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A Sound Education

Piracy on the Hi-Res

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“There comes a time in a man's life when he hears the call of the sea. If the man has a brain in his head, he will hang up the phone immediately.”
Dave Barry

Imagine yourself standing in line at a juice bar, ready for a tasty natural treat. You salivate with anticipation as you order a cup of fresh-squeezed orange juice. The server, hard at work grinding oranges before your eyes, points to a ready-made cup of orange juice on the counter. You pay your premium price for your premium treat and feel quite premium of yourself. Mmmm. I'll bet you wouldn't feel so premium if you found out that your delectable overpriced cup of OJ was really made from concentrate. But it tasted soooo good. Did the premium price influence your taste buds? By now you're probably feeling cheated and ripped off. Again.

Something else people have been overpaying for since forever are music knockoffs. In the 1800s hucksters would blatantly rip-off sheet music; early records were either re-recorded or re-pressed from originals; and illegally replicated compact discs filled up warehouses for decades. Savvy consumers usually know fake from fact, but in this digital only world, it's getting harder to tell. But help is on the way.

First, let's look only at theft and tally the numbers the music pirates are sailing away with. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA):

  • The U.S. economy loses $12.5 billion in total output annually as a consequence of music theft.
  • Sound recording piracy leads to the loss of 71,060 jobs to the U.S. economy.
  • Music theft also leads to the loss of $2.7 billion in earnings annually in both the sound recording industry and in downstream retail industries.
  • The U.S. federal, state and local governments lose a minimum of $422 million in tax revenues annually due to piracy.

That's a lot of booty we're losing to those dastardly pirates. Rewinding back to the days of Napster and LimeWire, we knew who the pirates were – it was us! Now I don't want to lay a guilt trip on anybody for all those downloads because we've all learned our lesson and stopped doing that, right?...Right? Well, today the lines are blurred as to who the pirates are, and how they're hornswaggling us.

The hottest digital audio item for the last several years has been high-resolution (Hi-Res) music files. See the digital audio format comparison box below. These are sound files that are technically superior to the ubiquitous audio CD. As a note, mp3s and AACs (iTunes) are technically inferior to audio CDs, as they are a "lossy" compression (files that throw away sonic information in order to greatly reduce file size). These Hi-Res music files have a wider dynamic and frequency ranges than CDs. They are usually recorded, mixed, mastered, and delivered with the same specs all along the digital chain with little to no destructive resampling. They're typically compressed into smaller, lossless files that retain all sonic information (kind of like a ZIP file).

Hi-Res music files usually cost more than MP3s, iTunes songs, and audio CDs. I did a price comparison of a typical album. Here's what I found:

Audio CD (Amazon): $10
MP3 download (Amazon): $12
Vinyl (Amazon): $21
FLAC 44.1 KHz/24-bit (HDtracks): $18
FLAC 96 KHz/24-bit (HDtracks): $18
FLAC 192/24 (HDtracks, SuperHiRez) $25
DSD (SuperHiRez, Native DSD) $25-29

There are a few interesting things here. Why, oh why, does an MP3 album (worse quality) that YOU download cost more than a CD (better quality) that Amazon ships? And look at the price of vinyl compared to a CD. I know vinyl is a different experience, but that's twice the price of a CD or MP3 version. If I were a music retailer, I would look at these offerings and see Hi-Res music as possibly the most profitable: CDs and vinyl require shipping and warehouse space, Hi-Rez files live on servers that consumers download. Many music labels are digging into their back catalogs to see what they could reissue in Hi-Res. That's right, sell the same old music to the same people all over again.

So is this Hi-Res music all that it's cracked up to be? Well, yes and no. First of all, your ears have to be in good shape. If you suffer hearing loss and you can't tell the difference between a high-quality MP3 and an audio CD, don't waste your money. If you're young and healthy and haven't ruined your ears listening to loud music, you would probably be able to tell at least some advantages of Hi-Res.

The second part of the equation is listening training. If you're a musician, then you probably notice more subtle details when listening to music. If you're in audio or video production or broadcasting, then you will also more than likely be adept at picking out audio details. This doesn't mean non-musicians or non-engineers won't be able to hear sound differences, but having repeated experiences creating and troubleshooting audio cues goes a long way.

The third part of the Hi-Res equation is the end source, such as equipment, software, and listening environment. If you don't have the correct software to decode these files properly, or the right equipment to play it in full fidelity, then you're missing out on all the details. An echoey room, a noisy background, or sub-par headphones can all take away from the Hi-Res experience. But don't fret, you don't have to have a $10,000 sound system to listen to Hi-Res. In fact, most newer hi-fi systems, smart phones, and earbuds or headphones have excellent quality. Of course, the fancier the gear, the more you're likely to hear.

Let's look at a few myths and truths about Hi-Res audio. When recording music at high sample rates (like 96KHz, 192KHz, or 384KHz), it solves filtering and processing problems that keep noise out of the recording. It also samples harmonics that are above human hearing (about 20 KHz), but have subtle effects on lower, audible tones. The other advantage is better spatial reproduction (where reflections of sounds off a wall are coming from, for example). Other than that, on average we can't hear huge differences between 48KHz and 96KHz +.

So you might be thinking, "If we can only hear to 20KHz, then why are CDs recorded at 44.1 KHz? The short answer is that back in early digital audio days, Harry Nyquist figured out that "the sampling rate must be equal to, or greater than, twice the highest frequency component in the analog signal." That's about 40KHz plus some room for error. Most analog tape, microphones, and recording consoles by the way, only capture frequencies up to about 20 KHz. So those originally analog albums from decades ago don't usually benefit greatly being re-recorded to ultra-high resolution digital.

If we look at the higher 24-bit rate offered in Hi-Res audio, then we're talking about a dramatic advantage over 16-bit (MP3s, iTunes, and CDs). In layman's terms, the difference between loud and soft passages is greatly increased. For example, 16-bit audio captures about 65,000 discreet values (or descriptions) for loudness levels while 24-bit captures almost 17 million. This is like having only 65 words in the English vocabulary instead of the 170,000 in use. In addition, 24-bit audio increases the dynamic range of music from 96 dB to 144 dB. That's like the loudness difference between your lawn mower and a jet engine.

You can see the clear advantages of high bit rate audio – in theory. In practice, the bit rate is variable as most studio recordings hovers around 16- or 18-bit, with quiet passages dipping down near 8-bit and sharp loud peaks hitting the 24-bit ceiling. (It's worth noting that many newer digital recordings are now being made at 64-bit). Nice to have the headroom when you need it. The increased bit rate is the single largest difference between audio CDs and Hi-Res audio that's noticeable to most people, although the average person would be hard pressed to put their finger on exactly what's different or unique about it. 24-bit is less compressed and closed-in sounding than 16-bit. In professional terms we would say that it's "transparent," or closer to reality.

In the audiophile world, there's a lot of products that claim to make your music sound better, and most of it is honest and does what it says it will do. Take speaker cables. You could just use plain old zip cord, but upgrading to the next level can make a big difference. A decent six-foot 14-gauge stereo pair with gold tips (because gold corrodes slower) can cost $30 and solve noise and distortion problems. Upping the ante even more, an audiophile-grade ten-foot one can cost $1,300 at Best Buy. I'm not sure I would hear the difference on an average system, but if I were pushing 10,000 watts, these might keep my wires from melting. If you really don't care about money (or what's wrong with society in general), you can drop $50,000 here. I use affordable commercial-grade speaker cable here and have never once had an issue. I once worked in a studio where we ran 12-gauge home electric cable to our speakers, and that was overkill. My point is that some people are gullible enough to buy a gold-lined sewer pipe because someone told them it's the best one can buy. (Well we know what goes through gold-lined sewer pipes.)

And that's exactly the type of buyer that some of the more clever digital pirates are looking for. There have been instances recently where some files advertised as Hi-Res are really just lower resolution files repackaged as Hi-Res files. For instance, a CD-quality recording is "up-res'd" to appear, at least by specs, as a Hi-Res product. Without the right software, it's difficult for consumers to check the authenticity of these files. There are efforts underway to get usable digital deception tools into our hands, but we're still some time away. Not all sellers are guilty of intentional deception, oftentimes they have been duped themselves. Also, some Hi-Res recordings of original analog masters are technically higher quality, but much of the information above the limitations of analog tape are just not there. Again, the noticeable difference will be in the higher bit-rate than a CD. A truly Hi-Res product is one that starts in the digital domain at the high sampling and bit-rates (such as 192KHz, 24-bit) and stays there through the entire recording, mixing, and mastering phases. These will have incredible detail for the true audiophile, not so much for the average listener.

So is Hi-Res audio worth the extra price? If you can absolutely hear differences between higher resolution audio masters and CDs, have the right equipment, have the cash, then go for it. Just make sure the product has remained in the same format through the chain. If it's a remaster of an old analog classic, go for the lower end of Hi-Res, such as 24/96. If it's a re-release of something that was recorded and mixed in the early days of digital (the 80s and early 90s), then there's no new information beyond CD quality. My money is in remasters and re-mixes of classics. These usually reveal more information for audiophiles and music lovers alike because they're rebalanced for modern equipment and tastes. As for the pirates, it's just a shame that you don't see a Jolly Roger flag whipping in the wind before you hit the "BUY" button.