Issue 238 December 2013
This Time It's Different
Editorial By Robert Harley
About 15 years ago it seemed as though we were on the threshold of a new era in sound quality made possible by high-resolution digital audio. The Compact Disc was long past its prime, and the hardware and software industries had a history of creating replacement formats to keep their revenue streams flowing. Those replacement formats — DVD-Audio and SACD — held out the prospect of delivering a new quality standard to listeners.
We all know what happened: The promise of high-resolution digital was snatched away by the format wars and resulting consumer hesitation, incompatible hardware platforms, and excessive controls imposed by record labels on how consumers could use the music they had purchased. The impediment to the widespread adoption of high-resolution was political rather than technical.
We're now presented with another chance to abandon the CD's primitive specifications (which were dictated by the technology of 1979 when the standard was set) and replace low-quality digital and MP3 with great-sounding high-res. Of course, some of us have been enjoying high-resolution digital for some time, but the availability of titles is limited, and building a high-res server requires the dedication of an enthusiast. High-resolution digital audio must be simple, affordable, ubiquitous, and offer a deep catalog. To be judged a success, high-res must be available for all music, for all listeners, and at all price levels. We will have reached this goal when the term
"high-resolution digital file" is as anachronistic as "digital camera" or "high-definition flat-panel television" — all files will be
I believe that this digital utopia is just around the corner, and nothing's going to stop it now. The world is a very different place than it was in 1998. For starters, we're no longer dependent on whether the hardware giants and the content providers agree upon a physical format and then spend years and untold money developing and marketing that format. It's impossible to overstate the political, technical, and marketing challenges of launching a new medium. But today we've moved beyond physical formats; we can simply download files and decode them with a bit of software.
There's been another sea-change since the late 1990s; the record companies have been humbled by a decade and a half of plummeting revenue fostered by myopic thinking. They have finally realized that giving consumers access to master-quality digital bitstreams without cumbersome DRM (digital rights management) allows them to monetize their content and become relevant again.
There are other powerful forces driving this new high-res revolution. Storage is so cheap it's nearly free; low-bit-rate coding such as MP3 was a reaction to the limitations of 1990s technology. High-quality DACs cost a fraction of what they did fifteen years ago. Internet speeds are increasing (and about to increase exponentially). Digital hardware design is much more sophisticated today, delivering in inexpensive products sound quality that would have cost a fortune when Bill Clinton was president.
But the greatest driver behind making high-res mainstream is a concerted initiative among the major hardware companies, the music labels, and the Consumer Electronics Association to do for audio what HDTV did for television. You can see the tip of the iceberg in Alan Taffel's report on Sony's recent press conference announcing the availability of a large number of music titles for DSD download from its own deep vaults along with those of Universal Music and Warner. We're no longer talking about a trickle of mainstream titles to go along with the audiophile
releases — this is the mother lode we've all been waiting for. Acoustic Sounds'
superhirez.com site will have 500 mainstream titles available for download by the end of this year. The Sony announcement coincided with the launch of its HAP-Z1ES, a device that makes high-res acquisition and playback simple. If history is any indication, the platform underlying the HAP-Z1ES will quickly drop in price in subsequent models. I saw and heard a demo of the Sony HAP-Z1ES at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest last week (full report next issue), and came away with the impression that this type of product will be the game-changer that ushers in an era in which high-res is the norm rather than the exception among the general public.
The CEA is getting in on the act, sponsoring a major marketing push for higher quality music reproduction, including high-resolution digital. Its research shows that consumers want better sound and are willing to pay for it. An alignment of the industry's powerful trade group, major hardware manufacturers, and the biggest record labels to promote the idea of better sound to the mass market will finally move high-res digital audio from the fringes to the mainstream.
Although we've heard this story before in 1998, this time the players have their act together. Get ready for the revolution.
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