In many ways, we are living in a golden age for music and the sound it makes. Vinyl has staged a comeback, the quality of CD replay is better than ever, high-resolution downloads offer the promise of ‘studio master’ quality, while streaming services have shifted up a gear with Tidal and Qobuz occupying the high-res high ground. You can even find open-reel tapes if you scratch the surface. To quote 1950s British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, “most of our people have never had it so good.”
And yet, I can’t help feeling there’s trouble in paradise.
The trouble isn’t about the quality, though. We’ve got great sound, and it’s getting better by degrees. The trouble is we’re kind of keeping it to ourselves, by potentially creating a gated community between audiophiles and the wider set of music lovers.
What we have now is a series of excellent products that produce outstanding performance across a wide range of formats, but in the process we have raised our own bar to eliminate anything below high-resolution as ‘sub-par’, making this seem like a minimum criteria for entry to the Good Sound Club. This, I feel, potentially disenfranchises those who seek good sound, but either have not made, or have no plans to make, the jump to high-resolution audio.
The reasons for not crossing that particular Rubicon are entirely understandable. Many have extensive CD collections amassed over the last 30+ years, and to re-buy some or all of that collection in high-res is daunting and punishingly expensive. Also pundits outside the audio world are quick to ridicule what they consider to be unnecessarily large file sizes for audio formats.
However, we don’t make it any easier for ourselves. We are apt to dismiss and look down upon anything apart from our format of choice as being inferior, regardless of how it sounds. A perfect example of this is the discussion about MQA. It has been discussed and almost dismissed before it appears in some audiophile circles. Why? Because it is increasingly looking like a format that takes high-resolution PCM audio files and compacts them down for one-bit streaming. ‘That’s all it is,’ is the plaintive cry, expecting instead an even higher quality audio format.
In many ways though, ‘That’s all it is’ represents our last, best hope of getting through to a generation of music lovers who simply don’t know there is a sound quality to give a damn about.
As discussed earlier, the latest rock to throw at any kind of quality-oriented digital audio is ‘that file is unnecessarily large’ – and while it may strike a chord with people downloading DSD files or 24/192 PCM files, it now also applies to ‘audiophool’ 16/44 FLAC files. Ignore the fact that storage is ludicrously cheap and download speeds are fast enough to make such arguments all but nonsensical, that everyone under 45 lives their life through a phone means we now have to work to 4G speeds and (worse still) phone storage capacities. These demands trump all others, and systems like MQA represent a means whereby we don’t simply write these generations off from an audio perspective.
I suspect MQA is not directed principally at existing audio enthusiasts. We are the kind of people who might happily start downloading an album for all of Wednesday to have it ready to play on Thursday evening, if there’s the promise of a high-quality recording at the end of those hours of downloading. But, that’s not most people now. They want to be able to Shazam a track they heard, buy it and have it downloaded or streamed to their phone immediately. If they can’t do precisely that due to quality concerns, they will just go with a lower quality but faster service. MQA potentially allows such people to download high-quality files at low-quality speeds.
This is where Tidal can be a great boon for high-quality audio. The service was one of the first names to be ‘romantically linked’ with MQA, and this could spell bringing high-quality sound files to phone users at an instant, and reacquaint generation after generation with good sound. But this will only work if we work at it. All of us. Dealers and manufacturers need not to reach for their pitchforks when someone rocks up with a phone as their music source. Enthusiasts need to recognise that not everyone is going to ‘get’ high-resolution immediately (and some possibly not at all), but this doesn’t necessarily make them ‘deaf’, ‘idiots’… or ‘the enemy’. And pundits need to stop making absolutist statements, whether they be hugely pro or hugely anti-high-res. Sadly, I suspect precisely none of these things will happen.
The days when quality alone could dictate its own terms are long gone. Sound quality need not be a secondary consideration, but if there is a trade-off between quality and convenience, quality almost always loses out now. We face a choice either of saying “I don’t want that kind of person in my club,” and then closing the gates on our audio community, or of finding new ways to open new people to the joys of music and the sound it makes.
The crazy thing is, it is so easy to show people what better sound is all about, and it’s usually easy to do that with their existing files. Despite arguments to the contrary, a well recorded, dynamic-sounding MP3 or AAC file has the potential to sound pretty good through a good system, especially to a listener who has not had much time listening to good audio equipment. The ‘wow!’ factor of better audio still has its effect, and from there you can wow them again with the difference between MP3 and PCM or even DSD on a good system. On the other hand, simply telling people how crap MP3 is without discussion builds a wall between music lovers.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a gated community, but at this point we might do well to open our gates to create a welcoming and convivial audio ‘open house’ of sorts. But, if we do still need ‘quality control’ gates, then the most embraceable ones available today are probably high-quality streaming solutions like Tidal and Qobuz.
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