Can hi-res audio gain traction with the masses? The genre�is certainly picking up steam in the enthusiast space, but will it cross over to the mainstream? The recent announcement of Neil Young's PonoMusic hi-res music service and player got more people talking about the category. Even if the talk wasn't 100 percent positive, at least people were discussing the merits of hi-res audio, and that's what needs to happen right now. A large portion of the younger music-buying public may not even realize that you can do better than iTunes/Google/Amazon download quality, so the task at hand is first to educate and then to expose consumers to a better-sounding option. The question is, if you sell it, will they buy it?
Sony is one company that's been very aggressive in its promotion of hi-res audio over the past year. The company recently invited members of the press to San Diego for a Hi-Res Audio event, in part to introduce a new lineup of Hi-Res Audio products (more on that in a second) but also to have a meaningful dialogue about the state of the category: where it's at, where it's headed, and how best to get there. To that end, Sony also hosted representatives from Universal Music and from the Digital Entertainment Group, which is trying to help formalize a clear set of standards and common terminology for hi-res audio.
If you're new to the hi-res audio discussion, let's get you caught up. In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, "Let me explain...no, there is too much. Let me sum up." The standard CD has a resolution of 16-bit/44.1-kilohertz (or 1,411 kbps). Rip a CD into the AIFF or WAV format, and you'll get a bit-for-bit copy of that disc at its full quality, with a fairly large file size to go with it. A four-minute song in the AIFF format has a size of about 40 MB. Formats like MP3, AAC, and WMA compress the music to save space at the expense of sound quality. The same four-minute song in MP3 format may have a size around 4.5 MB, depending on the amount of compression (in iTunes, you can choose anywhere from 16 kbps up to 320 kbps).
The music downloads offered on sites like iTunes and Amazon are not offered at full CD quality. They, too, are compressed to allow for faster downloads -- as is the music streamed over Pandora, Spotify, Beats Music, and the like. Compression schemes have gotten better, and there are now "lossless" compression options like the Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) and Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC) that claim bit-perfect copies at roughly half the file size with no loss in sound quality. Still, we're talking about everything in relation to a CD-quality resolution of 16/44.1.
If you take a look at the Music Resolution Comparison graphic that shows a sampling of available resolutions, you can see that CD quality is not the best the industry has to offer. There are music sources out there offered at better-than-CD resolutions ranging from 24-bit/44.1-kilohertz up to 1-bit/5.6-megahertz. Which ones are technically "hi-res"? There's some debate on that, which is one of the standards the DEG is trying to formalize. Sony defines hi-res audio as anything better than CD quality.
On the disc side, the DVD-Audio and SACD formats offer stereo and multichannel music at higher-than-CD resolutions, and some hi-res music is offered on Blu-ray disc, as well. This genre isn't exactly thriving, but you can still buy these discs and play them on any universal disc player, like Oppo's popular lineup.
The future of hi-res audio, though, are digital downloads and streaming services. A handful of websites already exist that allow you to download higher-resolution audio, including HDTracks, Acoustic Sounds, Blue Coast Records, and iTrax.
PonoMusic represents another addition to this collection of hi-res audio download sites, carrying with it the weight of a well-known, highly respected artist in the music industry. The more industry stalwarts we get talking about hi-res music, the more education takes place. One part of Sony's long-term plan is a more aggressive Hi-Res Audio marketing campaign using its own arsenal of Sony Music artists, including Sting, John Mayer, and others.
For more on Sony's hi-res offerings and the issue of finding hi-res content, click over to
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