Tuesday, June 07, 2011

HD Sound - is there much point?

A number of radio companies (notably Absolute Radio, and the BBC, who I work for) have started experimenting with programmes being available in "HD Sound". This sounds really exciting! Ever the early adopter, I decided to look into this a bit more to see if there was something my area (Radio 1) was missing out on. I was disappointed.

I don't know what I was expecting - something that would blow me away, I guess, like my HDTV does every time I switch from channel 101 to channel 143 and notice the difference between BBC1 and BBC1HD. And maybe that's the wider problem here - I'm not as much of an audio fidelity snob as I am a picture quality snob.  I can't hear much difference above a 192kbps MP3, and I know lots of people can.  That notwithstanding, I still expected more excitement.

HD Sound offers better quality sound (of course), but really that just means higher bit rates on digital files (whether that be via higher MP3 rates like the BBC, or the FLAC lossless codec like Absolute). And that's the big difference point with HDTV, which is high quality distribution, but it's also a fundamental change in the production of content as well - better cameras, better sets, lossless editing, etc etc. An HD TV channel is encoded in a higher bit rate yes, but its content is also (sometimes) made in HD as well.

In the most part, sound production has been high quality and digital for decades, with not a lot of room for further improvement.  Add to this the fact we've had a high quality distribution medium in our lives for years already (my Dad got his first CD player when I was 5), and digital distribution is just playing catchup; HD Sound seems to be an umbrella term for various attempts to reach CD quality on the web.

Which brings me to my final point of difference. HDTV is on my TV, just like old TV was. I can easily compare the difference, which adds to the impression it makes. HD Sound or HD Radio is not radio at all - it's a file that you download on your computer. If you have to consume it in that way, why not just stream the uncompressed WAV files? In this world of ubiquitous high speed Internet, what difference does a few hundred megabytes really make?

Calling "higher quality than radio" versions of programmes "HD Sound" is perhaps useful for marketing, because it does instantly make you think of higher quality. But audience members expecting as awesome an experience as they get with their HDTVs are probably going to be massively underwhelmed.

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