It's the Masters, Damit!!!
My morning started like most days: cup of coffee on the back porch, surfing news feeds, reading email, seeing what's up on Facebook...when I stumbled across this post by Headphoneguru (Frank Iacone) pointing out a new short film put together by Harman to extoll the virtues of hi-rez audio and warn consumers of the evils of lossy compression, ear-buds, and laptop speakers. It's a nice, warm, fuzzy film about good sound quality...but I find it somewhat misleading. Here's the film.
I'm totally cool with Harman's idea that the consuming public would strongly benefit from a better understanding of how crappy the average music listening experience is today...but it pisses me right off when this laudable effort is corrupted by an unbalanced, and sometimes plain false, portrayal of the problem.
For example, at the 12:00 mark in the film, the narrative talks about the problems with lossy MP3 compression, but the images show a signal that is more indicative of dynamic range compression (DRC). Here's a still.
Oh, there's no doubt that heavy handed DRC is evil...but it's got nothing to do with lossy MP3 compression and streaming service low bit-rates. Technical accuracy in this area is something that Harman should be able to achieve. But it's not the real problem with the film; the real problem with the film is that the real problem with music reproduction today somewhat complicated, and the film doesn't strike the appropriate balance needed to educate the public meaningfully. Well, I suppose that's not in Harman's marketing department job description, but it seems an awful waste of a teaching moment to me. Oh, and Harman's not the only one. Remember this graphic from the Pono launch?
Fortunately, they seem to have stopped using that graphic, but have replaced it with this one.
I'm sorry, but I find all this patently absurd. Perceptual encoding to reduce data file size is an amazing process and works very well. All the images on this page use .jpg perceptual encoding to significantly reduce the size of a bit-perfect image file, and it works quite nicely. Perceptual encoding may reduce the data to 1/10th the original, but the perceived loss of quality is far from linear. This whole "bigger is better" message to the general public is very misleading...and I think it's going to come back and bite the music industry in the ass if they don't start delivering a clear, true, and balanced description of the real problem.
Real Problem #1: It's the Masters, Damit!
I probably won't need to tell InnerFidelity readers about the "Loudness Wars", heavy-handed DRC has horribly polluted our sources of music for the last 30 years. If record labels want to make big bucks from hi-rez streaming services, they're going to have to deliver a product that is clearly better sounding, and they're not going to do that just by pooping out the latest release with crappy DRC no matter how many bits it has. People (normal consumers, not audiophiles) just won't hear it, and the press is more than happy to make that point.
What people will hearand they'll be able to hear it even with 320kbs MP3sis freshly remastered releases that go back TO WHAT THE ORIGINAL ARTIST INTENDED!!! I believe this is happening. From this Rolling Stone article about Pono:
Pono's preservation of the fuller, analog sound already has the ear of the Big Three record labels: Warner Music Group, Universal Music Group and Sony Music. WMGhome to artists including Muse, the Black Keys, Common and Jill Scotthas converted its library of 8,000 album titles to high-resolution, 192kHz/24-bit sound. It was a process completed prior to the company's partnership with Young's Pono project last year, said Craig Kallman, chairman and chief executive of Atlantic Records.
From that little tid-bit and many others I've seen lately, it looks like the labels and the industry are on-board for re-mastering or re-transferring original recordings and it seems quite a bit of work has already been done. The only one left out in the dark is the consumer, who's being fed bullshit buzzwords about bit-rates and has no idea about the evils of DRC.
And once the consumer hears no meaningful improvement with hi-rez they're gonna be pissed.
To the Industry
I love that Pono, Harman, and Apple are focussing on improving audio quality and telling consumers about it. I heartily applaud your efforts. But please, please, please, for the sake of the Art of Music, balance the message being transmitted to consumers. Sure, tell them 48kbs internet radio and satellite streaming sucks...but also tell them that 320kbs MP3s are pretty good, and some streaming services already do that. Tell them that cheap ear-buds and laptop speakers suck, and some pretty good gear is available for not too much money. But please, tell them what you're doing about higher quality re-releases of back catalogs, tell them that music on hi-rez streaming services will be the better for it, and tell them about the evils of heavy-handed dynamic-range compression. I know it's a bit of egg on your face, but you're fixing it. Shout that from the rooftops! Bang your drum, this is a worthy endevor for everyone's music listening pleasures. Once the consumer understands your love of the music in your care, and knows that you're preparing it for the coming age of awesome streaming music, they'll return to buying in big numbers. Sure, it may be $30/mo hi-rez (16/44.1) streaming services, but that's good money and I reckon the public will buy it in a heart beat if they know they'll be hearing their music free of heavy-handed DRC. I know I will.
Harman's "Distortion of Sound" website.
Pono website and Kickstarter page.
Just a few of the many Stereophile articles on the evils of DRC here, here, here, and here.
Michael Lavorgna's thoughts on Qobuz hi-rez streaming service.
Disgruntled press comments about Pono and hi-rez here, here, here, and here.
A quick look at Apple's "Mastered for iTunes" and Apple's instruction .pdf for the program.
Really good YouTube explaining the "Loudness War" DRC problem.