A True Audiophile Can Hear the Difference!

The Evolution of Sound

Audiophiles have had to settle quite a bit over the years. All they want is sound that’s as faithful as possible to the master tapes recorded in the studio, nothing added, nothing subtracted, just pure, unaltered music. Until recently, unfortunately, technology could not keep pace with their discriminating ears.  Below is a little history lesson on where recorded music started, how it’s horrified audiophiles and how innovation is finally granting audiophiles their only wish!

LPs – Real sound…with the occasional snap, crackle and pop

Some hardcore audiophiles still have record players because the recorded music is very close to the actual master tapes.  There are some obvious drawbacks to the long play (LP) technology, however. The dynamic range (capturing loud and soft sounds) is limited because of how much the needle can wiggle in a groove and how big the variation within the grooves is in a record.  There’s also wear and scratches that happens with this technology, also known as groove distortion. Audiophiles who wanted “true” sound have had to deal with drawbacks of this technology for quite a long time. And the next innovation was really a step backwards for them.

CDs – Less distortion, but more removed from original sound

Audiophiles could easily hear the difference between LPs and CDs. To them, CDs offered a gritty, hard-edged sound. This makes sense, as we hear analog. Digital is merely a format for storing an analog signal. To quote one very knowledgeable audiophile, “Digital is FAKE reality! We only hear analog!”

Every time you copy something in analog and recopy, however, there’s additional noise and dynamic range is lost.  Conversely, CDs provided for more consistent duplication versus LPs. Digital technology only copies numbers, versus actual music. Basically, it’s a binary representation of the original signal. (Think about 0s and 1s in computer language.) They also didn’t have the “ticks and pops” of records, there was no groove distortion and they offered, a wide realistic dynamic range. The original CD standard is 44/16. This number refers to the CD capturing 44,100 audio images per second (kilohertz, khz) with an accuracy of 16 bits. Bits also refers to how deep into the image sample the recording goes. In other words, how frequently is the sample taken, and how closely the recording devices look at the sample.  Sampling speed multiplied bit depth equals bit rate. Therefore, CD quality is typically 1.4112 million bits per second, also referred to as kilobits per second or kbs.

CDs have gotten better, as audio engineers better understand how to record for the digital format. However, true audiophiles could still hear the “digital glare,” referring to the lack of dimensionality that the digital format offers, explaining why record players have not totally gone away…yet.

MP3s – Compression for convenience

MP3s (short for mpeg 2, level 3, a recording efficiency designation) came out in approximately 1998, and were noted for their accessibility.  However, this convenience came at a price. Remember when I told you that CDs typically sample at 1.4112 kps? Well, Mp3s can have as little as 96,000 kbs! The most popular standards are 112K, 128K, 144K, 160K, 192K, 256K and 320K.  Wow, that’s a huge decrease! Supposed recording “experts” said that the average person wouldn’t really hear the diminished quality because of the principal of “human masking,” which claims human ears can’t hear high frequency sounds anyway, so they won’t notice them if they are removed. Basically, recording engineers removed very high frequently sounds, such as the highest pitch of a symbol crashing, which are very hard to capture in the digital format.  Therefore, there was less to grab, making it easier and more efficient to record on less space.

However, it has later been shown that the presence of high frequency sounds, even if the human ear can’t hear them in a vacuum, affects how lower frequency sounds are processed.  By keeping the high frequency sounds, you can actually hear the space between the instruments and where they are playing, as well as the type of acoustical space in which the music was recorded. (Some true audiophiles can even determine the room dimensions!) Without it, the dimensionality of the musical image is lost and there’s a deadness, or “digital glare”, as mentioned above.

Apple wasn’t the first, but they did it best

Contrary to popular belief, Steve jobs and Apple weren’t the first to manufacture mp3 players. A company named Rio responded to an industry that figured out it could take 44/16 and compress it down based on an encode/decode algorithm based on “human masking” and appeal to the mass market. However, they didn’t play nice with the record companies, so Apple saw the opportunity to swoop in and take over.

Apple obviously revolutionized portable entertainment with the iPod and iTunes.  And unlike Rio, Steve Jobs was smart enough to make deals with the recording industry, so everyone could share revenue. That’s really what it’s all about, right? It’s not about developing latest and greatest technology, but how much money can it bring it. The average consumer LOVED being able to access mp3s on their mobile device, but the audiophile community looks at this technology with dismay. Spotify offers the highest quality online music service, but it’s only at 320K kbs, quite a deviation from the pure sound they have been desiring for decades.

Game Changing Technology in the Works

But, wait! There finally appears to be a light at the end of a dark, hollow tunnel. Engineers have developed new encode/decode algorithms that are much better than CDs and have the data capacity of a DVD. And instead of the 44.1/16 standard of the CDs, they are 192/24, which is 9.216 million kps! (They are in stereo, so you also multiply the kps by two channels.) They are the perfect representation of the digital signal, no noise, no groove distortion and full dynamic range. Where can these products be found? They’re part of Sony’s Elevated Standard Series, but they aren’t money makers yet. Sony has a marketing challenge on their hand to not only market their products as superior in the market, but they also have to create demand for true high res audio in broader circles.

What are the newest digital formats that offer this kind of quality? FLAC is the most popular of the compressed formats, as it is a loss-less (not losing any quality), 192/24 format. It compresses the data rate, meaning more music can fit onto the same-sized hard drive.  Apple loss-less is another popular format. WAV is also uncompressed and loss-less, however, it is considered dated technology now because it takes up too much space. It won’t work on mobile devices and there’s no room for metadata like the artist name, cover art and the song’s title.

Sony has also build hard drive to store 192/24 music files, some of which have a solid state memory like a Mac. Users also need a digital analog converter (DAC), which take the digital signal and turn it into an analog signal to feed to an amplifier and drive speakers, which are analog devices. The hard drive and the DAC are even available on the same chassis.

After more than three decades, the advancements in sound engineering might finally mean the end for record players. (Remember, that thing I mentioned in the very beginning!) And you can hear even the highest pitched audiophile rejoice!

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