Frank Wells
fwells@nbmedia.com
As reported previously in these pages, the Digital Entertainment Group, the Consumer Electronics Association, record labels and The Recording Academy’s Producers and Engineers Wing are championing High Resolution Audio (HRA) at the consumer level. As part of their initiatives, a series of Master Quality source descriptors were developed to tag digital audio deliverables. MQ-P designates a PCM (linear digital audio) source of 48 kHz/20-bit or higher sampling. MQ-A indicates an analog master source. MQ-C indicates CD-standard sampling. MQ-D indicates a DSD (direct-stream-digital or ‘single-bit’ audio) source.

Consumer electronics manufacturers are rolling out HRA-capable equipment, including home receivers that can reproduce a wide range of musical file formats without a high degree of end-user technical knowledge. The Pono portable music solution championed by artist Neil Young raised over $6 million in a Kickstarter campaign that only had an $800,000 goal. The Astell & Kern family of portable HRA players from iRiver is receiving kudos.

I’ve seen a reasonable amount of dialog (and excitement) on audiophile sites and news forums about these formats and the hardware. I have yet to see significant penetration of the concepts at the street level, among the iPhone and generic white ear-bud listening public.

Beats’ success in getting consumers to shell out the cash for designer headphones is significant. While many, if not most, audio pros are quick to dismiss the Beats products themselves based on their hyped frequency response, it is reasonable to credit the success of Beats and their marketing for a general increase in sales of headphones and aftermarket in-ear monitors. This includes high-quality, high-performance and even studio-grade personal monitors, even if some of that success is based on manufacturing existing pro products with style-conscious aesthetics.

Home theater listening, including HDTV audio, has driven some improvement in audio playback. Even though HDTV audio falls short of the MQ/HRA standards (5.1 audio at 48 kHz sampling with a typical streaming rate of 384 kbps—which means significant data compression is employed), broadcast and cable television audio is still the best it’s ever been and consumers have by and far accepted such resolutions as acceptable—it being on a par with most audio on DVD video discs. Even with its advanced capability, only the high-end home theater and audiophile communities are praising Blu-ray audio—it’s the perceived improvements in video quality that gets the most attention. Dolby Atmos releases are poised to take consumer home theater audio to new heights (pun intended), but how many consumers will implement surround systems with greater speaker counts when so many are relying on a sound bar speaker beneath their television screen as a surround source (or even listening, gasp, to the speakers built-in to their HDTV sets, just maybe with a pseudo- surround mode enabled).

The HRA solutions discussed here thus far are file- or physical media-based, and it’s easy to see why the record labels and film studios would embrace these solutions— ownership and thus purchases are a part of the formula. But that has to be countered with an increased consumer use of streaming audio, with even more drastic data reduction/lossy coding employed. In a quick internet search, I found only one, limited catalog, HRA streaming service, limited to MQ-C capability (though not using those descriptors).

Hopefully, the day will come when consumer perception and demand rises to meet HRA/MQ standards. In the meantime, we can support these initiatives to the limited extent we can, and maintain the highest standards in our work.