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

SACD Not Dead After All, At Least Fans Hope

In my last post, “The Rise and Fall of High Fidelity” I suggested that the Super Audio CD (SACD) was dead.  A reader, Steve Cooney let me know this was not true, and I started researching the subject.  A major online clubhouse for SACD fans is http://sa-cd.net – where diehards keep the SACD fires burning.  Other fans, like Teresa at SACD Lives, worry contrary to her blog’s name, that the SACD is really dying. 

My research taught me that SACDs are still being produced, with almost 7,000 titles created to date, and that some audiophiles still back the format.  So I immediately went out and ordered two more SACDs for my meager collection because they do go out of print fast.  Most of the major SACD record producers have called it quits, but not all, and after Telarc threw in the towel, many of the faithful SACD fans are having a hard time seeing a rosy future.  They cling to the idea that if LP buyers can have a niche market, why can’t they.  There are specialty producers like Linn Records that cater to the high fidelity crowd, but they specialize in classical and jazz music, so popular music on SACD is extremely uncommon.

As far as the royal rulers of music, their attitude towards the masses is let them eat MP3s.  They believe people who listen to Arcade Fire, Kings of Leon or Katy Perry aren’t concerned with quality sound, and they are probably right.  Audiophiles HATE CDs.  They love LPs or SACDS, and Studio Master FLAC downloads, which are more expensive formats, requiring very expensive, hard to configure equipment to play.

Audiophiles, like those at positive-feedback, have always been a small subculture, mainly people who love classical and jazz.  Audiophiles are rich, or middle class fanatics willing to spend a significant chunk of their income on their hobby, so it should have been no surprise to me that these people did embrace the SACD format and have clung to it because it’s about the only show in town featuring the best level of high fidelity.  These guys don’t flinch at $4,000 SACD players, but they are also quick to point out that us poorer folks can find $300 players too, and that many Blu-Ray players, especially from Sony still support the SACD format.

It’s a shame that all Blu-Ray players don’t support the format.  If you build a high definition television entertainment system with surround sound, and have the appropriate Blu-Ray player, you have everything you need to try out SACD audio.  If you don’t, there’s a lot of equipment to buy just to hear what all the fuss is about – and that’s why the SACD format hasn’t caught on.  Or least one of the reasons.

Most new SACDs are imports with $29.99 list prices.  If you balk at spending $18.99 for a CD, then SACDs are poison.  You’d think record companies would be promoting a format that can’t be ripped on a PC (because SACDs can’t be played on PCs users can’t make copies).  Why wasn’t SACDs the answer to CD piracy?

We are living in an age of abundant technology, and the reigning rule of thumb for most citizens of this era is the “Good Enough” principle.  Don’t spend too much money, don’t waste too much time on consumer research, don’t get involved with anything requiring too much learning, just settle for good enough.  SACD technology is expensive, requires lots of consumer research, and a great deal of technical knowledge to use correctly.  iPods and iTunes are cheap and easy, so their sound is good enough.

What I want to know is why high fidelity isn’t cheap and easy?  Most people can afford high definition TV sets, and cable and satellite companies make it reasonably easy to see HDTV shows.  Why has the music industry failed to bring HD music to the masses?

I gave up on SACDs several years ago when I was afraid the format was going to be another Betamax.  I should have kept buying SACDs as they came out and helped support the cause.  I’m sorry I didn’t.  I was sidetracked by streaming music from Rhapsody and other online sources, and figured that was the future of music.  Many SACD fans hope the DSD download will be the future of streaming music, but that mostly seems to be a gleam in their eye right now.

Since sales of CDs are in sharp decline, it could be the the music industry feels the CD will be the niche market for audiophiles as plebian music fans flock to the good enough MP3 file format.  But audiophiles who have gotten used to the extreme quality of SACD don’t want to go back to CD – a format they’ve always hated anyway.  In fact, they may be the ones buying LPs again and improving its market share.  Doesn’t it seem strange to be going back to 1948 technology to get high fidelity?

For years now I’ve been listening to streaming music as my main source of music.  It’s convenient and I have access to millions of songs and albums.  It has been way to easy.  But when I do play my SACDs and actually sit and listen to their quality I wonder if I’m sacrificing too much for ease of use.  Maybe “Good Enough” really isn’t all that good?  I could return to LPs like my friend Lee has.  He’s even giving me a turntable to convert me to the cause.

And there’s another issue that my friend Luther pointed out.  He says there is so much content that people don’t discriminate anymore.  In the old days most people had a shelf of LPs (or a crate of them) but a very small number.  They were albums they cherished and knew.  I have over a thousand CDs, maybe even as many as 1,500, and most haven’t been played in years and years, and I can’t even remember what I have.

Wouldn’t it be better to have fewer albums, ones of of the highest fidelity, that I knew intimately?  I should use the wealth of Rhapsody to only find new albums to buy and cherish on my living room stereo instead of using it as my only source of music.  Audiophiles are telling me that true, and they bitterly complain those albums shouldn’t be on CD, but LP or SACD.  If I go by availability, the LP is the answer.

When I sit in my La-Z-Boy and crank up my SACD copy of Blonde on Blonde, and close my eyes and listen, the experience is so much fuller than playing music as the background soundtrack to my activities.  Music deserves our full attention like watching a movie.  Teresa, the writer of the blog SACD Lives listens to music in a total dark room without clothes so she can give her fullest attention to the experience.  Now that’s an extreme audiophile.  Makes me want to have a sensory deprivation chamber outfitted with SACD sound, so I could float in music.

JWH – 10/2/10

17,081 Songs

I finally finished ripping my CD collection, a task I’ve been meaning to do for years.  I put it off, time and again, but I finally made up my mind that it had to be done, and when I did, it only took a few weeks.  What I did was set up two old computers to be a ripping factory.  The results were 17,081 songs contained in 125 gigabytes.  I immediately copied them to a USB hard drive and took it to work and backed up the library to my office computer.  I figured after that effort I didn’t want to loose my new digital music library to a crashed or stolen computer.  The question now:  How do I maximize the use of my song collection.

As I write this I keep an iTunes window open with a single long listing of my songs sorted by artist.  My collection represents decades of collecting covering centuries of music history.  One lesson from holding every CD I’ve bought while putting them into the burner is learning how many I’ve forgotten I owned.  On CBS Sunday Morning today they profiled Shelby Lynne, and I checked and found I had six of her CDs, but not the one they talked about that I wanted to hear the most – damn!  Just now I noticed I have four CDs of John Lee Hooker and clicked on Chill Out to play as I type.

Other than just random gazing at my list I have no real idea of what’s in my collection.  I can remember my favorites to a degree, but I’ve discovered its easy to find forgotten favorites, albums I played regularly years ago that I’ve since forgotten I even loved, much less owned.  Can you name all the movies you got excited about during the 1980s?  Susan, my wife, told me to go through all 17,081 and rate them.  Sure thing, Susie.  iTunes tells me I have 48.3 days of 24×7 listening.  I wished iTunes, Windows Media Player, or Firefly Media Server would tell me how many albums I owned.

Since I started this project I’ve been playing music a lot more and loving the rediscovery of old friends, but I’ve also been bummed by how many songs I own that I just don’t dig – not in the least.  Some songs were filler to begin with, but in other cases I guess I’ve just changed.

How To Be My Own Disc Jockey

What I need to do is organize the playing of the best songs and musical genres in a way that educates me about my own collection.  The traditional way to organize playing digital music is playlists, but that assumes you know what you want on your list before you build them.

Another option is shuffle play.  The random jumping between 17,081 songs can lead to some weird song combinations, but it does get me to hear songs I would never try from just memory.  And it can be surprisingly surprising.  “Sleeping in the Devil’s Bed” by Daniel Lanois just started playing.  Hell, I didn’t even know I had a Daniel Lanois CD, but it’s from a soundtrack to movie called Until the End of the World, a film I only vaguely remember.  The next song is “Sunflakes Fall, Snowrays Call” by Janis Ian, which is just as good.  I knew I had several Janis Ian CDs, but never remember even hearing this song, but I’ve played the album several times I know.  The next song is “No Surrender” by Bruce Springsteen, from the Live 1975-85 album.  Again, another song I like but didn’t remember.  Either I have a terrible memory or most music is not very memorable.

So far, I can say that random play succeeds the best to teach me about my own record collection.  However, I just discovered I can’t rate the songs as I hear them because I’m using the Firefly Media Server on a separate computer server to feed them through iTunes, and to rate the songs would require my library being in iTunes on my Vista machine.  This brings up another huge problem for having a digital music library.

Where Do I Keep the Master Library?

Right now my collection is on an old Dell server, ripped and stored under Windows Media Player, but distributed throughout the house by the Firefly Media Server.  I can play songs through iTunes on any machine, or I can play songs through my stereo using a Roku SoundBridge M1001.  I can remotely manage the SoundBridge with VisualMR, so I can use my laptop to select which songs to play on my stereo.  Supposedly, I can use Windows Media Connect to share songs between any Windows Media Player on any of my machines, or use Windows Media Center to distribute songs throughout my house with Windows Media extender devices like the Xbox, but I haven’t figured out how to use them yet, and I don’t own an Xbox.  The Roku maybe an extender, but I haven’t explored that angle either.

I could put a copy of the library on each computer I own, and on my iPods, but what if I decide to delete a song, I’d have to go to each machine and delete the file to keep all the libraries in sync.  That would be messy.  Ditto for adding new songs.  I could buy a 160gb iPod and make it my master library, but that means being tied to iTunes.

I’m thinking about buying a larger hard drive for my main Vista machine and putting the library there and installing Firefly Music Server on the same machine and taking down my extra machine.  Why burn watts on two machines with work that could be done by one?  This would also allow me to backup my library with Mozy.com, which I can restore to my work machine occasionally – so work and home will stay in sync.

Now that I have a master library, I want to clean it up and delete all the songs and albums I don’t like.  And with the master library on one machine I can catalog it in both Windows Media Player and iTunes because I have yet to decide which I like best for browsing songs and making playlists.  And if I ever get a Windows Media Center extender I could browse album covers from my HDTV and play songs on my living room stereo.  Both Windows Media Center and iTunes have the nice cover flow browsing feature.  Let’s hope in the future that cover flow can be expanded to include all the CD jacket data and editorial content.

Another advantage of having a single master library is collecting ratings.  If the files are on the same machine I can rate songs in both iTunes and Windows Media Player.  I have no idea how this information is stored, or whether it migrates well to new computers and new operating system upgrades.

Yet, another advantage to saving my music library on my main home computer is when I buy new songs.  They will be added immediately to the master library.

Where To Play Music?

Most people think the iPod is the sole venue for playing digital music but I don’t.  I maybe an old fuddy-duddy because I don’t like separating myself from the world by plugging the white buds into my ears.  I have nice speakers on my computers at work and home, and I also have a nice stereo system in the den with comfy La-Z-Boys for truly devoted music meditation.  Sure I have iPods to carry around, but strangely, I prefer to listen to audio books on the go.  My wife does like playing music in the car on her commutes, but it’s easy to sync songs to her iPod and play them through the car’s stereo.

I share my music collection with my wife.  We can play music in the den that’s heard well in the kitchen and breakfast room, meaning we can do dishes and groove at the same time.  Eventually I think I might like to pipe my music library into my bedroom too.

Ripping music to MP3 has made it easy to play songs anywhere without the hassle of finding CDs and filing them back afterwards.  The key will be maintaining the master library.  It will be annoying if I delete a hated song one day and then be listening to music the next and that deleted song pop up again somewhere else.  Or conversely, if I buy a song at home but can’t find it on my work computer later.

Buying New Music

Now that I have my nice digital music library and my CDs are all filed alphabetically away, how do I add new music?  Over the past few years I have occasionally bought digital songs that are now trapped in ancient DRMs and stuck on the computers on which they were purchased, and in some cases lost on dead computers.  So no more buying DRM shackled music.

If CDs are about the same price as digital downloads, should I get CDs or files?  I’m tempted to get CDs, but digital downloads are a better deal for the environment.  As long as I keep my master library backed up and migrate it from new computer to new computer digital files should be safe.  If my house burns down I have my backup on Mozy and my work computer.

Yet, it depresses me to think that I’m limited to the sonic quality of 256kbps rips.  With CDs I could re-rip my collection to a new standard in the future, or even rip them to a loss-less format when I have enough main storage.  The Shelby Lynne CD I referred to above is $9.49 as a download and $9.97 as a CD at Amazon.  Which would you buy?  Of course I can listen to it for free on Rhapsody.

I am a subscriber to Rhapsody Subscription Music and I don’t have to buy new music for the most part since I rent.  However, if a CD goes out of print it disappears from Rhapsody.  I have Shelby Lynne CDs that Rhapsody doesn’t offer.  Strangely it seems for a service that offers unlimited plays from an almost unlimited library that you’d think once they offer a song it would never be deleted.  But it appears if it isn’t for sale somewhere it gets dropped by Rhapsody.  That’s why I ripped my large CD collection.  I have many out-of-print CDs that aren’t always on Rhapsody.

If Rhapsody offered everything, and promised to be a business that would last forever, I would have just packed away my CDs without ripping them and lived by Rhapsody alone.  It’s easy to play Rhapsody music from any machine attached to the Internet, and I can send Rhapsody music to my stereo via the SoundBridge, and if I owned a certified player, I could carry it around too.  But right now, Rhapsody is only good for new music – the kind you can buy from Amazon.

I’ve been playing 17,081 songs on shuffle play all afternoon and through the evening and I’m delighted by what it brings me.  Taking the time to rip my music is paying off fast, I should have done it long ago.  It’s like having the most eclectic radio station ever.

Jim