MP3: The Death Knell of High End Audio?
Forget About DVD-Audio and SACD, the Real Digital Audio Battle is About to Begin
See the Sidebar: Codec Considerations
MP3 Hardware Reviews: RCA Lyra, Audio ReQuest ARQ-1
For several years now the powers that be in consumer electronics have been embroiled in a confusing and divisive attempt to bring a new digital audio standard to market.
As it now stands, after all the corporate gnashing of teeth, debates about adequate sampling rates and bit depth, dire warnings against the majors entering into another format war, encryption problems, and a lingering controversy over the audibility of digital watermarking, we have, surprise surprise, two fledgling competing formats, a desperate paucity of software, and lots of confused and wary consumers.
Sound familiar? Unlike SACD or DVD-A, however, most consumers had at least heard of VHS and Beta by the time the VCR wars heated up in the early 80’s. More importantly, people wanted a home video format on a scale large enough to make the stakes very high for the combatants.
In comparison DVD-A and SACD don’t even show up on the radar. Beyond the micro-niche of the audiophile community, there is virtually no demand for what amounts to an improved CD, let alone the knowledge that there are already two candidates. For the vast majority the compact disc is more than adequate, sonically speaking, and the lure of extra channels for surround, insignificant. As some have already pointed out, the only way for this bird to fly is with affordable, multi-format players and backward compatible, high-resolution discs that gradually and transparently replace CDs, eliminating the double inventory problem retailers dread. In other words, the only way audiophiles are likely to get it is if the masses get it too. Whether they choose to make use of the extra resolution or features becomes their decision. Many won’t know or care that it’s there at all, just as most people don’t realize how much audio information can be gleaned from an LP or CD. In addition, this gives the record companies the chance to re-sell their back catalogues yet again to all those with an interest in higher resolution and/or multi-channel sound.
Enter the Giant Killer
For those of us hoping and waiting for a high-resolution replacement for the CD, however, the situation has recently become even more complicated. While the electronics behemoths were striking committees and
issuing press releases about DVD Audio and SACD, the masses have gone right ahead and chosen the next major audio format all by themselves. If the success of DVD-A or SACD was a dubious proposition before the meteoric rise of MP3*, it seems like a serious long shot now. The simple formula behind the CD’s success, despite the audiophile objections of compromised sound, was a level of convenience and flexibility the LP simply couldn’t match.
|“If the success of DVD-A or SACD was a dubious proposition before the meteoric rise of MP3*, it seems like a serious long shot now”
MP3 trumps the CD in a similar way, offering unparalleled access, features, and ease of use to consumers through internet based distribution. Fittingly, the sonic compromise is equally stark, the standard 128 K bit/second MP3 file representing an objectively and subjectively lossy (lousy?) copy of a compact disc. The bottom line? As the CD demonstrated so aptly, the market chooses flexibility over fidelity every time.
As with the CD, MP3 audio quality is more than adequate for the vast majority of users. After all, it’s digital, so it must be good, right? With MP3 audio being characterized as “CD Quality” in the media so consistently, most folks would be hard pressed to identify any technical difference at all (besides the obvious lack of a physical carrier). What’s worse, is that unlike the CD or LP, where serious users with high resolution systems could get excellent fidelity from the same discs used by Joe Boombox, as it stands right now, no one is getting excellent fidelity from MP3 files.
Friend or Foe?
With all this in mind it’s not difficult to see why the audiophile community has seen MP3 as a threat from the very beginning. While, in its current form, it might be a threat to absolute sound quality,
digital distribution on the internet is likely to improve our access to music. Current legal wrangling aside, for Napster’s more than forty million users it already has. As people like alternative rock queen Courtney Love argue, by forcing changes in the music distribution system (currently controlled by about five major record companies), it could, in fact, be the industry’s savior, allowing artists a better chance of retaining ownership of their work and marketing it more directly to fans (you can read a transcript of her provocative speech on the subject at Salon.com). While the future of MP3 file sharing services like Napster, Gnutella, and MP3.com might be unclear, the future of music distribution is not. It’s coming to a computer near you.
|“While, in its current form, it might be a threat to absolute sound quality, digital distribution on the internet is likely to improve our access to music”
As the major record companies are starting to realize, fighting this trend is not in their best interests (in recent months, for instance, BMG has signed a deal with Napster and Universal became the last of the majors to settle their suits with MP3.com). Nor, I’m afraid, is it in the best interest of audiophiles. Simply, neither of us are going to be able stop it, so, as the folks at BMG decided, we’re better off trying to work with it, not against it.
The predicaments of audiophiles and the major record companies are surprisingly, if ironically, similar: we both fear exclusion. By allowing artists to market their music directly to fans digital distribution threatens, at least to some extent, to cut the record companies out of the music industry food chain. For audiophiles the threat lies in a technical exclusion, the potential dominance of lossy digital audio standards like MP3 making higher resolution formats an afterthought at best. The question then becomes how long the CD will last, not whether DVD-A will win out over SACD. The major record companies have enough power and money to see that their interests are served, one way or another, as we’re already seeing with BMG. I don’t need to tell you how much power the Blu Tack and expensive power cord brigade hold in comparison.
Pray For Bandwidth
So what’s a concerned audiophile to do? Well, for starters, pray for bandwidth. It would be a tragedy if the specs of the dominant new audio format were decided based on the capabilities of the internet at the turn of the century. It doesn’t take much of a leap of faith to predict the continued
exponential growth of internet bandwidth. One of the silver linings around MP3 (or any of its counterparts) is that, like DVD-A, it can be scaled to support multiple bit rates. The higher the bit rate, the larger the file, the better it sounds. Due to the current speed of the average internet connection, most MP3s are encoded at 128 Kb/s, a tenth of the data rate of a conventional CD (the current allowable range of the format is anywhere from 32 Kb/s to 384 Kb/s). This allows a file to stream in real time over the average cable or DSL connection. As connection speeds increase to the point where we can download DVD movies in reasonably short periods of time, we’ll be able to move high resolution, losslessly encoded audio files around in the same manner. The critical question is, in the face of massive consumer satisfaction with 128 Kb/s MP3 files currently in vogue, will anyone bother? Why use that extra bandwidth in the interests of quality when you can use it for quantity? No one can hear the difference anyway, right?
|“Why use that extra bandwidth in the interests of quality when you can use it for quantity? No one can hear the difference anyway, right?”
Apparently not. Another chilling similarity with the development of the CD is the dogmatic insistence by engineers supporting and developing the technology that it’s sonically transparent. The Fraunhofer Institute, the developers of the MP3 codec, insist that after extensive listening tests, encoding CD quality audio at 128 Kb/s causes no subjective loss of sound quality (see my sidebar, ‘Codec Considerations‘, for more details on the history and technical specs of MP3). Others are slightly less sanguine about MP3’s transparency. At www.mp3-tech.org student and compression algorithm expert Gabriel Bouvigne describes the results of his own listening tests using what audiophiles would likely describe as a mid-fi system (TEAC VRDS-25, unnamed Celestion speakers, Yamaha amp). His conclusion is that the codec is only transparent at bitrates of 256 Kb/s or above, noting that ambient recovery and transient attack are noticeably inferior to the CD original when encoded at 128 Kb/s. Both of these findings fly in the face of assessments from the audiophile press and with my own experiences (for a detailed look at MP3 sound quality at various bitrates see my review of the Audio Request ARQ-1). Imagine (or remember) an early, poorly mastered CD played back on an early, jitter prone CD player and you’ll start to get an idea of what mp3 sounds like, at its best.
There are, however, some causes for hope. In the aforementioned Courteney Love speech on digital music distribution she cites MP3’s poor sound quality as one of the format’s major problems. With the notable exception of Neil Young, it’s rare for musicians to complain about the sound quality of consumer audio formats. She represents perhaps the only mainstream figure to suggest that MP3 files do not sound like CDs. Another ray of hope is a newer codec called MPEG-2 AAC, (Advanced Audio Coding) which promises the capability of higher resolution, multichannel operation, and widespread support from hardware devices. Unfortunately, AAC has yet to make much of a dent in the market (see the sidebar for more details).
Like the major record companies audiophiles risk having their interests suffocated unless we play an active role in how this new technology is developed. We need to stop seeing MP3 as a threat and start viewing it as an opportunity. It may have taken twenty years but the audiophile community was instrumental in convincing the major electronics giants that the CD format was sonically inadequate. We now face a similar struggle, with even higher stakes. We’re on the verge of getting the shaft again folks, and this time it’s bigger. Despite significant advances in digital audio quality over the last decades,
the world’s new digital darling is a massive step backward in fidelity. If we don’t want to get stuck with another lemon, we need to get busy.
We need to demand high resolution MP3s from record companies, from file sharing services, and from the artists themselves. We need to take an interest in the hardware and encourage high-end manufacturers to explore and improve this new format. Most importantly, the digital audio leaders in our industry (Bob Stuart, are you listening?) need to help ensure that a high-fidelity, lossless digital audio format suitable for internet use is considered and implemented.
|“We’re on the verge of getting the shaft again folks,
and this time it’s bigger”
Lest I come off as relentlessly negative I should say that I think MP3 and the related compression algorithms are amazing feats of electronic engineering. Many audiophiles who’ve never heard an MP3 assume that the quality drop is going to be stark, the format barely listenable. The effects are much more subtle than you might think, and practically miraculous when you consider that roughly 90% of the original data has been discarded. In sonic terms, however, none
of the currently available compression schemes provides an adequate replacement for the CD, much less the improvement audiophiles have been hoping for.
A Noble Cause
Many have viewed the fighting over SACD and DVD-A in a very idealistic light, as a struggle to ensure access to high quality music reproduction in the coming years. The fight over internet audio formats will likely prove to be much more significant, and just as tough. If we want to have something worthwhile to play on our systems in ten years time, it’s a cause the audiophile community needs to take up.
And so, with all that in mind, have a look at AIG’s first mp3 hardware reviews: The RCA Lyra and the Audio ReQuest ARQ-1.
*Although there are multiple digital formats being used for audio files on the internet, to avoid confusion I’m going to categorize them as MP3 for the time being, since this is by far the most popular and well recognised. I will focus on the other formats in the hardware reviews elsewhere, and in the sidebar.