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High Culture

Date: 3rd February 2015

High Culture

The appreciation of life’s finer things isn’t always easy, and you need only look to high fidelity music reproduction to be reminded of this. You might think that equipment manufacturers and music software suppliers would do their level best to ensure that the appreciation of beautiful music was one of life’s simpler pleasures. Sadly however, this is all too often not the case.

There was a brief, fleeting moment in the early nineteen eighties when the stars seemed to align. For once we saw the consumer electronics giants of the time, Philips and Sony, join with the music industry to produce a new format that had universal appeal. Compact Disc was simple to use, sounded good and was robust enough to withstand at least a modicum of abuse. Sadly though, it now looks like CD’s success was more luck than judgement, because this is a trick that has never since been repeated.The music industry sailed along for nearly fifteen years on the back of CD, riding the crest of a digital audio wave. Then at the turn of the century, it found itself beached on the rocks. After waiting too long for one new high quality digital music format, in a space of months in 1999 the hardware and software manufacturers gave us two – DVD-Audio and SACD. Observers were aghast, not because of their obvious merit, but because the industry had once again managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory…

Remember Stereo 8 and Elcaset? Not many do now, because these innovative tape formats from the early nineteen seventies singularly failed to capture the public’s imagination. The same thing happened all over again with DVD-Audio and SACD; the public was offered both but convinced by neither, and simply carried on using Compact Disc, just as seventies buyers had stuck with Compact Cassette.

Rather than giving buyers a choice of two superlative new music carriers, people saw them as a confusing distraction – unconvinced by the high price, limited availability and, most telling of all, the nervous way that music retailers treated them. Faced with the choice of filling shop shelves with CDs of Coldplay’s debut new album, or Roxy Music reissues on SACD at twice the price, it didn’t take long to work out which would be more profitable. Worse still, what if buyers did want the reissue but found it was on the ‘wrong’ hi-res format? It soon became apparent that audiophiles who wanted to hear Simple Minds in glorious high quality sound needed SACD machines, while REM fans had to invest in DVD-Audio players!

The music industry made a few token gestures promoting the new formats before effectively giving up. Admittedly SACD has soldiered on in Japan, and worldwide from a few specialist labels, but like DVD-Audio it had abandoned its dreams of world domination almost at birth. What followed was a period of collective pessimism about the future of high resolution digital music, which unfortunately coincided with one of the biggest recessions the western world has seen since World War Two.

Happily though, hi-res is now back with a vengeance. Many music buyers, it seems, weren’t averse to the idea of high quality music after all. Rather, it was the format wars and silly compatibility issues that they didn’t care for. Pioneering work done by dCS on hi-res DACs – some of which has now trickled down to the mass market – and the rise of high quality digital downloads have reignited interest in the subject. There is now a good number of 24/192 PCM download sources, with many albums that once appeared on those ill-fated DVD-Audio discs finding their way out to a new generation of music buyers. Meanwhile, DSD – first seen on SACD – is enjoying a renaissance too, not least because its creator finally seems to be putting some of its corporate muscle behind it.

Sony now appears to be planning on making both DSD (and double-quality DSD 5.6) downloads available, and has started trialling streaming in this format. Indeed, the Japanese company has announced that two concerts will be broadcast free in this format, one from the Tokyo Spring Festival on April 5, and the other on April 11, where the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle will be live from Berlin. Sony is describing this as a “proof-of-concept test for DSD online music distribution”, no less.

The Japanese concert is a lavish nine-hour extravaganza from Tokyo’s Bunka Kaikan Recital Hall, and showcases works by Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart. The Berlin concert will feature Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust; more information is available here . It’s surely going to be an enjoyable event, but is even more impressive for what it represents – which is a major music force showcasing its high resolution digital format in a way that many audiophiles can enjoy.

The irony of all of this is that playback hardware, especially that developed by dCS has been hi-res capable since the 1990’s, it’s the delivery mechanism and ease of accessibility for music lovers that has been broken. The move toward lossless streaming and the popularity of hi-res downloads means that more and more can appreciate the majesty of music in all its glory. Here’s hoping this is no flash in the pan.