How the Audio Industry is Deceiving Consumers with High-Resolution Audio

Hi resI’ve been writing about music and audio for more than fifteen years, and I’ve always been of the opinion that music is more important than sound; that what matters is what we listen to, rather trying to only listen to music that sounds perfect (or nearly so).[1]

If you read about audio equipment in the hi-fi press, you’ll see that much of the audio equipment mentioned in these magazines is more expensive than most people would ever spend on a stereo setup. There are cables that cost more than my car, and speakers that can cost as much as a small home.[2]

A few months ago, I came to a realization. I don’t recall which article I read that pointed this out, but this type of audio is not just high-end, but it truly is luxury hardware. It’s the Jaguar and Porsche of audio. The amplifiers, speakers, and cables you see in these audiophile magazines are not targeted at the average listener, but those who have a great deal of disposable income. This is fine; there’s nothing wrong with people spending their money on what is often hand-made hardware from small, dedicated companies. But it’s only something that a tiny percentage of people can afford, or even appreciate. Audiophiles will scoff at people like me; in a recent forum discussion, I was told that, by purchasing a Yamaha amplifier, I was buying a "lifestyle" brand. I hadn’t been aware that this is an insult: it’s the audiophile equivalent of "philistine."

If you consider high-resolution music, which is widely discussed as being essential to make music "sound like the artist intended," you may, at first, think of this as progress; a better quality format, going beyond the pokey LP, the limited CD, and the underperforming MP3 file. But it’s not. Most people cannot hear the difference between a CD (or even a good-quality digital download) and a high-resolution audio file. And, even if they can, they need expensive, nay, luxury equipment to appreciate it.[3]

And here’s where the problem lies. The audio industry has lost so many consumers at the low end – it used to be that most people had a stereo system in their homes; now they are satisfied with Bluetooth speakers – that it is trying to convince everyone, not just luxury hi-fi fans, that quality of the music they listen to sucks. There are economic reasons for this, of course. If they can convince some people that their audio files aren’t good enough, then they can perhaps get them to buy more expensive hi-fi equipment. In recent years, the mid-range hi-fi market – those "lifestyle" brands – has collapsed, and these companies only really survive because they sell lots of other products. So there’s not a lot of choice between Bluetooth speakers – or the Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod, etc. – and higher-end audio equipment.[4]

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Record Labels Splitting Long Tracks into Multiple Tracks to Maximize Streaming Income

The music streaming payment model is optimized for popular music: short songs, three, four, five minutes long. Record labels are paid by song streamed, not by the amount of time the music plays. An hour of a three-minute song counts as 20 plays, whereas if it’s a four-minute song, it only gets paid for 15 plays.

In an attempt to hack this system, some record labels – notably for classical music – are splitting music into multiple tracks. You won’t see this on, say, your standard symphony, where, while it would be possible to split four movements into ten or more, but you will see it on other works, ranging from long vocal works to non-standard classical pieces.

Here’s on example: Max Richter’s eight-hour Sleep. If you buy this from the iTunes Store, you will get 31 tracks, ranging in length from 2:46 to more than 33 minutes. But if you stream it on Apple Music, here’s what you see:

Sleep

That’s right, it’s 204 tracks, most of which are under three minutes. By splitting the music this much, the record label – Deutsche Grammophon – gets more than six times as much money than if it were in the original 31 tracks.

Each of the original tracks is named, with a part number at the end of the name.

This is a cynical way to hack the music streaming payment process, but I do feel that this system unfairly handicaps classical and jazz labels, along with some jam rock and other forms of music – Indian classical, for example. Streaming income should be paid by duration rather than by song, or there should be multiple tiers according to the length of tracks. It’s a shame that record labels have to resort to this sort of system to get paid fairly.

One of the most hotly–and perhaps unnecessarily–debated topics in the world of audio is the one that surrounds digital sample rates.

It seems an unlikely topic for polarization, but for more than 10 years, the same tired arguments have been batted about by each side with almost unrelenting intensity.

At the fringes, advocates of either side have often dug deeper trenches of faith for themselves. But as much as that’s the case, there’s also a growing consensus among designers and users who have a firm understanding of digital audio.

Namely, that there are perfectly good reasons for sticking with the current professional and consumer standards of 44.1 and 48 kHz for recording and playback — and some valid arguments for moving up to slightly higher sample rates, such as 60, 88.2 or even as high as 96 kHz. What seems to have less informed support is the push to ultra-high sample rates like 192kHz.

We’ll explore the arguments on both sides of the major questions around sample rates and try to find out where each faction has got it right — and where they may be missing some crucial information.

This article is a deep dive into sample rates, one element of digital music (the other being bit depth). It notably points out that higher isn’t always better, and that the search for ever higher sample rates may just be a waste of time and money. (But those who sell high-resolution music don’t want you to know that.) For example:

It turns out that in many cases, we can hear the sound of higher sample rates not because they are more transparent, but because they are less so. They can actually introduce unintended distortion in the audible spectrum, and this is something that can be heard in listening tests.

And:

To him, the issue is not about whether 44.1kHz is the last stop. It’s clear that it rests on the cusp of the point of diminishing returns, and that by the time you’ve reached 60 kHz you’ve exhausted all the theoretical benefits you could ever add. The real benefits to be had are the ones that come from improving implementation, not from ever-increasing sample rates.

The problem is that higher sample rates mean bigger numbers that companies can use in their marketing, and bigger sounds better.

Source: The Science of Sample Rates (When Higher Is Better — And When It Isn’t) – SonicScoop

The Next Track, Episode #90 – Liz Pelly on Streaming Muzak and Playlists

The Next Track Blue Flat Button2 400pxJournalist Liz Pelly talks about streaming muzak, Spotify, playlists, and the future of streaming.

Listen to The Next Track: Episode #90 – Liz Pelly on Streaming Muzak and Playlists.

Find out more, and subscribe to the podcast, at The Next Track website. You can follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast, to keep up to date with new episodes, and new articles from the website.

The Big Missing Element on Music Streaming Services

I’m listening to John Coltrane’s extraordinary 1958 album Blue Train. I’ve heard this album many times, and it’s one of those great jazz albums from the time when jazz was great.

Trane

There’s a great pianist on this record; I can’t remember who it is. I could search Google; I’m sure Wikipedia has a page about this album. (Here.) But I shouldn’t have to. I should be able to find this out when I’m listening to the music in iTunes, or on my iPhone. I might want to know the names of the musicians (it’s Kenny Drew on piano), who wrote the songs (all but one are by Coltrane himself), and more. Since release dates are often incorrect – they often list the record’s last release, not the original date – I might want to know that as well.

Tell me who produced it, who the other sidemen are, and all the other information about the disc that I would get if I had the CD. Because CDs come with liner notes; streaming services don’t.

There is one streaming company that claims to offer liner notes: Qobuz. I subscribed to Qobuz for a year when I lived in France; around 2012 or so. They had some liner notes, and I don’t know how many they have now. (They say “millions of digital booklets.”)

But this metadata should be available for every album. Yes, it’s up to the record labels to provide it, and I’m sure there are some labels who would be happy to do this, to make their recordings more attractive. Apple put a lot of time and money into their Mastered for iTunes, which is mostly ignored these days. If they had invested in liner notes, I think a lot of listeners would be happy. (Though this is still a small percentage.)

How iTunes Handles Albums, EPs, and Singles

The album is an artificial construct, yet it is the main unit of organization for music. As its name suggests, it was originally a collection of separate records, in a sort of book that was similar to a photo album. (Doug Adams and I discussed the creation of the album in the very first episode of our podcast The Next Track.) For at least 70 years, the Album has dominated music sales and listening.

Album

At the same time, the single has long been the gateway medium for discovering new artists, or for getting the latest songs by your favorite artist. This size of this record – 7 inches – was a sign of the more limited content it contained. But it also played faster, in part to fill up the record; a 7" record at 33 rpm would look half empty if it contained just one song per side. The single wasn’t only a 7" record: in Jamaica, 10" singles were common starting in the 1960s, and 12" singles started being released in the US in the early 1970s. (There were also double singles in gatefold sleeves; I recall a live set by The Cure that contained four songs on two 7" discs.)

Cure

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ECM Records Now Available on Apple Music

ECM Records is now available on Apple Music. You can stream their excellent roster of jazz, classical, and world music (which they call “transcultural) on this and other streaming services.

Most of ECM’s presence is in the Jazz genre, where Apple is highlighting featured playlists, other playlists, and “new releases” – new to Apple Music, not recently released albums. (As you can see, the first is the landmark Köln Concert by Keith Jarrett.)

Ecm1

Ecm2

Ecm3

ECM is one of those rare labels that has their own sound; something you don’t find much any more. Check out music by Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheney, Jan Garbarek, Bill Frisell, and so many more. This 10-hour playlist will give you a taste of the ECM sound.

While ECM isn’t as visible in the classical section, they have an excellent line-up of classical recordings, including works by Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt, and the wonderful recordings of pianist Andràs Schiff. On of my all-time favorite classical recordings on ECM is the Hilliard Ensemble’s 1989 recording of music by Pérotin, a haunting recording of early polyphonic music.

This link will take you to the ECM “curator” page, where you can browse their catalog.

So, stream away that great jazz and classical music that has made ECM one of the great record labels.

ECM Records (Finally) Embraces Streaming

ECM Records announces:

Over the past week we have begun the process of entering the world of streaming, and from November 17th, the full ECM catalogue will be available to subscribers to services including Apple Music, Amazon, Spotify, Deezer, Tidal and Qobuz. This simultaneous launch across the platforms — facilitated by a new digital distribution agreement with Universal Music — invites listeners to explore the wide range of music recorded by our artists in the course of nearly five decades of independent production.

Although ECM’s preferred mediums remain the CD and LP, the first priority is that the music should be heard. The physical catalogue and the original authorship are the crucial references for us: the complete ECM album with its artistic signature, best possible sound quality, sequence and dramaturgy intact, telling its story from beginning to end.

In recent years, ECM and the musicians have had to face unauthorized streaming of recordings via video sharing websites, plus piracy, bootlegs, and a proliferation of illegal download sites. It was important to make the catalogue accessible within a framework where copyrights are respected.

This is a big deal; they were one of the last major holdouts to music streaming. (The other large independent label that still doesn’t stream is Hyperion Records.)

I’d often said that I’d pay $5 a month to be able to stream ECM’s catalog; they have a wonderful collection of jazz recordings, in a certain style, and some excellent classical recordings as well. The main attractions are jazz pianist Keith Jarrett and classical composer Arvo Pärt, along with Steve Reich, Pat Metheny, and many others.

I know what I’ll be doing this weekend.

Archimago’s Musings: MQA: “Final” thoughts… On Politics & Paradigms. – Archimago’s Musings

It’s just odd to think that some in the media are so apparently taken with what amounts to faith in a DSP algorithm. And when others come along and try to demonstrate why it may be deserving of criticism, a grand conflict threatening the very foundations of scientific thinking gets invoked! We might as well drag Heaven and Hell, or virtue and sin into this earth-shaking dialogue. Is it any wonder that audiophiles sense this gross dissociation? Is it also not fair to ask why is it that folks who could benefit from industry incentives (not just financial incentives) seem to be so supportive of this “technology”? To not question these so-called “experts” who provide mere opinion would be obviously foolish!

To end off, I think it’s important to remember what’s happening here with MQA. In an unregulated free enterprise system, the arguments, tests, debates are necessary. The consumer is trying to figure out whether what is being sold to us has merit. In an age of free speech with online forums and blogs, the consumer has a powerful platform to express itself; much different from the landscape of years ago when magazines can print whatever they wanted with consumer discontentment expressed in the short “Letters to the Editor” section. It really doesn’t help when the press – especially a publication like this one – appears so grossly one-sided and out of touch. As I have said before, I believe that the press should really be independent and aligned with consumer interests in mind. If in this day and age the audiophile press is nothing more than the advertising arm of an industry, then let’s be transparent about that as well.

Archimago is a science-based audiophile, who has carried out extensive testing on a number of audiophile devices, and, in particular, the new MQA codec, which is supposed to somehow sound better than high-resolution files, while taking up less space. It’s a combination of lossy and lossless compression algorithms, along with some wishy-washy explanations of vague ideas that don’t quite make sense.

It’s about influence, control, and money. MQA is a business, it needs to generate revenue, and to do so it must gain adoption of course. In contrast, the average audiophile when presented with another “new format” cares about the utilitarian aspects of what is presented (actual sound quality potential) and value from the purchase if adopted. The frustration I think this new file type brings is a result of this dissociation.

Indeed. Follow the money.

See the results of a blind test he organized, where the results – asking people to determine which file sounded better – were roughly the same as if everyone guessed. That article links to previous articles presenting the test protocol, and discussing the results.

Source: Archimago’s Musings: MQA: “Final” thoughts… On Politics & Paradigms.

Apple iPhone 8 and iPhone X to Support FLAC

Apple today announced two new iPhone models, the iPhone 8 and the iPhone X. Not mentioned, but visible in the tech specs for these devices, is support for FLAC, the free lossless audio codec.

Iphone flac

Third party apps have long been able to play FLAC files; after all, they are just files. But this suggests that the iPhone can natively play FLAC files, using hardware decoding. This is interesting, because Apple has long avoided offering any type of FLAC support in iTunes or in its operating systems.

But I looked at the iPhone 7 tech specs, and it also says that it supports FLAC, so maybe Apple just means that the files can be read by third-party apps. If FLAC were natively supported on last year’s phone, a lot of people would have heard about it. I think that this has something to do with iOS 11. Because I looked on an older version of the iPhone 7 tech specs page (via the Wayback Machine), and FLAC support is not mentioned.

So Apple may have updated the iPhone 7 specs to match what iOS 11 supports, but the iPhone 6s does not show this support. So, this is some combination of hardware and software, apparently.

I’ll post more when I find out.