The Growing Gulf Between High- and Low-Res Audio

The state of audio is getting curiouser and curiouser, as Alice might have said. I feel more than a little schizophrenic about it these days, and it's been increasingly on my mind.

From where I work, there seems to be a growing divergence within audio media, and it's making me crazy. There's a growing split between high- and low- resolution formats, with high-res getting higher and low-res getting, well, lower. At the same time, our current default mid-resolution format (CD Red Book 16-bit/44 kHz. Fs) seems to be perking right along (it sure ain't broken), except that CD sales are declining for reasons that have little to do with resolution, and so the format may be fading away. Hmmm. What does it all mean?

THE LOWDOWN ON LOW-RES

On the low-res front, as I've noted in previous columns, we are beginning to encounter remarkably low transmission bit-rates. And, for a great deal of our broadcast efforts, those transmission rates are going to be with us for a long time, possibly forever (gulp!). What this means is that we've institutionalized a range of audible artifacts and a somewhat reduced, if generally acceptable, resolution in our audio. We've done this in return, of course, for a lot more channels-broadcasting with a capital B!

In combination with this brave new low-res world, we've begun to use metadata. My fellow columnist Tim Carroll has written some really good articles about the nature of metadata, and I won't go over that ground here. But the implications of metadata are quite important, especially in the longer term. Metadata is a broad array of control data generated by the producers/broadcasters and sent to remotely operate the end-users' receivers/set-top boxes. Even now, I've noticed that metadata seems to be audibly affecting my TV audio, resulting in some occasionally nasty compression artifacts on voice (artifacts that aren't there when I defeat the metadata). How this is going to play out as we fold in some of the lower bit-rate stuff along with metadata isn't clear. When metadata, producers' enthusiasm and really low bit-rates combine (some might say collide), we'll probably say, "Who could have known this would happen?" Ahhh, unintended consequences, once again?

AND HIGH-RES?

Meanwhile, at the high-res end of things, Sony seems to be betting the farm on SACD. This high-res format is an offshoot of Sony's archival delta-sigma modulation recording process DSD. The SACD yields, according to Sony, 120 dB dynamic range and 100 kHz bandwidth. Equally or more important, these estimable specifications encompass an audio window that seems to be surprisingly free of any artifacts. Can we hear the difference? Sony claims so, and so do a number of my more highly respected colleagues.

At the same time, Sony is quite carefully folding SACD into the body of CD releases, with comprehensive backward-compatibility. The recent Rolling Stones anthology, for instance, doesn't even note that it is SACD. It plays back as Red Book CD audio absolutely transparently, but when you've got an SACD player, it automatically goes high-res. Nice, just the way it oughta be.

AN INTERESTING FORK IN THE ROAD

But it's when we get to this point of two diverging trends, coupled with a slow abandonment of the middle ground, that it gets really interesting. It seems to me that this is all evolving as a sort of market-driven sociological/economic class split, between high- and low-res listeners or, you might say, between the Gucci set and the Wal-Mart bunch. As Sony puts it when touting SACD, "Today's digital world offers many music options. Some consumers will receive their music by satellite or cable-or download music from the Internet. But critical listeners who demand nothing less than the highest sound quality will demand Super Audio CD."

Who are these "critical listeners?" Are you one? Am I? (I guess so, even though I haven't yet demanded SACD!) But it seems like an elitist categorization to me: Josef LaFitte IV and his lovely wife Genevieve versus Joey and Janey Six-Pack. SACD vs. MP3. Discerning Taste versus Fast' n Cheap. Elitists will only accept the "Highest of Quality," while "The Masses" will have to accept whatever they can manage to "Tune In!" The Elitists, of course, must be willing and able to "Pay For It," while "The Masses" will get their low-res programming "Dirt Cheap," sometimes for what we like to call "For Free" (heh, heh)! Yes, indeed.

And now we get down to it. Where do you (and I?) fall on this particular scale? Where and to what will you listen? For how much? None of us like to think of ourselves as elitist. None of us like to admit that we'll put up with lousy quality. And none of us like to pay for anything we don't absolutely have to.

WHICH FORK DID US TV PEOPLE TAKE?

Unfortunately, television is smack in the center of the low-res camp in this class split. The Masses have come to expect and accept low-res. The hyped-up promises of HDTV, high-res video 'n audio are turning out to be pretty vapid to date, given what I'm seeing and hearing. I would have to say that the medium is noisy and low-res, pretty much across the bandwidth. And we definitely are not elitist! We show no signs at all of aspiring to the truly elitist vision of a high-resolution video world for those few who Sony might describe as "critical viewers who demand nothing less than the highest quality." Try to imagine, for a moment, Genevieve LaFitte IV, just back from her tennis/massage/lunch session at the Club, wandering into her half-million-dollar home theater and switching on "Jerry Springer." It's not going to happen, is it?

What does it all mean? This isn't bad. It just, ah, is. There is no reason to beat ourselves up over it, either. When Bob Dixon, the guy in charge of audio for the NBCOlympics and one of my inspirations in this business, exhorts us to excel, he's absolutely right. We need to work to the highest standards we possibly can; that's the first rule of production. But we also need to recognize the reality of our situation and the constraints of our system. It's a low-res system, and it will continue to be so, simply to be able to afford to serve the mass markets it needs in order to survive. We need to excel within those constraints.

AND LOW-RES IS GOOD?

One of the more interesting ironies of this, particularly in film and television, is that we use low-res for fun, profit and production style. Why is this? Because we live in a low-res world. In reality, the world of media is noisy, ugly, crowded and messy and our views of it are poorly constructed and framed. ENG is low-res. Security is low-res. Amateur video is low-res. Field audio is low-res. As a consequence, low-res production values often are used to signify reality or authenticity, to heighten our sense of "this is real," or "this is how it really is." Interesting, eh?

On the other hand, hi-res is a hothouse production flower. It is necessarily artificial, because it requires so much production attention just to get it to work. And that's the real irony. Our efforts to improve resolution require additional artifice. This may change (imagine what it'll be like, someday, for Genevieve to receive in her half-megabuck home theater, a real high-res video-and-audio pickup from inside a NASCAR stock car, for instance- -140 dB SPL in 5.1 Surround!) . But for now, we'll do just as well, maybe better, to just keep on truckin' in our low-res production world.

Thanks again for listening.