High-Resolution Audio: About to Go Mainstream, or Just a Pipe-Dream?

Two articles, approaching the same question, that of the future of high-resolution audio, came across my radar this week. They arrived at opposite conclusions. This often happens in the tech industry, and it’s interesting to examine them and see why the two authors disagree.

First, let me define some terms. High resolution audio is any digital audio files that are of a resolution higher than that of CDs. The CD is defined as containing audio at 16-bit, 44,100 Hz. The sample rate – that’s the 44,100 HZ, or 44.1 KHz – is the number of samples per second. Think of this as the way film has a number of frames per second; the 24 frames per second of a movie are enough to trick a viewer into thinking that the picture is moving, and not a series of stills. With audio, it’s a bit more complicated, but the sample rate needs to be twice the maximum frequency of the audio. You’ve probably seen that most audio equipment maxes out at 20,000 HZ; so 44,100 is a bit more than twice that. The bit depth – that’s the 16 bits – is the number of bits of data in each sample, and defines how much detail is in each sample.

High-resolution audio is any audio file that exceeds either of these limits. So this could be a 24-bit, 44.1 KHz file, or a 16-bit, 96 KHz file, though in most cases, the bit depth is higher than 16.

High resolution audio files are available from a number of venders, and it can range from 24/44.1 to as high as 24/192. To listen to these files, you need a digital-analog converter (DAC) that can handle these resolutions. You don’t need any special amp or speakers, though if your speakers, like most, don’t go much higher than 20 KHz, they won’t play back the high end of the music. In fact, your ears certainly won’t go that high; mine go to about 13 KHz.

So, why do two authors come up with contradictory conclusions? Macworld’s Jon Seff, writing for TechHive, points out that it’s easy to see the difference between SD and HD video, but says, ” I fail to see a future in which the masses invest the time and money necessary to take audio to the same level as video in people’s minds. […] sometimes good enough is, well, good enough.”

Seff points out that music is an area where “people have gotten used to convenience over sound quality,” and this is clearly the case. Since it’s very, very difficult to hear the difference between standard audio files and compressed files (at, say, 256 kbps), hearing the difference between a CD and a high-resolution file is unlikely. There’s certainly a placebo effect involved; when someone pays twice as much for a hi-res file as a CD, they’ll be likely to want the music to sound better.

The second article is by Andrew Everard, Gramophone magazine’s hi-fi writer. For Everard, “We’ve been peering nervously over the edge for too many years: now’s the time for the audio industry to take its next great leap.” He tests audio equipment, and it’s possible that his ears are more sensitive than Seff’s, or than mine. But I’d like to see him do a blind test with some CD-quality files and hi-res files.

I’ve got a bunch of hi-res files, and a DAC, and I’m hard pressed to hear the difference. It’s hard to do a blind test, and that’s the only way you can tell. If you know what you’re listening to, then it’s not a test; it’s a test of the placebo effect, perhaps, but nothing more.

I think Jon Seff has the right answer. We listen to music in a variety of settings, and only in a perfect environment would it be possible to truly appreciate high-resolution audio. The number of people who have a perfectly configured listening room – and the funds to outfit it – are few and far between. Music can certainly sound better with better equipment; when I upgraded some of my hi-fi equipment last year, especially speakers, I was impressed by the difference. But there’s a law of diminishing returns, and the few people who spend thousands of dollars on cables and wires should seriously consider their investments.

This is an issue that can’t have a firm answer. As long as people are prepared to spend more money on audio equipment and media, the market will happily serve them. But whether or not it’s worth spending what these files cost, and what is needed for equipment to correctly play them back, well, that’s up in the air. If you can’t do a blind test, don’t believe what you read.

iWant: Searches by Label on the iTunes Store

001.pngThere’s a small change Apple could make to help listeners find more music on the iTunes Store. They could allow customers to search by record label. And, they should set up their listings so you can click on the name of a label to find all of its releases.

As you can see here, each album shows the name of the record label; here it’s Mode Records. I like the music of Morton Feldman (you might want to check out his astounding 6-hour String Quartet No. 2), and would like to see which other recordings the same label has released. Especially since a search for this recording by the composer’s full name – Morton Feldman – does not find it; you have to search for “Feldman string quartet.”

I’d like to be able to see the latest releases from the classical labels I like a lot: Hyperion Records, Naxos Records, Harmonia Mundi, and others. And when I come across an interesting new recording, I’d like to see what else that label has released. Because record companies – other than the majors – have personalities, and their catalogues reflect those personalities.

The same is true in Jazz, where there are long-standing labels like ECM, who have a unique style, and a whole slew of independent labels. Plenty of other genres have vibrant indies too – be it rap, electronica, or folk – and plenty of music fans follow these labels.

Adding label searches could only improve the iTunes Store, and make it easier for music fans to find new music they might like.

The Best Way to Make Music Played on a Computer Sound Great

If you’re like me, and you listen to music a lot on your computer, you’ve probably tried out various self-powered speakers that connect to a computer. You can put these speakers on your desk, and they don’t take up much space. But you have probably found that, no matter how much you spend on them, they simply don’t sound that great.

There’s only one solution if music quality is important to you. Give up on speakers and connect a stereo amp to your computer.

You don’t need to get top-quality equipment; even a mid-range amp will sound much better than any desktop speakers, and since the speakers will be quite close to your ears, you don’t want too much power.

61lvuQyQEQL._SL1200_.jpgI use a Cambridge Audio Sonata receiver, which currently costs around $300, together with Sirocco speakers, from the same company (similar to their current S30-N speakers. I’ve also got a sub-woofer, and the sound is better than any desktop speakers I’ve ever heard. You could choose any similarly priced amp or receiver and get decent quality sound, or you could go for higher-end equipment, if you prefer. But don’t go for a cheap mini-stereo setup; the amp or receiver won’t be very good, and the speakers won’t give you the type of sound you expect.

41bi60DwezL._SX300_.jpgAnother option is studio monitors. These are high-quality speakers with built in amplifiers, designed for near-field listening in studios. With them, you don’t need a separate amp. For example, the M-Audio BX8 D2 has an 8-inch low frequency driver, which should be enough to get good bass on your desktop. I prefer using a real amplifier, however, as it offers more options for adjusting sound. Also, my receiver has more inputs, so I can connect other audio devices if I want.

I have the speakers on stands on the far corners of my desk that are almost exactly at the height of my ears, angled so they’re pointing at my head; you don’t want the speakers pointing straight out from your desk. They don’t have to be too far apart to get good stereo separation, because they’re close to you; however, I find that the soundfield is best if they’re a foot or so to the side of my 27″ monitor.

You could also put the speakers on your desk, using desktop stands like these that tilt the speakers toward your head. I’d rather not have them on my desk, though, because I’m afraid they’d vibrate too much, and I have plenty of other things cluttering my desktop.

No matter which way you go, spending around $500 will give you an excellent sound system that is superior to just about any “computer” desktop speakers you’ll ever hear. You may already have an older amp and speakers that, perhaps, you replaced in your living room with a surround-sound system. In this case, it is worth recycling that hardware and using it with your computer. (And you could add a DAC to the mix if you want to get an extra-sweet sound, but only if the amp and speakers would benefit from it.)

What’s Going On With Truncated iTunes Downloads? (Updated)

I’m re-posting this, since I keep getting emails from people who have come across the problem. If you have this issue, see the end of the article for an AppleScript that can find truncated tracks in your iTunes library.

I got an e-mail the other day from someone I’m in touch with regularly at a classical music label. He had bought some music from the iTunes Store, and found that a couple of the tracks were truncated. They were the correct length and size, but the music cut off before the ends of the tracks. In his case, these were tracks downloaded automatically. He had bought the music on his iPhone, and had iTunes on his PC set to automatically download his purchases.

I came across a similar problem yesterday. I bought some music from the iTunes Store, and one of the tracks cuts off after about 4:15 (the entire track is 12:59). Here’s how it looks:



This is similar to what my friend reported, but in my case these weren’t automatic downloads; these were regular downloads. Curiously, when I went to my Purchased list, the album in question doesn’t show up, even though the order is in my order history. I’ve contacted iTunes Store support to get another download, but I’m curious if other users have been seeing this problem. If so, post a comment below.

Update: My problem got fixed when a friendly iTunes Store representative put my purchases back in my download queue. (Interestingly, they don’t ask you to re-download from the Purchased list.) But I’ve heard from many other people who have had this problem, one of whom e-mailed me today saying that Apple is now asking for a lot of network information, such as his ISP and the type of connection he has (DSL, dial up (!!!), cable, etc.)

Update: since I first posted this article, I’ve heard from a number of people who are getting truncated downloads when they download tracks from iCloud. These are matched tracks, apparently, not tracks that were uploaded, and this seems to be happening fairly often. I downloaded 53 tracks yesterday, and 4 of them were truncated; that’s 7% of them, or 1 in 14. Re-downloading them results in good tracks, so this is clearly a server issue. If you have downloaded truncated tracks from iTunes Match, post something in the comments.

Update 2: Doug Adams wrote an AppleScript that can detect truncated tracks.

iTunes Tip: Add Custom Genres to iTunes

When you first set up your iTunes Library, it is configured to use a number of genres. These include Rock, Jazz, Classical, Easy Listening and Hip-Hop/Rap. As you add content to your library, new genres will be added. You’ll see that apps include genres – or, as they are called in the iTunes Store – Categories. The same is the case for books, movies and TV shows.

When you tag your own content – music you’ve ripped from CDs, for example – you can choose a genre from the Genre field in the Info window shown below. (To view this window, select a track and press Command-I, or Control-I on Windows.)

When you rip CDs, or import music obtained in digital form, genres may be included in the tags of the files. You can change the genre by selecting a different one from the Genre field, or you can simply add your own, custom genre by typing it into the Genre field. This is the case for any kind of content in your iTunes library. For example, if you download books in EPUB or PDF format, you may want to add genres to them; if you download movies or TV shows from the iTunes Store, you may want to change their genres.

As you can see in the screen shot above, the genre for this song is “Dead.” The artist is Grateful Dead, and I find it easier to organize all of their music in my library (there’s a lot of it) with a specific genre. You can do the same for any type of genre you want.

For example, if you’re into classical music, you might want the following genres: Chamber Music, Opera, String Quartet or Symphony. If you’re a jazz fan, you might want: Piano Trio, Quartet or Saxophone. Some people like using genres with hyphens or colons: for example, you could use Classical – Piano, or Jazz: Saxophone. Use whatever genres you want, and it will be easier to sort your iTunes library, and to make smart playlists that look for music of a specific genre.

Listen Different: Add Silence to your iTunes and iPod Playlists

I’m reposting this article, as it is a perennial favorite. I find that several people a day find this through Google searches, as apparently a lot of people want to know how to add silence to playlists. I can imagine that this is useful for more than the reasons I mention below; I would think DJs and performers might benefit from this technique, but if you find it useful, I’d be interested in knowing how. Several people in the comments mention music for weddings or fitness routines; how do you use these bits of silence? Feel free to post a comment saying how you use these silent files.

iTunes and the iPod are all about music, but as composer John Cage once said, “The music is in the silence between the notes.” In fact, Cage is famous for one of his works, 4’33”, where a pianist sits at the piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds and does nothing. The music is in the silence; or rather the lack thereof. For true silence does not exist on our planet. Any performance of this work brings out the ambient noises of the concert hall, the coughs and rustles of the audience, and all the other noises we usually never hear. (Download a performance of 4’33” here, or buy Cage Against the Machine, an album featuring a recording of this work and a number of remixes.)

You can have thousands of songs on your iPod or iPhone, providing you with hours of listening pleasure, but sometimes you just want to listen to silence. Not that you want silence for any long stretch of time – that’s easy; just turn off your iPod – but you may want to have certain playlists, or even albums, with a bit of a pause between certain songs. A time to take a breath, to appreciate the beauty of the music. So why not use silence in your playlists? After an especially poignant song, add a few seconds of silence – 15 seconds, maybe 30 seconds, or even a minute. Let yourself absorb the song, the world around you, the people with you…

Unfortunately, iTunes does not allow this, nor does the iPod. But there is a simple solution: I’ve created a few tracks of silence that you can download and add to your iTunes music library. You can use them in any playlist, or copy them and add them to specific albums. Here is a zip archive of files that are 10, 15, 30 seconds, 1 minute, and 5 minutes long.

Download.

Note: the zip archive also contains a .1 second MP3 file, and a .1 second iPhone-compatible ringtone, as per this hint on the Mac OS X Hints web site.

Each of these tracks is a very low bit rate MP3 file; I encoded them at 8 kbps mono so they take up very little disk space. Each track is tagged with its name, and with the artist, album and genre marked as “Silence” so you can find them easily.

So, what can you do with these tracks? When you’re making a new playlist, think if you really need all the songs to follow each other in a mad rush, or if you want some of the music to sink in before the next song. Insert a Silence track and appreciate the music that you’ve heard before the next track starts. This is especially useful with classical music, where you want enough time for one work to fade away before another – which may be quite different in form or instrumentation – begins. (Many classical albums are engineered with long bits of silence at the ends of works for that reason.)

If you want to insert silence into an album, take one of the Silence tracks and copy it. Then, change the tags so it has the artist, album and genre for the album you want. Finally, you’ll need to edit its track number tag as well as edit all those that come after it on the album. (For example, if you want to insert it at the 3rd position, you’ll need to change track 3 to 4, track 4 to 5, and so on.)

Silence is especially useful if you make playlists for romantic situations; for mellow music that you want to listen to when meditating, doing yoga or simply watching the grass grow; or just to change the way you hear your music. You can also use them when you listen to your iPod in shuffle mode. Make copies of each of the tracks; make a few dozen of each, so you’ll get random silence from time to time, and discover the sounds of the world around you in a new way.

Here’s one practical example. If you meditate, rather than using a meditation timer, create a playlist with as many copies of the one-minute Silence file as you want, followed by a piece of music. So if you meditate for 20 minutes, add the one-minute file to a playlist twenty times, then add a piece of soft music at the end to alert you that the time is up. Start this playlist when you meditate, and let it tell you when you’ve sat for twenty minutes. (Download a 20-minute Silence file, or roll your own, using the precise number of minutes you wish to use.)

Or you can use these silent MP3 files as ringtones or notification sounds on an iPhone or Android phone. Some phones don’t have a silent option, and if you choose one of these files as your notification sound, for example, you won’t hear any sound when you get notifications.

Can You Really Tell the Difference Between Music at Different Bit Rates?

(Note: this article is written for Mac users. If you have Windows tools to recommend, please mention them in the comments.)

The bit rate debate regarding compressed music is one that will be around for a long time. Some people think that any compression of music files is anathema. Take Neil Young. He complained about the poor quality of digital music files, while greatly misunderstanding much of what is involved in compression. He claimed that only “5 percent of the data present in the original recording” is present in MP3 files, without specifying the bit rate used or the original sources, and without understanding that compression is more than just lopping off bits of the music. (Andy Doe, writing on the Naxos Blog last year, published an article, All About Bitrates, explaining how compression works. You should read this to understand some points that most people overlook.)

When you start ripping music, and decide what bit rate to use, you have several options. You could go for lossless, which compresses music around 40-60%. One advantage to this is that you can then re-convert the lossless files to a lower bit rate if you want, keeping the originals as archival copies. But lossless files take up much more space. While this isn’t an issue on computers – hard drives are huge these days – it is for portable devices like iPods or iPhones.

If you don’t use a lossless format, you have to decide which format to use (AAC or MP3), and what bit rate. For a long time, Apple sold music at 128 kbps at the iTunes Store. It is now 256k, which is roughly what Amazon uses in their MP3 store (their music is in VBR, or variable bit rate, so it is not exactly 256k). This is an excellent compromise between space and quality. But you might want to go even lower. What’s important is to find the point at which you cannot hear the difference between an original file and a compressed file, and stay above that bit rate.

To do this, you need to perform what is called blind ABX testing. You are presented with music and don’t know which bit rate you are hearing, and you must choose whether you think it is compressed or not. While this test takes a bit of time – you need to rip tracks at different bit rates, then test yourself, one pair of tracks at a time – the results can be interesting.

To start with, find several songs or tracks that you know very well. It’s best to use familiar music, because you will be able to hear more of the differences (if any) because of your familiarity with the melodies, arrangements, etc. I’d recommend not ripping full albums for this test, but rather individual songs or tracks from different albums.

Rip these tracks from CD in lossless format. In iTunes, go to Preferences > General, then click on Import Settings. Choose Lossless Encoder from the Import Using menu.



Next, add the tracks you have ripped in lossless format and to a playlist. Select them all and press Command-I, then enter an album name, such as Lossless Tracks. You’ll want this later to be able to find them.

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ITunes Tip: Rip CDs in Mono in iTunes

Many fans of older music probably have a lot of CDs in mono. Early classical recordings, old blues discs, and jazz up until the 1950s was all recorded in mono. Even later music is available in mono mixes, notably many of The Beatles’ recordings and early discs by Bob Dylan. If you rip these discs in iTunes, they are generally ripped in stereo. iTunes’ settings suggest that you can choose to rip with channels determined “automatically,” but this never results in mono files when I rip mono CDs; I always get stereo. (I don’t mean that the music is in stereo, rather that iTunes creates stereo files where the two channels are exactly the same.)


You may want to rip in mono to save space. There’s no reason to rip a mono CD in stereo; the resulting files contain exactly the same data on two channels rather than one, and take up twice as much space.

To rip in mono, you need to choose Mono from the Channels menu in the Import Settings > Custom window. And you need to remember to make this change both before and after ripping any mono CDs you have. Note that to choose a bit rate for mono rips, you need to choose the double of that bit rate. In other words, if you choose 256 kbps, the mono files will be 128 kbps; the bit rate you choose is the stereo bit rate.

One thing to keep in mind is that if you use iTunes Match, make sure you don’t choose a bit rate below 192 kbps (which will result in 96 kbps mono files). ITunes Match won’t accept files that are less than 96 kbps, so you won’t be able to match those files.

(For those who are curious, my latest mono rips are several discs of the 17-CD set of Schubert Lieder on Record and the 9-disc RIAS Bach Cantatas Project, containing recordings of Bach cantatas by Karl Ristenpart, from 1949-1952.)

iWant: A “Music Videos” Library in iTunes

iTunes’ library contains a number of sub-libraries for the different files it contains: there’s Music, Movies, TV Shows, Books, and others. (There are also libraries for non-media content, such as apps, and ringtones, which are only meant to be used on an iPhone.) But one thing that’s missing is a Music Videos library. Music videos get mixed in with your Music library, under the genre, artist and album (if any) they are tagged with.

You can set any type of content to reside in a specific library. For audio content, you can choose Music, Podcast, iTunes U, Audiobook or Voice Memo. For video, you can choose Music Video, Movie, TV Show, Podcast or iTunes U. You can do this for any track by selecting it, pressing Command-I (or Control-I on Windows), then clicking on the Options tab. Choose the library where you want to store the file from the Media Kind menu.



I can understand the idea behind having music videos mixed in with music; they are often part of an album, or if they are pop songs, most iTunes users probably want to play them when they’re listening to music. But it would make more sense if they were in their own library, especially if you have a lot of them.

I have a number of music DVDs that I have ripped, along with some music videos that I’ve gotten with iTunes Store purchases, and I have them as Movies, because it’s just more logical. But they’re not movies; they may actually be TV shows (technically), or simply videos of concerts, operas or other performances. I put many of them as TV Shows, because they have multiple discs, such as the Barenboim on Beethoven set in the screen shot below. Organizing this with each disc as its own movie wouldn’t make sense. The same would be the case for, say, a long opera that is on two discs, or the Grateful Dead’s Closing of Winterland, which is on three discs.



I would like to see a Music Videos library, and give users the options, somewhere in iTunes’ preferences, to either store music videos there or in their Music library. For those who have a lot of videos, it makes sense.

(Note: you can create a Music Videos genre if you wish, and still keep these files in your Music library. Instead of being sorted with the albums they come from, or the artists on them, they’d be in their own genre and easier to spot. But having a separate library is still one step easier.)

Playlist Assist Replicates Old iTunes Playlist Window

One of the things that irked many users when iTunes 11 was released was the inability to open more than one window. Some users kept an iTunes Store window open all the time; others liked to open playlists in their own windows, to make it easier to drag tracks to them and edit their contents.

AppleScript maestro Doug Adams has released the $5 Playlist Assist, a new tool which replicates some of the old iTunes playlist window features. Playlist Assist gives you a floating window that you can use to create and edit playlists. But you can also get track info, change tags, play tracks using Quick Look, and export playlists.


playlist-assist

I’ve been using this for a while in beta, and I’m quite impressed by its flexibility. If you want a great tool for creating and editing playlists, you need Playlist Assist.