Digital Audio Progress Highlights Tech’s More Human Future

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.

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).[pullquote]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. “[/pullquote]

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.[pullquote]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. “[/pullquote]

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.

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.

Published by

Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

23 thoughts on “Digital Audio Progress Highlights Tech’s More Human Future”

  1. “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.”

    Let me fix that for you: “Is a technology focused on selling expensive magic pixie dust to people who delude themselves into thinking they can hear differences where there are in fact none.”

    The people pushing HD audio are either deluded or are marketing used cattle feed, or both. Double blind tests have consistently shown that MP4s above 128kbps vbr are indistinguishable from better quality audio on the headphones or bookshelf speakers that most people are likely to own, and there’s very little sense in going above 256kbps vbr on even the very best speakers that you can buy.

    The only reason why companies even make 192 khz audio equipment and software is for the purpose of oversampling live sound, to prevent any perceptible quality loss when the studio recordings are mixed and then downsampled to CD quality for distribution.

    Sadly the number of suckers who can be parted from their money after a non-blind test of senselessly expensive audio equipment is high enough to fund lot of cottage industries and make a lot of loathsome woo marketers a comfortable living.

      1. Yup. Monoprice is the only place to buy cables, unless you need one _now_, in which case, Radio Shack or whatever has replaced them in your area.

        1. Actually, I’m too cheap for Monster. All my cables I solder myself. Except HDMI which are those 99¢ direct-from-China deals.

          I have grudging admiration for Monster’s ability to convince people that they can actually hear a difference, especially with digital patch cables.

    1. You are partially right. There is a lot placebo effect seen in audiophiles. Also, oxygen free copper speaker cable sounds the same as regular speaker cable of the same gauge. However, professional audio equipment used in the better studios and mastering labs is more accurate than consumer equipment. On a good playback system almost anyone can hear the difference between different sample rates, data converters, and compression schemes. You could, I’m sure, if you had the opportunity to visit a good mastering studio. An associated problem is that once you do hear the difference, can be hard to go back to listening to poor quality sound. By way of contrast, in rare situations I have heard MP3s that sound better than CDs. Usually that only happens when the CD is or other sound source has objectionable high frequency distortion. The MP3 encoder lossy compression algorithm happily discards some of the distortion as unnecessary information.

  2. No digital delay I’ve found fully replicates the effect of an Echoplex, especially a tube Echoplex! What makes analog gear so great is the lack of precision. No two devices will sound exactly the same. It’s those imperfections that give the device it’s unique character.

    And with the advancements in processing and recording, we get to be more deliberate choosing the moments we want to rely on imprecision and precision. It really does allow for much greater flexibility in the process.

    Yamaha tried to replicate some of the Moog sound in their DX synths. Didn’t happen. But it was an interesting sound of its own.


  3. Perhaps a bit off topic but here’s my advice to ‘audiophiles’. Buy good enough audio equipment and then spend your time and resources learning about music. Learn the difference between a flat and a sharp, learn about different time signatures, learn how the music you’re listening to was recorded, who played what, take the time to learn an instrument (even if you’re terrible at it), learn to hear the different parts and instruments within a piece of music, learn about the composers, I could go on and on. The short version is that we should care about music, the audio part of the equation is good enough.

    1. I know many exceptions to the rule and I am sure Bob is one of them. But musicians are notorious for not hearing hi fidelity. They spend their time listening for so many other things in the music, it doesn’t really surprise me. For instance NPR reported on a double blind test with classically trained and working symphonic violinists and non-musicians to see if anyone could discern between a highly regarded old violin (I don’t think it was a Stradivarius, but I could be wrong) and a new, fresh off the line violin. Neither group could pick out, decisively, which was which, and the violinists actually got it wrong more than the non-musicians.

      Again, not on topic, but interesting all the same. I found that to be true in my work with musicians. About 50/50, really, of who could hear fidelity and who couldn’t. The recording and mastering engineers were always spot on with what they were hearing. Not just in hearing the difference between a Les Paul and a Strat, for instance, but also which position the pick-up switch was in, clean or distorted.


      1. I tend to think it’s mostly about experience and education, teaching yourself about the different aspects of music. I think we agree that learning about all aspects of music is far more important than arguing which headphones or speakers are better.

      2. I think what explains it is that musicians, being constantly exposed to above-normal decibel levels, suffer some hearing loss. The higher frequencies, which I believe are critical for texture and nuance, are the first to go. And I’m not just talking about rock musicians for whom damaged ear drums is a cost of doing business.

        1. I do think that is some of it. But I think some of it is also what a musician listens for, what they are trained to listen for, is different than fidelity. I remember when I was learning a song with one band, when we didn’t have any lead sheets, I had all this great audio equipment. But they guy I was learning the song with said I was hearing too much sonic information. He told me to listen to the song on a cheap boom box and I’ll hear more clearly what I am supposed to hear to learn my parts. He wasn’t wrong.


          1. I’d go along with that wholeheartedly. A great symphony doesn’t suddenly become a piece of sonic trash just because the strings on the recording you’re listening to don’t sound as nice as they do live.

    2. I get to enjoy the best audio experience of all and it involves no circuitry of any type or form whatsoever. It’s called the local orchestra hall and you can’t get more hi-fi than that. Audience coughing notwithstanding.

    3. “Good enough” audio equipment = good quality speakers. Everything else is pretty much interchangable, so there’s no sense in buying the 10x or 1000x more expensive equipment. And if you aren’t an audiophile, any old pair of bookshelf sprakers will do just fine.

      1. I picked up a pair of KLH bookshelf speakers on sale at Best Buy for $50. Later I swapped out the drivers for JBL woofers, and tweeters that were pulled out of Celestions for about another $40 total. Best speakers I have ever owned.


      2. Speakers are usually the weakest link in the chain and the first thing to upgrade to improve a system, but you can still hear data converter and amplifier distortion even on cheap speakers.

  4. The article does not say why the current state of the audio need to be improved. Are there any new use cases for the audio specifically related to AR/VR?

    1. I would love to hear Bob’s thoughts on this, too. I would speculate two primary reasons.

      First there is the driving notion in recording to get as authentic a representation of what is being recorded as possible. The more precise we can digitally capture the audio the better. At this point that is perceived as being the highest resolution possible. How true that is is hotly debated among audio technologists.

      Second, because technically speaking digital cannot provide the smooth curve of analogue recording (debates of how necessary that is, not withstanding), in a sense it is an attempt to replicate analogue benefits without the digital or analog short comings.

      I have no idea how any of that would relate to AR/VR, other than digital audio always has this capacity to drift, timing wise from video. Maybe this helps address that? IDK.

      Just some thoughts,

      1. Since a human ear ability to discern between different frequencies the analog signal is composed of is quite limited, any further improvements to digital quantization/analog reconstruction would be done at the exponentially increased cost (80/20 rule). I doubt the mainstream customers would want to bare the cost of such improvements. On the other hand, audio drifting vs. video in AR/VR is an interesting point.

  5. The author is confusing sample rate specifications as a proxy for sound quality, which is a mistake. Sound quality defects arising from data converter non-linearity and clock jitter are not as easily quantified, but there is still considerable room for improvement in those areas.

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