Music industry negotiating over 24-bit downloads

Music industry negotiating over 24-bit downloads

Summary: For hi-fi fans, the most depressing aspect of the digital music revolution has been the reduction in sound quality. Just when we were hoping to get better-than-CD quality sound from disc formats such as Sony's Super Audio CD (SACD) or DVD-Audio, we were hit with the double whammy of low bit-rate MP3 files and, sometimes worse, the UK's low bit-rate DAB digital radio.

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TOPICS: Tech Industry
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For hi-fi fans, the most depressing aspect of the digital music revolution has been the reduction in sound quality. Just when we were hoping to get better-than-CD quality sound from disc formats such as Sony's Super Audio CD (SACD) or DVD-Audio, we were hit with the double whammy of low bit-rate MP3 files and, sometimes worse, the UK's low bit-rate DAB digital radio.

But as download speeds increase and storage space become less of a problem with portable players, the tide may be turning. According to CNN, "Apple and other digital music retailers are in discussions with record labels to improve the quality of the song files they sell."

In sum, they may start to release 24-bit originals rather than the 16-bit music files usually distributed online and on audio CDs.

However, the first problem is that few if any portable music players, and not all PCs, can actually handle 24-bit music files. The second problem is that the files can easily be three times the size, or more. The third problem is that the sound quality might not be much different, and could even be worse. Most iPod users could probably get a bigger improvement either by switching to better earbuds/headphones or to a better-sounding MP3 player from Sony, Cowon or whoever.

Fortunately, all these problems are irrelevant given that 24-bit audio provides the consumer electronics and media industries with overwhelming benefits. They will be able to sell us all new 24-bit players, and get us to re-buy all our music in 24-bit format. Kerching, kerching, kerching.

Some audiophile hi-fi companies already live in the future, and Linn is well known for offering music downloads in both FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) and WMA (Windows Media Audio) Lossless formats. (Apple has something similar but won't let Linn use it.) If you want to experience the FLAC Studio Master version of Linn Records' Spem in alium then you can download it.

However, be aware that the whole album costs £18 and takes up 1.3GB. You will only be able to carry six albums on your crappy 8GB player, which probably can't play FLAC anyway (unless you Rockboxed it).

Although CNN's story gave Apple top billing, it was actually prompted by the launch of Hewlett-Packard's TouchPad tablet on February 9. HP is leading the way in upgrading sound quality with its HP Beats audio system, developed in conjunction with Dr Dre. But I think HP pushes Beats mainly because there are few differentiators in the PC market.

Given its background in audio reproduction, you might expect Sony to take a similar line, but it's currently concerned with delivering 48kbps music streams via Music Unlimited, its Qriocity-based online service. CNN reports:

Shawn Layden, Sony Network's chief operating officer, said most people don't care, or even notice, if their music is flawed. That is a common sentiment among industry watchers. "The challenges of music right now -- I don't think the primary one is a quality issue," he said. "Music lovers worldwide are mostly keen right now on the convenience of access -- make it easier for me to have."

That sounds about right (cough*Spotify*cough). Amazon did manage to exert some upward pressure on sound quality with its release of 320Kbps MP3 files, but for most listeners in the majority of mobile situations, there's probably no need for more.

@jackschofield

Topic: Tech Industry

Jack Schofield

About Jack Schofield

Jack Schofield spent the 1970s editing photography magazines before becoming editor of an early UK computer magazine, Practical Computing. In 1983, he started writing a weekly computer column for the Guardian, and joined the staff to launch the newspaper's weekly computer supplement in 1985. This section launched the Guardian’s first website and, in 2001, its first real blog. When the printed section was dropped after 25 years and a couple of reincarnations, he felt it was a time for a change....

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26 comments
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  • 24 bit audio is not a consumer format. It's not going to help.

    Then number of bits represents the dynamic range available. It's like contrast in a picture: it's the range between high and low. And the range between high and low with 24 bit audio is far, far more than we (our our loudspeakers) can handle. It also ignores the fact that the lower end of the bit-range is full of rubbish and mush that we probably wouldn't want to hear anyway.

    Most people have never heard a good 16 bit recording. 16 bits is easily enough for almost all music. I imported one of the first ever DAT recorders into the country from Japan in the mid '90s. It came with a demo tape that (literally) blew me away. It had been carefully recorded to use every last bit of the 16-bit dynamic range. To hear the quiet bits, you had to turn the music up so loud that the loud bits almost damaged the loudspeakers.

    The only way in which 24 bit audio helps customers is if they are listening to very quiet music passages at loud volumes, which is when the quantization noise in 16 bit audio will be audible. Most people have never noticed this.

    For recording music, 24 bits is essential. It gives the valuable headroom needed to accommodate unplanned peaks. In the early days of digital audio, most recordings were 12- bit at best because the remaining bits were needed for headroom when recording.

    A good 24-bit recording that is properly mastered down to 16 bits is the ideal consumer deliverable.

    The biggest improvement of all is actually one that involves taking away technology and not adding it: uncompressed audio.
    david.shapton
  • Did I say mid 90s was when DAT recorders came out? It was actually around 1987, I think.
    david.shapton
  • It's all a bit irrelevant since 99.99% of people wouldn't notice the improvement in sound quality. Most people are more interested in convenience, Compact Cassettes were superceded by CDs purely because the format was smaller tougher, more portable, held more data and allowed useful features like instant track selection, sound quality didn't have much to do with it.
    AndyPagin-3879e
  • Anyone that can't tell the difference between crap mp3 and CD quality music needs to get their ears tested, this is good news, I hate the lack of depth and crap tinny sound of mp3, 24bit is the right way to go, we've taken a step backwards in music quality.

    Oh and now we just need decent music to download, shame there aint any lol.
    Mombasa69
  • My take is that there's different horses for different courses.
    If you're in your quiet living room, listening to your expensive equipment, then 24bit might be what you want, as long as the mix has only the lightest touch of compression. Remember that vinyl has compression built into the recording medium, and extra compression has been added at the disc cutting stage for a long time.

    (Apparently the Beatles & George Martin were given a row for writing "No compression!" on the master tape of Sergent Pepper when they sent it to be cut. They were told they should have added "Please".)


    Anyway my other point is that if you're listening to music in a noisy environment, the last thing you want is a wide dynamic range. If you turn up the volume to hear quiet bits, you get deafened when it gets loud.

    The kind of compression used to make music as loud as possible is complex, and really needs to be done on a track-by-track basis. Perhaps a section-by-section basis. It takes people years to perfect the art of mastering.
    I don't think it's reasonable to expect a tiny mp3 player to compete with all that and apply the appropriate compression on the fly.
    filthylooker
  • ps meant to say that George Martin had already added their own compression onto the tape.
    filthylooker
  • I never buy anything from Itunes or for that matter most online music stores because they don't sell anything but a compressed version of the music. If I am going to buy anything it better be at least 16bit/44.1. I will NOT spend money on compressed versions of music unless I just don't care about the song/artist at all.
    Music Lover-ccac7
  • @filthylooker
    > My take is that there's different horses for different courses.

    Yes, I think you are right. If you have Linn hi-fi in your living room, which I don't, you may well be able to hear the better quality in 24-bit files. That covers about 0.5% of the population. However, most people are probably listening to badly-mastered music on the bus/train/tube using a crappy portable player and even crappier earbuds, so they're never going to hear the difference.

    Of course, that doesn't mean they won't pay more to buy the better versions. One must never confuse musical quality with marketing ;-)

    @Music Lover
    Agreed!
    Jack Schofield
  • @Jack - if you have Linn hi-fin in your living room (which I won't mention in case of enticing burglars) it's because you like the nice warm colouration it gives to the sound (I'll admit to that). I don't know how many people hear the difference in quality between one sound system and another, or one encoding or another - I know it makes a huge difference to me and how much I enjoy the music. I can't listen to - say complex free-form jazz on CD because I can't hear enough of the music to enjoy and just hear the squeaking, where as I can enjoy the same track on vinyl. I also know there's a great deal of oxygen-free cable marketed to people... HD video is both higher quality and an excuse for the studios to sell us the same content we bought on DVD and VHS already (and hey, maybe in 3D next), so I suspect 24-bit is both as well ;-)

    Mary
    Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe
  • In their comments, people seem to be talking about two types of compression and using them interchangably. They're quite different but undesirable in their own ways (mostly). Dynamic range compression can make music louder because it reduces the range between high volumes and low volumes. MP3-type compression reduces the amount of data needed to reproduce an given piece of music. Since 24 bit audio is all about an increased dynamic range, it would be daft to use it in conjunction with music that has already had it's DR reduced. On the other hand, as one Poster mentions, if you're in a noisy environment, the very last thing you want is a huge dynamic range: you'd be adjusting the volume control all the time.
    david.shapton
  • @Mary
    > @Jack - if you have Linn hi-fin in your living room

    I'm an old Quad 77 user, like, ISTR, David Norfolk. Actually, I have quite a mixture of stuff hooked up, including vinyl, tape, and three CD players.....

    @bigdaveonline
    > In their comments, people seem to be talking about two types of compression
    > and using them interchangably. They're quite different but undesirable in their
    > own ways (mostly).

    That's something that happens every time I post about this kind of thing, and not just here. It's not going to change any time soon ;-)
    Jack Schofield
  • @bigdaveonline "it would be daft to use it in conjunction with music that has already had it's DR reduced."

    Completely agree. Most modern music has had all it's lumps knocked out of it by the time it goes onto a CD.
    24-bit releases of music would only be of any use if they've been remixed with this in mind, ie less dynamic compression.

    I guess i was meaning that if you buy a 24-bit mix, it will sound quieter than your bog standard CD, and that it won't sound as good when you rip it onto your MP3 player.
    filthylooker
  • Although you can argue that modern recordings are processed within an inch of their life so the final distribution format doesn't matter, there are still plenty of musicians, engineers and producers who still go to great lengths to make their recordings as faithful as possible.

    Having had the opportunity to hear a few pieces recorded like this and played back on my own (very modest) kit, I can only say that the difference is rather like that between a very good VBR AAC file and its CD equivalent, when played through the same DAC. It's not jaw dropping, but it just sounds so much more natural. Of course, I could be fooling myself (like all those guys who buy oxygen free unidirectional wires for their mains leads :-), but the difference between 16 bit and 24 bit versions of a photo is pretty obvious on screen, so I don't see why the same shouldn't be true of sound.

    For music on the go, 24 bit is obviously overkill/undesirable for all the reasons others have pointed out. As usual, Apple has fixed that problem. Apple Lossless files can be 16 or 24 bit depending on the source, so you can keep a hifi copy on the home Mac/media server, and iTunes lets you downsample (or whatever the correct process is called) to VBR AAC files when you copy them to your iPod/Phone etc; best of both worlds. (I'm a big Apple fan, in case it wasn't obvious :-)

    It is a great shame that the industry appears to think that *everyone* is more interested in convenience than quality, because it's clearly not the case, but it seems to me that it would not cost them much extra to make 24 bit versions of releases available for download, at a premium price, alongside other formats. Even just as an experiment to see if the demand really is there. I hope Apple go for it.
    StinkyPete-29703
  • @StinkyPete
    > It is a great shame that the industry appears to think that *everyone* is
    > more interested in convenience than quality, because it's clearly not the case.

    True. Apparently those of us who do care are too small a minority to bother about. This is certainly the message I get from the UK DAB industry.....
    Jack Schofield
  • I think there is more snake oil usage in the music industry than in any other.

    The reason that *domestic* 16 bit audio sometimes sounds poor is nothing to do with the bit depth itself, but the fact that manufacturers will use the cheapest hardware they can get away with. The higher the bit depth the more liberties you can take with the hardware before it shows up (DAC jitter for example).

    When tests are performed under true blind A/B conditions with quiet conditions and well recorded music, a high quality 16 bit DAC will give results that are indistinguishable from a 24 bit DAC.

    16 bit corresponds to a dynamic range of 96dB. Even high quality equipment struggles to achieve 90dB signal/noise ratio and in most listening environments you will be lucky to get an accoustic noise floor 70dB below your comfortable peak listening level. What exactly do people expect to hear under all that?

    Similarly, 44.1 kHz sample rate is more than adequate for all but the keenest *young* golden ears (or dogs). 48 kHz will satify the dogs, although you'll probably have a hard time getting their vote.

    The science behind this is good. Repeated instrument and mathematical test give very consistent results, as do any properly managed listening tests.

    In one listening test, a big chunky relay is heard to clank over, whereupon a large percentage of listeners immediately say they notice the difference, which is fascinating, as the relay isn't connected to anything!


    I'm afraid I can't find the reference, but the most striking demonstration I ever saw was where people heard what seemed to be random half formed vocalisations. Then cards were handed out with words on them and the recording played again. The listeners weren't told it was the same recording, nor that there were two sets of cards with different words, yet they all believed they heard what was on the cards.

    Having said all that, I do some music production work occasionally and I always work at 32 bit floating point and 96 kHz sample rate. This is purely to minimise accumulated processing errors. My preferred dithered final output is 16 bit 48 kHz.

    Oh, and if you're still reading, if you want to hear some truly astonishing recordings start trawling Creative Commons websites. You'll hear some stuff you'll think is rubbish, but you'll also hear music that will blow you away - you see, these people are true artists and aren't working to an industry dictated formula.
    Tezzer-5cae2
  • @Tezzer
    Could not agree more re: snake oil and lack of rigour in testing in hifi reviewing. Sadly, those who make their living from building and reviewing the kit form, to all intents and purposes, a priesthood impenetrable to pretty much any rational argument. Nothing's going to change soon.
    Will certainly check out the Creative Commons sites; sounds intriguing. If you can share any specific links, that would be great.
    StinkyPete-29703
  • @Tezzer

    Thanks for the great comment! Like StinkyPete I'd lik some liniks as well, but I don't expect there's too much Creative Commons music for harpsichords ;-)
    anonymous
  • This is a good starting point:
    http://www.jamendo.com/en/creativecommons

    The archive is also well worth a browse:
    http://www.archive.org/details/netlabels

    You might like to try:
    http://en.audiofarm.org/audiofiles/daily/all

    Then if you're into remixes there is:
    http://ccmixter.org/

    A very lively musicians forum is here:
    http://www.kvraudio.com/forum/viewforum.php?f=14

    That should get you started. beyond that google is your friend :)
    anonymous
  • Well now. Not only do we still have a horrible login system (that doesn't use a standard password system like EVERY other site I visit), but it also lists me as anonymous. I didn't realise I was so unpopular!

    Anyway I forgot a website. Not just CC but specifically Linux:
    http://lam.fugal.net/
    anonymous
  • @Tezzer
    Sorry for the delay in saying so, but thanks very much for sharing those links. Will definitely give them a go. I do love the internet :-)
    StinkyPete-29703