Review – The 2014 CES High-Res Audio Experience Tech Zone – Is High-Resolution Music Here to Stay?

In this first of a multi-part article, we look at the increasing popularity of high-resolution music availability. With a growing number of sources, file formats, and genres of music, will the audiophile holy grail of no-compromise recordings finally become a reality? For the first time in years, the 2014 International CES, held in Las Vegas in January, offered a High-Res Audio Experience Tech Zone in the Venetian Hotel, featuring many of the major players in the field.

Since audiophiles often seem more obsessed with hardware and software employed to listen to the recordings than by the music itself, we used the newly released, affordable, and wonderfully musical Audioengine D3 DAC with Audio-Technica ATH-AD900X headphones to hear the music referenced in this series of articles. For software playback, we used Amarra, one of the most highly regarded music players on the market, with our Macs. We also used the superb Oppo BD-105 Universal BD player with a built-in headphone amp running directly off its Sabre Reference DACs, as well as the Pioneer Elite SC-71 AV Receiver featuring Class D amplification. We used this variety of gear to audition all the tracks for these articles. We placed a priority on affordable solutions, since the success of the high-resolution industry is going to be based on younger listeners who might desire higher quality sound, but running off a computer, a portable music player, or reasonably priced home theater system, rather than off a pair of $50K speakers. Future articles will explore some releases from HD Tracks, Cedille, AIX, Society of Sound, Kimber Kable, Naxos Records, and Blue Coast Records, among others.

This year brings an important opportunity to the world of high-resolution music as it made its debut at the International CES show in Las Vegas for the first time in 12 years. It isn’t uncommon to hear releases aimed at audiophiles during CES, and all of the top floors of the Venetian Hotel seem to be suites filled with enough gear that Hoover Dam can barely keep up with all the monoblocks that filled just about every square inch.

2014 is the first time that CES attendees could visit a High-Res Audio Experience tech zone, along with accompanying music representation and panel discussions dedicated to this burgeoning movement. This grows out of a larger trend for labels to generate income from their back catalogs, as well as an understanding that niche markets, such as vinyl and high-resolution, provide the ability to re-utilize existing assets, as well as to sincerely offer listeners a high-quality listening experience.

Sony’s somewhat amazing announcement in early fall at New York’s Lincoln Center, provided a backdrop for a major manufacturer, as well as record label, making a very public stance to support high-res audio. Sony featured the new hardware in their keynote, and had a dedicated listening room in their giant spaceship-sized booth on the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center Central Hall. Add in Neil Young’s public profile on the subject, including his appearances on the David Letterman show, and Blue Coast Records’ starring role in an NPR report, the stage may finally be set for success. Of course, that was the claim made for DVD-Audio, SACD, Blu-Ray audio, and numerous formats, but this time, the convergence of technology and of inexpensive but superb sounding DACs, headphones, and earphones, as well as computer-driven speakers have made it much more timely concern, and one that doesn't require extensive explanation.

When I was a contributor on CBS Talk Radio’s PC Talk –Mac Edition in Philadelphia, I interviewed Steve Rosenthal of the Magic Shop on his SACD transfers of the Rolling Stones’ catalog for ABKCO records. We realized that just trying to explain what a DVD-A or SACD was, and how it differed from a normal CD, or iTunes track was itself a challenge. It reminded me of trying to explain the difference between a JPEG and RAW image capture on a digital camera. Experts understood it without a problem, but everyone else – well, that was a different matter. And similar to the early days of digital photography, the tools just weren’t that robust, similar to the way the same RAW file looks markedly better when processed with today’s software, as compared to with the software of a decade ago. And, as with any new initiative that attempts to make money, guidelines should be in place to insure that consumers know what they are paying for and actually receiving. So far, that is still a serious issue for releases of archival, pre-digitally recorded original recordings.

This issue was the elephant in the room during the panels, and it showed there are still issues in terms of supporting these higher-priced releases with proper documentation. However, we did see moves in the right direction from many, if not quite all, labels and vendors. Our review of Van Morrison’s “Moondance” reveals the complexities of this issue, with the primary album tracks having been remastered more than a decade ago, while the newly released unheard tracks all have been remastered in the last year. And there are different tracks on the Blu-Ray disc with the deluxe version, and from HD Tracks. If this sounds confusing, it is. If the industry doesn't end this sort of confusion, consumers will probably just give up and return to iTunes, unwilling to pay a premium for music they probably already own.

The panels at CES also made it clear that modern recordings are really the future for high-end recordings, with Mark Waldrip of AIX Records explaining his belief that the most important issue for legacy remasters was communications, so that consumers knew what they were getting, but that contemporary recordings made with state-of-the-art technology was where high-definition really shines. His innovations were aimed at better using metadata to allow a consumer to download the same music, but with different mixes, for example, a stereo mix; a basic surround mix; a surround mix from the position of the audience, or the middle of the band; or another location, allowing the user to have some control over the listening experience they were most interested in.

That feature has been available on some DVDs for years such as on “The Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense,” the extraordinary concert film by Jonathan Demme, which has different mixes available in the audio setup. An interesting point made by one of the panelists was that they can’t control what producers give them, despite a somewhat hilarious but well-meaning plea by an audience member that labels should dictate a set of rules to guarantee better sound quality to producers and engineers. By that logic I suppose that the Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash” would be much better if the Philips cassette recording used for Keith Richard’s guitar was replaced with a Studer Revox with no distortion, but I’d opt for the distorted vision any day. The polite response from the panelists was that musicians and their production teams strive to achieve their own unique sonic signature, get a hit, and basically anything goes. The label’s job is to distribute the resulting music.

This isn’t the case for labels such as Blue Coast, Cedille, AIX, Linn, Kimber, Naxos, and others whose reason for being is a dedication to high-fidelity and whose recordings leave no doubt of that commitment. It is also interesting to note that the tradition of high quality, no-compromise recordings and releases has long been alive and well in the classical music world, as well as jazz. Rock and roll and more contemporary forms of music, however, have been as much about effect, style, and a unique and identifiable sound as they are about the music.

So, a Black Sabbath track is a instantly identifiable, as is a Stones, Linkin Park, Alice in Chains, Mumford & Sons, Stevie Wonder, or just about any other group in pop music that you can think of. The adage that the Stones were always jealous of the sound the Beatles created was due in part to George Martin’s background-demanding recordings of classical music, as opposed to lesser talents given to them, especially since pop music was seen as a passing fad, ostensibly not worth the extra effort for first-rate recordings. And the artists themselves often wanted a rougher, more textural edge.

The question is, how much better than our enormous catalog of archival recordings can be over the current offerings, and how much will consumers be willing to pay for that difference. Modern high-bit recordings are nothing short of astounding, provided you begin with high-resolution recordings, especially for surround. There are some superb remasterings of legacy recordings; a case in point is the newly released Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” from HDTracks, which also included detailed technical specs by engineer Mark Wilder to put consumers’ minds at ease. It was clear from the split between those featuring legacy recordings remastered vs. folks making new high-bit recordings that it is in everyone’s best interest to be clear and concise about what is being released.

What was also clear from the formal and informal discussions was the potential impact of Sony and Warner Brothers’ remastering of their back catalogs to provide another source of revenue, with the added impact of drawing younger listeners to what has been increasingly become a middle-aged demographic. John Hamm, who, while not a formal participant on the panels, stated that he is heading the Pono project with Neil Young and then responded to a question about it not being a proprietary format, assuring the audience that it wasn't, although one audience member made a heated comment that referenced the Pono NDA (non-disclosure agreement) to the contrary. Sony’s introduction of hardware designed specifically for high-res files certainly brought wider attention to the subject. I met with a Sony representative at another CES event and he told me that one of their newer hardware items is essentially identical to units that were completely ready for the production line years ago, when Sony introduced the SACD format, but those units were shelved, so he found it interesting to see the product reappear as “new” this year.

I find it interesting that many of the folks I’ve met who are young and most interested in portable DACs and high-quality headphones and earphones are Phish fans, with sites full of 24bit/96K FLAC recordings. This group often read or run blogs that discuss the merits of different units, so I think that there is hope for widespread or at least wider acceptance of higher-quality recordings. However, this is also a very connected group, and completely hip to track quality, remastering, value, and more. And the other elephant in the room as always was Apple, whose iTunes quietly grew the ability to play higher resolution tracks last year; Apple could simply flip a switch allowing FLAC files and true high-bit files to be played natively, which coupled with the iTunes store could completely alter the landscape. And if major labels decide to provide Apple with high-res files, the results could be astounding, but the impact on the current set of download vendors would be dramatic and most likely not in a positive way.

I was thrilled to see that CES was paying public attention to high-resolution or high-definition (no one has yet used either term consistently) audio in a more public way. It was also gratifying to see producers, engineers, distributors, and industry executives discuss the burgeoning field. While many issues remain, the positive thrust and openness was a big step forward. Similar to the early days of digital photography with many of the same parallels, such as major camera manufacturers refusing to adopt open-source non-proprietary file formats like DNG vs. proprietary RAW formats whose contents are sometimes protected by the DMCRA laws, the audio world must also be careful not to blow it this time around. Consumers are already wary of yet another version of the Doors or Beatles after having already been told they owned the ultimate version, so unless the industry gets its act together, sets some standards, and adheres to them, it will be a short-lived revival, and that would be everyone’s loss.

Until then, we will keep our fingers crossed, and remain thrilled at the aspect of major labels pouring their resources into better preservation and remastering of their catalogs, which after all, are a vital part of our culture. If museums and archives strive toward optimum conditions for their cultural and historical assets, isn’t it reassuring to hear that labels that hold our music in their vaults are doing the same? I think so, and so did the audience, and industry members during the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show High-Res Audio Experience Tech Zone. Here’s looking to those extra bits, kid!

Harris Fogel, posted 12/20/2013

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