When is ‘Hi-Res’ not ‘Hi-Res’?

I hate to break it to you fans, but Johnnie Ray is dead, and most so-called ‘hi-res’ tracks are not ‘hi-res’ at all, but rather a complete waste of your money and Internet bandwidth. First you have to define ‘hi-res’ and the problem is that none of the definitions I’ve seen is up to the job. They all fail to recognise that in order to be classified as a ‘high-res’ file the music performed by the musicians that is contained in that file MUST have been originally recorded digitally with a machine generating a 24-bit word every 48-thousandth of a second. That rules out every analogue recording ever made, and every multi-track digital recording made before 1996. So if the supposedly ‘hi-res’ music track you’re listening to was recorded prior to 1996 (and was recorded multi-track) it’s not hi-res. End of story. (Pat Metheny’s 1996 album ‘Quartet’ was the world’s first 24-bit multi-track digital recording, using the first Neve Capricorn desk ever to be fitted with 24-bit DACs. Earlier multi-track recordings are all 16-bit recordings, made with either 3M’s Digital Audio 32-track deck—16-bit/50kHz!—where the 16-bits was provided by using separate 12-bit and 8-bit converters, since true 16-bit converters weren’t available when the machine was designed, or with a digital recorders made by Soundstream, Denon, Sony et al, all of which used standard 16-bit DACs.) If you’re talking about two-track digital recordings I am prepared to stretch the 24-bit date back a little, but certainly no further than 1988, since commercial 24-bit DACs didn’t exist before this (some manufacturers, such as Ultra Analog, did cobble together 16-bit and 18-bit converters and called them ‘24-bit’). So, if you’re listening to ANY recording made prior to 1988, it is not hi-res. What confuses many people is that after they purchase a download that claims to be 24/96 (or whatever) and play it back, the read-out on their player shows it to be whatever specification that is claimed. However, while it’s true the track is ‘technically’ a 24-bit/96kHz file: the music it contains was most likely not originally recorded at that word-length/sampling rate and has been upsampled from its original format (whatever it was) to the higher word-length/sampling-rate. The problem with this process is that upsampling never improves the fidelity of the original recording. One analogy of why upsampling is a complete waste of money involves food. Imagine you have just been served a large steak on a rather small plate. If you slide that steak onto a larger plate in order to make it easier to eat, do you really think it’s going to taste any different? But that’s exactly what upsampling does. It takes a piece of music and slides it onto a larger plate. And for those readers thinking they’re safe because they only buy ‘hi-res’ tracks that were digitally recorded after 1996, there’s still around a 98 per cent chance you’re listening to upsampled versions of music that was originally recorded at either 44.1 or 48kHz and coded using 16-bit words. So you, too, have just paid your waiter more than the cost of your meal to slide your steak onto a larger plate. You’re also likely listening to music that’s so compressed it uses only 8-bits of what’s available, but that’s yet another story. # greg borrowman [hifi@nextmedia.com.au]