The state of sound quality in 2024

(Note: This article about the state of sound quality was co-written with Neil Young and originally appeared at NeilYoungArchives.com.)

There’s a lot of happening in the world of music that bodes well for better audio quality. We’ve come a long way from the days of MP3 files and low quality streaming as we enter 2024.

Historical Perspective
Tragically the availability of high quality audio skipped several generations when digital replaced analog records. It began with CDs in the early 1980s that were inferior to tape and vinyl. Then it got even worse with the introduction of highly compressed MP3 files and the iPod that firmly cemented MP3 as the standard. As streaming took off, MP3 quality, with 5-10% the quality of vinyl, became the norm.

When we wrote the book, “To Feel the Music,” four years ago we advocated for hi res streaming, an area where none of the major music services had gone. We made the case that there was no reason why it couldn’t be done, just an obstinance against change from the tech companies that, ironically, are proponents for change in other areas. Little did we know that MP3’s days were limited.

Today’s Outlook
Now as we move into 2024 we can express a sign of relief, because the trend to mediocrity has been reversed during the past couple of years. Vinyl recordings have resurged in popularity among fans of all ages. New record pressing plants are being built around the world, trying to keep up with the demand.

But it’s also worth noting that some companies are taking advantage of the popularity of vinyl and not producing them from high quality masters, resulting in an inferior vinyl product and misleading buyers.

Many of the streaming services now finally deliver their content in hi res for $10-15 per month, including Amazon, Apple, Tidal, Deezer, and Qobuz. Spotify promised hi res years ago, but has still not delivered. That’s a shame because millions of Spotify users are still listening to MP3. 

Tidal, another popular streaming service, recently abandoned MQA, a format that used a proprietary compression scheme that they erroneously claimed was equivalent to hi-res. The audio enthusiasts were not fooled and MQA has gone into bankruptcy. As a result, Neil is back on Tidal.

Yet there’s a lot more work that needs to be done. While we can download hi res files on our computers and phones, maintaining its high quality when it gets to our ears is still lacking. 

The digital to analog conversion on computers and phones still seems to be an afterthought, with not enough attention paid to quality in order to save a few dollars. The high end products, at least, should feature better conversion of the files for listening to the quality of the hi res master being played. Even phones and computers costing $1000 and more are remiss in this area.

Nothing is spared when we make our masters. We use professional DACs like the $2200 Mytek Brooklyn DAC+, the $2700 Burl DAC, and the $8000 Ayre D, as well as equipment from ProTools, such as the $1800 AVID H/D IO and the $5600 AVID Matrix interface. No effort or cost is spared to create the music. But, when music is processed through the phones and computers, quality is lost via inexpensive components the manufacturers use.

The circuitry in your phones and computers that convert the digital files to analog are the bare minimum, using DACs costing pennies that cannot do the music justice. Currently, the only way to preserve the quality of the digital files is to use higher quality external DACs from companies such as AudioQuest, Chord Electronics, and others.

The high end phones and computers should all have this higher quality playback built in.

Hi-Res Audio drives Hardware
The importance of hi res music has implications well beyond giving us something better to listen to. It drives the evolution of hardware. And hardware still needs to catch up in many areas to take advantage of the hi-res content, much as I noted above.

After all, what good is delivering hi res digital audio into our phones if we listen to it through a $1 DAC or a Bluetooth headset? In most cases we need better hardware to take advantage of the hi-res files. It’s ironic that Apple offers hi-res audio, but their speakers and headphones don’t fully take advantage of it.

We are seeing efforts to improve the bandwidth Bluetooth is able to handle. Greater bandwidth means handling higher resolution music. New versions such as LE are approaching CD quality, but they have a long way to go to work with hi res music and there’s little prospect soon of a solution soon.

Music in the Home
Sonos and Bluesound audio systems make it easier than ever to enjoy streaming music in the home using their apps that connect your home audio hardware to streaming services. But only Bluesound is currently capable of playing hi res audio. We think Sonos should also offer similar quality. 

Dolby Atmos
Last year saw the introduction of Dolby Atmos surround sound and Apple’s strong support of it. Dolby Atmos creates sound coming from virtual speakers that appear to be surrounding the user, even when only two speakers are used. Neil is mastering many of his albums in binaural stereo at his label’s request and to support Apple. While the effect is very interesting, the technology is not yet advanced to where it can work with hi res files. This means the music has to be downgraded in quality to use the new Atmos and Spatial technology.

Conclusion
We look forward to the increased consumption and appreciation for high res sound. The goal now is to make it more readily available and to improve our phones, computers, and audio hardware to take full advantage of it.

by Phil Baker