Thursday, 18 August 2016

MUSINGS: Convenience, lossy audio, societal trends, and worsening sound quality?

IMO, a realistic graph of audio formats and quality first discussed here.
Last week, as I was browsing the internet catching up on the news after a long day out doing touristy things in China, I came across this interesting post on Stereophile. A whimsical look at the proverbial crystal ball and presenting a rather dystopian audiophile future of 2116. For some reason, the protagonist seems to be a hippie and references to Baby Boomers are made. As if these terms would even be of contemporary significance by that time! Plus it's presented as if high quality sonic reproduction would be absent in a century's time!

The basic lament is the tiring belief that we don't seem to care about sound quality any more as a society, the quality is "deteriorating", and that ultimately it's all got to do with "convenience".

But is this true?

Short and sweet:
NO, I don't think so.

I suspect it's much more complex and worth putting some thought into...

(Very) Long opinion:
The truth is likely much more complicated than a short article like that (or even my post here) can fully encompass, but let's see if I can give it a try. Let us try to expand the ideas a bit beyond the limited scope of hippies, Boomers, and generic discussions of "sound quality" as if the "quality of music" were some kind of easily summarized phenomenon.

As a start, why don't we explore the 3 major domains to keep in mind around quality and what audiophiles often concern themselves with: sound quality as achievable through hardware performancethe music software itself, and the societal factors which may be changing how music is consumed and whether "quality" is sought after.

Hardware Domain:

In my mind, this is an easy one. Sonic fidelity out of small, convenient modern devices are better than they've ever been. I've already documented that the iPhone 6, Samsung Galaxy Note 5, modern DAP (PonoPlayer), simple USB DACs (eg. AudioEngine D3, Light Harmonic Geek Out V2) are all way better than the old days of analogue/CD Walkmans (Walkmen??). The ability to achieve flat, stable frequency response, jitter-free playback, and dynamic range beyond 16-bits are all easily achieved. Even better performance can be objectively achieved with full-sized DACs and computer transports.

As a teenager, I saved up my pennies doing paper routes and cash gifts in lieu of presents, to buy my first high quality Walkman-type cassette player/recorder. It was an Aiwa HS-J800 from 1986, bought for ~US$200 as I vaguely recall which based on inflation as per the calculator works out to over US$400 today - easily within the range of modern cell phones and audio players like the PonoPlayer. Featuring auto-reverse, Dolby B NR, a good AM/FM tuner, decent size for portability, it was a fantastic marvel of mechanical and electronic audio reproduction which still works quite well today! I loved that unit and would bring it everywhere with me especially while studying in the library during the last years of high school wearing the included headband headphones which I thought sounded good back in the day. These days my kids will obviously recognize the lower fidelity compact cassette sound, and the headphones (long dead) would have been quite unimpressive - a ton of sound leakage, lacking in bass response, dynamics and resolution.

Despite the great memories, would I ever consider this little Aiwa sonically competitive with a modern iPhone or the PonoPlayer? Of course not! There's no way any compact cassette tape would be anywhere close to what even an iPod playing decent bitrate MP3 would be able to achieve let alone any of the modern portables capable of lossless 24-bit playback or higher samplerates. The Aiwa's battery life (always had a few rechargeables on hand) was significantly shorter than the >6 hours these days, and of course cassette tapes are not random access devices and can only hold up to 180 minutes for the longest blank tapes (realistically, 120 minutes were the longest I ever recorded to). A basic 16G iPod Touch Gen 6 (~$200) with some Audio-Technica ATH-M50x (~US$160) headphones would have totally destroyed the sound of the Aiwa cassette player and likely most Discmans (Discmen??) from the 80's and 90's in a shoot-out using vintage consumer headphones of the day.

As for my home digital music player, I had an inexpensive all-plastic US$200 boombox with CD player in 1987 (a Yorx), then later I spent about US$500 before tax for my first decent CD, dual cassette, digital EQ, bookshelf speaker system in 1991 (or slightly more than US$900 today). The Sony MHC-1500 was quite good looking and capable for the day unlike some of the truly gaudy offerings. US$900 these days would buy a myriad of all-in-one box systems with features unimaginable in the late 80's and early 90's with at least equivalent sound!

For around US$900, imagine putting together a system that could sound good. Perhaps pairing the US$280 Elac B6 Debut bookshelf speakers, or a pair of US$300 Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 with an inexpensive Sony STR-DH770 receiver (US$300) capable of surround 7.2 sound but run in stereo mode. This would already provide Bluetooth streaming, a USB port for music files (not computer playback), HDMI ready for 4K, and a platform to build a surround system off of! With the remaining US$320 (buying Elac + Sony with a $900 budget), that's enough to buy a decent Blu-Ray player for CD and movies, or maybe a reasonable USB DAC for computer playback... Splurge a little or look for deals, and that $320 may even be enough for a Blu-Ray player plus a 40" 1080P flatscreen TV. Alternatively, if I want a nice robust analogue stereo receiver which I could build around for the longer term, I might consider grabbing the US$700 Outlaw Audio RR2150 (100Wpc both channels driven at <0.03% THD, 20-20kHz, into 8-ohms) instead of the Sony which includes a serviceable USB computer input. Furthermore, one could look at the used market and the options at great prices!

The point of course is that for around the same amount of money, the options are much more impressive these days hardware-wise. The Elac speakers above would run rings around the old Sony bookshelves in sound quality (I still have them and they don't even compare to my AudioEngine A2's). The electronics would be more powerful and options for connectivity unimaginable a couple of decades ago.

Software Domain:

I know that some audiophiles out there think the pinnacle of audio formats was the vinyl LP (I've expressed my disagreement previously). Some may even feel that the pinnacle of recording quality was in the 50's and 60's with the likes of Mercury Living Presence classical, or jazz albums like Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, or maybe Getz/Gilberto. Perhaps the work of Rudy Van Gelder in general. Perhaps it was the 70's with Pink Floyd and Dark Side. How about the 80's with some (arguably) amazing sounding early digital like Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms. How about the early 90's and the Q-Sound processed Roger Waters' Amused to Death? Anyone want to nominate awesome rock and pop recordings from the 2000's and 2010's?

Along the same subjective preferential lines, we can opine on favourite formats - LP, CD, DVD-A, SACD, PCM, DSD, etc... But the fact is as far as I can tell and as expressed in the graphic at the top of this post, whatever software format we choose, the digital ones these days are within the zone of "maximum auditory acuity" for us humans. Yes, this includes high-bitrate MP3 and CD. What matters more at this stage in my opinion is the quality of the music, not the quality of the encoding format.

I think it would be helpful to further subdivide "the quality of music" into a few levels so we can be on the same page and discuss how and what we can make judgments about; both subjectively and possibly objectively:

1. Artistic / Creativity Level: This is at the level of subjective appreciation of the music and very much our personal connection with the artist's creative impulses. Do I like the music itself? Is it a genre I can appreciate? Did the record come together to convey its message? Did I like the message? Does it resonate with my life, evoke memories, expand my sense of meaning and spiritual state? Is the music euphonic to my ears or does it sound like noise?

Needless to say, there are great artists in each generation with albums of music worth collecting and concerts worth attending.

2. Performance Level: Still very much subjective but we can compare performances and possibly come to similar conclusions as listeners. Did the artist perform as passionately as he/she could have? Was the artist in good vocal shape during the performance? What instruments did the artists choose for the performance? Did the band and back-up vocalists do a good job? Did the musicians synergize during this performance? How does this Mahler Symphony performance compare to Bernstein's?

3. Technical Recording / Production Level: It gets more objective now... We can start thinking about the limitations of certain microphones and how they were placed - did they capture the "soundstage" optimally, was placement too close/far, did this type of microphone complement the studio setup, was the microphone choice optimal as a vocal mic, etc... (here's an interesting guide). A 16/48kHz DAT recording has certain limitations. The recording space chosen will have repercussions to the sound in terms of reverb time for example. Was this a "live" stereo recording or was it multi-tracked for mixing? Digital or analogue recording? What studio tricks - relative track levels, EQ, reverb, DSP processing were selected and were they used in a pleasing manner? How was it mixed? How "loud" did the final mix turn out?

4. Consumer Distribution Level: Finally, after all of this, we get to consider how that final, mixed "product" was release to us as consumers. Was it initially a 24/96 final master that was dithered to 16-bits and resampled to 44kHz for CD? Did it need to go through the RIAA EQ, remastered dynamics, bass content adjustments for the LP? For physical distribution: What pressing plant and quality of vinyl was chosen? What material was the disk made of (think standard pressed silver CD vs. SHM material for example)? What was the final data format - PCM, DSD, MP3, AAC, HDCD, MQA...?

I trust that we are all participants in the "music lover hobby" (as discussed previously) so we can all subjectively say something about every level above. However, as "audiophiles" typically discussing the hardware and specifically adjudicating sonic fidelity, it's actually levels 3 & 4 that are most applicable in many of our discussions. The "Consumer Distribution" level is perhaps the most easily discussed because that is what is proximal before us as consumers and we can easily form an opinion. We can all argue whether we like CD vs. vinyl, prefer digital downloads, discuss the beautiful artwork on an LP sleeve vs. virtual art from a virtual store, etc... It's easy to argue that one "loves" the sound of vinyl versus the clinical accuracy of digital. Likewise, we can easily complain that lossy encoding is "bad" because we have a concept of how it works. But I hope we can appreciate that this last "Consumer Distribution Level" is typically a small part of what constitutes the "sound" of the recording (obviously recognizing too that a medium of lower transparency like low bitrate 128kbps MP3 and poor-quality vinyl could have very negative impact on overall sound quality).

IMO, as hobbyists, participants in forums, and perhaps even writers and reviewers, we need to focus more on discussing issues on the "Technical Recording / Production Level". The hardware advancements are fantastic and have been on an elevating quality trajectory over the decades for the same inflation-adjusted price... But what has become of recording production quality? If we are to put our blame on the decline in sound quality, it is precisely in this level we have to voice our concerns.

Thankfully, the classical world is still blessed with fantastic recordings that sound natural, clean, and highly resolving. Realize of course that acoustic music like classical and jazz combined account for much less than 10% of the market. What of pop/rock/R&B/rap/country/gospel recording quality and remasters these days? Over the years, I have voiced my concerns around the dire quality of albums like this, or the lack of improvement despite claims of "hi-res". I'm further dismayed by horrifying "documentaries" like Harman's "The Distortion of Sound" as previously discussed. I'm glad that other audiophile bloggers are doing their part in bringing this nonsense further to light. But we need to do more, folks. Perhaps some artists are aiming for "lo-fi" sound, but on the whole, I think many of us recognize that something isn't quite right with the typical level of sonic fidelity.

If we truly want to advance the "cause" of better sound, we must continue to participate in the forums, remind all those who care about sound quality, and publish articles putting the pressure on artists, producers, record labels, and audio engineers that it is they who are responsible for the diminished sound quality we hear these days whether it's overuse of dynamic range compression, peak limiting, poor quality home-studio recordings, overuse of DSP processing without careful consideration to maintain good resolution... [Consider this article in Sound On Sound "Secrets of the Mix Engineers" - what do you think of the DSP complexity of modern pop/rock these days?! Do you think there is such a thing as an "authentic" studio sound for this kind of music as some might want us to believe!?]

When audiophiles and music lovers recognize that music "software" these days often sound poor as a result of decisions made by various individuals at the level of the "Technical Recording / Production" and unite in voicing a desire for better production quality, then there is at least a chance for change. And an honest discussion about what's holding fidelity back for those who care.

Societal Changes and Trends:

I'm not pessimistic and I believe we will see the day music sounds more "natural" again with the caveat that this will be in specific contexts at least initially. Let me explain. Let's soar to 30,000 feet and have a big picture look at where things are going on the mass scale over the years.

Technology has given us efficiency. Efficiency in storage has resulted in 1000+ songs in one's pocket (beginning at low bitrates but easily increased to lossless in the last decade). Efficiency in energy utilization has resulted in better battery life. Efficiency in processing has allowed miniaturization and convergence devices like the smart phones ubiquitous worldwide today. These changes and improvements do not imply lower quality of audio reproduction while increasing convenience as discussed above. The idea that we're putting up with poor quality "because of convenience" is a false dichotomy that needs to be replaced.

Rather, just like the question above about what constitutes "the quality of music", we should consider factors affecting the trends we're seeing these days:

1. A move towards multimedia and interactivity.
Media entertainment is powered by the seductive capabilities of computing technology: multimedia and interactivity. This has been the direction for decades. Movies were the first to capture the multimedia experience and continues to push the envelop of multichannel sound and visual technology. Multimedia audio/visual presentation was eventually embraced by the music industry as music videos and the marketing power they bring. Interactive applications such as video games have since become a massive genre over the last 3 decades with wonderful examples of artistic expression, creating an industry in their own right continuing to expand into other technologies like VR. Folks, the video games market did about $15-billion in software sales in US alone in 2013, this is about the same as worldwide music sales for 2015! Is it any wonder that the smartphone and mobile computing platforms have become the logical step in this path of technological evolution; taking the multimedia experience and gaming interactivity anywhere we go?

Remember folks, vision is the primary sensory modality for humans. We dedicate much more neurological resources to visual processing than auditory perception. In fact, I wonder if the last hundred years has been a bit of an anomaly where audio technology developed first and was "cool" as "hot" tech for awhile hence the rise of the audiophile generations (post-War and the Boomers generations?). That time of audio tech being "cool" is over, certainly since the early 2000's with high resolution video and flat screen TVs. With the rapid developments in video technology, we're returning to the "norm" - remember that for millennia music had been enjoyed in theaters, concert halls, or part of participatory rituals, not solitary affairs in one's home. There's more we can talk about in this regard, but I digress...

Given the limited time we all have, it is expected that attention to other forms of entertainment will reduce the number of us interested and willing to spend time with unimodal 2-channel stereo audio entertainment (2 channels being the typical audiophile medium). Financial resources will likewise be apportioned out for these other forms of entertainment, leaving less disposable resources overall. There will of course always be a "core" group of music lovers willing to spend $$$ on specialty audio (ie. "hardware audiophiles"), but the numbers are already significantly diminished.

2. The shift to mobile audio.
There is a price to pay for true mobility (and I'm not talking Head-Fi folks who sit in their homes with tube amps and Audeze headphones!). With a change in context from the quiet of one's home, to the uncontrolled environment of the street and public life, there is logic in producing and mastering the music loud with dynamic compression to accentuate the softer parts of the song (another reason includes the desire to stand out compared to other songs on the radio/streaming - the Loudness Wars...). I don't believe this was malicious or that music producers and artists didn't care about quality per se, but rather this is something done to have it heard over the high ambient noise. Eventually, people got used to this type of sound and either adjusted to it as "normal" or find it unenjoyable and stopped listening as much (or gripe about it like many of us audiophiles!). On balance, I'm sure the studios recognize that quality in a good soundroom is compromised by the modern dynamically compressed sound, but given the masses walking around with headphones on, perpetually connected to the Net, ready to download a tune off iTunes while waiting in line or commuting in the subway with the press of a button, of course the industry will be catering to these folks as long as they don't complain!

Can we foresee a time when unimodal audio will be cherished again by the masses? A time when large numbers will seek out and enjoy music in a venue that's quiet, serene, able to bring out nuances and allow the mind to experience the joy of pure audio reproduction?

I don't think so. Especially with economic realities the way they are. The price of land and space in large urban settings have been growing phenomenally so a good soundroom is out of reach for many (hence the rise of the aforementioned head-fi audiophiles with non-portable high-end headphone gear). Let's not beat around the bush, some level of affluence is needed in this hobby and it's not necessarily just because the hardware is expensive. Furthermore the twin effects of the seductive qualities of technology and mobility shift is not looking to end any time soon.

But just because the masses might not change, that doesn't mean the hobby is "dead" or that we can't do our part and sway perception, improve sound quality, and increase interest in this niche. Here are a few ways we can try:

A. Continue educating. This is the pillar for any change and must continue. Continue with Dynamic Range Day. Continue with showing people sites like DR Database to remind them that different mastering can make a huge difference and as discerning music lovers, we have the power to choose. Audiophile magazines must start taking on a leadership role to "call a spade a spade" and openly talk about poor sounding recordings instead of being primarily the mouthpiece of the industry (like hyping up the obviously questionable Pono claims of high-resolution audio quality last year or the superfluous MQA IMO). Even if we like the artist and recommend an album, it's important to comment on the mastering and production quality to maintain the issue in the public eye.

[As I responded to Honza in comments below, there are standards like EBU R128 "Loudness Normalization and Permitted Maximum Levels" that  really should be discussed more and made known to the audiophile public - https://tech.ebu.ch/docs/r/r128.pdf.]

B. Encourage those interested in vinyl and LPs. I know this might be ironic coming from me since I feel LPs are inferior sounding compared to digital in general. But the "beauty" of vinyl is that it has limitations with excessively loud recordings, necessitating lowering average volume and potentially increasing dynamic range. It forces people to stay at home, make space for a turntable, and teaches them to slow down and listen with discipline. This is all good and necessary for the audiophile hobby because it potentially exposes music lovers to focus on fidelity (or the lack of). It also readjusts listening preference to a more dynamic sound. In time and with better equipment, I suspect many will "rediscover" the quality of digital in a good home system. Remember not to go crazy and claim that LPs are the "ultimate" in sound quality :-).

I hope the audio industry doesn't end up being greedy, start producing bad quality vinyl pressings, and jack up prices to squeeze every penny of profit from the music consuming public. That'd be shooting themselves in the foot with the first sign of life in the physical music market. Already I see many new pressings (typically of old music) priced very high and I'm really wondering just how many actual sales are going on in many of the brick & mortar stores around where I live.

BTW: Based on this recent UK report, it looks like the vinyl renaissance still is fueled by an older demographic rather than having broad support from the younger generation.

C. Hardware manufacturers / Playback programmers: Implement the "Mobile Boost" button! Dynamic range compression should have always stayed as a feature in the hardware. It would be nice if this is a feature on all digital audio players, easily accessible on phone music playback software, and back in car audio as well. Somehow find a way to make this a desired feature. I think it's good to just call the button something like "Mobile Boost" instead of confusing or other fancy terminology (even the old "Loudness" label I think may be too vague). Let it be associated with exactly what it's used for - mobile applications. Maybe even allow a few levels of compression so the end user can choose how much he prefers. Make sure to include a paragraph on this in the user manual to describe the rationale, and hardware reviewers continue to remind folks the benefits of such a feature if we see such a thing implemented again in portable audio.

D. Encourage the release of different masterings. Unlikely to happen perhaps, but this is the most direct solution because it gets to the heart of the matter. Perhaps the CD and lossy versions can be louder and dynamic compressed for mobile purposes and hi-res versions can have better masterings as I had suggested a number of months back ("Standard Resolution" and "Advanced Resolution"). The release of modern albums with DR7 (like Elton John's recent Wonderful Crazy Night) in 24-bits at jacked up prices ($21 on HDTracks when you can get the 2 CD Deluxe with 2 live tracks at $15 on Amazon) is a slap to the face of high resolution adopters.

Recording engineers, producers... Loudness standards like EBU R128 as noted above seem reasonable, don't you think?

E. Stop with blaming sound quality on lossy formats. It's ridiculous comparing MP3 128kbps to lossless these days. Enough with using MP3 as the perpetual scapegoat and claim that it's evidence of "convenience trumps quality". It's disingenuous to do so these days since high bitrate MP3 sounds fine though of course not ideal, and the public is satisfied. When audiophiles go around and start exaggerating about how "bad" MP3 is but unable to definitively show a difference with a FLAC or hi-res file compared to say a 256kbps MP3, it shows just how out of touch some audiophiles have become by perpetuating a myth that the public is just going to shrug off and walk away (again, Pono/Neil Young's promo material is an example of this unsophisticated sideshow that damages credibility ultimately). Apple switched to DRM-free 256kbps AAC back in 2009. Amazon MP3 appears to vary between 192-320kbps. No self-respecting high school student these days downloading music off the internet would go lower than 192kbps (my kids are growing up so when I visit family friends, I make it a point to ask the teenagers). Endlessly protesting about lossy encoding will not improve overall sound quality just as much as promoting 24/192 is not going to do anything either in the absence of actual recordings worthy of being called "high resolution".

As you can see, the suggestions above apply to the various levels of the music chain. Producers, artists, and engineers can do their part. The common audiophile can do his/her part to educate and demand better recordings (especially if they're going to pay good money for so-called "hi-res"). The audiophile magazines have a large influence on the readership as well as can shape purchasing behaviour and promote honest, reality-based advice. Hardware engineers and those who write software can implement easily accessible downstream audio compression (that "Mobile Boost" button) for those who prefer to listen on-the-go so studios don't feel they have to release albums with high compression built-in.

As the audiophile press laments the "death" of sound quality and high-end audio, wondering how they're going to reinvigorate the hobby, I suggest that in the big picture, good sound quality is not uncommon. In fact, I would argue that sound quality is better than ever... It just depends on where you look. And where is it that we hear extremely dynamic, nuanced, detailed, and intelligible audio these days? Why, the local movie theater of course! Just look at the shift from lossy DTS/AC3 to lossless DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD. Marvel at the shift from multichannel and now to object-oriented positional 3D sound (like Atmos, DTS:X, Auro-3D). The sound on Blu-Ray movies are fantastic works of sonic reproduction! To a large part because we know movies are targeted for the controlled setting of a theater and this translates beautifully to the home theater as well. In time, this same thing will translate into the sound quality of VR systems which are aimed to mimic reality. I think the future of sound technology is bright indeed and in the multimedia setting, production quality typically already is much better than what the 2-channel music studios seem to be aiming for.

One day, perhaps sound quality akin to the "absolute sound" can be achieved artificially. Ironically, it may not be something the audiophiles today would recognize or expect. Rather, it will likely be when we embrace and engage the full range of sensory experiences which "looks" nothing like a man staring at his electronics (even if it’s with the seductive warmth of tubes), listening to artificially reproduced music in 2 channels, alone in his soundroom.

Postscript:

The year is 2116. The world remains imperfect. War, environmental concerns, pestilence, famine, and inequality remain. However, much of the world has achieved a standard of living significantly better than in the last century when humanity went through turbulence as it worked its way through the Great Monetary Reform, learning to accept moderation, and shun extremist ideologies. 
It has been more than a decade since Neural Tapping technology has achieved memory and emotional ‘inception’ for those who choose to go through the complex yet refined interface implantation process. Despite long ethical debates, not surprisingly, most adults have accepted the procedure once they reach the age of consent, typically in the mid-20’s, as the procedure requires that brain neural arborization reaches maturity. 
A “retro” (an individual of unconventional appearance and penchant for the esthetics of previous generations) flips through her small collection of 12” vinyl albums and handful of 45rpm singles with pride knowing that few in the world still appreciate the bygone era when life was simpler and people could just enjoy the basic sonic signatures etched in these plastic disks. She then connects the Neural Link, reclines in her favourite vintage La-Z-Boy recliner as the lights dim, and selects her Stim/Sim Program. 
In an instant she is transported back to the subjectively genuine sights, smells, and sounds of an early 21st Century jazz club, reveling in the joys of the experience.

----------------

Greetings from Vietnam...



As the top picture suggests, crossing streets with this much foot, car, bicycle, and motorcycle traffic can be a bit treacherous! Back home in about a week :-).

About time to return back to school, and back to work... Hope you're all enjoying the music!

22 comments:

  1. Interesting and forward thinking. Targets a number of assumptions the audiophile press has long embraced and largely succeeds in countering them with reason. Whenever I hear old school audiophiles lamenting the state of the "hobby" I think of sites like head-fi and my own amazement at the quality of audio I am able to hear with my just phone and a half decent pair of headphones.

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  2. Thanks Daniel.

    When it comes to myths perpetuated by the audiophile press, they're so obviously acting as proselytizers and apologists for the Industry instead of truly having a journalistic voice capable of *steering* the direction of conversation and adding to reasoned debate.

    For a new writer like Jana D. and the younger writers ahead, I do hope they are able to have independent perspectives willing to part with their predecessors and "mentors" as appropriate.

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  3. The best the audio industry could do today is to standardize on 24/48 FLAC releases (on whatever medium) for common recording, with reasonable quality of mastering. That is 99.9999 per cent of quality of original. Unfortunately, this is usually not the case and different paths like vinyl, 24/192, etc. are coming, becuase we know that CD is somewhere about 98-99 per cent ...

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    1. Important point as well Honza.

      The lack of standardization whether for samplerate/depth or especially *loudness* is ultimately the problem. And this is one thing that the movie theaters do right to achieve consistency in quality.

      The perversity of it all is that there have been discussions about this for years. I see back in 1999 there was talk of a "Dynamic Range Approval" idea, 2007 Bob Ludwig ran a Mastering Panel to discuss this (https://lurssenmastering.com/images/aes.pdf). 2010 Earl Vickers published a review and recommendations (http://www.aes.org/e-lib/browse.cfm?elib=15598). And in 2014, we have the EBU R128 "Loudness Normalization and Permitted Maximum Levels" (https://tech.ebu.ch/docs/r/r128.pdf).

      Concepts like target level, loudness range, allowable maximum peak levels, etc... are all there. But without a way to enforce standards, I don't know what chance there is in improving the overall quality of the musical signal.

      This is surely something the audiophile press should be involved in by bringing this stuff up! Whether CD or hi-res isn't really the issue. Refusal to ACT or at least PUSH to address the actual "elephant in the room" is a problem. Educating the audiophile in this is surely more important than spending pages on cable reviews!

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  4. That's OK. I actually do not understand much why the audio industry cannot make similar step as they have done with CD. I know that even then the standardization was hard, but they did it and it serves up to now well. So they can repeat this with todays technology and simultaneously not crave for 24/192 etc - just take 24/48 FLACs and put the on flash disks or DVDs and sell them at normal price to consumers. Everybody will be happy :) and if a good 16/44.1 resampler utlity like FinalCD is included :), everyone can even make CD from them at home if they do not want to buy pressed CDs in addition. It would be nice ....

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    1. At today's resolution and storage abilities, I think they should just go with 24/96. I fear that if they standardized on 48kHz, there will still be anger and gnashing of teeth from the audiophile press and some audiophiles!

      I think most reasonable audiophiles who have taken a look at actual released music will appreciate that 24/192 is quite excessive and unnecessary. Some will still be angry and gnashing teeth... But I think it'll be a lot less :-).

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    2. For reference, my recent take on this:
      http://archimago.blogspot.ca/2016/06/musings-analysis-is-there-any-value-to.html

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    3. If they standardize on 24/96 (not more!), I have no problem with that. 24/48 is however 99.999 sufficient.

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  5. Mobile Boost - Dynamic Range for "on the go".
    Hi Archi
    This idea would really a good thing (and I was / am thinking about this for years) to be able to have good DR on the source, and have the possibility on the playback side to decide, what dynamic range I would like to have as they are different needs for serious listening at home, or back ground listening at home or for listening in cars or with ear buds in subway. But up till now, from year to year, the average DR range on CDs is shrinking and shrinking.
    Juergen

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  6. Hi Juergen, good idea. Have you looked at Bob Katz's K-System?

    Agree on the shrinking DR. Too bad, I was really excited in the mid 80's when Peter Gabriel's Security, The Police's Synchronicity, AC/DC Back in Black and other high dynamic range rock recordings were being released. When you turned up the volume, it felt like the band was in the room. Today it seems the majority of rock masters sounds like a loud annoying radio when turned up.

    Hope all is well.
    Mitch

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    1. Thanks for the notes Honza, Juergen, and Mitch,
      The K-System link looks very interesting Mitch! The idea of mixing music to K-20 (0dB at 20dB below digital full scale for wide range music) as a standard would be fantastic.

      Clearly there are "ways" to get this done! Problem is the "will". And lack of a regulatory framework, hard to imagine the record companies all agreeing to do this unless the music lovers, press, and folks in the industry speak up.

      At least in the broadcast industry, laws can be put in place so advertisements don't suddenly and annoyingly deafen the viewer during commercial breaks by mandating limits using R128 and ATSC A/85 (like CALM Act Compliance). Seems to be happening less in Canada but I still notice this in other parts of the world.

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  7. K-System
    Hi Mitchco. Thank you for your suggestion, but I am using K-Meter for several years now and all my CD releases in the last years (as a semi-pro recording engineer) having final DR between 12 and 14, all of them. This is in my opinion a very good target (compromise) for serious home listening. Last year I have tried to mix a symphonic orchestra without limiters to DR17, but this was way too high for home systems. You can't have the original dynamic range of an orchestra at home and so ended up with DR14.
    Juergen

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  8. PS: "Accurate Sound Reproduction Using DSP"
    Hi Mitcho
    I bought your above mentioned ebook and will it read in the next weeks or so (hopefully). I found your room acoustic articles in Computer Audiophile very refreshing and in conjunction with Archimago's AudioVero Acourate articles definitely worth a try. I am using Dirac in my above mentioned mixing / mastering studio with Digital In / Out of MiniDSP Dirac DDRC-22D into Genelec 8260A (all the way digital from DAW-Out to AES-In of the Genelecs) and am happy with that for mixing, but I use my HiFi system to "verify" / cross-check my mixes.
    Juergen

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    1. Hi Juergen, I am happy to hear you are using Bob's K-System. Like Archimago says above, I wish there was more adoption. Unfortunately, when commerce is involved, and the false belief by execs in the record industry that louder is better, represents a difficult hurdle to overcome.

      Thanks for purchasing my eBook. I hope you find it useful. Would be interesting to see the step response of you Dirac/Genelec combo, measured at the listening position.

      Kind regards, Mitch

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    2. Hi Mitch. Right now, I am still in Asia and have no access to my MLSSA measured Data (that is on my MLSSA PC) of the Dirac Genelec combo that I use for mixing and mastering, but I can send you the Impulse response, that Dirac has calculated, witch comes very close to, what MLSSA does measure, when using my favorite 10 ms adaptive time window (that changes the width over time and gives a good approximation, of you I am hearing). As also Dirac does change the coefficients over time to adapt for the frequency and timing "errors" of the speaker itself (in the first milli seconds with the sweet spot measurement) and then go over to averaging what is going on with the 9 measurements taken in the listening area. Dirac has a very nice paper, who this algorithm is working. It is worth a read.
      www.juergenreis.de/GenelecImpulseWithDirac.jpg
      But as with Acourate, you have to adapt the target function to the type of measurement you are using and the distance you are listening / measured. The more near field listening / measurement, that lesser treble tilt down.
      Juergen

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    3. Hi Mitch. Even it is a bit off topic here, just some additions, to my mixing / mastering setup. This Genelec has a coaxial midrange / tweeter that gives a very good sound stage stability in horizontal and vertical movements and the transition between midrange and tweeter is very smooth. The cabinet is dye cast and has no parallel walls so very dead and the digital AES input is very useful to avoid additional DA and AD converters between the DAW and the active electronic. A weak point of the Genelec is the group delay "distortion" because the bass driver is far behind mid/treble, but either Acourate and Dirac do correct this to "perfect" time alignment. The Dirac miniDSP DDRC-22D does accept PCM from up to 192 kHz and the DSP does work internally with 96 kHz and output this 96 kHz to the AES In of the Genelec (Yes I know, this will not work with DSD and not with MQA origami, but this is my mixing / mastering setup, not my listening setup). Genelec has his own GLM Room Acoustic function (that I also have), that does gives you a homogenous frequency response, but does not correct the time alignment of the individual drivers and does work "static", so can't and does not differentiate between primary sound waves and secondary reflexions. Ok, enough off topic, but having accurate sound when mixing / mastering, is important, as it is for good playback.
      Juergen

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    4. Hi Juergen, thanks for the details of your mixing/mastering setup. Agreed, the Genelec’s are in a small group of top studio monitors known for accurate sound reproduction. My speakers use waveguides as well, so I am somewhat familiar with that tech being used to control polar response. Would be interesting to get your thoughts on Kii THREES and BeoLab 90’s that use DSP to control their polar response or directivity.

      I have read the Dirac paper before. Interesting for sure and top notch software (within the top 4 audio DSP for speakers/rooms IMO), but does not align to what I am doing, which is achieving the most accurate sound reproduction possible. Acourate allows one to use many different digital audio correction techniques that are not possible with other DSP software packages, based on my research and evaluation. I also feel that Acourate has the best DSP analysis and correction algorithms.

      For example, the analysis software analyzes the transient response of the system, unlike other DSP software, which better reflects music reproduction. Only one analysis measurement is required at the listening positon as the digital correction filter works over a large listening area. In my eBook example, I take 14 acoustic measurements with the correction filters engaged, over a 6ft x 2ft grid area where my couch is, to show that the frequency response is quite smooth, within the tolerance target response, no matter where I sit on the couch and at low frequencies.

      On the impulse response, I use IR when time aligning drivers, but when looking at the time coherence of a full system, the impulse response is not giving one the correct information. The issue is that an IR display is heavily weighted towards high frequencies, which produces the most (narrow) peak amplitude when looking an IR graph. Mathematically, compared to the impulse peak at high frequencies, mid frequencies are 1/10 the amplitude, and low frequencies are 1/100 in amplitude compared to high frequencies. There are procedures/examples of the filter math and the measurements in my eBook, as well as this article: http://www.stereophile.com/content/measuring-loudspeakers-part-two-page-2

      The step response display or graph, is more evenly weighted between low, mid and high frequencies, and therefore shows the correct view for measuring time coherence of an overall system, even though it is a derived view from the impulse response. I believe there is an ideal step response that one can target at the listening position to tune one’s system to for the most accurate sound reproduction. I hope you find the eBook informative and useful.

      I don’t wish to go off topic on Archimago’s post. Personally, I feel we have already achieved state of the art digital audio playback over decade ago. Once beyond a certain resolution, our ears cannot differentiate. Now it is evolved to playing with filters in digital audio hardware and software music streamers, players, converters, etc.,,or digital audio formats like MQA.

      If playing with digital filters, why not use them on the business end of music reproduction? Meaning the speakers is the last device in the audio playback chain that actually produces the music (i.e. waveforms) that your ears hear in your listening environment. Speakers and rooms have orders of magnitude more measurable and audible differences/distortions than digital streamers, music players, USB gizmos, digital or electronic whatever, ever will have. I feel Archimago is quite right in saying that process based solutions takes effort and the hardware/software product based solutions are an easy purchase. Hard to differentiate a digital audio product when high quality sound that exceeded humans capacity to differentiate, became ubiquitous ten years or so ago. With the Devialet Phantoms, Kii THREEs and BeoLab 90's, I am wonder if we will see this type of tech being ubiquitous in five to ten years?

      Jeurgen, maybe you would like to continue the DSP discussion over PM?

      Kind regards, Mitch

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    5. Hi Mitch

      Yes, I would get in touch with you via PM, so Archimago can forward my mail address to you.

      Right now, I am a bit busy, so no real time to read your ebook and go through it, but I will.

      Attached you will find the Step Response Measurement of my Genelecs at listening position.

      www.juergenreis.de/GenelecStepResponseWithDirac.jpg

      If my time allows, I would also be interested to try the Kii Three in my mixing / mastering studio.

      But as I am doing this all beside my main job, it all needs some time.

      Anyway. Looking forward to get in contact with you directly.

      Best Regards
      Juergen

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  9. Interesting to see that the movie world has maintained a higher dynamic range standard. Would this be why I am so impressed by some of my BluRay movies and opera recordings? I could not and cannot believe that the superior sound quality is the product of the higher resolution. But it could just be the bigger dynamic range of the recording/mastering. Has anyone actually looked into this?

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    1. Yes Willem, I believe it has to do more with the retained dynamics of the movie soundtrack that give us the "big sound" we hear in theaters than hi-res, specifically 24-bit vs. 16-bit depth. I remember back in the late 90's when DVD first came out how impressed I was with surround movie sound quality at home compared to the lack of impact contemporary pop music had!

      As you recall, back in the earlier days of surround, they were *lossy* AC3 and DTS CODECs so even though sound quality was compromised to a certain extent, we could still appreciate the importance of an actual wider dynamic range. In fact, I still have some old multichannel DTS music converted to 5.1/16/44 FLAC that sound excellent.

      One sure sign of this improved dynamic range is that we need to play movies with the volume on the receiver higher (since the average volume is lower) thus providing the headroom for the peaks. I find this effect even more impressive in surround with each channel capable of the extra dynamic range.

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  10. Generally said after gaining some knowledge and experience with audio, I wonder why the industry has so much discussion about issues that are complicated but can be relatively clearly resolved.

    To the distribution format: easy to go with 24/48 FLACs on whatever medium - for example simple DVDs (4,7 or 8,5 GB - cheap and compatible). Can include 16/44.1 making utility based on good resampler e.g. FinalCD to let people create CDs from bought music.

    To the filtering: use gentle filtering (2-4 kHz transition width) at 44.1/48 kHz rate starting at cca 20-20,5/21,5-22 kHz and enable slight aliasing to make filter little bit gentle, thus creating little ringing (and thus preventing phase change temptation). Brickwall filters like SoX steep one can be used for special purposes/if desired.

    For playback on Windows use WASAPI without resampling and with buffer sizes required by the sound card driver; the exception being sound cards that do not natively/well support 44.1/88.2 sample rate (such as Realtek) - there resample by SoX or other VHQ resampler to well supported rate like 48/96 kHz. This could be also improved by distributing music for computers at the 24/48 kHz which is OK/supported well in 99% cases.

    To audiophilia: stop dreaming about 384 kHz SR, DSD for home use, platinum cables and other overkills. Concentrate on standards and high quality common playback chain. To eliminate inteference from other devices USB 2.0 DACs can be used, but internal sound card also can work within reasonable limits.

    To workflows: do not perform more operations on audio digitally than neccessary, avoid multiple resampling and filtering if possible. Try to capture original performance, mix it and deliver it to the listener at reasonable price. Keep the dynamic range as full as possible, or do Radio Mix and CD/DVD Mix.

    If we follow that path, audio world would be good ... :)

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