03.12.14

Interview: The Low-down on High-Res Audio with Eric Kingdon, Sony Europe

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By Roifield Brown. When it comes to audio, there is no point having the convenience of an on-demand multiroom system if the quality is...

Roifeld BrownBy Roifield Brown. When it comes to audio, there is no point having the convenience of an on-demand multiroom system if the quality is only mediocre. The smart home market should always strive to provide an experience that continues to delight, so when Sony announced its ‘High Resolution Audio’ strategy to the music industry last year, it became clear that it was time to pay attention. Finally, here was a simple way for music enthusiasts to enjoy audio exactly as the artists and producers intended it to sound. In this interview by Roifield Brown, Eric Kingdon, Senior Technical Marketing Manager at Sony Europe, talks about the new world of unparalleled digital sound quality. [caption id="attachment_7313" align="alignleft" width="250"]Eric Kingdon, Sony Europe Eric Kingdon, Sony Europe[/caption] RB: Eric, first off: what is High Resolution Audio? Eric Kingdon: What we mean when we say “High Resolution” is… well, I suppose it’s a little like taking a digital photograph. When you take a photograph, you can choose the resolution of the image; to put it in a nutshell, image-wise it’s a bunch of picture elements, and the more of them there are, the more detail you see. I’m sure most people can clearly see the difference between low-resolution and high-resolution images. In a way, it’s a similar thing with sound. Vinyl itself is kind of a high-resolution format; anything with a lot of information offers more resolution. And when we talk about things digitally, like the photograph, we often talk about the amount of data, and a high-resolution song or album is something that sits above the level of Compact Disc. CD is measured in terms of resolution and sampling when it’s recorded, and we call it a 16-bit/44.1kHz system. And what we mean by that is that it has a certain amount of levels of resolution and a certain speed at which it was sampled. That has become one of the most successful formats ever, and anything above that is considered high resolution. RB: In the music world, it seemed like we were moving away from having this big, physical recorded product, the record. It shrunk down to CD, and then MP3. I suppose these high-resolution files must be incredibly big? And from a practical point of view, would my mother be able to hear the difference between an MP3 and HRA? EK: I think that most people can hear the difference between an MP3 file and an HRA file. Many people have said to me that they can quite easily tell the difference between a low bit-rate MP3 and a higher bit-rate MP3, even if that’s a radio broadcast or something they’re carrying around on a portable music player. The file sizes are bigger but they’re not necessarily, in proportion, that much bigger. Because once you get above that CD level of quality, there are lots of different sorts of high-resolution music files. You can have lossless ones and you can have ones that use no kind of compression at all, and—something quite special—a file type we refer to as DSD. These high resolution files can be downloaded from the Internet—you can buy them from certain sites—and you can also actually get them on a disc. For instance, Super Audio CD and Blu-ray Audio—these are physical media that actually contain these types of files, already packaged in a physical format that a player or device can replay for you. The advantage I think, with the Internet, is that you can take these files and store them on devices and then enjoy them. And, because memory has become cheaper, you can now have in your home very large capacity storage systems at reasonable cost. And, of course, as broadband and 4G speeds increase, the speed at which you can get these files is also improving. That’s why we believe that now is the right time to drive this kind of thing forward. RB: Let’s go back to the start of this emergent format. Who made the decision for Sony to release this new format? How was the standard set? EK: The simple answer is that we at Sony didn’t set the format. We were involved in one of the formats, DSD, which was originally intended for archiving. Many studios, for years and years, have been using high-resolution recording systems to make your favourite compact discs. And the reason they went above CD and started using these HRA systems was to minimise noise. So during the mixing and the editing process and the creation of the album, whether it be a classical album or a chart album, it was all done in the best possible quality, before it was down-converted to a CD.So it’s been around for a long time. It’s just that now with technology and online services where they are, we’re able to say, ‘You don’t need to down-convert them any more.’ You can now go back up the chain as it were, and listen to these albums at the same level of quality in which they were actually mastered, to take you so much closer to what the artist intended and what the original experience was. RB: It’s interesting that you talk about artists, because Lady Gaga and Neil Young have been talking about the benefits of HRA recently. Why do you think musicians are really pushing for the format at the moment? EK: It’s difficult to answer for all of these guys, but my guess is, speaking as a music lover, is that it allows them to be closer to you. If you think about it, music is a performance; it’s personal, whether it’s you listening at home in your lounge because you can’t get to a concert hall, you can’t go because the tickets were sold out or you’re too far away. That artist, they can reach out and perform for you [at home] almost as if they were really there. RB: So do you think live music is really enhanced by the format? EK: I think live music and HRA are symbiotic, or they’re kind of joined at the hip. Because HRA takes you closer to the live event. Anything that can offer you the potential for better resolution and a more realistic experience is taking you further back to the point at which it was actually performed. RB: So, I’m trying to imagine there’s been a board meeting at Sony and somebody says, ‘Right, we’re going to press the button on HRA now.’ Talk us through the ramifications of that, because for a start you need to create the products that can then deliver the format, and then license the technology to other manufacturers, etc. Take us through what that decision actually means: to launch a new audio format. EK: Well, as I say it goes back to launching the means of delivery of the quality to the end-user, and Sony’s always been about trying to make a quality experience accessible to lots of people. Even our company strap line at the moment, our internal message, is “Be Moved”. Let, for example, music move you in a way that really emotionally involves you in the experience. And we really believe that High Resolution Audio can get to that point. For a company like ours, where we’ve got lots of different products, we’re in a fortunate and also a very challenging position where we’re presented with the option of: yes, you can launch a High Resolution player where you can download files onto a hard disk or a memory storage device. But we actually undertook a bigger challenge, to launch a range of products that would knit together and create a kind of eco-system, or a world in which people could take those musical experiences and take them on the move as well. So for example, we launched the flagship product, an amplifier and a matching one terabyte disk drive player, for the highest quality playback; then a system which integrates an amplifier and a smaller hard drive; and then of course most of this material is downloaded or placed onto a computer first. There’s no reason why the humble PC that sits in your home can’t deliver high resolution if you buy yourself a HRA-capable separate digital-to-analogue converter—a little silver box, in our case—and hook it up to a pair of loudspeakers or a good pair of headphones. And you can then take those files and put them into a portable product like a Walkman, or even a phone, which is something that everybody out there has got. The chipsets in phones are becoming HRA-capable. So when you put the ability to listen to better quality into lots of people’s hands, I’m pretty sure they’re going to try it out. RB: So HRA enhances the overall listening experience, but which parts of the music come across better or clearer? EK: A very good question. It depends on you, the listener, because it’s been my experience that we all to some degree listen to things in a different priority. Some people listen for dynamic quality, some people listen for the bandwidth of the signal—how deep is the bass? Some people search for focusing or imaging, or image scale and size. HRA can affect many of those things, without question. I think it depends to a degree on the type of music you’re listening to. For example, if you’re listening to a simple piece—I had the good fortune to listen to some HRA from Linn, of classic guitar, and the High Resolution track, clearly, was able to give you almost the actual sense of touch from the guitarist, the tip of his finger as he actually plucked the strings. It was so real it only needed you to close your eyes and you could almost touch the player in front of you. That’s just one example. I wasn’t alone in that. You might think I’m a bit of a crazy audiophile, but I listened to that with a guy that isn’t into hi-fi at all, and he said it was amazing: ‘How do I get that in my home?’ Well, there are lots of ways, as we’ve just discussed. RB: Some I’m expecting, with this new technology, that there’ll come with it a high sticker value. Is your average person going to find this prohibitive until the technology becomes that much more adopted? EK: One answer is, this is the reason we decided to launch a range of products—to make the product concept not only flexible in terms of the way you can experience HRA, but also to offer a range of types of levels at which you can enter the product portfolio. Basically, the best thing to do is take a look at our High Resolution Audio website, and pop into a dealer and have a listen. I think you’ll be quite pleasantly surprised about the actual investment you’d need to make to get into this kind of product. RB: You had a significant input into the product range. So after you’ve done your schematic and you’ve sent it off to the prototype lab to be made up… what was the first bit of music you played through it? EK: The first track I tried? Do you know what, I think it was Daft Punk. But there’s one stunning recording—it’s actually not a new album, it dates back from around about 1983 I think—and it’s by Linda Ronstadt. She got together with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra and the album became a big, big success. It’s called ‘What’s New’, and what an apt title for a new way of listening! It’s fabulous. You really owe yourself to listen to that in High Resolution. This interview was first podcast in May 2014 by Roifield Brown on behalf of Audio Lounge. Audio Lounge is a unique retail store, allowing you to experience a new way to purchase high quality home audio in friendly, non-technical and luxurious surroundings. www.audiolounge.co.uk