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Mid-November 2006
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Follow Up: Digital Music On Hard Formats Is Almost Dead!
Why would an audiophile buy a new CD player? Part 2
Article By Steven R. Rochlin

 

  Earlier this month i wrote an editorial that showed reported sales numbers provided by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Shipments of physical products are down 16 percent in the first half of 2006 as compared to the same time period in 2005. With sales of SACD and DVD-Audio discs combined down a staggering 30 percent, those of us who care deeply about high quality music may be left wondering if music on said formats have any chance to survive in the mainstream. With digital downloads up on average 110 percent during the same time period it may make sense to petition recording labels to migrate from hard formats to digital downloads. It could also be financially viable as digital downloads have a lower cost to implement versus their hard format counterpart.

While Apple's iTunes mainly panders to highly compressed lossy formats, the Microsoft Zune player will soon reach stores worldwide and we can hope they find a way to beat their competition by offering higher resolution downloads. Of note is that MusicGiants, launched in September 2005, has been offering higher quality music than iTunes for a small additional cost. Specifically, iTunes is around 256 kbs lossy ACC at 99 cents per song ($9.99 per album) while MusicGiants are at 1092kbs, with music encoded in the Lossless Windows Media Audio format at $1.29 for each song ($15.29 per album). All four major labels, EMI, Sony, Universal and Warner Music Group are licensing music to MusicGiants, so there is plenty of content to enjoy.

 

Letters From You
Have been receiving many e-mails from enthusiastic readers and would enjoy sharing them with you. Hopefully my reply also better states my point of view concerning digital downloaded.

Steven,

I feel where you are coming from on the subject of hard digital formats. I have a collection of CD's in excess of 2500, which represents over 30,000 tracks. I have loaded nearly all of them onto external hard drives... mostly so that I can mix and match and burn my own arrangements. However, your final inquiry is why would anyone (presumably including audiophiles) buy a new CD player in the face of the obvious decline in the market share of hard formats. For audiophiles the answer is simple. It will be a great while (if ever) before you get high resolution downloads and the type of personal computing power that makes downloading significant amounts of high resolution audio practical in terms of time and money. This is an especially high hurdle given the fact that iTunes and others are having no trouble moving their current low resolution product. Not to mention the extra step of burning a CD for use in the main audio system or setting up some kind of digital jukebox arrangement that will probably not provide the kind of fidelity provided by your basic audiophile system for some time to come. The IPOD is a great device and I own one. I load "uncompressed" CD files onto it. Nevertheless, I do not confuse it with my Meridian G-08 CD player. Different solar system. Obviously, there is still a huge market for downloads for those for whom audio quality is a minor issue if that. For the discriminating minority, take heart, the technical facility is out there and we can all long for the day when audio downloads representing no compromise in sound is a viable option.

Larry Newsome

 

Larry,

Thanks for your e-mail and agree the iPod is no Meridian G-08. Part of my point was that audiophiles should stop the whole SACD/DVD-Audio debacle and, instead, insist on higher quality digital downloads. As you said, iTunes is having no problem moving lower fidelity tracks and that is what we need to fight. Hopefully manufacturers will find a way to take advantage of FireWire (or the next generation higher bandwidth USB) so that we can output very high resolution digital data from our computers and feed outboard audiophile DACs. USB DACs are good, but they are limited in bandwidth. As you said, we can long for the day digital downloads satisfy audiophiles. As always, in the end what really matters is that we all...

Enjoy the Music,

Steven R. Rochlin

------------------------------------------

Steven,

Read your article and I could be induced to buy music on line, however...

So where do we get the high rez downloads? Aren’t most downloads compressed even compared to CD? What about limitations on how many computers can hold the download? I have two cars, a dedicated 2-channel room, a HT in the family room, a wireless music system for the backyard (to be expanded throughout the house before December), several PCs, portable CD players, but no iPOD because I perceive limitations of the downloads from iTunes.

What about the cool LP jackets that we used to ogle as teenagers? I actually read CD text and artwork to learn about the artist or group. What do I get from the download?

From a societal standpoint, do we really want to limit our purchases to the net? Do we want faceless interactions? Do we really want to be just a number?

Maybe I just need to get out and see a concert.

Take care,

Kurt S

 

Kurt,

The sad part is that virtually nowhere can we download higher-rez audio. Instead, the SACD/DVD-Audio formats are dying and we are being left out in the cold. Part of my point was that we audiophiles need to demand higher-resolution downloads. Those lackluster iTunes and the like compressed downloads are just that.

Hard drive space is getting larger and less expensive by the day, so storage is not that much of a problem. As for LP jackets, I wholly agree with you! The beautiful art of the LP jacket is lost on CD and nonexistent on digital downloads. A sad day for those of us who enjoy the wonderful artwork that also came with our vinyl LPs.

Kurt said
>>>From a societal standpoint, do we really want to limit our purchases to the net? Do we want faceless interactions? Do we really want to be just a number?<<<

Human interaction appears to be on the decline due to video games, the Internet, etc. People no longer seem to meet in person; they hang out on discussion and chat boards. This is both good and bad in that we get to cybermeet people we never would have in person. The down side is that maybe people spend less time cultivating true human to human interaction. Heck no I do not want to just be a number or on-screen username. On the other hand guys like me who have esoteric and rare hobbies can now find parts and cybertalk to others who may have experienced the same problem (and find the solution). Before the Internet, as an example, I was at the mercy of fumbling around or paying some so-called expert huge sums of money to fix my car.

In a perfect world everything would be as we desire it. Reality has a way of working things out. Perhaps not the way we desire, though the way others feel it should be.

Enjoy the Music,

Steven R. Rochlin

------------------------------------------

Hi Steven,

I just read your Digital Music On Hard Formats Is Almost Dead! I'm sure you are correct about what is happening to recorded music. I don't like having music only on hard drives because they are not reliable. We can put a lot of music on a 500GB drive but the bigger they are, the harder they fall. I have about 2500 CDs and about 1000 records. I also stream MP3s at least 96kbps (usually higher) at 44kHz sampling. I save streamed music on the hard drive but also make CDs of MP3 files for car and portable use. I would be very unhappy to loose thousands of songs I paid for to a failed hard drive. When enough people loose their purchased music to failed drives, there will be some re-thinking. I don't like a player, like an Ipod, that has a limited storage capacity because the media is not changeable or portable to other players. CD-Rs are cheap and are unlimited, reliable and can be played on various machines. They also can be duplicated easily. One CD has about 10 hours of good quality audio. I'm not your typical user, though. I'm an Engineer and worked in the industry for companies like SAE, Infinity and Cerwin-Vega. I'll keep on enjoying my CDs because I ... Enjoy The Music!!!!

Best regards,

Richard Pley

 

Richard,

Many thanks for your e-mail and agree hard drives are not 100 percent reliable. Have suffered the HD 'click of death' years ago. I propose we have a download/subscription combination so that if the HD dies our subscription allows us to re-download the data. As you are a very enlightened engineer, am sure we all know it is best to back things up, though with the subscription part we need not worry about HD failures.

Years ago Microsoft and others were investing into the idea of a 'net' of satellites. These satellites would be capable of delivering high-bandwidth to earthbound users. Think of it as Hughsnet (was DirecWay) but on a much larger scale. We are now seeing various cell phone companies trying to get worldwide wireless bandwidth rates up so they can deliver audio/video content. Perhaps my idea is a bit ahead of the currently widely available technology curve, though someone has to dream these things up, have masses of people demand said service, and hopefully someone with the financial and technological means will meet our desires. DVD-Audio and SACD are nearly dead, so my idea may be what the next logical step should be.

It's not rocket science ;) Thanks again for your e-mail and maybe you can convince someone, somewhere, to begin offering better resolution audio downloads/subscription service. XM and Sirus are ok, but imagine if they delivered better resolution and a way to pick and choose songs.

Enjoy the Music,

Steven R. Rochlin

 

Larry, Kurt and Richard make excellent points and we need to face the reality of the direction the music industry is headed. What we need is a unified voice that represents those who desire more ways for consumers to download higher resolution formats. Am sure very few people know about MusicGiants verses iTunes. Hopefully someone will step up to the plate and make higher resolution, uncompressed audio file download more mainstream. In other words, have more online vendors offer these higher quality files, thereby providing more choices to consumers. My beliefs are that one votes with their dollars, and if you buy highly compressed music you are in a sense voting for lossy compressed music. The problem is, in the proverbial Voting Ballot of music, uncompressed audio is not an option. We need to make it an option, or at least a write in vote. 

And now an e-mail from someone who might need a better perspective. Perhaps they are happy with lossy, lower quality music? Worse still, adding distortion to an already compressed file may not be the best way to go about finding nirvana.

Steven,

I've been surprised by your (continued) insults on digital as a legitimate source for serious music listening.

Now I'll agree that first-generation digital recordings were not so good. But since the mid 1990's, labels like Chesky and Harmonia Mundi have been pumping out great sounding Red Book recordings. They record at 20-bits, then "squeeze" them down to 16 for release but the consumer format contains the virtuous 20-bit dynamic range. In other words, the CD release is high-rez but it has to cheat a little to get there.

If you read the hi-fi press, you've probably noticed that (certain) Red Book playback units have been getting big-time raves. Robert Harley reported that the Meridian 808 CD player "invited a comparison to a live microphone feed". David Robinson of PFO said that the EMM Labs Signature DAC is "mastertape for the masses". Finally, John Mazur of PFO (again) reviewed the Mark Levinson-backed "Burwen Bobcat" and called it a "revolutionary" product. As stated, all of these units are CD-based machines and not one reviewer cried "low-fi". If anything, they said just the opposite.

A lot has happened since the turn of this century with digital, most of it concerning Red Book. And it's not just in hardware - one thing that's happened is the advent of playing-back CDRs. I like the ones made by "Reality Check" (the George Louis machine). But hardware advances continue - case in point, "The Memory Player". This unit, designed by the Pipedreams people, promises to advance digital to its highest level yet, at least in the drive unit category. Reviews are still pending.

Digital is a more precise way to record and playback music - it's as simple as that. It's just that it's taken a good 20 years for engineers to perfect the process. That day has finally arrived. But there are still two (big) unanswered questions:

1.) How many vinyl-philes will become aware of this and

2.) If informed, will they be open enough to part with their treasured turntables?

John Phelan

 

John,

Thanks for your e-mail and I am a proponent of digital. Just that we are still using, as you know, 20 year old plus technology. The video game and computer world has long left that old standard behind. You say "squeeze," when in reality it is lossy compressed. If you enjoy lossy compressed digital audio versus a higher resolution alternative then that is (rightly) your choice. DVD, DVD-Audio, HD DVD, and SACD are far and away better. As a studio musician I have heard master tapes and allow me to go so far as saying CD does not stand a chance. In my opinion vinyl gets closer, though the higher resolution digital formats get closer still. So as a proponent of digital audio I am asking audiophiles to challenge the recording labels to offer high resolution digital audio as a downloadable format. Am asking for digital, just not decades old technology that employs lossy compression.

And for the record, i do not care what others say in their reviews, but do respect their opinions. As for the Burwin Bobcat, have covered that within the Industry News long ago as i do not desire adding distortion to my music... and would guess neither would audiophiles. As a recording studio musician i have heard the term "We'll fix it in the mix." If you get it right, as is the proper way to go about it, then there is no need to 'fix' it in my opinion. Computer guys know the term "Garbage in = garbage out."

 

As i always say, in the end what really matters is that we all....

 

Click here for Part III of this article.

 

Enjoy the Music ("Settle For Nothing" by Rage Against The Machine right now),

Steven R. Rochlin

"Read my writing on the wall
No-ones here to catch me when I fall
If ignorance is bliss, then knock the smile off my face
Yeah!

If we don't take action now
We settle for nothing later
Settle for nothing now
And well settle for nothing later"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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