Our obsession with hardware is here to stay — don’t expect an apology for it anytime soon. We’ll be the first to admit, though, that even the right headphones, speakers and amps are only as good as the source material you play through them. Garbage in, garbage out. The solution? Get more out of the tunes you love by upgrading your music library.
Focus on Format
Paying attention to the format of your music is one of the easiest ways to immediately improve your listening experience. You could waste years of your life wading into the audiophile debate over CDs v. vinyl, and that’s before injecting niche offerings like DVD Audio, Blu-Ray Audio, and Super Audio CDs (SACD) or truly fringe formats like reel-to-reel tape (yes, tape) players into the mix. Each side has its merits, but any option on that list is a vast improvement in quality over the standard “lossy” MP3s left over from Napster clogging up your iTunes library.
The good news is that a variety of so-called “lossless” digital formats provide a far better listening experience with most if not all of the convenience of playing an MP3. WAV and AIFF files, for instance, are technically exact copies of the original source audio and are not compressed from a file size standpoint in any way. Trying to choose between the two? There’s no difference in sound. AIFF just happens to be a format pushed by Apple while WAV files are more universal. Audiophiles are attracted to the “exact” nature of these digital copies, but their large uncompressed file sizes aren’t a requirement for premium sound; unless you plan on springing for some external storage, it’s worth looking at alternatives.
Other formats such as FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec), ALAS (Apple Lossless Audio Codec), WMA Lossless (Windows Media Audio Lossless) and APE (formerly Monkey’s Audio) are also technically lossless and bit perfect in terms of their audio content. This provides the digital equivalent of CD-quality audio, or, in special cases, “Studio Master Quality” (tired of terms yet?). Thanks to data compression, though, their file size footprint is roughly half that of WAV or AIFF, but still about six times the size of an MP3. A good rule of thumb is for every 3 CDs worth of FLAC or ALAC files you’ll need about a gigabyte of hard drive space.
Step Up the Quality
Directly ripping CDs into FLAC files is one of the easiest ways to upgrade your digital music library. iTunes makes it cake, so long as you stick with Apple’s own formats (ALAC instead of FLAC). Otherwise, online retailers such as HDtracks, Bleep and Linn Records offer high quality audio formats to download for around the price you’d pay for a lower quality MP3 version. Too many CDs and too little time? Consider using a service like Murfie: send them your CDs, tell them what format you want and they’ll store or make them available for you to download your collection.
Unfortunately, making the leap to premium audio also involves using specialty software, since iTunes and iOS do not support FLAC as a format. Mac users can employ a free open source program called Fluke to allow their FLAC content to play inside iTunes. Likewise, you’ll have to use apps for iOS like VLC Player, Dan Leehr’s bluntly titled FLAC Player or Onkyo’s HF Player for FLAC playback on your iPhone or iPod. Since version 3.1, Android includes native FLAC support, making the transition slightly easier for Google fanboys.
A few audiophile streaming services also exist, such as the France-based Qobuz, which offers 16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC-quality streaming for roughly double the cost of a Spotify subscription. Although interesting, these options are new without a long proven track record. We’d recommend waiting if you live stateside.
But even if you can’t be bothered with making the jump to lossless, focusing on listening to higher quality 320 kbps songs can still make a huge difference. Spotify gives premium subscribers the option of streaming at this quality — all that’s required is a quick settings change, which you can learn about here.
With the launch of iTunes Match, Apple also introduced a way for users to upgrade all of their MP3s to a minimum of 256Kbps with nice and tidy metadata. It takes some time and you’ll need to pay for a subscription to iTunes Match to accomplish it, but if you’re interested in taking the leap, check out Macworld’s tutorial for details.
The Loudness Wars
Beyond format, there’s another important audio quality factor that many overlook. Every time you turn on the radio, you hear the unintentional legacy of the 45-rpm, 7-inch vinyl record. The smaller cousin to the 12-inch record was the format of choice for singles that graced the coffers of early jukeboxes and the desks of radio DJs everywhere. Though the listener ultimately exercised control over the playback volume of a jukebox or personal record player, savvy music promoters and engineers learned that they could make their records sound comparatively louder to the competition by tweaking the recording process, helping their songs literally stand out from the noise. The early hack kicked off what’s commonly referred to today as the “Loudness Wars”, a term used by audiophiles, music production experts and journalists that describes the steady escalation of loudness in music, exacerbated by the dawn of digital formats like the CD.
Broadcasters can’t screw with your volume directly, but think back to those times you nearly shit your pants from the boom of a Snuggie commercial when you didn’t touch the remote. So how can loudness be affected if volume remains constant? Audio engineers can trick our perception of volume through a variety of signal processing techniques, commonly referred to as “compression”. It’s worth pausing here for a moment to clarify that this form of compression has nothing to do with the compression technology used to transform large .WAV files into smaller MP3s discussed earlier. Instead, so-called dynamic range compression involves reducing or “squashing” the dynamic range of an audio signal (i.e. the difference between the loudest and softest portions song) so that even the quietest portions are as close as possible to the signal’s maximum peak amplitude. At best, the technique boosts loudness at the expense of sonic detail and clarity. At worst, signals are “clipped”, introducing distortion. The fact of the matter is that low bit rates and compressed file formats aren’t the only factors to blame in music’s gradual degradation. For those looking for the ultimate listening experience, it’s equally as important to pay attention to when and how a song was mastered or remastered.
Differences between formats and masters are just two factors in a long list of variables that can create distinctions in sound quality when comparing versions of the same song. To the collecting community, however, owning a copy made under ideal recording conditions can mean the difference between tens and thousands of dollars on the secondary market. Start your discernment now and hear the music as the artists and producers intended. Music nuts know best, after all.
Recently the audio experts at KEF invited us to New York’s own MSR studios for a first-hand lesson from legendary sound engineer Ken Scott on the impact of compression. Scott’s illustrious career began at the age of 16, first in the tape library, and eventually behind the boards at London’s EMI Studios, known today as Abbey Road studios. There, he worked closely with The Beatles on songs ranging from “A Hard Day’s Night” to “I am the Walrus”, “Hey Jude”, and “Back in the U.S.S.R.” Over the course of his career, he went on to work with countless other stars including Elton John, Pink Floyd and Super Tramp. Alongside Bowie, Scott also co-produced Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane and Pinups. Somehow, he also found time to win a CLIO for recording “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” too.
During the evening with KEF, we were treated to several of Scott’s story’s involving the legends he worked with, including a memorable anecdote involving Ringo Starr, naked yoga and a massive pair of binoculars. But his main reason for being there was far more interesting. To prove his case against the introduction of compression into the mastering process, Ken shared a spliced .WAV file of Bowie’s “Suffragette City”, which began with a mix suited to the modern day norm, before transitioning to his own original master. While the modern mix initially sounded perfect on KEF’s flagship blades (which retail for over $30,000), the switch to Ken’s master was obvious. “Loudness” had greatly reduced the clarity and distinction between each of the instruments at work and robbed Bowie’s voice in particular of it’s natural quality.