Why 24-bit Audio Will Be Bad For Users

Illustration for article titled 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.

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As an audio engineer, I'd like to say a few things. First thing, "con" is pretty extreme. But yes, the point is to find another avenue to make money. Consumers will purchase it, even if it is just a small selection of audiophiles. But Apple will take the money from those who are willing to pay premium. 24-bit vs 16-bit does not necessarily mean "high quality." It simply refers to the dynamic range. The dynamic range of 16-bit audio is 96dB, while 24-bit is 144dB. That's pretty HUGE. But in fact, as the article mentions, audio is being smashed in the "loudness wars". This is nothing new. This has been going on for the past 10 years of digital audio if not much earlier than this. On a rock/metal album, this hardly makes a difference. EVERY. SINGLE. BAND. I have ever recorded always wants it louder. I try and try and try to really educate them on why loud is not always better. If you want loud, turn up your "volume" on your speakers. Why this is related? Because as soon as you make everything loud, dynamics disappear and then whats the point? You can TRICK the ear into making things seem louder. That's what engineers do. They do nifty little tricks to make the ear go "yay!" Or simply to please their clients...

The point I disagree on, is that this will have a negative impact. While I get projects from bands, TV/internet promos who record at home in 16-bit, I do the best I can process it at the highest quality possible, but it all starts with the FRONT of the chain. A really good professionally recorded album at 16-bit will sound just as damn good and better than any home recorded project (considering the performance is good, the engineer is good, the mix is good, and mastering etc.).

My thing is, if I can deliver audio at 24-bit and 16-bit. Why the hell not? I'm not even that anal when it comes to my own music. I listen to mp3's at 320 because I'm usually listening in my car or my iPhone. But if 24-bit audio starts becoming more relevant, maybe we WILL stop working about making things loud, maybe dynamics will be for more than just classical music. Maybe consumers can start getting their hands on pristine audio, even if it is a 800MB download. Who cares, we're streaming HD video and audio and download 10GB games. Why not bump up the game in audio? I won't mind (as long as I get paid).