Dedicated to design and performance of databases and audio systems.

Stereo Review

Since I last wrote I've been enjoying my main system. Tubes and speakers broken in--check. It sounds really nice again and I'm happy. For now. If I sit here too long, I can rattle off 30 more upgrades I'd like to do. Some very mundane and others more involved. It's never done because it's a journey. You just learn to enjoy the pit stops.

It's gotten to the point where I realize there is a ton of music that I have never explored and need to. Back when XM Radio was at least listenable, my favorite station was Fred--channel 44. It was there I discovered The Jesus and Mary Chain. I had never heard of them prior to that, but they caught my attention. Caught it just in time for me to realize that they were no longer a band. But, I could still discover their music. I just missed the train when it rolled through town.

Lately, I have felt the same way about the Pixies. Frank Black, or Black Francis, was familiar to me, but I never really explored their music. Thanks to Captain Lou I have. And, like that movie from the past you hadn't previously seen but liked, it's new to me.

Conversely, some of my favorite bands I am re-listening to, but in a new way. Back some time ago I decided to try HDTracks.com. They sell high-resolution digital albums. And, they have a Rolling Stones store. Sweet!

Now hi-rez means that you can buy music at resolutions greater than CD quality. Typically, we have bought digital music from iTunes or something similar. The problem with that is the music is in a lossy compression format like MP3 or AAC and have a bit rate of 128Kbps or 256. To achieve this the music companies puts the music data through a compression algorithm that figures out what to throw away while keeping the sound reasonable. Now playing this music on small earbuds makes it more difficult to realize the compression and music loss. However, play the same file through your home stereo and compare it with your CD and you will hear the difference.

In comparison to that iTunes 256Kbps song that you just paid $1.29 for, the same song off of the CD produces 1,411Kbps--five-and-a-half times the data. While an MP3 at 128Kbps may consume about 4MB of space for a 4 minute song, the same track on a CD requires about 40MB--ten times. Does it sound ten times better? That depends on your preference. I'll listen to an AAC 256Kbps iTunes recording of new music to try it out. If I truly like it then I will by it in hi-rez, if available, or on CD.

When XM Radio merged with Sirius they compressed the music even further. There was only so much bandwidth and they had more channels to put in the pipe. Sound quality suffered. Boo. Hiss. Cancel my subscription. I can't stand it anymore. Friends of mine at work will call me an audio snob. That's okay. Everybody's got their thing. Some of them are into organic, no processed food. Well, I have my limits on processed audio.

The hi-rez is a treat. It's dangerous too. Very addictive. You hear it and a new layer of clarity appears. Not always though. There are some recordings that don't really sound any better in hi-rez than standard Red Book CD. Like Dave will tell you, just because it is vinyl doesn't necessarily mean the pressing was great. Oh, but when it is, it's magical. Same with hi-rez. The midrange opens up, it's smoother overall. A/B it with CD and it is on another level.

Now with hi-rez here I am talking PCM--the same format as CD, but not SACD nor DVD-Audio. Those are DSD.

A CD contains 16-bit words (sounds) and has a sampling frequency of 44.1kHz. In English, that means that there are a possible 65,535 combinations of sounds (2 to the exponential power of 16) and are recorded 44,100 times per second. Like watching a movie that has x number of frames per second, the music is encoded onto the CD at this rate.

What hi-rez does is up the word-size to 24-bit (typically) meaning there are now 16 million-plus combinations of sound (Is that an orangie-pink? No, I would call it Salmon). The sounds are finer. Now the sampling rate is all over the spectrum. It could still be at 44.1kHz, 48, 88, 96, 176, 192, and even 384.

Doing the math on a CD means that the four-minute song consumes 42MB uncompressed. The same song in hi-rez at 24-bit/88.2kHz now gobbles up 127MB of space. Is it worth it? Well, hard drives are getting more dense and cheaper. If you can appreciate the difference than it very well may be worth it. It is to me, 'cause you know, I'm an addict.

BTW, for perspective, if you have 100GB of space on a disc available, you can store 2,362 four-minute songs in CD resolution. For the same space, at 24-bit/88.2kHz, that number shrinks to 787 songs.

When I got my HDTracks.com account I bought some Stones. They had Beggar's Banquet (1968) and Let It Bleed (1969), two of my favorites. :-) I paid $19 and change for each and got the 24-bit/88.2kHz tracks. I could have paid almost $30 a piece to get 24/176, but didn't have a DAC capable of resolving it at that frequency. But now that I think about it... itch, itch. Twitch. 'Cause you know, I'm an addict.

The next step was to acquire some music format software. At that time HDTracks only sold the files in the FLAC format. A very good format, but iTunes does not play FLACs. I wasn't ready to explore other players. I liked the convenience of iTunes. Plus, one step at a time. So, I paid a few bucks and got some software to convert FLACs to AIFFs, the format iTunes likes.

Now it isn't like converting English to Metric, one inch equals 2.54cm, but one software algorithm will convert the song to one state and another differently. There aren't necessarily very different, but different. No matter. I converted them.

Being a kid at Christmas I couldn't wait to play them. I had Mrs. Golden Ear in to listen. Bless her. She supports my craziness and loves me anyway. We noticed the midrange was more revealing and it had a smoother presentation. However, I did notice one funny thing. In iTunes it said the tracks had a 96kHz sample rate. I had purchased 88.2kHz. Oh well. Probably just a typo. I was happy.

Fast forward to the present time. Recently I started to read more about conversion software and music playback software. Who would have know that no two conversion programs were alike? LOL. I should have. I mean is Guinness just a beer?

Ya. Well. No. And neither are digital music software apps. I read that XLD is the one to use for Macs ripping CDs and converting formats. I downloaded it. But like any freebie there isn't really any documentation. Good thing there is Google. People love to share their settings and configurations. Oh ya!

I had some CDs that had some issues. No problem, the software tries to figure out what should have been here and there when it can't read a sector or two on a CD. Ya. That's fine. The problem is that it took 48 hours to fully resolve my CD. I can't make this up. In the end there are some dead air spots on a couple of the songs, but it's mostly there.

Now to test it out with my original Rolling Stones FLACs. Let's see how it converts to that AIFF format I need for iTunes. Well here's the embarrassing part. I don't know what that other app did, but some of my Stones were 16-bit/96kHz translations and others were 32-bit/96KHz translations. Um, wow, really? I mean SERIOUSLY?! They were supposed to be 24-bit/88.2kHz. Converting it to something else screws with the math. It's like taking 88 keys on the piano and making a new version with 96 keys that has the same range (not quite, but you get the point). So all of those sounds I heard were better, but some other mathematical variation.

All of those bad conversions went right in the trash. Permanent delete. Now let's re-convert them. Perfect. Now they're 24-bit/88.2kHz tracks in AIFF format. Phew.

But how do they sound? I have to know. 'Cause I'm an addict. Put on the Stones. Beggar's Banquet has a lot of Keith Richards' acoustic guitar. Salt of the Earth is exceptional. You can hear the strings so clearly. The notes' decay. The wood of the instrument. But, you know what my hears can really see? The fabric between the microphone and Mick's voice. I'm serious. I don't know how else to describe it.

I threw out my old CD rips of those two albums and now have just the hi-rez versions on my Mac.

I will be investing more in hi-rez. It's convenient. Click, buy, download, convert, play. Enjoy! :-)