Monthly Archives: February 2015

No, Vinyl Does Not Sound Better Than MP3 – Making The Case For Digital Audio

The resurgence of vinyl as a “high-fidelity” music playback medium is becoming more and more recognized in popular culture. “Hipsters” and true audiophiles alike are quickly starting a new-age vinylphile scene, largely because of a small but noisy backlash against digitally distributed music.

First things first: this phenomena isn’t new – the anti-digital audio movement was alive and well in the early days of compact discs and digital mastering, two phenomena that took off roughly contemporaneously in the 1980’s. By the 90’s, both had improved by leaps and bounds in terms of quality and consistency, though numerous music artists like Neil Young decried the rise of digital production and the “ones and zeroes” of compact discs, compared to the warmth, character, and high fidelity of analog vinyl records at the time. But the Walkman and in-car CD players made the compact disc a consumer smash-hit, and cassettes quickly fell by the wayside as the better-sounding and more reliable CD took over the marketplace.

With the rise of the iPod, things changed again: MP3 and other digital audio formats rapidly eclipsed compact discs in terms of total distribution (even if much of that distribution was illegal), and personal audio entered a new age.

In the early aughts (00’s), the quality of digitally distributed audio wasn’t exactly stellar, but nor was the playback equipment. Laptops and desktop computers had middling audio reproduction to start with, but this was something of a blessing in disguise: low expectations set by computers and laptops (and those old iPod earbuds, yuck) meant that digitally distributed music could be encoded at low bitrates without having an extreme impact on the perceptible quality of the audio. A 64 or 48Kbps MP3 was not uncommon to see in these early days, perhaps ripped from a scratched CD using a sketchy drive, and encoding tools were not nearly as standardized or effective at compression. This is where ire toward digital really started, even if those problems are basically nonexistent today.

But with huge amounts of digital distribution happening extralegally during this time, there was no real concern for preserving quality or the effects of burning/re-ripping/re-encoding on lossy audio formats – people simply didn’t care. While Apple was distributing comparatively very high-quality 128Kbps AAC files by 2003 on iTunes, that still comprised just a tiny amount of the music being distributed around the internet. Who wasn’t illegally downloading music in the mid to late 2000s?

Today, things are rather different. Even the lowest of the low streaming services generally stream at 128Kbps MP3 over Wi-Fi (though they do go down to 96 or even 64/48Kbps over mobile – see: Pandora), and if you’re actually buying digital music, it’s all but guaranteed to be at 192-256Kbps MP3 or higher. I have still yet to see real evidence that even 192Kbps MP3 sounds better than 128Kbps MP3, by the way – which should tell you something about all the FLAC and lossless weirdos out there.

In this context, listening to music on vinyl makes little sense. Vinyl is, by its nature, an imperfect medium – all the “warmth” and “character” vinyl lovers describe of their records is generally attributable to the natural sonic qualities of vinyl playback, qualities that will come through on a $100 Pyle turntable pretty similar to a $1500 Marantz. Yes, a nicer turntable / stylus will produce much nicer audio than a much cheaper one, but that’s not really the point here: the point is that the “vinyl effect” is basically psychological – these people have come to associate “quality” with the inherent characteristics of vinyl playback, and that’s an entirely inappropriate conflation.

Vinyl is a carburetor in a fuel-injected world. Yes, a properly tuned, calibrated, and expensive vinyl setup can sound and perform much better than many digital setups, but that’s missing the point: most vinyl playback today happens on cheap turntables with cheap or old records and cheap or old needles and goes through cheap or old speakers. It is far easier and cheaper to make a digital setup that sounds as good or better than a very carefully tuned and much, much pricier vinyl setup. Vinyl love is nostalgia, plain and simple.

Much as the man driving a ’69 Mustang Boss 302 may proclaim that his underrated V8 puts out 350-plus horsepower and was one of the most potent vehicles of its day, that doesn’t mean a $21,000 2014 Ford Fiesta ST with a scant 197HP won’t spank it in essentially every measurable performance metric while being more reliable and far less expensive. Could you make the Boss faster than the Fiesta by throwing huge sums of money at it? Sure. But claiming that the Boss is the better car because you can make it better is an obvious fallacy. This is the argument vinyl-heads will have over and over with nonbelievers – vinyl can sound better than MP3, you just have to know what to buy and be willing to spend. And clean your records. And your needle. And set your tracking force. And your pitch. And balance the turntable.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s look at the records themselves. Let’s say you have a mint condition, unopened copy of CSNY’s Deja Vu on vinyl, original pressing. And then let’s say you have the remaster from 2006 in 192Kbps MP3. The vinyl already has a disadvantage: the MP3 has been mastered for digital to remove analog hum, hiss, and other artifacts of the production process that weren’t possible in 1969. Some remasters do end up ruining records, but most are careful exercises in restoration and utilize new technology to more effectively present the music as the artist originally intended while eliminating problems in the original mastering. Right out of the gate, the MP3 is almost certain to sound superior – while the vinyl has the appeal of “originality,” this advantage is rooted – like almost all vinyl arguments – in nostalgia. Original does not sound objectively better, no matter what vinylphiles will try to tell you. Then let’s look at money: how much would such a record cost? Well, for a truly original copy, you’d be looking at $100+ for an unopened record. A later high-grade reissue in excellent condition would run you more like $15-35+, so let’s say you use that. How much does the 2006 remastered MP3 cost? About $10. Or it’s included as part of a music subscription service and costs you nothing but your monthly fee.

So, which is going to sound better? That, of course, is almost entirely contingent on the setup. With the digital file, $330 will buy you a great DAC, headphone amplifier, and very good set of Grado headphones quite easily. At that point, you’ll probably have 95% of the perceptible audio quality money can buy in the realm of digital audio.

The record? Well, let’s start with turntables. If you go cheap, a fully-manual Pyle that’s serviceable but not great will set you back $70. A good but cheap AudioTechnica needle, maybe another $30. You’ll also need a phono preamp, say $25 for that. Then you have the same cost for the headphone amp and headphones. A grand total of, we’ll say, about $325.

Which sounds better? I would know, because I have this exact setup, and it’s the digital audio every single time, without a shadow of a doubt. No vinyl hiss, cracks, pops, or hum. No dust to contend with. No adjusting tracking force. The digital sounds fuller, with superior bass, channel separation, and fidelity. Maybe if I had a $300 turntable, $200 needle, and a $300 small tube amp with some open-back Sennheisers, I could get the full vinyl experience. Oh, and pay the insane cost of getting all the music I want on vinyl. And to do it right, that means chasing down audiophile high-weight reissues, which run anywhere from $30-100+. Why would I do this? I don’t know, because there is no truly justifiable reason for it from the perspective of sonic quality. It makes no sense.

Now, it’s easy to say “that’s not a fair comparison – the digital reissue is a new master, of course it sounds better” because this allows vinyl-heads to postulate that if the digital version was the exact same master as the vinyl, the vinyl would be superior because the digital is lossy. Except this is a moot point: half of the advantage of digital is in having the newest, cleanest master of the song. Now, sometimes true originals are interesting to hear, but no one is listening to them for fidelity! There’s historical value, there’s nostalgic value, and that’s really it – for sheer listening pleasure, I will take the digital remaster of nearly any album any day of the week over the analog original. They sound better.

Anyway, the real point here is that in almost no real-world setting will vinyl sound better than a legitimate MP3 of the same song or album when played through the same equipment (aside from the record player, obviously). It’s an absurd thing to argue. If you throw the same money at a DAC as you would at a high-end turntable, stylus, and preamp, you’d struggle to even find a place to spend all that cash. Like a lot of the high-end audiophile market, though, it’s very easy to find a company that’s happy to convince you of whatever it is you want to believe about how to get the “best” sound, and the sudden demand for vinyl has made a $1500 turntable a viable business model again. Make no mistake: this phenomena is cultural, not technical, in nature. Audiophiles with deep pockets love to be told that what they like is what is also objectively better: modern, high-end vinyl gear merely caters to a demand of the market, not some rediscovery of vinyl’s obvious superiority. Vinyl is cool again, and so people, even audiophiles (unsurprisingly), want to be in with what’s cool. That’s all this is really about, at the end of the day.

If you’re really serious about sound, you should also be serious about getting value for your money, and high-end vinyl is the antithesis of value. Vinly is fashion – it is tasteful, classic, and calls back to a time when we consumed music differently. That doesn’t make it better. If anything, it serves to discredit it.

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Taking FLAC: Pono reviews generally confirm FLAC purists are full of it, and so is Pono

So, it turns out I was wrong about Pono: the difference is not easy to hear. In fact, according to pretty much every review of the device, Pono provides no credible evidence of audible improvement over a smartphone when playing the same file, or even that Pono sounds appreciably better playing back FLAC versus a smartphone using high-bitrate (256Kbps) AAC. David Pogue even went so far as to conduct a blind test with well over a dozen people.

Make no mistake: Pono was developed by some very respected names in the audio industry, sporting components similar to those found in good portable headphone DAC/amplifier units. But instead of showing that a “proper” DAC/amp can noticeably improve the listening experience over an iPhone, Pogue’s test found that ordinary people, even when wearing some universally-lauded Sony monitoring headphones, simply couldn’t tell the difference between Pono FLACs and iTunes 256Kbps AACs.

This bodes poorly for portable amplifiers and DACs, but also supports the apparently unassailable truth that most people simply will not be able to observe an appreciable difference using FLAC versus high-res MP3s or AAC files. If they can, they’re probably telling themselves they can, or are simply conflating undesirable distortion (non-harmonic distortion increases at ultra-high sampling rates) with greater detail.

FLAC purists maintain that it is these higher sampling ceilings and greater bits rates which are responsible for the more pronounced “texture” and “feel” in music (cymbals are often cited, for no apparently good reason – almost all instruments produce ultrasonics). In fact, it is these higher sampling ceilings that expose even my audiophile-approved Onkyo TX8255 receiver-amp as unable to avoid audible distortion (that is, not true to the recording) at these supposedly inaudible ultrasonic frequencies. It’s unlikely the distortion would cause a truly noticeable effect on listening experience, but Pogue’s experiment supports the notion that such sounds in FLAC files might actually be undesirable – more people voiced a preference for the iPhone playing back 256Kbps AACs, rather than FLACs on the Pono.

If anything, Pogue’s test goes to show that, unsurprisingly, the world of digital audio has improved leaps and bounds from the early days when MP3 really was a dirty word and we were all trading crappily encoded CP rips on Kazaa and Napster. This tends to really be my theory anymore: audiophiles were among the first to explore the world of digital audio on the web, and they were around to experience the growing pains of that community. When a 96Kbps MP3 rip was what you downloaded because no one was ripping at 256 or 320, and the rips were sourced from old, scratched CDs read by cheap computer drives and then often compressed into oblivion.

I agree that, for a while there, the digital music industry really kind of was screwing the pooch on audio quality by leaving it to the bootleg community, and early streaming services like Pandora really did no one any favors, dipping down to a wretch-inducing 48Kbps on their mobile app at times. But Apple and the labels themselves started remedying this, and by the time the 128Kbps AAC became the de facto quality floor on the later iPods, we were probably already 90% there in terms of the listening experience.

With the iPhone, we saw a smartphone manufacturer pay attention to audio on a hardware level, and Apple remains the bar to meet in the mobile industry for audio hardware on a smartphone or tablet. They actually care about this stuff (let’s not forget they had 6 years to get it right in the iPod) – and Pogue’s test shows it pretty decisively. The fact that he was able to get away with this while driving a big set of Sony MDR7506 monitoring headphones is even more impressive, proving that mobile amplifiers have come a tremendously long way.

While I’ve generally understood the direction Neil Young and Pono were coming from – even if I disagree with some of the premise – I can’t help but agree with Pogue’s conclusion that Pono seems terribly misguided and reeks of the common snake-oily claims you find in the high-end audiophile world. It also proves that audiophiles will convince themselves of whatever they want, regardless of whether or not data controverting those views exists, and will continue to throw money at products catering to those beliefs because you can’t “really” hear the FLAC difference unless you have the budget (a pretentious argument at best).

Pogue also emphasizes what I’ve always said: focus on your equipment, not the files. The files are only going to be bad if you go out of your way to find ones that sound bad.

While I even find it mildly surprising few people preferred the Pono in Pogue’s study, I think it really does just go to the point that the engineers doing DAC and amplifier work on today’s modern smartphones and the related chipsets have figured out how to downsize and isolate those components very effectively. Is it so surprising that Apple, the world’s largest producer of MP3 players and high-end smartphones – that see vastly higher adoption rates in the music business – is creating an excellent audio experience on its products? I don’t think it’s exactly inconceivable, and Qualcomm seems to be doing a fine job, too.

While I would not go so far as to say standalone DACs and headphone amplifiers are without purpose, I will suggest that it generally seems safe to assume that a high-end smartphone is probably the best headphone DAC/amp in your home if you don’t own such dedicated products. I still believe a good DAC and amp are necessary with most laptops and PCs (I prefer Schiit’s Modi and Magni combo), because I’ve always noticed a very real difference with them on my desktop system.

Still, your best investment remains good headphones, and I can’t recommend Grado’s SR80e enough – they’re insanely good value for money. If you want something a little nicer, I really like the Blue Mo-Fis, whose active amplifier setup really do seem to make a difference to my ears when using a smartphone, since they’re of such a high impedance.

As for Pono, I’d suggest taking a pass: you’re supremely unlikely to notice the difference it provides, and FLAC albums simply aren’t worth the money unless you’re playing home music archivist. Put the money toward a good set of cans or studio monitor speakers – you’ll notice a far greater difference than any triangular prism can provide.