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October 2011
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Audiolics Anonymous Chapter 143
Music downloads and Jim Smith's Get Better Sound DVD.
Article By Bill Gaw

 

Smyth Realizer, A8
Before delving into our two major topics for the month, I'd like to mention that there's been an update for the Smyth Realizer A8 headphone audio processor, which received a Blue Note Award last month. All units with a serial number greater than A09   can be retrofitted with an HDMI in and output. Thus if you have equipment that will do PCM conversion of Dolby or DTS high definition signals, you can feed the HDMI digital signal directly to the decoder which circumvents having to do a D/A and A/D conversion. I'm sending mine in now for update and will report on the sonic benefits hopefully next month.

 

Music Downloads
For the past several weeks, I've been listening primarily to high bit rate downloads from several of the web sites where they are available. While most sites on the web have down-res'ed from CD's 16/44 bits to kbit levels for the average listener without ears or brain tissue titrax, HDTracks, Linn Records and the Boston Symphony Orchestra have been making available downloads up to 24-bit/192kHz for sound approaching if not exceeding SACD and DVD-A levels. How can they exceed discs of the same bit rate? By allowing one to store the bits on hard drive and play back off of RAM. With a good D/A soundcard or asynchronous transmission through USB to an external DAC, one should get a signal with jitter approaching that of the megabucks players.

So what does one need for download, storage and playback?

1. First, a very fast internet connection. About four years ago, when 16-bit/44khz downloads were considered big, at about 500 to 700 megabits per hour's playback, it took me almost 24 hours with a phone modem to download one disc from the Linn Records site, and that didn't include the several time that the connection broke and had to be restarted. With my 10 megabit Verizon Fios connection, the usual download time for a 2 gigabit file will usually take less that an hour. Also make sure to use an Ethernet cable rather than wi-fi.

2. Sufficient storage. My first computer umpteen years ago had a 640kbit CPU and a 20 megabyte hard drive, which was considered to be good for home standards, and cost over $3000, with the hard drive alone costing $500. Now one can obtain a 2 terabyte hard drive for less than $100. I've actually filled a 2 terabyte drive and working on my second, all with audio files. Remember also that you'll need two drives at least as you'll want to make frequent backups as hard drives have a tendency to die and wipe out all of your files.

3. Sufficient RAM. While most playback programs play files directly from the hard drive, or add a portion of the files at a time to RAM, a few, such as CPlay, and JPlay, http://jplay.eu will load the total file to RAM before playback for minimal jitter. Unhappily, Windows has so many programs and services running in the background and loaded to non-contiguous areas of RAM, that you'll need extra RAM just to get a large enough area to store an entire high bit rate file, unless you configure Windows exclusively for audio playback.

4. Excellent playback program. I've used about 10 programs for file playback, and found that the best do the following:

            a. Take over control of the soundcard so one doesn't have to change the bit rate every time you change files.

            b. Has an easy way of storing file position on the hard drive.

            c. Will play back all files of the various types, such as FLAC, WAV, PCM, etc., and bit rates up to the maximum of your files.

            d. Can store the entire music file to RAM for improved jitter.

            e. Has digital signal processing for digit upsampling, equalization, room correction, possible surround effects, etc.

            f. Sounds great. Believe it or not, each program I've tried, even with digital signal processing turned off, sounds different. As with disk playback, the science of digital playback hasn't caught up with our ears in explaining why the exact same digits played back through different means, can sound so different. Trust your ears.

            g. allows ASIO or Kernal Streaming playback.

 

Unhappily, there is not a single program out there that will do all of the above. Programs that I can recommend are:

            a. JPLAY, www.jplay.eu for a., c., d., f..g.

            b. J. River Media Center, www.jriver.com  for a., b., e., f., g.

            c. FOOBAR2000, www.foobar2000.org for a., b., c., f., g.

            d. Steinberg's Wavelab Elements 7, www.steinberg.net/en/products/wavelab.html for a., b., c., f., g., and the ability to also record audio from analog sources such as phono, radio, tape, etc., and all digital sources.

            e. PowerDVD 11, www.cyberlink.com which can play back the 5.1 high definition surround files.

5. Superb output of the signal.

a. HDMI is the only way of getting high bit rate multi-channel audio out, at least with 2 channel audio, it's sound quality is equivalent to TosLink or USB output

     b. TosLink and standard USB 2.0 are about equivalent sound-wise probably due to their inherent jitter numbers and are unworthy of high end status.

     c. FireWire appears to be dead except as a method for some pro units.

     d. S/PDIF or AES-EBU when done correctly seems to be the way to go without any other processing between the computer and D/A converter for two channel audio. But using the motherboard's output is not great as noise from the CPU and motherboard components rides along with the signal. On the other hand using these outputs from a very good to great soundcard, such as the 2 channel @JULI or the multi-channel Xonar HDAV 1.3 with SPDIF, HDMI and 8 channel analog output, work very well.

    e. Asynchronous USB output using one of the many USB DACS or USB to SPDIF converters at present is the best sounding way of retrieving two channel digital data from a computer or server.

    f. If one has a very good preamp, or does not require the ability to play back vinyl or analog tapes, a good to superb sound card with analog output, possibly directly feeding to the amplifiers, is the way to go as the computer can do volume control and digital signal processing.

 

Downloads are usually controlled by the site's own proprietary program which will allow one to determine where the files should be stored, when the download should occur, and make sure that if the contact is broken that you will not lose the remainder of the files. How long it will take is determined by the file size and the speed of both the company's uplink and your downlink. At least in my system, it takes about 15 minutes to download a CD sized file and about an hour for an SACD or DVD-Audio sized one.

So what are the disadvantages of high rez downloads?

1. There's no disk, wrapper or case. While some may consider this to be a plus as you don't have to have cabinets full of discs, one can easily overcome this by doing a backup to a DVD or Blu-ray disc.

2. The expense. I can't understand this one. All of the sites, except one, charge almost the same for high resolution downloads as one would pay for a disc of the same quality and charge the same for only two channel downloads available as  5.1 channel surrounds on SACD or DVD-A. Why. Because they can I guess, unless some of us start protesting. For instance, one of the above, name withheld, has a two channel download of  the San Francisco Symphony doing the Ives Concord Symphony and Copland Organ Symphony for $17.98 while one can obtain the 5.1 channel SACD for $21.98 list and $16.41 at Amazon.com.

 

The Advantages?

1. Instant gratification. Rather than waiting a week for a disc by mail or a trip to your local disc emporium (good luck finding one these days) within an hour or so you can be listening to a new recording.

2. Superior sound. As I've said before, high definition downloads beat any CD for sound quality and in many instances the SACD or DVD-Audio disc played back through 99% of the players out there.

3. Ease of storage. A 1 terabyte drive taking up 1x3x6 inches in your computer can store a wall full of discs for a cost approaching pennies per.

4. Ease of playback. Rather than having to get up to change a disc, one can use a portable keyboard to change from track to track of various albums.

5. Portability. If stored in a notebook computer or on the various server sites on the web, one can play back any of your recordings any place in the world without having to lug your several hundred discs around.

6. Reproducibility. As most downloads don't come with DRM (digital rights management), one can copy them to any of your other computers for playback any place you may be.

 

I've been downloading the past couple of weeks from three sites.

Linn Records has some excellent 2 channel high resolution downloads of their own and several high quality European disc companies. Unhappily, their “studio master” downloads at 96 or 192 bit quality are somewhat expensive at $24 each, and all are two track even though there are 5.1 track SACD or DVD-A discs available at the same or similar prices.

HDtracks has a much greater variety of two track downloads of 88, 96, 176 and 192 quality for prices which are more reasonable at $14.38 to $17.98. Unhappily, they still haven't found out that there's such a thing as surround sound.

BSO is the web site for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where one can purchase stereo or 5.1 channel 24-bit/88kHz downloads of their discs released in the past couple of years for $9.99 for stereo and $12.99 for 5.1 surround. This compares quite favorably with the reduced price of $14.62 plus postage that Amazon.com charges for the SACD. I have the BSO's recordings of the Ravel Daphnis and Chloe and the Brahms Requiem on both SACD and the download and find them, played back through the HDMI outputs of my computer and Oppo BDP95 player to my Integra 9.8 pre-pro to be indistinguishable. The downloads took about 30 minutes each and cost me about $10 less than the discs. Such a deal. Unhappily, I could find no other orchestras doing high definition multi-channel downloads.

itrax is the fourth site of note. Here, all of the albums can be downloaded aa high definition stereo or if available, 5.1 WMA lossless or 24/96 quality. Unhappily, on the classical side they don't have a very large selection, but seem to be adding to it regularly.

 

Get Better Sound By Jim Smith
Jim Smith, a long time audiophile, equipment salesman, and setup artist for many rooms at various CES and other shows with the awards to show for it, wrote the Get Better Sound book in 2008, which was reviewed by Nels Ferre. Recently, he's condensed his many years of experience in setting up rooms onto three DVD's called (surprise) Get Better Sound.

I've gone through both the book and the DVD's over the past couple of weeks, and found them to be extremely informative, with each complementing the other. While the book goes into somewhat more depth on each point, the DVD has the advantage that for the average younger person who's been brought up in the video era, it may be an easier way of picking up on the information. Plus, he has added several topics on the discs that were just worth a footnote back in 2008, such as the advent of computer audio playback, and the use of computers for room setup.

He goes into several topics that I hold dear, including AC noise, multi-channel audio, room correction and absolute polarity, even giving a special mention to Clark Johnsen, the polarity guru and my dear friend.

Get Better Sound By Jim SmithAt $44.50 for the book, and $39.70 for the three DVD's, they're very reasonably priced for the information obtained. At the special summer price now of $29.95, and $19.95, they're a steal. Even better, for $49.90 one can obtain both the book and DVD's. Plus, one obtains the possibility of contacting him with questions, and with the purchase of the book or DVD, one can get his Quarternotes web downloads of updates. Plus he's started a program called Roomplay Sessions where he'll come to your house and voice your system, which he'll guarantee will sound better. At a reasonable price of $1200 to $2500 depending on the amount of time needed and where you live, any audiophile not satisfied with his system's sound (what self-respecting audiophile is) should consider it before your next purchase. I had this done about 20 years ago by Sal Demicco and was very satisfied with the results. Maybe its time to have Jim come up for an evaluation.

Now a few words from Mr. Smith
"I want to express my appreciation for the time and effort that Bill Gaw took to read the GBS book & view the three GBS DVDs. He captured the essence of them nicely. The only point I might make is that the RoomPlay sessions usually work out to be a little less expensive than the numbers that Bill quoted. Of course, all of that info - in great detail - is on the www.GetBetterSound.com website. In case your readers have further questions, they should know that I always try to reply to e-mails & phone calls within 24 hours at
jim@getbettersound.com or via voice at (770) 777-2095

Jim Smith 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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