High-resolution audio is a waste of time if the mastering sucks

AvatarMarc Henshall
Culture & Industry, Tech Talk6 Comments

First and foremost, what I’m about to say is merely my opinion and no doubt many will disagree with me. High-resolution audio is one of those topics that gets people worked up, and that’s cool, music fanatics are passionate and often fiery people – that’s what makes them great. All the same, I’m prepared to stick my neck out on this one, so here goes:

high-resolution-audio-pointless

High-resolution audio is pointless in the vast majority of cases.

Now, I’m not an audio engineer – although I do have a degree in Music Technology, so I’m not a complete layman – but it would appear to me that we have our priorities wrong on this one. I hear folks regularly debating the benefits of listening to music at resolutions beyond what Nyquist Theorem dictates is required to faithfully reproduce audio.

I won’t go into huge detail – I don’t feel it’s necessary to make my point – but for the benefit of those who don’t know:

Nyquist law dictates that in order to capture audio accurately, the sample rate should be at least twice as high as the maximum frequency you need to reproduce. Subsequently, and since the upper range of human hearing is around 20KHz, CD productions came to settle on 44.1KHz as a standard. It was good enough – in theory.

Despite this, some people will argue that 44.1KHz, is, in fact, not enough. They would argue – among other things – that Nyquist law is oversimplified, and that due to various crazy-complicated psychoacoustic principles, you need more. As a result, we now have audiophiles preaching the benefits of sample rates as high as 192KHz. Once again, I’m not a mixing or mastering engineer, but I can’t help but feel all these discussions are actually red herrings.

Audio resolution is a red herring

The reasons for my opinion are two-fold: 1) I actually don’t think many people can hear the difference, and 2) there are bigger problems to worry about when it comes to the quality of music we consume – namely, the loudness war.

Let’s start with point one…

It is my belief that the vast majority of music fans cannot hear the difference, or, even if they can, their playback devices aren’t good enough anyway. In other words, even if the audiophiles are right, it would seem to me that in order to even stand the slightest chance of hearing the difference, everything would have to be perfect. That is, the listener would a) have to want to hear the difference, b) have a great ear and good hearing, and c) their hi-fi would have to be of the highest quality – something most people simply can’t afford.

Now on to my second point…

The last thing we should be worrying about when it comes to sound quality is sample rates. The fact is; many modern albums sound terrible – victims of the scourge of music industry driven loudness wars. For many of you reading this, the loudness war is nothing new, but it is core to my point….

The point I’m trying to get across is that all the samples in the world won’t make the mastering better. Does it really matter that you’re listening to your favourite album in 192KHz 24bit resolution audio if the mastering process has squashed the music to the brink of almost zero dynamic range and digital clipping? Seriously, what’s the point – you’re literally polishing a turd.

Similarly, it doesn’t stop at bad mastering. Very often, the mix isn’t up to scratch either. For example, an album that I like by a group called The Heavy is not only a victim of the loudness war, but also over-compression in the mix too. It doesn’t matter if I listen to the album as an MP3, a CD, or a high-resolution download – no amount of oversampling will change the terrible, over-compressed mix and master.

You don’t need to be an audiophile to hear it

The sad thing is, the lifelessness and distortion that come hand-in-hand with over compression are plainly obvious, even on the most rudimentary of playback devices. In fact, you can even hear it on YouTube – which is not a way I’d advocate listening to music if you care about how it sounds.

The point is since the effects of loudness war compression are so audible on the crudest playback devices – shouldn’t we be more worried about this than audio-resolution?

Check out the example below, which demonstrates the ‘loudness war’ and tell me you can’t hear the difference – even on laptop speakers.

The example above is a fantastic demonstration of just how obvious the effects of the loudness war are. I would even argue they’re so obvious you don’t need to be an audiophile to hear them. Even on my tiny laptop speakers and with YouTube compression, I can hear the loss of clarity as the demonstration is switched from the original 1986 master to the brickwalled remaster.

In contrast, the difference between MP3 and CD are far more difficult – if not impossible – to hear on laptop speakers, and subsequently, I must conclude that the loudness war is of far greater significance.

Now what?

So, we’ve determined that most new music sounds awful, distorted and has no dynamics. Where do we turn now? Is all hope lost? Are we doomed to listen to inferior sounding music after working relentlessly as a human race to perfect the recording process, only to wreck it at the last moment of production?

vinyl-dynamic-rangeWell, not quite. There is one curiously obscure loophole – vinyl. Let me explain: Many modern albums are released on vinyl with greater dynamic range when compared to their CD counterparts – meaning that for many releases, the vinyl sounds substantially better.

But let’s be clear, this does not mean that vinyl is better. Vinyl has its own issues and quirks – from the scourge of dust and dirt to the often infuriating sound of inner groove distortion – vinyl is far from perfect.

Still, limited and full of compromise as it may be, the distortions of vinyl are still – at least to my ears – preferable to the abominations of the loudness war. At least, in many respects I expect the limitations of vinyl. I don’t, on the other hand, expect the poor quality of most modern digital releases. As a consumer, quite frankly, you deserve better!

That’s why, through the pages of this blog I regularly recommend buying vinyl. All the arguments of why people love or hate vinyl aside, you cannot dispute the fact that many vinyl releases have been less exposed to the ‘loudness war’ phenomenon.

dynamic-range-cd-vs-vinyl

However, it’s not perfect, you have to do your research, and sometimes even the figures can be misleading. Take the image above for example from the dr.loudnesswar database (a website dedicated to reporting the dynamic range of different releases). I purchased a vinyl copy of The Heavy album I mentioned earlier. And, despite the improved dynamic range, I still didn’t like how it sounded. Why? Because the mix was just as faulty as the mastering, which only helps to support my initial argument. It doesn’t matter what format you listen on, CD, Vinyl, or high-resolution digital, a high-quality mix and master will shine through despite the format.

To summarise, I’d rather listen to a well produced MP3 at 128Kbps than a loudness war production at 192Khz ‘high-resolution’. The source sound comes first, everything else – to put it candidly – is trivial.

  • Marc, I don’t think it’s a question of whether the material is up to the argument.

    You could as easily ask ‘Is Hi-Res irrelevant if the music is boring?’

    In other words it’s two different things. Or two different arguments.

    Mastering comes in all shapes and sizes and is quite seperate from the argument surrounding Hi-Res.

    You can totally get into a piece of music even if it’s coming off a
    cassette just as much as you can hate something coming off a 192/24
    digital master. No amount of Hi Res is ever going to save Engelbert
    Humperdinck for me… no matter how well it’s mastered.

    We’re always going to get drawn back to the same old question:

    Does Hi Res allow you to get more out of ANY given recording?

    …and as we all know that argument still rages.

    • Avatar Marc Henshall says:

      Thanks for your comment on the blog too Colin – have replied on the linked in post. Cheers, Marc.

  • Avatar Frank says:

    I’ve discovered your site today and have been reading some of your post. You’re obviously preaching my prayer; good sound starts at the source. Not even a million dollar audiophile sound system can solve clipping or poor Dynamic Range.
    On the other hand; claims, mainly by audiophiles, about sampling frequency and bit depth, aren’t helping either.
    A year ago I stumbled upon the online Golden Ears test by Philips, which is, as they claim, their webversion of a test they used for determining the musical hearing ability of their employees and product reviewers.
    It can be found at http://www.goldenears.philips.com
    It’s a nicely build up test where you go from Basic level, to Bronze, Silver and eventually Golden Ears. At least, if you can reach that. It’s really difficult in the end and it took a while before I reached the highest level. I used (closed) headphones to do the test and i didn’t cheat….. (I’ve heared of people using frequency analyzers to get the answers right to “earn” Gold!)
    During the time I did the test I visited many a forum for Audiophiles where they discussed the Golden Ears test. It will not come as a surprise when I say that I noticed that many self-acclaimed audiophile that couldn’t reach the Bronze, Silver or Gold level, blaimed the test; The chosen music examples were bad, and many other excuses were given.
    It just shows that even in the world of Audiophiles, who focus on best possible representation of the source, it’s hard to get common ground on the “quality” of the source material. Maybe that’s not that important because that’s limited to their listening environment at which they spent lots of time and money. It’s worse that mixing and mastering engineers don’t seem to be able to make the difference and bad for musicians that work hard to write and play music and don’t seem to be able to make sure that their public get the best source in terms of musical sound to reproduce on their sound systems.
    Maybe the Golden Ears test along with the examples you showed on Dynamic Range and compression should be taught in schools.

    Keep up the good work.

    • Avatar Marc Henshall says:

      Hi Frank, thanks for your kind words and insight. I’m glad the articles struck a chord.

      The source thing is definitely important to me and it’s funny you mentioned the Phillips Golden Ears tests – I remember taking a few of them during my university years. On your recommendation, I might consider revisiting; though I do remember the test being very tough.

      Impressive job on reaching ‘golden’ level. It doesn’t surprise me at all that some people would cheat, but I guess they’re only cheating themselves. What’s the point in taking them if you’re not going to use it as a proper training exercise!?

      Thanks again for reading and speak soon.

  • Avatar Barnabás Puskás says:

    Very good article. I completely agree! The audio industry should first care about the loudness war phenomen. E.g. to introduce for digital releases a similar recommendation like EBU R128. If the average loudness of the digital releases would be limited to a well defined level (e.g.: -18dBfs or -23dbfs), there would be no sense to compress the dynamic. It is really awful that the technology is far enough to produce really a high quality recordings but sales guys pushing the mix and master engineers to produce shit, dynamically compressed, flat, clipped, annoying recordings. And more annoying that they want to sell them to me (and to other customers) with high resolution for higher price!

  • Avatar loosaaah says:

    That goes for every medium. Most new records are just hi-Rez run through filters and transferrred to wax. Someone told me this site was great. You guys must be noobs from the few articles that have popped up. This one is just odd.