This is something that has been on my mind for years now and it’s still bugging me, especially because it can become a real problem at one point…
I want you to consider this before we go on, because it really is the staple of what I’m writing here: The CD (Compact Disc) was released over 30 years ago. Yes, it’s been that long. For over 30 years we’ve had a standard in audio quality that was pretty good, and what a lot of us have come to expect as the bare minimum in terms of audio quality. But this has changed – we have gone over 30 years back in terms of audio quality. Think about that for a second. With all our technology advances, we (well, not everyone) have somehow accepted getting worse audio quality – and for no reason at all. That is kind of peculiar, isn’t it? And the worst part is that it’s driving the market.
It’s 2015 and we should have wide access to 24-bit/48 kHz music as the standard, but instead that standard is 320 kbit MP3. What happened?
I’m an audiophile, which means I’ve spent far too much money on my stereo setup (the surround as well for that matter), and as such I want to use it to its full potential, as I obviously enjoy music and I enjoy it being played back in good quality.
No matter what gear you have, it can never sound better than the source (which means the music you’re playing). The better the source, the better the rest of your setup will sound. While on the other hand a poor source will just sound even worse, because you really get to hear all the issues and the things that are missing.
Before moving on let me be clear that this is not a discussion about if there’s a difference between lossy compressed formats (in what is commonly used) and CD quality, because there is – some people just can’t hear it, while others can. Lossy compressed formats like MP3 and AAC remove information from the audio – information that can’t be retrieved again, it’s lost forever (hence the term “lossy”).
If you can’t hear the difference, that’s cool, you’re better off. But don’t try to make it into a truth, which is what people tend to do. “I can’t hear a difference and from that I conclude that nobody can.” That’s, for one, a very small sample size, and ignores the fact that we’re all different and the people who can actually hear differences.
You are also able to “train” your ears and how you listen to music (yeah, really – but it’s basically only weird audiophiles like myself who do that), just like you can train other aspects of your body/mind. Like for instance some people are better at identifying real photographs from computer generated ones. It’s about knowledge and knowing what to look (or listen) for. Let me ask you this: Would you rather believe someone who tells you they can’t see/hear a difference or someone who can and can point out the differences to you?
The problem we’re facing in this day and age is that much more music is being released purely digitally, or, more to the point: Only as downloads (CD’s are after all digital as well :P).
This is not inherently a problem as such (albeit I do like buying CD’s and getting a physical copy, after all my SACD/CD player has pretty good circuitry and DAC, which means it helps make things sound good, when the source is good, compared to for instance streaming lossless music from my computer into a Sonos).
However the problem is when you can’t even get something on CD, which is already happening in some cases… Then what?
Some sites offer lossless downloads, like Beatport (but that’s only electronic music) and the new TIDAL (not sure if you can actually buy a track in lossless quality and “own it” (as in; not having to use their software), if someone can clear that up, feel free to leave a comment). TIDAL, however, requires you to subscribe, meaning you can’t just go buy a track you might want in lossless quality.
Despite people’s opinion on TIDAL, at the very least I hope it shows that we need access to lossless quality music and paves the way in that regard.
The real issue is that the major players, iTunes, Amazon and Google Music, do not offer lossless quality downloads. These are the ones who should be taking a step forward – or rather a step into 1981, because right now they’re holding us back over 30 years in the pre-CD era in terms of audio quality. That’s actually rather appalling.
Sure they would need more storage space and it would require more bandwidth to offer lossless quality, but the cost of that isn’t really significant, so it’s not valid reasons to not offer lossless quality. And if Beatport can do it I’m sure that iTunes, Amazon and Google Music can stretch it as well.
But here comes the next issue… Beatport offers lossless downloads, which is cool. But they offer it at a premium of 0.75 euros per track (I assume it’s about the same amount in dollars). We’re in a situation where the audio quality that has otherwise been the standard for over 30 years – 30 years! – is now considered a premium, a luxury that requires you to pay more. Wait, what!?!
And in terms of bandwidth and storage space, if you were to argue that the €0.75 is meant to cover that, the premium is still way more than what it should be – like 10 times as much, if not more. They’re doing it because they can, not because they need to.
And that’s another part of the problem. The vast majority of people don’t care about audio quality the same way that people like me do – they’re fine with MP3/AAC. I have no issue at all with that and I’m not trying to say that they should start listening to music in higher quality, because if they’re fine with the MP3/AAC, then that’s cool.
The problem is that they’re the ones dictating the market – and that is a big problem. It makes sense, since they’re the majority. After all people like me are the minority, that’s just a fact. But shouldn’t we strive for better instead of worse? We’ve already gone over 30 years back and that alone should be cause for alarm. And while people like me are a minority, we’re still not as few as one might think. You don’t have to be an audiophile to want music in better quality than the current MP3/AAC offerings.
More to the point: Someone happy with MP3/AAC will be just as happy with something of higher quality – it doesn’t change anything for them (except perhaps opening their eyes (ears!) to better quality and appreciating that). However for those of us with good music setups and can hear the difference, it matters a whole lot.
Let me tell you what it’s like to listen to music in different quality on my setup (which isn’t even as good as what other audiophiles have, but good enough that most people will go “Whoa, you’re crazy!”). And in case you’re wondering: Yes, I have actually tested it out on my system (compressed files, encoded at the absolute highest quality possibly and then burned to a CD for playback).
Listening to MP3/AAC is equal to me sitting like this: :((((((((((((
Why? It lacks presence. It lacks musicality. It lacks air. It has changed audio (especially in the low-ends). There’s just no enjoyment in the music through the format, because it’s far inferior to what a CD can deliver in comparison. While these lossy formats are psychoacoustic and “only remove what can’t be heard anyway”, the truth is a bit different and on a good system you get to hear just how much is actually lost.
Listening to CD: :)))))))))))
Listening to SACD: :)))))))))))))))))))))))))))
:))))))))))) is getting turned into :(((((((((((( if something doesn’t happen. We simply can’t have a situation where the lowest denominator is driving the quality in a negative way.
The music business went through a long adjustment period, which I guess is partly to blame for how the situation is now. They had to adjust to the internet and the illegal downloading, and how little people cared about breaking the law in that regard. But in all of that they also lost sight of their core consumers – the ones they could actually count on to buy the music, and we’re starting to feel that neglect to a degree.
Music is still being produced and at a higher quality than CD quality, so it’s not like there’s a lack of good source material to sell, and after all a lot of music is still being released on CD.
The big players (iTunes, Amazon and Google Music) need to step up their game and bring us back into the 21st century and provide lossless quality downloads. It simply just has to happen. I’m ok with the CD dying out, which will happen to some degree, albeit it will take quite a while. But there simply just has to be an alternative, not to mention a fair one (hi Beatport’s “premium” fee!), which currently is not always the case – and that is a huge problem, and is likely to become bigger moving forward if it’s ignored.
As mentioned, music today is being produced at qualities above CD quality. A CD uses PCM (Pulse-Code Modulation) at 16-bit/44.1 kHz. This is essentially the audio resolution. It’s decent and does the job well for the most part – and it’s at the very least much better than the same audio compressed with MP3/AAC.
Most music today is produced at at least 24-bit (bit resolution), which is the standard now and the most important aspect of increasing the audio resolution. The bit rate varies though, from 44.1 kHz, to 48 kHz, to 88.2 kHz, to 96 kHz. Higher bit rates are also used, but is generally thought to be “pointless”, but that probably depends on who you ask. Never the less most stuff sits somewhere between 44.1 kHz and 96 kHz depending on the producer/engineer. The professional software used for doing all of this (producing, mixing and mastering) pretty much all operate internally at 64-bit resolution, meaning a very high resolution.
As mentioned the step to 24-bit in output resolution is probably the most important one and has the biggest impact on improving the audio quality over what the CD offers, because the CD does have shortcomings. This is the same reason SACD and DVD-Audio was introduced a long time ago (with only SACD being left now). SACD however is a different beast in how it stores audio (using DSD (Direct Stream Digital), which is vastly different from PCM). However if DSD or PCM is the better choice is something people will argue over until they die. To me DSD is the better option, simply because it sounds more musical and coherent, but others will disagree.
So what’s the point of this? To show that over the past 30 years with the CD we have actually moved forward, although it might not seem like it. SACD and DVD-Audio both failed at making a market impact though, because at that point people had already started not caring about the audio quality of their music. It was around the time that the lossy formats started to get a proper hold of people (and illegal downloading of music ran rampant), especially because of all the portable MP3 players people were starting to use over portable CD- and MiniDisc-players.
What’s interesting is that while all of this was going on, meaning people in general caring less about their music audio quality, movies on the other hand were gaining increasing interest in audio quality. People would often opt for DTS over Dolby Digital, because DTS sounded better (less compression funnily enough), but at the same time pick MP3 over CD. A rather odd scenario and one that’s still in effect to a degree today.
So the technology has moved forward, offering us even higher quality music to combat the shortcomings of the CD format, but instead of us getting the benefit of that, we moved over 30 years backwards in what we’re actually able to buy. This makes no sense and it’s absolutely wrong.
Some speciality sites do sell high resolution music as downloads, which is cool. But the selection is limited and again you’re paying a premium (albeit this premium is easier to swallow). One of the most known sites is HDTracks, but there’s a huge problem with that as well, at least for someone like me who lives outside of the US. You can hardly buy anything on it, since it’s region restricted… I must assume this is something that’s done by the record companies and not HDTracks themselves, but it’s still a problem. Why is music region restricted, especially something that I can’t get anywhere else? The region restriction makes sense if it’s different record companies handling different regions, but if the one handling the EU market isn’t offering me the high resolution version of an album, well, then they should – simple as that. Why should there be a difference? I’m sure HDTracks would love to sell a lot of the music they offer for sale to me, but yeah, they can’t (or won’t?)… If the music business wants to “survive” (they’ll do that regardless) they need to stop making things so hard for their paying customers, because all they’re doing is tripping over themselves and annoying the people who want to give them money.
With streaming music being as big as it is (and it’s probably only going to get bigger), it’s important to still remember those of us who want more. Those of us who aren’t satisfied with a quality worse than what was introduced over 30 years ago. Those of us who don’t do streaming (for various reasons). Those of us who have invested a lot of money in our music setups, because we actually care a whole lot about how our music is reproduced, only now to be neglected by the industry we helped sustain, while that same industry is catering to the market that turned their back on them (through illegal downloading).
iTunes, Amazon and Google Music, you have to take this step. You are the leaders. You have to show the way. For the love of music, bring us back into the 21st century. You can start with offering CD quality and then move to higher resolution later, but at least do the CD quality – that’s the absolute bare minimum in 2015. It was the absolute bare minimum in 1995 (or even earlier) as well.
And one last note… Stop with the damn exclusives whoever is deciding this. Timed exclusives I can accept, but only making something available on, for instance, iTunes is not something that should happen. iTunes also being the worst for exclusives as it requires software to be installed and used (Amazon does as well, I think?) – software a lot of us don’t want on our system (specifically iTunes as Apple doesn’t have the best reputation on Windows systems in particular with their iTunes/Quicktime software).
Doing exclusives is just being assholes towards your customers for the sake of some cash grab with the company wanting the exclusive (or so I assume), and means people are more likely to illegally download the thing instead, meaning the shop and the record company both lose revenue, but at their very own doing… So just stop it already – it’s bullshit and it’s not helping anyone.