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Life of surprises

Date: 12th May 2016

Life of surprises

According to a study from Queen Mary University of London, listeners can hear a difference between standard audio and better-than-CD quality, high resolution audio. The report compared data from over 12,000 different trials from eighteen studies, where participants were asked to discriminate between samples of music in different formats. Dr Joshua Reiss of QMUL’s Centre for Digital Music in the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science said, “Audio purists and the audio industry should welcome these findings – our study finds high resolution audio has a small but important advantage in its quality of reproduction over standard audio content.”

Of course, this will not come as a complete surprise to the audiophiles reading this – in other news, the Pope is a Catholic and British summers are a wash-out! But it’s interesting that people thought there was a need for such a study in the first place, and secondly the results have been reported with a degree of surprise. Most audiophiles will be well aware that you don’t need to own a dCS digital front end to tell the difference – even a £500 DAC on the end of a PC will show an improvement, providing the source files are true hi-res ones. Yet the perception in the wider public is often that actually, hi-res audio is a bit of a gimmick, and they themselves can’t really hear the difference. Ironically of course, the very same people who say this may happily discard a perfectly good three year-old fifty inch flatscreen television, because it doesn’t have the latest high definition picture capability. The research, published in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, finds that careful selection of stimuli, such as using long samples of over thirty seconds, may play an important role in the ability to discriminate between the formats. Dr Reiss explained that, “one motivation for this research was that people in the audio community endlessly discuss whether the use of high resolution formats and equipment really make a difference. Conventional wisdom states that CD quality should be sufficient to capture everything we hear, yet anecdotes abound where individuals claim that hi-res content sounds crisper, or more intense. And people often cherry-pick their favourite study to support whichever side they’re on. Our study is the first attempt to have a thorough and impartial look at whether hi-res audio can be heard. We gathered eighty publications, and analysed all available data, even asking authors of earlier studies for their original reports from old filing cabinets. We subjected the data to many forms of analysis. The effect was clear, and there were some indicators as to what conditions demonstrate it most effectively. Hopefully, we can now move forward towards identifying how and why we perceive these differences…”

Apparently, the samples analysed were mainly classical and jazz music, but it isn’t argued that other types of music are in some way less affected. As dCS owners have known for decades, hi-res audio can provide a dramatic increase in the satisfaction we get from listening to all types of music. Yet many in the wider world, outside hi-fi circles, regard it with great suspicion, and this has always caused the music industry to be conflicted about it. Right now however, thanks to a push from Japanese consumer electronics giants like Sony and Technics, the music software and hardware side is finally moving towards hi-res as standard. It’s still happening at a glacial pace, but it is finally beginning to move beyond specialist audiophile labels like HD Tracks, 2L, Linn, Naim and others.

The streaming side looks promising too, but it’s easy for the general public to get bogged down in terminology and ultimately confused. One person’s ‘hi-res’ is another’s standard quality. For example, streaming services like Tidal are calling CD-quality (i.e. 1,411kbps) music ‘hi-res’; it’s certainly better than the stock compressed streams of Spotify (320kbps) but it isn’t 24/192 uncompressed PCM by a long chalk.

All the same, there is real cause for optimism. “I think the digital stars are aligning,” says Jeffrey Joseph, senior vice president at the Consumer Electronics Association. “Our research indicates the market for high quality music products is extending beyond the enthusiasts. What is particularly exciting about high resolution is that it has the high quality sound that you want but all the benefits of digital—the portability, the customisation.” The rise in specialist hi-res portables shows people are actually willing to pay for high quality audio electronics devices which designed solely to play hi-res. This will surely have a ‘trickle-up’ effect, in the same way that people who bought Sony Walkmans in the nineteen eighties sometimes ended up with Nakamichis in their home hi-fi systems. Despite all the false starts, hi-res music should finally be able to look forward to a rosy future.