Audible snobbery?

While wandering the Web recently, I was surprised to find a link to a 2013 article on NPR titled ‘What Does A Song That Costs $5 Sound Like?‘  Intrigued, I clicked the link to learn more.

In 1997, the first single was purchased online — “Electric Barbarella” by Duran Duran. At the time, Marenco was working for Liquid Audio, one of the first companies to offer commercial music downloads. Marenco says no one she knew even got what she was doing. “My artist and label friends looked at me like I was talking about things in a crystal ball. ‘Music on the Internet? Are you crazy? How is that even possible?’ “

Marenco and Liquid Audio were offering compressed audio downloads in formats like MP3 and AAC, which is what iTunes uses now. Even though she’s a musician herself and could hear that MP3 was lower quality than CDs, she thought MP3s could change the industry in a way that helped artists.

. . .

MP3s were lower quality audio because they had to be. The files were small and moved quickly over a slow speed Internet connection. Marenco now says she feels guilty for helping to make MP3s popular.

. . .

These days Marenco is back at work as an engineer in a studio she built in her home. She takes great care in the recording process. During one session, she had four musicians in the studio and none of them wore headphones the way they do in most recording sessions. Marenco prefers they play together as if they were on stage, a process she believes makes the sound more authentic.

About three years ago, as most people got faster Internet connections and bigger hard drives, Marenco decided to make her DSD music files available for download. At the time, Marenco’s customers could only play DSD on one device — a Sony PlayStation 3. Marenco charged $5 a song and $50 an album. It didn’t sound like a formula for success. But, she says, “we were shocked. Thousands of people came to download. What was interesting to me as a business owner is they never asked me to lower the price. They asked for more content.”

. . .

Music fans are ready, according to a study done by the Consumer Electronics Association in 2011. It found 90 percent of consumers say sound quality is the most important part of a quality listening experience. And the industry may finally be ready to give it to them.

There’s more at the link.

This sounds potentially very good;  but there’s a huge fly in the ointment, one that’s bugged me ever since I ran into a high-end audiophile in my days in the computer industry in South Africa.  This guy had just spent the equivalent of $20,000 on a turntable to play old-fashioned vinyl LP records.  One turntable – no amplifier, no speakers, no cables – one turntable.  For $20,000.  My mind boggled.  He swore you could hear the difference between it and his previous turntable, which had cost him a mere $10,000 or so, but for the life of me I couldn’t tell their sound quality apart.  (He took great delight in demonstrating them to me one evening over a Scotch or two.)

(If you’d like to read about a modern audiophile who takes it to extremes – as in six-figure extremes – try this article.  Your mind may well boggle too . . . )

The thing that bugs me about all this is that the range of hearing of the human ear is very accurately known.  It’s between 20 Hz and 20 kHz.  Basically, if someone offers to sell you a sound system that can accurately reproduce sounds between (say) 4 Hz and 44 kHz, you’re being sold a pup, because you won’t be able to hear more than half of that sound spectrum.  It’s physically impossible.

I accept that common MP3 files are low-resolution;  that’s why, when I download them or burn my own CD’s onto my computer, I specify the maximum possible sampling rate to ensure the best audio fidelity.  I can hear the difference between the files when I do that.  However, when working in other formats promising much higher frequency response, I often can’t hear much difference between them and a high-end MP3 file (particularly given my aging ears, which have lost much of the sensitivity they once had – loud, repeated gunfire will do that to you, and there isn’t always time or opportunity to insert hearing protection).  I think mixing the sound is much more important than its frequency response – getting the balance right between instruments, vocals, etc. and balancing bass, treble and other notes.

I can’t help but think that much of the emphasis on higher-frequency recordings is just hype, nothing more.  What say you, readers?  Is there more to it than marketing?  Or is it just another way to separate us from our money?



  1. To a degree, it depends on the listener, and the material.

    Frequency response is pretty well established. Dynamic range is much more subtle. With modern, popular, "wall of sound" produced recordings, meant for radio or streamed presence, you're not likely to hear the difference because it's all such a constant volume. But for orchestral, opera, or very deeply detailed modern recordings, sounds buried "down deep" tend to get compressed out of MP3 encodings, and even lossless codecs like AAC simply may not have enough resolution to reveal subtle details, or the noise floor of the medium ends up exceeding the subtlety.

    My 50+ year old ears don't pick it up as well as they once did! but I sometimes can still hear the difference.

    Most material is fine with MP3 or AAC. But I do think there's a case for some material to be represented in a better format, using a higher amout of data.

    It's like the old car buff's adage: "Speed costs money. How fast do you want to go?"

  2. I'm going to agree unreservedly, although the word I have used before is 'fashion' rather than hype.

    I have a few thousand albums on the computer (MP3, AAC, FLAC, Ogg, I have perfect pitch, am a bit of an audiophile with widely eclectic tastes and used to be a semi-professional musician when 'much' younger) and you know what? Even played through decent speakers I can't tell the difference (admittedly age, gunfire, hours in and falling out of sundry (non-commercial, soundproofed) planes and that period of lugging a Carl Gustav may not help) but I listen mostly on a portable player (like most people, those and phones) and class anyone who claims to distinguish between (even) a 256 kbps and a 312 kbps (or even some of my older 112's) piece on one of those (with even the best earbud phones) like those art 'experts' who claim to see something in modern art (piles of rubbish) – fools, liars, and self-deluded, pretentious charlatans. (Even when young I could only tell the difference between CD and Vinyl by the constant background needle crackle off the vinyl – call me a philistine if you wish).

    There was a TV programme over here a few years ago. It was on clothing fashion. It involved two 'high end' designers one of whom was given an unlimited budget, access to all the 'best and most expensive brand/designer labels, the other was confined to low-end superstore own brands and market 'tat'. The regular results? They couldn't tell the difference, and regularly both the designers and audiences … preferred the cheapest (until they found out it was the cheapest, of course then sundry 'excuses' appeared).

    It's the same here I fear, the conquest of appearance over content as in so much of life nowadays.

    That and the 'defensiveness' of an elite under threat – I wonder, did all those monks scribing away on manuscripts decry the ease of access and availability to the masses of the printed books and justify it with a claim that they lacked the 'texture', 'quality' or 'resolution' of the originals?

    But Hey, it's their money. I read regularly on my e-reader, but 'splash out' on the dead-tree version of a few (thousand) I like. Not because the reading experience is 'better' but because 'I' want to, and 'I' like to – I just don't try to justify it. Marenco is in business, the MP3 market is saturated (mature) so she (and Neil Young) are trying to expand by persuading the fashionistas that she has something better (even if it isn't necessarily).

    For my two-peneth, I think we'll all end up getting better quality when the processing, storage, download costs allow it (112, then 256 was state-of-the-art a few years ago, now 312 is the minimum available, soon we'll have Neil's 192 kHz/24 bit FLAC files too) but as with High-Def/4K/8K TV's there will come a point where the market will say 'Whoa, I can't tell the difference enough to warrant paying so much more'. I tried a Pono player and Sony's NWZ-ZX1 but couldn't for the life of me justify paying so much, for so little (if any noticeable, listening in a car/train/plane/in town/at work – maybe if I worked in a sound-proof room with no distractions …).

  3. A much bigger issue than format is mastering.

    The short version is that in a back to back comparison louder usually sounds better–but the recording process can't control your volume knob so record companies wind up sacrificing clarity and dynamic range for average volume. Vinyl typically wasn't mastered this way, and that's what most people hear if they honestly prefer vinyl.

  4. High- versus low-quality versions do make a noticeable difference, but wider spectrum? Not nearly as much.

  5. I will admit to being a pure Phillistine; my iPhone is full of 32kbps high-efficiency AAC files. Compressing that hard only distorted one song (of all things, the trumpets on Sixteen Tons got too distorted for me to take).

    I can tell the difference between 32k HE and 256kb AAC, but most of the time, I can't tell which is "better" without cheating. For what I want – portable music – heavy compression is good enough.

  6. Most of the time it makes no difference.
    When it does make a difference is in the few types of music where the fundamental problem is between live and recorded because the actual instruments (and often the building) are designed to produce sub-audible notes that can be felt but not heard. And really, the only place that shows up is in some, not all, pieces written for the truly massive church organs in truly massive cathedrals. The reverberation in the big English cathedrals is long enough and big enough that arrangements are usually tweaked for the building. The building actually is a musical instrument, just not entirely audible. You can't record that, but it does change how the brain responds to the piece. And the composers wrote accordingly.
    Organ and certain orchestral pieces don't record well period; but mp3s really don't do well with them, because the mp3 isn't picking up something that was deliberately written in. Most people aren't going to notice it; those of us who spend a great deal of time around organs will!

  7. "Audiophiles" are one of the best examples of a fool and their money being parted. They routinely claim to be able to do things that defy the laws of both physics and biology, yet every blind or double blind test proves that it's all psychosomatic.

  8. "the range of hearing of the human ear is very accurately known. It's between 20 Hz and 20 kHz."
    While generally true, my experience is that there is considerable individual variance in those figures. While teaching physics, one of the things I would do each year was to use a frequency generator and a good set of speakers to test the range of frequencies my students could hear. On occasion there would be a student that could perceive sound as high as 27 kHz and the upper limit generally ranged between about 17 kHz and 22 kHz. Of course, if I wanted to drive the class crazy I could just set the frequency at about 15 kHz and leave it there. My upper limit these days is only about 9 kHz. The downside is that some of my students figured out that if they used a ringtone with a high enough frequency, I couldn't hear it.

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