The Resolution Wars

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Visual representation of “lossy”. These pixels are what is lost when this image is compressed using mpeg.


MP3’s are dying, thank god. MP3 is a transitionary technology that has overstayed it’s welcome. If you believe lossy MP3 is all you need for music, goodbye. Come back when you want to listen. Yes 320k is better than 192k or 128k. Yes it’s getting close to CD quality. It’s still less than half the data (Not to mention CD is 37 year old digital technology!). MP3/MP4/AAC is a lowest common denominator. It has no place in a discussion about quality.

CD quality is 600-1400k so you can just get CD quality these days, even streaming with Tidal. Once you leave the world of lossy and get to real resolutions, you won’t go back.

Confused with all the combinations of bit depth and sample frequencies available: 16/44, 24/44, 16/48, 24/96, etc.?

So what do you need?  Avoid buying expensive 16 bit. Don’t pay new prices for it, unless it’s the best that material ever hopes to be released at. Demand 24 bit versions and pay full price for 24 bit versions.

  • 24/44 is awesome enough for The Beatles and The Cars, two amazing bands
  • 24/88 and 24/96 are the emerging standards for hi-res audio
  • 24/192 is the highest resolution anyone works at and is starting to become popular

I haven’t heard 16/48 in 20 years but I can assure you that 16/44 is not able to deliver the full audio signal -if- the material is from higher resolutions or analog masters.


 

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One part of one inner ear – the most amazing vibration detector I can imagine. Every component does multiple tasks with such detail and subtlety that some of our finest machines could only hope to match it some day.


To spell out audio resolutions in human terms: you need at least 18bits of space to store the data and you need about 30k of undamaged samples per second.

If they had a format of 20/60 it would have been perfect for CD, but they didn’t, so we have to overshoot a bit since the format is just the container. The music is the content and you don’t want the container smaller than the content. In 1977-78 when the CD was being designed, this was a necessary compromise for reasons that have long since expired.

This 18/60 threshold is about the total of what we can detect as humans, so to me, 24 bit is the indicator of true high-resolution audio.  Higher sample rates might give you slightly more detail and audio data, but to my ears 24 bit is the primary upgrade.


 

There's a lot going on inside your ears.

At a micron level inside of the human inner ear. There are thousands of these tiny hairs positioned into arrays at multiple depths, each able to detect certain frequencies and timbres. Each hair sways, the entire mechanism can move, and opposite this area there is a mysterious fluid that appears to defy physics while it adjusts it’s location and density based on the sound. Some researchers believe this fluid performs a liquid-based form of compression/limiting/expansion as well as EQ and is controlled by still unknown forces. That’s serious resolution right there – self-organizing liquids and moveable micron-microphone arrays?  320k/sec is not holding that, nor is 1400k/sec.

Rip 2.0

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Hello old friends, it’s been awhile

Rip your CD’s again.  Do it right this time.

Most of us went through ripping phases where we created gigs of MP3 files and either traded back in our CD’s or hid them in the basement. We’ve been walking around living with MP3 for over a decade now, either from our files or streaming from the network.

When we ripped our CD’s, we wanted the music from the CD in a small file. The file had to be small because our hard drives were small. A CD holds 0.7 GB, so if you wanted to rip 50 CD’s without compression you needed 35GB of space for them.

If you wanted to rip 300 CD’s like me and you didn’t have 200 GB of space for music – and no iPod/iPhone could hold that much anyway – you made them MP3’s.  Nearly all of us did it. And we could appreciate our music, understand it, sing to it, dance to it, enjoy it in MP3 format. It was the iPod decade.

But this is the thing — that MP3 is actually just a photocopy of the real thing, and the second you go back to using the original CD quality file (16/44) you really hear it.

If you have a real good player, such as the PonoPlayer or Fiio, you can really hear an advantage at 16/44.

So I’ve begin the process of ripping my favorite CD’s again, this time as 16/44 FLACs, loading them onto my DAP, and am finding myself enjoying these CD’s more than ever before.

Then there comes the moment that has come to define this process: I have the FLAC’s next to the MP3’s and I can delete the MP3’s forever, just a bad memory of years past. Like a faded photo of someone you didn’t like much anyway. See ya! Got a better version now!

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BTW – this image of the spaghetti — that’s the various parts of the brain used to process sound and vibration.

That’s why when you feed it degraded quality it knows, and it affects your psyche in ways they have yet to trap for.

 

40 Years of Recorded Music Distribution

Vintage baby

Vintage jams

Quick history lesson —

Digital audio made it’s public debut with the CD standard known as “RedBook”, started in 1978. A collaboration between Phillips & Sony, the CD standard was originally going to be 14bit/40k with error correction and ship on a 115mm disc, but Sony pushed for 16bit/44k with no error correction. A VP of Sony also pushed to increase the total run-time from 60 minutes to 74 minutes, warranting the disc be enlarged to 120mm, and ruining Phillips’ early investment in a plant already printing the 115mm discs! Corporate intrigue for sure.

The RedBook standard was finalized in 1980 and CD players started hitting the shelves by 1982. To this day RedBook is owned by Phillips and costs a manufacturer over $300 to download the specifications. Why the name RedBook? The engineers compiling the specifications did so in a red binder. Engineers aren’t known for creativity ;-).

In the marketplace, the new digital CD’s had numerous advantages over the two existing analog formats of vinyl albums and cassettes. To list a few: no dust problems, little heat warping, less vibration-induced skipping, couldn’t unwind or tangle, vertical storage no longer needed, no replaceable stylus, not magnetic, liquid-proof, instant auto cue. Also there’s the indefinite duplication with no loss in quality on the copy or the original – that’s a huge advantage for digital.

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But CD’s did not clearly “sound better” than vinyl when all the other issues were addressed. Most of those issues are considered interference or physical media issues. None of them address how the actual recorded music is presented. All music sounds best live, as the microphone is not able to recreate our auditory system. Did CD’s actually sound “better” than analog once playback and media issues were addressed?

This has been a sticking point since the early 80’s. Many of us could hear something missing from CD’s, and it wasn’t just dust and motor noise from the turntable. It was the stuff that is nearly impossible to describe in words: reverbs and decays were different, the timbre of cymbals, voices, and stringed instruments were different, the mid-lows weren’t as warm or round, delays didn’t seem as present or accurate, the stereo-width wasn’t as obvious, the center was hard to find, the top was very pronounced and brittle, some complained of a boxy sound or a digital graininess.

The 1980’s didn’t just bring CD’s to market, it brought us personal computers and the early internet. By 1990 the same group that was working on the JPEG digital picture compression standard starting working on a media compression format. MPEG was designed for squashing CD-quality audio files small enough to stream on dial-up modems. By the mid-90’s the mpeg format was in use and competing with other early digital audio formats like RealAudio.

Now that the music could be squashed to an easily tradable size, piracy ran rampant. The late 1990’s brought us mp3 (after mpeg-1 and mpeg-2). Napster, peer to peer file sharing, bad DRM attempts (security on audio files), and ultimately led to a rapid decline of the music industry. Everything was being stolen and fewer hard copies were selling. The new mp3 files were perfect for trading online, and the novelty of this new convenience outranked the decline in sound quality. “Good enough” became the standard for sound quality.

Into this disaster stepped Apple, wisely seeing an opportunity to re-invent the personal audio player like the Walkman/Discman (stealing that market from Sony) and re-invent the record store (taking that market from traditional retailers). First they launched the player line “iPod” with it’s easy loading from your computer, then they opened the new record store with legal $1 songs and no-hassle purchasing.

Apple bet right and it took off (I bought music from there for a few years). I kept thinking I was getting ripped off though — where’s the hard copy with artwork that I can love, lose, find, loan out, break and buy another (or not?). All gone. Instead of our society going “paperless”, we went “album less”, to our detriment. We have been buying and streaming low-quality audio for over a decade now, and not always because of technical limitations.

That’s the end of this lesson, kiddies. The point here is that if you grew up in the mp3 era, you were listening to a compromise built on top of a compromise. 24bit HD Audio should be a revelatory listen for you.

 

HD Apple Rumors Swirling

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Rumors are flying that Apple is about to include 24-bit audio in it’s new iOS products, both from the software end of things and hardware – updating the Lightning cable for faster interconnects when HD Audio is being used with external devices, and designing some new earbuds to capitalize on the higher quality source.

This isn’t immediately tied to their rumored acquisition of Beats Music, but it certainly affects the same markets.

Reading through internet opinion it’s heartening to see many applauding a focus on sound quality. But the usual suspects are pushing xiph.org’s “science” saying <= 16/44 is all you need. I sense a shift that those people are being grouped with the claimants of “1080p is useless”.

Arguing against higher digital resolution is arguing against a reality that will always pass you up. We are still learning about sound and hearing and these bad assumptions of the past will fall into disuse as time marches on.

Other interamus’ claimed that “the 10 people that bought a pono must be upset”. Actually, no, this validates Pono’s cause, and if iOS products can play 24-bit files the market for HD audio will open wide.

Pono will always sound better than an iPhone or iTouch, because there’s several more parts of the signal chain that pono goes upmarket on, and Apple goes general purpose.