March 1983 gave our world a new and ‘perfect’ medium; a sound carrier to outshine everything and anything mankind has experienced before. It was all down to ones and zeros and the miraculous format was called Compact Disc. Sony and Philips (or Philips and Sony) were parenting the new movement and at the time, all we knew was:
a) it was a small, shiny disc encoded with up to 74 minutes of musical content
b) that the software was made out of pure digitally encoded recordings or from "digitised" analogue masters in up to three processing steps
c) that the digital-to-analogue conversion took place within mightily complex chipsets (integrated circuits), which had a bit rate (depth) of up to 16
bits and the sampling frequency was 44.1kHz
Fast forward then, from the initial disappointment in how CD sounded when compared to the best analogue LP replay systems of the era, through those gradual steps of acceptance, and later genuine steps forward in terms of sound quality, to present times, when CD happens to be sounding really good by any standards, including the very highest-end considerations.
So, what has changed technically in a 30-year 'split second' segment within the overall history of time? Not much, apart from the predictable recycling of certain design aspects of CD replay hardware. For example, we called it ‘oversampling’ in the 1980s, but the contemporary term is ‘upsampling’; same difference, albeit at a much higher cost to the consumer. Or perhaps, the fact that some of the very best sounding CD replay systems today still use a particular digital-to-analogue conversion chip design from 1983, and shy away from any kind of digital filtering.
In the year 2013, (audiophile) mankind has long lost any sense of patience and understanding of how one learns and perfects anything in life over time. There is no longer time for experience and continuous development. Our extensive use of computers does not help either. And to which we welcome streaming. Frankly speaking, streaming of computer music files has been around for a few years now, but we think that 2013 could be accepted as the year when it reached a sufficiently high level of overall sound quality to be considered relevant, and worthy of enjoying music of all kinds.
Sadly, there is a serious caveat to be dealt with. Just like in the 1970s when audio products from Japan dominated the planet and very few actually listened
, but made their choices on the back of specification sheets (“low distortion good, lower distortion better”), it looks as if far too many of us have already fallen into claws of (predominantly meaningless) numbers. Numbers, that are supposed to define the resolution (in theory, sonic properties) of music we play back from our computers through USB streaming DAC devices. "The More, The Better" principle seems to be in fashion again with a most concerning level of 'misunderstanding' related to the subject.
Let us share a few thoughts for your consideration and a little bit of active thinking:
1) Why should we be obsessed with 24 bits and 192kHz sampling rate? Practically all recorded music available today has been created (excluding all ADD and AAD material, of course which adds further to the same lot) at 16-bit, 44.1kHz resolution and that is all we need to play it back!!??
Do we really want to know how an already present distortion, various types of noise or, in some cases, tape hiss (if source happens to be analogue in it's roots) may sound at 24/96? One would hope not, but there is plenty of evidence out there that 'artefacts' of the kind very much do exist.
2) Why is it that none of the leading record companies (labels) offers downloads of their catalogue even in 16/44, let alone 24/96 resolution and suitable file formats through their web sites? Did you know that, as an example, even Deutsche Grammophon or Decca who used to offer FLAC files for download no longer let us have those directly? The moment you click with an intent to download any of their releases, you are automatically redirected to... guess where? iTunes
, of course!!! And we know how high the resolution or quality of music available for download there is by any serious standard.
3) Unless we are fundamentally wrong, there are two main ways of using streaming of computer files for our entertainment at any level. Portable in conjunction with smartphones, tablets and similar, or stationary by connecting a streaming device to our home systems as an additional line level source. There is absolutely no need for anything more than a CD sound quality for the former and it is, at best, debatable whether we need any more within even most advanced home audio systems either. While playing back genuinely encoded 24/96 or 24/192 files should
provide a superior sound quality to the same piece of music played at the 16/44 resolution level, this will be possible to assess and judge only as and when we have
a sufficient selection of the appropriate musical contents available.
4) Taken all into account, why is it we do not have any proper selection of even CD quality (16/44) music available for download from those who sell the very same music on CD? One of the likely answers is quite simple - because the vast majority of consumers do not really care about true sound quality
of the music they love to listen to day after day. Perhaps 128 or 256kbps is enough for all but few, who knows? Not that they would not be able to tell the difference through almost any of the current best selling headphones, let alone decent hi-fi systems. Try comparing a 128 or a 256kbps download to a FLAC, WAV or Apple Lossless file. It should not take more than five seconds to hear and know all there is to hear and know!
You may ask yourselves why are we making you read such a long story this month? After all, we happen to be involved with one of the leading brands of streaming devices on a daily basis, so there must be something clandestine or sinister in the back of our minds with all this... Sorry to disappoint, but there isn't. After 25 years of working with traditional, and to a large extent analogue, audio components, we are learning
so much every day about the new (and, frankly, fabulous) concept of having so much music stored on a medium that can be with us anytime and anywhere (be it solid-state drive, hard drive or cloud storage) and enjoyed to the fullest, equally so in terms of musical and sound qualities! And, as we all learn more and more about it, we wish to make sure the usual pitfalls of blinkered and unrealistic thinking do not cause excessive damage against all the positive elements of whatever the future may bring. Instead of pointless 'discussions' of utmost futility and predictable negativity, try to think with your own, healthy and most capable mind. Common sense should and must prevail. Instead of crying out loud for "24/192 or nothing else", why not converting a radio broadcast or one of your LPs (if you happen to have them) into a few different (high) resolution computer music files and have a listen... you might be in for a surprise, possibly even a pleasant one! Yes, the source material would, in case of LP or radio broadcast (unless a live transmission), present a fundamental limtation by having been recorded. However, the benefit of the comparative results outdo the drawbacks.
way to correctly and realistically witness and enjoy true
advantages of a 24 or higher bit depth is to have such source material and nothing else. In actual fact, it is quite likely that a fairly modest sample rate at or below 44.1 kHz, combined with a higher (24) bit depth could not only sound truly state-of-the-art, but also take up a similar amount of storage as a 16/44 equivalent. This hypothetical concept was mentioned simply to illustrate the futility of dangerously prevailing 'thinking' among consumers. Which, incidentally, is constantly being fuelled by a number of not very knowledgeable, but certainly very vocal and agressive internet forum speculators.
Streaming hardware combined with genuine high-resoution source material of 16/44 or higher resolution can
very much sound as a true high-end audio source - and more! So, let us make sure we do not kill it before it has been cooked to perfection by wanting too many bits and stratospheric sampling rates. Demanding ‘the best’ doesn’t matter if there’s almost nothing to play back at ‘the best’ resolution.