Hi-Res Audio: Can You Really Hear The Difference?

In a recent article from The Guardian, authors Samuel Gibbs, Tim Jonze and Jason Phipps debate whether or not one can actually hear the difference between the various audio formats. Just as a little background, the formats discussed in this particular article are MP3, CD and 24-bit audio.

If you know nothing about the different audio formats, this article probably means nothing to you or just flat out confuses you. But I’m sure we’ve all downloaded the occasional mixtape or free track via the Internet and found the sound quality to be less than awesome. This always leaves us consumers who don’t understand the world of audio in a state of confusion as to why something that sounds this awful exists. This article provides some insight for those of us playing catch up with the audio world. If you’re curious as to what I’m discussing, read the article here, and then come back and read more.

The authors of this article each delve into their personal experience listening to the different audio formats, noting the differences they hear or the lack there of. For the most part, they all seem to come to the conclusion that they can’t actually really tell the difference between the formats. They did, however, notice when the audio file was really low quality/awful compared to the hi-res file of the song.

I found this article interesting because the authors had the opportunity to listen to all available formats at Linn Records through a high quality system and speakers. Last year, I was asked to do a similar assignment by my audio production professor, but I was listening to the tracks on my Macbook Pro via my cheap $10 earbuds purchased at Target, so I wasn’t 100% sure that my findings had any sort of relevance. For the assignment, I was to create a playlist and blindly listen to two different versions of four different songs: one lossless file and and one compressed audio file. I was then to guess which was which and report my findings. My findings were half and half—I guessed right 50% of the time, which I’m guessing was just luck. My overall finding was that there is little to no difference between hi-res and low-res (or lossless vs. compressed) audio files to the average listener.

Of course we have audio engineers who are trained to hear and create a sonically superior (shout out to Patchwerk Recording Studios right there) product, but as consumers is it really relevant or pertinent information? In my opinion, no. I think for the majority of music listeners, they aren’t all that interested in the science behind the music. Of course most people want the highest quality product, but do they really care for it to be advertised? Again, no. So the question becomes: how do we make it relevant for the average listener?

Despite the fact that the average listener can’t tell the difference between different audio formats, it doesn’t mean that quality assurance in audio isn’t important. We have recently seen the marketability of products such as high quality speakers and headphones, which have been inherently successful. Maybe instead of attempting to market a somewhat “intangible” product (the audio itself), the world of audio should continue the focus on the things that are tangible that enhance the the hi-res audio provided. In the past, we have seen the physical changes of audio: vinyl, 8-tracks, cassette tapes, CDs, etc. But once we happened upon digital audio files, it became less apparent to listeners what was “good sound” versus what was “easily available” sound. Digital audio files became more convenient with the rise of MP3 players, the iPod and now, smartphones.

However, what most consumers don’t consider, is that the sound quality wasn’t necessarily better, just more convenient. Ultimately, convenience won, and now we see audio professionals advocating hi-res audio files versus the so-called “crappy” and low-res MP3 files we’ve become accustomed to listening to. So in a sense, maybe it is smart that the world of audio is attempting to raise awareness around hi-res audio so that when it eventually is marketed to consumers, they can understand why.

The only potential problem I see with the marketability of such a product is that it’s going to take awhile for consumers to understand the why. Why is this product better? Why should I pay for hi-res audio? How is there a difference if it’s all still digital? For those of us [businesspeople] in the music industry, the world of audio engineering has become a bit more like secondhand knowledge here than it has to the rest of the world. Because the evolution of audio has become less tangible with the arrival of the digital age, I think it will take a bit more time for consumers to understand the transformation of digital audio.

Reflecting for a moment, and maybe going a bit off track, I think about the transition television and film have made with audio and picture quality. By simply advertising DVD and eventually Blu-Ray as somehow visually and sonically superior to the previously available formats, consumers hopped on the bandwagon and made the upgrade. By simply attaching the word “HD” or “Blu-Ray” to the title, consumers went out and purchased new copies of the media, deeming it necessary by the new industry standards. I think this is where the music industry and the film industry differ. The film industry has consistently done an outstanding job marketing and advertising their new formats while the music industry was very lackadaisical about their digital transformation. The music industry is just now catching up on recognizing the value of marketing their products in a similar way. It will be interesting to watch how the industry tries to market hi-res audio in the future…will they make hi-res audio seem tangible? If so, how? I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see…

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