May 18, 2006

HOW MUSIC GOT ITS GROOVE BACK:

CDs may fade away, but vinyl is here to stay (Stuart Eskenazi, 5/18/06, Seattle Times)

When CDs usurped vinyl in the late 1980s as the format of choice, sound quality was a selling point. The ever-clever record companies even encouraged consumers to dump their vinyl and rebuy the same records on CD.

The shiny silver discs could be played over and over without developing the pops and hisses that afflicted overplayed vinyl. And they wouldn't scratch — at least not as easily.

But there was a loss in sound quality that audiophiles could discern. Vinyl, they still insist, sounds warmer.

Comparing CDs to vinyl is like comparing digital photos to film. If a digital photo is blown up large enough, the image is lost and all that remains are a bunch of pixels.

It's similar with sound, says Nauck, a dealer of vintage records. "Music may sound great through an iPod when you're working out in the gym or walking down the street, but when you sit down in a room with a decent sound system and compare the MP3 file to a CD or vinyl record, the sound quality is not even close.

"I suppose it's the dumbing down that we see in every other aspect of our society. People are made to accept an inferior product."


Our best Christmas CD is of Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong with all the static and popping you'd have gotten from a 1960s radio broadcast retained.

MORE:
Audiophiles Become IPodiophiles (Leander Kahney, May, 16, 2006, Wired)

Old-time audiophiles must be spinning in their soundproof graves. Thanks to hardware modifications and headphone amplifiers, the humble iPod is earning a place at the heart of the most expensive and exacting sound systems.

Veteran audiophiles would scoff. The iPod is relatively inexpensive, costing only a fraction of the $10,000 to $100,000 some will spend on big-rig audio gear. And it is designed to play -- gasp -- compressed audio.

Audiophiles demand only the highest fidelity and detail. For some, digital music in any form, especially highly compressed MP3, is contemptuously unacceptable. To purists, only old-fashioned vinyl platters cut it.

But remarkably, the iPod is exceptionally well engineered, boasting circuitry to rival much more expensive stereo components. And thanks to CD-quality or lossless codecs, not even those blessed with golden ears can detect a recording's source.

"The iPod's measured behavior is better than many CD players," concluded an exhaustive review and performance test in Stereophile magazine, "Excellent, cost-effective audio engineering from an unexpected source."

George Tyshchenko, who runs the testing-oriented HiFiiPod website, said: "The quality of the components used in the iPod are on the same level as low- to medium-priced audiophile gear. From the audio standpoint, iPod makes a very good source. And from a practical standpoint, iPod is revolutionary because the vinyl and CD mediums are now gone."

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 18, 2006 8:08 AM
Comments

There are plugins for players like WinAmp and iTunes that will artificially add pops and crackles to your MP3's to make them sound like records. You can even set a slider for how damaged the record is. I haven't seen one that imitates tape hiss, though.

"I suppose it's the dumbing down that we see in every other aspect of our society. People are made to accept an inferior product."

Whoa, that's good smug! The rest of of "sheeple" who aren't snotty audiophiles will just have to slouch along with our cheap, portable CD's and MP3's. Oh, the pain, the pain!

Posted by: Bryan at May 18, 2006 9:22 AM

It's all in what you're used to.

I remember reading some ancient account of the writer's first encounter with recorded music. These were some very early recordings -- I'm talking Victrola pre-jazz era.

If I remember, the recording was of an male opera singer who had already become famous before being recorded, and the writer was already familiar with his live performances. He was perfectly asonished by the recording, and basically stated that to his ears, it sounded like the guy was right there in the room, singing at him. Perfectly faithful to real life.

Posted by: Twn at May 18, 2006 9:52 AM

"Music may sound great through an iPod when you're working out in the gym or walking down the street, but when you sit down in a room with a decent sound system and compare the MP3 file to a CD or vinyl record, the sound quality is not even close.

I wonder what he's calling "decent?"

Because I'd be hard pressed to hear the difference in vinyl and a quality mp3 (lame VBR alt preset extreme) over a quality but not obscenely expensive system (Yamaha amp powering Polk Audio R50s). I think I'd probably be able to hear some difference with my favorite set of Beyerdynamic studio monitor headphones, but those are beyond what I would call "decent" and verging into well above average.

As for the Ipod... I think it'd be hard pressed even to drive the high impedance Beyerdynamics. :)

Posted by: kevin whited at May 18, 2006 10:09 AM

Remember when audiophiles swore you could improve the sound of CDs by coloring the edges with green magic marker? Or snapping colored plastic rims onto them? Or putting bricks on top of your amp?

Posted by: Bob Hawkins at May 18, 2006 10:26 AM

Well, I do have to say that many LP's, when transferred to CD, were very poorly re-mastered & the LP version really do sound better.

You should hear some of the tube vs. solid-state arguments I've heard in the context of guitar amps. (I like tubes. And not just b/c they heat up and glow, which is neat. But whatever works, really).

Posted by: Twn at May 18, 2006 10:51 AM

TWN: As a bluesharp player, I agree with you that there is no substitute for overdriven tube distortion.

Re: Vinyl vs. CD vs. MP3: Having played in and listened to far too many over-amplified bands over the years, I suppose it doesn't matter to me. Some low-bitrate mp3s sound sort of swishy, but it still beats tape hiss and record skips and CD skips.

Posted by: ted welter at May 18, 2006 1:27 PM

Kevin;

Yeah, the guy I know who can tell the difference is also the guy who hand builds his own tube amps because the stuff you can buy is crap. But on anything other than the end product of his multi-year audio system optimization project, he can't tell either.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at May 18, 2006 1:39 PM

There is a lot of silliness and self-delusion among audiophiles, the sort who can supposedly hear the difference a set of $10,000 patch cables can make. The "warmth" of analog music referred to is largely or entirely a pleasant kind of midrange distortion. You can more or less mimic it with a good equalizer if you want.

Twn: also, much of the miking of early digital recordings was bad. It turns out one needs a different technique than when using a mike for analog recording, or you end up with a recording that sounds "harsh."

Speakers do make most of the diffference. Earbuds are at a huge disadvantage compared to good free-standing speakers. However, there are some audiophile "in-ear" headphones that sound quite good, if you can get over the discomfort of having what feel like rubber stoppers stuck into your ears.

Posted by: PapayaSF at May 18, 2006 3:40 PM

Comparing CDs to vinyl is like comparing digital photos to film. If a digital photo is blown up large enough, the image is lost and all that remains are a bunch of pixels.

Ahhhmm. Film has what is known a grain, and you blow up any photo, and the "image is lost and all that remains are a bunch"of individual grains. Not to mention that if your image wasn't focused, you are going to lose even more information way before your graininess, chemical or pixel, comes into play. But hey, let's not let an ignorance of the facts get in the way of making our analogy.

As has been pointed out, one of the problems with digital sound is that you have to consciously apply the filtering and distortions that you get with analog (for free) o make it sound as good as the poor quality and easily damaged vinyl recording audophiles are used to hearing.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at May 18, 2006 4:42 PM

I don't mind audiophiles caring....I'll disagree when they try to tell me it's important.

Posted by: RC at May 18, 2006 5:26 PM

RC: I won't tell you its important, then. You're just missing out on an electrifying experience. I've quit trying to preach hi-end audio; the only way is to listen yourself; you won't believe it otherwise.

I find my ibook is a better source than the ipod; I assumed it was the quality of the components. I can hear the difference. I also prefer the "lossless" format to record my CD's (and vinyl) to itunes. The files are bigger (10x bigger), but the sound quality is noticebly better.

PapayaSF: You're right about the early CDs; Those from the 80's and early 90's have a sound reminiscent of dental drills. I do like my Shure E3c headphones instead of the ear buds; though I still use the earbuds outside (don't want to cut myself off completely from outside sounds).

I love to listen to a good music on a good system. Live Music is thrilling. Recorded music should be too.

Mike

Posted by: mCrane at May 18, 2006 5:52 PM

As a long-time audiophile, I used to give lectures at universities where I would compare to equal volume recordings of CD and vinyl. I would not identify which was which, but merely asked which the students liked best. Vinyl never lost. However, I've got an IPOD and love it. IMHO, vinyl, done right, trounces CD...BUT, I still play mostly my CDs.

Posted by: TheCajun at May 18, 2006 6:07 PM

A CD is a bitstream that samples the sound's waveform at 44kHz, (which due to the nature of math and our ears, is really 22kHz of information) No attempt was made to leave out redundant data because processors back then were just too slow. The AIFF format is simply the bits from a CD, saved in a data file, as is. A "lossless" format is one where the contents of the file is compressed, but upon decompression, yields the exact same bits that went in. This works because now days the processors can unpack the compressed file much faster than it plays. A lossy compression (like MPEG) attempts to save space by playing games with the wave form, and what you get back out will not match what went in. What you lose depends on the decisions made by the codec designer as to what's important. Compress it too far, and it'll sound bad no matter what you use for playback.

I've ripped well over 300 CDs onto a 120Gig drive using Apple's iTunes lossless format and still have 40Gig free.There's really no reason to use a lossy compression unless you are cheaply trying to back a huge collection into a small disk.

What you are hearing when you play back a "lossless" or AIFF file on an iPod or a computer is no different than the data being played back on any CD player, other than the hardware being used to turn the bitstream into sound. (Well, there is the question of how damaged the media might be and how good the reader is at error correction, by say rereading the bad part.)

(I know a little something about this because years ago I had a contract at the Evil Software Empire working on the Mac version of one of their audio products.)

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at May 19, 2006 12:55 AM
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