John Walker's Electronic House

You & Yours And Its Gloriously Failed Attempt To Promote Audiophile Woo

by on Mar.06, 2014, under Rants, The Rest

Oh glorious day!

One of my favourite worst things is BBC Radio 4′s You & Yours. On when I get my lunch, each weekday I get to hear a portion of this most daft of consumer shows, as they spread fear and concern about whatever was in yesterday’s Daily Mail. That’s not to say they don’t sometimes do some good – I believe they were pivotal in ending the banking scam over taking five days to process cheques, and they often do a good job of airing scams to make people aware of what to avoid. But this is always scattered with main host Winifred Robinson’s scaremongering and personal vendettas, as she ceaselessly attempts to campaign against things she’s been proven wrong about, most recently her deranged fury about DAB radio.

Today though, something wonderful happened. The end of the episode featured a segment in which two music engineers came on to explain about the wonders of “high resolution music”. This, we were told by straight faces, was the same as increasing the pixel count of a picture, enabling more detail to be heard. Incredibly at one point one of them acknowledges that previous recording qualities already matched what the human ear could detect, but no no! Despite this, the “harmonics” were more clear if there was a new way to have to buy lots more expensive equipment!

I’m not a sound engineer, and I’ve no idea if there’s genuinely any measurable improvement in the quality of the recording, but I certainly do know that no human would be able to tell.

As they were given air time on this national radio station to make their ridiculous claims entirely unchallenged, unquestioned, and only excitedly enthused about, they played in clips of recordings in “low res” and “high res”, so these experts could explain the difference. And it was pure woo bullshit from start to finish. Brilliantly they made it clear that no one listening would be able to tell any difference between the two because radio waves would take the magics away. But then played them anyway. They would be able to tell, in the studio, listening on a “high definition Sony Walkman” through their £90 billion headphones. They played Ella Fitzgerald twice, explaining which was low and which was high. Winifred declared she could “almost” hear Ella’s breathing on the second, opening the door for some wonderfully silly explanations about the guests’ surprise at how noticeable it was, how it was a “mellower, warmer sound” and “more dynamic”. “It actually started off slightly quieter,” the second expert explains, “and that’s one of the great things of higher resolution, whereas a CD if you like levels it out a bit just by the nature of the delivery, so you’re right, I think it was more noticeable than I thought, and I think we are losing dynamics on a lot of CDs.”

We’re told that people might not appreciate the musical differences without the right equipment, and that the headphones they’re using allow them to hear what mere mortals may not. “We’re sitting here listening on our headphones, and it’s a good test because they are so clear and they have a great level of definition to them.”

For the second clip, Pinball Wizard, once again it’s explained which version is which. At this point I’m shouting at my radio, begging someone on the show to have swapped them over, tricked them in some way, but of course not. Even though this is a consumer programme, a radio broadcast with a remit to catch conmen and prevent the spreading of misleading information to consumers, instead they were apparently taking part in a commercial for this new technology gibberish. This time even Winifred couldn’t bring herself to pretend she could tell the difference, but not so our audio wizards. “I thought the differences were subtle,” explains Expert A, because he’d not been given such an open door by the presenter. Like a cold reader’s mark, this time she wasn’t emphatically nodding that it was a name beginning with G, so bets would need to be hedged. “More subtle than the first example, and I think it’s got something to do with the extra bits between the 16-bit recording and the 24-bit recording. When I listen to that recording there’s a lot of tails of reverb going on, and they seem far more realistic to me.”

I’m promising that’s what he said. You can check.

We then get some madness about megapixels in cameras, and how “audio is exactly the same” as photographs. My poor mind. And then it happened. Then they played a third pair of clips, but this time didn’t say which was which. I clapped! Yes! There was a mighty fifty percent chance they’d be able to guess right here. And they obviously weren’t going to do anything so reasonable or scientific as make each expert write their answer down without telling the other first. So whoever guessed first, the other would follow. Two ostensibly identical pieces of music were going to be played, and they were going to have a 50:50 chance. But so was I. And this was really unusual. Usually people in such positions won’t subject themselves to tests like these. Why they agreed to it I’m not sure. While I’d thought the only hope was for this CONSUMER PROGRAMME to deliberately trick them by playing the same clip twice, or lying about which way around they were playing them, instead we were getting a true blind test. Amazing.

The clip chosen was the BBC Philharmonic playing Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance March No. 1. A clip, joyfully, recorded by one of the two wizards in the studio. For reasons I can’t quite fathom, Winifred – who didn’t know which was which – thought it would help things along to make her guess too. She thought it was the first clip. Expert A makes his venture, and for some reason is suddenly MASSIVELY less confident about the difference between the two than in the previous examples. Before it was so abundantly clear! This time, a lot closer. How strange. But without giving any reasons, and pointing out that he recorded it, he plumps for “the first recording”. Expert B tentatively follows on saying, “Well I would agree, because the second one immediately sounded louder. And that to me is the give-away.”

For reasons that will become clear, let’s have a quick reprise of a couple of the statements:

“It actually started off slightly quieter,” we’re told of the high resolution recordings, “and that’s one of the great things of higher resolution, whereas a CD if you like levels it out a bit just by the nature of the delivery.”

And

“Well I would agree, because the second one immediately sounded louder. And that to me is the give-away.”

Expert B even says the he’ll “lay his reputation” in giving his guess. A guess based on its sounding “louder”. That’s literally the only distinction identified by these two musical supremos, here to extol the wonders of high resolution music, and how vital it is that the differences are appreciated. The differences are that low res music is “louder”. Now, like I say, I’m not an expert, but I’m pretty sure that can be corrected with a volume knob, rather than a £10,000 stereo.

Anyway, the results!

Winifred hands over to the episode’s producer to let us know which was which.

“I’m so sorry, you’re all wrong! It was the second one!”

Winifred laughs. The experts do not. I jump and dance around the kitchen, clapping and whooping, so utterly delighted that the coin flip landed this way. On another day they’d have fluked the right identical recording, and their points would be left proven to themselves, and truth would have been stabbed in the chest. But not today. But it gets better.

Winifred’s laughter is cut off when one of the experts steps in with the most hilarious bullshit defence you could hope for. With a rehearsed conviction he states,

“And that is down to the Fletcher-Munson curve, for those that know, because that is one thing that when things are louder they are perceived differently. You have to be very careful when you do listen to things you listen them at the same level.”

Uh-huh.

This section was pre-recorded, and it cuts back to Winifred live, who goes on to say that because they were different volumes it wasn’t a fair test.

Right, let’s review. First of all, we were told that one of the ways to tell the difference between the two resolutions was that one sounded louder. We were also told that a quieter start meant a more “dynamic” recording. It was on this utter gibberish that the wild guess was made. And then when wrong, we were told this was because the high resolution clip was louder, so it wasn’t fair.

So obviously the excuse is hilariously poor. But even better – I’ve tested the recording, and the volumes are absolutely identical. So not only were the so-called experts utterly unable to tell the difference between the two clips, but they couldn’t even tell that they were the same volume, and even further used this imagined difference as an excuse, despite having used it as the proposed proof! Winifred’s ridiculous disclaimer after is even more remarkable, since they’d be easily able to have checked that the two recordings were played at identical volumes.

It’s pretty enormously crap that a programme that’s intended to protect listeners from falling for cons was so blindly promoting this rubbish, and even worse that when they accidentally prove that it was all utter bullshit, they make nonsense excuses for it to cover it up!

You can listen to the whole fantastic thing here.

:,

14 Comments for this entry

  • Xercies

    I’ve always thought that there was no difference really between MP3s and CDs and all those things and yet my friends who also love music were saying I was wrong all the time. I hope more people are able to do this blind test and prove once and for all its all nonsense.

  • Nick Mailer

    We have ears full of hair and wax. That is all.

  • Evert

    Xercies, it depends on the MP3 (and the CD).

  • David

    “We were also told that a quieter start meant a more “dynamic” recording. It was on this utter gibberish that the wild guess was made”

    Just a point of order – dynamics is audio jargon for, essentially, a range of volumes, presumably because ones audio meters dance around a bit rather than being parked at the top (or “brickwalling”). So technically he is utterly correct.

    Ignoring the fact that, according to you, he is totally incorrect, whether this is desirable is whole other thing, as much time/effort/money/hardware is devoted to compressing the louder and quieter bits together. It’s become a bit of a snooty point in certain circles to make sure your recordings have dynamic range, otherwise you get accused of being Skrillex…

  • David

    Just to clarify: totally incorrect as in wrong about the levels being different.

  • John Walker

    Evert – it very likely doesn’t depend on any such thing. Whenever blind trials are done, people can’t hear the difference between FLAC and mp3, etc. Test yourself. Pick ten tracks, get lowish (100-200s) bitrate mp3s and top notch FLACs of each, and get someone to play them to you without your knowing which is which. Note down your guesses and see how you do.

    Nick – Oh gawd, there will be people out there getting hideous ear procedures done to improve their stereo experiences, won’t there?

  • NM

    One thing I really don’t understand is the Ella Fitzgerald example. This would have been mastered on analogue tape which would have had inherent distortion and necessary limited dynamic range. At some point, the digital resolution will not be able to pick out any further detail, because there’ll be no further detail to pick out. A visual equivalent is to imagine a polaroid picture. You could take an X-megapixel scan of the photo, which would resolve down to the individual film-grain components. If you then took double-X-megapixel scan of the same photo, there would be no further detail to reveal. Once you hit the grain, that’s all the detail that’s going to be revealed!

    My bet would be that the audio experts would not have been able to tell the difference between the master tape’s being played, a massively oversampled perfect digital audio of it, nor a 128kbit MP3.

  • Peter Silk

    There’s a couple of dimensions to this – yes, most of the cable stuff and ability to tell the difference between suitably high quality MP3 and lossless is utter rubbish, despite how vehemently anyone insists to the contrary, there’s growing evidence that evens self-confessed audiophiles just can’t tell the difference when offered a blind comparison, even on their preferred equipment (I’ve yet to see a study that gives compelling evidence to the contrary)

    But some of these issues touch upon the loudness wars, which definitely is a real thing, and has to do with the tendency in the last 25 years or so to compress audio more and more so it sounds louder, and therefore by first impressions could sound better. but in doing so what is lost is the difference between the loud and the quiet. If the drums are supposed to pop out of the mix then they’ll no longer be able do so, because their volume has been limited in order to make room in the mix for the other sounds to be louder, creating over-all less interesting dynamics, which certainly are noticeable.

  • Evert

    John, I agree with you.

    What i meant to say that if the mp3 is of a sufficient quality we cannot tell there is any difference.

    Hence, depends on the mp3 :-)

  • Josh Brandt

    So during the recording and mixing process, higher resolution _is_ good. But yeah, during playback higher resolution is kind of pointless.

  • Simon

    Unsurprisingly, someone’s already made a website for testing yourself on 128 vs 320 kbps: http://mp3ornot.com/
    Please send it around to your audiophile friends!

    It’s funny too how they describe the “higher resolution” sample as sounding “rounder”, when that’s typically the sign of a low bitrate!

  • Alex

    If these engineers were really concerned about the state of music recordings, they’d push for a format that kept a song’s dynamic range compression out of the audio stream and in the metadata. They could specify different presets while mastering the file and then leave it up to the user to choose for themselves: full dynamic range for the audiophile in his acoustically isolated room, or a compressed version that would be legible in a car or on public transit. That way, people wouldn’t have to rely on the kludgy compression features that players use.

  • Jambe

    Hah! Fun post, John.

    Obligatory reading on the topic (refresh and re-read several times to get the best effect):

    http://boingboing.net/2012/12/06/audiophile.html

    True audio aficionados invest in $1000 6-foot deoxygenated HDMI cables for the most genuine listening experience! Doubled-up power conditioners for the cleanest electrons!

    As to the bitrate/codec talk: iirc, in double-blind tests people reliably discern 64 kbit/s stereo MP3 from 128, but 96 from 128 is iffy. Given that Opus is considerably better than MP3, I wouldn’t be shocked if 64 kbit/s Opus did as well as 128 MP3, but I haven’t seen any tests of this. It’s been a long time since I investigated codec performance.

    More related reading is the great Daniel Rutter’s copiously-linked article “I get letters” from November of last year (n.b. the humorous phrase “Engineer’s Disease” — it’s astounding what otherwise-skeptical technical folk can convince themselves of):

    http://www.dansdata.com/gz145.htm

  • Peter Hasselström

    I’m surprised these are music engineers since I seem to know more about what they’re talking about than they do. Just upgrading from 16 to 24 bits does nothing unless the source material actually uses the extra dynamic range. Since music today only scratches the surface of 16 bit dynamic range the 24 bit upgrade is pointless.

    Those two seem to have picked up bits and pieces of information and terminology from others without actually understanding any of it. They do more harm than good for their cause since they come across as massive idiots. I’m sure the people buying audiophile ethernet cables want to spread their enthusiasm for high fidelity to everyone, but they don’t do themselves any favors looking like tinfoil hat mentals. Having spent a lot of time on hifi and headphone forums over the years I’m very tired of every discussion among sane people blowing up when inevitably some fool shows up asking which USB cable they should buy. I guess every subject out there has their share of nutters that ruin everything.