Almost ten years ago, Neil Young released his music player device called Pono. His mission was to release a device that gave you the fullest, crystal clear audio that was available and bring it to a portable device. Convenience is a big factor and people listen to music on the go. At that time, people either didn’t understand or care that much about high-res audio. Or more likely, the Pono device was simply too heavy and bulky to carry around with them. Now, almost ten years later the question is, does anyone care?
I think the failure of the Pono wasn’t because people didn’t care about high-res audio. It’s just that the device itself wasn’t compatible with people’s lifestyles. At the time, people were moving away from carrying an iPod and a smartphone with them, and were more inclined to exclusively have music and everything else on one device. So this begs the question: Where does high-res audio fit into the mix?
If we’re looking at trends in how people consume music, it’s obvious to me that more and more people are listening to music at home. The rise in the sales of vinyl is a clear indicator of that. I think people are warming up to the idea of sitting down and listening to an album from start to finish. There is a myth that vinyl has better sound quality than digital files like mp3’s. This is partly true, but only if the music was recorded using analog tape. In new music, it’s more likely the recording was done in a digital setting. Which means that it’s taking so many samples every second. Although it may be small, there is still some information being lost in the waveform.
The reason people think vinyl sounds different is the way that it’s mastered. Since about 1995, there has been a war going on in the music industry called the loudness war. When an artist is finished recording their album, it goes through the mixing phase. Mixing is when you balance all the instruments and vocals, and the goal is to present the piece of music as it’s intended to be heard. Once the mixing is done, it’s time to master it. Mastering is different than mixing because the mastering engineer is given the final mix. Their job is to put the finishing touch on it so that it sounds good and is ready to be sent off to the listener. One of the tools the mixing engineer uses for this is a compressor. A compressor evens out the level of the mix, so any sound that is quiet can be brought up in level, and anything that’s too loud can be brought down. The loudness war is a misguided attempt by record companies to get their songs on the radio. It was their belief that the louder a song is, the more people would pay attention to it. The downside of this is the quality of the audio suffered. It’s the reason your iTunes library has some songs that are louder than others.
The loudness war however was only part of the problem. The other problem was the quality of digital music. As I said before recording in a digital setting takes samples an x-number of times per second. Well, that’s exactly how CDs work and. The promise of CDs was that it was crystal clear, and you could play them as many times as you wanted and it wouldn’t wear out. No pops or clicks like an old record, clean audio every time. For the initial period of time, that was true. If you’ve ever heard an old record you know that the music can sometimes be hard to hear through all the noise. But CDs sound better… sort of. It’s still not an entirely true representation of the actual performance. Where analog records everything that comes through the microphone, digital is taking a lot of samples every second.
The mp3 came in the late 1990s, and was even worse quality than CD’s. The mp3 was a huge step backward in terms of quality audio, but a gigantic step forward in terms of convenience. Suddenly you could carry tens of thousands of songs all in your pocket. People were either oblivious to or accepted the fact that the quality was simply lower. The reason is these are compressed files. The loss of quality means they can be smaller file sizes. The downside is you lose almost all of the nuance of the recording. It’s the equivalent of seeing a pixelated jpeg of the Mona Lisa.
That brings us to the present day. Suddenly high-res audio is creeping its way into consumers’ hands. These are audio files, much like mp3’s only they are uncompressed. Meaning these files are larger in size and can handle the ability to have the full range of a recording. With file storage being able to have a higher capacity in a smaller physical space, the larger size of the file isn’t as big of a hassle as it once was.
Spotify has joined other streaming services to offer high-resolution audio as a premium tier. Technology has finally caught up to be able to have high-quality audio be convenient and actually match consumers’ lifestyle. But the file is only one piece of the puzzle. If you don’t have high-end audio equipment to play the music on, paying for high-res audio doesn’t really make much sense. But if you do have the right equipment, then you’re going to have a good time.
I really hope that high-res audio is the future, and can be accessible to everyone. I think it would be really nice if the standard that people listened to music with was at least decent sounding. Only time will tell if this is the case, but the fact that Spotify has picked up on this trend and more and more people are aware of it is a very good thing.
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