Rediscovering High Resolution AV

on November 25, 2014

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!