We’ve gone from VHS to DVD to Blu-ray in relatively short order. With every leap, the promise and delivery of higher quality video put the previous generation to shame. More importantly to the manufacturers, it has made the old technology obsolete.
So why hasn’t that happened with audio?
In the 1950s and '60s, the talk was all about "hi-fi" (or high-fidelity) sound, but since then, consumer audio has put convenience over quality. From cassette tapes to compact discs to MP3s, the push has been to fit more songs onto a device while shrinking the audio itself.
But at least one major manufacturer is trying to expand the sound, so to speak.
Through a new campaign called Hi-Res Audio, Sony has been touring music festivals and university campuses doing listening tests. It’s a push to promote not only richer audio, but better playback equipment.
“With Hi-Res Audio, we saw a huge opportunity,” says Karol Warminiec of Sony Canada, “because artists are getting tired of having their music shown to the masses in low-resolution format. They put in so much time and effort and it’s always compressed."
The idea back in the "hi-fi" era was to make the sound reproduction as faithful as possible to the original recording. The focus was on expanding the frequencies played back, reducing the distortion and noise and being able to power the equipment to get the best out of the sound.
Decades later, audio experts say an entire generation has grown up on basic headphones and lower-end players.
When we talk about music formats nowadays, we're generally referring to MP3s. Though the technology was created decades ago, it rose to popularity in the iPod generation.
To sound engineers and audiophiles, the MP3 is known as a “lossy” file format, because it removes information through compression, which affects the final product, says Ian Colquhoun, founder of Axiom Audio, an Ontario company that engineers and manufactures sound equipment.
“In order to get the file size down,” says Colquhoun, “you can digitally remove information that someone who wrote an algorithm assumes you’re not really going to notice is gone.”
But Colquhoun notices. "Even from one piece of music to another, if it is removing information, it is certainly audible.”
The compression that occurs with MP3s has been advantageous in that it enables you to fit hundreds of songs on a device. It also helped deliver those songs quickly to hungry consumers in the age of slow home internet.
But it isn’t that way anymore. Hard drives are bigger and cheaper and internet speeds are faster.
“I think that if we look at the file compression algorithms like MP3, they were borne out of necessity in the early days of digital,” says Andrew Welker, research and development manager at Axiom.
But nowadays, there's "very little need for that sort of file compression.”
Feeling the difference
Welker believes that people who grew up with MP3s would in fact notice a difference between a song on an iPod and a higher-resolution file on more robust playback equipment that hearkens back to the hi-fi era.
"I think if you polled 100 people and put them through a basic listening test and asked their opinions on two versions of the same file, I think most people would be able to pick out the difference and say that the uncompressed one was better.”
Sony is hoping to tap into this idea. The company's Hi-Res Audio line includes the MDR-10BT headphones, which support uncompressed files and boast a frequency range reproduction of 5 Hz to 40,000 Hz.
To put that into perspective, human hearing – in the prime age of life – can only hear between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz.
Even when the biology doesn’t support it, Sony claims people can tell and have been getting a good response from their tests.
“It’s not that they can hear something different, but they can feel it,” says Sony's Warminiec. “Even though the human ear can’t pick up those frequencies, the sound waves apply a different pressure."
He says that in the last decade, consumers have been "reprogrammed" in how they listen to music.
"We’ve gotten into this kind of ‘good enough’ society where it’s convenient, it’s easy, accessible," he says. "Our challenge [at Sony] is to go and show people this is what music can really sound like.”
Some experts in the world of sound research, however, disagree with that basic premise.
“It’s nice marketing, but doesn’t make much sense,” says Bernhard Grill of Germany’s renowned Fraunhofer Institute, one of the largest research organizations in Europe.
At Fraunhofer, Grill was part of the team that created the MP3 decades ago, and admits that at the time, "there was an urgent need to make the files as small as possible. The modems were just so incapable compared to today."
But he says one of the problems was that "people were [creating and recording music] with bad tools," which "unfortunately ruined the reputation of MP3.”
Grill says a properly created MP3 can reproduce everything accurately, and that an uncompressed file would do little to improve it.
“The real issue is the loudspeaker and the room acoustics. That will make a real difference in the sound experience.”
While the uncompressed versus compressed debate will continue in audiophile forums for years to come, it isn’t stopping the push forward. From Sony’s new line to Neil Young and his crowdfunded Pono music player, many say the time is right for a better listening experience.
Welker acknowledges that high-fidelity audio isn’t necessarily sexy, but with the help of recording artists, engineers and hardware companies, it could become the new normal.
“As soon as people can hear something better, they’re going to want to reproduce that in their homes. It’s an exposure thing.”