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Resurgence of Consumer Interest in High-Resolution Audio

by Brad Russell | Nov. 8, 2016

In recent years, the music and consumer electronics industries have collaborated to lead a resurgence of interest in high-resolution audio. The movement is a reaction to the perceived loss of appreciation for recording-quality music resulting from the widespread adoption of compressed digital music formats (MP3, AAC, WMA) developed for digital download, players, and sharing services.

As a leading advocate in the high-resolution audio (HRA) movement, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) shows that 9 out of 10 consumers consider sound quality the most important component of a quality audio experience. CTA also reports that 37% of consumers are interested in listening to high-resolution audio.

Audio quality is measured in a combination of word length resolution, commonly indicated by 16- or 24-bit, and a sampling rate, which can range from 8 kHz to 196 kHz per second. The standard for CD-quality files is recognized as 16-bit/44.1 kHz. Along with the foundational definition, the high-resolution workgroup developed four categories (MQ P, MQ A, MQ C, MQ D) and ratings designed to make file types more easily recognizable to consumers.

Most people can discern the difference in quality between lossy MP3 files and lossless CD quality files, at least in favorable listening environments. However, most may not value the quality difference enough to overcome deterrents to demand higher resolution files, including:

  • Higher priced recordings and services
  • The higher memory, download, and Wi-Fi transmission rates required to manage them
  • The cost of device upgrades that include high-resolution processing and streaming technologies

However, several trends suggest that the HRA movement is gaining momentum:

  1. The growth of the premium headphone category suggests that a significant segment of consumers do want a better audio experience. Beats, Bose, Sony, and Sennheiser—all brands associated with premium quality sound—lead the category.
  2. New wireless streaming technologies, such as DTS Play-Fi, Qualcomm AllPlay, and Wireless Speakers and Audio Association (WiSA), have been specifically designed to deliver high-resolution audio experiences. Each has already signed on an impressive list of major and minor device manufacturers who are developing products compatible with these new technologies.
  3. While smartphones and mobile digital players have enabled and fueled the adoption of lossy audio, several smartphone makers have introduced hi-res audio support, such as LG (G4, G3, G2 and G Flex 2), Samsung (Galaxy S6, S5, Note 3, and Note 3), HTC (One M9), and a few others.
  4. Third-party apps, such as Onkyo’s hi-res player, can be downloaded for iOS devices. New portable hi-res players have also hit the market, including the Sony NW-ZX2BLK Hi-Res Walkman, the Ponoplayer conceived by Neil Young, and three models from Astell & Kerns. If increasing models of smartphones support HRA, they may eat into sales of portable HRA players unless the latter can add more value, such as storage capacity or unique sharing functionality.

The audiophile market is understandably enthusiastic about merging the convenience and efficiency of digital media with quality only previously available only through physical media. The HRA movement is gaining momentum among device makers, streaming services, retailers, and the music industry. The next year or two will reveal whether the middle part of the consumer funnel will respond to the value propositions of hi-res products and services.

Retail is also getting on board. In June 2015, Sony announced plans for a high-resolution listening area in more than 70 Magnolia Design Centers. This positions Best Buy as the first national retailer to promote HRA audio in-store.

The growth in services for streaming and downloading HRA content indicate an expanding ecosystem. More than a dozen hi-res retailers are now active in North America, including HDTracks, Naim Label, Linn Records, Bowers & Wilkins Society of Sound, PonoMusic, Onkyo Music, Technics Tracks, SuperHiRez by Acoustic Sounds, iTrax, Blue Coast Records, and Quoboz. LG recently announced a new HRA service for its premium smartphones in over 70 countries. The service will support 24 bit/192 kHz song files downloadable through the LG SmartWorld app. In addition, CD-quality streaming services such as Tidal and DeezerElite offer lossless audio and some demos of HRA audio.

Finally, the three majors labels involved in the HRA workgroup have announced that they are making their back catalogues available for re-mastering to increase the availability of content and to encourage studios and artists to record new music in HRA.

High-resolution audio is creating multiple opportunities to help consumers rediscover a quality audio experience. Anything providers can do to educate the consumer, simplify the experience, and provide maximum flexibility for enjoying these services will be greatly valued. Whether hi-res audio captures a large portion of the market or not, supporting it in device architecture is a wise investment over the next few years.

This article originally appeared in Sound & Vision Magazine.

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Brad Russell

Brad Russell

Research Director, Connected Home

INDUSTRY EXPERTISE: Connected home technologies and services, IoT data privacy and security, home networking, insurtech, connected health, housing innovation, home energy management

Brad leads Parks Associates’ connected home team, exploring leading-edge issues converging in the connected home—smart home devices and services, residential security, home networking, IoT data privacy and security, data-driven applications, and platform services. Brad’s custom research work includes market sizing and forecasts, ecosystem and competitive landscapes, channel analyses, and go-to-market strategies.. Brad balances the art and science of market research to generate insights that lead to more astute business strategy and value-generating practices. He has a background in marketing communications, technology startups, and online media.

Brad received his Bachelor of Science degree in advertising and marketing from the University of Texas at Austin. He also earned a M.Div. and a D.Min. with concentrations in ethics and cross-cultural collaboration.

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