Why high-resolution audio is an industry pipe-dream

The Consumer Electronics Association—the group that puts on the annual International CES—along with music labels and manufacturers are betting that high-resolution audio will be the Next Big Thing in the world of consumer electronics.

And they’re wrong.

“Recent market trends and research indicates that consumers are poised to embrace high-resolution audio, creating tremendous new market opportunities,” said CEA President and CEO Gary Shapiro in a press release on Tuesday. Uh huh.

To justify its excitement, the CEA mostly cites research from a two-and-half-year-old study titled “Notions of Quality: Audio Expectations of Consumers.” Some of the stats quoted: 39 percent of consumers with a moderate interest in audio indicate they’re willing to pay more for high quality audio electronics devices, and nine in ten consumers say sound quality is the most important component of a quality audio experience. Of course, the abstract available online doesn’t say how many people were part of the survey, or even how it was conducted. (The full report is available for a mere $699 from Amazon.)

The other study cited—“Discovering the Motivations and Opportunities Behind Home Audio Upgrades”—says it “confirmed that audio buyers and potential buyers focus on quality as a critical purchase factor, second only to price.” This survey was conducted in November 2012, and involved “online interviews of 72 U.S. adults”—making it statistically meaningless.

Even putting aside the dicey “research” from the CEA, we know that high-resolution audio (or HRA in consumer electronic speak) has failed to catch on for a number of reason. First and foremost, audio is not video. Show most people an HDTV with some good hi-def video on it, and they’ll know that it looks better than other content. Play those same people a high-resolution FLAC audio file, and they’d be hard-pressed to tell you it’s better than a 256-kbps AAC file.

A lot of it depends on the equipment, of course, but that’s part of the point. If you’re going to watch video content these days, it’s probably going to be on an HDTV (or a mobile device with a smaller screen but still high resolution). If you’re listening to music, your choices are much more varied. Whether it’s an iPod or a smartphone with mediocre headphones, a tinny Bluetooth speaker, or even a basic home theater in a box, most people can’t play an HRA file, much less tell the difference on such equipment even if they could. Sure, some people pony up for high-quality DACs and speakers, but they’re not mainstream users. With TV, you can watch HD content from many sources without a lot of expensive new gear. With audio, you’ll need to replace pretty much everything you own to even be able to play the content. (See Neil Young’s Pono, which will require a new player and new files, and hopes to launch early next year.)

Neil Young plans to launch his Pono HD audio format in 2014.

In a similar vein, the CEA has been pushing 3D HDTV at CES for years now with lackluster results. It’s true that many HDTVs now come with 3D support whether you want that or not, but the content hasn’t exactly caught on. Broadcasters who’ve dipped their toes in the 3D waters have pulled back, leaving 3D Blu-ray players and a few streaming services as the only real sources. And that’s because 3D in the home isn’t what the mainstream wants anymore than high-resolution audio.

The truth is that people have gotten used to convenience over sound quality. Yes, MP3 and AAC files undeniably throw away musical data in order to achieve smaller, portable file sizes. But that’s a trade-off people have been very willing to make. iOS and Android devices can play lossless audio files, but download stores like iTunes and Amazon MP3 haven’t even moved to selling CD-quality audio, so customers don’t seem very likely to be looking for something better than CDs. As a colleague of mine put it, “consumer audio has become cheaper and crappier for so long that I don’t know how [the CEA] will ever reverse that tide.”

I love music, and services like HDTracks have built a nice business selling high-resolution audio to a small niche, while some bands sell better-than-CD-quality downloads of their live shows, but I fail to see a future in which the masses invest the time and money necessary to take audio to the same level as video in people’s minds. Neil Young thinks that’s possibly the greatest travesty since the 8-track, but sometimes good enough is, well, good enough.

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