Harman Debunks Youthful Music Myths
Sean Olive, director of acoustic research at Harman International, says that its recent study found that young people prefer the higher quality of CD level digital audio files and that the music and CE industries must work together to educate young people so they can make informed buying decisions.
Recently, the company undertook a study in which it examined the possibility of any correlation between the age of a listener and the level of audio resolution that is preferred. Following the conclusion of its research, Sean Olive, director of acoustic research for Harman International, discussed the company’s findings, which to some may be surprising.
Don’t blame the young
Over the past several years the crusty folks in the audiophile community may have been unjustly lamenting over the rate of 128kps audio files that have been consumed by computer savvy young people.
Summarizing the research, Olive and Harman came to the conclusion that sound quality and quality have been sacrificed for the production of mass-market music. Harman theorizes that music quantity and volume (decibels) are the music industry’s most important goals. It adds on the reproduction side of the equation, convenience, cost and “good enough” sound quality levels are the key areas that manufacturers are focused on.
In its examination of the problems that plague the sales of music and audio electronics, Olive and Harman also theorize that part of the problem involves the fact is that no one has been able to define what “good enough” means and how that translates to the marketing of music and audio to youthful consumers.
Further adding to the problem of defining “good enough,” the research also found that more than two-thirds of the high-school kids that took part in the listening trials preferred the sound of CD-quality audio over low-resolution MP3 sound. Moreover, in an effort to further quantify its findings, the study also also conducted a double-blind study of level-matched loudspeakers and found that 72 percent of the high-school kids preferred the sound of the tonally accurate/neutral speakers over speakers that didn’t measure as flat.
Interpreting the data
According to Olive, the assumption that young people prefer low-quality music files isn’t completely accurate, but there is some truth to the premise. “In the past they’ve [young people] deserved those labels because they’re the largest consumers of low resolution digital files, and they’ve listened to those files with low res players and low fi headphones,” he notes.
“In the last few years however, the quality of downloads have improved. The standard format for iTunes is now 256kps in AAC [Advanced Audio Coding]. Amazon is now offering variable bit rates of 256 so we’re seeing more downloads at high bit rates, and Chesky and Linn offer four different types of high resolution formats. I’m also told that the bit torrent sites offer files at CD quality so even pirated stuff is at high quality. [As for the renewed interest in vinyl] I’m not sure about the vinyl revival, but there are kids … some kids that went through our tests and we found out that they listen to vinyl. I 'm not sure their vinyl listening is driven by quality or if it’s just fashionable, but if the master tapes aren’t overly compressed then that may explain why people prefer vinyl over digital music files.”
Education provides the bridge to next gen sales
Olive says that on the pro side of the music world there’s a council within the Audio Engineering Society (AES ) that’s examining some ways that audio professionals can educate the public on the differences between low-resolution files and higher bitrate filers.
Until those materials are ready there is one method of public education that’s already available to installers and that is system demonstrations he says. “I think the most effective way [to demonstrate the differences in quality] is to do an A/B demo because a listener can compare a low resolution file to a high resolution file,” he says.
“This should be done with a good system and good recordings. Studies have shown that the selection of music for these codec tests is critical. The differences may not be obvious one on piece of music, but over several tracks the differences are noticeable.”
Looking ahead, Olive paraphrases his Harman colleague Dr. Floyd Toole by saying it is important that the consumer electronics and music communities work together to educate the public. “I think it’s imperative that the CE industry work with the recording industry. That’s the only way we’ll achieve consistent high quality sound. Both industry industries are trapped in a circle of confusion,” says Olive repeating statements made by Toole.
“We need a common standard that consumers and pros can share so you can hear what the artists intended. The loudness war is a good example of where the technology of the consumer playback side could be used to optimize the dynamic range of the recording based on the playback conditions of the consumers. So if the consumer is in an automobile listening to a recording, there’s a high background noise situation. The head unit could measure the background noise and an algorithm could adjust the dynamic range for playback. With the same recording in the home where the background noise would be much lower, the dynamic noise could be left in tact.”