A Bridge to Better Audio?

January 18 2016, 03:00

We just returned from two intensive days of ALMA International Symposium & Expo (AISE) and CES 2016 show in Las Vegas. Both events where extremely enlightening and motivating, offering the opportunity to discover excellent new products and technologies, listening to very high quality demonstrations, exchange views with some top experts in the industry and attend excellent parties and networking events. What more could be asked for?
 
The High-Resolution Audio Forum at the ALMA 2016 Symposium, with Sean Olive, Bob Stuart, Steve Temme, and Mark Waldrep, moderated by Peter Andrews, ALMA Vice-President.

Excellent presentations on new generation audio drivers, speaker component testing and quality control, DSP tools, listeners’ preferences, and even great product presentations made this event truly worthwhile. The ALMA Symposium is also complemented with a small exhibition area, where most of the companies involved in the presentations promote demonstrations and displays of their latest offerings.

We couldn’t help noticing the overall AISE 2016 attendance was not at the level deserved by the quality content and the commitment demonstrated by the exhibiting companies involved. This is not surprising given its timing, anticipating in two days the crazy schedule of the monumental CES show. Not surprisingly, the ALMA board of directors is discussing expanding its initiatives to coincide with other industry events where many more interested attendees could participate. The debate, as expected, has to do with the dilemma of working with more consumer-oriented audio events or instead opting for a more professional oriented forum, like the AES or Infocomm conventions. It will not be an easy decision but, in my opinion, it will be an important one. Also, ALMA should seriously consider expanding its reach with similar events promoted in Europe and Asia.
 
As expected, the ALMA meeting was right on target on the main trends and topics for anyone working in the audio industry, starting with the main theme for 2016, “Hi Res Audio: A Bridge To Build Or A Bridge Too Far?” which was debated in all possible perspectives in an insightful and constructive manner by key technology experts.
 
Sony was all about high-resolution audio at CES 2016 with carefully designed displays and presentations.
As the CES 2016 show demonstrated (just two days after the ALMA Symposium), high-resolution audio is going mainstream and all the major consumer electronic (CE) companies are betting on its marketing potential to propel the audio industry, much in the same way as HDTV and now Ultra-HD is doing on the image side. And similarly, audio experts agree that, much in the same way as we always had an “ultra-high-definition” medium on film, audio has a great foundation of analog masters and high-end audio equipment, which is finally able to be translated to digital in high-resolution.
 
The much debated and controversial part is the acknowledgment from the audio engineering community that we need better test and measurement tools and a better understanding of audio recording and reproduction to truly leverage that additional level of information in the digital domain. That was the take-away from many of the ALMA Symposium expert-speakers.

Currently, the industry is able to design and send to market much higher quality audio products but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the average sound quality consumers' listen to is better – but there is a good reason to encourage consumers to aim for that better experience. We have products with much better specifications and technologies able to reproduce much higher quality signals, but and we are only measuring a small fraction of the chain and we basically estimate what they should be able to do. Independently of the high-resolution audio debate, industry experts agree that we need to improve the standards by which we currently design and evaluate the solutions that are being introduced to the market.

Discussing high-resolution music – differently from high-resolution audio - keynote Speaker, Mark Waldrep, explained how high quality recordings – analog or digital – have been and are generated on recording studios (for quite some time), but are simply not in tune with the record industry’s practices. Now that the market is embracing the possibility of high-resolution music distribution, the whole chain needs to be involved to guarantee that effectively we will be generating content that matches what was in fact recorded initially and not embark on strategies to fool the consumer – like simply up-sampling 16 bit material to higher sampling frequencies, or selling standard CD files as “high-resolution”, and simply assume that “no one will notice the difference”.
 
The diverse industry perspectives in the ALMA Symposium also served to demonstrate the relativity of the notion of high-definition and high-quality, as explained by Marc Marroquin, from HEAD acoustics, in his overview of communication systems, which are finally able to be “wideband capable” supporting voice communication from 150 Hz to 6,800 Hz. “A really big deal” for telecoms and the reason why they call it HD Voice, something any consumer is able to recognize as a clear improvement.
 
Steve Temme (founder and President of Listen, Inc.) speaker at the 2016 ALMA International Symposium & Expo (AISE).
Steve Temme (founder and President of Listen, Inc.) provided an overview of the challenges faced by the equipment manufacturers in his interventions covering “Correlation of Hearing and Measurement at Very High Frequencies” and “Challenges of High Resolution Measurements”. He “defended the measurable facts”, such as that “to achieve a flat frequency response (magnitude & phase) out to 20kHz requires a bandwidth beyond 20kHz; that loudspeakers and microphones that measure beyond 20kHz can exhibit trade-offs in performance, e.g. audible intermodulation distortion; and that his own experiments with ABX listening comparisons have made in curious to find out about those things that we are not measuring, such has headphone response at very high frequencies. Steve Temme also detailed examples of loudspeakers and headphones that extend beyond 20kHz and the design challenges for making Hi Res audio devices.

Like G.R.A.S and Audio Precision, Listen also detailed how to gather objective response data for a number of commercially available headphones and the need to “develop a robust process for evaluating and appropriately equalizing headphone responses to a psycho-acoustically valid target and to understand the constraints”.
 
Bob Stuart made a convincing case to explain the merits of MQA technology and audio format.
The most inspiring moment of the ALMA Symposium was, as we anticipated, the last minute addition to the program of Bob Stuart’s presentation discussing the hearing mechanism and neural processing of sound, psychoacoustics, perception, the evolution of audio recording methods, digital audio and sampling, compression codecs, high resolution audio, and the new Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) technology. In a two-hour seminar, Bob Stuart captured the attention of the attendees and contributed to an enlightening perspective during the Hi-Res Audio Forum. Full video recordings of all presentations will be soon available on ALMA’s website.
 
Immersing in the craziness of CES.
 Yours truly trying the impressive
 Royole Audio and Video Immersive Headset.
In the following five days, we immersed ourselves in the craziness of another gigantic CES show, learning about the latest technology trends and how new product announcements will shape the industry for the years to come. CES 2016 was a truly great show where we attended the official presentation of the UHD Alliance Final Specification for Ultra HD Premium, learned about the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) plans for USB 3.1, the revolution enabled by the new USB Type-C connector, and the plans for USB Audio Class 2. We saw the latest Wi-Fi 802.11ad Multi-Gigabit Tri-band devices and the potential of new Wi-Fi HaLow (802.11ah) technology in frequency bands below one gigahertz, and Wi-Fi Aware functionality. We learned even more about connected car technologies and saw great smart home demos. We also saw great Thunderbolt 3 presentations and products and learned even more about the future of media storage and cloud connected solutions. We were even introduced to even better audio D/A converters, effective DSP and audio spatialization technologies, better and more efficient codecs, and great immersive audio speakers and soundbars.
 
All this will be reflected in our continuous coverage of CES 2016 online and will gradually be featured in audioXpress and Voice Coil articles. One of those articles will be dedicated to MQA technology, which we can now officially declare to be our 2016 Audio Technology of The Year. Congratulations to Bob Stuart and the whole MQA team.
 
MQA is audioXpress 2016 Audio Technology of The Year.
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