Why 24-bit Audio Will Be Bad For Users

Apple and other digital retailers are planning to offer 24-bit audio to consumers. It should be an easy sell; recording studios use 24-bit, it's how the music was mixed, and it's how the consumers should hear it. Right? Wrong.

24-bit audio might be the staple of recording studios, but there's a reason it should stay there. 24-bit has a really low "noise floor" - that hum you hear if you turn a silent amplifier up really high. With 16-bit, the noise floor is slightly higher. While that might be a problem in a studio where you're boosting sounds to be clear and loud, it's irrelevant to the end listener who is given the fully mastered and noise-free version already. Even CDs are 16-bit, and the sonic quality of a CD is an accepted definition of consumer-worthy HD quality.

24-bit also has a better volume depth, known as dynamic range. However, CDs already have a huge potential dynamic range, but the loudness war has resulted in music squashed to within a few decibels of its life. This is the same reason TV commercials are so loud. When modern music is mixed to blow your ears off already, it negates the dynamic benefits the digital revolution once promised. This is a cultural issue within the industry, which faces protest on March 25 with Dynamic Range Day.

Finally, the digital effects used in studios to mix music benefit from the higher 24-bit resolution file for microscopic processing duties. Home listeners have no reason to use these effects. And let's not forget the huge file sizes and the fact many portable music players don't support 24-bit playback.

A consumer will never need 24-bit. Ever.

Which is where Dr. Dre comes in. The hip-hop producer has offered his Beats headphones to audiophiles for some years with his business partner Jimmy Iovine, CEO and chairman of Interscope, who have clearly struck on the potential for marketing their high-grade headphones as a means to appreciate these HD files.

The Beats Audio team have taken the 24-bit concept to the other major labels and retailers, perhaps suggesting they can claw back traditional sales revenue from the growing subscription market, where the likes of Spotify will be unable to compete because the new file sizes will push up streaming time and costs.

"We've gone back now at Universal and we're changing our pipes to 24-bit," Iovine told CNN. "And Apple has been great. We're working with them and other digital services - download services - to change to 24-bit. And some of their electronic devices are going to be changed as well. So we have a long road ahead of us."

About the author
Tom Davenport is a recording engineer and writer from the farmlands of England, contributing to Spinner, thisisfakeDIY, Antiquiet and The Ocelot. He blogs at tomdavenport.co.uk and Twitter while thinking up fictional twitter accounts, including the first fan-made transmedia project.

To the hi-fi industry, audiophile has always been another word for sucker. There's no doubt that good quality equipment will sound better than iPod headphones, but with the marketing might of the modern music industry, there could soon be more audiophiles than ever.

Were iTunes to offer 16-bit lossless audio, as on a CD, the recording community would rejoice and recommend it. However, 24-bit is shaping up to be a huge con. The industry might be smart to find and sell intangible value, but with higher prices and storage, the consumer loses again.


Comments

    Don't care so much for 24-bit as I do for lossless.
    If Apple start to sell lossless, then I'll be looking at pricing.

      Agreeded... I would take Lossless over 24-bit at the moment. Besides... most people walking around with those crap Apple ear phones you get with your iPod or iPhone are degrading the already low-quality M4A's you already listen to from iTunes.

    The last paragraph summed it up nicely. Heavier promotion of FLAC (or any lossless codec) would definitely be a much more useful approach. Only reason I use mp3's is due to the general incompatibility of FLAC across much of the market.

    Oh, and on the compression/loudness wars front - people out there who take their mp3 collection seriously should get out a program called MP3Gain. It can normalize you whole library (applying a constant gain album by album) and reduce a hell of a lot of clipping from your music. It undoes a little bit of foolishness by mixers nicely :)

      Doesn't iTunes normalise stuff by default when you import it anyway? I'm not sure, have only been using it for the last month or so :P

        Don't know, never been put into a situation where I've been forced to use iTunes thankfully.

        Having said that, normalisation can do just as much evil to dynamic range as good though. Most music is has an average gain of about 98dB (+/- 5dB). For the vast majority of mainstream music, this will cause clipping and compression (ie, the difference between loud and quiet becomes less, as the average volume goes up).

        Depending what iTunes normalises too; it can actually cause your music to become MORE distorted than it was in the first place.

        MP3gain on the other hand can have the normalisation gain manually set (its recommends 89dB), which will actually reduce clipping entirely in a lot of songs.

        I'd be willing to be that iTunes would also normalise each song individually, which means that quiet acoustic song in the middle of your Led Zeppelin album suddenly becomes as loud as the solo in Black Dog.

    what about changing the DAC's (digital to analogue converters) in these devices.

    without a DAC worth more than 20 cents in your macbook, ipod or iphone, it doesn't matter whether you listen to mp3, lossless or 24 bit.

    just another for apple and others to get more revenue from idiots.

    24-bit audio has been available for years to the consumer through DVD-Audio and SACD.

    Through a good set of speakers, the results can be outstanding (particuarly for 5.1 mixes), but I would agree it is pretty much a waste of time for people only using headphones.

      Agreed, I'm not so much up for the 5.1 experience, but even the cheapest SACD player on a moderately priced home theater setup really is amazing.

      Those tracks you thought you knew so well, now you can suddenly hear backup-singers, the Bass drum actually flex, and yes even the phantom bassist that is usually obscured by the loudness from the rest of the band.

      The entire article reminds me of arguments back when CD players first become available in cars, why would you need CD player in a car when you have all that background noise? - absolute rubbish reasoning.

        But in many cases the reason the SACD sounds better is because it was mastered differently. Convert the SACD mix back to 16bits and you still hear the backup singers, the bassist etc. it is just that the mix for the CD has had the loudness wars treatment. I don't think it is the 24bit, it is the mastering to suit an audience that wants the dynamic range and sensitive treatment of the original material.

        There are only a few CDs that are taken from the same master as the SACDs and I have blind tested those in the studio on *very* expensive calibrated equipment and no-one has been able to consistently pick between them.

          Guys, please let me tell you that SACD is 16Bit, however DVD-A can facilitate 24 bit word lenghs

      I gotta admit, I was blown away when I bought the DVD-A version of Yes' Fragile. It put an amazing whole new spin on a 30 year old album...

    There are a lot of good reasons here why 24-bit is not for everyone. Agreed, anyone that thinks mp3s on an iPod sound good, probably won't appreciate it. But really, suggesting dodgy marketing exploits as a reason for rejecting improvements in technology? CDs are good enough, "A consumer will never need 24-bit. Ever". Audiophiles are suckers. You belong in the dark ages.

    btw; Computers will never need more than 640k of memory, either.

      amen

        AH, one of the suckers the article was talking about. Interesting.

          You are an ignorant.. Have no idea about active music listening.. I pity you.. And by the way, you are the sucker here. Go get a life

    I like, itunes currently quality sometimes suck, if your in a club, and get a song request and you download it, you need best possible quality. As a DJ anyway thats not 320kbs isn't worth listening to.

    My hope is that the focus on 24bit audio will result in mixes being done to suit discerning customers, that will 'show off' the advantage of 24bit. It may help focus the customer on wanting a quality , wide dynamic range mix and show the shortcomings of the loudness war treatment.

    Even if in reality a 16bit version could sound just as good, if it takes the 'con' of 24bit to get studios to go back and mix their music for sonic splendor rather than maximum volume, then I am all for it.

      Point understood, and I agree. Especially if it means they do music other then Classical which currently seems to get a majority of the HD treatment.

      I also hope this doesn't give them an excuse to go back and try to mix surround-sound versions, just because they "can" doesn't mean they should.

    What I'd really prefer is that they release the music in multi-track format, like for example as a garage band file, that would let people make their own mixes. I would pay a premium for *that*.

    Perhaps the author of this article gets his head out his ass and just inform the readers of the news and not their two cents in because no-one agrees with him. We should promote the availability of higher quality audio.

    I do not agree with the author Tom Davenport, it all depends on the sound system you are using to listen to the music.

    With my iPod Touch, I find 256 kbps AAC to be fine, but for my high resolution stereo sound system, I can appreciate the benefits in going to 24 bit /96kHz (24/96) and 24/192. The music just sounds more real, and with a good recording, it is as if you have the artist on a stage behind and each side of your speakers.

      You can't really. As the article says: this is really JUST a gimmick- much like the "retina" screens on the iphone 4; on a screen that size 800x400 is no different to 480x 960 or whatever the res is. It's a marketing gimmick.
      With 24 bit audio the differences are invisible regardless. If you want to REALLY hear good audio then buy some quality classical music CDs. Even from way back in the 80's, good quality mixes have always taken advantage of the full range and sound marvellous. It is the only stuff that really takes advantage of high quality equipment.

        @ozoneocean

        Umm...really?

        Have you done a side by side comparison between an iPhone 3GS and an iPhone 4? The difference between the old screen and the retina screen is quite clear (no pun intended).

        Also, I'd suggest a similar side by side comparison between a 256 kbps AAC version of a DVD-A or SACD and the original might surprise you.

          Yeah... that's probably because an iPhone 3GS isn't 800x480, but 480x360. Do your research.

          That said, I have personally looked at an 800x480 Galaxy S and a 960x640 iPhone 4 - there is a visible difference in the resolution. It's slight, but whereas the Galaxy S looks absolutely fantastic and exceedingly sharp, the iPhone 4 goes beyond that to the point of producing an image that looks almost 3-dimensional.

    Wow, what a disappointing and poorly written article.

    (I'm a refugee from that dreadful new layout on the US site, but it seems I can't log in here.

    One sentence is enough to make this entire article worthless:

    "the sonic quality of a CD is an accepted definition of consumer-worthy HD quality.

    Rubbish. CDs were/are the entry level of consumer digital sound. Anyone who thinks there is anything ultimate, or even standard-setting, about them, must have got their audio knowledge from the advertising material of quite a few years ago.

      Thad, I think you might be missing the point a little with your quote from Tom. CD's have long been the popular benchmark of consumer level digital sound. No form of media has exceeded the audio quality of a CD on a MASS SCALE (thus "accepted definition"). Sure, in the consumer market there has been attempts at providing higher-than-CD-quality digital music, however none has been as popular as vinyl, cassette tapes, CDs, or MP3s before it.

      That is quite ridiculous. I'm sorry, but it comes down to production here, not the capabilities of the technology- that is more than capable of handling things.
      Buy some good classical CDs and you'll see a massive world of difference between those and even your most "remastered" pop tracks. Only for classical productions do they tend to take full advantage of the technological capabilities available to them.
      Any music released on HD will either simply approximate that or just be the pathetic squashed range you'll normally get in pop-music anyway.

    Why 24-bit Audio Will Be Bad For Users..

    What a bunch of bs...perhaps for the ipod users. Rest assured 24 bit copies of studio analog master tape blows 16 bit versions away by a large margin.

    Vinyl kills any form of digital interms of sound quality, dynamics and sound stage. 5.1 ? Is a joke to begin with. Live music is two channel. Keep 5.1 for the movies.

      The film people have always dragged the audio crowd kicking and screaming into the future. Fifty years ago, people were beginning to encounter stereo sound... at the movies. Then, as now, obnoxious know-it-all audiophiles were adamant that the increase in the number of channels was a vulgar and unnecessary gimmick.

      As for digital sound (most commonly, 44.1kHz 16-bit linear PCM), it is so devastatingly superior to vinyl in terms of every measurable quantity--noise floor, distortion, frequency response, channel separation, long-term integrity with repeated playbacks--that even discussing it in the context of present-day technology is sort of embarrassing. In the hands of a competent producer, a digital recording will be totally superior in terms of sound quality and transparency--but good luck convincing the audiophile True Believers of that.

        Measurable quantity...that's your problem right there! Not everything is measurable!!

    I have to say that I am a sucker based on the logic above. I would gladly pay a 50-75% premium for higher resolution, higher quality lossless audio files. I would appreciate if the quality of the mastering was improved as well. There is nothing worse than when you find an album you like, but the recording/mastering is so bad on the CD that you can not listen to it. Sadly there are a more than a few albums I own that sound terrible even though the music itself is good.

    I would gladly purchase upgraded versions of a lot of my favourite music again. I would also actually consider buying singles online too.

    You see, I love music, especially good music. I have a reasonably good stereo and I like to listen to digital files for convenience. I do not typically buy music online though; I have in the past but I have found the experience to be lacking. There is not enough of a compelling reason to me to buy online compared to a CD from a music shop. 24 bit lossless would probably be that compelling reason.

    The recent online purchases I have made are from HDTracks at 24/88.2 lossless. HDTracks is the exception to other online music stores since they focus on quality. I must admit I have downgraded these to 16/44.1 for my iPod. They still sound good, but I prefer the originals through my stereo. They sound really good.

    As for space... when was the last time you shopped for a hard drive? I didn't think space was an issue for the consumer. Even my 32 GB iPod can hold a reasonable quantity of high resultion albums. This is only an issue for the online music stores that have to have storage for their entire library of music.

    Sadly, thinking along these lines for the last 15 years is why the music industry is suffering in the first place. The CD has marked its thirtieth birthday some time ago and is older than I am. Why is this modern day relic still considered the pinacle of audio quality? CD's don't sound real enough without dithering, and a lot of people with good stereo systems prefer vinyl because it sounds "real", more like actual music. I think this is because it is not so easy to apply the same dynamic range compression to a vinyl recording. The only way to make digital audio sound more real is to increase the sample rate and bit depth, and not apply compression in the form of dynamic range or psychoacoustic!

    I agree 100% with what you said.. 24bit is the future of the music industry, period.

    "A consumer will never need 24-bit. Ever."

    I disagree here. 24-bit sounds better than 16-bit through my speakers and head-phones. I also stream an iPod through a Wadia for convenience. A 24-bit iPod would be useful for high end. Right now my 24-bit files have to stay on the laptop.

    I completely disagree with this article. Anytime you dither or truncate audio from 24 bit to 16 bit regardless of how much limiting goes on in mastering you lose quality that is audible to the listener. With the introduction of HD AAC which is 24 bit and up to 192 Khz it would be easy for iTunes to make the move to offering HD audio as an option to the consumer. I believe it's an important step in the evolution of the digital music age and I hope this does happen. Of course consumers benefiting from the higher fidelity audio files would be contingent on them owning equipment capable of reproducing the higher quality audio along with decent speakers or headphones. Lastly I read one user either on this forum or a similar one ranting about 24 bit audio being useless because the average human can't hear above 20 Khz. This person is confusing bit depth with frequency response. Bit depth corresponds to the resolution of each sample and sample rate corresponds to how many samples per second are recorded. When you talk about sample rates which for consumer audio are currently 44.1 Khz or 44100 samples per second this is twice the sample rate of what the average human is capable of hearing (woman can hear frequencies up to about 22 Khz, men typically don't hear above 16-18 Khz). Recorded music is typically recorded at twice that of the maximum frequency rate detectable by a human, hence the 44.1 Khz. This was arrived at through Nyquist theory. However many believe that sampling rates above 44.1 Khz effect the sound of audio within the frequency range that is audible by the human ear. In other words some believe that through adding harmonic information above the range of a human's ability to hear effects the sound of the audio within the range of human hearing. Bit depth again refers to the resolution of each sample in a recording and has nothing to do with the sample rate or frequency of the music. Also bit depth is exponential so 24 bit is more than twice the recorded information per sample as 16 bit. In a nutshell there would definitely be a noticeable quality difference between 16 bit and 24 bit files when played on a decent sound system even for music that has a limited dynamic range due to heavy limiting in mastering.

    Dr. Dre, everybody,
    Could you tell me?
    Do new HP laptops (DV6t, DV7t)with Beats Audio support 24 bits 192 kHz or not?
    If yes. Is it hardware 24 bits 192 kHz 24 bits 192 kHz support or it is done by software?
    Thanks in advance.

    If 24 bits will be bad for users then 16 bits will be good for deaf people. 24 bits 96 KHZ is the minimal format for listen music. 16 bits 44.1 khz is only good for listen noise. Sorry

    Obviously, Mr. Davenport can't hear the difference that 24bit depth (and, equally as important, 96K frequency) provide.

    He should count himself lucky for that, and then excuse himself from the "debate". It's like someone color-blind arguing that things don't need to be colorful.

    There's enough people who can hear the difference to support a modest market, and one through which a musician who cares about sound (I'm guessing there's a few of those) can be assured their work is heard as intended.

    It is sad to realise that another, actually in the industry, is so ill informed. High resolution audio actually capture music appreciately better than standard CD quality, not to mention MP3 which in some cases can be really poor (even high bit rate). As have been written before, I also hope that a step up in distribution qulaity would motivate music producers to strive to improve their work for a greater benefit to us music lovers. The dark ages of music may be over.

    Can't wait to use my 24-bit 192 DAC for listening to more then my music and vinyl rips.

    Don't try and ruin this for the rest of us, you can still treat your audio as if it's the 90's if you so choose.

    This comment was deemed inappropriate and has been moderated.

    I do agree that most consumers don't want or need anything beyond what the current market provides. However, for those of us who have the means to utilize higher bit rate sound, it can be beneficial. I may be a part of an extremely small minority, but I have a home theater that has five figures into soundproofing (I do a lot of professional audio editing). I can tell a difference between 24 bit and 16 bit, but I have ears trained to do so. The difference is very small, but it does exist. However, you need the equipment to benefit from it.
    For example, my Grado PS1000's with a good amp will make most modern recordings unbearable due to the original mastering, and the same goes for the DaVinci Labs Virtu's in the same room.
    But listen to the same music on, say, $800/pair Polk Monitor 70s and it is much harder, if not impossible, to find the difference.
    For the record, I have two speaker setups for my home theater (DaVinci are for reference use); first is a full 9.3ch Definitive Technology Mythos II setup which is probably the best setup you can get for under $10k IMO; second is a mix of Cerwin Vega, Polk, and others that I found go well together in a 7.2 setup (similar sound stage) and are awesome for action movies and gaming but which could care less about 16v24bit.

    Spend your money how YOU WANT TO! Don't rely on other people's minds to make you happy.

    Sorry Tom, but you have no idea what you're talking about and your conclusion about 24-bit for home audio enthusiasts is incorrect. I have 32-bit capable DAC with all high resolution equipment and can easily hear the difference between 24-bit and 16-bit on several different levels.

    Your issue is that you have no experience with the correct equipment set-up and don't have the brain capacity to process the differences. Don't write articles with childish opinions and no experience. Go get a real job and contribute to society instead of mis-informing people.

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