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Friday, 15 May 2009

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Just a footnote, I believe iTunes now downloads 256k files--they changed a few months back.

--Darin

VLC is available for mac's and i believe can play flac files. http://www.videolan.org/vlc/

VLC will play .flac files (and almost any other audio format) on pretty much any operating system. It's free in every way, and always will be.

http://www.videolan.org/vlc/features.html

Lee

"HDtracks only serves people residing in the United States."

Damn! I hate artificial barriers in the online world.

Speaking of misrepresentations, SA-CD is in fact 1bit/2.822MHz (DSD), not 24bit/88.2kHz as stated ... though SA-CDs can (and do) originate from the latter.

While I often also have music playing in the background (it's one way of familiarizing yourself with new and challenging music) good music reproduced properly deserves and rewards undivided attention.

"VLC is available for mac's and i believe can play flac files."

I tried that. It seems to choke on the HD FLACs--it quits after 30 seconds. I think it's only playing the song sample, which is 44.1, and not reading the 96/24 file.

Mike

Dear Mike,

Try Audacity. Also free. It'll handle 96K,24bit FLAC files (both creation and playback).

pax / Ctein

Most professional and semi-professional audio programs will record and play 96/24 broadcast .wav files. Some will record and play 192/24 files, such as the ProTools HD system I use. I don't know if they will read the .flac file format, though.

There's an app for Mac called Cog that plays FLAC files quite nicely.

Someone needs to mention that Amazon's MP3 downloads are typically 256kbps and DRM-free, and have been for a long time. Anyone?

ITunes is 256k AAC which is an MP4 file which usually sounds as good an MP3 with a little higher bit rate.

Amazon and iTunes are indeed both 256k. Amazon is MP3, iTunes AAC. Still not quite CD quality, but a significant improvement.

I use Cog as my main audio player. It handles FLAC, WavPack et. just fine. as does Play from sbooth.org. Or you could use XLD (http://tmkk.hp.infoseek.co.jp/xld/index_e.html ) to convert your FLAC to Apple lossless.

Looks like Fluke would work directly through iTunes (haven't tried myself though):

http://blowintopieces.com/fluke/


Mike,
This is an unashamed plug for Spotify. Can't download, can't buy but you can listen all day. They have a really amazing selection of music. Found a lot of my favorites from the 70's. Works if you have a broadband connection, ADSL or such.
Send me a mail at johan.grahn@gmail.com and I will send you an invitation (As far as I know this is the only way to get an account except if you live in Brittain).

all the best,
Johan

PS. Thanks for this amazing site. Read it every day.

@And

Yes, US again only. How sad. *sigh*

Cog worked for me! Thanks Dalton and Ott.

I may have slandered VLC needlessly...turns out the version I had was quite old. Sorry.

And, I did not realize this service was USA only. Probably has to do with payments of royalties. Believe me, as a left-handed Mac user, I know such frustrations....

Mike

Thank you for the invitation, Johan, but I will pass on Spotify for now. I have my hands full....

Mike

Seems like a good opportunity to ask a question that's been bugging me for a while: what's the point of HD (greater than CD) formats?
No one can actually hear the higher frequencies possible (20kHz being the limit, most restricted well below 15kHz).
CD's 16 bit gives 96dB S/N - how much music actually takes advantage of that range, and how much equipment can actually reproduce it without introducing more noise?
And then, how much music (not just current stuff) is recorded in these higher qualities (remastering won't help)?

If you've got perfect hearing, top-end reference equipment and a controlled sound environment, fair play. For the rest, I reckon this is just another way to part fools and their money.

Martin,
Perfect Sound Forever, eh?

Mike

Another vote for Spotify. If you can get it Mike (or anyone else) I'd strongly recommend. Bit rate not up there but for selection, ease of use and cost, unbeatable at the moment.

Hate to say it, but I've always been happy listening to my crappy, sometimes stolen MP3s. If I have the chance to import music as WAV files or FLACS or whatever, I always go with MP3s. I know it's rotting my brain but I've got almost 200 gigs of MP3s now and do enjoy the variety. And mostly I'm listening on an Ipod or crappy speakers so I'm not sure what difference it would make.

I take a sort of religious pleasure in listening to music and always have. I wonder if my experience would be different listening in higher fidelity on better equipment? I'm sure it would to an extent but in this situation I'm sort of ok with sacrificing some quality for quantity.

Oh, thank you, Martin Doonan, thank you! I was just about to start smacking my forehead into my keyboard...aaagghhhh, another music format. I only recently got most of my cd's into the computer to use on my iPhone, fortunately at the higher level, not that I can hear it.

Mike,

I think you gave us the downside when you said that AIFF files cost no more' than their equivalent CDs. Apart from the space saving aspect, I can't see the advantage in not buying the hard copy and then recording it at any rate you want. As convenient as downloading is, I didn't blow seven grand on my Meridian front-end, 300B monoblocks and Proacs because they look good in the sitting room.

No room for a coffee cup? I'd pay real money to see a TOP posting of photos of TOP World HQ!

I strongly recommend Spotify as well. It`s the perfect companion to whatever site you buy music from.

You search for music at Spotify, listen to whatever you want, make playlists etc (with an interface as uncomplicated and functional as iTunes), and then you can go and buy it elsewhere if you want to. (or not)

Simply perfect.

Martin,

You're probably right, but sometimes even aspects that we can't directly detect can have an affect on the whole experience. Fuller's synergistics, perhaps. Maybe parts we can't "hear" are still having an affect on what we "feel." I don't think we can always know what will produce a "better" experience until we try. So I applaud the experiment. Of course, even if it doesn't have any effect, they'll still market the damn thing.

"If I have the chance to import music as WAV files or FLACS or whatever, I always go with MP3s."

I'm hardly a hardliner on the subject. I've been a suscriber to eMusic for a long time, and have thousands of (legitimately purchased) LAME MP3 files (LAME is an encoder, not a description). Also, it goes without saying that if you don't have gear that can decode higher-than-CD files, then you can't hear any difference. It's probably also true that if you have low-fi equipment, or are playing music through an iPod or your computer's soundcard, the differences in file type will not be obvious. Weakest link, and all that.

Having recently gotten a USB DAC that can handle files up to 192khz/24-bit, I thought I'd see about acquiring a few HD recordings. I have to say, I'm almost sorry I did...the 96/24 files I downloaded last night (Mari Kodama playing Beethoven's Piano Sonata #16 and Paquito D'Rivera's Jazz Chamber Trio) totally blow the Apple Lossless versions of the same music out of the water...and the Kodama sounds better than any piano CD in my collection, which contains many hundreds of piano recordings.

(Of course it also drove the tweeters in my old speakers into breakup mode, the first time I've heard that.)

Whether these are just really, really good recordings or are typical of true HD files is a question only time and a lot more listening will answer. But for now I'm very impressed.

I should add that I've been listening to various "audiophile" music formats for years and years...direct-to-disc vinyl, half-speed mastered, MOFI, reel-to-reel, you name it. Although I've never had a SACD player and don't own any of those.

Mike

Dear James,

It depends on what (physical) form you want your music in, but rerecording your CDs is not the way to go. If you want to virtualize them, then just do a bit-for-bit copy at their real sample rate and bit depth (44.1 kHz, 16-bit).

I don't know if your ears and sound system are good enough to let you hear the difference between that and a native 96 kHz, 24 bit recording of the same music. So it may not audibly matter what form you get your music in. I can tell you that if you can hear the difference (and care), you're worse off buying the CD then downloading the higher-information version.

Should also mention for serious would-be audio-scientist types that CD transcription is a really spotty business. My audio guru advisor (who knows immensely more about this stuff than I do) tells me that despite the massive error correction built into the format, audio CDs are really lousy when it comes to bit-level accuracy. Lots and lots of dropouts, lots of errors. Buying the best cd player in the world doesn't solve the problem; the grunge is in the disk.

This is not something that most of us need concern ourselves with. Just thought it was interesting; until she set me straight, I thought the most reliable way to get audio data was to bit-copy my CDs.


~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
======================================
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 
======================================

Dear Martin,

This stuff only matters if you are running very good gear, but then it does matter; it's not one of those "stupid rich" things. It's not about frequency response; it's about accurate phase rendition and correlation between the harmonics. Which our ears are extraordinarily sensitive to. The trick is getting a really phase-flat playback system, but if you've got one, the higher sampling rates will make a notable difference.

When I started digitizing my vinyl, I asked my audio guru friend if I should be digitizing at 48 kHz or 96 kHz and 16 bit or 24 bit. Getting her to talk down to me enough was a little tricky (her level of expertise and her standards are so much beyond mine that, well, it would be kind of like asking me for advice on buying a $100 camera for your eight-year-old nephew). She said given the quality of audio system I said I ever expected to be using, it was unlikely that I would ever hear the difference between 48 kHz and 96 kHz (she would, but then she sometimes has reasons to be working at multi-hundred kilohertz) and I shouldn't waste the bits.

On the other hand, she strongly recommended 24-bit over 16 bit; while 16-bit was adequate, it didn't leave room for slop. Think of it like having a digital camera with an exposure range of 9 stops versus one with 12 stops. You can record sunny-day scenes well with a nine-stop range... if you get your exposure exactly perfect. Most photographers will get much better results with the longer-range camera, even though the extra exposure range is not strictly necessary.

One thing I would consider when purchasing music is what you're planning to do with it in the future. If you think you might be buying better audio gear later in your life, it makes more sense to pay the slight additional premium now for the higher quality music. Back in the days of tapes and vinyl, lots of folks discovered, as their audio systems improved, that they were really unhappy with the cheapo pressings they'd bought when they were younger. Seems to me it's no different for digital audio.


~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
======================================
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 
=====================================

This reminds me of something I recently heard on CBC radio's Spark programme (http://www.cbc.ca/spark/2009/03/full-interview-jonathan-berger-on-mp3s-and-sizzle/) about Stanford Professor Jonathon Berger's experiments on students over the years to determine which audio formats they preferred listening to:

"Students were asked to judge the quality of a variety of compression methods randomly mixed with uncompressed 44.1 KHz audio. The music examples included both orchestral, jazz and rock music. When I first did this I was expecting to hear preferences for uncompressed audio and expecting to see MP3 (at 128, 160 and 192 bit rates) well below other methods (including a proprietary wavelet-based approach and AAC). To my surprise, in the rock examples the MP3 at 128 was preferred. I repeated the experiment over 6 years and found the preference for MP3 - particularly in music with high energy (cymbal crashes, brass hits, etc) rising over time."

It's interesting how something so seemingly fundamental like the perceived richness of music can turn out to be a matter of taste. Reminds me of certain co-workers - and most of the Wisconsinites I have met (I have family there and notice this when I visit) - who prefer incredibly weak, nasty coffee over anything I'd consider drinking.

For myself, my one remaining ear isn't discriminating enough to waste money or 'bits' on trying to improve my musical experience. I've learned to focus on the 'soul' of the music rather than the playback mechanism.

"the 96/24 files I downloaded last night (Mari Kodama playing Beethoven's Piano Sonata #16 ...) totally blow the Apple Lossless versions of the same music out of the water"

Let's look at the Kodama you downloaded at $15.98 for their "Audiophile 88khz/24bit" version ... a fine recording by all accounts. The original recording was in DSD and multichannel so what you got is a downsampled version and stereo only. You could have bought the physical product (with CD compatibility, DSD stereo and DSD multichannel .... all on the same disc) from CD Universe for $15.35. Maybe HDtracks isn't such a great deal after all. But at least it has opened your ears to something better.

Damon,
This has been proven again and again over the years in numerous experiments--people largely prefer whatever sound they're used to. A speaker manufacturer did a big experiment in the '70s where they polled the tastes of a large number of people, many hundreds, promising to build a speaker to suit the "people's" tastes. But as the experiment progressed it began to become clear that the sound people most preferred was approximately the sound of a clock radio or a car radio. The early stages of the experiment were widely heralded, with full page ads, but as the data began to point towards the inevitable conclusion, you heard less and less about it, and finally the ad campaign was abandoned. (Extra credit for old-timer hi-fi nuts...name that speaker company [g].)

The good thing about all this? That whatever kind of stereo you have, you'll probably become accustomed to it...and you'll listen "through it rather than to it."

Mike

"You could have bought the physical product (with CD compatibility, DSD stereo and DSD multichannel .... all on the same disc) from CD Universe for $15.35. Maybe HDtracks isn't such a great deal after all. But at least it has opened your ears to something better."

Not so fast, Poindexter! I said I downloaded _#16_...which cost $8.95. It was all I cared to buy, because I already have multiple versions of #17, and a favorite (Hungerford...well, maybe Perahia), and multiple versions of #18, and a favorite (Haskil). Which is why I like to buy music online, because I can buy just what I want and not be forced to accept whatever else happens to be on the physical disc.

The convenience is even starker with poprock music, where I very frequently buy one cut off an album. I do still buy CDs (and vinyl records), but the days of having to decide whether to buy a whole CD to get one or two cuts are gone, and for me personally that's a good thing.

Mike

"It was all I cared to buy, because I already have multiple versions of #17, and a favorite (Hungerford...well, maybe Perahia), and multiple versions of #18, and a favorite (Haskil)."

Even $8.95 is too much for something you have to download, store yourself and have no equity in.

BTW, Igor Tchetuev is THE guy to hear for Beethoven sonatas. Worth doubling up for.

"build a speaker to suit the "people's" tastes"

Was it Klipsch? I never saw something like that from JBL, ESS, and I don't remember Bose doing it. My first real speakers were JBL studio monitors, in home cabinets.

How much of a nut am I? I built a Heathkit equalizer, and still have it. And I bought 2 new tube amps from China on eBay. I covet my Jamo speakers. Never heard anything like them.

Most of my music purchases lately have been at www.emusic.com. They sell MP3s on a subscription basis (x number of tracks per month), no DRM. The music is mostly indie and other small labels. They have a lot of indie, classical, jazz and blues. Price per track is lower than on Amazon or iTunes. It's also available internationally (although the selection differs from country to country).

It's not perfect by any means, but I've discovered some great music and I haven't even dipped into the classical or jazz.

Hmmm. Given the situation with that HD stuff, iTunes and other content providers--they don't sell in Croatia or in other places--maybe Internet radio is the answer. (If you have a flat rate package.)

My favourite is 1.fm, just for their X Rock channel. 128 kbit, which is quite okay for a free radio. No DJ's. (Yay!) But man, are the commercials boring and vapid. And no song identification on the 128 kbit stream.

Sky.fm is also very much okay although I like the selection on 1.fm X more. 96 kbit for free MP3 streams. You can pay $5.95 on a monthly basis for ad-less 192kbit MP3 or 128 kbit AAC.

Both have other channels, from the latest N'Sync slop through oldies to classical music or world music or jazz.

Mike,

I've read and enjoyed your blog for quite some time now but have never left a comment. Your diversion to audio here (though it's not the first) sort of forced my hand on this one.

I am surprised that no one has yet mentioned foobar2000 (Windows only), which features FLAC support out of the box. And if one does not require better-than-CD playback quality, the devilsound DAC is a single-cable solution that's really convenient for laptops.

"... the 96/24 files I downloaded last night (Mari Kodama playing Beethoven's Piano Sonata #16 and Paquito D'Rivera's Jazz Chamber Trio) totally blow the Apple Lossless versions of the same music out of the water...."

I recall that Maximum PC magazine (I know...) once did a comparison and found that Apple Lossless sounded inferior to FLAC and WMA Lossless, despite all three being lossless formats. Could this account for some of the difference that you're hearing?

The dance music industry has come along a bit farther in this area. The major DJ sites (Beatport, Traxsource) offer the choice of downloading tracks as uncompressed .wav files, or in "low res" versions - 320 MP3s. With the ability to download .wav files we've reached the highest level of sound quality ever available direct to consumers, and the cost is simply amazing. I used to pay $6-12 USD for one song on vinyl. Now I can buy a .wav file for $2.75, and play it on my turntables using a digital vinyl system like Serato, with no one in the audience able to tell I'm playing a digital file (playing an MP3 back to back with vinyl on a club soundsystem makes the file size disparity very obvious).

What's made this possible however is the fact that the dance music industry is largely run by the artists. The large music download sites are just clearing houses that are dealing directly with the musicians instead of major labels. Artists selling their music want it reproduced in the best possible sound quality (especially on very large soundsystems), and the DJs buying and playing the music want the same thing. The result is much better sound quality and cost efficiencies for everyone involved due to the lack of major labels sitting in the middle.

"I recall that Maximum PC magazine (I know...) once did a comparison and found that Apple Lossless sounded inferior to FLAC and WMA Lossless, despite all three being lossless formats. Could this account for some of the difference that you're hearing?"

Um, what?

I might be old fashioned but if I am going to pay for music I want something physical which I can hold in my hands. A CD or preferably, a vinyl album.
Something which has artwork I can look at and text I can read.
I can also see the irony in MP3 increasingly becoming the standard when musicians are pushing for higher quality in recording (96kHz, 24 bit or whatever the current figures are).

Another good site for listening (and getting ideas about things to buy elsewhere) is Pandora. You can put in a song, or an artist, or several of either, and it will generate a playlist that draws on the characteristics of those "seeds."

Sometimes this doesn't work very well - a Carlos Nakai seed generates a lot of virtually identical music by about three artists - but when it does, it is astonishing and pleasing to learn about a whole bunch of works that you like and would never have heard of otherwise.

Plus it's nice just as background.

Yeah, but can the Marantz 2270 handle the digital conversion?

Eric

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