Debate: Is the time right for Hi-Res Audio?

posted on Saturday, 1st March 2014 by Steve May

Hi-fi  High-end  Streaming  Audiophile 

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After years of convenience and compression, it seems that the audio industry is ready to put quality top of the agenda once again. Effectively kick-started by Sony, the Hi-Res Audio movement is seemingly gaining traction with manufacturers, now freed from the constraints of a one-size fits all format business model. With music available in a wide variety of formats, and a growing interest in high performance hardware, is the audio business set for a new two-channel renaissance? To learn more, we invited key figures from Sony, Pioneer, Sonos, Yamaha, Onkyo and Denon to sound off…

The phrase may roll off the tongue, but how would you actually categorise Hi-Res Audio?

John Anderson, Sony Vice President of Home Entertainment: "It's basically anything better than CD quality. It's important to remember that this isn't about a new format launch. What we want to say to consumers is that there are now better options than MP3 for portable use and in the home. At Sony we're being very strict about what qualifies as a Hi-Res Audio product. TIt has to be able to play files of 96kHz/24bit or above, or reproduce 40kHz or higher. Hi-Res Audio fits well with the development of our 4K TV business."

Geoff Wood, UK sales manager, Pioneer: "High resolution audio as a category has become very strong in east Asia, and we're very much behind it.  With network players, it sounds really fantastic. But there is still a significant amount of work that has to be done to educate consumers about Hi-Res Audio as most are not aware of what it is. As an industry we must not stop striving to make consumers aware that high quality audio is out there."

So what is the awareness level with consumers when it comes to high resolution audio?

Chris Wray, Product Specialist, Yamaha: "We think there are a large number of customers who already understand Hi-Res and know they want it, but all most likely understand it in a different way. If we're talking scientific terms then it's all about sample and bit rates. Others think of it as format-based (FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF etc), there are also other ways of interpreting Hi-Res. But really as long as the customer can enjoy their music at the resolution they want isn't that the main thing? It's up to us to educate people into what resolution really means for them and their individual situation. This can sometimes take away from the magic of hi-fi and music but if the customer needs information, we should give it to them. After all if you can offer a superior service and advice then you're half way towards making the sale..."

Mike Somerset, Product Marketing Manager for HAV, Sony UK: "For many years, we've recognised two specific consumer needs from audio products: quality and convenience. The rapid rise of MP3 and other forms of compressed music was a clear indication of how consumers wanted easily accessible, easily stored music at their fingertips. Unfortunately this was often to the detriment of sound quality. Consumers would recognise that the sound quality wasn't as good as they may have heard before, but the convenience of being able to carry hundreds of albums with them wherever they went was a benefit that outweighed the reduction in sound quality. The introduction of Hi-Res Audio offers customers an unparalleled level of quality as well as convenient storage and access to huge amounts of music, as the files can be stored on hard drives, just like with MP3s.

There will be many customers who don't know the difference between an MP3 file and a DSD file, but that level of knowledge isn't necessary to appreciate Hi-Res Audio. Simply put, Hi-Res products provide exceptional audio quality, and that's a message that all consumers should understand."

The catch, of course is that there's very little popular music available in a High-Res Audio format. Most of what's out there is very esoteric…

John Anderson, Sony :"I think the groundswell of interest in Hi-Res legitimizes the efforts of the smaller groundbreaking music labels, such as 2L and Linn Records who have pioneered Hi-res downloads. The latter is now effectively the leader in mainstream music, having signed a licensing deal with Universal. Of course, you can get great results also from Windows Media Audio Lossless files, worth remembering when high-grade FLAC/ALAC files aren't available. Of course, one consequence of upping the ante when it comes to audio quality is that files sizes grow. Lossless codecs actually occupy around half the space as a WAV or AIFF file…"

How does Hi-Res Audio fit with other key trends happening in home audio? Wireless, soundbars and 5.1 home cinema?

John Gahagan, Country Manager, Sonos: "The market is definitely waking up to streaming music, it's taken longer than we expected but it really feels like the momentum is there now. Customers don't want to think about which technology to choose, they want a good listening experience. The success of the Sonos wireless hi-fi system goes to show that combing great sound with a rock solid wireless connection, access to all the music on Earth and a simple intuitive user experience is what counts. There's certainly a place for Bluetooth in the phone accessory speaker market as it's an open, easy to understand and use connection option but it's not the right choice for in the home. Other wireless options all have their strengths and weaknesses in terms of connectivity, streaming quality and reliability - Sonos focuses on getting the most reliable, high quality stream possible and we do this by creating a wireless network, Sonos network, totally dedicated to streaming music."

Chris Wray, Yamaha: "People are still buying small hi-fii units to go in their kitchen, living room, dining room, study... anywhere really. Wireless multi-room is becoming more popular but you tend not to get the same sound quality that you do with a mini system so there is still a customer who want systems over streaming.

Andrew Bell, Commercial Manager, Denon UK: "There are plenty of customers who want a dedicated music system, not one tied to a TV, but have all their music stored digitally. You only have to look at the extremely healthy sales of our Denon Piccolo and D-M39DAB to see there is masses of life left in the mini systems market! We are trying to create products to suit every customer. There are still plenty of people out there with CDs and we have the very best products for them. But we also offer designs that don't have the CD disc drawer, so customers can stream music from their smartphone or PC."

Kulwinder Singh Rai, Product Development Consultant, Onkyo: "Consumers have always wanted to get the best combination of performance, features and value for their particular budget. However, these days they are, well, consuming their entertainment in a variety of new ways so be sure to factor that into the equation. The right audio system has to be sympathetic to the consumer's preference for content (vinyl, CD, DAB, online, streamed, via a smartphone etc), easy to use and capable of delivering the level of performance that the consumer expects for their budget. There's no harm, of course, in showing them what benefits paying more can get them!"

From an installer and dealer point of view, what's the best way to promote the benefits of high performance audio products to consumers?

Kulwinder Singh Rai, Onkyo: "Demonstrate, demonstrate and then demonstrate again! You can talk spec until you're blue in the face but there's no better way to convince someone of the merits of an audio system than by physically powering it up and and proving what you're saying is true. And, quite frankly, it's the only way of instilling the desire in consumers to aspire to something better. Never let a customer leave the shop without having experienced something better than what they can afford today. Plant the seed and they'll also then know who to turn to when they want to take the next step up the ladder!"

Geoff Wood, Pioneer: "Often consumers are not 100 per cent clear what they want when making an audio purchase, due to the huge amount of technology available at the moment. So you need to be sure not to intimidate them with too much terminology. Just because someone knows what Bluetooth streaming is, doesn't mean it'll work for them."

John Anderson, Sony: "If you want to take a product to the mass market, you have to use language and terminology that everyone will understand. Hi-Res Audio is much like 4K TV really. People need to be able to walk into a store and experience it - if we can't get that across in the retail environment then it won't work.'

Steve May

Inside CI Editor Steve May is a freelance technology journalist, who also writes for T3, TechRadar, Home Cinema Choice and ERT (amongst others).

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