HD Audio: Its Time Has Come
Columnist John Caldwell says the HiFi benefits of high-definition audio are impossible to ignore.
HD Audio
March 02, 2007 by John Caldwell

Based on the reaction to my column from last week regarding the sonic quality of satellite radio, it seems like I struck a nerve with many of you. The old-school “quality vs. quantity” continuum of choice is being questioned. And that’s a good thing. Thanks for the postings and interaction off-line as well. One noteworthy dealer made this remarkable observation and comparison:

“There are elements of this industry which are fascinating and exciting. On the other hand, there are elements which make me want to puke. It would be nice if more people on your side of the line voiced their position as succinctly as you have done in this article. I know that I rarely sit on the side of indifference if there is something better to be had and do not hesitate to steer customers to the side of performance and fidelity. There is something to be said about making a moral stand. Seems to me that a bunch of fellows did that very thing in the mid 1700s, and thus an extraordinary new way of life and thinking was born, which serves as a beacon to us all.”

Wow. Comparing HiFi to the founding fathers? Heady stuff, I must admit. But this dealer is right. Life is too short for mediocre audio. I’ll always advocate for better quality audio because listening to music can be so emotionally satisfying when it’s done right. Especially when HiFi isn’t necessarily more expensive than the alternative. If there is one thing I’ve learned in being an audiophile for the last 30+ years it’s that HiFi isn’t necessarily a price point. It’s an approach.

Because satellite radio is under intense financial pressure to keep Wall Streeters happy, we may never know just how great a contender it could be as a delivery medium for HiFi. But one need not look any further than downloadable music to see that there is a market for the HiFi model. The sonic tradeoff originally presented to us with MP3’s “portability vs. quality” just isn’t holding up any more. New-generation servers and portable players offer far greater storage capacity and Internet connections are much faster, making high-definition downloads more feasible and attractive. People want better. And they are getting it. Witness upstart suppliers like MusicGiants and 256k downloads from Buy.com.

My sense is that the newly combined XM/Sirius company will be forced to look at high-def audio for no other reason than there is good money to be made in it. Part of their re-inventing themselves should include finding a way to have people subscribe for a few more dollars per month for HD content. Then pay even a little bit more (like QuickTime’s model) for being able to download and own it legally. If someone isn’t studying this model, they should. Heck, MusicGiants is getting $15 bucks a pop for downloading high res albums. That’s about 50 percent higher than iTunes is getting. Getting current XM or Sirius subscribers to pay twice what they’re paying now has got to be an attractive model to somebody over there. Hello? Is anybody home? Or should I say “Is anybody listening?”

The argument inevitably raised by those who say satellite radio doesn’t have to concern itself with sound quality is that (and I’m paraphrasing) “content is king.” Satellite radio has Howard Stern and ballgames and people don’t care about how that sounds.” Huh? Wha? Man these guys sure love ol’ Howard. They act like he saved the medium. Sure he sold a few subscriptions for them last Christmas, but the dude was a lot funnier when he was the FCC’s whipping boy, breaking all the rules on the public airwaves. Now that there’s no rules to break, it just isn’t working for me. But back to the “content is king” argument. That makes as much sense to me as saying if TV station “A” had twice as many of the good TV shows but only broadcast in black and white, and TV station “B” has just some good shows but broadcast all of them in color, then TV station “A” would never have to adapt and add color. Yes folks under 40, there once was a day when we had a choice between black and white stations or color stations. You don’t need to guess who won. My fear is that now with only one satellite streaming monopoly, there won’t be a competitor who forces XM/Sirius to add color.

Last month, a report from the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) came across the newswire proclaiming that HD Audio was set to finally boom. HD audio is defined by CEA as sound with resolutions greater than 16 bit/44.1 kHz and without compression.

The report stated that the distributed audio market and the high definition audio markets were poised for explosive growth. Advances in recording and compact-disc-based technology along with interest in higher-than-CD-quality audio were cited as the driving forces. Video was also cited. “As more and more people invest in video, they find that they want better audio to go with it” said Jennifer Boone, audio manager for CEA. As more people add surround sound to their TV’s, it’s not surprising that they want to use them for music when they aren’t watching movies.

HD audio is available in at least three current forms: SACD and DVD-A music discs, high definition downloads and high definition radio (terrestrial). I’ll have more on each of these in my coming columns. Suffice it to say, HD audio isn’t going away any time soon. There are now more than 4,000 releases on SACD (700 releases last year) making it a real contender for shelf space and consumers’ mind space. CEA’s research shows that people are interested in HD audio, but many are confused. And who can blame them? With satellite radio claiming to deliver HD to a dizzying array of bit and sampling rates specifications, HD audio needs to clean up its act if it’s going to continue to grow. But man is it good when it’s done right.

Good listening!

John CaldwellJohn Caldwell is a 28-year grizzled veteran of the A/V business
and co-founder of StJohn Group, Inc.


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John Caldwell - Contributing Writer, St John Group, Inc
Caldwell is a 28-year grizzled veteran of the A/V business and co-founder of St. John Group, Inc.

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