Audiophiles and the Quest for High Fidelity

Audiophiles are music lovers who claim ordinary music fans are missing a range of high fidelity sound when playing music on ordinary equipment.  Audiophiles talk as if the difference between ordinary sound and high fidelity is like the difference between watching a TV show on an old black and white TV or on a new HD TV.  Are they on drugs?  Are we deaf to sounds only they can hear?  Are they just being snobs, sneering at us plebs for drinking $10 bottles of wine while they savior their $100 bottles?  Some people think audiophiles and their promotion of high-end audio equipment no more than modern day snake oil peddlers, and even if you had a degree in electrical engineering, you wouldn’t actual hear the difference between a $400 turntable and a $4,000 one.

maxell-ad

I have gone to a high end music shop and sat in a sonically ideal listening room and heard music from a $25,000 stereo and the sound quality was many magnitudes better than my $2,000 setup.  Few people want to be audiophiles if it costs a fortune, but what if you could significantly improve your existing sound system for a $100-$1000?  Maybe we’d all like to be junior audiophiles.

Most people just listen to their favorite tunes and never think about sound quality.  Few people even know that audiophiles exist.  Compare the two this way.   Most people are happy to get a meal at McDonalds, it’s filling, quick and reasonably tasty.  Those are your average music fans. Audiophiles are gourmets  that only dine at 5-star restaurants who then talk and write endlessly about what they just ate.

There are damn few audiophiles in this world, and I’m not one of them, although if I wasn’t so cheap, I’d like to be.  However, I’m intrigued by the idea of high fidelity and how music is recorded.  I would think anyone would be fascinated by how audio engineers record music in a studio and convert that sound into a very long streams of 1s and 0s, and then we convert those 00100111101100101001s back to music that goes into our ears.

It’s very hard to imagine how we hear Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” when we look at the microscopic pits on a CD:

cd-pits

Of course, this compares to the old days of cutting tiny but visible grooves into vinyl platters where a very small needle would ride along the groove and recreate the vibrations of the recording.  Neither recording technique sounds plausible to me, but then like Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any significantly advanced technology will seem indistinguishable from magic.”

And it’s no easier to understand how we’d hear Beethoven coming out of these squiggles.  It is magic!

record-grooves3

As a kid I wondered why stereo records didn’t require two grooves and needles, one for each speaker.  And I would try to imagine how they got so many instruments and vocals squeezed down to one physical squiggle that the needle would interpret.  Making all those sounds into ones and zeroes is just mind boggling!  How many people actually know how to re-invent CD recording?

Neil Young will be promoting in 2013 a new device called Pono that will deliver master tape quality to the masses, with the promise that record companies have already converted 8,000 albums to 192 kHz 24 bit files for his new system.  When you look at Young’s Pono player, you really wonder about the magic of audiophile technology in such a small device.

pono

When I think about sound recording I imagine a band on a stage with two microphones recording the performance, then taking that recording and decoding it so it’s reproduced by the two speakers in my den.  What I would like to hear is the same sound I would have heard if I had been in the audience at that concert.  We don’t actual hear the same sound, we hear an approximation.  The question of music quality comes from how close we can get to hearing what was performed.

We can all tell the difference between a sharply focused photograph and a fuzzy out-of-focus picture.  What audiophiles are suggesting is most people can’t hear the different between a good and bad recording.

Over the years audiophiles have argued millions of words over the superior sound quality of vinyl records versus CDs or vice versa.  Unless you want to read a tremendous amount of technical jargon its very hard to understand this discussion scientifically.  What I’ve decided to do is just use my own ears and make a subjective decision.

I love music enough to make the effort to improve my listening equipment.  I’m thinking I can be a cheapskate half-ass audiophile pretender and get more sound quality to enjoy for not much effort and money.  I’m willing to study a certain amount about improving high fidelity, and I’m willing to spend a little money.  Recently I got back into vinyl and I’ve taking a chance by spending $200 on a new turntable hoping it will get me better sound.  It’s like spending a few bucks on headphones to improve the sound over stock ear buds that comes with Apple and Android devices.

A quantum leap in sound quality can be achieved by going from an iPhone with stock ear buds to a  modest CD, receiver and speaker setup.  Adding a turntable adds a whole new dimension of sound from vinyl.  But is vinyl worth the effort?  Many young people are jumping from digital music  to old turntable stereos they’ve scrounged from their parent’s attics or found at flea markets or garage sales.  Would they be better off skipping the trendy record player and just getting a CD player?  If they’ve already set up a surround sound system for their TVs or video games, they might be interested to know that those DVD and Blu-ray players also play music CDs.  Or adding the right powered speakers to a laptop, desktop or mobile device can add significant sound quality to playing music from iTunes.

Since I’ve been getting back into playing vinyl records I’ve also been thinking about their sound quality as compared to CDs and .mp3 files.  Some vinyl enthusiasts claim vinyl sounds better, but I believe this is only subjective.  I’ve read a lot on this topic and I’ll have to call it a theoretical draw.

I decided to do my own very limited listening test.  I only have 16 albums at the moment, with only a few overlaps with CDs and songs available on Rdio.  For my test song I used “Dreamsville” from the Peter Gunn soundtrack by Henry Mancini.  You can hear the song here from Youtube.  Play it very loud if you can.

It’s a nice cut to use because it has soft and loud parts, and solos from several instruments, and a lot of different sound textures to compare.

Listening is a very subjective experience.  Everyone has different ears, hearing ability and musical training.  I played “Dreamsville” on my stereo system through floor standing Infinity speakers cranked up loud.  I had a CD input, an Aux input for the turntable and TV input for the Roku where I listened to Rdio for the streaming .mp3 version.  Admittedly I have an older turntable, with a cheap pre-amp, but I believe I’m getting a pretty good sound from my records.

Playing “Dreamsville” over and over, and switching between the inputs, it was pretty obvious that the record lacked the highs and lows that the CD had.  Even the .mp3 file was in the middle of the two formats.  The streaming music was much closer to the CD in sound quality.  One disadvantage of the LP is it plays softer than the CD and .mp3 file, so I would have to pump up the volume when playing the record.

No matter how loud I played the record I couldn’t get the complex sounds I heard on the CD.  I made my comparisons by concentrating on the brassy sound of the horns, the high tinkling notes of the piano keys, the range of textures of the brushes on the drums, the deeper vibrations of the trombones, the fuller twangs of the electric guitar and so on.  Records do sound warm compared to CDs, but that’s because CD have a lot more treble and more bass range than vinyl.  And I suppose that extra texture can sound harsh to some people.

Then the UPS guy delivered my new turntable, an Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB and it proved the audiophiles are right – spending more money gets you a lot more sound quality.  Repeating the tests, the LP now sounded much more dynamic, with tons more bass, and a lot more textured sound than the older turntable.  This goes to show that a newer, superior cartridge with new stylus could make a lot of difference, and another factor was the turntable had it’s own pre-amp that might have been much better than the cheap one I had.  It makes me wonder what I’d hear if I bought a $400 turntable or a $900 one.

Look at this table I’ve copied by screenshot from Enjoy the Music web site, and the article “Fidelity Potential Index: iPod, MP3, CD, LP, SACD – What Sounds Better and Why” by John Meyer.  Clicking on the image will enlarge it.

Fidelity Potential Index

By the numbers the quality should be .mp3 then LP then CD, but I didn’t perceive things that way.  Their Fidelity Potential Indexes are MP3=3.2, LP=4.2-6.3, and CD=7.1.  In comparison, a SACD is 35.0 FPI and a 24bit master is 46.1.  This leads me to believe that my old record and old turntable might be far from optimal quality, and the new one closer to what a record can actual do.  I guess that’s why vinyl fans spend lots of money on turntables and pre-amps.

My guess is .mp3 files and CDs played loud on a good stereo (not audiophile, merely good) will sound better than the average old turntable on the same system.  So for casual music listening CDs or .mp3 files are plenty good enough, so pick whatever is convenient, although I do think CDs sound better and are worth the trouble to listen to when you want to do some serious listening.

For the average music fan formats don’t matter.  If you want better fidelity you’ll need to spend some money, but how much is relative.

I’m really enjoying getting back into records and my new turntable makes me enjoy them all the more.  I still think the CD sounds best, but I actual enjoy buying and listening to records.  I guess it’s part nostalgia and part ritual.

So Why Buy Vinyl?

The reason why I got back into vinyl is because I want to hear records that I can’t get on CD or from Rdio/Rhapsody.  And it’s fun to play records sometimes, to enjoy the old way of listening to things.

One thing I learned from this test is not to buy records if I have them on CD or from streaming music.  This means the fun of playing vinyl is shopping for out-of-print records.  But records are good enough sounding that if I found albums under $5 that I don’t have on CD they are worth buying.  Spending $5 for an album I have on Rdio is just wasteful.  It’s a hard decision if the choice is between a $5 used album and a CD a on sale for less than $10.

I’ll play CDs, SACDs, LPs, and MP3s.  If absolutely everything was available on streaming music services like Rdio and Rhapsody I’d probably abandon all physical media.  I tend to believe 10 or 20 years from now everything will be streaming and physical records will only be played by folks sentimental for quaint technology.

What If Ripping Music Never Had Happened?

If music was still just a physical medium how would things be different now?  My guess is SACDs would rule.  If MP3 had never existed and people still bought CDs, I think vinyl would have disappeared just like 78s.  We’d still have LP collectors like we do with 78 collectors, but CDs would dominate, and maybe the newer Super Audio CDs (SACD) would have caught on.  When music became free because stealing songs became so easy and widely accepted by the young, it ruined more than just the music business.  I think it ruined the high fidelity concept.   Even now when more people are paying for digital files, their convenience has kept Hi-Fi sound quality from being an issue.

iTunes and the other digital music services have also ruined the concept of the album.  If we had never gone down the downloadable road, I think we’d have SACDs or better formats, with artists creating super-sized concept albums.  And without physical media I’m not sure if we’d have audiophiles.  It is possible that iTunes, Google and Amazon could sell 24-bit FLAC files , and Rdio, Spotify, Rhapsody and other subscription services could stream them, but there’s little demand.  People have gotten used to lo-fi convenience of .mp3 files.

Most people do not know about audiophiles and high end audio equipment.  It doesn’t matter to them.  An iTunes song played on an iPhone with stock ear buds is good enough.  If the hip young are rediscovering records and how much better they sound, maybe those same kids will become audiophiles and rediscover CDs, SACDs and 24-bit FLAC files.  Pirated music led a generation of music lovers down a dark tunnel of lo-fi music, and I hope the resurgence of vinyl is an indication that hi-fidelity is the light at the end of that tunnel.

How to Hear High Fidelity Without Buying the Equipment

One way to hear music at its best is at a movie theater.  Most good theaters have excellent multi-channel stereo systems.  Have you ever wondered why songs sounded fantastic at the show, but ho-hum at home?  What you hear at the theater is the high fidelity that studio engineers work so hard to record.  What you hear is closer to the 100% of the recording that Neil Young talks about when he complains that fans only hear 5% of the potential music when they are listening to a .mp3 file, or 15% when they listen to a CD.

JWH – 11/20/12

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

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