The Quest for the Highest Fidelity

Neil Young wants us to go beyond MP3.  In this video interview he tells us that MP3 only has 5% of the music data of a master tape, and that CD’s only have 15%.  Which makes me wonder what percentage of the master tape is presented in vinyl.  I also wondered how Neil came up with those numbers.  Well, I found Fidelity Potential Index (see the graph).  By this chart, the vinyl records processes 415,000-625,000 bits per second, whereas a CD is 705,600, and a SACD does 3,500,000 and 24 bit Dolby True HD reaches 4,608,000, but I’m not sure how to compare this to a MP3 file, which have different rates of compression.  But I found “16 Bit vs. 24 Bit Audio” with a number of interesting tables.

That article says a 24 bit master recording at 96kHz sample rates produces a 99 megabyte file for a 3 minute song, and 128kbps MP3 takes up 2.82 megabytes of space.  So if Neil was using a better sample rate that creates a 5 megabytes file, it would be about 5% of the master.  And that’s for a 24/96kHz master, what about a 24/192kHz master recording – the MP3 becomes 2.5%.  But a CD would still have 30-33%, not 15%, unless he was comparing CDs to 24/192 masters, which would be about 15%.  And I still don’t know what vinyl would have.

I’m listening to streaming music right now, “Rudy” by Supertramp, which might be 256 kbps MP3, so I’m getting that 5% of the original musical data, at least according to Neil.  If I spent a bunch of money on audiophile equipment and found a 24 bit master file of this song, if it’s available, would I experience 20 times as much music?

I tried SACD years ago, buying a reasonable amount of equipment just to see what it’s like.  If I sat in my recliner, closed my eyes, and concentrated, I could tell the difference.  Sometimes it was dramatic.  But if I started doing stuff while the music was playing it no longer mattered if I was listening to a CD or SACD.

Listening to music on Rdio while I write my blogs, streaming is good enough.  If I go sit in the den and crank up my stereo, and kick back in my recliner and concentrate on the music like I concentrate on a movie, breaking out the CDs is worth the trouble.  But not if my thoughts drift.  I like to use music to pump up my thinking.  For that, streaming is good enough.

Every once in awhile I’ll listen to music on my iPod touch – like when I have insomnia – but I find music through earphones tiny and thin.  It’s okay for emergencies, but I can’t believe that’s most people’s first choice in listening conditions.

I could go over to HDtracks and buy Fleetwood Mac by Fleetwood Mac in 192kHz/24bit FLAC for $25.98 and find out if Neil is right.  But can my HTPC actually play the file in 192kHz resolution?  Is it even worth it?   Read this thread, “24-bit/192kHz is pointless?”  Or read “Coding High Quality Digital Audio” by J. Robert Stuart.  These people have explored the territory Neil Young pines for us all to live in and they aren’t so sure it’s the promised land.

Let’s think of it another way.  Neil can’t even get people to listen to CDs which have three times the music data, so how can he expect people to demand a technology that delivers 20 times as much data?  I got into SACD years ago just as SACD was failing in the marketplace.  I think Neil is hoping that Apple will come out with iPhones/iPods that have 24/192 technology, and iTunes and Amazon will start selling is 100mb songs that download and store just as easily as 5mb songs.  This could happen.  But music fans aren’t asking for it, so will it happen?  How many people rushed out to buy HD Radio receivers?

I loved listening to SACDs where I felt the musical instruments had so much more texture, and singers sounded like they were live in the room, but I only noticed those details when I paid attention.  How many people really pay attention to music?

And I still can’t find out why people cling to vinyl – the scientific numbers just don’t justify it.  Is there a chance that people love vinyl for its warmth because it has less music data?  If that’s the case, one day when Neil gets his way and Apple presents HD digital music, the young people will all cling to MP3 files for their warmth – all that extra music data will sound too harsh.

JWH 2/9/12

14 thoughts on “The Quest for the Highest Fidelity”

  1. To get all the extra “bits” an LP produces you must have a good, clean needle, a good (direct-drive) turntable, quality cables and a high-end stereo rig. All of which is expensive as hell and you still have to stop whatever you are doing and flip the record every 15-25 minutes.

    I used to be very obsessive about sound quality, I started working to save money to buy the equipment when i was in junior high school. I didn’t have a complete system until I was in college. Every record I bought I recorded onto the highest quality cassette tape I could afford and used the tapes to listen at home and to create mix tapes from. I bought special acid-free sleeves to store the records in and protective sleeves to protect the album covers. I built special shelves to store my records with lots of extra vertical supports so when I searched through them a dozen or two wouldn’t flip suddenly over due to gravity. Whenever I bought new records I moved the alphabetized disks around so they were evenly distributed in the shelves to help keep them from warping. I had cleaning liquid, brushes and pads for the needle and the records themselves. I rarely played a record without cleaning it first.

    It was all an insane waste of time and money.

    I switched to CDs soon as they became common. Mix tapes became so easy to make I never got bored of the tapes I played in my car which was for a long time my preferred place to listen to music. My parents wouldn’t tolerate loud music; once I moved out neither would my neighbors.

    Only useless hipsters prefer records now. Some DJ’s might legitimately be able to claim LP’s are better for their work, but I see few of them lugging boxes of records, etc to gigs nowadays.

    Some of this love of vinyl comes from punk rock, which held to vinyl much longer than mainstream music. For punk the LP and the 7″ were far more democratic (meaning cheap). Most 7’s were done at 331/3 speed so an entire EP could fit. Sound fidelity wasn’t the main concern. For a long time you could produce small batches (1-5K) of records far less expensively than any other format. A kind of band culture evolved around getting the records from the press and folding the sleeves, etc for hours.

    I still have about 6 feet of 7″ records, but less than a foot’s worth of LPs. A few bands I like released both CDs and vinyl with extra tracks they didn’t release on CD (damn their hides). Some bands will still sell you vinyl instead of CDs, but they come with a code allowing you to download the songs as mp3’s or FLAC files. This I like, the vinyl is an art piece rather than a medium to deliver sound. Interesting covers and disk colors have a long history in punk and predated punk. One of my favorites is a Man Or Astroman 7″ who’s cover is punched; you knock out all the pieces then fold/glue them together into a 3D flying saucer.

    1. I gave all my vinyl records and turntable away years ago to a Katrina refuge. She said her entire music collection, including 78s had been destroyed. So I gave her my records. I sometimes miss LPs, but it’s mostly nostalgia.

      By the way, I have I have a couple Man or Astroman CDs.

      I don’t think I’ll ever go back to vinyl, but I might like to try 24 bit 96 or 192kHz FLAC.


      1. I’ve downloaded a few flac recordings, the difference in sound doesn’t impress me though, so I compressed them. I still have most of my old system in the spare bedroom. Some of the foam in the speaker’s diaphragm have disintegrated into dust, but they still sound fine. The reel-to-reel player doesn’t work anymore, but the main problem is my receiver’s analog electronic display has failed, so you don’t know what any of the settings are except by listening. I think the 7.1 blu-ray surround sound system I have in my living room sounds better than it ever did and in comparison I put no effort in picking it out.

        I’ve copied almost all my vinyl to ogg format. It is turning out to be a much longer process than converting my CDs, even though I had over 1500 at the time. Manually cutting the vinyl recordings into tracks and matching the names takes a fair amount of effort.

        What I’d like is a better mp3 player. I use Debian GNU/Linux for my computers and so refuse to use apple/itunes based products. Partly because I hate vendor lock-in and their exploitation of factory workers. I currently use a Cowon X7. I’ve had it for almost 2 years, it stores 160GB worth of music and plays ogg files, but it has a terrible interface that is very slow. I’ve tried several UI’s on top of it, but none made any real difference.

        1. Man, that was a HUGE project, converting all those LPs to CDs. I tried that and gave up. Just too much work. But I also miss some of my LPs.

          I’ve heard that the Cowon was among the best digital music players for audiophiles, so I’m surprised to hear it’s clunky and slow. That’s thing thing that Neil Young was wish for, a digital player that handle 24-bit music and a song selling environment that supported it. I think he figures if there’s a gadget out there that’s easy to use and get songs for people would want higher quality music.

    1. I read that yesterday off of Slashdot. I meant to put a link to it in this blog but just forgot. Thanks, because now you have.

      Mike, are you tempted by the quest for higher fidelity?

        1. Several people, all our age, have told me that their hearing isn’t very good any more, and so high fidelity won’t matter. I wonder if I’m suffering from audio delusions then?

  2. I’m a musician (part-time now) who has around 3,000 vinyl LPs and occasionally purchase new releases on them (especially Hendrix, because it doesn’t feel right, otherwise). I’m no musical snob/elitist, but I just am not going to replace all those records, and every once in a while I like hearing them as I once did – one 15-25 minute side at a time. I also own several hundred CDs and even cassette tapes, all in good-to-excellent condition, plus I have downloaded some albums off iTunes and Amazon. I have a Pandora account, which I rarely listen to, namely because during the day I listen almost exclusively to NPR and BBC shows and podcasts via WiFi radio. For me, rather than have music as background, I prefer the informational shows, If something catches my interest, I start listening closer. Music has always been an altogether different experience for me – it has almost never been merely “background noise” during daily activities, including workouts and daily bike rides, and certainly does not provide a soundtrack for my life. Music is a very personal experience to me, and it is worth it to stop, pick out an old LP for whatever reason, and sit down and listen to it on an old-but-still-good stereo system. Kind of like reading a short story, or a chapter from a book. Or like sitting down and enjoying a good meal rather than gobbling a burger while multi-tasking. I am pretty sure that is what ol’ Neil is really getting at… it really isn’t about audio purity, it is more about the whole LISTENING experience.

    1. Sometimes I listen to music with the same attention I give a movie at the theater. That’s when music is at its best. In the 1960s and 1970s, when I was in high school and college, my friends and I would get together to play albums. Of course we’d get altered, but we’d all get comfortable and listen to an album with the same respect as people give a movie at the theater. No talking, all focus. Those days were when I was the most excited to hear a new album. We’d all bring albums we’d recently bought and just listen. I don’t think music gets that kind of respect and attention anymore.

    1. Thanks for that link Lee, that was a fascinating show. It’s interesting that some of the call-in listeners preferred vinyl, but the sound engineers preferred CDs. But it’s like you said in an earlier reply Lee, that it’s the total experience, and the vinyl people liked the ritual of playing LPs, and the physical qualities of the jacket and smell of the vinyl. I prefer CDs because of their sound, but like streaming because of its convenience, but I miss the 12″ album jackets.

      At the end of the show they mentioned the HD downloads that are available. I’m playing with some of them right now, but I just don’t know if they are practical. I know the market has turned against CDs, but they are the most convenient form of high fidelity right now.

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