Milhouse: It used to be about the music! Bart: I said slag off!

Why high bit-rate and HD audio are all about marketing, not music

High bit rate — kilobit per second — and HD audio — 24bit vs. 16bit — are getting a lot of attention lately, whether it's because streaming services are offering more or less kbps or upcoming devices are promising higher fidelity sound or Apple is rumored to be adding those features to iOS 8 and the iPhone 6. The truth is, as far as it's been explained to me and I'm able to understand it, is that higher bit-rate and higher bit audio is more about marketing than it is about music. Yes, the quality of the mastering matters incredibly, as does the quality of the transcoding, but for most audio, with most modern codecs, we're well past the levels where things become transparent to the listener. Why is that?

Here's the introduction to the best, most understandable explanation I've found. It's by Chris "Monty" Montgomery, the creator of the Ogg format and the Vorbis codec. And as a good friend of mine said, "he knows his shit." From xiph.org:

Articles last month revealed that musician Neil Young and Apple's Steve Jobs discussed offering digital music downloads of 'uncompromised studio quality'. Much of the press and user commentary was particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of uncompressed 24 bit 192kHz downloads. 24/192 featured prominently in my own conversations with Mr. Young's group several months ago.

Unfortunately, there is no point to distributing music in 24-bit/192kHz format. Its playback fidelity is slightly inferior to 16/44.1 or 16/48, and it takes up 6 times the space.

There are a few real problems with the audio quality and 'experience' of digitally distributed music today. 24/192 solves none of them. While everyone fixates on 24/192 as a magic bullet, we're not going to see any actual improvement.

Read the rest of Montgomery's lengthy, detailed article to see why he would rather see resources being spent on things like better quality headphones (and I'll add speakers), overcoming the technical hurdles to real, efficient surround sound, lossless formats to eliminate the risk of bad encoding and generation loss, and high-quality masters.

Again, the remastering of the original audio that's being done in advance of the push to higher bit-rate and higher bit-depth audio will no doubt result in fantastic versions of the music we know and love. It's just that those new remasters would sound every bit as good to humans in existing bit-rates and bit-depths.

When that's taken into consideration, the primary advantage of going to higher bit rates and 24bit becomes clear — marketing escalation. If one music service can say they offer higher kbps streams, even if they're higher beyond the point where it makes any difference, they look more impressive. If a device says it supports 24-bit rather than 16-bit audio, even if all it does it take up more storage space on that device.

We'll no doubt see many more products and rumors that hawk higher quality audio as a selling point, and we may even see Apple bullet point them on a Keynote deck so they stay competitive in the perception-is-reality space. But when the time comes to pick a streaming service or a device, don't fall victim to the bit-race. Pick the ones that offers the best mastered versions of the most music you love most in the way that sounds best to you.

Are you interested in higher bit rate or 24-bit audio? If so, what makes it compelling to you?

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, The TV Show, Vector, ZEN & TECH, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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There are 43 comments. Add yours.

valkraider says:

The quote you chose: "Unfortunately, there is no point to distributing music in 24-bit/192kHz format. Its playback fidelity is slightly inferior to 16/44.1 or 16/48, and it takes up 6 times the space."
Doesn't actually say why. It's just called out as this guy's opinion - and everyone is supposed to agree with it because your friend claims "he knows his shit".

How about some details as to *why* it doesn't improve the actual quality or why the lower bit rates actually perform better?

I contend they all sound fine in mono through my iPhone speaker in a noisy car... :)

But rate escalation is stupid for most users who will never have the quality of equipment to benefit from the sampling. But that's my opinion - I am not being quoted as an authority on the matter.

Details count.

Rene Ritchie says:

Wow! Maybe I didn't make the link prominent enough, or explain that people should click on it emphatically enough? He (Montgomery) explains it over PAGES of his post. Also, "this guy's opinion" — he freaking invented the Ogg Vorbis audio format and codec. I stated that pretty clearly.

Here's the link again. CLICK ON IT :)

valkraider says:

1. You are telling your readers to go read PAGES of material rather than quoting the correct and relevant bits.
2. Most people have no idea what the hell OGG Vorbis is or why that classifies the guy as an expert.
3. Being a douche doesn't help make your point - you just come across as trying to be smug because you feel like you know so much more than anyone else.

So I will summarize the reason for you're readers: human hearing for 99.999% of all people only picks up sound in certain ranges. The "extra" sound provided by higher bit-rates is at best lost on our ears or at worse actually interferes with the good sound we need to hear.

Here is a far better quote which actually kind of explains why:

"Professionals use 24 bit samples in recording and production [14] for headroom, noise floor, and convenience reasons.

16 bits is enough to span the real hearing range with room to spare. It does not span the entire possible signal range of audio equipment. The primary reason to use 24 bits when recording is to prevent mistakes; rather than being careful to center 16 bit recording-- risking clipping if you guess too high and adding noise if you guess too low-- 24 bits allows an operator to set an approximate level and not worry too much about it. Missing the optimal gain setting by a few bits has no consequences, and effects that dynamically compress the recorded range have a deep floor to work with.

An engineer also requires more than 16 bits during mixing and mastering. Modern work flows may involve literally thousands of effects and operations. The quantization noise and noise floor of a 16 bit sample may be undetectable during playback, but multiplying that noise by a few thousand times eventually becomes noticeable. 24 bits keeps the accumulated noise at a very low level. Once the music is ready to distribute, there's no reason to keep more than 16 bits."

infty says:

Valkraider. You are even more of a douche and smug.

Rene's comment was excellent. You are just being a big jerk about it. If I was Rene, I would ban you from commenting for your rude comments, just be glad that Rene is a real gentleman.

oscaramzz says:

Agreed

Sent from the iMore App

iBlackdude says:

I just don't get it.
This country is becoming crazy....

Are we supposed to ban people just because they disagree with us ?????

SMH !!!!!

Daniel Martinez5 says:

Actually, Rene was the one that gave a completely useless, subjective, and uninformative quote. It would have been easy to pull a quote that actually gave a reason as to why this guy FEELS the way he does, but he didn't.

Rene Ritchie says:

Context is hard online. I wasn't being smug, I was being apologetic.

I didn't want to take all the value out of the link by paraphrasing it. I'd much rather people click through so Montgomery gets the traffic. That's part of being a good web citizen. It promotes people writing more so we can all share more.

That's why my goal wasn't to explain the reason but to link to the reason. To give his work exposure, not to take it from him.

Thanks for sharing the other quote.

It pays to be generous online and assume other people are as well, unless and until they prove it otherwise.

Derrick4Real says:

Interesting information.

As for the comment in general i think he's actually making an sound journalistic point. All too often in blog world you get the equivalent of "X is better than Y. Now go follow this link and read some other guy's argument for what i just said being correct." Where as before you stated your premise, "X is better than Y" and then you yourself wrote the argument and cited sources.

I'm not all bent out of shape over it but i totally get what the guy is saying. But sadly it's not going to change how the blogosphere write. In fact this has been an ongoing discussion in journalistic circles and more mainstream media newsrooms.

suitcasejohnny says:

I stopped reading your long post after your point #3. It seemed to fit you so well, that I decided the rest of what your wrote wasn't worth my time.

cerebasan says:

Rene,
I would like your thoughts on the same situation in HD video. 720 seems great on the iPhone. I can't tell the difference at 1080p on my iPad mini. I feel it is the same argument you are making for audio.

Sent from the iMore App

Eric Mason 0321 says:

There was a great article on CNet last year I believe on just that topic. If I can locate it I'll post a link. Basically it calls 1080p and the upcoming 4K a marketing gimmick, which I agree with. The only way you will be able to notice a difference between say 720p/1080i and 1080p is by sitting inches away from the screen. The human eye can't discern the difference at normal viewing distances.

suitcasejohnny says:

Don't post a link! Paraphrase it, and tell us why one is better than the other. ;)

rkcmd says:

But I want MOAR bitrate!

Posted via the Android iMore App!

Rene Ritchie says:

You also want MOAR storage space, so efficiency is key :)

Johnny Sanchez says:

It's about looking at the iPod line and going for a complete reboot.

Clearly, there is a want by Apple to continue making music innovation. They are at the forefront for music discovery and availability. Neil Young is just about to put out Pono, the 64GB (128GB with a SD card) music player which will give people the access to listen to HD tracks.

In my opinion, the iPod and iTunes are the best mix of music innovation out there. The iPod touch and iPod Classic are the best music players ever. They are the music players that can store thousands of songs and create endless mixes for its users. I greatly hate that people talk so bad about the iPod Classic and the iTunes Genius feature. The iPod Classic is what made Apple. The last they have updated this music player was 2011 with a simple $249, 160GB. ITunes Genius has improved to give music listeners the chance to listen to music in a great order and more so do more with that music that Apple wants you to buy endless.

Apple needs to make music players again. The streaming music industry is a hoax. You can only listen to music when you have internet? You rent music, but don't own it? This should upset most people who are true music lovers. Artists releases lots of music all the time. As you buy and consume more music, it can be quite easy to forget music you own. iTunes genius was and continues to be a great tool to give people an opportunity to enjoy music from all angles, the angle of owning the pieces of music and the way in which music is customized. Apple has the worlds largest database for creating great music playlist so to people who will say, it is a flop is highly wrong.

Rebranding the iPod to be more consumer friendly, having storage from 64GB, 128GB, 160GB, or dare I say 200GB IPods at different price points to attract music lovers. If Apple is scared people will be iOS-equipped iPod touch and won't buy iPhones, customize iPods to have the same iOS, but perhaps customized at some capacity. The founder of Apple would love a reboot of the iPod to welcome any music lover. That's what Apple needs and build on this. I don't see this with Beats Electronics. At best, with Beats, I see iPhone 6 priced at $299 for a 16GB with Beats audio built in and/or Beats EarPods with it.

Any thoughts on this?

ZeroLeonheart says:

What difference does 24-bit audio make if we use crappy headphones to listen to it? A happy medium is decent headphones, a format/codec that preserves sound quality while not weighing in at 40MB per song (arbitrary number, relax storage police) and devices that can hold lots of music.

GlennRuss says:

All recording equipment makes noise. No matter how expensive, it will make noise. Then there is room noise when using a mic. No matter how much you have soundproofed the room, there will still be "floor noise". 24bit depth is nice to have the ability to get further away from floor noise. There is nothing wrong with 16 bit depth. To me it is all in the final mix down. When you are mixing, realize what people will be listening on. Most people will be using basic head/earphones, and not an expensive system. Then there is sample rate, but that is a whole article in itself.

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vigilant says:

Love Rene's articles.

The TL:DR is our ears have a threshold similar to Retina Displays. Theres room for improvement now, but it's all attainable with the current file formats.

The allure of better audio would be lost on probably most music out unless it's remastered for the higher quality range anyway. Can anyone tell if Casablanca is in 1080P? How about 4k? Seems like this is similar to the 4K problem.

Derrick4Real says:

Honestly i barely understand what 4k is so i can't speak for 4k but i do know Casablanca was shot in 35 mm because when movies getting released in HD was the new thing i looked it up. Apparently it's not cut and dry as to which is better. My readings pointed out that hd is digital and about pixels but 35 mm film is analog and doesn't have pixels so they had to do conversions based on what fits in a certain area and they found out 35 mm seems technically higher resolution than HD which is why old movies can get converted into HD. But the article also pointed out that most professionals have a hard time distinguishing the difference between 35 mm prints and HD and that for most its an indistinguishable difference. Now my poor understanding of 4k is that it has a lot more lines of resolution. I'm just guessing but i'd guess at old prints may not have enough to be 4k but hell i don't know this stuff.

vigilant says:

Agreed, that's my point. Same as with video, audio probably has a level of diminishing returns.

The eye has a certain level at which all things are a curve which is why retina displays are important. I'd imagine the same could be said with audio.

theonlyronster says:

You're nearly right, but a bit off.

Film has no resolution, in that it isn't pixels. It's a much better representation of what came through the lens than video is, so it's always going to be better than 4K, 8K or whatever.

However, our ability to perceive this would seem to be very limited depending on what we are viewing on, viewing distance, quality of conversion etc.

HD is, at best, an approximation of what film (any film) can do.

sf_basilix says:

While I also agree this is marketing since most humans can't distinguish sound quality that close, there's going to be a fake realization that the sound quality will be better if apple only fixes their audio issues with the iPhone 6. I'll tell you why...

Before the iPhone I had a Palm Pre. While the phone had its many flaws one thing it did far better than the iPhone was handle sound quality. It was the first thing I noticed going from the Pre to the iPhone when I plugged them into my car stereo. Playing music on the Pre was much crisper and far more full sounding. When I went to the iPhone it had a narrow sound band and didn't even express that much low end. I actually thought the plug was damaged or that there must have been an equalizer setting changed because it was that drastic when playing the exact same songs.

So if apple just fixes whatever sound problem they have in the iPhone 6, users will clamor that the sound quality does make a difference and the public will be fooled once again.

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PeterMillard says:

Oh Lordy - it's the megapixel wars all over again...

heyjohnnybravo says:

...or the pixel density wars on mobiles. Why the hell do I need a 4K screen on a 5" device? I don't but I know they're pushing for it -.-

Posted from my TARDIS!

Matthew Merkle says:

Breaking news: consumers are shown to be gullible, will buy anything without research.

This is just one of a hundred stupid hi-fi consumer scams. Monster's $100 cables, Bose speakers, power conditioners, etc. 24/192 will become the norm, and it will happen solely because the average consumer is never going to read these articles.

eamdude says:

I agree that 44/16 non-lossy audio is very good. If everything is done correct then the difference between 16 and 24 bits is the noise level - not the sound quality. The filters evens stuff out. The dynamic range of 24 bits is actually larger than any analog electronics can handle. In the studio 24-bits is minimum and the mix-bus is normally 64-bits (to have the necessary overhead to add a lot of channels). Sampling frequency is a compromise and about 60KHz would be optimal. Going high (like 172/196) just creates more trouble with jitter (timing distortion). I buy music on CD and rip it myself. Much preferrable to MP3 or AAC.

z3on says:

24bit is all about marketing, but lossless music (at 44/16) definitely isn't. I only listen to lossless music with some good Sennheiser headphones. If you only listen to music through cheap Apple earphones then no, you will hear no difference whatsoever, and you will also never experience music the way you're supposed to. Anyone that claims to love listening to music, and listens to mp3 or other lossy formats is seriously missing out big time, so I'm glad Apple is at least introducing lossless music, even if they're in 24bit overkill.

So although Rene you are correct in your assessment of 24/192 lossless music, I'm afraid your article will create the impression that ALL lossless music is about marketing, which it certainly is not. Lossless music ripped from CD's (16/44) has a noticeable much improved quality over compressed lossy music (as long as you're using decent headphones that is).

ExtraElliot says:

Well said. 24/192 is beyond overkill for consumers. Lossless 16/44.1 is not. And I agree and I too think that this article could be misleading to many people. 256 AAC is a far cry better than the 128 MP3s (or worse...) we passed around early on in the iPod days, but it is still a lossy format. I'd be very happy if Apple offered a lossless option at 16/44.1, and given that things can be streamed at bit rates to match your connections and downloaded at preferable bit rates, there's no reason not to go even higher for those that want it.

24/96 isn't going to come close to making a difference for everyone, but for some with the equipment to take advantage of it, it will be enjoyable and appreciated. I have a modest SACD collection and while I'd never describe the difference between SACD sound and that of standard CDs to be huge, on a good audio system, they are clearly more impressive. Drums and acoustic instruments in particular really come to life more.

But...

The biggest problem with all music coming out these days is mastering. If they can't get back to mastering right, it doesn't matter. I'd take a properly mastered 256 AAC file over a poorly mastered 24/96 file any day.

Galley says:

I recently began purchasing audiophile recordings from the Audio Fidelity label on 24 Kt. Gold CD and SACD. These remasters, by Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray are phenomenal. I can literally turn up my iPod all the way, without distortion. They are mastered at low volumes, so they are designed to be cranked!
Fortunately, these recordings from the 50s through the 80s were recorded well. Music today is not only "brickwalled", but the recordings often have clipping, which results in digital distortion. One example, is Queensrÿche's recent self-titled album. Great music, but it is unlistenable!

mrobertson21 says:

Rene, thanks for attempting to kill this trend (at least among iMore readers) before it inevitably takes hold of the new cycle.

williamsbh76 says:

I think that sound and music are in the same boat and this may have some merit but i don't know. Our eyes and ear can only interpret so much clarity that its getting to a point that we can make displays with no pixels or sounds with incredible bit rates but is it really going to sound any better? Someone else in the thread mentioned the quality of the hardware used to listen too. Most of the time I am riding in the car when I do most of my listening, whether it is a pod cast or music. My truck is brand new but there is always going to be a factor of road noise. Personally I can't tell the difference between a CD I bought 15-20 years ago and a song I downloaded in MPEG 4 at 70 mph. I know this isn't the case for everyone but eventually the quality wont be noticed.

Trappiste says:

So long as the average playback gear is as bad as it -- people do not appreciate good sound and buy cheap or cheaply-made equipment, such as Apple's ear pods and similar crap -- it will not matter the least bit, ahem, what the bitrate and sampling rates are. People are simply very happy with poor sound quality, as anyone can witness by looking around, so this is a non-issue to begin with.

dustinwwilson says:

I, myself, would welcome Apple's providing lossless music for purchase even if 24/96 and higher is supposedly nothing more than a marketing gimmick. I have a nice speaker system with a DAC and a nice set of headphones I use on a daily basis while working at my desk, and lossy music is terrible-sounding on them by comparison. However, I feed lossy music to my iPhone as it's pointless to put lossless music on a device that's incapable even with nice headphones of producing good audio quality. I've never bought a single track off of iTunes, and I won't as long as they're of less quality than a CD.

I'm not trying to discredit or contradict Mr. Montgomery when concerning the audio quality of 24-bit music as I'm not an expert in the field like he is, but most professional music has been recorded for some time now in 24-bit; it's well-documented why it's preferable to do it at 24-bit with a lot of data to back it up. They convert it to 16-bit for distribution while keeping the original 24-bit masters. We have problems in recording these days with the "loudness war", but that has nothing to do with 24 vs. 16-bit.

So, even if it's gimmicky and some turn their noses up at people who'd buy the 24-bit music I don't see what the harm is in providing master audio or near master audio quality to consumers who would purchase it. We've been buying DVD movies that have 24-bit audio for well over a decade. Mid-range consumer receivers and DACs have supported 24-bit audio for easily 15 years now. Let people buy it, and if you want lossy low bitrate mp3s that's your business.

mjh483 says:

Seriously, anything beyond 320kbps audio is useless unless you have a professional-level earpiece/headphone that costs as much as the device you are listening music on.

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dreyfus2 says:

Apple should offer lossless files, the quality difference is clearly audible, even with Apple's earbuds (maybe not with Beats though). Absolutely willing to pay a little extra for them.

They should also improve the audio components in their hardware, mainly the DACs. Adding a mid-level (around $100-150) DAC to a Mac or iDevice improves audio quality by miles... and these things contain components costing maybe $10-$15 max. While at it (he!) they could also add a bit more oomph to the iDevices, so good headphones with higher impedance will at least be able to produce some sound.

All this can be done with reasonable effort and cost. Leave 24-bit in the producer's cabin where it belongs.

John Kester says:

Why do people believe that mobile phones have such poor audio hardware ? ( not including my i9505 which screws up on low impedance headphones :( )

Most devices support 24bit, Apple just lock their portable devices to 16bit in IOS . The DACs on these devices are really good but completely crippled by the OS. Only issue is that they don't give out enough power to drive larger headphones effectively.

Higher quality = more bandwidth = higher download costs to the provider and they want you to buy things twice once they start selling their newly discovered 24bit lossless technology ;).
Fact the higher the bit depth the closer to the natural analogue level you're going to get.

check out this link
http://tweakheadz.com/16-bit-vs-24-bit-audio/

24bit 44khz is the way to go :) for me I prefer if everything was mixed in surround 5.1 as it sounds awesome :D

John Kester says:

Just read this article aswell http://www.head-fi.org/t/415361/24bit-vs-16bit-the-myth-exploded

Seems things are less clear cut than I thought :D
I always assumed the idea of 24 bit was so you could get a greater and more detailed dynamic range, turns out I was so wrong :(

Freddyb123 says:

First off the higher bit rate alone isn't really enough to give a hifi audio experience ! In order for audio to be truly HIFI the original recording of the audio must be done in a studio that records in HIFI . you can't take some old track and remastered it into hifi . Yes you may be able to remaster it to make The audio sound no we than it's original recording . But untill studios hop on the hifi wagon and realize it's in high enough demand for them to spend the extra money in doing audio in HIFI its pointless I've bought numerous "HIFI" speaker docks and And stereo setups . But it's all proved pointless considering there isn't much of a selection as far as true hifi audio out there and the hifi audio available out there isn't of my taste . Doo with saying that higher bitrate offers a better lossless audio sound . Which is truly better than your standard mp3 audio . But most wouldn't be able to tell a differnce from high res audio and a CD . Once audio is recorded in hifi then I'm expecting there will be a major difference but untill that day comes I think we are stuck with what we have .

Freddyb123 says:

Hifi has to be recorded in hifi you can't take a track from the 80s and remaster it into hifi . The audio must be recorded in hifi for it to truly be hifi . All these hifi tracks for sale of your old favorites are nothing more than remastered tea is . They are NOT hifi . They may sound better but untill recording studios join the cause we are stuck with what we have . Higher bitrate audio does matter just look at the difference between a low bitrate mp3 compared to a CD track . Big difference . But for higher bitrate audio you have to have audio eqipmnent capable of playing high resolution audio other wise you end up with the same old CD or mp3 sound quality ..

George Flanagin says:

<< Are you interested in higher bit rate or 24-bit audio? If so, what makes it compelling to you? >>

Like everyone else, I think my reasons for adoption of 96/24 audio are completely rational, but from what I read on both sides of the dispute, my reasons appear to be a bit different.

My playback rig for music is "all digital." I feed the bits from all sources to one computer that does output level, balance, and EQ. From there the bits go onward to another computer that is a digital domain crossover between the main speakers and the subwoofer. The DAC chips are the last item before the power amplifiers. The equipment's "native mode" is 96/24. Working with the signal in the digital domain at home, I like to have the same advantages that the studio has; for example, tinkering with the signal well above the noise floor. Speaking as a computer scientist by trade, I would rather do fewer format conversions -- less resampling. I know the ill effects are nil, but it is a senseless use of CPU power.

Terabytes are cheap for storage, and they are getting cheaper. It is different in the portable world where 128GB is the current limit from Apple. The iDevices will play 44/24 audio without complaint, although the ALAC algorithm does not save as much space with 24 bit files as it does with 16 bit files. For the music I listen to, ALAC 44/16 often comes in at 500-600Kbps, but 1100-1200Kbps for 44/24.

Large files are chowers of power, too, because the iDevice must transfer the data from storage to its RAM to undo the compression and convert from digital to analog. Bigger files, more battery to move them around. And considering that they also must be converted from AAC or ALAC to uncompressed representations, I am in favor of leaving them as they are recorded.

The biggest aid for me would come if Apple were to embrace FLAC as well as ALAC. Currently, I buy FLAC-ed music and must convert it to ALAC for playback, and that is true regardless of the bit rate.