The Guardian Listens to High Res Music

Three people from the Guardian, Tim Jonze, the Guardian’s music editor, Jason Phipps, the Guardian’s head of audio, and Samuel Gibbs the article's author, sat down in Graham’s Hi-Fi in London’s Islington with a Linn hi-fi and listened to a few tracks in MP3, CD-quality, and high res.

Here's what Jonze had to say:

My favourite method of listening to music is with headphones while walking – it’s while doing this that I fully lose myself in the music, but it’s never the precise sound I’m interested in, more the way it transports me emotionally to another daydream universe.

It takes me away, rather than draws me in. And the truth is, I find the impressionistic sound of an MP3 just as effective at providing this emotional hit as the photographic realism of a studio master recording.

And Phipps:
My impression at the end of our listening session was that yes, there’s a distinct quality difference between the kind of compressed, middling MP3 commonly downloaded from the major platforms and the 24-bit high-res studio master. But mostly I found the CD-quality track on Linn’s superb hi-fi equipment to be the overall best listen for my particular ears.
And finally Gibbs:
Overall the studio masters sounded fuller, more spacious and less flat. Some tracks sounded very close to CD. Others, like The Who’s Pinball Wizard, were strikingly different, sounding more real, less produced and more raw or natural, as it would be listening live.

But that difference wasn’t always a good thing. It was disappointing to hear a recording of Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma sound worse in studio master, as it exposed the fact that the orchestra and the tenor’s tracks were recorded separately in different environments. They sounded disconnected – something that is masked in the CD version.

What was very apparent is just how bad a poor-quality MP3 sounded, how good a 320kbps MP3 and CD sounded, and how cutting out the middle man in the audio production chain with a studio master could have unexpected results.

I could attempt to make up all kinds of excuses for these varied results but what's the point. The real point of high res audio is to get us closer to the music. If MP3s get you close enough, fine. If CD quality does it for you, excellent. For some of us, especially those of us who listen to music as an activity unto itself, high res simply offers a more natural and immersive musical experience. Perhaps what this article also inadvertently highlights is the fact that the quality of the recording trumps resolution.

See the complete article.

bobflood's picture

over the weekend and if you read the entire article you can only hope that these opinions about Hi-Res audio are not widespread. Because, if they are, there will not be much demand for true Hi-Res audio. It was clear that CD quality was all or more than any of the authors wanted and even though some recognized the differences of true Hi-Res, they found them distracting or of little value. They were listening on Linn equipment which surely reproduced the samples as well as possible. Very depressing read!

Thanks for putting this up Michael. I was going to send you a link to it today but you beat me to it.


Adam M Zielinski's picture

I think a certain point is being missed here.
Ultimately the quality depends on the SOURCE material.

During a conversion from old, analogue recordings the highest possible sampling frequency and bit rates make perfect sense. They simply aim at reproducing the old "analogue sound wave" as closely as possible. It is still an approximation, althoug a good one.

Let's not forget that the choice of 44.1 kHz / 16 bit was simply a pragmatic one - at the time when CD standard was being introduced a physical disc could not handle more than 600-700 Mb of informaiton. Sampling at that rate simply made the digital file fit onto a CD. So for a sake of convenience record companies did manage to convince the average user that digital was better (in fact it wasn't).

A story gets more complicated when new music is concerned. If a source material is recorded in a studio at 44.1 kHz / 24 bits (quite typical of mainstream recording studios) than mastering it up will not really achieve anything.

I do stand by HD music - it usuall makes old recording come to live again.

ArnoldLayne's picture

... well not so fast. There is real science and engineering behind those numbers. That's why a well-mastered recording stored at Redbook on a CD sounds so good. High rez files are better but at the margin.

ArnoldLayne's picture

" highlights is the fact that the quality of the recording trumps resolution. "

So true.It takes a combination of great mastering and high resolution.

BradleyP's picture

"...[T]he quality of the recording trumps resolution."

Game, set, and match to Mr. Lavorgna.

It's such a complex issue that the general public won't want to tackle it--certainly not at the current cost--and most of the time it wouldn't be worth it anyway. It's like buying Burgundy. Unless you really know what you are doing, you're gonna get hosed more oft than not.

bobflood's picture

thought to myself:"Exactly; better recording and mastering would go a long way to offset the perceived deficiencies of 44.1/16 PCM but 24 bit PCM, DSD and DXD cannot offset the real deficiencies in the current recording and mastering process".

rtrt's picture

i have a few here at home.

Proof positive that there's no need for anything more in terms of the domestic replay environment.

Improve the recoding environment and there'd be more excellent cd's. If you don't then there'll be plenty of rubbish hi res recordings.

Where it get's muddier, is if it takes hi res success domestically to somehow force the industry to 'fix' the recording environment. My biggest problem is the loudness wars.

Do I mind paying more for my music in the last scenario - yes I do. Will i do it anyway - reluctantly and I suspect not as often as the industry would like.

GrizzledGeezer's picture

...but the same thing might be said of phonograph records. But just because CD recordings aren't anywhere nearly as good as they could be (and they aren't), doesn't mean there isn't something better.

Fact is, high-resolution recordings are slightly superior audibly to Red Book. (Compare the high-res layer of a recording to the Red Book layer, and see whether you agree.)

Furthermore, CD is two-channel, whereas high-res recordings can have as many as seven, plus bass effects. There is no comparison with plain old stereo (POS).

ashutoshp's picture

all Pono has done is to create this cloud, haze if you will, thinking that if they say it often enough and through multiple different outlets... people will take notice. Their website defines vague.
Having said that, I am a Spotify premium (320 kbps) as well as Qobuz (16/44) subscriber and the difference is night and day. The best analogy that comes to mind is that music through Spotify feels congested, trying to break free. Qobuz is like a breath of fresh air of which you can take big gulps and feel energized. Cliched as it sounds, I didn't even know that certain instruments were part of song arrangements I listened to usually on Spotify. The Qobuz application (esp. the mobile app) needs work but I'm keeping my fingers crossed. It's an evolution, not a revolution, which most people will/should go for.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

...the high res stuff is fine if you're wealthy or are happy with just a few recordings. But for those of us who like to explore and value music over the gear, there's nothing wrong with CD's and LP's; especially used ones.

bernardperu's picture

i read the article and it would seem that the test was not properly done. What Tommy 24-bit version did they use? The highly compressed HDTracks one? My Tommy MFSL CD sounds far better.

The main question is: did they properly convert good sounding and with appropriate provenance 24-bit music to 16/44 and to MP3? This is pretty much the only way to test the difference: ther can only be one master per album and this master has to sound good.

It is sad that The Guardian has so many resources ($$) and they can not put together an adequate team of music journalists. The music editor prefers the "impressionism" of MP3s! He is a persuasive writer who is not into conscious listening. The latter is sad.

jim tavegia's picture

it is consistent with what we all know that many just don't care about the quality of the music delivery system. The fact that many write about it and can influence others is more troublesome. They should just write about the performance and leave the sound quality ratings to others who do care about such things.

GrizzledGeezer's picture

...among the recordings are pretty much what I hear. The loss of depth and space in lossily compressed recordings is obvious -- even with FM broadcasts.

Nor is it surprising that "good" recordings clearly reveal the miking and mixing techniques the engineers didn't expect to be audible.

I'm a sometime amateur recordist. I never expected commercial recordings to give a plausible illusion of live sound, but modern multi-channel high-res recordings can and often do.