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Computer Audio Achieves the Audiophile Experience Affordably

Posted 17th April 2013 by Joseph Riden

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In case you haven’t heard, we’ve entered the Golden Age of Audio. First, a bit about why you should care. Then, more about how to enjoy this era most fully.

We live in the Golden Age of Audio because it has become easier and more economical than ever to get the true audiophile hi-fi experience consistently. At no previous time in history has so much gorgeous, highly listenable music been so available to so many for such low cost.

Please don’t let the audiophile word put you off. Audiophiles are to music as gourmets are to food. “Audiophile” simply describes someone who loves their music sounding fabulous when reconstituted from a recording. Auditory pleasure is no longer reserved for the upper 2%, and it’s about time. Snobbishness is not required, nor does it improve music.

If you truly care about how music sounds, now is the time to equip yourself to hear recorded music at its very best, which is probably far better than the vast majority have ever heard. Through no fault of their own, really. If tinny-sounding iTunes Mp3 downloads or FM radio are all you ever want, might as well stop reading right here because none of this is going to matter to you. Or maybe you’d consider something far better.

Now comes “Computer Audio,” which socially and financially democratizes music playback for all. It’s fun, easy, and extremely rewarding if you care about music. What I invariably hear from people who love music when they first hear audiophile playback of an HD recording, is some version of this statement:

“Oh my God! I never knew recorded music could sound so wonderful.”

Life is short and sometimes brutal. Treat your self to this experience, I say. Find a way to access and play these wonderful high-resolution files now available. On almost any decent stereo, once you’ve listened to good recordings made at 24-bit depth you will never again be satisfied with less.

You can get all your music playback to sound like the original performance most affordably with Computer Audio (CA.) In it’s simplest form, CA is just using your personal computer (or digital device) as the source device to play high quality music files through some speakers that are good enough for the purpose. The computer (or device) replaces any CD player, tape player, iPod, or turntable.

Your personal computer, no matter how lowly, aspires to sing. It will sing beautifully with the right add-ons and files. Minimally, all you need is a set of capable powered speakers, a high quality DAC (digital to analog converter) and some high-resolution music files or a capable streaming audio service. If you want to dip your toes to try it without investing several hundred dollars in speakers, a set of excellent headphones will give you a taste.

It’s important to have a firm grip on exactly what makes recorded music sound great. The vast majority really don’t think it through, I’m convinced. Once you know, you are much better equipped to navigate to profound listening most of the time. Music is an encoded form of pure emotion, so let’s not waste time getting to the event by getting lost along the way, or distracted by things that don’t matter.

All the following prerequisites must be satisfied:

  1. A performance you would have enjoyed hearing live or synthesized music you would have liked if it had been performed. Let it be your kind of music, made as you’d like to hear it.
  2. A great recording. One that’s captured with a possibility of sounding real if all else goes well. No matter how wonderful the performance, if the recording fails to capture it accurately, the end listening experience is doomed. It’s also true that nothing desirable can be added to a performance by recording it. Let the recorded file be as faithful as possible to the original event.
  3. A well-tempered playback system. Not an expensive one, necessarily. Especially in this Golden Age when advanced CA technologies and gear can be so affordable. Simply a system that faithfully reproduces that wonderful musical performance that was so accurately recorded.

Which of these requisites do you think may be the most likely for the vast majority of listeners to mistake upon? Certainly not the performance. We all know what we like in music. Even if we can’t articulate why. From Elgar to Elvis, from Beethoven to the Beatles, we just know what delights us when we hear it.

It’s a shame how listeners get so lost in the speakers or amp or preamp or turntable, etcetera, that they have or don’t have or that they want -- that they forget, given even average gear, the quality of the recording makes the most significant difference. Not a slight difference. The recording is the key.

Music listening is like having some tea. Good tealeaves make good brew unless the water’s tainted. The recording, after all, is the ingredient. The rest is details. First thing to do in this Golden Age, if you want to enjoy it best, is get a feel for the quality of recordings. Then follow through and acquire the best recordings you can. When your sources are secured the rest can fall into alignment.

High definition files will make an average stereo system sound much better. However, a better stereo playing inferior files just reveals how crummy the bad recording truly is. If a stereo is actually challenged, a resourceful listener can acquire a CA audiophile grade system for under $1000 US these days.

If you fail to build a good music library or find streaming sources that support the audiophile experience you simply won’t have it. I’m afraid I must share some bad news now – your whole iTunes library probably sucks. I’m sorry. Apple built iTunes to sell cheap, compressed, lossy files to the masses.

We have Apple to thank for setting the music quality benchmark at the bottom of what’s possible with low bitrate Mp3’s – tinny, shrill, harsh, fatiguing music by comparison to the good stuff. It’s as if we were on a desert island and someone came ashore to sell us wine but all he brought was swill to trade for our coconuts.

We hear all sorts of terminology thrown around about file quality and formats, and some listeners tend to defend whatever they listen to, not knowing any better. Let’s get clear on just what good is and what are better and best.

Most of us went to school where we experienced a grading system. We can identify music quality in similar manner. Then there is also the old reliable star rating system.

Assuming good capability in the stereo system and excellent lossless recordings:

Music File Quality Comparison
*****OutstandingA+24/192 - and above – hard to distinguish from live music.
****ExcellentA24/96 – audiophile quality as well. Lifelike, far better than “nice.”
***GoodB16/44.1 – real hi-fi starts here at true CD quality. Articulate, smooth. Music is compromised below here. Your music deserves better.
**FairCMp3 – at 320 CBR. Sounds shrill, tiring and tedious far too soon.
*PoorDMp3 – at any lesser CBR. “Why am I listening to this?”

The main jumps are shown. Other file formats are available and they all fall into a spectrum. Bit depth comes before the slash. The number after the slash is a sampling frequency and it matters but the bit depth (first number) is the largest quality determinant. Emphasize 24-bit files as much as possible. All 24-bit files are superior regardless of sampling rate. I won’t be bothered to parse out the Mp3 designations. They aren’t worth a thought. Might as well leave those behind.

As with visual images, the more resolution the better, up to some point of diminishing returns that I have not discovered yet. That OMG look comes upon listeners’ faces with the jump to 24-bit recordings. By many multiples, there is far more detail and reality in 24-bit files. The transition from Mp3 to 16-bit lossless is like getting out of some pain you didn’t know you were suffering. The transition to 24-bit source is like going to Heaven without having to die. Some day I’d like to A/B test a 32-bit recording against a 24-bit file of the same performance.

More details on building your library in subsequent posts but a few hints for now. First, check out the lists on the front page of DreamStreaming. There you’ll find more than enough sources for audiophile grade music along with listener ratings. Get a taste of Mp3’s at 320 Kbps CBR for free at Linn Music. Then buy a high-res download of music you are familiar with and partial to. Or even better, try the Qobuz 30-day free trial and select 16/44.1 FLAC files for your local music. Let your ears and sensibilities rule.

Pick lossless files every time. As opposed to “lossy” ones that are truncated mainly to make them more compact. Guess what? More files on an iPod is not better. Better files is more. Lossless simply means nothing in the full-spectrum recording is thrown away. Compressed files are not evil as long as they are reconstituted into bit-perfect representations of the originals. Mp3’s are both lossy and compressed. They are evil. That’s why your whole iTunes library of Mp3’s sucks. There’s hope for iTunes in the form of 24-bit file formats as Apple transitions under consumer pressure. It takes time for them to reinvent everything in a new proprietary format, as always.

Hot tip of the century – for a streaming source, you owe it to yourself to try Qobuz.com. It’s worth some hassle. This very mature streaming service does it right. This is the one for all other aspirants to emulate. Google translate will make passable English of the French. Make a cheat sheet for the French control buttons. Also, know that although French artists are suggested most, don’t let any chauvinism wreck the fun. There is good internationality in the Qobuz library when you search it.

On Qobuz, you can acquire access to any number of 16 bit FLAC files just for the dues, for as long as you keep paying the rent. Can’t get in? A little bird told me one should sign up with PayPal and if need be, one can log in over a VPN connection. Any apparent “barriers” are really compliance to contractual obligations to the music distributors who are paranoid about theft of intellectual property.

A parting tip – I offer a continual series of useful articles on my blog website at iHi-Fi. Stop by and find more guidance on CA. Soon I’ll offer simple, audiophile grade systems at unbelievably achievable cost with a money-back audition period. With this gear, you just add a computer (Mac or PC) and play good files, or high definition online streams, to receive the audiophile experience into your life. I’ll announce here when the catalog is ready.

Happy Listening!

© 2013 Joseph Riden. All Rights reserved worldwide.

Contact Joseph at http://iHi-Fi.com/

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