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The History of Digital Audio

Updated: Sep 16, 2023

In the Beginning

Digital Music became a reality in 1982 with the introduction of the Compact Disc, developed jointly by Phillips and Sony. A compact disc could hold 74 minutes of audio (about 650MB) data.

At that time, the “Digital Audio Standard” for CD quality was established at 16bit/44.1kHz. This standard remains today, even though we’ve moved from hard storage (CDs) to digital storage.

The History of Digital Audio

The Impact of Apple

Twenty years ago, Apple introduced iTunes® (in January 2021). Initially, you could download music files, but with the advent of iTunes, you could “stream” music, not just download files.

The “Digital” Problem

There were two significant obstacles that had to be overcome when it came to digital music: Internet speed and digital storage cost.

In 2001, Internet speed was typically about 2MB; you couldn’t stream video or CD quality audio. Today, Internet providers offer up to 2GB of download speed. Today’s internet is literally 1,000 times faster than 20 years ago.

In 2001, a terabyte (1,000 Gigabytes) of Hard Drive Storage cost $10,000. A single five-minute 392Meg Ultra HD music file would cost $400 to store!

Today a terabyte of storage costs as little as $25.00 or to put it into perspective, data storage in 2001 cost 400 times more than today.

The “Compression” Solution

Because the internet was slow and storage costs were high, Apple and other technologies developed “lossy” compression algorithms used for audio and video. By removing some data and compressing the files, a typical 5-minute CD quality audio file was reduced from 50.4MB to 4.5MB, a more than 90% reduction.

This technology made the modern Internet possible. People could now stream music and video to their computers and televisions.

The good news was you could listen to music virtually anywhere, yet most music players that could accept these files provided low quality sound reproduction. Think iPods, Walkmans, and other devices.

The “Compression” Problem

Compressed video became prolific. It was designed so you could watch “digital” TV through your cable and/or Internet.

Remember watching television on an HDTV back in 2001? You probably recall how the picture often looked cloudy or had “artifacts” that would flash on the screen. You noticed this because your HDTV had higher resolution than the video files provided. Blu-Ray® discs were (and are) highly popular due to their high-quality sound and video. This is because Blu-Ray uses uncompressed files that provide the highest quality resolution.

Now, you can stream uncompressed 4K video and CD-quality sound from the internet through Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services. You can clearly see and hear a dramatic difference in quality.

As TV moved from HD to 4K, improvement in picture quality required much larger files and high-speed transmission. It is fair to say, 4K televisions and customer demand for high quality has driven the revolution in Internet speed.

So, what happened to Audio?

Not much, really. The reason for this is the MP3 compression standard has remained the baseline for streaming music. With hundreds of millions of music files in compressed format and with millions of customers downloading and storing these files, there was no incentive for music giants such as Apple to update this format. And, for the most part, the vast majority of audio playback systems weren’t designed for high-quality audio.

Enter the Audiophiles

While Concierge Audio is not an “audiophile” company, we recognize the contribution the audiophile community has made for the acceptance and demand of High-Resolution digital music. Because of their relentless pursuit of perfection and their willingness to improve technology for the love of music, we have entered the era of High-Res and Ultra HD audio.

While most consumers couldn’t tell the difference between compressed and CD-Quality music, the audiophile community had technology and equipment that could VERY easily demonstrate the difference in quality. It was clear compressed music was not just inferior, it sounded terrible when used with high-performance audio components.

The Technology Convergence

The technology leaders in the audiophile community developed hardware and software that could take advantage of higher resolution music files. They developed network servers that could stream large files; they developed, DACs (Digital-to-Audio Converters) that are incredibly powerful and solved the computational limitations involved in Ultra HD music files.

Coincidentally, several companies, including DTS Play-Fi® (our wireless partner) have been perfecting WiFi and Bluetooth® wireless transmission. Today, it is now possible to stream Ultra HD music directly through your WiFi network with no loss of quality or spurious noise or digital artifacts.

Now Apple offers CD quality streaming and Amazon even offers Ultra HD streaming, which contains 8 times the amount of music data as CD.

Until these technologies converged, it was impossible to create music reproducing systems that could deliver the performance found in Concierge Audio music systems.

Can you really hear the difference?

If you’re listening through an Apple HomePod® or an Amazon Echo® you cannot tell a difference between compressed and Ultra HD music. At all. However, on a quality, high-performance music system you can easily hear the quality difference.

Let’s compare TV technology to audio streaming. The following image shows the difference in the number pixels displayed on a TV ranging from HD, to 4K and now 8K., as you can see, the number of pixels grows dramatically has resolution increases.

Digital Audio resolution is similar. An MP3 or MP4 file contains 1/30th the amount of musical information as an Ultra HD file. Another way to understand this is to look at the wireless transmission rate of an MP3 file compared to Ultra HD. An MP3 requires 300 kilobits a second to travel through your wifi. An Ultra HD file requires 9 megabits a second; or 30 times the bandwidth.

And, just as you couldn’t view or tell the quality difference 8K provides on an HD television, you cannot hear the difference in sound quality on a Home Pod or Amazon Echo. However, given a system designed to the level of Concierge Audio, you can very easily hear the difference. It’s kind of like comparing an old Cathode Ray TV to an 8K television. The difference is equally impactful.

Your ears are more sensitive to sound than your eyes are to sight. Our ears can pick up sounds from miles away and immediately identify what makes that sound and determine its distance and direction to a high degree of accuracy. Far before your eyes can see it.

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