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Listening to the Proms - the important bits

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Gabriel Gilson Gabriel Gilson | 17:00 UK Time, Friday, 3 September 2010

Gabriel Gilson, interactive editor for the Proms and Radio 3 websites, on a technical improvement that might be music to your ears...

Natural History Museum Darwin Centre

A day out with the kids is usually a mixture of treats and tantrums (not necessarily in that order). But last week we were stopped in our tracks by some digital magic. On a day trip to London's Natural History Museum with my two boys, we dallied with butterflies then found our way to the new Darwin Centre. It houses specimens, and the scientists who work on them. In a neat bit of theatricality, you can observe both through big plate glass windows. Amid the usual exhibits, we came across a set of drawers designed to show how they store collections for posterity. Open the top drawer and you see a standard tray of bugs skewered by pins. Open the bottom drawer and you get not a tray but a computer screen with a picture of a set of archived bugs. Close the drawer and open it again and you see a different set of creatures. And that's when the drawer came to life. As we looked, a bee rose up and buzzed around the virtual tray. Close and open again and this time a set of plants ripple to an imaginary summer breeze. Children and dad transfixed. Magic Draws!

Visiting the Royal Albert Hall over the summer has had a similar feel. You never quite know what you'll get when you round the corner. What age of audience, what smell of perfume? Inside, the conductor raises a baton and the music comes to life. Ranks of string players rippling like corn, percussion punctuating via ears and stomach.

Part of the challenge of running the Proms website is how to take all that and capture it on a computer screen. Luckily for us we have sound as well as pictures. And this week's small step in the evolution of radio is an experimental extra high quality audio stream available via the site for the remaining live proms this year. We've increased the amount of digital information used to deliver the sound ('bits', to be technical...). To my humble ears, it does an even better job of bringing you in to the concert. The sound of the Hall, so intrinsic to the Proms, is more tangible. There's a better sense of space and clarity around each instrument. There's more music. But don't just take my word for it. If you haven't tried plugging your computer into your Hi-Fi yet, or plugging a nice pair of headphones in, give it a go during the final week of the Proms.

Technical bugs permitting, we'll be adding more ways of bringing the music to life over the coming months. In the meantime, give this a go and tell us what you think. We'd love to hear if it adds to the magic.

  • You can access the experimental extra high quality audio stream by visiting the BBC Proms website
  • You can read a technical blog about the project by Rupert Brun, Head of Technology for BBC Audio & Music, by clicking this link.
  • Technical FAQs are available by clicking this link.
  • To join the conversation about this story on Twitter include the hashtag #PromsXHQ in your tweets.

An archive image of the BBC Radiophonic`Workshop

 

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I could not hear the names of the soloists in the Rodgers & Hammerstein prom 49.
    Can you please tell me the two who sang 'people will say we're in love' and the same chap sang the soliliquay from Carousel.

    Is there a DVD or CD available of this wonderful concert?

  • Comment number 2.

    They were Julian Ovenden and Sienna Bogess. I think it would be great if a recording were made commercially available.

  • Comment number 3.

    The survey collecting reaction to the new high quality audio stream isn't working. The only way I can tell you how much I appreciated this innovation seems to be here. This is truly transformational for those listeners most concerned about the quality of what they hear. This is exactly the kind of new service that the BBC should be investing in. Well done to those of you who have made this happen. Please extend the experiment.

  • Comment number 4.

    The extra high quality stream is excellent. Switching back to the standard iPlayer stream, good though it is, is like putting the cotton wool plugs in your ears! Even with basic Walkman earphones, the difference is more than palpable. Where I live, the DAB signal strength is so poor, I cannot receive a continuous broadcast, so if the BBC could make this a permanent feature, I would be delighted.

  • Comment number 5.

    Niall, don't be too sore about not getting DAB, the standard iPlayer stream is better!

    I have just listened to another fantastic Prom that I could enjoy so much more because the high quality stream is really good. It is the first time the BBC has delivered digital sound that is better than FM. Please, please can we have more of it.

  • Comment number 6.

    Does anyone know whether this high quality stream is available vis internet radio and, if so, how?

  • Comment number 7.

    I, too, would like to commend the BBC on the high quality stream. I have been highly dissapointed by DAB and welcome this sort of innovation to improve quality.

    I built my first FM radio back in 1963 in order to listen to high-fidelity radio, back in the days of "wavefront reconstruction" theory and high bandwidth analogue transmission. We are struggling to achieve anything like the quality of radio reception we had back in those days, and it does not help when the trunk to the FM transmitter is itself compressed, bandwidth limited, digital data.

    So, yes. More high quality steams. Better is always better.

  • Comment number 8.

    On the subject of recordings of proms (above), this is something I really would like to suggest. I have been out of the country for most of the season, and found access all but impossible.

    I notice that airport electronic shops now sell personal audio players pre-loaded with whole genres of music, and that Apple Music recently released the Beatles catalogue on a plug-in USB device (with very high sample rate files). That gives me several ideas.

    1. Please can the BBC offer the whole prom season for sale in recorded format in time for the Christmas season? Perhaps in high-quality audio DVD format?


    2. Why not also sell something like the airport personal listening devices, or the apple music device, with the prom content on? By selling hardware and software together you could even choose an encoded format that could not be copied and distributed.

    The idea of being given the summer's prom series as a christmas present is very attractive.

  • Comment number 9.

    Don't forget Radio3 via satellite; 256 kbps PCM stereo has been available
    for years. Thus we have, I think:

    0. DAB Excrable. Beneath contempt.
    1. iPlayer Pretty good
    2. FM radio Excellent (usually) ] More or
    3. Satellite 256 kbps ] less equal
    4. XHQ feed 320 kbps Wow!

    So the way forward is clear. Scrap DAB, and use the XHQ stream to feed
    FM radio.

  • Comment number 10.

    I agree so much with chosulman's assessment. Please, BBC, make the feed permanent - I am ready to build a fanless computer with a top quality sound card or external DAC just to get the best out of it and dozens of my colleagues and friends feel the same. One other thing I have realised from listening to the proms on 320kb: even if the BBC are outsourcing a lot of production, the location sound engineering is still brilliant, it has just not been fully audible to us until now.

  • Comment number 11.

    Comment 9 chosulman

    How are you accessing Radio 3 on satellite with 256 kbps PCM? As far as I am aware there are no PCM feeds available. The highest radio bit-rate is 192 kbps, mp2 coded. Most audio channels associated with TV are at 256 kbps but they too are mp2 coded. The only exception to this is the AC3 coded 5.1 surround audio at 384 kbps associated with BBC HD.

    If the DAB reception path (probably needing an external aerial) is good it should sound no different to Freesat/Sky (uses exactly the same transponder) or terrestrial Freeview. The exception to this is when R3 DAB uses the lower 160 kbps rate to accommodate R5SX. The other national DAB radio networks use 128 kbps mp2 coding so DAB suffers the most. As mp2 coding takes a real nosedive in audio quality at anything lower than 192 kbps DAB is, in general, execrable.

    There are normally two different ways of accessing BBC radio online. The 'Listen Live' iPlayer stream is very good and uses 192 kbps aac coding. This is superior to any of those previously mentioned. On the other hand the audio of the 'Listen Again' feature of iPlayer is heavily processed, sounds worse and uses aac coding at a lower 128 kbps. (Although some have expressed doubt about this and claim it uses 192 kbps aac).

    Now temporarily we have the XHQ stream at 320 kbps aac which is superior to the normal 192 kbps 'Listen Live' stream and arguably subjectively indistinguishable from the output of the mixing desk. It is the way for the future because it will never be possible to broadcast such high quality audio to a radio via a normal aerial due to a lack of radio spectrum availability.

    The only platform not so far mentioned is FM. Here the basic audio quality very good and superior to any of the available mp2 sources but, in an attempt to improve listenabliity in fringe areas and compete in the station 'loudness' stakes, is now heavily dynamic range compressed. It is fine for listening to while walking around the house or in the car but sadly no longer a state of the art source of BBC radio.

  • Comment number 12.

    Who wrote the questions in the 320kbs survey? The question about the comparative quality of the stream to other media is easily misinterpreted. It must bring into question the validity of the whole exercise, which is an opportunity wasted on such an important issue.

  • Comment number 13.

    I hoped to listen on my Apple iPad but no luck as the BBC insists on use a proprietary Adobe Flash protocol.

  • Comment number 14.

    #11 Yes; a slip of the neuron. I was thinking of German satellite radio which is mostly "256 kbps stereo" whereas BBC is "192 kbps joint stereo". But my point remains, that (1) essentially the best BBC audio has long been available via satellite, and (2) DAB is not fit for purpose.

  • Comment number 15.

    I was an early DAB user but now have given up & stream BBC through by multi-room internet wifi hifi. Is the "address" of the XHQ know so I can run it through my system without the BBC website ? There are a few "radio" stations running at 320 kbps & the sound is excellent, if the BBC can stream Radio 3 on this it would be a real coup.

  • Comment number 16.

    To echo the points made about DAB, I haven't got it after listening to it.

    However, listening to the XHQ stream was a revelation.

  • Comment number 17.

    I couldn't agree more with Crewe32 (#12). I have just answered the survey, and wrote there that I thought that it was seriously flawed by the 'comparative quality' question being ambiguously worded. For other readers of this blog (not to mention the blog owner), I think it's worth spelling out the confusion.

    The question asks: "...how would you compare the sound quality of what you heard with what you typically get from the following devices?"

    This is then followed by a table with headings in which the first comparator in the question apparently becomes the second, i.e.
    "Much worse than this stream, Slightly worse than this stream," etc.

    To me, the word stream implies the extraHQ iPlayer stream, but in that case, the question asked should have been: "...how would you compare the sound quality of what you typically get from each of the following devices with what you heard with this xtraHQ stream?"
    (This is how I interpreted the question, but I had to think hard to answer it in this unnatural way.)

    Given the question actually asked, surely the table headings should have been:
    "Much worse than this DEVICE, Slightly worse than this DEVICE," etc.

    I despair!! I'll bet many (if not most) people took the opposite interpretation to me.

    ====================

    Thank you to rmgalley (#11) for saying so clearly what I was contemplating saying - though I'm not sure that the message: 'both the bit rate AND encoding are important when comparing quality' has still been fully appreciated. For as you say, with regard to R3 only, DAB and satellite/freeview are of equal quality, and neither as good as the STANDARD iPlayer (with the same bit rate bit but subjectively better encoding - I refuse to call aac more efficient!)

    But please, please can we have better than 128 kb/s aac on Listen Again (which is my main mode of music listening nowadays). This is far more important to me than the hike of 192 kb/s to 320 kb/s (though I'm not going to say no to the latter!).

  • Comment number 18.


    I listen to 3 all day and night over the internet and did notice an increase in volume when I tried the new sound for the Proms.

    Of course judgments are so subjective and dependent on technology: I do not have the greatest speakers. But I thank the BBC for the innovation.

    I should say that to my imperfect ears, the streaming of WQXR in NYC seems sharper and "closer" than 3's ordinary output.

    All the best.

    FW
    Madison, WI, USA

  • Comment number 19.

    I wasn't able listen to the broadcasts, do you think you will be repeating this experiment? I was appalled to hear you are stopping FM transmission, especially as I have several hundred pounds worth of radio tuners, and a valve based one is the only sound source I have (apart from vinyl) which gives me the impression of listening to real musicians playing real instruments, (I am a real musician).

    I bought a DAB radio and listened to it for three minutes, and I have never turned it on since, so poor was the sound. And yet it is still being pushed by the BBC, Why? It's worse than MP3, (is it MP2?)

    If the sound is not up to scratch, I'll stop paying the license fee!

  • Comment number 20.

    As a first-timer to this blog I'm glad to see some of my concerns being aired e.g. the proposed shut-down of the analogue signal. I'd like to add my difficulty in hearing some presenters because of idiosyncracies of manner such as sudden drops in volume, excessive arbitrary changes in pitch and - my biggest bugbear - two voices, such as presenter and interviewee, speaking at once. This is alas endemic in radio and it surprises me that no one complains or is it that complainants are not acknowledged?

  • Comment number 21.

    This is to say thank you to Radio 3 for bringing back the XHQ stream (now known as Radio 3 HD Sound) on 14 Dec. As during the Proms, the improvement in quality is very noticeable.

  • Comment number 22.

    More thanks:

    I have been frustrated that the ability to listen to HD Sound via my Playstation 3 stopped only a couple of weeks after it started in November.

    The latest incarnation of Radio 3 HD Sound is more tolerant of old versions of Adobe Flash so I can now enjoy the superb sound through my hi-fi system in the comfort of my sitting room.

    Absolutely brilliant.

    Now, what about much better satellite and DVB-T quality?

 

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