Who needs high-resolution music?

High-resolution audio is all about revealing music's fine detail, but what if the music you love is distorted, dynamically compressed and low-fi?

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
2 min read
Why does so much music sound bad? Steve Guttenberg

Most of the music people enjoy doesn't sound very good. That's not to say it isn't good music, just that it doesn't sound great. I'm not picking on digital or contemporary music; most of my favorite Motown and Stax soul music from the 1960s and 1970s sounds like crap. Most rock music from any decade sounds cruddy; that's just the way it is.

A lot of today's best bands, including alternative darlings Arcade Fire, make awful-sounding recordings. I'm specifically referring to their Grammy Award-winning "The Suburbs" album from 2010; it's super-compressed and to my ears, really unpleasant-sounding. Saving it as a FLAC file won't make it any better; once the master is compressed you can't decompress it and restore the dynamics. A high-resolution 96-kHz/24-bit download of the same mix of "The Suburbs" wouldn't sound much better.

I'm not the only one complaining about the overuse of dynamic range compression (which is unrelated to the lossy data compression used in MP3s) that squashes music's natural soft-to-loud dynamic range. But the plain fact is most people like music that doesn't change volume from soft to loud. In a car or train you don't want music that changes volume; that's why record companies compress music, to make it loud all of the time.

I don't understand why audiophiles listen to nasty-sounding music on "revealing" high-resolution hi-fis, which just serve to let you hear how awful the recording is. I'm suggesting that if you love cruddy-sounding music, buy a system that at least softens the edge and mellows out the sound. Some tube amps can blunt the grit, and home theater in a box system with speakers that forgo the use of tweeters might reduce the irritation factor.

So what sounds good enough to warrant buying high-resolution hi-fi gear? Well-recorded acoustic music of all types: jazz, folk, pop, opera, world and classical music. Electric music from Radiohead, Wilco, Porcupine Tree, and Neil Young all sound fine. I've reviewed great-sounding musicof all types many times in this blog. It's out there, but the good stuff is outnumbered by the crap.

A high-resolution audio version of a not very good-sounding recording, like Tom Petty's 2010 "Mojo" album on Blu-ray didn't do a thing for me. It wasn't awful or anything like that, but the 48-kHz/24-bit stereo or DTS Master Audio 5.1 mixes lacked dynamic punch and presence. Maybe the Blu-ray was a wee bit better than a CD, but not great. I have no idea why Petty's engineers didn't create a different and better stereo mix for the Blu-ray. The 5.1 mix was also ho-hum, so it was a total waste of my money. I guess the engineers are so used to making compromised recordings that even when they have a chance to make something special, they blow it.