Audio quality in the digital age

10 years ago with the introduction of audio compression technologies such as MP3 & AAC, it became possible to shrink digital audio file sizes and enable distribution across the Internet. While there was a distinct loss in audio quality (file sizes were typically one tenth of the original), the average music fan didn’t seem to mind and convenience ruled.

At the same time, sample and bit rates for digital audio recording were expanding as hard drive prices dropped, giving engineers and musicians the ability to work with higher quality digital audio. Since the early days of digital there has been ongoing debate in the professional audio world about the loss of ‘warmth’ inherent in analog recording technologies. Higher digital bit and sample rates make it possible for engineers to approach the sonic ideal, bridging both worlds.

As hardware storage continues to shrink and broadband speeds increase, music providers have increased file sizes, enhancing audio quality for portable and computer devices. Bringing back high quality audio to consumers can create scarcity in the marketplace, which music creators sorely need. A bootlegged MP3 can’t compete with an audiophile, metadata rich, listening experience.

The question is: “Will consumers support higher quality audio?” Engineer, producer, and musician Cookie Marenco, founder of Downloads NOW! says 96kHz downloads (super high quality) are outselling 44.1kHz downloads (CD quality) by 10 to 1 at her artist’s download stores. Last Sunday’s New York Times article, In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back examines this issue.

What do you think?

Has the appreciation of nuance and dynamics been lost to the generation that grew up on iPods, and what does the future hold?

2 thoughts on “Audio quality in the digital age”

  1. Thanks for the mention, Eric.

    Actually, at Downloads NOW! 96kHz audio is outselling 44.1 at 20 to 1 ratios with increasing demand for more varied music.

    Even with pricing at $3-4 per single and $30-40 for album length the 96kHz downloads, our customers are willing to pay the price for quality (double that of the CD quality downloads). Currently, 75% of our sales are outside of the USA.

    Here is Keith Greeninger and Dayan Kai's latest album, which is receiving rave reviews and airplay with full dynamic range. Our streams are full length at 192kbps with no dynamic compression.

    Thanks, again,
    Cookie Marenco

  2. Hi Eric,

    I don't see 96 kHz audio taking off until an acceptable compression standard (AAC/MP4-used in Apples AIFF and Realaudio, or Windows Media, or other) becomes as ubiquitous as MP3; here's hoping that we see a shift to one of those standards. Market share will drive acceptance, and until the quality of a 96 kHz recording can be merged with the download-and-carry convenience of MP3, I don't think we're going to see any paradigm shift. What a shame that MP2, which performs much better than MP3 when encoded at 256kbit/s or above (maintains phasing between channels, avoids frequency-domian artifacts such as "pre-echo") – was not designed with 96 kHz in mind; most MP3 players will probably play MP2 files, as MP3 was designed to be backwards compatible with MP2.

    Meanwhile, I'm holding on to both my Home Theater and portable DVD-A players; I want my 24/96 sound!

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