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.”
“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.”
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.