fine temporal resolution also indicates that low pass or anti-alias filtering may cause significant and perceived degradation of audio when digitized or downsampled [54], often referred to as time smearing [74]. This time smear, which occurs because of convolution of the data with the filter impulse response, has been described variously in terms of the total length of the filter's impulse response including pre-ring and post-ring, comparative percentage of energy in the sidelobes relative to the main lobe, the degree of pre-ring only, and the sharpness of the main lobe.

[41, 42] both claim that human perception can outperform the uncertainty relation for time and frequency resolution. This was disputed in [75], which showed that the conclusions drawn from the experiments were far too strong.


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