SXSW 2017: Is a Mega Artist Going to Stand Up For Hi-Rez Music?

At Friday afternoon's (Hi-Res) Music for the Masses: Going Mainstream panel at SXSW 2017, the consensus was that if high-resolution audio is going to catch fire and become what one panel member called "The New Cool," then the charge needs to be led by an artist who needs to talk up hi-rez tracks and perhaps forcefully nudge or outright insist that their label into release their music in high resolution form.

The panel also examined the issue of people actually paying for high-resolution tracks as opposed to buying or stealing MP3s. Questions were posed about why music fans will pay exorbitant fees for concert tickets yet will balk at paying slightly more for much better sound. Another audience member asked why record labels don't just eat the cost of taking down the MP3s they have for sale across their entire catalog and put up high-resolution tracks of the same material instead? However, another audience member wondered aloud if anyone in the audience could even tell the difference between a well-mastered 16-bit audio file and a well-mastered 24-bit audio file? And of course one gloom purveyor was sure none of this mattered if you listened to your music through Beats headphones.

While everyone agreed that although Pono's timing was bad, it was still a valiant effort that pointed the music industry as a whole in the direction of higher-resolution music.

But by the hour's end, the panel, led by Peter Downton of 7digital and Lisa Sullivan of MQA Ltd., still wondered aloud whether any artists would stand up and shout "Hi-Rez" and lead this much-needed campaign?

woodford's picture

wasn't high profile enough?

jhwalker's picture

Maybe "high profile" for people over 60 - most younger have never heard of him at all, and those that have, see him as just a crazy old hippy. Sad but true.

No, a high profile "artist" these days would be someone like Beyonce, Jay-Z, Taylor Swift, Pharrell, etc. And it will take more than one to get people to take it seriously.

TheEmperorHasNoClothes's picture

Hi Rez really does not make much difference to sanely minded people -- but recording and mastering does. A well recorded and mastered music sounds good in even MP3.

Solarophile's picture

This is true.

Hi-res is great in the production chain. But by the time it's ready for consumption in the home, the final product produced with decent dynamic range and properly dithered down to 16-bits is more than adequate.

Whether it will ever become "cool" is to be seen. But I think we do have to be honest that 99% of music consumers are NOT going to think twice about hi-res, will NOT hear a difference, and will NOT pay much above standard download prices like off iTunes.

I don't see why Pono's "timing was bad". It was a valiant effort and the result is clear. Had Pono been introduced today would not have resulted in a different outcome. Typical music recordings these days such as the bands at SXSW are not mastered with high resolution in mind anyways.

doak's picture

While the well done MP3 may sound god, the same well recorded/mastered music will sound INCREDIBLE in true high resolution.

Analog VU Meters are awesome's picture

Yeah, maybe on 200K Raidho speakers in a well treated DSP'd room with a 15 db SPL noise floor. Only if you mean all mp3, 320k is great but 256 and 192 are noticibly worse.

BKinTheBK's picture

Speaking of which, does anyone know what's going on with Pono? They've been in "transition" for a crazy long time. Are they still going? Are there plans for next gen Pono players?

I'm a real proponent of high res, but almost every i know 40 and under listens to crap ear buds, bluetooth in the car or mono bluetooth speakers at home. Not only is high res not relevant for them, but stereo is irrelevant.

And not only that, but people don't sit and listen to music. People don't just sit, period. No way most of us could tell the difference between spotify and a 24/96 download if we were walking around the house doing other things or listening while stuck in our iphones looking at instagram or snapchat.

Labels should offer high res at the same prices and then end point software needs to let users choose what res to download or stream. You're never going to get mainstream people to pay $20 an album again. *Maybe* you get people to pay a little more for TIDAL, but $20-$24 for a download? Only crazy people like me and whoever else is reading this rant.

Milesian's picture

I find it remarkably stupid that the industry has deemed normal uncompressed recordings as high res, thereby turning them into some elitist format that only audiophiles can appreciate. It's upside down. People need to get it into their heads that the MP3 format most people listen to is LOW-RES !! And uncompressed is NORMAL-RES!! They need to know that lovingly recorded album the artist and engineer sweated day and night over, has been hacked to a fraction of its content by an algorithm and they are hearing only a small percentage of what was on the original master recording. If people know they are getting an inferior product, they will quickly want only the best.

Analog VU Meters are awesome's picture

320kbps is 99% indistinguishable from 16 bit 44.1Khz, because all data above 20Khz is taken out (at least with my XLD settings) and the data that is 100 db below the loudest parts are also taken out. Only parts that are impossible to hear without truly amazing and transparent hifi (and good listening).

jimtavegia's picture

I thought this line of thought was lost long ago. Even a modest system can prove this false.

Analog VU Meters are awesome's picture

Report back.

I actually have a somewhat decent system, but not really Audio Research and Infinity IRS V level. McIntosh ML-10c's with Nikko Alpha II with Apt Holman with a MiniDSP as DAC. Trying to get a microphone so I can use Dirac Live with it. The point is, I've compared CD level FLAC to 320K mp3 on a spectrogram software. The only difference is less sound 95 db below the loudest point. VBR even more away. Only bats can tell the difference between higher sampling frequencies than 44.1kHz. I have an idea. Maybe you should visit an audiologist and check out your ears' frequency response?

I would do it if I didn't want some new speakers...

dalethorn's picture

I didn't know that sampling rate was the same as frequency response.

Analog VU Meters are awesome's picture

Do you believe in it? Test yourself. What empirical tests were done to show a good system reveals a better bitrate or sampling frequency or sounds -95 db on the track are distinguishable? As people get older, their ears degrade anyways. I doubt most old audiophiles can even detect a 20 or 19Khz tone on JBL M2's in an anechoic chamber.

dalethorn's picture

Supposedly only babies can hear 20 khz reliably. I remember when I was 26 y.o. (no hearing damage) that I could hear 16-17 khz OK, but by the time I was in my upper 50's the 16 khz tone was about 12 db below flat. Anyone even 20 y.o. who can hear 20 khz and be able to tell that it's a higher pitch than 19 khz is a very rare individual. If a person is 70 and in perfect health with no hearing damage, they should be able to hear up to maybe 13-14 khz, since hearing declines more with health than age per se.

Archimago's picture

Yes, MP3 removes data as part of the compression. But what counts is whether this is perceptible. For most music lovers, high bitrate mp3 like 320kbps is totally fine and lossless CD quality much less hi-res 24bits and >44kHz will make no difference. Especially true for the majority of modern music released.

The music industry needs to focus on how it records and produces the music before they waste everybody's time with yet more "hi-res" release based on old recordings or loud and noisy modern release which has absolutely no business being 24-bits and wasting storage space.

I seriously hope no mega-star cares to champion this effort. Maybe only then will the industry try to do something right for a change... Think about what true high-res, high dynamic range, good tonality, pristine clarity sounds like. Determine which bands/artists deserve this level of recording quality (not Justin Bieber, Jay-Z, Rihanna, Beyoncé, etc...). Then sell us music with this consistency of quality. Until then, IMO this is a total fail.

jimtavegia's picture

Most people will never care about high resolution and most consumers will not own resolving enough gear, cans or speaker systems that will reveal to them what high rez can do to improve their experience. It is sad to me, but the way it is. I don't think anything will change it.

Most would not even spend $150 on a much better sounding usb 24/192 dac like the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 or the Steinberg UR-22 and until that happens I don't see a shift of consumers demanding high rez or artists spending more to release their product that way.

I've also read that this is going to be the most politicized SXSW ever, so their attention will be on that most likely.

Archimago's picture

Yes, cans, speakers, and DACs make a difference. But more so, one does need to ask whether our ROOM and EARS are ready for high-res!

jimtavegia's picture

If we all waited until are rooms were "perfect", what ever that means, there would be no point to any of this. Even my nearly 70 year old ears can easily hear the improvement with 2496 even in my own home studio with modest gear. I have a harder time with 24/192, but as a math teacher I know it is better and if I was really in the business all my master work would be done in 24/192 or in DSD, period. What I would release it on is another marketing decision, but my masters would always be good for what ever was to come in the future and how I would listen to them at home. With hard drive space so cheap this doesn't even seem worth arguing about anymore.

I can tell you that anyone my age who suffered through 78's and enjoyed what they could do is very excited about high res and could never think about going back. I still have two cassette decks of decent quality and when practicing some new songs for solos at church I broke one out to record practice. The high noise floor was bad enough even with Dolby C, but then a dropout reared its ugly head on a brand new Metal Tape and I knew why I am so glad 24/192 has come along. It makes me work harder to sing better as every flaw is revealed and it is making me pay closer attention to my vocal performance. You never get better unless you hear deeper and I do now.

Analog VU Meters are awesome's picture

Try a blind test. Or it could be better mastering of the song. Use XLD to downgrade the bitrate and sampling frequency to compare the exact same mix. Better mastering is huge in audio, and is often done to albums when they get put on the SACD. It's sort of an exclusive: you only get the best masters from the highest bitrate, in order to more justify the prohibitive cost of Stardust when a Japanese label puts it on SACD. Downsample it then test it! This is why I will always prefer the 96/24 version, even I have the cd. I can know it was handled better in the studio, because it's made just for audiophiles, and not the general consumer. For music on the go or in general, 320K is best. For archival, 44/16 is best, or when I just have a big hard drive and don't care. There is a difference in the FLAC spectrogram and the mp3 spectrogram, however. Not audible though....

dalethorn's picture

If you're not listening for the difference or don't know what to listen for, it's easy to miss. Lower expectations makes for higher satisfaction.

volvic's picture

Well said Jim, a friend just plopped $70k on a fully tricked Volvo SUV yet is sold on his $9.99 monthly subscription to Pandora. When I ask him about paying more for high-rez or setting up a home system to enjoy he says nope, plugging the phone into his Tivoli is more than enough. For most that is all they are ever going to spend. Sad but true.

jimtavegia's picture

He bought a $50K car and a $20K audio system and he might have gotten it then. It would not bother me if he listened to streams, but once he heard great music in high res on a great system he might be listening to streams much less. We all know which one retains its value better. I would hope he owns a great computer dac and a super pair of cans which both could be had for under a grand.

Analog VU Meters are awesome's picture

I remember the first time I got a good pair of speakers (Mission bookshelfs). It was like a new world of sound. Real stereo, not earbud crap. Everybody deserves a good listen.

Milesian's picture

Mp3 is a dinosaur but no one is accepting it yet. It had its place years ago, when storage space was limited and people felt compelled to carry 2000 of their most cherished tracks on a portable device. With cheap storage, internet bandwidth and data plans at unprecedented levels, it has no place in the music environment. If as someone suggested earlier there is no difference between 320 Kbps MP3 and Lossless CD, then why on earth listen to MP3, why not go with the best available without compromise. If , as in the streaming environment it costs an extra $10 a month that's peanuts; the price of a fancy coffee or an appalling fast food burger. What Tidal, Spotify and all the other services should be doing is offering lossless 16/44 music at their current price for MP3, and then charging a premium for the 24/96 and MQA catalog. That's the stuff that needs a higher level of listening expertise and gear. Let MP3 die, like the 8 track tape. Time to move on.

Archimago's picture

MP3 is old and can be replaced... Already many people have moved on to AAC :-).

I agree, move on to FLAC or other lossless formats. But that doesn't change the fact that high bitrate MP3 is good enough for most people and for the majority of people and the majority of common rock/pop, there's absolutely no need to upgrade their purchased high bitrate MP3/iTunes AAC.

Agree also that lossless universal 16/44 streaming would be great and offer the hi-res tier for those who prefer. That does not mean the industry should not have a hard look at what they''re selling and try to put the consumers' interests rather than just desperately squeezing for profits by selling the same thing over again.

dalethorn's picture

WAV files at 24/192 seem reasonable to me as a universal high-res media. They can be converted to FLAC to save space if necessary, being 100 percent recoverable to the original WAV data. Most importantly though, to someone who has lost data more than once when it "sat too long" and converters were not handy to recover it, the WAV format (stepped down to 16/44 if necessary) will play on everything that exists, and probably will forever. I'm not going to lose any more files by encoding to any other formats for my archives.

Solarophile's picture

I think 24/96 FLAC is more than enough. This is also what Mark Waldrep of AIX seems to be promoting. I assume he should know!

WAV has terrible and nonstandard meta-tagging with most software. Absolutely no reason not to use FLAC or ALAC these days.

Analog VU Meters are awesome's picture

only bats can tell the difference between 96Khz and 48Khz.

dalethorn's picture

If the difference is an analog frequency, yes just bats. If it's a sampling rate, then that's different.

rt66indierock's picture

Well, I’m not advising any artist to standup and shout “hi-res” until the record company: pays them a signing bonus, annual fees, payments for each appearance, payments for use of their likeness, any promotional audio or video they create and finally a discount to create hi-res music below what they charge to create standard resolution music.

Robert, there are number of reasons why hi-res is not catching on. One is if you don’t already have the right to make hi-res or MQA versions of an artist’s music people like me are going to make sure you pay the artist suitable compensation for the privilege.

texanalog's picture

"if you don’t already have the right to make hi-res or MQA versions of an artist’s music people like me are going to make sure you pay the artist suitable compensation for the privilege."

Not being a recording artist or in the recording industry, can you clarify this. Are you saying that the record companies, beyond what is written in the recording contract regarding continuing compensation (royalties), have to further compensate the recording artist for the privilege of releasing hi-res or MQA versions of an artist’s music?

rt66indierock's picture

No I’m saying there is section of a recording contract that defines the rights granted. There can be and are geographical and format restrictions.

BradOToole's picture

Just to get an idea I have a quick poll. How often do each of the contributors here listen to music? Just reply here.

rt66indierock's picture

Every day and I've had a stereo in my office since I was promoted to a level where I had an office 31 years ago.