The Quest for the Highest Fidelity

Neil Young wants us to go beyond MP3.  In this video interview he tells us that MP3 only has 5% of the music data of a master tape, and that CD’s only have 15%.  Which makes me wonder what percentage of the master tape is presented in vinyl.  I also wondered how Neil came up with those numbers.  Well, I found Fidelity Potential Index (see the graph).  By this chart, the vinyl records processes 415,000-625,000 bits per second, whereas a CD is 705,600, and a SACD does 3,500,000 and 24 bit Dolby True HD reaches 4,608,000, but I’m not sure how to compare this to a MP3 file, which have different rates of compression.  But I found “16 Bit vs. 24 Bit Audio” with a number of interesting tables.

That article says a 24 bit master recording at 96kHz sample rates produces a 99 megabyte file for a 3 minute song, and 128kbps MP3 takes up 2.82 megabytes of space.  So if Neil was using a better sample rate that creates a 5 megabytes file, it would be about 5% of the master.  And that’s for a 24/96kHz master, what about a 24/192kHz master recording – the MP3 becomes 2.5%.  But a CD would still have 30-33%, not 15%, unless he was comparing CDs to 24/192 masters, which would be about 15%.  And I still don’t know what vinyl would have.

I’m listening to streaming music right now, “Rudy” by Supertramp, which might be 256 kbps MP3, so I’m getting that 5% of the original musical data, at least according to Neil.  If I spent a bunch of money on audiophile equipment and found a 24 bit master file of this song, if it’s available, would I experience 20 times as much music?

I tried SACD years ago, buying a reasonable amount of equipment just to see what it’s like.  If I sat in my recliner, closed my eyes, and concentrated, I could tell the difference.  Sometimes it was dramatic.  But if I started doing stuff while the music was playing it no longer mattered if I was listening to a CD or SACD.

Listening to music on Rdio while I write my blogs, streaming is good enough.  If I go sit in the den and crank up my stereo, and kick back in my recliner and concentrate on the music like I concentrate on a movie, breaking out the CDs is worth the trouble.  But not if my thoughts drift.  I like to use music to pump up my thinking.  For that, streaming is good enough.

Every once in awhile I’ll listen to music on my iPod touch – like when I have insomnia – but I find music through earphones tiny and thin.  It’s okay for emergencies, but I can’t believe that’s most people’s first choice in listening conditions.

I could go over to HDtracks and buy Fleetwood Mac by Fleetwood Mac in 192kHz/24bit FLAC for $25.98 and find out if Neil is right.  But can my HTPC actually play the file in 192kHz resolution?  Is it even worth it?   Read this thread, “24-bit/192kHz is pointless?”  Or read “Coding High Quality Digital Audio” by J. Robert Stuart.  These people have explored the territory Neil Young pines for us all to live in and they aren’t so sure it’s the promised land.

Let’s think of it another way.  Neil can’t even get people to listen to CDs which have three times the music data, so how can he expect people to demand a technology that delivers 20 times as much data?  I got into SACD years ago just as SACD was failing in the marketplace.  I think Neil is hoping that Apple will come out with iPhones/iPods that have 24/192 technology, and iTunes and Amazon will start selling is 100mb songs that download and store just as easily as 5mb songs.  This could happen.  But music fans aren’t asking for it, so will it happen?  How many people rushed out to buy HD Radio receivers?

I loved listening to SACDs where I felt the musical instruments had so much more texture, and singers sounded like they were live in the room, but I only noticed those details when I paid attention.  How many people really pay attention to music?

And I still can’t find out why people cling to vinyl – the scientific numbers just don’t justify it.  Is there a chance that people love vinyl for its warmth because it has less music data?  If that’s the case, one day when Neil gets his way and Apple presents HD digital music, the young people will all cling to MP3 files for their warmth – all that extra music data will sound too harsh.

JWH 2/9/12