I love music listening—that's all I do, by intent, listen—and I've been an "audiophile" (for some definition of that contentious term) for most of my life—all of my adult life. I'm not a nut about it. Every seven to fifteen years, finances and patience permitting, I revamp my stereo system into something a bit more tolerable than it was, then I fuggedabboudit. When I lived in Woodstock in the late '90s, I actually took out a bank loan to buy a new stereo. It's that important to me.
I've been in the midst of that periodic upgrade recently, and I'm pleased to say it's been going well. I had a great room in Woodstock (best ever) and I have a bad room now, but I've been hearing better sound recently than I've ever had before.
What touched this all off is that my previous system had two sources, one old and one new: vinyl and computer USB audio. But the bare-bones approach I used—it was based around a headphone amplifier as a preamp—was limited to CD-quality resolution for the computer audio. And I wanted to experiment with HD audio.
Surprisingly, perhaps, one of the best upgrades in this whole process has been one of the cheapest. Accordingly, I have a recommendation for you, but I have to warn you, it comes at the end of this post, and it's a bit of a trek to get there...
Computer audio formats
Here's the short-short story on "high definition" (HD), the de facto standard term for high-resolution download formats:
To begin with, CD sound quality is antiquated and outmoded (approximately analogous to back when Canon and Nikon both had pro cameras of 4 MP). It's still around because it's the standard. Called the Red Book Standard, to be more specific. It was put in place by Sony and the Dutch electronics giant Philips way back in 1980. The Red Book Standard called for encoding two channels of LPCM audio, each signed 16-bit values sampled at 44.1kHz. These days, that's the equivalent of running a complicated defense system with 30-year-old computer software. But it's a known known, and it works, so it's still in place.
Attempts to standardize higher-resolution formats failed. There was a product war, as you might expect (between SACD and DVD-A), but, unlike the famous case of Betamax vs. VHS, nobody won. They both lost.
Part of the reason they both lost is because CD format is "good enough" for most of the buying public. Higher quality is not in adequate demand. (This is another subject, but I very much fear the day when this will also become true of digital imaging standards.) iTunes, which is a big enough tail to wag the dog of the public, unfortunately has so far turned its back on HD. (And probably will until the small sites start eating a big enough bite of its lunch.)
A good part of the reason for that is that you have to have a high-resolution system (i.e., the equipment you do your listening through) before you can hear the benefit of high-resolution formats. And most people don't. And won't. (With all the work I've put in on my new system, I can't even say I blame them.)
Despite all this, the bleeding edge will find a way. The Web is truly, subversively democratic, allowing people to do what they want to do on a small scale to a remarkable degree. Thus are music lovers who like good sound quality doing a modest end-around on the autocratic giants who control our lives: small web providers of HD music downloads are popping up here and there on the Web. HD music is finding its path to the future (as opposed to those dead-end official formats). CD is 16-bit/44.1kHz (16/44.1), yet 24-bit/192kHz (24/192) files are becoming common online. My system can now play 24/96. Do they sound better? Well, can you make a better print from a 24MP full-frame image file than you can from a 4-MP APS-C one?
All you need
All that is not to say it's easy.
Appropriately, right now I'm listening to "Come Sunday" by Charlie Haden and Hank Jones, a quiet album of traditional religious tunes, in HD. It sounds utterly wonderful: liquid, dimensional, expressive. A very creditable representation of real music. Worth it? To me, yes.
Here's what you need to enjoy HD music:
First, you need a DAC (digital audio converter) capable of accepting native HD signal rates...not just an "upsampling" DAC, which does very much what "uprezzing" does in printing digital image files. Every DAC manufacturer wants you to think its product is good enough for you, so this isn't always very clearly presented in the product specs.
Second, you need a way to connect the DAC to your computer. Those include SPDIF, AES/EBU, optical, coaxial, USB, or USB Audio Class 2. I've always stuck with good ol' USB, but there are two caveats to that: first, if you have a DAC that accepts HD signal, you need to make sure that it will accept it through the USB connection: many DACs only accept the highest rates through SPDIF and/or one or another connector, and limit USB input to 96kHz or even CD's 44.1kHz. (That's what triggered my latest bout of stereo upgrading: my simple, bare-bones previous system limited digital input to 16/44.1, a.k.a. CD-quality sound. Better than most computer audio...at least, it was six years ago.) The new USB Audio Class 2 frees USB of its previous 96kHz ceiling, accepting up to 192kHz signal. Second, you should make sure that the computer isn't dictating the bus speed. The buzzword term is "asynchronous" USB, and you definitely want it.
Then you need to decide what format to buy. The uncompressed types are WAV, AIFF, and FLAC, with FLAC emerging as the leader. (FLAC files are what I buy.)
Next, you need to know where to go to buy HD tracks! The biggest site in the USA is called, appropriately, HD Tracks. There are many others, some specializing in specific kinds of music, including Rhino Records, bleep.com, Qobuz in France, Norway's Gubemusic, Linn Audio, Naim, the direct-music-marketing site Bandcamp, and many others.
(If you are in France and are set up for HD audio, please go to Qobuz and download Avisahi Cohen's "Duende" in HD! I'll enjoy it vicariously. And count your blessings un, deux, trois. I cannot wait until that is available to the USA.)
More caveats: just because something is in a lossless format does not mean it's HD. In fact—confusingly, I think—CD-quality 16 bit/44.1kHz files are considered "high-resolution" in many circles because they're higher definition than the standard iTunes download. I don't see it: if I wanted only CD-quality files, why wouldn't I just buy a CD?—Secondly, mastering counts: reputable sites will master from original WAV files from the label, but fly-by-night pirate sites master from CDs or SACDs. Stick to the reputable sites and buck up and pay the price.
Finally, you need a way to play FLAC files from your computer or server. For this, you need some type of software, because iTunes doesn't dance with FLAC files. If you use PC, try J River or MediaMonkey, and if you're on a Mac, the "usual suspects" are Amarra, Decibel, and Pure Music.
Confused at all? I know. But hey, that's the Wild West.
Pure Music = pure music
What I did was simply get this DAC, which is simple as pie to hook up and use (as regular readers know, I like things to be as simple as possible without being too simple); connect it to the computer with an ordinary USB cable (well, I use and recommend Belkin Gold, which is not expensive); go to HD Tracks, sign up, and click on the "96kHz/24bit Store" link in the left-hand sidebar; and then download Channel D's Pure Music, because I'm on a Mac.
And that last is what I'm recommending, to any of you who use iTunes to listen to music on a Mac. Yes, it will play FLAC files natively, which is a plus if you want to experiment with HD possibilities. But Pure Music completely hotrods the iTunes driver, and if you have any sort of halfway decent audio connected to your computer I think it will make a difference to you whether you want to play around in the HD sandbox or not. Pure Music costs $129, but you can download a 15-day trial version for free. It has a "Less Is More Mode," which is a super-simple interface with almost no confusing options; I'd recommend just leaving it in the default mode. You'll need to read the manual carefully eventually, but here are a couple of tips right from the get-go if you have a stereo hooked up to you computer: 1) enable Memory Play; and 2) set the dithered volume control to 0 (zero) and control volume from your preamp. If you use a preamp.
Wonderful. Really takes plain ol' iTunes up a notch or three.
One last note: HD Tracks might stress your internet connection. iTunes is what it is because its lossy, compressed music files will download in a trice. My Internet service is supposed to provide me with 3 mbps download speed; in practice I've never seen higher than 2.6, and the other night, when I was having trouble downloading "Come Sunday," it timed out at a horrible .26 mbps, which is closer to dialup than DSL.
This is funny: I called the local cable provider, and the salesperson gave me a bright and shiny spiel about cable Internet service. She pointed out that my current DSL provides a max of three mbps, whereas with their middle tier cable service I could get up to seven mbps, more than twice as fast!
I then naturally asked about the highest-tier Internet service. I was told it goes up to 20 mbps.
"Oh, well, then, I'll take that," I said.
"No, you don't want that," I was told.
Because it only provides up to 7 mbps in my area.
"Because that's all we need to provide to compete in your area," I was told. Seems the highest DSL rate is 5 mbps, and cable's middle-tier service provides 7 mbps, and that's good enough to beat DSL. If you buy the top-tier up-to-20 mbps service, they won't actually give it to you, because they don't need to. And is there any possible way to buy 20 mbps from them? No. Not in my area.
Despite which, the ad flyers regularly arrive in the mail trumpeting "Unbelievably fast Internet connections UP TO 20 MBPS!!!"
...But not really.
Life in the modern world.
P.S. This is not why I like them, of course (Hank Jones, another brother Scott recommendation, is a musician whose work I "follow"), but on the other hand I don't hate it either:
You recognize the photographer of course. (From American Photographs, which we were discussing recently.)
"Open Mike" is a series of off-topic posts by Yr. Hmbl. Ed. that appear on TOP on Sundays. Sometimes they're even about photography.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Huw Morgan: "I was waiting for you to start the HD audio journey. I've been using HDtracks for a while. I've gone the SPDIF route. I was lucky enough to buy a Harman Kardon AV receiver many years ago that had a DAC that can accept 192 mHz digital input files. Most modern PCs (at least the kind that come without the Mac tax) have audio cards with SPDIF output. I run a fibre optic cable from my computer to my receiver and really enjoy the results.
"However, things are not perfect. I've found that the source material matters a lot. The best sounding album in my collection is Diana Krall's Love Scenes album, a relatively modern recording. I've been disappointed with re-mixes of older material, such as Chicago II. These albums were recorded on reel-to-reel tape in the '60s. Time has taken its toll on the physical media and there is not much modern technology can do to add resolution where none existed in the first place. Better to get a good quality LP and enjoy the original analog sound as the band intended.
"However, despite the variability in source material, it is terrific to have a source of lossless digital tunes so that we don't have to put up with those horrible MP3 or AIC files with all the juice taken out.
"Enjoy your hi res audio experience. Hopefully if more people get into it, we'll get more material recorded in hi res."
Mike replies: Yup, the recording is often the weakest link in the chain these days—when labels make very little on a release they spend pathetically little on the recording. What can you do except keep fighting the good fight, hoping to reward the few people who do it right and encourage those who don't to try harder?
I really feel the best approach is a mix of attitudes. Enjoy the good recordings, tolerate the bad ones in order to listen to the music. Either approach taken to the extreme is too limiting—either becoming fanatical about only listening to good recordings, on the one hand, or just not caring and giving up on sound quality on the other. The two approaches need not be mutually exclusive.
Featured Comment by Robert Westcott: "I have been on the same journey over the past 12 months and would confirm your experiences. My hi-fi is at Porsche 911 level, but not a Ferrari. I can hear differences in reproduction quality when it matters.
"My DAC is the Weiss 202. Logically it 'replaces' the pre-amp as a means of switching between my Mac (for playing downloads), my CD player (much improved reproduction), my Blu Ray player and my digital television (satellite) receiver. All these digital sources are massively improved when played through the DAC and hi-fi system.
"I found Pure Music the best player. 'Hotrodding iTunes' is a great description of what it does. Try using it between iTunes and your computer's detached speakers (or headphones) if you have them. Even in this application the sound is much improved.
"Thanks for your column which I enjoy reading regularly."
Featured Comment by Dana Thomas: "As I have mentioned before we share a common interest in music. I have in one form or another all of Charlie Haden's output. The degree to which I can make him sound live in my house has always been a most pleasant technical journey. I have built tube amps, solid state units, and combined configurations. Now like so many of us I listen through the computer and of course Charlie at first sounded like he was anywhere but in front of me. This year I installed the Burson 160HD DAC/headphone amp and I can tell you that of all the instruments that shine through this piece the acoustic bass is it. Even the lowly MP3 is more impressive. Download the same in HD and tears will roll down your face when Charlie and Hank play together."
Mike replies: I've heard great things about the Burson units. The upcoming "Conductor" promises to be a great one-piece desktop solution for a system in the same room as the computer.
Featured Comment by Chris Lucianu: "Excellent overview, Mike. With a bitter experience of the kind of flak one is shelled with in any HD discussion (over at MacInTouch, Audio Asylum, HydrogenAudio, to name but a few battlefields), I opted for waiting until everybody was looking towards Photokina before posting my comments.
"1. Must-have FLAC converters for OS X users with slower Macs that risk choking with on-the-fly conversion à la Pure Music: XLD, Max. Priceless, and free.
"2. Michael Lavorgna at audiostream.com asked the makers of eight highly regarded software media players a series of essential questions: http://www.audiostream.com/content/media-player-qa-10-questions-8-companies Their responses are required reading in the present discussion.
"3. For European readers of TOP: Qobuz is really, really good. Nice touch: if you buy an album in Red Book quality and it becomes available in HD (Qualité Masters), you pay only the price difference for the upgrade. Discrimination of buyers along national markets is not of their making. I know because I live on a tri-national border. Albums one can buy on one side of the border may be verboten if you live on the other side of the line. Crazy, in our digital world.
"4. Pure Music: I've written extensively about PM and Pure Vinyl over at MacInTouch. Recommended unreservedly. And, as a certified Murphy's Field Generator and PM user from about day one, I ran into early bugs and problems most users won't ever hear about. So I had the pleasure of some illuminating exchanges with Channel D's top engineer, Dr. Robert Robinson. Nothing special about bugs in a complex piece of software; I had plenty of those in everything I've ever used. What is exceptional, however: the level of dedication and competence brought by Dr. Robinson when addressing problems reported by users. (I've almost come to regret PM being now well-nigh bug-free, because I have no excuse for importuning Dr. Robinson any longer.)
"5. The 'Golden Ears' trope and the Nyquist custard pie: Mike addressed the first quite effectively: just listen. The second is trickier to address, because it's not even wrong. Without getting into the details: ask a competent engineer what the practical advantages of higher sampling frequencies and bit depths are, relative to the way actual D/A converters actually work. Then ask any number of competent recording engineers whether they are recording and mixing their masters at 44.1/16, or at higher sampling frequencies and bit depths. Most crucially, ask them why. Still not convinced? Do your own recording simultaneously in 44.1/16 and HD, then use an Izotope sample rate converter to properly downsample and dither the HD version to 44.1/16. Compare and discuss.
"6. 'By the way, double-blind tests don't work in audio.' Here I must respectfully disagree with Mike. They're hard to set up. They don't work the way hi-fi magazines used to set them up. They do work under scientific conditions: according to rigorous psychoacoustical methodology, with rigorous control of the variables at play, with very strict procedural guidelines, with careful statistical planning, with sufficiently large groups of probands, with ensured replicability. And the questions asked of the probands must be of a testable nature."