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Is high-resolution audio really as good as it sounds?

Ian Paul | April 3, 2014
Singer-songwriter Neil Young is on a crusade to save recorded music with a new digital audio player called Pono aimed at offering so-called high-resolution digital audio. PonoMusic, the company behind the player, recently started a Kickstarter campaign, with the promise that a finished version will start shipping in October.

And that's where you hit problems, Montgomery says, since 192 kHz audio contains sound frequencies that are several times greater than our capacity to hear.

Dan Lavry, founder of Lavry Engineering, a company specializing in analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters, agrees. "The misconception about 192KHz is due to the intuition that more is better...There are many situations where more is better, but sampling [is not one of them]," he said.

In 2007, the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society published a study conducted by members of the Boston Audio Society which sought to determine if listeners could tell the difference between CD-quality and high-resolution recordings (DVD-A and SACD recordings, at the time). The study took 60 subjects and conducted 554 listening trials. During the trials people were asked to identify if they were hearing a CD or a high-resolution recording. In the end, the listeners were only able to identify the high-resolution recording 49.82 percent of the time, suggesting the subjects were guessing rather than making an informed choice.

Worth it or not?

So if distinguishing between high-resolution and regular CD recordings is difficult, is there value to purchasing a high- resolution recording? Hamm contends there is. "We've had hundreds and hundreds of people of all ages listen to music on Pono," Hamm said. "We are absolutely comfortable that the vast majority of those people have a much more satisfying and gratifying experience by listening to music in 24/96 and 24/192."

But Montgomery counters that even a properly encoded MP3 can satisfy most listeners. And while other audio experts we talked to wouldn't go as far as Montgomery, many are dubious about the added quality of high-resolution audio.

Nevertheless, there could still be value to high-resolution audio, and the Boston Audio Society study offers a clue as to why. Toward the end of the paper, the authors suggest that sound engineers often put more care and attention into higher-resolution recordings than they do to mass market CD releases.

Dr. Sean Olive, President of the Audio Engineering Society and Director of Acoustic Research for Harman international, agrees. "I've heard some wonderful CDs, but I've also heard some wonderful 24/96 files," Olive said. "I really think the difference is how well they're recorded and mastered."

So you may in fact get a higher quality experience from select high-resolution recordings. But that has more to do with how the master file was produced than anything else.

That's not to say there aren't problems with the current state of digital recordings, though. Poorly encoded MP3s, low-quality recording equipment, and the fight for pop music producers to create the loudest music possible — the so-called loudness war — can all play into a subpar listening experience.


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