Friday, March 9, 2012

The Sampling Rate Debate

When I heard the first Sony CDP-101 CD player at its debut in 1982, I really had high hopes that it would sound good.  Analog records were a hassle and this appeared to be the Savior of music technology. The digital claim of perfect sound had arrived. Boy, was I disappointed.

Huge criticism from audiophiles raged on as the sound was compared to that of fingernails on a blackboard, myself included. Initially, fingers were pointed at the playback systems and not the recording systems, and they were half right. But when I listened to first generation digital recordings of the Denver Symphony, I was even more disappointed. It seemed that while more revealing, such recordings were far prone to a whole new set of problems, especially in microphone positioning. Another learning curve; another adjustment. Even well-known classical recording engineers tried and failed at making this new format sound as good as the old analog tapes and some were even re-mixed in hopes of capturing that claimed advantage, albeit unsuccessfully.

Years passed and the pledge to the 16/44 format remained. Marketers and developers alike were painfully aware that switching formats early on would devastate the technology rendering it bogged down in a battle of formats that would take years to resolve, maybe even decades. (Remember the VHS and Beta format war? Enough said.)

Now that electronics have evolved to a point where it is possible to store a lot more information in the same physical size, it only makes sense to move forward as SACD tried to do early on in an attempt to correct the limitations imposed by the 16/44 format. Unfortunately, this is going to be a very hard sell, much like pushing a string uphill.

There is too much money and momentum behind keeping this now 20-year old format in place; too much investment in infrastructure and too many people trained to not listen to music. IMHO, it is truly a miracle that it survived as long as it did but that is what really good marketing can do.

Remember this truth folks. Mathematically speaking, Any sampling rate is an approximation.
However, an infinite sampling rate is analog.

Nyquist (and Shannon) mathematically proved that 44KHz was adequate for human hearing (statistically 10% beyond so called upper limit of human audibility). Obviously, this was a mistake from the start since practically anyone can hear higher rate improvements when listening to a quality, revealing system.

All this means is that the mathematical models used to describe what we hear are incomplete. As we all know, we learn tings as time progresses and to stand firm on any claim is historically proven to be jut plain silly. Open mindedness breeds advancement and for this reason I am hopeful again that there will be enough open minded people to push for this higher-rate sampling change.

We still drive cars that use 100+ year-old technology engines and I hope that the digital audio format does not follow down this same road. Nyquist was wrong; our ears are better than this 16/44 format. Let's get over this haggle and stretch our self-imposed limitations.

What I know is that things change, and they always will. It would be nice to come up with a digital technology that anticipates change and allows for growth (duh?). Let's try and planning now for changes we cannot even conceive in this new digital format. Let it be flexible and expandable and then, let;s do it! Who knows, one day we may have an infinite sampling rate digital format! (Oh, I forgot; we already do!).

Yours for higher fidelity,
Philip Rastocny

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