A Look at the HD-Anything Scam

May 15th, 2014

The other day, I heard a TV ad for sunglasses using the term “HD,” as if to indicate that what you saw would be more accurate because of the special type of lenses being used. Of course, it’s all nonsense, but HD has become a buzzword that conveys the illusion of something better.

Now with HD television, it is something demonstrably better, no doubt about it. With HD sources, the picture is far superior compared to standard definition. Yet I do hear tell that a lot of people with HD TVs still don’t use HDMI cables or get HD from their cable or satellite provider. Even though Blu-ray disc players are less than $100 nowadays, some still use the standard DVD, or buy standard DVDs because they are cheaper. The quality difference is definitely worth it once you see it.

These days, TV makers have another kind of HD, Ultra HD or 4K, which promises pictures with up to four times the pixels. It sounds great on paper, but in the real world the difference doesn’t appear so significant. If you’re not in the habit of sitting real close to a set, you’d want to consider a model with a 60-inch or larger screen to to see a visible improvement on 4K material. Of course, the TV makers would love to sell you more expensive TVs with bigger screens. Otherwise, it’s probably not worth the bother. But it’s also true that 4K will filter down to cheaper models over the next few years, so when you’re in the market for a new set, you may end up with one anyway.

Yet another sort of HD is HD audio. According to a story at MacRumors, Apple is working on support for some sort of HD audio scheme for iOS 8. It will allegedly require different Lightning cables and earphones. Yes, I suppose it sounds promising, except for the fact that it probably won’t make any difference in what you can actually hear, and there’s the rub.

But first, the issue about needing special cables or earphones is absurd. Lighting cables and the connector simply pass a digital stream. The tiny ear buds you get with your iPhone or iPad will offer decent enough sound, but hardly what HD would potentially deliver. Still, it’s a trivial matter to substitute a better headset, and you can get good ones for less than $50, and spectacular ones for more than $300.

Regardless, the real question is whether you can actually hear a higher resolution recording. The current standard for iTunes, 256K with AAC encoding, is said to be very close to that of a standard audio CD, which offers a 44.1 kHz sampling rate with 16-bit depth. That’s sufficient to deliver the potential of a 96dB signal-to-noise radio and a frequency response that exceeds the standard of 20 Hz–20 kHz. That was deemed sufficient to offer the promise of “perfect sound forever” back in the 1980s. These days, however, audio engineers typically make digital recordings with a higher resolution, usually 24-bit with a 96 kHz sampling rate. The theory goes that, when mixed down to the CD audio rate, you’ll get a better sounding track.

In theory.

Yet it’s also true that some perceive vinyl, which has a much lower resolution (although a theoretically wider frequency range, at least till the record wears), as sounding better. But as with tube amplifiers, it’s about imperfect reproduction sources tailoring the sound in a way that’s more pleasing to the ear. That means it’s less perfect, but perfect doesn’t always mean the music source actually sounds better.

Regardless, the main issue here is whether people, even with the most expensive audio systems, could actually hear a difference between the current iTunes music, and uncompressed audio. You’d probably say it has to be night and day, but would it survive a true double-blind listening test (making sure levels were within a fraction of a dB)? Perhaps, but I doubt the difference would be significant. AAC technology is actually quite good despite the high rate of compression.

I suppose, for the rare few with “golden ears” and the best (and usually most expensive) audio gear available, being able to buy lossless or HD audio tracks might be worth paying extra. Of course, you’d also have far fewer songs on your iOS gear, since the files would be considerably larger. Would that be worth the tradeoff?

Or, as with 4K video, is HD audio just more hype to entice you to buy the more expensive spread rather than the cheap one? For most of you it would be, but if the option satisfies your emotions and your budget, I suppose there’s nothing wrong with having another choice.

But I also recall the words of an old-time reviewer of audio and video gear who famously wondered whether the difference was significant enough to be worth paying more. I suspect not, but that doesn’t mean Apple wouldn’t consider offering higher resolution audio tracks if it was perceived there was a sizable market for them. As it is, digital music sales are declining, not by much, and perhaps because customers have already saturated their storage devices with the content they want. Or maybe recent releases aren’t quite as compelling.

That, however, won’t stop companies from offering products and services touting some sort of real or imagined HD capabilty to convey the illusion you are getting something better, even if the reality is usually otherwise

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One Response to “A Look at the HD-Anything Scam”

  1. immovableobject says:

    When you have lossless music at 16bit/44.1kHz, you have the option to create compressed versions for portable use while retaining full fidelity at home where storage space is not an issue. Each person can determine for themselves how much quality they are willing to sacrifice in order to carry more tunes around.

    With a library of lossless music you are future proof. You will be able to appreciate the difference if and when you obtain a truly high fidelity sound system.

    That is one of the reasons I still purchase compact discs.

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