Rediscovering High Resolution AV

As both a musician and an analyst who started his career studying displays, I’ve always been intrigued and somewhat obsessed with high quality audio and video. When high resolution multichannel audio formats like DVD Audio and Super Audio CD (SACD) burst onto the scene around 2000, I was an eager early adopter. I still have some DTS Music discs the company released around the same time as well as a few DualDiscs from that format’s launch in 2004. I also had one of the earliest HDTVs—a Philips 34” widescreen CRT from around 1999—that featured native 480p resolution and weighed about 200 pounds (seriously!).

Today of course, we’ve moved on to ultraslim 4K UHD (Ultra High Definition) TVs and high resolution two-channel audio, some of it focused around PCs as a source. To be honest though, I’ve been a bit slow to embrace this new generation of formats as I’ve felt the current formats were good enough.

Part of the concern stems from my experience with the first round of high definition audio and video playback devices—particularly around content, or the lack thereof. As an early adopter of high def devices, I found it was always a bit of a struggle to find sources that could really take advantage of the newest formats. Sure there was some content available, but it was very limited. Of course, the image quality improvement from standard definition TV (SDTV) to HDTV was obvious. Similarly, the move from CD-quality stereo sound to even higher resolution, multi-channel sound was also apparent. As a result, when you did find the right material, it was so compelling you were willing to overlook the standard def content you had to view and listen to most of time. Given this situation, it was hard not to get into high quality home theater gear at the time (well, at least for a guy like me).

We’re all rather spoiled now, however, and have become accustomed to high quality material, particularly for video. Plus, for many people, the differences between HDTV and 4K UHD aren’t quite as obvious as SDTV to HDTV at first glance. On the music side, listening has focused on convenience over quality of late. In fact, most music listening now happens on mobile devices which ironically have actually brought us lower quality MP3 and other compressed audio formats.[pullquote]Having recently spent some time really looking at and listening to some of the latest high resolution AV options, I’m starting to rediscover my passion for high quality sources and playback devices.[/pullquote]

Having recently spent some time really looking at and listening to some of the latest high resolution AV options, however, I’m starting to rediscover my passion for high quality sources and playback devices. On the audio side, the whole world of 24bit, 96KHz or even 192KHz stereo audio is getting a fresh “listen,” particularly amongst younger people, for whom the phrase “CD-quality” is not only not very useful, it’s actually an anachronism. (Physical CDs are so old school). To be fair, none of these high resolution audio source types are actually new, but the growing popularity of file formats like FLAC (free lossless audio codec) are putting a fresh face onto these high definition audio efforts.

There’s been a huge blossoming of computer-based audio developments over the last few years as well, thanks to the rapid growth of USB-connected DACs (digital-to-analog convertors). These devices allow high quality digital music files to be directly connected to stereo systems in either their full resolution digital form or high quality analog. There’s also been the appearance of new types of audio devices—such as Sony’s new MDR-1ADAC headphones, which build a DAC directly into the headphones, as well as the forthcoming PonoPlayer and matching PonoMusic service, which supports up to 24bit/192KHz audio in a mobile format.

Even more importantly, we’re seeing more content start to become available, with downloadable music from sites like HDTracks and Primephonic, to a lossless music streaming service called Tidal. All of this is putting a new perspective on the whole higher resolution audio ecosystem, because it’s combining the convenience people have become accustomed to with high quality source material. Up until recently, high quality hasn’t really been convenient to listen to. Plus, for all the younger people who’ve grown up with lower quality MP3s, the transition from compressed music to high resolution audio is incredibly obvious and compelling.

On the video side, 4K UHD becomes compelling for large TVs which have started to come down dramatically in price. I’m not going to try and convince you 4K UHD makes a ton of sense on a 32” screen, but on a 60” or 70” TV, it can be literally eye opening. As with the audio world, we are also starting to see the appearance of more high resolution sources, including 4K streaming from Netflix, as well as 4K downloads from Amazon and others.

Admittedly, not everyone is going to be an audiophile or videophile. But, if you’re the least bit interested and haven’t explored some of the latest high resolution audio or video source or playback options in a while, you owe it to yourself to check them out. After all, Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the entire holiday shopping season is now upon us, so it’s as good a time as ever. Happy shopping!

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.

19 thoughts on “Rediscovering High Resolution AV”

  1. The other problem for hi res historically (and if Pono so far is any indication) is not just finding content, but pricing accessibility. Music is already fighting free, it won’t be long before video is as well. To pay a substantial premium for marginal if even noticeable return for content seems a difficult barrier. That has always prevented wider, greater than esoteric adoption of hi res anything. According to Kirkville, Neil Young is asking just north of $32 for his new Pono-res album. When most people aren’t even willing to spend that much on headphones, it is hard to see this being anything but the next Laserdisc.

    But then, I still prefer tube amps. What do I know?


      1. The use of tube amps by us guitarists has very little to do with high fidelity. We use them because of their specific lack of fidelity – the distortion and color that classic tube amps provide to the instrument is part of the history and character of electric guitar. That said, playing recorded music through my old ’65 Fenders is no fun, because in that context the low fidelity is a negative.

    1. Joe, yes, I agree that content pricing is an issue. As with any “new” format, there’s always an attempt early on to capitalize on the eager early adopters who are more willing to pay the premium to justify their playback device expense, but there is absolutely a price point beyond where most reasonable people are willing to go. Given today’s recording equipment, it doesn’t cost any more to create a high-res version, so there really shouldn’t be a significant premium.

      1. “so there really shouldn’t be a significant premium”

        “Should” really doesn’t seem to be the point. The purveyors of HD content seem to think there is added experiential value to hi-res. While I think that is arguable and I agree with Kirk McElhearn when he points out these people are conflating sound with music, I don’t find many offering any of this for standard pricing. I am amazed at how many cable companies charge extra for HD content even now. I bet you have been to some of the same hotels I have with the SD video (sometimes not even digital) stretched to fill the HD TV.


  2. I’m very skeptical about 4K TV. Seems to me, the lesson of digital music is that the demand for higher and higher resolution is not limitless. There doesn’t seem to be that widespread excitement and anticipation for 4K that 1080 had. I suspect that for most people, the only reason they will buy 4K TVs is if good old 1080p is no longer available.

    1. I have shared some of your skepticism, but having recently seen a fair bit of 4K content on large 4K TVs (and, as I said in the blog, you really need 60″+ to appreciate), I’ve started to come around. It’s more 3D-like, as in more realistic (not the gimmicky), than any 3D TV I’ve ever seen and with quality content it’s truly stunning.

  3. Thank you for this article. It’s solved a problem I had, which was how best to connect my iMac 5K to my office stereo system.

    1. In audio there are no absolutes. Whether one system sounds better than another depends on who’s listening and when they listen.

      1. Read the article. There really is no scientific debate about the audible audio quality of 24-bit/192 kHz. It is never going to sound better on any sound system that isn’t made for ultrasonics. The best it is ever going to do is the same as not encoding the extra frequency range and for any sound system you can buy, it will likely sound worse.

        The point about DACs from Bob fis a good one though. Perhaps the trend will create a market for better DACs on the low end but I doubt it with cost usually being the deciding factor.

        The actual value of 24-bit/192 kHz is also not much debated for professional mixing. It gives way more headroom for producers. But ultimately, they will be better at taking the resulting mix and encoding it at normal CD rates. Perhaps there is a middle ground where you get HD FLAC audio files and before listening, you encode down to 16-bit/48 kHz for actual listening.

    2. While these debates are endless, my point is that a lot of people have grown accustomed to MP3, so listening to higher-quality audio is something most people can hear, but it depends on the source, the quality of the mix, the playback system and tons of other variables. Also, most people acknowledge a difference in audio quality between different standard CD players thanks to quality of the DACs and other components, so it’s fair to say that anything that can play back the highest-quality audio is likely to do an excellent job on even “regular” CD-quality files. Plus, a lot of the issue with computer-based audio is now about flexibility, as well as audio quality, whereas MP3 and other compressed audio was all about flexibility.

  4. A great article Bob. Thank you.
    But what is your view on the value of 4K UHD and ‘HD’ Audio to the visual and auditory strengths of a retiree? I can see the added worth of 4K, but is it worth my investing in high-def sound?

    1. Thanks. It’s a very subjective call and, as you can probably tell from the debate going on here, a highly polarizing issue. At the end of the day, trust your ears. One thing I will say is that investing in high-quality speakers is often more important than anything. Without a good playback system, all the arguments about file format quality become moot.

  5. I’ve worked in the audio industry for years, and don’t believe that “HD audio” has very much of a commercial future outside of recording studios and esoterica. The reason is that we have long since passed “good enough” for the vast majority of listeners and situations.

    The differences going from vinyl to CD were huge – the CD was crazily more convenient, and generally sounded dramatically better. Before any of the vinyl aficionados jump on that statement, recall that in real life most LPs were played on mediocre gear and were not terribly well manufactured. The typical experience of LP listening back in the ’70s and ’80s was dealing with constant noise, easily audible distortion, warp and pitch issues, and rapid physical deterioration of the media. When the CD erased those problems, even “ordinary” listeners noticed. While the transition to mobile and compressed formats (MP3, AAC) is technically a negative, it was FAR less dramatic than the gains from vinyl to digital. ABX testing further reveals that the vast majority of listeners cannot distinguish a 256kbps MP3/AAC from CD source material. They aren’t deaf – the formats really do a very decent job.

    Moving to HD audio (e.g., 192kHz sample rates, 24-bit depth) is surely an improvement, but how much, and at what cost in money and convenience? My money says that 99% of listeners will not, under any reasonable conditions, detect a difference between “HD audio” and “CD audio” of the same material. By extension, I’d lay the same money on the table to say that these same listeners cannot hear a different they are willing pay for between “HD audio” and a well done 256kbps AAC file of the same material, all else being equal. They won’t wish to pay more, or consume more storage space, for something that they cannot readily hear.

    (And yes, I think that Neil Young is hallucinating about what he hears. Bless his heart.)

    As a young man in the ’70s, I spent endless hours building and tweaking gear in the hopes of making my LPs sound decent, and they never really did. Today, the audio I experience with decent headphones and an iPhone beats anything I could have reasonably achieved back then. Is it perfect? No, 2-channel audio is by definition incomplete and data-starved, no matter what the medium. Is it good enough, given that constraint? Oh, yes. We passed that exit miles ago.

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