Many of you read my recent article titled Remind a Hipster That Vinyl Still Sucks. To be clear, my mind has not changed since the story was published: I still think vinyl sucks, as it is a low-resolution, low-dynamic-range, noisy format that doesn’t sell very well compared with other formats. Yes, vinyl is kitschy, comfortable, and nostalgic, but it’s not the type of format that can come even remotely close to reproducing the actual master recording. Digital music in HD formats can make near-perfect reproductions of the master. And HD downloads are on sale now for a little more than the price of a Compact Disc. Seriously, folks: master quality music is already here, and you can own it.
The point that was somewhat missed in the enthusiastic debate that ensued was that master tape, be it analog or digital, can reproduce the dynamics and details of the actual performance. Dead formats like Compact Disc and vinyl simply can’t. Compact Disc has more dynamic range than vinyl, but it still sucks in comparison with analog or digital master tape. The Compact Disc’s 16-bit resolution leaves billions of bits on the cutting-room floor when compared with either analog or digital master recordings. Simply put, by everybody’s standard, Compact Discs suck, too. We can do better and should do better on the music that we really love by hearing it in a true HD digital format.
This brings me to another point from the Comments section that was somewhat blurred. Two-inch analog master tape sounds simply amazing. It has a huge dynamic range. It really is capable of reproducing even the most bombastic musical events clearly. However, the problems with analog master tapes from an audiophile’s perspective are many. First, how the hell do you get real-world access to an actual analog master tape? Even if you have the juice to call up the folks who run the vault at Warner Brothers to borrow a copy of Yes’ Fragile and Led Zeppelin II for the weekend, do you have a Studer professional tape machine or something like it standing by to play your tapes? Pretty unlikely.
Some people record CDs onto quarter-inch reel-to-reel tapes, but that’s just a less-than-CD recording transferred into the analog domain. Other people rip from vinyl to HD files. This, too, is silly because it’s just a good copy of a highly flawed audio format.
But here’s the good news: HD 24/96 or 24/192 files that come from major labels are almost perfect copies of the first-gen master tape. All you need to play HD music is a modest computer or a modern tablet/smartphone to store and stream music files. Today, access for the consumer is super-easy, unlike master quality audio in the analog domain, thus you can actually own pretty much the master of your favorite album for a little more than the cost of a lower-resolution, lower-dynamic-range Compact Disc. These are good times, people.
Look at all that’s happening with HD music and streaming formats. The next generation of music lover will use Tidal, Pandora, and Spotify, in addition to HD download sites. There’s a lot to be excited about. What concerns me is the view held by many Baby Boomer audiophiles that older technologies are better. The resurgence in the popularity of vinyl is in part due to Baby Boomers’ economic support, as well as hipster contributions (don’t get me started on them–damn, you know my hot buttons!). It’s time to forget vinyl. Rip your CDs at full resolution, then store them away because you aren’t going to need them anymore. Going forward, people who love music and/or people who want to hear what their high-performance audio systems really sound like will be enjoying music in HD.
We’ve all been burned by old formats, format wars, and other fool’s errands, but the potential of MQA and download sites to deliver HD music is the real deal. It’s like having audiophile master tape audio in your system for a fair price without the logistical and political problems that one would have with master tape quality audio in the consumer analog domain. Forget Compact Discs, forget vinyl–master tape quality music is already here, and it’s time to buy in.
Feel free to go crazy in the Comments section below, but please be respectful of other people’s opinions.
• Is MQA the Future of HD Music? at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Great New and Re-issued Music From the Past Year at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• How DSP Can Take Audio to New Heights in 2016 at HomeTheaterReview.com.