High-resolution digital audio is clearly here to stay, and many audiophiles have started to replace their CD titles with corresponding hi-res alternatives. They cost more, and are mostly in download form, although there is the odd DVD-A and SACD still released. DVD-As are easily ripped to a computer hard drive, as opposed to SACDs, which can be ripped, but with effort and specific hardware and software. The small and specialized DSD download market has also attracted some attention.
As the high-resolution music market has grown, so have concerns concerning the provenance and mastering chain of these products. There have, unfortunately, been instances of Redbook CDs upsampled and offered as 24 bit downloads to capitalize on the growing market segment and on the typical audiophile’s eagerness to own multiple versions of the same title in search of the holy grail.
Another factor that has crept in is the fact that the so-called Loudness Wars have migrated over to high resolution. Many remastered classic titles and new recordings are being mastered with heavy compression, and little dynamic range. This type of approach can destroy the music, regardless of whether it is sold as a lossy mp3/AAC, CD, or 24 bit FLAC/WAV/ALAC/AIFF.
There have been ways for savvy consumers to examine the quality of digital music files, and those were usually with expensive, pro level audio analysis software. Audacity, a free package, can easily show dynamic range, but is less than perfectly reliable in detecting upsampled material.
The vendors of high-resolution music downloads are caught in a tough position. Few have the manpower to spot-check each album the record labels supply them with. The prices are high for high-resolution albums, as much as $30 for a 192/24 or a DSD offering. Of course, this means consumers demand more for their money, as they should. It should be noted that Neil Young’s Pono World music store offers a user forum where members can discuss the quality of downloads they have purchased. It should also be noted that download stores cannot be held responsible for highly compressed or brick-walled masterings; these are artistic decisions made by the labels and musicians.
As a start up company based in Germany, Xivero has developed a wonderful piece of software that will allow high-resolution digital consumers to examine the characteristics of files they have purchased. It will also allow them to examine CDs to get dynamic range information.
Ready for the cool part?
The Windows and Mac-compatible software is called MusicScope and costs 24.37 Euros, or approximately $25, depending on the exchange rate. Yes, you read correctly. $25.
I was approached by Xivero principal, Lars Inger, to evaluate MusicScope and immediately agreed after downloading the demo. Inger is an amazingly enthusiastic and forthcoming individual and he did not hesitate to answer any of my questions. (You can read my Q & A with him at the end of this article.)
One thing I should note upfront. The software is gorgeous. The user interface is smooth as butter, and it is lightning quick and responsive. During the review period there were numerous updates, each one improving the user experience and streamlining the analysis process.
In a nutshell, here are some key features of MusicScope:
- Supported audio formats: FLAC, ALAC, WAV, BWF, AIFF, MP3 and DSD
- Realtime analyzing of a selected audio input (e.g. Line-In) to do for example a Vinyl-Record measurement
- VST / AU-Plugin Adaptor to use the MusicScope directly within a VST or AU-Host (Audio Player or Digital Audio Workstation)
- Bit Depth: 1 Bit, 16 Bit, 24 Bit and 32 Bit
- Sampling Rate: 44.1 – 384 kHz, DSD64 & DSD128
- Automatic cut-off frequency detection algorithm for high resolution audio files
- Playlist (Batch Processing)
- True Peak Meter: Peak, RMS, Crest, PLR
- Loudness Full Scale: Momentary, Short-Term, Integrated as well as Loudness Range
- Bit Monitor: Identify whether all bits are evenly used
- Stereo-Meter: Vector Scope, Balance- and Correlation-Meter
- Report: Export of text and graphical reports as single and aggregated playlist exports
I was curious what the Cut Off Frequency indicated, and Lars offered this explanation:
“Beyond the cut-off frequency the spectrum does not contain much or even no musical content. The frequency range between 0 Hz up to cut-off frequency contains the music, whereas beyond the cut-off frequency ist mostly noise or in a best case nothing. A 96 kHz audio file should have music content up to 48 kHz. Your Led Zeppelin record shows frequency parts of music not far beyond the 22.05 kHz of a 44.1 kHz CD-Record