Wednesday, March 08, 2006

£ per Kilo

Given that record companies are avoiding many of the costs associated with CD sales [blank discs, pressing costs, artwork printing costs, some of the distribution costs etc] is it not reasonable to expect music downloads to be cheaper than CDs? Well, if the labels were seen to be sharing profits more equitably with artists, I might say no. If they were investing in whopping servers with unimaginably broad bandwidth in order to facilitate faster download times of larger files, I might say no; charge us the full price and keep up the good work! But as neither of these, nor indeed any other real qualitative improvements are apparent, I think yes – they are too costly.

Clearly the price of recordings has little to do with the cost of production – at least, not on an individual basis, otherwise one might reasonably expect an orchestral recording to cost substantially more than a solo guitar record. It wasn't so many years ago that the cost had some bearing on quality – the quality of a performance, and the calibre of the musicians imbued a disc with added value: Decca and Deutsche Grammophon for example were among the bastions of recorded classical music. Nowadays, one is just as likely to find a first class performance on Naxos at a third of the price.

The arrival of the high-resolution formats, DVD-A, SACD and their ilk, were supposed to persuade us that it was worth paying a higher price for improved technical quality. And now, at 99 cents for 2½ minutes of music, we’re paying for a full price CD, but what we get is an impoverished squashed file squirted into our computers with the assurance that is near CD quality.

My concern is whether people really know what they’re getting. If they do, and don’t care, then that’s up to them, but if they’re having the wool yanked down over their bulging eyes while a shiny new slim line iPod is stuffed into the clammy paw, then I think they might prefer to be better informed – or at least - not to be misinformed. Naxos’ claim that

CD Quality sound (128Kbps; broadband required) and/or Near-CD Quality [at] (64Kbps)
is, quite frankly, risible, but they are not alone in promulgating such misleading misinformation.

The British Federation of Audio stuck in its oar this week.

"The UK's specialist AV consumer electronics trade body has come out saying it's concerned that consumers aren't getting the enjoyment they could from their portable music devices or hi-fis, with today's music fans happy to download and listen to low bit-rate music files - which often don't come even close to CD quality. Listening tests carried out by various members of the Federation reveal what most of us already know, namely that the standard recording rate of around 128kbits per second is audibly inferior to CD by a wide margin. And although higher bit-rates of 256kbps and above deliver a far better performance it's still not as good as that from CD."

It’s not so surprising that quality is not of great concern when most listening involves portable media players with ear buds, or in an environment that is far from ideal.

“Among 1,031 adult respondents to a consumer-behaviour survey published last year by the CEA (Consumer Electronics Organisation), 34% said they listened to music at home primarily on a PC, compared with just 26% who said they used a stereo or surround-sound receiver as their main home listening system”

We can only hope that as hand-held players become integrated into home hi-fi systems high-end audio components will reveal the inadequacies of compressed file formats.

I can understand too that the importance of quality depends on the type of music. Eric Dahl of PC World claims that in tests he made with colleagues

“Most of those 192-kbps files were indistinguishable from files that used lossless compression. And not just to my ears: in the audience we had an acoustical engineer from NHT (Now Hear This), in Benicia, California, and the owner of Audio High, a high-end stereo store in Mountain View, California. But we found that as you drop below 192 kbps, the difference in quality becomes noticeable pretty quickly.”

I wonder though, what sort of recordings were used for the tests – not acoustic classical music with a wide dynamic range I’ll warrant? Anyhow, I’ve fired off an email to ask. As I pointed out in an earlier posting, classical music and other acoustically recorded music are heavily dependent on hi-fidelity to give the best representation of their wide dynamic range. Modern pop, in contrast, has almost no dynamic range at all – what little remains after recording and mixing is generally expunged in the mastering process.

Contrary to what might be imagined, loud music does not necessarily require more data than soft music to create a faithful representation. The following chart shows a screen shot of iTunes lossless downloads of Vaughn-Williams’ A Sea Symphony. The variable bit rates for each of the movements adapt according to the demands the music makes on the data compression system. What is interesting is that the softest movement (track 13) requires the highest bit rate for adequate representation. Consider then the mastication that must inevitably occur under higher compression.

Self-styled pundits are too quick to dismiss the idea that it is possible to distinguish compressed files from their full bandwidth originals. Blind tests – notoriously difficult to set up accurately - are conjured to convince us of the efficacy of data compression techniques. I have yet to see evidence of either the techniques or equipment used to carry out these tests, or what recordings were blessed by being chosen. As the BFA point out in their press release,

“Customers eager to take advantage of the excellent home entertainment options now available – particularly plasma TVs, are spending an inordinate amount on the TV monitor – several thousands of pounds in some cases - yet will only spend a small sum on the audio section, especially the loudspeakers, of the system. Perhaps this explains why test comparisons reveal little. No mention of the hi-fi components or quality is ever made. It’s now assumed that any system is good enough.”

What connoisseur would be at ease making a rash evaluation of a fine wine after taking one gulp from a dirty goblet whilst chewing on a mouth full of peanuts? How can we be so certain of what is - and what is not good enough, after evaluating an MP3 on ear buds in the metro?

I doubt neither the integrity nor the earnestness of those who carry out such tests: just the ease with which they reach their resolute conclusions. I know from my own experience that it is very, very easy to mislead oneself and, how extremely difficult it is to reach definitive conclusions. However, I am also quite convinced that extended listening over many hours to high-resolution audio is rather less tiring than listening to poorer quality sound; a view confirmed by at least one blogger. Quite why this should be the case, if there is no discernable difference, suggests to me that the subject may at least merit somewhat more protracted consideration than it presently receives.

Not all music is transitory. Not all recordings are perishable goods. Classical music might, one would hope, have a rather longer life expectancy than most pop music, which is by nature here-today-gone-tomorrow. For this reason alone, we ought to preserve our recordings in the highest quality available – those at least that are important to us. Once a file is compressed with a lossy codec, it is irretrievably altered: it is impossible to recover the jettisoned information. As Randall Stross pointed out in his article in the New York Times last March,

“… we should be looking out 5 years, or even 50 years, and that's why, when we are building collections from scratch today, we should have the option to collect with true CD quality.”

I like his naïve notion of ‘true CD quality’, but even CD quality is no more than a step in what should be a continuous quest for improvement; not some absolute, beyond which it is impossible or inadvisable to venture.

In the mean time, isn’t it about time we started paying for our downloads by the Kilobyte? Then we’d know that we were getting what we paid for.


Blogger Tim Rutherford-Johnson said...

Nice post. Just wanted to mention ogg files as an alternative to MP3s; better quality, smaller files. Still not CD quality but a much improved alternative to the MP3 hegemony.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006 2:38:00 pm  

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