I was interested to note from this feature in the Financial Times that more than half of the music downloads sold by Linn, a UK audio company, are of the “Studio Master” at 24 bit, 192kHz, rather than the cheaper MP3 or 16 bit, 44.1kHz as used for CDs. Apparently the MD Gilad Tiefenbrun had projected that the Studio Masters would only be 5% of sales, but in fact:
Even though Studio Master albums cost £18 compared with £5 for an MP3 version, these highest-quality recordings account for more than half of all downloads. That proportion rises to 90 per cent for classical recordings.
The question: why? Here are sample prices, in this case for Claire Martin’s Too Much in Love to Care:
The prices range from £8.00 in 320k MP3 to £18.00 for the Studio Master. CD quality is £10.00. These are substantial differences. You could have more than twice as much music for the same money in MP3, and 80% more music in CD quality.
Linn says of the Studio Master:
If absolute sound quality is what you want then this file is best for you.
However, whether a Studio Master is audibly different from CD quality, if mastered to sound the same, is disputed. A well-known study, which has never been disproved as far as I am aware, found that music could be played through a 16/44.1 analog to digital to analog loop without listeners being aware of the difference. Science bears this out, to the extent that for music at normal listening levels the Shannon/Nyquist theorem indicates that the entire original music signal can be recovered up to half the sampling frequency, in this case 22kHz which is beyond the range of human hearing.
MP3 uses lossy compression, making the choice of CD quality over MP3 understandable (especially for only 25% extra cost), but even here most people struggle to hear the difference between MP3 at 320k and its original source. The folks at Hydrogen Audio have studied this obsessively; there is plenty of objective evidence.
Why then do people buy the Studio Master? Here are a few contenders.
1. Ignorance. Linn says (or strongly implies) that it sounds better, and Linn should know.
2. Anxiety. The buyer wants the best sound and is not sure whether or not the Studio Master might sound better, so rather than take a chance decides to cover herself with the premium download.
3. For further processing. When you process digital audio, the quality degrades. Studios therefore work with high resolution audio as they may process the audio multiple times. Given that most listeners are not running studios, I think we can dismiss this for most purchasers.
4. The Studio Master is mastered to sound better. This is an interesting possibility. Here is a comment from Linn’s forums:
When I converted the original 24bit FLAC file into an MP3 myself I was unable to hear any differences between them. But When comparing the Linn MP3 and 24bit FLAC versions I can hear a difference. This suggests to me that the difference I hear is due to Linn using two differently masterered versions for their MP3 and 24bit FLAC files.
The implication is that the MP3 and lossless versions could sound the same, for practical purposes, as the Studio Master; but either by accident or design it does not.
5. Is it possible that contrary to the evidence referenced above, high resolution audio (ie more than CD quality) does sound better? Certainly many people believe this. However, in my experience the number falls dramatically if you include only those who have done objective blind listening tests to verify it. Further, those who do experiment with objective tests invariably discover that the audible differences (if they exist) are very small.
The frustrating aspect of this is that in practice most CDs that you can buy, or MP3s you can download, sound worse than they should. There are many reasons for this, of which the biggest is probably the “loudness wars”, in which the dynamic range of 16/44.1 audio is squandered for the sake of the overall loudness of the audio, using compression and clipping to reduce the difference between the loudest and quietest passages.
Other common problems are that the best source tapes are not used, or that (in the case of older recordings) noise reduction damages the audio quality, or that the frequency response is adjusted for increased “boom and tizz” in the belief that this may sound more impressive.
High resolution recordings, such as those available on SACD, are generally (but not always) less prone to these problems, because they are designed for a more discriminating market. In other words, they sound better not because of high resolution itself, but for other reasons. Purchasers however may attribute the quality to the high resolution, making them inclined to purchase Studio Masters from Linn.
On the other hand, if Linn masters this music to sound the same in all formats, there is no reason the same logic should apply.
My suggestion: try one of Linn’s sample downloads. Do your own conversion of the Studio Master to CD quality or 320K MP3 and see if you can hear the difference using something like Foobar ABX. If you cannot tell the difference, there is no reason to buy the Studio Master unless Linn is deliberately making the other formats sound less good.