Wherever anything is offered for sale or barter, you can be sure there will some lowlife somewhere ready to step in and offer you something that is not quite what it seems in the hope of making off with a quick buck. These actions can range anywhere from criminal intent, through genuine confusion or ignorance, to marketing hype. Oftentimes the buyer is as complicit as the seller – if you buy a $25 Rolex from a street vendor in NYC you would have to be a very special chump if you really think you are buying the genuine article.
Sometimes it is fundamentally difficult to determine whether something is what it purports to be, or is a fake. Other times there can be no doubt that an item is genuine, but its quality or condition remains uncertain – some fine wines can sell for tens of thousands of dollars a bottle, but only if there is a guarantee that it has been stored (“cellared”) under optimum conditions. In such circumstances buyers and sellers rely on “provenance” to guide them. The term Provenance, in its literal sense, is a documented chain of custody, but is more widely used to convey the sum total of factors which a person provides to assist in determining whether a certain thing is what he or she claims it to be. Provenance is not the proof itself, but merely an evidentiary basis purporting to provide reliable information. There is nothing in the term “provenance” which precludes the provenance itself from being fake.
Anything which is not what it is claimed to be is – broadly speaking – a fake. Of course, from a legal standpoint, if you choose your wording carefully, you can imply something without actually claiming it to be so. This is what we term “Sales Hype”. For example, the Danish brewing giant Carlsberg brews what it has for decades claimed is “Probably the Best Lager in the World”. Without the word “probably”, they would have found themselves in a heap of legal trouble in many parts of the world. Which is not to suggest that Carlsberg is anything other than a fine Lager. A particular bugbear of mine concerns shampoo. My local supermarket has a whole aisle full of shampoo. There must be literally dozens upon dozens of different shampoos offered for sale. Each one has its own particular set of claims – most of which must surely be all but meaningless. Go to the Pantene web site for an example. Their shampoo line comprises no less than 27 different shampoos – count ’em – each one with its own set of product claims. Are these all fakes? Well, no, not from a legal standpoint. But c’mon man, 27 different shampoos? Me, I just buy the cheapest bottle in the aisle and hope it doesn’t smell too objectionable.
Has this got anything to do with audio? I’m getting there.
Audiophiles have long pursued the goal of perfect audio quality. Back in the good old analog days the biggest challenge was in transferring the audio content as accurately as possible from the studio’s mixing desk to your Hi-Fi system, and the LP was the medium of choice. Analog meant that there was a lot of technology to go through before the sound of the master tape could make it to your living room. That technology generally wasn’t up to the task. Sure, there were still “best practices” you could pursue. Direct cut recordings were one option, although admittedly not without implementation drawbacks (Sheffield Lab were the best known exponents). There were favoured pressings to hunt down, even lists of preferred stamper numbers, and so on. All of us of a certain age have at one time or another gone in search of a particular German or Japanese pressing. But in general, what the recording engineer heard on his console, and what you heard on your Hi-Fi were poles apart. Today, digital audio has largely eliminated that as a technological hurdle. It don’t mean that the industry has stopped screwing it up, but for sure it DOES mean that there is no longer any real excuse for them to do so. When the recording engineer sits back and says “That’s a wrap!” the technology to transmit the source material he is listening to, absolutely unaltered, to your Hi-Fi system, is today quite trivial.
Today, digital audio has reached its first level of maturity. Of course, technology continues to advance, but a certain established standard has emerged and the world, conveniently, has more or less agreed upon it. That standard is 16-bit, 44.1kHz Linear PCM. The vast, vast majority of music played in the world today is encoded in 16-bit 44.1kHz LPCM format. There are those who insist that “properly dithered” 16-bit 44.1kHz Linear PCM is fully adequate to represent any audible sounds that humans care to listen to. But many audiophiles disagree, and continue to support higher resolution formats including Hi-Rez PCM and DSD. The jury is still out on which of Hi-Rez PCM or DSD sounds fundamentally better, and frankly it is unlikely a final verdict will be reached any time soon, but a significant body of opinion is coming out in favour of DSD. Certainly, the best sounds my own aging ears have ever heard were produced by DSD, and the margin was not insignificant.
Back in the analog days, the performing artist recorded a Master Tape. That master tape was then used to make a number of Production Copies, depending on how widely the recording was to be distributed. The Production Copies were used to cut Master Stampers. The Master Stampers were used to stamp Production Stampers, and, finally, the Production Stampers were used to stamp LPs that you purchased at the record store. The production stampers typically wore out, and had a useful life of about 1,000 copies after which it had to be thrown away and replaced. Of course, there was nothing to stop the cheapskate stamping plant manager from pushing his stamper life beyond 1,000 copies to save a couple of bucks, so that the poor old customer might end up with a very poor pressing. At each step of this chain there was a not inconsiderable loss of quality. It is a wonder that LPs were playable at all.
Today these steps have been largely eliminated, and in many ways we are all the better for it. But digital technology does provide for some pretty egregious – some might say cynical – manipulation undertaken for the express purpose of deceiving the customer. Fakery, in other words. Think for a moment of a digital photograph. It might be, say, a 12 megapixel image with dimensions of 3,000 x 4,000 pixels. With a colour depth of 24 bits (3 Bytes) per pixel, that image would occupy a 36MB file. That’s a big file, but we can use some clever mathematics to reduce the file size. The JPG file format is well known. Using the JPG format allows you to reduce the file size needed to store an image down to microscopic proportions. Although you can reduce the file size quite usefully without actually throwing away any image information, in order to seriously reduce the file size it is necessary to seriously reduce the quality of the image. JPG allows you to select a desired image quality (for example “low”, “medium” or “high”). If you choose to make a “low” quality JPG with a file size 1/100th the size of the original image file, you will be able to tell at a glance that the image has lost most of its quality. The reduction in quality is the result of throwing away massive quantities of image data, none of which can ever be recovered again. The resultant JPG image may be of extremely poor quality, but its format will still be that of a 12 megapixel image with dimensions of 3,000 x 4,000. This is the important lesson. The format in and of itself is no guarantee of the quality. In practice it merely puts an upper limit on the *potential* quality.
Audio formats are the same. If we take a high quality 16-bit 44.1kHz LPCM recording, and convert it to an MP3 file, this is entirely analogous to the JPG situation. By specifying the “quality” of the MP3 file (typically expressed in kbps) we can specify how much of the original music data is irretrievably thrown away in order to produce a smaller file size. A 32kbps MP3 file will sound absolutely dreadful, but is nevertheless a 16-bit 44.1kHz LPCM encoded file. A 128kbps file will sound better, likewise a 190kbps file, and a 320kbps file better still, but all of these these are still 16/44.1 files.
There is nothing to stop me from taking my hypothetical 32kbps file and converting it, for example, to an uncompressed native file format such as WAV or AIFF. This uncompressed file will be the exact same size as a WAV or AIFF of the original high quality 16-bit 44.1kHz LPCM recording. However, whereas the original recording will sound magnificent, the converted 32kbps MP3 will sound no different from the MP3 itself. It will sound just as dreadful. Worse than that, I can then take my 32kbps MP3 and convert it to a Hi-Rez 24/192 file or even a DSD file. It will now encode the same awful sounds faithfully in the chosen Hi-Rez format. There is nothing to stop anyone from doing that. And other than observing how absolutely awful it sounds, it can prove to be surprisingly difficult – even arguably impossible – to analyze the Hi-Rez file and determine unambiguously what its origins were. In other words, perhaps quite surprisingly, its Provenance does not yield readily to examination and analysis.
In the early days of SACD, some of the record labels thought they could get away with some (typically, you might say) cynical shenanigans. Instead of using the original master tapes to remaster an album in DSD, they simply took the original 16/44.1 CD and used that. They then sold it (at twice the price) in “Dual-Disc” format with the CD-derived SACD recording on one layer and the actual CD on the other. If they thought the audiophile community would not notice, boy were they mistaken! I’m not going to name names, but if you know where to look you can easily research this for yourselves.
You think this sort of sharp practice is a thing of the past? Think again. With the rise of DSD as a downloadable file format, the music industry’s Darth Vaders are already at work. If a cynical marketing type somewhere thinks he can get away with repricing his 16/44.1 catalog simply by converting it to DSD and selling it as a big-ticket item, there is really nothing to get in his way, beyond customers calling him out on it after the fact. DSD’s promoters are well aware of this, and are as worried about it as the rest of the audiophile community. There is a movement afoot, therefore, to push for the adoption of some sort of Audio Provenance standard, which will inform consumers which recordings are pure DSD and which are remodulated PCM.
Look for this movement to fall flat on its face for two reasons. First, at the end of the day, no two people will ever agree on a meaningful set of Provenance standards. Second of all, even if they could, it would not be enforceable, either practically or legally. The Provenance debate is a big distraction. Laudable, noble even, but a distraction nonetheless. Even as the capabilities of the formats available for delivering high quality audio content to consumers continue to improve in leaps and bounds, those formats are still going to deliver the usual mixture of audio content quality, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Simply because they can.