Why Journalists Fall for the High-Resolution Music Scam

Yesterday, the UK newspaper The Guardian published an article about high-resolution music. The article – entitled How much difference is there between MP3, CD and 24-bit audio? – starts with a leader:

“Debates rage over whether hi-res music is a gimmick. Three Guardian writers put four music formats – and their ears – to the test”

This is another example of The Guardian’s shoddy tech reporting. They take a hot-button item that can get them a lot of hits, and approach it in the worst possible manner.[1]

If The Guardian were to examine, say, the quality of meat sold in supermarkets, would anyone consider it valid if they had Tesco (the leading UK supermarket chain) provide the samples for their test? Probably not. But when they examined high-resolution music files[2], they went to Linn Records, a purveyor of such products. (I have nothing agains Linn Records; I have a number of their classical releases, many of which are wonderful.)

And, rather than perform a blind test – a bit of research on the internet would have shown the journalists that this is the only valid way to compare different music formats – they had someone from Linn Records play them in order from the most compressed file (128 kbps MP3) to what was expected to be the best (the high-resolution file). And they listen to them on a “high-quality system and speakers.”[3]

While their conclusions were mixed – they made it clear that they couldn’t always distinguish between the different formats – one comment stood out: “there’s a distinct quality difference between the kind of compressed, middling MP3 commonly downloaded from the major platforms.” This is disingenuous; if the person here is talking about 128 kbps MP3, not one “major platform” uses that bit rate any more, or has in many years.

I’ve seen many studies that involve blind testing of music formats, such as this study that I recently reported on, and they all conclude that, even among experienced listeners, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between CD-quality music and high-resolution files. The study I link to above even includes a number of people who are musicians, or people who work with audio; in a survey after the study, those people were no better than the others, even when they felt relatively sure of their choices.

There’s a big difference between the high-profile investigative journalism The Guardian publishes – such as the Snowden leaks – and the tripe they pass off in the rest of their newspaper (and website). Much of The Guardian today looks like a blog, with a lot of stories about dating, weight loss and cooking. Their tech reporting often looks like that as well. Interestingly, they have an excellent classical music critic, Tom Service, who could have been a part of this test; I wonder why he wasn’t. Did he already have an opinion on the subject that went against what The Guardian wanted to publish?

This Guardian article reads like an advertorial. Lazy journalists didn’t want to take the time to examine the questions around high-resolution music files objectively, so they got a company who sells the product they’re reporting on, and pimped that company’s products, saying:

“…listening a very high-quality set of Linn speakers…”

“…on Linn’s superb hi-fi equipment…”

It’s clear what the agenda was here; this was not an article about high-resolution, but about Linn Records. The Guardian took the wrong approach to an issue that concerns (an admittedly small number of) consumers, and, rather than try and be objective, just wrote what would please a specific company. Take it for what it’s worth.

Read why I think that high-resolution music is a marketing scam.

Update: As a reader pointed out in the comments, the Guardian podcast allows Gilad Tiefenbrun of Linn Music make several misstatements. He suggests that MP3 or AAC are proprietary formats that are not “open.” Discussing one service that, on shutdown, led to the loss of music by purchasers, he equates the non-openness of specific formats as being an issue.

Unfortunately, he’s quite wrong. The Virgin Media service he discusses didn’t cause problems for people’s music libraries because of a format, but because of DRM. Any MP3 or AAC files you have now – at least since Apple dropped DRM – will be playable for the foreseeable future. He talks about being “tied in with either certain equipment or certain service providers.” Nope, unless there’s DRM, that doesn’t happen; and DRM is almost entirely gone for music.

But, it’s fair to say that high-resolution files do tie you in with certain equipment; if you don’t have something that can play the files, then you can’t listen to them. But this person conflates a number of issues in a few sentences: open source, DRM and a variety of formats.

Let us not forget that Linn Records is trying to sell a product; and a higher-priced product at that. So it’s clear that any person from a company like this is giving a marketing speech, nothing more. Technically, there’s no real reason for these files to cost more. If there is a premium for bandwidth, let them charge a pound or a buck more. Not £8 more per album, as here, compared to downloads in CD format.

Safari001.png

And, while I’m at it, why does Linn sell a 24/96 disc for £18, and Hyperion can sell files of their records, at the same resolution, for only £10.50, the same price as a CD? (Some of Hyperion’s high-resolution releases are the same price as CDs, some are cheaper, and some are more expensive.)

Safari002.png

I think Linn is gouging the market, because the only people buying these files are those who have already invested a lot of money in their audio systems.


  1. A nit-pick, but an example of the lack of seriousness of the article. They didn’t look at “four music formats,” but only three; they listened to MP3 files at two different bit rates.  ↩

  2. The Guardian article states the following: “There is even debate what actually constitutes hi-res. As Linn’s managing director Gilad Tiefenbrun explains, “there’s confusion over what is and isn’t hi-res music. Is CD hi-res? Perhaps a high-quality MP3? Or does it have to be 24-bit music? For us, hi-res music is the 24-bit studio master – the original recording the artist made, from which all other files and formats are made.”” There’s no confusion at all. High-resolution music files are files at a resolution higher than that of CD; technically, the Red Book CD format, which is 16-bit, 44,100 kHz. They could be 16-bit, 48,000 kHz, which could be studio masters, in the case where a recording was not made in 24-bit. And studio masters can be higher than 24-bit; they can be DSD – Direct Stream Digital – which is used for SACD.  ↩

  3. Any such statement should tell us: a) how much that system cost, so we can compare it to our own audio systems; and b) whether it used oxygen-free, unidirectional speaker cables.  ↩