The Blog

Music to Your Ears - Why Audio Is Getting an Upgrade

Even vinyl has seen an upturn in sales. In the UK alone, vinyl sales reached levels not seen since 1996, before napster, limewire or even the MP3 came to dominate our listening experience.

In Manhattan this week, audiophiles quietly filtered into a sound-proof shop to listen to lossless audio on studio quality headphones. The occasion? German audio specialists Sennheiser were opening their first ever pop-up store. The reason? To show the general public that while technology has made music a genuinely inclusive medium for anyone with an internet connection, the quality our parents experienced has gradually been eroded away.

"The primary mission of these pop up stores is to offer urban consumers a deeper appreciation of premium sound," said Stefanie Reichert, Strategic Marketing for Sennheiser. They're not the only ones trying to convince the general public to spend more on better quality audio. In October, Scandinavian music streaming service Tidal announced its launch in the UK and the US, offering 25m tracks in lossless quality for £19.99 a month.

The service will face competition from Neil Young's PonoMusic store, built to accompany a dedicated portable music player called the PonoPlayer, which will offer FLAC files at data rates up to 9,216kbps, converted directly from the original studio tapes for each album.

Even vinyl has seen an upturn in sales. In the UK alone, vinyl sales reached levels not seen since 1996, before napster, limewire or even the MP3 came to dominate our listening experience.

Why is this important for the consumer, weened and quite happy on low-bandwidth music? "Lossless audio formats capture every aspect of the music during a sound recording. That means the recordings we provide contain all the detail, all the expression and all the ambience the artist wanted you to hear. The same details and expression that are ignored and flattened by lossy formats such as MP3. Listen and you'll see," says a spokesman from Bowers & Wilkins, another high-end audio player trying to push people higher up the fidelity scale.

Musicians including Slash, Snoop Dogg and Quincy Jones took to YouTube earlier this year to remind users that low-quality audio is an affront to what music should be like.

Having tried the experience myself, the difference is huge. There are parts of songs you didn't hear before because compression software deemed it unimportant. The best way of describing this idea is to imagine this sentence, with every fourth letter removed. It would look something like this:

"The est ay of escrin thi ide is t imaie his entne, ith ver fouth leter remved."

Our brains have the ability to fill in the gaps, which is what happens when we listen to MP3s, we hear a full sound-scape because our brains subconsciously fill in the gaps removed by compression. This was necessary to allow fledgling internet connections to be able to stream music in real time.

But, as internet speeds have slowly increased, our ability to receive higher quality audio has come with it. As a result, Astell & Kern, LG,Samsung, Sony and FiiO are among the companies to have launched high-resolution audio products this year, while several download sites now offer better-than-CD quality music files, with the likes of HDtracks and Qobuz now live in the UK.

But critics of the high-res audio resolution, say that the improvements in sound aren't discernible to the human ear. The Guardian's Charles Arthur says the expense of recording audio in the highest bit-rate, just isn't justified and will only be picked up by men looking for numbers to impress friends.

But it seems unlikely that some of the companies above would chase such a niche audience. As has happened with the TV industry, people have grown accustomed to the ever improving picture quality now offered at ever declining prices. Prior to HD TV, people were quite happy to watch analogue TV, that was, until there was a better quality alternative.

While we may be in the early days of the audio upgrade, expect events like Sennheiser's on a windswept street in New York to become more common in the coming months.