There are two schools of thought when it comes to music. There are those for whom the quality of the sound plays no role in the musical enjoyment. Only the notes matter. If music is played with some feeling and it’s reasonably on key, then the truth of the music is preserved. Then there are those for whom searching for the perfect listening experience is half the enjoyment. They experience the enjoyment of music and the details of its performance – with their whole bodies – feeling the vibrations and “seeing” the music in space ahead of them, savouring every nuance of the instruments and the acoustics of the recording.
For someone like me, who grew up with music in the 1970s when hi-fi technology was becoming a reality, Hi-Fi was as fascinating as smartphones are today. There was genuine excitement over what technology could accomplish. Today, it could all seem moot, given the enormous improvements in sound quality that have occurred over those 50 years. Today, anyone with a good pair of headphones and a smartphone can enjoy better hi-fi sound quality than the best sound systems then. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something far better than that default experience, for those predisposed to seek it.
There is some suspicion of hi-fi enthusiasts by the first type of listener—are they more interested in the technology than the music? Sometimes, that can be true. Some listeners buy accessories rather than sound equipment, and the politics of it are quite ridiculous (if your equipment looks too nice, then you are not a serious sound person, just an accessorizer, sigh).
Actually, the general understanding of what hi-fi is about is also patchy. If I had 10000 kroner for every time someone told me that “better loudspeakers” was the way to better sound, I could afford those best speakers in the world. But actually, the loudspeakers are probably the last item on the list of priorities for an excellent hi-fi experience. Hi-Fidelity doesn’t mean “sounds expensive”, it means “accurately reproduced”. Fidelity is faithfulness. The idea of hi-fi is that what you hear at home sounds exactly like what was recorded in the studio, not that you maximize the bass and treble. True hi-fi doesn’t have equalization controls, just a volume knob.
Too hi or not too hi?
In truth, if your go-to genre of music is pop or rock, you can relax. These forms of music are traditionally so processed and so compressed (in order to sound clear on lo-fi radio) that there is nothing a hi-fi system can do to make them sound any different. They are stripped of dynamic range and extreme frequencies, and mixed for the masses. Occasionally digital remasters can add a little integrity to old recordings, but on the whole it’s not much.
The real benefits of hi-fi come to those who enjoy complex music, especially orchestral music, and acoustically recorded instruments and voices, where the soundscape comes from the raw sound rather than the production process. Film music enthusiasts must fall into this category, since many of its classics have been recorded with the best of modern digital equipment, especially since George Lucas went on a mission to improve sound recording after Star Wars.
Today, music is delivered to us on a variety of media. There is streaming audio (mp3 and similar varieties of compressed music file). There are CDs. There are also super CDs, though I’ve never seen one, nor have I seen a player that could play one. There is vinyl, with its romantic retro appeal. And finally, there are hi-res digital audio files, which can be downloaded or heard on blu-ray and other high density media.
Does it matter which we choose? Well, yes – but only if your music playing equipment is up to the task. A Linn Akurate DS based hi-fi is the one expensive thing I bought in my life, apart from a house – and it continues to give me pleasure every day. If you listen to pop and rock, you won’t hear much difference in the amount of detail from these sources, but if you listen to symphonic music, there is a world of difference to be had. Vinyl will add its own `romantic’ pops, scratches, and E.M. noise; whether vinyl contains more information than a digital sampling (as some try to argue) or not depends on the recording, the mastering, the production, and the quality of your player. What we can say is that vinyl can’t compare to the best digital sample files for fidelity. You might like the sound better, but it can’t compete objectively with digital.
Film music enthusiasts may well find that the sound they hear at the cinema or on blu-ray is better than the CD they buy afterwards. That’s because the sound recording is in 24 bit digital, whereas CDs are only 16 bit digital, with lower sampling rates.
Music is compressed in order to squeeze it onto a CD. The sampling frequency is usually what people focus on. 44.1 kHz is standard for CD, but pop and rock music is often compressed far below that level. A well mastered classical recording will more than saturate the amount of detail that can fit onto a CD, so there will be loss – not in the frequency range really, but in the dynamic range. So-called high resolution (hi-res) music is 24 bits sampling, with the depth to capture the full range of an orchestra. The difference is astonishing. Suddenly, details that were muddled on a CD can be preserved with a totally new clarity. If you are a fan of vinyl, you will not be able to approach the dynamic range or the frequency range of hi res digital on any level—though no one can deny the tactile appeal of vinyl, and the ingenuity of the technology. Music may be compressed even further by mp3, but that may not matter too much for pop and rock, which are its main uses.
If you want to test some of these assertions, you can follow the evolution of sound recording in the familiar Star Wars music. A New Hope is one of the most re-recorded orchestral soundtracks, and its many versions (both in different masterings and releases of the same recording, and in rerecordings) span the time from before digital recording began. The original recording from 1977 was harsh and brittle sounding, with a lot of microphone noise and more than a few bum notes from the orchestra. After that, each movie had notable improvements in the sound recording quality.
A lot of music from the 1970s had poorly tuned instruments, sharp or flat. Part of the reason was that the equipment was not as sensitive to these subtleties then, so they were less obvious– but they sound painful on modern equipment.
The modern recordings are mastered digitally, and the old recordings have also been resampled and cleaned to reveal all their inadequacies perfectly. Comparing, say, the music from The Last Jedi (in 128kHz/24 bits) with the recording of A New Hope will leave you laughing at the difference.
I used to find the entire Star Wars catalogue hard to listen to, because the music is quite dense and brassy (two qualities that suffer most from compression). The new 192/24 recordings had me listening with a whole new set of ears, and without feeling the effects of “brass fatigue”. The choir in «Duel of the Fates», which sounded flat and two dimensional on CD, was suddenly three dimensional and cathedral-like. For the first time, I listened long enough to hear all the amusing hidden references in Revenge of the Sith, where John Williams seems to quote passages from other movies (James Horner’s Aliens, Jerry Goldsmith’s «V’GER» theme, and even a passage from Jurassic Park when the dinosaurs run wild). You can also compare all the old and new CD recordings and compilations of Star Wars, recorded in better studios over the years too. John Williams has at least three separate recordings of the Star Wars suite, with 10 years between each, charting an interesting course through the annals of sound quality.
Where to get it
The problem is that very little music is released in higher than CD quality – mostly we are cutting back to even higher compression rates – and very few listeners have equipment to play anything of higher quality anyway. HDtracks.com and a few other companies release some music in hi-res. Your smart phone might even be able to play some of it, but alas movie music is not their priority. Rock and pop (which have the least to gain) dominate their catalogues.
Big budget movie soundtracks do tend to get released in hi resolution. So the Star Wars catalogue (the most popular of all time) is now complete, and in maximum quality, with amazing results. Jurassic Park’s 20 year anniversary was released too. Personally, on the John Williams front, I am hoping for the Harry Potter movies to get the same treatment. Beyond these predictable cases, the choices seem quite random.
James Newton Howard’s unusually beautiful score from The Red Sparrow is a great addition that makes full use of the the high resolution medium. The Hobbit movies (Howard Shore) are nicely recorded, as is the haunting music from The Revenant (Ryuichi Sakomoto, Alva Noto, Bryce Dessner). Then a few Hans Zimmer scores are available: The Dark Knight, Interstellar, for example. Alan Silvestri has a few titles: Back to the Future, The Avengers and Ready Player One, Night at the Museum. And, for Star Wars or How to Train Your Dragon fans, John Powell’s score for Solo: A Star Wars Story is also available in hi-res (better without the movie) – with a bizarrely similar theme to Silvestri’s Ready Player One. Bear McCreary’s God of War soundtrack (for the computer game) makes a stunning recording of beautiful music (a strong recommendation for music aficionados), but alas his superb Battlestar Galactica music is not available (the taiko drums alone would definitely benefit from a 24 bit mastering).
For those cases where a CD is the only alternative, modern recordings and remasterings are always superior to old CD pressings. An excellent example was the iconic soundtrack to Alien by Jerry Goldsmith. The original mastering was clipped and distorted. It took 20 years to get a remastering that was both complete and non-distorted. Today, everything is digital from end to end, and its almost impossible to get a bad quality mastering, but that quality is mostly lost.
Sounds of the Unexpected
The effects of sound quality are often not what you expect. We are so used to hearing music compressed for distribution that it can be unexpected when it sounds like the real thing! The sound picture is not simplified for us to make it easier to cut through background noise. You might have to listen more carefully, but you will hear hidden depths.
In truth, there are many things you can do to improve a listening experience without paying more for a new stereo. You will always hear more from a proper sound system with speakers than from headphones, though headphones might emphasize certain details. Sound quality starts with the source, and the weakest link will be your bottleneck. Often, arranging for proper acoustics in your listening room may actually be the most noticeable improvement. New clean cables can also make an unexpected difference. If you listen to jazz orchestras, there are more options to buy quality. Joni Mitchell in front of an orchestra on her album Both Sides Now is available in 192/24, for instance. Less compression means you hear the whole orchestra, not just her voice artificially made louder on the CD. It pays proper respect to the musicians behind her.
Film music is written to add emotional resonance to the telling of a story. It conjures pictures and feelings, as few other kinds of music is designed to do. If the story is blurred and compressed, something is lost. Anyone who appreciates the beauty of the orchestra, even when mixed with electronica, can rediscover musical performance in hi res recordings. I’m certainly hooked.