Data Density Eats Tweaks for Breakfast

Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898), the Prime Minister of Prussia who brought about the unification of Germany, was not a nice man. But he was no dummy, either. One of his most prophetic remarks was in response to a journalist's question about what Bismarck thought to be the single most decisive factor in modern history: "The fact that the North Americans speak English."

If Bismarck were alive today and a savvy audiophile, and if a journalist were to ask him what would be the most decisive factor in the future of high-performance audio from here on out, I think he would unhesitatingly answer, "The fact that iTunes handles 24-bit/96kHz audio."

The facts are almost impossible to argue with:

1) The iTunes jukebox program is free of charge and runs on both Macs and PCs.
2) iTunes handles digital music files from the most brutally crushed MP3s all the way up to 24/96.
3) 24/96 audio has more than three times the data density of CD audio, and eighteen times the data density of 256kbps MP3.
4) If you can't hear how much better 24/96 is than MP3, you probably shouldn't be reading this magazine.

Certain enhancements or tweaks, such as dampers or rings, can improve the sound of CDs. That is because, as I have pointed out before, CDs are an analog medium read by analog means (footnote 1). But instead of trying to use tweaks to squeeze the last degree of resolution out of a smaller datastream, it is a lot more productive to start with a much larger datastream. Going from 16-bit/44.1kHz CD to 24/96 is like going from a 400dpi printer to a 1200dpi printer. No contest. Data density eats tweaks for breakfast.

While the DVD-Audio and SACD formats were fighting their small war of attrition, MP3 downloads took over most of the world. With economies of scale reaching a tipping point (a negative one) for many independent producers of high-quality music, downloads have become increasingly attractive.

Were MP3 the only download option, it would be a pretty poor state of affairs. But MP3 is not the only option. The availability of 24/96 playback via iTunes creates a huge opportunity for producers and consumers of high-quality music. Because investment in physical discs and booklets is no longer necessary, high-resolution downloads can move a small label's break-even point on a modest project from 4000 physical units to under 1000 downloads, or even fewer.

I challenge all audio-store owners and salespeople reading this to prepare their own demonstrations of the same short, high-quality musical excerpt at three different levels of MP3 compression, at CD-quality audio, and at 24/96. I think that being able to quickly and easily demonstrate the audible differences between various data densities will do more than anything else to restore the fortunes of audio retailing. Don't expect people to become fervently convinced by reading an account in a magazine of one of John Atkinson's demos at audio Shows, guys! Prepare your own demo, and perform that demo with missionary zeal. There is no substitute for the listening chair! Make converts one at a time, and they might stay converts.

Time and again, non-audiophile, music-loving friends have assured me that they do not have golden ears and that they cannot hear subtle differences. But when they hear the differences between MP3 and 24/96—even over computer speakers—they are shocked. Even the differences between CD-quality and lo-rez MP3 can be alarming. Lo-rez MP3 makes violinist Arturo Delmoni's solo CD of music by Ysaÿe, Kreisler, and Bach (John Marks JMR-14) sound as if it were recorded under water. If you don't believe me, try it.

I believe that 24/96 is, all things considered, the optimum delivery format. It is an excellent solution in terms of bandwidth, data storage, and, most of all, the installed base of equipment that can play it back—not only computers and iTunes, but DVD players and DACs. The Audio Engineering Society agrees, and recommends 24/96 as the standard for digital master recordings.

24/96 vs MP3 is the only thing high-performance audio has that is at all comparable to the difference between Plain Old TV and HDTV. So prepare those demos, guys. You don't even need a fancy computer—just a universal disc player that can play MP3s as well as DVDs. Have on hand one CD-R with the three MP3 tracks, a CD-quality disc, and a 24/96 DVD or Blu-ray.

Admittedly, iTunes cannot as yet automatically switch from CD-quality to hi-rez USB output. You have to do this manually, via the Audio MIDI Setup control panel, or use a "helper" program like Amarra or Pure Music (footnote 2). But Ayre Acoustics' excellent computer-audio setup guide has information about a script that can handle that. I wouldn't be surprised if a future version of iTunes addressed this.

Unless you opt for a soundcard with S/PDIF output, for computer audio you need a USB DAC or a USB–S/PDIF converter, like the Stello, Lindemann, and Bel Canto that John Atkinson reviewed last May. There are excellent 24/96-capable D/A choices (many USB DACs are not 24/96-capable), including HRT's Music Streamer II USB DAC ($150), Ayre's justly fêted QB-9 ($2500), and Wavelength's Cosecant (from $3500).

However, if you want to stay away from computer audio altogether but are willing to do a little scutwork, you can burn hi-rez music downloads on your own 24/96 stereo DVDs and play them in a universal disc player, or through an external 24/96 DAC using a DVD player's S/PDIF output. All that's required is software such as Roxio Toast Titanium or Roxio Creator 2010, or Minnetonka's Discwelder Bronze 1000m, and the investment of time to learn how to run it.

24/96 downloads are going to be tremendously important, not only for the future of the high-performance audio industry, but even more for the record business. We are on the threshold of a new Golden Age of high-quality recordings. Spread the word!

Footnote 1: See "The Analog Compact Disc," Stereophile December 1994—Ed.

Footnote 2: See Michael Fremer's review of Pure Vinyl, from the same company that makes Pure Music, elsewhere in this issue. —Ed.