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dab digital radio

Digital Audio Quality (redux)

Jack Schofield has posted a blog item on Guardian Unlimited about the difference in audio quality between Windows Media Audio files at 128kbit/s and aac at 256kbit/s. It’s in response to a blind sound-test challenge that PC World are running.

What struck me about this post, and the comments left on it, is its reasonable, balanced approach to sound quality, in stark contrast to the apparently parallel debate about sound quality on DAB radio. Jack mentions DAB in his article towards the end, and infers that it is those people with SACDs and hi-end sound system how are most disappointed when “DAB radio turns them back into mush”.

The majority of the comments left by people are also generally in support of “the quality’s good enough for me” approach, which is encouraging. After so much relentless blugeoning of the sound quality issue by a small number of people, it’s heartening to see a different view and one that seems to be more representative of the mainstream of music consumers.

I’ve certainly thought about mounting a blind-test challenge for various bit-rates of MPEG2 encoding, and far more importantly, different brands of MPEG2 encoders (which can have a far more significant impact on audio quality than the bit-rate). Maybe I’ll set that up.

I am convinced that DAB is suffering from a positioning problem which persists 12 years after the launch. DAB was launched (in Sweden and the UK) as a quality audio proposition. It bombed. There simply aren’t enough people sufficiently concerned about audio quality to invest £600 in a high end receiver to sit alongside their Nakamichi SACD player and their £3,500 turntable. DAB was implicitly repositioned in the late 90’s with the launch of DigitalOne (11 stations) and the expansion of the BBC in 2002. It was emphatically the variety of new services that stimulated the mass market.

MP3 has always had the position of being all about variety. The P2p networks which drove early adoption of file-based music had rotten audio quality (cascaded 64kbit/s MP3) but the attraction was choice and free music. People simply didn’t care how bad it was as long as it was listenable to. I think MP3 (at al) are going to find it difficut to upsell people to “quality” audio for exactly the opposite reasons that DAB is getting brick-batted for being “bad audio”.

It’s hard to see how to make the repositioning of DAB in the UK more explicit; it would be counter-productive to run messaging saying “never mind the quality, hear the quantity” when most people think DAB sounds mighty fine. (I agree wholeheartedly. I just bought a new car with a very-built-in FM radio, and it sounds very soggy and mushy).

In the meantime, the weight of formal research supporting the “quality is fine” argument continues to grow and grow, which helps rebutt the brickbats even more effectively.

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