Can hi-res streaming turn digital from an enemy of sound to its new best friend?

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Digital Trends on 15 January 2016

Rumors that Apple will embrace hi-res streaming audio are stirring up a decades-old debate among audiophiles like me: Does digital reproduction really sacrifice some essential life from music, as vinyl purists claim? Or will it prove — in the fashion of dogmatically atheist scientists — that the ineffable “presence” of analog music has been a nostalgic superstition all along? The truth is, decades of digital reproduction may have already shifted our entire culture against really caring.

The decline of fidelity Digital technology has never been a true friend to audio. After all, digital sampling slices and dices. That’s fine for visual images, which stand still in time. It’s fine for movies, which have always had a “frame rate.” But audio is a continuous phenomenon. Digital technology’s need to sample music at some specific rate and then recompose it into something that sounds like one continuous thing is necessarily a compromise. Add compression algorithms to the story, and we’re no longer listening to music, but a simulation of music designed to fool the ear into filling in the missing frequencies.

Maybe, in part, because digital does picture so much better than it does sound, the past few decades have witnessed a sad decline of audio quality in favor of image. Every new generation of TVs offers better screen resolution and thinner audio. Smartphone screens may have Retina displays, but the sound of digital telephony can’t match that of early analog cell phones, much less the “twisted pair” of ancient analog land lines. No wonder kids use so many emojis; these images are more emotive in this medium than the human voice.

From hi-fi to hi-res That’s why I’ve been rooting for Neil Young and his seemingly regressive efforts to make digital-audio listeners more aware of what they’ve been surrendering to the ubiquitous (but needlessly compromised) MP3 format. True, his hi-res Pono player may really be less of a serious audio component than propaganda for lossless FLAC files and higher quality digital-to-audio converters. But the ire he drew from all corners of the tech universe may have revealed something about the underlying prejudice against audio in our highly visual digital culture.

If Apple makes a real foray into audiophile streaming, Neil may just be remembered as the guy who took one for the team before the iPhone went and made hi-res ubiquitous. All signs point to an upgraded Apple Music service by the end of the year: a new Lightning connector for the headphone jack, new peripherals designed to take advantage of it, as well as Apple requiring its music providers to upload files at 96khz, 24-bit. That’s higher quality than regular CDs, even if still a bit lower than the 192kHz favored by the ultra hi-res community. Why would Apple bother with the extra quality, if it never intended to use it?

‘You can’t hear it!’ Hi-res skeptics will likely make the same technical argument against Apple’s efforts that they’ve been making against Neil and everyone else who has attempted to improve digital audio: According to the Nyquist Theorem, the 44.1kHz sampling rate of CDs captures all the frequencies the human ear is capable of detecting, so the rest is pointless. CDs attempt to smooth those samples back into an audible wave at 16 bits, which leaves only imperceptible errors in quantization (the way digital technology takes all those samples and reconstitutes the analog curve that’s sent to your speakers or earbuds).

Such arguments, though mathematically consistent, don’t acknowledge that there could be more going on here than meets the ear. Just because a frequency is beyond the range of human hearing doesn’t mean it is beyond the range of our greater perception. Speakers in a room move the air around our bodies and baseboards beneath our feet. Sound is not just an aural or symbolic representation, but a physical event. Furthermore, frequencies we cannot hear nevertheless can change the timbre of those we do. Overtones feed back to the sounds that produced them, in real time and in reverberation.

In fact, the supposedly imperceptible 44.1kHz sampling rate was at first so audible to consumers who had been raised on vinyl that higher-end CD player manufacturers quickly added tubes and filters to camouflage the grating saw-tooth wave of poorly parsed and converted samples.

As the wars between analog and digital enthusiasts began (and a hi-fi industry struggled to defend its very existence) studies were conducted showing how depressed and anxious patients who listened to Pachelbel’s Canon on LP experienced alleviation of their symptoms; those who listened to the CD did not. Digital defenders explained that this was because listeners were comforted by the familiar surface noise of the records, and what was making people uncomfortable about digital music was its lack of hiss and noise — its very perfection.

A more recent German study has shown that young adults raised on digital audio files are capable of distinguishing fewer sounds than their parents. Sure, this may be due to damage from ear buds on high volume. But it may also be that they never learned to hear these sounds because they were never exposed to them. Just compressed, synthetic MP3s.

The power of sound on deaf ears Of course, the real reasons for our emphasis on sight over sound may have less to do with the relative fidelity of digital technologies, and more to do with the underlying biases of the digital age itself. Our migration to a digital media environment has augured a shift from a collective, sound-based culture to a highly customized and visual one. Mass media brought us rock n’ roll and Woodstock — huge, immersive, collective, sonic experiences. It was an era when people sat in front of their sound systems and listened, much in the way people had time to cruise down Main Street in their fancy automobiles.

Digital technology, on the other hand, turns every medium from a passive one to a potentially interactive one. Songs are just files, capable of being cut-up, sampled, or remixed. Listening to an MP3 is less listening to music itself, than listening to the idea of the song. It’s what music sounds like. It’s a necessarily low-resolution experience that prevents total immersion, and instead invites participation.

We are not supposed to get carried away by the bravado (think Pink Floyd), but rather let in on the gag or the reference (think NWA or RJD2). The same digital sensibility that brings us the self-consciously cut-and-paste visuals of Banksy also favors the lower resolution that encourages more self-conscious listening. This is a posture that values more pointedly clever juxtapositions than it does reproductive fidelity. It’s less important you be subsumed than that you get the reference. Indeed, getting subsumed might make you miss the reference altogether.

Apple Music, in high definition, may just retrieve the power of sound in a digital era. The question is whether the digital era’s music culture will even hear it, or care if they do.