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Consumer Attitudes Toward Digital Audio Quality

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  Audio Engineering Society   Convention e-Brief Presented at the 131st Convention 2011 October 20–23 New York, NY, USA This Engineering Brief was selected on the basis of a submitted synopsis. The author is solely responsible for its presentation, and the AES takes no responsibility for the contents. All rights reserved. Reproduction of this paper, or any portion thereof, is not  permitted without direct permission from the  Audio Engineering Society . Consumer Attitudes Toward Digital Audio Quality Ainslie Harris 1   1  Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen Business School, Aberdeen, Scotland aharris@harrismediamarketing.com   ABSTRACT This paper builds upon an engineering brief submitted to the 130th AES Convention (Harris 2011). Where the May 2011 brief outlined initial findings from focus groups that were conducted, considering questions about preferred audio quality from the point of view of attitudes and consumer behaviour, this brief focuses on an outline for future research, discussing important questions for consideration, and proposed methodology. 1. INTRODUCTION To date, literature on digital audio quality has focused on technical aspects, and where consumers are concerned, a listener’s ability to perceive a quality difference, for example, by format/codec and bitrate. In light of the increased popularity of music downloading, there is a lack of literature addressing audio quality from an attitudinal point of view, i.e. why people choose to download to particular codecs or bitrates, as opposed to whether or not they can hear a difference in audio quality. Harris (2011) found, as part of a qualitative research exercise related to attitudes towards usage of free music download services, that there appear to be three groupings for attitudes toward audio quality, based on age: 1.   High school students (15-17 years old) who know little about technical terms for audio quality, describe quality in abstract terms (“not fuzzy”, “no clicking noises”), are generally satisfied if the song they downloaded plays from beginning to end. They generally obtain music without paying for it. 2.   College and university students (19-24 years old), who recognize more subtle audible quality differences and describe quality in terms of technical terms (bit rates, codecs), prefer higher quality audio files, but for practical reasons tend not to download higher quality files. This age group pays for music as well as illicitly downloading it. 3.   People in full time employment (25+ years old) who recognize more subtle audible quality differences and describe quality in terms of technical terms (bit rates, codecs), prefer higher quality audio files, have the practical means to consume audio in higher quality formats and prefer to do so. This age group tends to pay for their music more than younger age groups. The research found that even when consumers can detect and appreciate quality differences between  Harris Consumer Attitudes Toward Digital Audio Quality AES 131st Convention, New York, NY, USA, 2011 October 20–23 Page 2 of 3   formats and codecs, there are pragmatic factors that influence their attitudes and perceptions toward audio quality, so they do not necessarily choose the highest quality audio format or codec available, even when considerations such as price are not an issue. While research by Mulligan (2011) related to product and channel strategy for music sales, suggests that older listeners (25+) prefer higher quality audio because they are used to and prefer to listen to CDs and radio rather than digital downloads (16 to 24 years old) or streamed music (12 to 15 years old), the issue of attitudes toward quality and how and why they affect behaviour warrants further exploratory research. 2. RESEARCH QUESTIONS The aim of such research is not to determine whether listeners can hear differences in quality. The aim is to instead understand what file types, codecs, and bitrates listeners choose to listen to, and their reasons for doing so. This latter approach considers a much broader range of factors beyond audible quality. While Harris (2011) found that attitudes appeared to be segmented by age, it would be useful to determine whether age is a statistically significant factor affecting attitudes about audio quality, and whether there are other significant factors such as education, employment status, gender, perceived financial ability, and perceived control over being able to choose from a variety of quality options, have any marked effect on choice and attitudes. It would also be useful to attempt to determine more specifically what pragmatic factors affect attitudes, and to what extent (i.e. perception that storage or listening equipment or finances are not sufficient to warrant choosing higher quality files). If presented with an ideal scenario where a listener could choose to download any format (and had the equipment and finances to do so), which would they choose to listen to and why? In their actual reality, does anything prevent them from making that same choice, and if so, what? What terms and benchmarks do consumers use to assess and describe audio quality? Do people who download legitimately versus illicitly make different choices or hold different attitudes toward quality? Further, it would be interesting to gain an understanding of whether the choices are a result of actual knowledge, or simply familiarity with a codec name. What are the most popular codecs and decoders? Are they popular because they are names that listeners are familiar with, because their listening equipment forces them to make that choice, or because it is cheaper, better quality, or allows them to enjoy other features (e.g. album art)? Is interoperability between codecs and devices a real or perceived need? Do consumers prefer different formats/codecs in different listening contexts or tend to stay with one preferred format? Do they choose formats based on factors such as price, hard drive space, professional requirements, opportunism, or listening pleasure? 3. PROPOSED METHODOLOGY While a detailed methodology has not yet been determined, this exploratory research would most likely benefit from a mixed methods approach, utilizing qualitative and quantitative techniques, given the lack of research published in this area. In the first stage, interviews and/or focus groups should be conducted in order to gain a broader contextual understanding of the research questions and consumer behaviour. This should be followed by a quantitative exercise, which ideally would be conducted online in order to reach a broader sample. Listening tests are not part of the proposed methodology, as this is a study on attitudes not listening ability. In developing a more detailed topic guide and methodology, academic models for predictive behaviour should be considered, for example, the Theory of Planned Behaviour (Ajzen 1991) which considers attitudes toward a behaviour, subjective norms, and perceived behavioural control and their affect on intention to perform a specific behaviour. 4. SAMPLE Given the large population and wide variety of online music services available in the USA (both legitimate and illicit), it would likely be most sensible to focus on this country. Consideration must be given to whether the sample can be representative and what it could or should be representative of. The design and analysis of the research exercise must consider the risk of bias, and how to screen for it. For example, do avid music listeners, people with musical training, technical aficionados, or audiophiles have statistically significant preferences and attitudes?  Harris Consumer Attitudes Toward Digital Audio Quality AES 131st Convention, New York, NY, USA, 2011 October 20–23 Page 3 of 3   5. RESEARCH BENEFITS There are a number of reasons why the research outlined here is beneficial, from financial to creative. While offhand, one might assume that music in a digital format involves very little financial outlay compared with the distribution of physical media (i.e. CDs, vinyl), digital music still costs money to encode, transmit, decode, and store. These costs affect a variety of players in the audio industry value chain, including but not limited to craft (what equipment to use in the studio), equipment design (what should the equipment be able to play, how much should it be able to store), IP delivery (bandwidth), and the products and services that consumers choose to purchase (i.e. high capacity music players, headphones, stereo equipment). For example, recording engineers must decide what formats and resolutions to use, codec designers must decide what codecs to design next, audio equipment designers and vendors must decide what to design and sell to the marketplace, and companies that deliver audio over IP to consumers must decide what formats and codecs to deliver. While it is helpful for these professionals to know whether consumers can discern and/or appreciate quality differences, this does not necessarily mean that those same consumers will choose higher quality options when they are available. 6. NEXT STEPS This research topic can contribute to the audio and music industries by helping to provide a framework for understanding why consumers prefer particular types of audio formats, preferences by segment, and the factors that influence such preferences. It has the potential to help audio professionals of all stripes to better understand their listening audience. By having a better understanding of why music listeners choose to download the formats they do, players throughout the value chain can better utilize their own resources while at the same time potentially better serve their customers’ needs. The next steps are to develop and conduct a formal research exercise in this area, based on a mixed methods approach. 7. REFERENCES [1]   AJZEN, I., 1991. The theory of planned behaviour. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 50(2) pp.179-211. [2]   HARRIS, A., 2011 [online]. Do Young People Actually Care About The Quality of Their MP3s? Audio Engineering Society 130th Convention - London, England (May 13th -16th, 2011), Track EB1 - Design and Assessment. Available from: www.aes.org. [3]   MULLIGAN, M., 2011 [online]. Digital Natives: The Generation That Music Product Strategy Forgot. Available from: http://blogs.forrester.com/mark_mulliga n/11-01-20- digital_natives_the_generation_that_m usic_product_strategy_forgot [Accessed 15 April 2011].
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