Anyone who lived through the consumer electronics revolution of the past fifty years will know that, whilst the road may be paved with good intentions, it doesn’t always get you there. Followers of developments in audio and video know all too well that there have been many ‘false starts’ along the way to nirvana, with countless – and often ultimately pointless – format wars which make life even more confusing for manufacturers and end users alike.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), like the British Phonographic Institute (BPI) in the United Kingdom, represents the interests of the copyright holders of the music that we know and love – so is an important mover and shaker in the great scheme of things. Indeed, fifteen years ago it tried and failed to get MP3 players banned in the United States, in a landmark case which had a direct effect on the way that the music industry has subsequently developed. Effectively it meant that the business had to embrace, rather than ban, music downloads and now streaming.
Now, the RIAA has announced a new logo to identify what is officially ‘high resolution music’. Cynics might think this to be another meaningless public relations campaign, but it could prove to be a highly astute move. From the BSI ‘Kitemark’ to ‘Ozone Friendly’ labelling, consumers respond positively to graphics which neatly encapsulate more complex concepts behind them. Indeed, there’s evidence that when people see such logos, they bother to find out what they actually mean. In the case of high resolution audio, this can only be a good thing for the hi-fi industry.
Anyone seeing the new ‘Hi-Res Music’ logo for the first time will want to know that it’s defined as, “lossless audio capable of reproducing the full spectrum of sound from recordings which have been mastered from better-than-CD-quality music sources, which represent what the artists, producers and engineers originally intended”. Even if it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, it clearly suggests that Compact Disc cannot give – as Philips once boasted – “pure, perfect sound”, and that there are better ways of listening to music, closer to how it was recorded.
The logo will appear on music from digital music retailers in the United States, Canada and Europe, and complements the current ‘Hi-Res Audio’ logo which is licensed by the Japan Audio Society, and seen on hardware from Sony and Pioneer, among others. Next to it, the resolution of the file is displayed, so you get an instant visual notification of how hi-res it is. The project required the cooperation of record labels such as Sony, Universal and Warner, alongside US consumer groups such as The Digital Entertainment Group, Consumer Electronics Association and The Recording Academy. Rather like ‘Ultra HD 4K’ with video, it’s a simple ‘hook’ for music buyers to know they’re getting the best.
For the purposes of this standard, this means 20-bit, 48kS/s PCM digital audio, or better. Some might say it’s quite a low bar to set for high resolution music, but at least it’s a start. The past fifteen years or so has seen a preponderance of music played at a lower resolution than CD, so 20/48 is surely a step in the right direction. There are actually four different Master Quality Recording categories; although audiophiles will find them useful, many music lovers might lose the will to live when faced with yet more acronyms. MQ-P means the music is from a PCM master at 20/48 or higher (typically 24/96 or 24/192); MQ-A means taken from an analogue master source; MQ-C is taken from a CD master source (16/44.1) and MQ-D is from DSD (2.8MHz or 5.6MHz, typically).
As every serious audiophile knows, dCS pioneered high resolution audio two decades ago, back in the nineteen nineties. It was very much a niche pursuit back then, but has become progressively more mainstream to the point where many hi-fi fans now enjoy it. Two years ago, Sony launched a range of hi-res portables and hi-fi systems in a blaze of publicity, taking the concept to a wider audio buying market. Now, this agreement will see it begin to seep into the music buying arena, completing the circle. And that is ultimately what the problem has been to date – hardware and software manufacturers simply haven’t been on the same page.
dCS continues to be at the forefront of the high resolution revolution, although the Ring DAC fitted to every one of our digital-to-analogue converters is of course able to get the very best from standard CD-quality music too. The fact that several of the world’s largest music companies are now actively supporting and promoting hi-res is highly significant, and extremely welcome news. Anything that gets people closer to the music can only be a good thing!