Moondance by Van Morrison–Spotify v. FLAC

van-morrison-moondance

Moondance, Van Morrison’s third solo album, recorded from August to December, 1969, and released February 28, 1970, is a true classic rock album.  Moondance placed #65 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” and was inducted into The Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.  A detail history of the album can be read at Wikipedia.  Discogs lists 64 different versions of the Moondance, the most of any of the 51 Morrison albums listed there.

Play the album while you read.

As I wrote yesterday, “Pono, We Have a Problem,” I just bought a new Denon AVR-X1000 receiver that can play 24-bit FLAC files and I wanted to find the best album I could to test out high definition audio.  At the time I couldn’t decide for a number of reasons, but mainly because I couldn’t find a FLAC album I wanted to spend $25 on that I would enjoy listening to the whole way through.  Then one of my readers, paintedjaguar, chided me for not having the patience to savor a whole album, and I realized he was right.  I needed to not think about hit songs, but just find a great album.

Concurrent with looking for a FLAC album to buy, I was setting up my new receiver to play Spotify and I thought, “Why don’t I play some albums from my HDTracks wish list to see if I can sit through any of them.”  The first one I picked was Moondance, and as an extra surprised, Spotify had a recent remastered 4-CD edition of Moondance.  I fired it up and was blown away by the sound.

I don’t know if it was my new receiver, or the new remastered CD, but between the two of them Moondance sounded awesome.  The soundstage was huge, and every instrument was distinct, bright and highly textured.  I sat and savored the entire album in one sitting.  It was like listening to a fantastic concert.  I later read that Van Morrison wanted to record the album live, and tried to make it sound like a live performance in the studio.

Listening to Moondance has taught me I was wrong to always want to just buy hit songs, and that sometimes a whole album is a coherent work of art that should be experienced occasionally as one performance.

I was so impressed with the sound quality of Spotify’s streaming that I wondered how could it possibly sound better.  This streaming MP3 version impressed me like playing SACDs or 180g vinyl.  When it was over I knew I had to buy the 192kHz 24-bit FLAC version.  If Neil Young was right, the high definition version should make the MP3 version feel broken.

So I did.  And it didn’t. 

To be fair, there’s a problem in making the comparison that tells a very complicated story.  The Spotify version, which is a MP3 compressed file streaming at 320bps, should have only a fraction of the recorded information that the 24-bit FLAC file had, and thus it should have sounded fractionally good.  The trouble is the FLAC file apparently is from an older CD release, and the Spotify version was from a newly remastered CD, and they’ve done an excellent job, like the recent remastering of The Beatles CDs.  I was not comparing apples to apples.

On the other hand, this implies a whole lot of possibilities to consider.

  • There’s still plenty of room to improve CD technology.
  • There’s still plenty of room to improve MP3 technology.
  • There’s still plenty of room to improve streaming technology.
  • Albums can vary significantly depending on how they are mastered.
  • How is the loudness wars affecting our listening?
  • Where do FLAC editions come from?
  • Would playing the remastered CD version of Moondance in 192kHz 24-bit FLAC sound significantly greater?
  • How important is hearing ability in all of this?
  • How important is being in the right frame of mind at the time?
  • How important is the playback equipment?

All these possibilities are starting to make my head explode.  My quest to enjoy my favorite music in the highest resolution possible has led me on quite a chase.  Moondance is a fantastic album.  It’s so good it sounds great on AM radio all the way up to my big stereo system.  Does it matter how high resolution is the recording?  I’m listening to the album as I write, played through Spotify on my Klipsch THX computer speakers.   It sounds great, but nothing like last night when I had kicked back in my recliner and played Moondance loud through my new receiver and my floor standing Infinity speakers.  Then I felt like I had traveled back in time to 1969 and I was sitting at a table in a small club listening to a concert.  And that was with a MP3 recording, technology with supposedly the least quality of all the formats.

Don’t get me wrong, the 24-bit FLAC recording sounded incredibly solid.  Van’s voice was rich and thick, and the instruments were smooth and deep sounding.  It has the warm feeling that vinyl fanatics always gush about, but it lacked the punch of the remastered copy, and it soundstage was smaller, with the instruments less distinct.

It’s also important to understand when I played Moondance I was in the most receptive mood possible.  It was at the end of the day and I wanted to relax.  The bright sun was fading and the moment felt serene.  I was in my La-Z-Boy and I didn’t want to go anywhere, or do anything else.  I had just read paintedjaguar’s comment, and I was challenged to experience a whole album.

This says, if you can find the time to listen to an album, you should make an effort to hear the best possible version you can on the best possible equipment you have.  Music deserves the same attention we give a movie when we’re at the theater.  We don’t want to hear other people chattering, or chomping on their popcorn, or feel the glare of their iPhone screens in our peripheral vision.  When we’re watching a movie we stop thinking and experience the show.  That’s how we should listen to music when we’re ready to play a whole album.  I know most of the time we want music to be the daily background music of life, and that’s perfectly copasetic, but sometimes you should just listen to music like watching a movie at the theater.

I beg my friends to come over to listen to albums with me and they all claim I’m crazy.  They can’t believe I waste time that way.  They think of nothing of getting me to sit in a dark movie theater with them for two hours, but won’t spend forty minutes with me playing an album.  Of course, some of them will spend $50-150 to go to a live concert, especially to see dinosaur rockers long past their prime, trying to recreate their classic songs from the albums I want them to come listen to with me.  Go figure.

High definition audio is cool, but it’s not the point.  Albums are works of art.  They have history to be understood.  They are moments in time.  They are powerful expressions of creativity.  The lesson I’ve learned in this pursuit of higher fidelity is to play the music on the best equipment possible, with the best speakers or headphones available, and to take the time to listen when you can shut off your mind and let your consciousness flow down steam with the music. 

And yes, play your music as loud as you can stand, (yet don’t offend your neighbors).  A whole lot of fidelity comes through just by turning it up and paying attention.

JWH – 4/25/14

Pono, We Have a Problem

Pono, the promised portable 24-bit FLAC player scheduled to ship within a year, has me all excited about high definition music.  Because I couldn’t wait, I started researching options to play 24-bit FLAC files now.  I ended up buying a new Denon AVR-X1000 receiver, and here’s where I discovered three huge problem that Pono might have.  I’m all dressed up with no place to go.

Neil-Young-with-Pono-on-L-008

Music Selection

I’ve been clicking through HD Tracks catalog of HD audio files, and even though they have big selection, I can’t find anything I want to buy.  Now I must admit, when SACD came out I bought about 15 of my all-time favorite albums in that format, and see no reason to buy them again.  Those SACD albums are available as FLAC files, and if I hadn’t bought them on SACD, they would have been my first purchases.  The selection is very disappointing if you want 96-192kHz 24-bit high resolution music files.  I could think of plenty of albums I would buy, but they aren’t there.  Ironically, there’s no Neil Young.

Most of the 192kHz/24bit files are for older albums, which is great, but I’d like to hear new stuff with studio master quality.  The new Bruce Springsteen came out as 44.1kHz/24bit.  If the whole selling point is massive high-resolution files, this misses the target.

I have to hope when the Pono comes out, and the Pono Music store opens, this will change.  And there are rumors that iTunes will start selling high resolution music files.  I’d prefer to buy from Amazon, since my other digital music purchases are stored there.

Album v. Song

Right now, you generally have to buy a whole album, and this sucks.  The digital music revolution has taught us we want to buy songs, not albums.  There are many albums at HD Tracks that have songs I would buy, but I just don’t want the whole album.  Right now it seems like Pono is a scheme to get people to buy whole albums again!  I don’t know if that’s going to work.

I’ve been thinning my CD and LP collections and it’s so painfully obvious that I bought most of them for one song.  Many albums that are legendary in my memory, but when recently replayed showed I no longer have the patience to sit through entire albums.  On many CDs, some now 30 years old, I’ve even forgotten the song that made me buy the album in the first place, and sometimes even after playing the entire CD I can’t remember.

It’s a hit song world now.  Few albums are like Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan, where I love most of the songs.  And that’s the first SACD I bought, along with Layla, and The Allman Brothers Band at the Fillmore East.  (Isn’t it odd they were all double LPs.)

There is a naturally tendency to want to hear songs we’re obsessed with at the moment.  Back in the 20th century when LPs and CDs were the only way to get music, I’d buy 2-4 of them a week trying to find music I’d love.  It was always a gamble.  iTunes has taught us not to gamble, but just buy the song that presses that button in our brain that makes us want to play songs over and over again.

With the prices they charge for high resolution music, and the fact that I have to buy a whole album, that means I will only buy albums that are truly incredible.  Sadly, those are few and far between.  I would be very tempted by those old Rhino double CD anthologies as FLAC files, especially those for Quicksilver Messenger Service, Graham Parker, Free and Savoy Brown.

If HD Tracks sold by the song, I would have already bought about 50 of them, even at twice the price of an iTunes song.  As it is, I’m struggling to find the first album to buy to test out my new receiver.  I hate to waste $25 just to test the concept and end up with only one song I like.

Price

I’ve been going through the HD Tracks catalog anxiously looking for something to buy and the $25-30 sticker shock is making the decision agonizing.  Most of the albums I want I already own on CD, or even twice on CD because I’ve already bought the remastered edition.  And for a handful of my favorite albums, I’ve already bought them on SACD.

Rich audiophiles probably think nothing of the pricing of 24-bit FLAC files, but for the masses, it’s going to be a problem.  For the Pono or other high resolution players to catch on, I think music publishers will need to be willing to sell by the song, and I hope that’s what iTunes will do.  I’d prefer to get my songs from Amazon though.

Mass Appeal

I truly doubt high resolution music files will catch on with the masses.  Several of my readers have told me my posts about high resolution music are the ones that bore them the most.  (Sorry guys.)  And I’ve talked with a bunch of my music love friends, and they have little interest either.  And despite Neil Young’s famous video of all these big name musicians getting out of his car and exclaiming the Pono sound blew them away, I’m not sure if the average person can tell the difference.

My new receiver allowed me to play my SACDs again.  I haven’t played them in a while since my new player wouldn’t work with my old receiver.  I put on a SACD and I was amazed at the sound quality – for a while.  I tried Blood on the Tracks and instantly said to myself, “Just listen to that guitar!”  The texture of the bright strings made it feel like a guitar player was right in the room.   However, this magic only worked as long as I applied my full focus of concentration.

I then played my favorite song,  “You’re a Big Girl Now” via Rdio.  My mind sensed something was missing, that this version wasn’t quite as good, but as soon as I relaxed my concentration, it no longer mattered.  MP3 music isn’t bad at all, it’s just not all there, and you have to really focus to notice the missing stuff.

To appreciate high resolution audio you have to concentrate.  You have to listen to the music with total rapt attention.  I listened to some 24-bit classical music and it felt like I was at the symphony, but only while my mind stayed razor sharp on the music.  As soon as I relaxed and listened to the music like a drug washing over me, the high resolution sparkled disappeared.

I’m not sure if most music fans ever concentrate on their music enough to appreciate high resolution sound.  It’s not a dramatic jump like going from analog TV to HDTV.  Which is why 4K TV probably won’t catch on either.  And it’s why all those articles by geeky guys explaining how the Red Book CD standard is more than enough for the average ear is probably true.

I still want to buy a 192kHz/24bit album to test on my new receiver, but between limited selection, finding an album with enough songs I love, and price, it’s proving to be damn hard.  Sorry, Neil, we have a problem.

[Read about which FLAC album I pick and the testing.]

JWH – 4/24/14

24-bit FLAC Crash and Burn

After listening to a video interview with Neil Young tell us music lovers who listen to MP3 files we’re settling for 5% of music data from a studio master I wrote The Quest for the Highest Fidelity.  Since then I’ve been experimenting with 24-bit FLAC files to see if I could hear the stuff I’m missing.  I downloaded a copy of Fubar2000 to play FLAC files and then downloaded a selection of sample FLAC files from 2l.no.  I did not notice a dramatic 20 times better sound quality from having 100% of the music data.  I couldn’t even tell if it was 5% better.

The big question is why not?  Some possible answers are:

  • My ears aren’t good enough (60 years old)
  • My PC speakers aren’t good enough (Kliptsch THX 2.1)
  • My PC audio isn’t good enough (RealTek HD Audio)
  • I don’t have things set up right
  • I don’t have auditory skills to notice a big difference
  • I don’t have all the various components working together properly

If I had $10-20,000 in audio gear I might notice a significant difference but I’m not going to spend the money to find out.  But even if had the money and was willing to spend it, I think I’d need a degree in audio engineering to set up the system.  There are damn few books about setting up high definition digital audio, and not that much on the Internet either.  My Realtek HD audio supports playing 24-bit 96kHz and 192kHz files, and I download FLAC files of each type, and damn if I can tell any difference.  I could tell a slight difference between the 24-bit FLAC and the streaming MP3 music.

And even if the sound was dramatically better, would I really switch to buying $25 albums?  A terabyte hard drive would hold about 100 albums, which would be $2500.  I get a million albums for $10 a month from Rdio, and they sound great.  But then I’m happy eating beans and rice.

I suppose if I was a rich dude living in a big house and had lots of money to burn, I’d build a room for high definition audio, and a RAID NAS with many terabytes of free space, assemble a high end stereo system and collect 24-bit FLAC files, but I doubt I’ll ever be a rich dude.

But you know what?  I recently created a playlist of 1963 songs on Rdio and played them through Roku box connected to my $400 Pioneer amp, with a pair of Infinity floor standing speakers and cranked up the volume, and that was the best I ever heard those songs since 1963.  Neil, I might be missing 95% of the music data, but the 5% I had sounded great.

Even on my PC, if I crank up the volume, the songs sound way better than when I first heard them on a clock AM radio with a single 3” inch speaker.

Streaming MP3 music is just too damn convenient.  This experiment is over.

JWH – 2/15/12