As a lifelong audiophile, I’ve heard the sound quality in consumer audio products steadily decline. We went from records, to CDs, and then to MP3s–all the while compressing audio files into smaller and smaller formats that increase device-carrying capacity, but at the very real expense of audio fidelity.
Unfortunately, low-fidelity (Lo-fi) audio has become so prevalent in mainstream culture–from mobile phones to online videos–that most people are quite accustomed to compressed audio, and have no idea what the audio is actually supposed to sound like, and how wonderful it really is. Living in a Lo-fi world is hard for us audio lovers, but there’s light at the end of this ear-grating tunnel. Thanks to three major factors, high-fidelity (Hi-fi or HD) audio is making a comeback.
1) Resurgence of VinylA new generation of audio consumers has started listening to vinyl records–an analog format with no digital sampling or compression at all (unless it was applied during the recording process). Though most music these days is consumed via music players or technologies that use audio compression algorithms, this resurgence in appreciation for vinyl is what I see as the beginning of a trend back to quality, back to performance.
It’s also a move towards wanting to be a bigger part of the music listening experience. So instead of pushing a few touchscreen buttons and calling up the song you want, people are choosing to take the time to go to the shelf and select a record. To admire the artwork on the sleeve before taking the record out and placing it on the turntable. Gently lifting the tone arm, placing the needle on the lead-in groove, and following-along with the lyrics. It’s a wonderfully ceremonial manner in which to consume and experience recorded music in its purest, clearest form.
2) Musicians Release & Advocate for Hi-fi Albums
When Daft Punk’s new album, “Random Access Memories,” won a Grammy award this year, Hi-fi audio won, too. The album was available in Hi-fi at 88kHz/24-bit from its first release, showing the bands’ commitment to prioritizing the highest possible quality for their album. The best song of the year at the Grammy’s was awarded to Lorde for “Royals.” Her album is available in 48kHz/24-bit, and the production on it is terrific.
The best-known place to purchase Hi-fi digital albums is HDtracks. This is where I buy my music. HDtracks “produces higher-resolution, re-mastered music downloads direct from the analog master, high-resolution digital files.” Both the albums of Daf Punk and Lorde can be purchased from HDtracks.Another example of celebrity musicians promoting the importance of sound quality is Dr. Dre with his Beats line of headphones. This new consumer product has started a trend of people being prepared to pay $300-$400 for a pair of headphones. The idea here is that consumers are becoming accustomed to paying quite a bit more than previously thought to. Although audio purists may not like the sound of Beats, they pave the way to other, more neutral-sounding headphones, which are available for the same, or less, money.
3) Major Manufacturers Sell Hi-fi Music Players
When I was at CES 2014 in January, it was a wonderful surprise to see Sony launching a whole range of higher-resolution audio devices. Their devices include portable players, amplifiers, and even headphones. The Hi-fi revolution needs major consumer brands like Sony to be ambassadors for the cause.Probably the biggest news in the recent Hi-fi audio resurgence is Neil Young’s Pono player: a high-quality digital music player that started as a Kickstarter campaign with a fundraising goal of $800,000, and ended as a musical movement that raised over $6,000,000 to date! The Pono player enables an audio experience up to a sample rate of 192kHz/24-bit. Neil Young and the Pono team have brought Hi-fi speeding into the wider consumer consciousness. With a little luck, we’ll start seeing that consumer enthusiasm for high-quality audio trickle into our industry as well.
Consumers Shifting to High-Quality Audio Experience
When I was a young man in England, I remember that a record used to cost £5 (about $8) when CDs were introduced at an unheard of cost of £10 (about $16). That was in 1985. The price for a CD hasn’t changed much since then, but the price of a new vinyl album these days is up to about $25, with the Hi-fi downloadable albums going for up to $40 depending on the file format you choose. An album on iTunes is about $11.99. This price differential reflects the desire and willingness of consumers to pay a certain price for a certain product depending on how much they value it.
What we’re seeing from the resurgence of the popularity of vinyl, celebrity advocacy for Hi-fi albums, and major manufacturers releasing products specifically for immersive listening is a consumer shift towards a high-quality music experience over an experience of convenience or cost savings. Granted, it appears that the shift is a slow one, and may become mainstream, but it is happening.Another important possible benefit of this shift is the potential for musicians to make an equitable living in the digital age. Although I’m a fan of both Spotify and Pandora, the rights that those services pay musicians are far from those that they would earn from album/CD sales. This fact has been documented by many musicians. For example, Zoë Keating publishes her income from the online sales of her music to demonstrate how little these streams earn her. HD streams are not easily possible yet due to bandwidth constraints, and therefore, HD downloads direct from the artists’ website might be an interesting and profitable prospect for musicians.
The importance to us in the professional installed audio industry is that people are becoming accustomed to listening to high-quality music again: audio quality is becoming more important to more people. As the way the world listens changes, and the quality of what we hear increases, we audiophiles may yet live in a world where Hi-fi audio is the norm instead of the exception.