Sony to Push Hi-Rez Downloads & Playback

It was like old times. A major consumer electronics company was presenting a press conference in a high-rent venue to introduce its new audio products. These events used to be commonplace; now they are rare. But on September 4, in Manhattan's Jazz at Lincoln Center, to an audience that included record company executives from Universal, Warner, and Sony Music, HDTracks' Norman and David Chesky, Chad Kassem and Marc Sheforgen from Acoustic Sounds, whose new DSD download store was last week's big news, musician Herbie Hancock, and veteran mastering engineer Mark Wilder, Phil Molyneux, President and Chief Operating Officer of Sony Electronics since September 2010 (below), announced that the company saw high-resolution audio as the future of recorded music playback.

"Young people used to MP3s have never experienced the full quality that the musicians, producers, and engineers worked to create," said Molyneux, and quoted the results of a survey that revealed that 60% of consumers said they would pay more for better sound quality as long as they didn't have to sacrifice convenience. However, that same survey indicated considerable confusion among consumers. There are too many codecs, too many file formats associated with downloads, making the subject of hi-rez audio too complicated, too off-putting for all but audiophiles.

We don't have to be convinced of the benefits of recording and playing back audio with a bit depth great than the CD's 16 or a sample rate greater than the CD's 44.1kHz (provided those parameters haven't been messed with, of course). But at yesterday?s event, Herbie Hancock talked about his experience of hi-rez audio, comparing the original file of "Don't Give Up" from his Imagine Project album in his studio with the CD. "The CD sounded closed-in, smaller, thinner," he said, "with the hi-rez file, it was if John Legend and Pink were back in my studio."

Neal Manowitz Director, Product Marketing at Sony Electronics, then stepped up to the podium to announce Sony's strategy. They are launching a range of audio products this coming fall, all of which will play anything, from lo-rez MP3s to double-DSD (DSD-128) files.

Flagship of the new range will be the HAP-Z1ES hi-rez media player pictured above. This features a 1TB internal drive, Ethernet and WiFi connectivity, and can be controlled by an app running on a tablet or phone. It will upsample any format to double-DSD as well as handling native single-DSD and double-DSD files. Designed by the same engineer as Sony's well-respected SCD-1ES SACD player from 1999 and coming preloaded with 20 hi-rez albums from Sony, Warner, and Universal, the HAP-Z1ES will be priced at a very competitive $1999 when it becomes available in the fall. I was told it will make its public debut at next month's Rocky Mountain Audio Fest.

In related news, the CEA announced on September 3 that it was to join "consumer electronics (CE) manufacturers, retailers, music labels and artists in offering expanded support for and promotion of high-resolution audio (HRA). CEA is exploring initiatives to corral support among consumers and retailers, and plans to leverage opportunities to promote HRA at the 2014 International CES."

"Adoption of HRA offers benefits for consumers as well as new market opportunities for the CE and music industries." says the CEA's press release, explaining that "HRA offers the highest digital sound quality while retaining the benefits of digital audio, such as portability and personalization. HRA music files provide greater clarity and detail than MP3s and other compressed digital audio formats, resulting in a listening experience that more closely represents the original recording."

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COMMENTS
BradleyP's picture
  • 1TB doesn't go terribly far with DSD files.
  • This is being launched as an audiophile thing--$2k player--which means it won't amount to much and may even flop.
  • Sony should think of their player as a loss-leader ($400 - $500) and make up the money on DSD album sales at $12 - $15 a pop, potentially reinvigorating the entire recording industry.  
  • Sony should make their stuff playable only on hardware with a licensed decoder so it doesn't get hacked and pirated.
  • Sony can never reinvigorate the recording industry on its own.  There needs to be a consortium of record labels and hardward manufacturers to do this.
  • If all of the above can be done, CD manufacturing needs to cease.  The three choices will be lower-rez MP3, DSD downloads, and LP.
  • The above plan would never work.  Start poking holes in it.  The idea of making significant money off of recordings may be gone for ever, which is a pity on many levels.
Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

I, for one, am giddy at the prospect of getting even more vinyl and CDs cheap as new(ish) formats are widely accepted and audiophiles dump their old music.  Recently, I even found some mint classical SACD's at at a thrift store!  (Yeah, I then did have to buy a SACD player, but that was only $10 at the same thrift store as well.  Of course I lucked out.  But I am retired and enjoy bargain hunting.)

I'd rather have a huge vinyl and CD collection at $0.50 -$2 a pop (and thus have little buyer's remorse if the music turns out to be a dog), than for equivalent cost a few High Rez files of the same old audiophile chestnuts, which evaporate when my hard drive dies.  After all, when music is cheap you'll consider experimenting with new artists, or revisit old artists again. And this magazine is a great place to discover new artists and recordings.

So, bring it on!  The more new formats the merrier!

jimtavegia's picture

I guess he has seen the light and the Bose gig is over.  Wow. A new convert to high end audio. Maybe the new WaveRadio will stream DSD over USB?  

 

I'll bet it was JA's cowbell that did it. :>O

DaveinSM's picture

That was funny!

Ladyfingers's picture

About the merits of greater bit depth and resolution than CD? I'm afraid I do.

Double blind testing has found it impossible to identify downsampled passages inserted into high-definition streams. The only advantage is a theoretical lower noise floor, but at over 96dB of dynamic range with just 16 bits, you'll never encounter the noise floor of anything but the analogue master tape or your amplifier.

The real problem with CD Audio right now is that the industry is compressing the signal to hell in their misguided Loudness War and utterly ruining the sound. 44.1/16 is more than adequate for music, even if the physical discs do go away. Anything else is a waste of space.

GeorgeHolland's picture

The mention of double blind testing is useless here, Stereophile doesn't believe in them.  Yes I agree that the lowly CD is more than adequate for music reproduction and way better than vinyl if done properly. The loudnessss wars is a mess this is true. Better to fix the real issue rather than introduce yet another unneeded format.

BradleyP's picture

If one simply avoids recent music that gets played on pop and country stations, there is no loudness war, right?  I wouldn't listen to (much of) the stuff anyway.  That said, what was done to Adele 21 is a shame.  What a missed opportunity for the quality of the sonics to match the quality of the music!  The approach of Nine Inch Nails, who made an alternate non-compressed download available, seems appealing.

Ladyfingers's picture

NIN's "audiophile" download was a pathetic DR6 to the CD's DR5.

dobyblue's picture

Except that they didn't, the difference in the two masterings ranged from actually being LESS dynamic in one song's case, to being roughly 1dB more dynamic.

We were expecting a lovely dynamic NIN record like Barry Diament's original mastering of Pretty Hate Machine, DR13, but we got DR5 regular vs. DR6 audiophile. Very disappointing, even moreso when I started listening and realized now after 11 listens all the way through how bloody amazing the new album is.

ChrisS's picture

Hey Georgie,

When have you heard CD's done properly?

And, on the Other Hand...

Have you ever heard Vinyl done properly?

So while considering those Questions, Georgie, think of an Answer for this...

What IS the real issue?

ChrisS's picture

Ladyfingers,

What DBT study are you referring to?

Ladyfingers's picture
John Atkinson's picture

Quote:
http://www.bostonaudiosociety.org/explanation.htm

A severely flawed study, in the view of many engineers and academics. And me.

For a report on a listening test, performed at an AES conference, that produced different results, see www.stereophile.com/content/watching-detectives.

See also footnote 2 at www.stereophile.com/content/past-prologue.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Louis Motek's picture

I believe it is an art to downsample from 88/24 to 44/16. There are a plethora of algorithms available which do this. Some seem to be better for some content, some seem to be better for others. The cheapest and most detrimental way of course is truncation, where most can be lost. But the algorithms available are high mathematics art based on psychoacoustics. So the above mentioned AES conference test result is dubious unless the actual algorithm used to go from 88/24 to 44/16 is provided. It is not enough to say that "downsampling to Redbook" was carried out. What kind, if there are dozens of methods on the market?

 

Then there is the issue of "going back up" to DSD so that the converter would "not play a role in the test." This, too, is not a complete picture, because it could well be that if the original file were A/D recorded directly to 44/24 and then dithered using noise shaping (without any sampling rate conversion) to 44/16, then played back through a PCM able converter (such as the Burr-Brown PCM 1704); this sound then compared by the listeners to the 88/24 --> 44/16 --> DSD --> 1-Bit chip version would likely have been deemed better than the one that went through all that sampling rate conversion. Such a test would have shown, more truthfully, the actual performance level available to 44/16.

 

My own studies of the sampling rate question were carried out in the following manner: 

 

(1) First, I obtained a list of what seemed to have most acceptance as the best microphones. From these I chose the DPA (then Bruehl & Kjear) 4003 omni. (Considered by many as the 'most accurate / colorless' microphone on the planet; and my listening test concurred.)

 

(2) Then I obtained many A/D converter chips and tested these where the mic preamp would be integrated into the same A/D converter circuit board. Best of these based on sonic quality was deemed by myself the one Mytek uses on their up to 96 kHz A/D converters. I forget the name now (sorry). Interesting to note was that this chip seemed to top the ones that allowed up to 192 kHz. (Something changed in the A/D chip technology between 96 and 192 kHz and it didn't sound as good, even at 96 kHz. I was using PCM for recording, not DSD.)

 

(3) Now that I believed to have pinpointed the best mic source and A/D conversion, then it was time to go through all of the available downsampling algorithms. There are dozens of these on the market and they all influence the sound quality differently. However, to my surprise, when I experimented without any previous data manipulation, the original recordings made at 44/16 and played back as such were in fact superior sounding than recordings made first at 96/24 and subsequently downsampled to 44/16. 

This all goes to show (me) that the format itself was not being tested in the above mentioned AES test. The only thing that was shown was that when you go from 88/24 down (somehow!) to 44/16 and then back up to DSD for Sigma/Delta 1-bit DAC conversion, you loose something that you would not have lost had you never truncated the data. That makes perfect sense. Don't fool with 'good enough.' But the test did not show how 44/16 stands up to DSD. That would require first a test to see whether people like parallel resistor DACs over 1-bit Sigma/Delta DACs and only then would it be possible to say, based on the chosen conversion technology, whether they like the DSD over the PCM. 

Based on my own tests, upon going from pure 44/16 A/D and D/A, my notebook kept filling itself with: "sounds real". The 96/24 A/D downsampled to 44/16 for D/A lead me to say: "just somewhat artificial". 

Test object was a wine glass half full of water being played with a steak knife instead of a cello being played with a bow. Serving as reality check was going back to the makeshift wine glass instrument instead of going back to some "recording".  

A subsequent test showed that changing the digital volume level of the originally recorded data even by 0.1 dB introduced some sort of "fake" artifacts into the sound such that digital audio is best used for capture and playback. For top results, no other manipulations of the data, if at all possible, should be carried out. 

Louis Motek

ChrisS's picture

Thanks! There's no discussion on this website re: results, do you know if that's been published elsewhere (without having to email BAS for a paper copy)?

Notwithstanding, can you hear the difference?

John Atkinson's picture

ChrisS wrote:
There's no discussion on this website re: results, do you know if that's been published elsewhere (without having to email BAS for a paper copy)?

The findings were published in a 2007 AES paper; see www.aes.org/e-lib/browse.cfm?elib=14195. This paper costs $20 for non-members, $5 for AES members.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

DH's picture

DBT has barely been used to test this. The one study continually mentioned as proving the "no audible difference" proposition was clearly flawed: it turns out that some of the SACDs used as "Hi-res" were, in fact, just based on DSD files produced from upsampled Redbook. So some of the testing was comparing redbook to upsampled redbook (which proves nothing). There were other problems with the testing, but we don't need to go into it here.

Many people can't tell 128K mp3 from a CD; others can. What's the difference between them?

Mostly, listening on decent equipment and being shown the differences. Discerned listening is a learned skill. IME, once people have been shown the differences between mp3 and Redbook, they suddenly can hear what they couldn't hear before.

Same goes for hi-res vs. lower res. Yes, the differences are sometimes subtle, but they are there. Certainly lots of individuals have passed a DBT for hi-res vs standard res. I'm one of them, and there are lots of others. 

Little proper testing has been done on this. It's difficult to do. Among other things you need hi-res masters and then standard res masters that are verified downsamples of the same hi-res source. As odd as it sounds, not a lot of material like this is readily available. 

I'm willing to bet you that in a group of experienced hi-res listenters, you could find many who could pass such a DBT. 

Josh Hill's picture

Actually, 44.1 and hi res files have been successfully ABX'd. See the threads at Hydrogen Audio.

The typical ABX test is sadly wanting from a scientific perspective. Lacking in statistical validity and poorly conducted. You have to use some caution here.

Also, 16 bits isn't adequate to capture the dynamic range of musc. Check out Louis Fielder's paper here:

http://www.zainea.com/Dynamic%20range.htm

I agree though that in practice, it is the record companies rather than the format that limit the dynamic range of CD's.

Finally, it isn't just the bit depth that causes sonic degradation in red book. It's the high slope filters that have to be used. We may not be able to hear sound above 20 kHz, but we can certainly here pre-ringing and other filter artifacts.

The main problems with CD are poor mixes, poor practice, and poor equipment. But even so, high resolution formats are necessary if we want a truly transparent recording medium.

 

 

 

Bill B's picture

I prefer the goal to be higher than "adequate or "good enough". You realize that higher resolution does actually have, objectively, higher resolution, right? 

DH's picture

Yes, just b/c it is an audiophile format you don't need expensive audiophile equipment.

If we want listeners outside the Boomer age group to adopt these formats, they need to be available for playback on portable players. A real market won't be created until Sony and others put some resources into making relatively affordable portable devices with enough memory to load lots fo 24 bit files.

Younger listeners have started to buy upscale\hi-end headphones. So given quality source files they will hear and appreciate the difference in SQ.

vozhyk87's picture

I am 26, I work with tech for living and I am so lost with all the hi-rez formats/players/stores. And I am sorry but how a $2000 is a "competitive" price point for the mentioned "young people"? Silly looking Neil Young's player will probably make more sense for the gen Y than this one from Sony.

Bill B's picture

It's ok, Sony doing $2k on a new flagship product in that area is 

a.  much less expensive than a small audiophile company would need to price it at; and 

b.  a price that will come down over time, and the capabilities will become more widely available in less expensive models.

Remember 42" flat screen tv's for $10,000 not long ago? Same price drops will happen if this Sony thing catches on.

Harbapapa's picture

I think Hirez (HRA) is a good thing but there is one funny thing:

Now all the same music is sold again, first LP, then cassette, then cd and now an Hirez -format. People buy their same favourite music for the third of fourth time? Isn't that good business?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

How many years now have audiophiles called for high-resolution downloads? Now that we have two major breakthrough announcements, from both Sony and CEA, why are so many people greeting them with cynicism? This is wonderful news.

To vozhyk87: Reviews of hi-res DACs that cost far less than $2000 appear both in Stereophile and on audiostream.com.These products do all the work for you, adjusting for sampling rate on the fly. 

Is hi-res audio good for business business? I sure hope so. Because if it is, it means all the work we in the audiophile press have done to spread the word about the beauties and benefits of high-resolution sound has been understood and accepted by enough consumers to make hi-res audio profitable for recording and high performance audio manufacturers. And if recording companies can make money from hi-res audio, that means more new recordings of quality artists.

Louis Motek's picture

I believe the cynical reaction is based on a mixture of experience and logic. 

Experience:

- The fact that it surfaced some time ago that some high resolution download files indeed contained absolutely no more higher frequency content than their Redbook twins was cause for grave concern. (The highs suspiciously cut completely off at Redbook's Nyquist). This should have immediately called for a system of honest accountability by the providers of the high resolution downloads. Did this happen? Did anyone go to court? Is it still possible today to run an upsampling algorithm on Redbook files and sell them as 'high-res' files? As long as there is no system of accountability, there is not going to be trust. This problem is then compounded by:

Logic / measurement:

- It is a logical fallacy to state that you get higher resolution from a higher sampling rate than 44.1 or say 48 kHz. Once you go up to the high sampling frequencies of, say, 192 kHz, you don't get higher and higher resolution; you only get some additional higher frequencies that we cannot hear. We don't have the equipment on our bodies to perceive them. The serious question is, is the playback equipment used (starting from the source all the way to the speakers) designed to handle ultrasonic frequencies without introducing intermodulation distortion into frequencies which we can indeed hear? This is the very reason why many people in their living rooms have had a hard time "liking" the sound of SACD over CD. Very often, a new set of audible distortions is introduced just because the ultrasonic content is intermodulating with audible frequencies. With CD we never had that problem. 

This is all explained and demonstrated with analogue equipment here:

http://youtu.be/cIQ9IXSUzuM

What is shown very clearly is that digital audio is not stairsteps of resolution at all, and that full quality is achieved by any frequency which is below Nyquist. 

Furthermore, the scepticism is fueled by other such facts such as:

- microphones have signal to noise ratios between 75 and 90 dB.

- adding dither noise shaping can actually draw in even more audible data into the CD format of 16 bits than the 96 dB limit. This is elegant mathematical engineering at work. 

- You cannot convert DSD type files directly on a parallel resistor DAC chip. If you want to go directly, you have to use a 1-bit chip due to its architecture. But there are plenty of critical listeners who have come to the conclusion that parallel resistor type DAC chips offer higher sound quality. Some even go as far as to make their own discreet parallel resistor converters for the convertion of PCM data, such as 

http://www.msbtech.com

and

http://www.totaldac.com

And so for these highly ambitious projects at the very forefront of what is sonically possible today, it is not all that much of "great news for us" that a large corporation is bending the public's opinion away from things directly related to higher tone quality towards adoption of a "numbers race" which really leads nowhere in terms of better sound. 

99% of better sound is made in the recording venue, anyway, way before analogue to digital conversion even takes place.

A real revolution would be the announcement by Sony of new reliable Jitter measurement method and that they have therewith cracked the audio cable sonic differences mystery. These are real limitations to the art of audio engineering but they are not even addressed by higher and higher sampling rates. 

I feel like a whistle blower but unfortunately it's just a dog whistle.  :-)

Ladyfingers's picture

Great, informative comment.

More info here: http://xiph.org/~xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html

bernardperu's picture

What's the point of hi rez downloads if dynamic range is 8 or less? I feel i have been ripped off by hdtracks so many times. They should post the dynamic range of all music they sell. This would be really simple and they dont do it because they conciously take the money of emotional audiophiles who will buy music carried out by the excitement of the potential sound and feel ripped off later on. Many might request their money back but most won't bother for 15 bucks. Hdtracks knows audiophiles tend to be well off and their deceitful business startegy counts on it. 

Now i use the DR dtabase before buying from hdtracks. They sold me a hi rez by bowie with a DR6. If this is not a rip off, then, how should i call it?

DH's picture

They get the material as given to them by the labels. I've read interviews where the Cheskys have said the amount of volume compression in a recording is an artistic decision by the artists/producers and they feel they have no right to intervene in the outcome.

So the real question is: If the label is recording in hi-res, why don't they have the sense to save a master as "audiophile" before the added volume compression is applied? 

Marketing such highly compressed files as "audiophile" versions will just kill the market, as that isn't what most audiophiles are looking for.

Some artists (Paul McCartney, Green Day) have put out hi-res material without added compression. As a result the "American Idiot" in 24/96 sounds way better than the CD (which has a much lower DR); McCartney has made his back catalog available in hi-res versions with and without added VC. If only more artists would give us this choice.

bernardperu's picture

My main point is that hdtracks should make the ethical choice of posting the dynamic range of the music they sell. This would be really easy.

It is obvious to me that they choose not on purpose and continue to have a deceitful business model.

dobyblue's picture

Agreed, I have no interest in high resolution downloads of dynamically devoid of life music. In fact I'd much rather have a fully open dynamic 320 Kbps .mp3 file of a song scoring DR13 than a dynamically slammed DSD or 24-bit/96kHz PCM  file of a DR5 version of that same song.

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