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Inside Sony’s plot to snuff out the MP3 for good with high-res audio

If you thought your CD collection sounded great and your MP3s from iTunes sounded “good enough,” you might have missed a memo: Digital music has improved a lot in the days since you bought that first Kris Kross CD or 99-cent download of an OutKast track on iTunes.

From Neil Young’s Pono Player to sites like HDTracks where you can buy high-fidelity versions of your favorite albums, “high-res audio” is blasting its way out of audiophile circles and into the mainstream. And it just found a new amp to plug into: Sony.

90 percent of consumers polled feel sound quality is the most important factor when it comes to their music.

On Thursday, the company significantly expanded its line of new high-resolution speakers, receivers and other hardware. And that’s just the beginning. The company also wants to leverage its brand and marketing power, strong partnerships with record companies, and even cooperative efforts with competing manufacturers. The conditions for popularizing a better-sounding music format have never been better – if ever there was a time for Sony to go all-in on high-resolution audio, it is now.

Still, Sony faces something of an uphill battle. Snuffing out a music format that has defined an entire generation, built an industry around itself, and made many billions of dollars for many people isn’t going to be easy. Sony recently gave us a peek at its planned roadmap to high-res domination. From new hardware to partnerships all over the industry, here’s how it’s trying to stage a coup in a stagnant world of audio technology.

Industry muscle is strong like bull

In the fragmented world of consumer electronics, you need allies if you want to make broad, sweeping changes. Think of how Sony partnered with companies like Panasonic, Sharp and Samsung to outmuscle the likes of Toshiba in the wrestling match between Blu-ray and HD-DVD.

It’s taking a similar approach on high-res audio, starting with the Consumer Electronics Association, which rallied behind high-resolution audio ahead of CES 2014, when manufacturers like Bowers & Wilkins, Onkyo, Samsung and LG joined Sony’s cause. Marc Finer, Senior director at the Digital Entertainment Group, says this is when the high-res audio game plan was “crystalized.” Since then, Sony has continued talks with other electronics manufacturers about a unified push for HRA, and, according to the company, received a warm response, which will include new product announcements coming from other big-name manufacturers soon.

You want content? We’ve got your content

With high-resolution audio hardware now available, Sony’s next step is to make high-resolution music readily available – ideally music people actually want to listen to and buy. Fortunately, there’s already a fair amount of high-res music available to listen to on compatible hardware, and lots more coming. 

Sony, Universal and Warner are essentially the recording industry’s music-time triad of power. Collectively, these companies own the rights to a massive catalog of music, and they’re all on board with high-res audio. Not only have they opened up their existing catalogs for re-mastering into high-res, they’re pushing for new music to be made in high-res from the start.

Sony HAP-S1 Hi-Res Music Player System

Sony HAP-S1 Hi-Res Music Player

Unfortunately, convincing artists and recording engineers to produce their music in high-res is a tricky proposition. You might think that making better-sounding music would be a no-brainer for those already working to make their product sound its very best, but the process becomes more difficult and, if the recording studio doesn’t already have the necessary equipment to do it, it can be expensive too. 

Steven Sundholm is a Los Angeles-based recording engineer and record producer who has worked with such artists as Carrie Underwood, John Legend, Lil’ Wayne, and many others. He says recording in high-res gets complicated quickly. 

“Say you’re working with 100 tracks, each with seven different plugins … you’d basically need a supercomputer to work in high-res in that situation,” he explains. “Otherwise you’ll nuke your computer.” Higher sampling rates – which put the high-res in high-res – require more power. And more storage space. And the HD version of software tools like Pro Tools.  

For high-res to take off, consumers must desire a better quality listening experience.

Clearly, there are several roadblocks making high-res recording difficult. Still, Sundholm says engineers like him enjoy the opportunity to work in high-res because it’s inspiring. “You can hear so much more detail.”

To help ease the transition, Sony plans to work with recording artists and engineers alike to convince them of the benefits of high-res audio, as well its partners, Universal Music Group and Warner. According to Jim Belcher, VP of technology and production at Universal Music Group, that eventually means incentivizing artists, producers and engineers to create more HRA. In the meantime, record labels like Universal are supporting HRA music now by making their music catalogs available for re-mastering into high-res from the original sources. Universal has also moved from archiving its music as CD-quality files to storing them as high-resolution PCM files instead. To ease distribution, Belcher says Universal now feeds high-res audio files to digital download stores directly, rather than shipping them around on physical hard drives.

Weaning millennials off of MP3s

Ask most folks how they feel about the sound quality of the music they have on their phones and iPods now, and they are likely to tell you it is just fine. But according to Sony, when people hear high-res in action, it becomes an easy sell. The company’s research indicates 90 percent of consumers polled feel sound quality is the most important factor when it comes to their music, and of those, more than 60 percent said they were willing to pay more for higher-quality sound. But how will they get hooked?

Sony High-Res AudioAt retail stores. Sony is working with Best Buy on a high-res audio campaign, which at the very least will mean the stores carry Sony’s high-res audio gear and promote the format (Best Buy has an exclusive deal on Sony’s new CS speaker line, for example). But it could go further. It’s possible, for instance, that Sony may set up kiosks with its high-res music players playing A/B demonstrations through headphones. That possibility recently went up a notch, in fact, as Sony announced it will be creating ‘Sony Experience’ areas to showcase various 4K/UHD products and home audio gear in 350 select Best Buy locations. Interestingly, it did not mention the HD lineup as of the May 1st announcement, however.

Sony will also draw upon star power when it releases a new Michael Jackson album, Xscape, in high resolution in May. Purchasers of Sony’s high-res audio gear will get a free copy of the album in high resolution, while others will have to settle for buying the MP3 version.

Didn’t Sony try this before?

Sony and others have indeed tried and failed to push high-resolution audio in the past with formats like Super Audio CD (SACD), a special kind of CD that could hold less compressed music files. Unfortunately, a number of factors doomed it from the start.

Sony and others have indeed tried and failed to push high-resolution audio in the past.

First, the difference in sound quality between CD and SACD was considered negligible to non-enthusiasts, mostly because CD-quality is already very good and SACD only represented a small, incremental improvement. Second, SACD arrived in 1999 when the MP3 was already putting discs to bed.

HRA resolves both of those problems. The difference between an MP3 and high-res music file should be more substantial, even to untrained ears. And there’s no new physical media to buy – we’re talking about convenient digital file downloads or streaming media. Because no part of HRA is proprietary and all of Sony’s HRA products are designed to play back any format of high-res audio, there’s no risk of another “format war,” either.

Barriers to break down

Even if Sony’s efforts are successful, it still faces some significant hurdles.

Consumers with data caps from their ISPs might balk at the size of high-res audio files, which can be as large as 90 to 200 MB. Sony anticipates data caps will soar to levels that would accommodate both HRA downloads and streaming, but without any control over that transition, it could represent wishful thinking.

HDTracksThen there’s the issue of price. Right now high-res audio tracks from sites like HDtracks and iTrax can cost two to three times an iTunes download or a CD at Amazon. Unless they get cheaper, high-res music won’t spread outside the range of the type of dedicated audiophiles who embraced SACD. Sony does expect these prices to go down in time, but how much time is a mystery to everyone. 

The biggest hurdle to jump, however, might be the lack of high-res support in smartphones, which have all but replaced portable music players. Since Sony makes its own smartphones, it does have more control here. The company could fold in a decent digital-to-analog converter and headphone output stage into a phone like the Xperia Z. Will it? Sony’s not talking. But if it wants to attract casual customers who refuse to carry a separate player, it might have to. Both Samsung (Galaxy Note 3) and LG (G2) make smartphones that can play WAV and FLAC files at 24-bit/192 kHz quality.

Can Sony pull this off?

Sony has some experience with changing the way the world listens to music – remember this is the company that brought us the Walkman and Discman. Still, how many people do you know griping about their highly compressed iTunes downloads and Spotify streams?

For high-res to take off, consumers must desire a better quality listening experience. Music must move from background noise while doing dishes to the center stage of our attention. In this society where we bury our faces in smartphones on the street, and tweet during live concerts, a proper high-resolution demonstration is really going to need to bowl them over with that “Wow!” moment. Does Sony still have enough influence to make that happen? We’ll see.

[This article has been updated to reflect a recent Sony announcement of new shop-in-shop retail showcases in select Best Buy locations, May 1, 2014]

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