How the Audio Industry is Deceiving Consumers with High-Resolution Audio

Hi resI’ve been writing about music and audio for more than fifteen years, and I’ve always been of the opinion that music is more important than sound; that what matters is what we listen to, rather trying to only listen to music that sounds perfect (or nearly so).[1]

If you read about audio equipment in the hi-fi press, you’ll see that much of the audio equipment mentioned in these magazines is more expensive than most people would ever spend on a stereo setup. There are cables that cost more than my car, and speakers that can cost as much as a small home.[2]

A few months ago, I came to a realization. I don’t recall which article I read that pointed this out, but this type of audio is not just high-end, but it truly is luxury hardware. It’s the Jaguar and Porsche of audio. The amplifiers, speakers, and cables you see in these audiophile magazines are not targeted at the average listener, but those who have a great deal of disposable income. This is fine; there’s nothing wrong with people spending their money on what is often hand-made hardware from small, dedicated companies. But it’s only something that a tiny percentage of people can afford, or even appreciate. Audiophiles will scoff at people like me; in a recent forum discussion, I was told that, by purchasing a Yamaha amplifier, I was buying a "lifestyle" brand. I hadn’t been aware that this is an insult: it’s the audiophile equivalent of "philistine."

If you consider high-resolution music, which is widely discussed as being essential to make music "sound like the artist intended," you may, at first, think of this as progress; a better quality format, going beyond the pokey LP, the limited CD, and the underperforming MP3 file. But it’s not. Most people cannot hear the difference between a CD (or even a good-quality digital download) and a high-resolution audio file. And, even if they can, they need expensive, nay, luxury equipment to appreciate it.[3]

And here’s where the problem lies. The audio industry has lost so many consumers at the low end – it used to be that most people had a stereo system in their homes; now they are satisfied with Bluetooth speakers – that it is trying to convince everyone, not just luxury hi-fi fans, that quality of the music they listen to sucks. There are economic reasons for this, of course. If they can convince some people that their audio files aren’t good enough, then they can perhaps get them to buy more expensive hi-fi equipment. In recent years, the mid-range hi-fi market – those "lifestyle" brands – has collapsed, and these companies only really survive because they sell lots of other products. So there’s not a lot of choice between Bluetooth speakers – or the Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod, etc. – and higher-end audio equipment.[4]

Read more

Record Labels Splitting Long Tracks into Multiple Tracks to Maximize Streaming Income

The music streaming payment model is optimized for popular music: short songs, three, four, five minutes long. Record labels are paid by song streamed, not by the amount of time the music plays. An hour of a three-minute song counts as 20 plays, whereas if it’s a four-minute song, it only gets paid for 15 plays.

In an attempt to hack this system, some record labels – notably for classical music – are splitting music into multiple tracks. You won’t see this on, say, your standard symphony, where, while it would be possible to split four movements into ten or more, but you will see it on other works, ranging from long vocal works to non-standard classical pieces.

Here’s on example: Max Richter’s eight-hour Sleep. If you buy this from the iTunes Store, you will get 31 tracks, ranging in length from 2:46 to more than 33 minutes. But if you stream it on Apple Music, here’s what you see:

Sleep

That’s right, it’s 204 tracks, most of which are under three minutes. By splitting the music this much, the record label – Deutsche Grammophon – gets more than six times as much money than if it were in the original 31 tracks.

Each of the original tracks is named, with a part number at the end of the name.

This is a cynical way to hack the music streaming payment process, but I do feel that this system unfairly handicaps classical and jazz labels, along with some jam rock and other forms of music – Indian classical, for example. Streaming income should be paid by duration rather than by song, or there should be multiple tiers according to the length of tracks. It’s a shame that record labels have to resort to this sort of system to get paid fairly.

The Science of Sample Rates (When Higher Is Better — And When It Isn’t) – SonicScoop

One of the most hotly—and perhaps unnecessarily—debated topics in the world of audio is the one that surrounds digital sample rates.

It seems an unlikely topic for polarization, but for more than 10 years, the same tired arguments have been batted about by each side with almost unrelenting intensity.

At the fringes, advocates of either side have often dug deeper trenches of faith for themselves. But as much as that’s the case, there’s also a growing consensus among designers and users who have a firm understanding of digital audio.

Namely, that there are perfectly good reasons for sticking with the current professional and consumer standards of 44.1 and 48 kHz for recording and playback – and some valid arguments for moving up to slightly higher sample rates, such as 60, 88.2 or even as high as 96 kHz. What seems to have less informed support is the push to ultra-high sample rates like 192kHz.

We’ll explore the arguments on both sides of the major questions around sample rates and try to find out where each faction has got it right – and where they may be missing some crucial information.

This article is a deep dive into sample rates, one element of digital music (the other being bit depth). It notably points out that higher isn’t always better, and that the search for ever higher sample rates may just be a waste of time and money. (But those who sell high-resolution music don’t want you to know that.) For example:

It turns out that in many cases, we can hear the sound of higher sample rates not because they are more transparent, but because they are less so. They can actually introduce unintended distortion in the audible spectrum, and this is something that can be heard in listening tests.

And:

To him, the issue is not about whether 44.1kHz is the last stop. It’s clear that it rests on the cusp of the point of diminishing returns, and that by the time you’ve reached 60 kHz you’ve exhausted all the theoretical benefits you could ever add. The real benefits to be had are the ones that come from improving implementation, not from ever-increasing sample rates.

The problem is that higher sample rates mean bigger numbers that companies can use in their marketing, and bigger sounds better.

Source: The Science of Sample Rates (When Higher Is Better — And When It Isn’t) – SonicScoop

The Next Track, Episode #90 – Liz Pelly on Streaming Muzak and Playlists

The Next Track Blue Flat Button2 400pxJournalist Liz Pelly talks about streaming muzak, Spotify, playlists, and the future of streaming.

Listen to The Next Track: Episode #90 – Liz Pelly on Streaming Muzak and Playlists.

Find out more, and subscribe to the podcast, at The Next Track website. You can follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast, to keep up to date with new episodes, and new articles from the website.

The Big Missing Element on Music Streaming Services

I’m listening to John Coltrane’s extraordinary 1958 album Blue Train. I’ve heard this album many times, and it’s one of those great jazz albums from the time when jazz was great.

Trane

There’s a great pianist on this record; I can’t remember who it is. I could search Google; I’m sure Wikipedia has a page about this album. (Here.) But I shouldn’t have to. I should be able to find this out when I’m listening to the music in iTunes, or on my iPhone. I might want to know the names of the musicians (it’s Kenny Drew on piano), who wrote the songs (all but one are by Coltrane himself), and more. Since release dates are often incorrect – they often list the record’s last release, not the original date – I might want to know that as well.

Tell me who produced it, who the other sidemen are, and all the other information about the disc that I would get if I had the CD. Because CDs come with liner notes; streaming services don’t.

There is one streaming company that claims to offer liner notes: Qobuz. I subscribed to Qobuz for a year when I lived in France; around 2012 or so. They had some liner notes, and I don’t know how many they have now. (They say “millions of digital booklets.”)

But this metadata should be available for every album. Yes, it’s up to the record labels to provide it, and I’m sure there are some labels who would be happy to do this, to make their recordings more attractive. Apple put a lot of time and money into their Mastered for iTunes, which is mostly ignored these days. If they had invested in liner notes, I think a lot of listeners would be happy. (Though this is still a small percentage.)

How iTunes Handles Albums, EPs, and Singles

The album is an artificial construct, yet it is the main unit of organization for music. As its name suggests, it was originally a collection of separate records, in a sort of book that was similar to a photo album. (Doug Adams and I discussed the creation of the album in the very first episode of our podcast The Next Track.) For at least 70 years, the Album has dominated music sales and listening.

Album

At the same time, the single has long been the gateway medium for discovering new artists, or for getting the latest songs by your favorite artist. This size of this record – 7 inches – was a sign of the more limited content it contained. But it also played faster, in part to fill up the record; a 7" record at 33 rpm would look half empty if it contained just one song per side. The single wasn’t only a 7" record: in Jamaica, 10" singles were common starting in the 1960s, and 12" singles started being released in the US in the early 1970s. (There were also double singles in gatefold sleeves; I recall a live set by The Cure that contained four songs on two 7" discs.)

Cure

Read more