Sony says it's the future, and so does America's Consumer Electronics Association – and Neil Young
Audio enthusiasts have gone off the big international consumer electronics shows: every year they seem to be more about bigger and more expensive TV screens, little wireless speakers and the kind of 'tomorrow's tech' that in a year or so will look like 'yesterday's tat'.
However, in the past few days all that appears to have changed, and we may have reached one of those moments that could change the way we all listen in the future. Or at least give new hope to those of us who believe the future is in high-quality audio – not highly-compressed – streaming music and pirated downloads.
Sony gets behind high-resolution
In announcements made simultaneously at the annual IFA show in Berlin and an event held at Lincoln Centre in New York, Sony has committed itself to high-resolution audio as its vision of the future of recorded music, and pledged its support to an industry campaign to promote hi-res audio.
At the same time, America's Consumer Electronics Association, which organises the annual CES trade show in Las Vegas, has said high-resolution audio will be a major theme of the 2014 event in January.
If that wasn't impetus enough, musician Neil Young has just announced a 2014 launch for his long-promised Pono music system, designed to bring studio-quality music to a wider audience, with help from partner company Meridian Audio.
Pono's 'primal power'
So far, no-one's quite sure what Pono is: Young has shown a Toblerone-shaped player, and says that 'we’ve liberated the music of the artist from the digital file and restored it to its original artistic quality - as it was in the studio. So it has primal power.'
His latest announcement clarifies a little, saying that 'Pono starts at the source: artist-approved studio masters we’ve been given special access to. Then we work with our brilliant partners at Meridian to unlock the richness of the artist’s music to you.
High resolution bargains – if you hurry
If you can't wait until next year, you can get a taste of what high-resolution can do right now with some bargain-priced downloads from French online music company Qobuz: until this weekend, there's a selection of over 2000 titles available in high-resolution (up to 24-bit/192kHz) for the same price as an MP3 download
In other words, that's less than the CD-quality files, and there are some major bargains in there: get a move on, and you can buy Daniel Barenboim's Beethoven for All set of all nine symphonies, performed by the West Eastern Divan Orchestra, for just €9.99 in 24-bit/96kHz Studio Masters quality.
Yes, in this case it's actually 90¢ more than the CD-quality release, but it's still a definite bargain at around £8.40 – when I bought the set earlier in the year, it was around £35 in hi-res formats.
Agreed, the Qobuz promotion has been just that – a promotion, designed to stimulate interest in the range of beyond-CD-quality downloads it offers. However, now it's been done, maybe this is the level at which hi-res music pricing should settle: at a stroke, it would do away with the 'is it worth spending more?' argument, and allow consumers to get on and enjoy the choice of file formats available.
Why the sudden high-resolution audio interest?
So anyway, what's this sudden outburst of high-resolution music activity all about? Or, some might say, 'So what? Lots of high-end audio companies have been supporting these formats for a good while now, but it seems like the mass-market just isn't interested.'
The answer to the latter point is simple: hard though the likes of Linn and Naim (and others) have tried to put the hardware in front of listeners, and support it with their own online labels and music stores, in the form of Linn Records and the Naim Label, the fact remains that, in the great scheme of the global consumer electronics industry these are relatively small specialist audio companies.
With the best will in the world they're unable to muster the kind of marketing clout (and budget) the likes of Sony can bring to bear when it sets its mind on something.
So when Sony Electronics president Phil Molyneux stands up in front of a room full of heavy-hitters from the music industry and start's talking about taking high-resolution, you get the idea something major is about to happen.
Molyneux said: 'It's been more than a decade since the first MP3 digital downloads and music players were introduced to the public. Now is the time to offer high-resolution audio products that bring music enthusiasts closer to their favourite recordings, and allow them to experience those recordings the way the artists, producers and engineers always intended.'
Hardware – and big-label support
That means not just a range of products, from streaming micro-systems with built-in hard-disk storage through to high-end separates in Sony's ES range, but also support from labels including Sony Music (of course!), Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group.
Indeed, some of the new Sony products will come preloaded with hi-res music from those labels and, while classical content is all but absent from the list of tracks to be supplied – the closest we get is Yo-Yo Ma playing Cloverfoot Reel and Dave Brubeck's Blue Rondo a la Turk! – at least buyers of the new products will get a taste of what high-resolution can do.
Or, as Warner's Matt Signore says of the initiative, 'Given Sony Electronics' global footprint and marketing expertise, these pre-loaded devices will be a great way to excite a wider audience about the possibilities and benefits of high resolution sound.'
As well as launching the new products, which are designed to simplify downloading, storing and playing everything from MP3 files to high-resolution music formats beyond CD quality, Sony is pledging an extensive print and digital advertising campaign in support of hi-res audio.
Dedicated portal – and hi-res parties
That includes a dedicated website which is already live, for example here for UK readers, or here for those in the USA, to explain what high-resolution audio is all about, introduce the products and link users to sources of high-resolution downloads. No, it's not yet another hi-res download store, but rather a portal via which existing providers can be accessed.
Other plans include support for retailers with information, training and displays, and even Sony-sponsored 'Hi-Res listening parties', in association with those music companies.
Meanwhile the Consumer Electronics Association is making plans for CES 2014, and it's even got an abbreviation tied down – the CEA likes its abbreviations.
High resolution audio is now HRA, and a CEA press release says that 'HRA offers the highest digital sound quality while retaining the benefits of digital audio, such as portability and personalisation. HRA music files provide greater clarity and detail than MP3s and other compressed digital audio formats, resulting in a listening experience that more closely represents the original recording.'
It says it's already 'exploring initiatives to corral support among consumers and retailers, and plans to leverage opportunities to promote HRA at the 2014 International CES.'
Prominent at that show is likely to be Sony's HAP-Z1ES player, which will sell for around £2000 when it hits the shops in the next few months. It has 1TB of internal storage, expandable via a USB socket; both wireless and wired network connection; and the ability to play everything from MP3 files right up to DSD-128/5.6MHz and 32-bit/192kHz PCM.
It also offers the intriguing facility of upconverting all digital signals to DSD-128 before digital-to-analogue conversion, using technology from the company's eight-times oversampling and Extended Super Bit Mapping, found in its professional recorders.
Why do that? Well, the theory goes that upconverting even CD-quality files to DSD can make them sound better, by reducing the amount of work the DACs have to do: it's something Marantz Brand Ambassador Ken Ishiwata discusses in my review of that company's NA-11S1 high-end network music player – to be published in Gramophone's Awards issue, on sale later this month.
However, it looks like the Sony engineers have gone even further, by making this conversion on the fly in the HAP-Z1ES, which draws on expertise going all the way back to the company's 1999 SCD-1ES Super Audio CD player, and also has a wide range of typical Sony high-end features, from the 'frame and beam' chassis to separate transformers for the different sections of the unit.
There's a matching amplifier, the TA-A1ES; that HAP-S1 micro-system at around £800, a USB-equipped digital to analogue converter/amplifier, the UDA-1, selling for about £500 and for those who like to keep their music on their computer; and even two pairs of matching speakers, including one with both forward - and upward-firing supertweeters.
Yes, of course this means Sony is a latecomer to a party where some of us have been buying, streaming and enjoying high-resolution music for some years now.
However, if the substantial marketing weight of major companies like Sony manages to deliver more widely-available, more sensibly-priced downloads at CD quality and beyond, and can create the wider public awareness required to make high-quality audio attractive to the mass-market, that's got to be a good thing.
We've been peering nervously over the edge for too many years: now's the time for the audio industry to take its next great leap.
Written by Andrew Everard