Is hi-res a red herring?


Having read many articles on the credibility of high resolution audio, I am left frustrated. Whether for or against, few acknowledge reality and present a plain enough case to reach what needs to be a wide and receptive audience. Both camps bog themselves down in either promoting or undermining the technical attributes of hi-res formats, and fail to highlight the broader music industry practices that make the focus of the debate largely irrelevant. This article attempts to address the question in the context of said practices whilst steering clear of technical minutia.

Hi-res in a nutshell
‘Hi-res’ is a loose buzzword term used in the audio industry to describe digital audio that has a bit depth greater than 16-bits and a sampling rate higher than 44.1kHz (AKA ‘CD-res’), the digital audio resolution available to consumers before hi-res. Proponents argue that it is audibly superior to CD-res because it captures a wider frequency range and at a finer resolution with lower noise floor, and is therefore a closer approximation to analogue sound. Cynics argue that despite being technically superior to CD-res, ‘real-world’ limitations in the recording environment, end user playback equipment and listening environments – not to mention human hearing – prevent the theoretical benefits of hi-res from being realised.

PCM audirvana

As someone who has recently invested in equipment capable of hi-res playback and modest library of carefully selected hi-res content, I do hear some of the benefits in a ‘real-world’ environment. These manifest mainly as greater low-level detail and spatial information which provide more insight into the characteristics of the recording venue, and thereby create an improved sense of realism. Admittedly, the improvements over CD-res are very subtle to my ears, but they are audible. Thus, even if only a fraction of the theoretical sonic gains of hi-res can be realised by consumers in ‘real-world’ environments, it would be hypocritical to argue against it being worthwhile. Our obsession with hi-fi is after all founded on the perpetual striving for marginal gains that would be trivialised by those unsympathetic toward our hobby! 

Threats to the credibility of hi-res
My findings rely on the assumption that the music under evaluation is engineered to a standard that does justice to the capabilities of the hi-res format. To claim that this does not always bear true in reality would sadly be an understatement. It is also the reason I have avoided scrutinising the logic underpinning the arguments for and against hi-res summarised earlier. They all pale into insignificance once the real threats to the format’s credibility are considered.

The executive decisions taken during the recording, mixing and mastering stages have the greatest impact on the sonic quality of the music we buy, and are therefore its biggest threat. My own experience indicates this threat is present regardless of format resolution. Hi-res is just as vulnerable to ill-judged decision-making through these three engineering stages as CD-res has been in the past. These include a shift towards isolated nearfield mics that distort the nature of ambient information. The increasing tendency to overcrowd the soundstage during mixing that leads to a loss of perceived layering and depth. And, the overuse of dynamic range limiting (AKA ‘brickwalling’) during mastering that robs music of its natural oscillations in output level. Combine all three and you create a product that is sonically homogenised, one-dimensional, lifeless and fatiguing; the very antithesis of what hi-res promises to be. This is the ironic dichotomy facing audio enthusiasts; as the sonic capabilities of audio capture and playback formats improve, fidelity is at the same time being eroded, to an arguably a far greater extent, by poor judgement. My own experience suggests that finding good sound in the hi-res market can be as much of a ‘needle in a haystack’ as it was with CD.DSD audirvana

What’s more, hi-res faces an additional risk that did not afflict CD, namely an unchecked opportunity for mis-selling. An absence (for the most part) of transparent disclosure on the true source quality of releases threatens to undermine consumer trust in hi-res as a bona fide upgrade from CD. Instances of titles being advertised as hi-res when they have in fact been merely ‘up-sampled’  (re-processed) from lower resolution sources are not unprecedented. As it can often be tricky, even for an informed buyer with forensic tools at their disposal, to detect such inaccuracies, the high-res market could be viewed as a gamble for consumers seeking genuine hi-res material.

Regaining control
There are however encouraging signs that consumer power is on increase. On one front, the ‘Loudness Wars’ campaign against the overuse of dynamic range limiting has steadily gathered momentum and led to the establishing of the Dynamic Range Database (https://dr.loudness-war.info), a resource that prints ‘DR ratings’ for many releases past and present. The database grows daily, and an increasing number of hi-res titles are being included. There has also been an upsurge in online forums and review sites actively discussing the more subjective sonic qualities of releases and also investigating their provenance. Consumers are now arguably more informed than ever about the product they are buying, and there is evidence of record labels responding to this shift in empowerment. A growing number of releases are emerging with production qualities that can genuinely harness the sonic benefits of hi-res. However, this embryonic change in mindset has yet to ripple out to the mainstream of the music industry.

Clearly any debate about the credibility of hi-res audio that’s based solely in the context of the audible benefits over CD-res in ‘real-world’ environments is flawed. When the broader industry practices that restrict the sonic potential of both formats are considered, this argument becomes largely irrelevant. Entrenched production habits have a far greater effect on sound quality and ultimately dwarf the marginal gains that hi-res offers consumers. It could be argued that a shift in scrutiny away from the format itself, and onto said practices, would stimulate the changes required to better fulfil the sonic potential of hi-res, and thus aid its acceptance as a credible improvement over CD-res in the future.

Richard Barclay

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