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If your main priority is watching your smart phone, buy a Samsung Galaxy S5, which has the best display ever put into a cell phone, at least thus far. But what do you do if you want much-better-than-CD-quality sound to come out of your phone’s little 3.5-mm audio jack? Is such a thing even possible? And even if it is, will you be able to tell the difference with earphones that cost less than a small BMW? The answers, perhaps surprisingly, are “yes,” “yes,” and “yes.”

Two currently available smart phones — the Harman/Kardon edition of the HTC One (M8) and the LG G2 — contain the the digital-analog converter (DAC) circuitry for decoding 192kHz/24-bit FLAC files. (This compares to CD’s quality of 16 bits and 44.1 kHz PCM sampling rate.) The result was demonstrated for me on Tuesday evening (June 24) by David Chesky, head of Chesky Records and the creator of HDTracks, which supplies downloadable music files at 24-bit studio quality. HDTracks generally charges for the files you download but a music sampler is available on the site at no charge.

I certainly don’t have “golden ears,” but listening to the Doors with what were described as “a $100 pair of Chinese earphones” plugged into the HTC One was a remarkable experience. Musical texture and dynamic range were much better than what I’ve become used to, with stunning musical detail and spaciousness. Unlike Beats earphones, which attempt to impress you by distorting the sound, high resolution audio gives you the uncompressed, uncompromised sound that studio engineers have been listening to for years (before they dumb down the product to accommodate whatever file size and bit rate consumer products could handle).

Now, said top audio engineer Frank Filipetti of Earwhacks, “Consumers can hear exactly what we hear in the studio. They just have to ask for it.” Filipetti and Chesky were just two of the audio industry’s technical luminaries who spoke at the “High Resolution Audio Listening Experience” sponsored by the Producers and Engineers Wing of The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the Digital Entertainment Group, and CEA.

At the "High Resolution Audio Listening Experience," held June 24 in New York, Bob Ludwig discussed his project to convert the entire Bruce Springsteen catalog to high-resolution audio.  (Photo:  Ken Werner)

At the “High Resolution Audio Listening Experience,” held June 24 in New York, Bob Ludwig discussed his project to convert the entire Bruce Springsteen catalog to high-resolution audio. (Photo: Ken Werner)

This was no dry technical exposition. Presenters, guests, media, bottles of beer and glasses of wine were crowded into the main studio at Jungle City Studios. (Jungle City is so far west on 27th Street in Manhattan that audio types were rubbing shoulders with revealingly dressed young women and their escorts angling for early entry to a velvet-rope club that shares the street.

The other major speakers were Mark Waldrep of AIX Records and Bob Ludwig. Ludwig has more awards for Best Mastering Engineering, among many others, than would fit in this column. One of his current projects is remastering the entire Bruce Springsteen catalog into high resolution audio. He demonstrated some befores and afters in the studio, and golden ears were not needed to tell the difference. The high-res track conveyed much richer emotional content than the original CD.

As the demonstrations at CE Week and ShowStoppers a few blocks away on the following day showed, it is clear that high-resolution audio will be commanding a lot of attention in the consumer electronics space during the coming months and years. The high resolution audio track and the TV track are not converging yet, although the Dolby Atmos 3D sound system is being adapted to high-end TV audio systems, and that is also receiving considerable attention.

High-res audio is one of the more exciting developments in consumer electronics to come along in some time. After years of pushing convenience and mobility at the expense of audio quality, the industry is now clearly committed to returning to quality. But this is not simply a return to the quality of a good CD player playing through a cabinet full of audio components. It is much, much better. Even though the consumer hi-res industry is in its infancy, we can get remarkable quality from a cell phone. A separate DAC can be purchased for less than $100, and at ShowStoppers, Sony was showing its HAP-S1 networkable digital music system for $1000. The S1 has a high-quality DAC, a large hard drive for storage, a 4.3-inch display interface, a stereo amplifier, and even a couple of analog inputs. The audio quality is phenomenal, the compact case looks and feels like high quality, and this is certainly a consumer product: seamless and easy to use. Prices go up from there (Sharp was showing a $5000 high-res audio device with WISA wireless speaker connections), but even now, hi-res audio is accessable to anybody with the resources to acquire a high-end smart phone.

This is going to be interesting.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications. He consults for attorneys, investment analysts, and companies entering or repositioning themselves in industries related to displays and the products that use them. You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.

Posted by Ken Werner, June 27, 2014 3:44 PM

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About Ken Werner

Kenneth I. Werner is the founder and Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, which specializes in the display industry, display technology, display manufacturing, and display applications. He serves as Marketing Consultant for Tannas Electronic Displays (Orange, California) and Senior Analyst for Insight Media. He is a founding co-editor of and regular contributor to Display Daily, and is a regular contributor to HDTVexpert.com and HDTV Magazine. He was the Editor of Information Display Magazine from 1987 to 2005.