HD Music Wasted On Most Of Us

3 06 2015

A big thing in music right now is “HD music”. This is a combination of music players purportedly built for HD music playback, and music tracks sampled from original master tapes at very high sample rates. Frankly, I think most of this is pointless. Why? Because the extra cost isn’t worth the money, and we aren’t using the right equipment.

Most HD Players A Fraud?

The most talked about player, the Pono, uses hardware that is in no way remarkable or special. There is nothing inside the machine that makes it better than your iPhone or Android. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Sure, it uses a few capacitors and other bits that look sorta-kinda analog. But seriously, this thing isn’t any more advanced than the $30 MP3 players you can buy at BestBuy.

If you really want to use buy and listen to HD music, then just get an HD music app for your iPhone or Android (and don’t waste your time on the desktop, because iTunes decodes these HD files available from most services). The “magic” with HD music is the decoder software. Don’t get me wrong, good hardware helps. But these HD players generally don’t have anything special. Save yourself some money (and stop carrying another device around).

Speakers Make The Difference

The problem with HD music, though, is that we are often listening to it either through our car speakers (in a poor audio environment) or through headphones. Headphones are convenient and portable. They are not built for the highest quality of sound reproduction.

But, but, but, people claim that Brand X was used to master some number of top-40 albums. Or they are found in 256% of all recording studios. Both claims are meaningless, if you know how recording studios and mixing work.

Headphones in the booth in studios are there for the recording sessions. They isolate the sound from the background for the engineering working the board getting the sound either on to tape or into a computer storing the raw music data. The ones in the studio (where the artists perform) are for playback monitoring. Most performers cue their performance off other instruments. Singers might want to hear the piano or lead guitar track. The guitar player might want to hear the drum track. Sometimes the group simply wants a metronome played back.

In all these cases, those headphones need to be good, but not fantastic. They are there for monitoring, not for detailed editing. Noise isolation is the most important feature (to prevent leakage from the headphones into the recording equipment). Mostly, the units need to be durable and take some physical abuse (and be relatively easy to repair).

Mixing is typically done via larger speakers. The best engineers and producers do not, for the most part, mix listening through headphones. They need the best sound reproduction, and that means high-performance, high-quality speakers driven by professional grade amplifiers.

It also means discrete speakers for different frequency ranges. Highs come through the smaller tweeters. Mid-range come through the second-biggest woofers. The lowest come through the biggest woofers. It’s physics: if you want a large, long sound wave, you need a large-diameter speaker. Headphones, with speaker elements that are no more than 2-3″ across, simply cannot compete with a 14″ or 16″ woofer in a proper enclosure. Not when it comes to mixing.

Those engineers will test their mix through a few different speakers (a couple of different headphones, desktop speakers and a car). But the actual mixing is done with large, powerful, high quality speakers driven by amplifiers.

Get Good Ones

If you care about audio playback, then you will play your music through large high-quality speakers powered by a good amplifier or receiver of some kind. The highest resolution music won’t sound any better through earbuds than a 192kbps MP3. But you will instantly notice the different with larger speakers.

If you are playing your music back through earbuds or headphones (even really good ones) at home or in your office, then HD music likely won’t make a difference, Save your money on the music.

In your car? On an airplane? Out and about in public? Well, HD music is an incredible waste. None of those environments are ideal for listening to music and expecting to get the details and subtleties. Even with noise cancelling (which only filters out constant mid-range and low-range noise sources, if they work at all), there will be enough other ambient noise that anything subtle will be buried in the mud.

Headphones were not built to bring out the absolute very best in music. They were made for privacy or portability. They use small speakers which compromise some frequency ranges. It’s physics. It’s hard to argue it. And HD music over tiny speakers generally won’t sound any better than MP3 or AAC with a decent bitrate. Save your money. If you want HD music, get a good receiver, speakers and turntable and buy vinyl.




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