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Digital audio progress highlights tech's more human future

By Julio Franco
Jun 28, 2016
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  1. What happens when a technology gets as good as it can?

    It’s an interesting question, and not necessarily as far-fetched or ill-timed as you may imagine.

    Consider the world of digital audio. As a musician, music lover, former music equipment industry journalist and self-professed audiophile, I admit to caring a lot more about audio than most, but there are certain facts that are interesting for anyone to think about. We can now record and playback audio, particularly music, at a level that is arguably beyond what most any human can actually hear. Today’s HD Audio equipment supports 24-bits per “word” at recording resolutions of up to 192 kHz (and sometimes even higher). To put that in perspective, uncompressed CD-quality audio is 16-bit at a recording rate of 44.1 kHz.

    From a purely technical perspective, recording resolutions could go even higher, but for any applications involving people, there’s no point: digital audio recording technology has peaked.

    In other words, today’s highest resolution stereo formats have about 6.5x more data than what many consider to be at the upper end of what the average person can discern. Also, bear in mind that many people happily listen to 128 kbps MP3 files, which stream at a rate that is less than 1/10th that of uncompressed CD-quality audio (1,411 kbps).

    From a purely technical perspective, recording resolutions could go even higher, but for any applications involving people, there’s no point: digital audio recording technology has peaked. So, does that mean developments in digital audio have stopped? No, but they have gone off in lots of interesting directions, some of which could prove to be interesting predictors of where other technologies might follow.

    First, as with many technologies, price points for higher-quality audio components and technologies have come down. You can now find reasonably high-quality audio outputs on toys and other low cost items. However, because the highest level of quality, HD Audio, is seen as a technology focused on a loyal, yet relatively small audience, it can still command a premium.

    Audio components have also been miniaturized to fit into a wide variety of devices. In fact, there’s been a great deal of speculation recently about Apple and other vendors offering high-quality, wireless in-ear buds for the forthcoming iPhone 7 and/or any other device that chooses to forgo a standard 3.5mm headphone jack.

    But this could easily prove to be a case where the technology actually gets too small. Can you imagine how many people would lose tiny earbuds that easily pop into and out of your ear? I think we may discover that, in certain cases, cords and other elements that seem to unnecessarily increase the size of some technology products are actually more useful (and important) than most people realize.

    Even more interesting is the conscious decision to return to audio formats and audio quality that are arguably or unquestionably worse than what’s possible. For example, the resurgence of recorded music on vinyl has proven to be much more than a fad, particularly among millennials. Now, debates about the quality of analog vinyl versus digital recordings is essentially a religious one that’s been going on since the introduction of the CD. However, you can now make an argument that digital versions have become more accurate than vinyl.

    Even more interesting is the conscious decision to return to audio formats and audio quality that are arguably or unquestionably worse than what’s possible.

    In the case of musical equipment, analog synthesizers have seen a remarkable resurgence over the last several years, being integrated into an enormous range of musical styles. In addition, some of the most popular recording effects are variations on what are termed “bit crushers”—effects that intentionally reduce the number of bits in a digital audio stream in order to create a lower-quality, but unique-sounding signal.

    What’s interesting about these last few examples is that they have brought audio out of the more conceptual, purely digital world, back into the tangible, physical world. You can hold and flip vinyl; you can turn lots of knobs on analog synthesizers; you can make enjoyable sounds that aren’t the best possible quality. In short, you can physically interact with the technology in a very pleasing, very human way.

    It’s a feeling that many people realize they’ve missed with their soul-less touchscreen-based devices. I think it’s also a feeling that many other product designers are going to incorporate into their future products, across a wide range of technology-driven categories.

    At the same time, the advancements in digital audio technology are allowing a higher quality experience than we’ve ever been able to enjoy. With the right kind of digital music files, recorded, mixed, and mastered in high-resolution form (unfortunately, a tiny fraction of available digital music), played back on the right kind of HD Audio equipment, you can experience a level of audio fidelity, sense of space, and overall musicality that makes the technology completely fade away. In a word, pure audio bliss.

    Taken together, it’s the ability to both achieve a level of technological perfection and force the exploration of a new means of interaction that makes digital audio a potentially interesting proxy for where other technologies may head. In both instances, it’s driving a more human-centered approach to technology, which is bound to lead to some interesting developments to come.

    Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm. You can follow him on Twitter . This article was originally published on Tech.pinions.

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    captaincranky likes this.
  2. Gadgety1

    Gadgety1 TS Rookie

    Yes digital audio is only limited by the recording engineers and any artificial barriers intended to get us to upgrade equipment that doesn't need upgrading. HD Audio equipment - 24/96 and 24/192 has been around for 15 years or so. Artificial barriers are, for example "you can only play it in the analog domain" SACD, or this next invention in the true sense of the word, MQA, which brings absolutely 0 value for me as a consumer and only brings value to equipment manufacturers and possibly to digital rights management owners. FLAC files and a good DAC/amp is all that is needed. Speaker technology is already there. Room correction applied in the digital domain is already possible, and has been for more than 15 years. Multichannel recordings ought to be the next step. In fact unless the hype industry, I e the manufacturers looking for the next growth curve, **** things up for us consumers, everything we need is already here. We don't need any proprietary standards. Develop the magic at the recording end.
     
    LoginToLogout likes this.
  3. Sniped_Ash

    Sniped_Ash TS Maniac Posts: 253   +108

    "Also, bear in mind that many people happily listen to 128 kbps MP3 files"

    This is true and it makes me weep
     
    LoginToLogout and Raoul Duke like this.
  4. Raoul Duke

    Raoul Duke TS Guru Posts: 930   +354

    I grew up with vinyl, I'll take digital over vinyl without hesitation. Pretty happy that some artists I like I can get in 96/24, wish more was available.
     
  5. Samueru

    Samueru TS Rookie

    Have you actually ABXed 128 Kbps vs uncompressed format using ABX comparator on foobar2K? I've done 10 out 10 trials, but the actual difference isn't something that's gonna make you cry, once you eliminate placebo factors like knowing which file is playing, you would be surprise by what the actual difference is.

    And by the way, try 64 kbps HE-AAC, that one is even more difficult, and 128 kbps AAC for me is impossible to tell.
     
    Last edited: Jun 29, 2016
  6. LNCPapa

    LNCPapa TS Special Forces Posts: 4,210   +424

    I actually have and it's pretty easy for me to tell. There are different factors that will determine how easy it is for you to pick out the better quality file:
    • Your ears. Everyone is different. As we grow older, most people's hearing diminishes. Age, previous abuse, cleanliness, and genetics all play a role in this.
    • Your source file. Not all redbook audio is equal. Mastering music is an art that many new engineers have either forgotten how to do or are forced to do in a terrible way due to other circumstances. You'll notice there are very little dynamics in modern music compared to older music. The differences between loud and soft notes used to be much greater back in the day where today's music all happens within a few decibels.
    • Type of music... or rather, the instruments and frequencies you are listening for in your music. Some music is much more forgiving of compression and bitloss than others.
    • Your DAC. Some DACs do a better job of converting your source from digital to analog.
    • You amp. Amplification can expose weakness in your chain. Most amps add some noise and if you're used to hearing this noise you may also detect that added noise in your higher quality sources.
    • Your monitors. Speakers or headphones can make the biggest difference in the quality of your output. They are tuned for different types of results to appeal to different types of users. Some users hate bass, some love it, and others want it tight or somewhere in the middle. Some users want a midrange focus while others what a higher frequency focus. Some monitors can be extremely revealing and show many limitations from the rest of your chain.
    If you have a decent chain it should be pretty easy to discern even a 192 Kbps mp3 from an uncompressed, well mastered audio file.

    • One last bullet I just thought about, and it goes along with the post below mine... Training. If you grew up only listening to compressed music and are unfamiliar with or unexposed to higher quality music then you may not have ever had a chance to care enough to listen that closely. Some people just want the song no matter how it is presented. I was the type of kid that would keep turning that UHF knob on the TV even though other people said the picture was clear. I was the same way with audio. I used to wish my 8-track tapes were clearer, my speakers were better, my components were better, etc. Exposure and training can change everything.
     
    Last edited: Jun 29, 2016
    LoginToLogout and captaincranky like this.
  7. Jamlad

    Jamlad TS Booster Posts: 59   +61

    People are/were happy enough with sound quality from good fuzzy, hissy, ol' analog radio. People don't care once something is "good enough" to meet their needs for a given investment. This goes for cars, computers, music, books, anything.

    I don't hear you beamoaning the lack of super-high HD print quality in books, for example. Or the tastiness of the produce section. Just because anything can be over-engineered beyond it's requirements doesn't mean it should be. It happens with all mature product markets once they meet saturation and need.

    You see the same thing happening in the computing sector. Sales are plateauing because Core i5s are simply good enough for the majority to do what they need in reasonable time (Facebooking, Youtubing, email, etc.) that there's no significant demand for improvements. Most people won't care about 4K in the same vein.
     
  8. Raoul Duke

    Raoul Duke TS Guru Posts: 930   +354

    Two things - one, music can be something that moves you, touches your heart and soul, mind and body. Some performances or songs you remember for decades, for life, but I'm sorry folks, this moving experience it isn't captured well on a 128k mp3.
    two-recordings do vary in quality, I have some mp3 files that sound amazingly good-but that is only considering they are mp3 files. I'm sure I can find a flac file in my tens of thousands of files that they beat, but they don't come near a average 96/24 file. I have so many files except for the ones I'm recently listened to I don't recall the format of every file. When I hear something that doesn't sound great, I check my player to see the format and it is invariably some low-bitrate mp3. Either that or a recording from 1938 LOL
     
  9. Reachable

    Reachable TS Enthusiast Posts: 54   +8

    In every double-blind study that had ever been done (as of around year 2000), NOBODY was able to tell the difference between an MP3 file over 200 kbps and uncompressed audio, and only around three per cent of test subjects were able to discern a difference at 128 kbps. (And since 2000, compression codecs would have only gotten better.) Nevertheless, there are many golden-ears (perhaps driven by peer pressure) who claim to be able to tell the difference.
     
    Samueru likes this.
  10. Samueru

    Samueru TS Rookie

    And is it a night day difference between 128 kbps mp3 and uncompressed? That's what I'm talking about xd, I even said that I'm able to do 10/10 trials at said format and bitrate xd. BTW, have you ABXed 128 Kbps AAC?


    And I have to remark these:


    """Your DAC. Some DACs do a better job of converting your source from digital to analog."""

    Unless your DAC has serious issues due to a bad implementation, the dirty cheap PCM2704 is perfectly transparent and indistinguishable against some other fancy dacs.

    ""You amp. Amplification can expose weakness in your chain. Most amps add some noise and if you're used to hearing this noise you may also detect that added noise in your higher quality sources.""

    The main problem with amps is when their max output voltage at a given load is limited (clipping which is pretty notorius when it happens) and/or when they have a high Zout, that EQ's your headphones/speakers and they also tend to "congest" as result of a lower damping. Your source's Zout should be an 8th of your headphone/speaker impedance otherwise you're risking your headphones/speakers performance. You really gotta have something really really bad (which most of the cases are bad implementaions of its components and not the actuall part itself) or way too sensitive headphones and/or issues like ground loops for hiss to be a factor here.

    A well known case are the Senn HD5xx their impedance varies a lot (50 Ohm at 2 KHz if a recall and a peak of almost 300 Ohms a 90 Hz), that might explain why some people say that those headphones lack a lot of base while others say that it has enough, as a Zout of 100 Ohm EQ's them 7 dB . And most motherboards tend to have a Zout over that level...


    Hey man, I used to have all my music Flac, it wasn't until I decided to do said test that I converted them all to 192 Kbps AAC.. (A bit extra room just in case xdd).

    Anyway, if you feel that it is easy for you to tell 192 Kbps mp3 dont doubt to upload a Log of the ABX test with a minimun of 10 trials + the tested files at MEGA.
     
  11. lazer

    lazer TS Enthusiast Posts: 55   +11

    Hearing depends on two things:
    ONE: your personal pair of ears (including all the stuff that enables you to hear) which is different in different people. I am hearing impaired so I really know and suffer.
    TWO: what is used to reproduce the sound, meaning the speakers or headphones.
    The bit rate used to record is only part of the picture.....
     
  12. Markw2

    Markw2 TS Rookie

    Not so. Lets see links to the studies you are referring to. I wonder what playback systems they were using, it couldn't have been anything accurate.
     
  13. captaincranky

    captaincranky TechSpot Addict Posts: 11,693   +1,880

    All this seems to be in the same context, that the average iPhone owner can't differentiate any image captured by it, from an actual photograph, taken by an actual camera....:oops:
     

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