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Hi-Res Audio Again Being Pushed; Doomed To Fail Again?

Every few years video quality seems to take a huge leap forward.

Most of us have only had HDTVs for 4 or 5 years, and already 4k TVs are being rolled out. 

But in the audio realm, advancement has been glacial — in terms of sound quality, not a whole lot has really changed since the mid-1980s (and in some ways, the quality has gotten worse).

Despite the growing dominance of downloads and internet streaming, labels have suddenly decided it’s time once again to try and get consumers to embrace high-resolution audio.

Success is possible, but once again, the approach of offering sonic bliss through high-resolution stereo sound instead of surround sound is wrong.

The last time there was a major push for high-resolution audio was the late 1990s when Sony and Philips introduced Super Audio CDs (SACD) that contained an audio format called Direct-Stream Digital (DSD). Putting all of the technical stuff aside, DSD is a substantially higher resolution audio format than the PCM format on CDs. In addition to stereo content, SACD discs also contained surround sound content (more on that in a bit).

There are a lot of reasons that SACD discs failed to catch on (except for the classical music industry where they remain popular), such as being introduced at the time when traditional album sales were plummeting and the internet was offering an increasing amount of free music.

But I’d argue the real reason SACD just never worked was because few people could hear the difference between it and a CD.

I don’t say that out of disdain — just look at all of the people who watch the standard definition version of a TV channel with complete contentment, not seeing the difference between it and the HD version.

We all know people like this, and if they cannot spot what I believe is such a clear visual difference in quality, they’re never going to hear the difference in music recorded at 16/44 vs. DSD.

Now that being said, if more people had surround sound setups at the time SACD was introduced, and the music labels issuing SACDs in those early years had put out more discs with multi-channel tracks (almost all of Sony’s early SACDs were stereo only), I think SACD might have had a better shot.

The huge improvement of surround sound over stereo is so obvious — it’s a completely different sonic experience. But at the time, the hardware wasn’t there. To put some perspective on how “archaic” things were then, HDMI cables had yet to be introduced (and they didn’t support SACD until 2005). So I find it puzzling that in the latest attempt to bring back high-resolution sound, surround sound is missing.

Sony is again among the labels leading the charge, but this time instead of pushing a plastic discs, they’re selling music servers that can playback DSD downloads. This initiative has fail written all over it.

First, their new hardware doesn’t support surround sound — only stereo (and there are music labels out there selling surround sound DSD downloads).

Next, these music servers are not even needed. Any audiophile geek that cares enough about hi-res sound likely already owns all of the equipment needed to push DSD downloads from their computer to a device capable of decoding the files, and then on to their speakers. It actually isn’t all that hard.

On another front, Universal Music has joined some smaller labels in using the Blu-ray format to release high-resolution audio.

This is actually a pretty clever idea. One of the reasons SACD had problems catching on is that it required consumers to buy a SACD player. At this point tens of millions of homes have Blu-ray players, so for many people no new hardware is required for playing these discs. And while the audio quality Blu-ray can support is not quite as high as the DSD format, it’s still pretty impressive.

But like Sony, these discs are stereo only despite the fact that Blu-ray supports surround sound. And what’s really crazy is that Universal is releasing recordings that were made in surround sound (they were previously released that way on SACD and LP Quad).

What’s really shortsighted about all of this is that surround sound is a product that could get people buying albums again.

No matter how high you make the resolution, if it’s just in stereo, it’s never going to be able to compete with the low cost and convenience of services like Spotify, Pandora and YouTube — not to mention that most people won’t hear the difference in sound quality.

But surround sound offers an aural experience that these services currently cannot.

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