Archive for the ‘Beginner’s Guides’ Category

How bad is MP3? (Part 2)

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010
lego mp3 player

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Last week I wrote up a post about my opinions on the MP3 format which included a few listening reviews of various MP3s in my collection. I admitted the weakness of this experiment, in that I wasn’t comparing these recordings to any other format, so I concluded that I needed to do a review the same recording in both MP3, CD and vinyl forms.

I chose to review Van Cliburn and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 1961 performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat, Op. 73 “Emperor”. Specifically, the third and final movement. I own this recording both on vinyl as part of the Great Men of Music boxset I reviewed a while back and as an RCA Living Stereo SACD . I ripped an MP3 copy at 160 kbit/s using iTunes, which was sourced from the CD layer of the SACD disc. Before each test, I calibrated the sound level for each source to -25 dB using the trial version of Electroacoustics Toolbox 2.0 , a versatile sound analysis program. To do this, I placed my laptop in my listening position and then played a 1 KHZ test tone from the Stereophile Test CD , test MP3 file in iTunes, and the Cardas Test record . The laptop microphone picks up the test tone and displays the current SPL (sound pressure level) ,and I would adjust the volume knob on my amp until it reached -25 dB. Performing this adjustment for each source reviewed ensured that the music was being pumped out the amplifier at a consistent level so that differences in the sound pressure wouldn’t color my judgment. So, here’s what I came up with:

CD- I made sure to play the CD layer of the disc for this test, as it wouldn’t be fair to compare the MP3 it was sourced from to a hi-rez version of the same recording. Bass frequencies are very present (if not fairly boomy) and Cliburn’s piano is fresh and lively but demonstrates some “smearing”. The strings are dense without sounding excessively stodgy and the soundstaging is good. Everything is in its proper place, and since I have actually attended a concert in that hall before, I could really reimagine it.

MP3 – A marked flatness is apparent right off the bat, the dynamics are severely reduced. Just as I had remarked about some tracks in the previous week’s part of this review, the music just can’t seem to escape or transcend the speakers. The orchestra is trapped in a wood and kevlar prison. In contrast to the CD recording, the piano seems a bit more defined and runs together less. But despite the improved clarity, the piano still suffers from a loss of energy. The soundstage has shifted to the left somewhat…somehow. Overall, the MP3 was not unlistenable but still not ideal.

LP- Well, to start off, hissing, rumble and clicks are apparent in quiet portions (no shit) but it’s not bad enough to be distracting. This recording shows excellent soundstaging and the bass is subdued when compared to the CD and MP3 edition. The piano isn’t as shiny as the other two tests, it lacks in high treble which can be a limitation of vinyl records. This was craploads better than the MP3 and rivaled the CD for clarity, warmth and overall enjoyability.

So to conclude, MP3s still kinda suck. But as I wrote last time, they have their definite advantages if you’re concerned about space and price. I understand that this wasn’t a double-blind ABX test , the gold standard for hi-fi experimentation, but the point of these reviews wasn’t to determine if one could tell a difference between the formats (which ABX does), but instead to assess the subjective qualities of each format. Sound is still always a matter of taste and preference, so you might not mind or even care about the sound of an MP3 if it seems okay to you. But for me, i’ll stick to MP3s cranked out of a portable device for when i’m on my way to work, and i’ll use CD and vinyl for when I really want to sit down and enjoy the music.

How bad is MP3? (Part 1)

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010
an mp3 player made out of a grenade casing

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In my very first blog post I briefly bashed MP3 as an inferior format for tone deaf plebes. I soon realized that was an extremely hypocritical thing to do, as the majority of my music collection resides on my laptop and iPod in either AAC or MP3. But whenever I listen to these formats, I’m usually doing something else at the same time: riding the bus or subway, walking to class, fidgeting in an uncomfortable airline seat, or hunched over my laptop surfing the internet. I reserve my “critical listening” sessions for vinyl, CD and SACD and so I had never sat down and really listened to MP3s. As far as I know, MP3 sounds pretty damn good when piped into a hi-fi setup but I was just going off the standard snobbery and assuming that it sucks.

So, I decided to plug my laptop into my amplifier and give some tracks a good analysis. I had done this before in my previous apartment, but again I never had a chance to critically regard it since it was usually done during parties. To do this, I bought a cheap 3.5mm to L+R RCA adapter much like this one which Amazon is selling for an unbelievable penny, not including shipping. The red and white plugs go into the amp and the other end goes into the laptop or other MP3 device. Some newer amps have a port in the front that you can plug a player straight into using a cable like this.

It’s important to first briefly summarize bitrate: basically, higher bitrates translate to better sound quality. The most common bitrate seems to be 128 kbit/s ; this is what you’ll likely find on filesharing networks unless otherwise specified. By default, iTunes rips CDs to 256 kbit/s AAC format, and the same goes for stuff downloaded from the iTunes Store.

Now that i’m plugged in, I try a few selections:

The Chameleons – What Does Anything Mean? Basically (224 kbit/s MP3) : This layered, atmospheric post-punk/goth really suffers from the MP3 encoding. It sounds as though the music is struggling to escape the speakers, and this tires out my ears because I have to force myself to focus and interpolate what i’m supposed to be hearing. Turning up the bass knob on my amp filled out the bottom end a bit, but I really don’t like to play with the tone controls if I can help it.

Catherine Wheel – Chrome (160 kbit/s MP3) : A slight improvement, but the music still lacks any sort of punch or edge. This might be blamed on the album’s production; shoegaze bands liked to go for the muddy, distant sound.

J.S. Bach – Brandenburg Concertos, Benjamin Britten: English Chamber Orchestra (256 kbit/s AAC) : This is one of the better selections so far. The music actually has life and presence, although the violins lack attack/decay. Could this improvement be a property of the AAC encoding?

Dave Brubeck Quartet – Jazz Goes to College (141 kbit/s MP3) : First off, this is a live concert recording, so the overall acoustics will differ from something taped in studio. Nevertheless, this actually sounds fairly musical and I would say is the best set of MP3s i’ve sampled so far. The sax and piano are smooth and feel as though they are in a concert hall like they should. However, like all the tracks i’ve tested, the bass is disappointing and there is still that lack of thrust and definition that I like to hear (Additionally, a minor gripe: the applause and whistles of the audience don’t feel “live” either).

Now there are some flaws in this experiment that I’ll readily admit:

1. This is an entirely subjective test. I didn’t take any actual measurements of the sound output (such as level or frequencies), although I kept the volume the same.

2. The output level of my MacBook is probably less powerful than other sources, thus giving the amplifier less to work with. An MP3 player might give different results.

3. I didn’t do any sort of A/B comparison between the same recording on a different source like CD or vinyl. This is why in Part 2 of this article I intend to listen to Van Cliburn performing Beethovens Emperor Concerto , a recording that I have on both vinyl and CD, so I can compare the two to an MP3 rip I made.

In the meantime, I can say this about MP3s : They clearly have a lot of advantages, in that they’re , uh, “free” and they take up very little space on your hard drive. And despite that they aren’t a hi-fi medium, i’m willing to bet that most of my readers have a substantial amount of their music in this format. To take advantage of this, and to get the best sound possible, hook your MP3 player into an amplifier + speaker combo. By simple virtue of playing through actual speakers and not earbuds or a cheap docking station, you will reveal details that you wouldn’t have noticed before. For example, Kitchens of Distinction’s Love is Hell was an album that I had only listened to on my iPod, so when tried it through my system it revealed details like fuller chorus guitar effects.

If you want to get your feet wet with hi-fi, get yourself a setup like the one I recommend and plug in your computer or MP3 player. You’ll get a taste of good sound while keeping your current collection, and I have no doubt that it will inspire you to do more with your system.

For further reading, Stereophile has a good article about the difference between various audio compression formats.

Check out Part 2 of this article for more analysis

An affordable hifi stereo system for vinyl

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

One of the major topics of this blog is affordable audio, so i’ve decided to put together a reasonable priced system for playing vinyl records. These recommendations are just starting points, and I would encourage you to substitute components for any vintage or used stuff you might find. You can always upgrade later, the point now is to start spinning records as soon as possible.

Basically, a hifi stereo setup involves three parts: the source(s), amplifier and speakers. There are a variety of other sources possible (CD/SACD players, iPods, computers, etc) but for now we’ll stick to a turntable. You probably already own a MP3 or CD player anyway.

Pro-ject Debut III

Turntable – Pro-ject Debut III

This is the table I currently use, and I highly recommend it. Professional reviewers agree that it is a perfect entry level turntable for those curious about vinyl. Unlike other, more expensive turntables, it’s pretty much ready to go right out of the box and comes complete with a cartridge (the needle), tonearm, dust cover, felt record mat and attached L+R and grounding cables. The MSRP is currently $349, and there is a $499 version that includes a USB output so you can rip your records to your computer and convert them to MP3. Amazon has it, and they can also be found at Magnolia outlets (which are often located in Best Buy stores).

Topaz AM10

Amplifier – Cambridge Audio Topaz AM10

The signal from a turntable must go through a preliminary stage of amplification before it can go to the main amp. This might be accomplished with a “phono stage” like the NAD PP-2 , which I use, but it is an additional expense, takes up more space and uses more resources. The solution is to use an amplifier that has an integrated phono stage, like the Topaz AM10. I haven’t listened to this particular amp, but Stereophile’s Stephen Mejias recommends this and it is the cheapest one of the four he lists in the linked article. In addition to the phono stage, it’s small, light, looks cool, and has a front input to plug in your iPod. Amazon’s got it for 349 dollars , and it’s probably your cheapest, easiest bet for beginner hifi amplification.

Polk Audio TSi 200 - cherry finish

Speakers –

For beginners, floorstanders might not be the best idea, simply due to their size and expense (although you wouldn’t need to buy speaker stands). Bookshelf speakers are the optimal entry level solution. The problem with speakers is that they are the most subjective in terms of sound quality; what sounds good to me might sound awful to you. This is why it’s kind of difficult to recommend a good speaker without listening first, but sticking with established brands that specialize in making speakers is a good start. This means avoiding crap from Sony or Yamaha, which might be cheap but are of poor quality. Bose speakers have an undeserved reputation for quality thanks to aggressive marketing, but they are the laughing stock of the audiophile world. The Polk Audio TSi200 is available for about $300 a pair, or if you need to go cheaper then the Klipsch B-2 Synergy is only a bit over $180. Either of these would work fine for a hi-fi-curious individual. A set of speaker stands can be found at most any big box store for 20-30 bucks, or you could DIY up some of your own.


Turntable – $349

Amp – $349

Speakers- $180

Cables and other accessories – $50

Total: +- $928

I hear ya, that’s hardly pocket change. But as I mentioned in the beginning, this is only a suggestion. The best deal and the most important purchase is the Pro-ject turntable, I can’t really think of a better value for the money. The speakers can vary, if you already have a cheapo pair then use them to begin with. The amplifier is optional as well, in fact, if you browse vintage or thrift stores you shouldn’t have a problem finding a decent integrated amp. Most older (pre-1990s) amps that you’ll likely encounter have a phono stage; if it has an input on the back labeled “PHONO” then you’re good to go.

Every system has humble origins, and once you get into vinyl you’ll be hooked.

Vinyl vs CD

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

An endless debate has raged among audio lovers since the introduction of the Compact Disc in 1982. Detractors of the format complained of a “harsh”, or “bright” sound and stood by their vinyl records as the truest form of music reproduction. Those in the CD camp extolled the format’s ease of use and setup, lack of pops and clicks, no need for extensive cleaning procedures, and the fact that they could hold more music.

Both sides had valid points; early CDs did not sound very good for many reasons. The first CD players released used inferior decoding equipment and frequency cutoffs, fixed in later players by better circuitry and processors. Additionally, recording engineers in the early days of CD were not used to mixing and mastering for the format, hence the unpleasant sound. As for vinyl, the drawbacks are still clear: dust and dirt affects the sound, the grooves eventually wear out, and the frequency response is slightly more limited. Not to mention that turntables can be fiddly, complex things to set up (although some people like them for that).

My opinion on all this is that both formats are equally valid in anyone’s colleciton, and like pretty much anything in hi-fi, it’s all up to the listener’s personal preference. My vinyl collection is currently bigger than my CD/SACD library (and my MP3 list is bigger than both, more on that some other time). My preference for vinyl or CD depends a lot the type of music. Jazz and classical seem to fit CD better since there is a lack of surface noise, which can be distracting with quieter instrumental pieces. Rock music is more at home on vinyl, partly for the “authenticity factor”, but also because louder instrumentation tends to cancel out any noise caused by debris on the record.

But what I like the most about vinyl is the artwork. It’s much larger, bolder and overall nicer to look at than the tiny renditions squeezed onto a CD booklet. For example, the artwork on the CD version of The Grand Wazoo is cramped and compressed, but on the vinyl version’s cover you can see much more amusing, Sergio Aragones-esque detail.

So for hi-fi newbies, there is no need to throw out your CD collection. If you’re looking to start a vinyl collection, a good place to start first would be a local thrift or charity store. The records are usually incredibly cheap, but the drawback is the selection (hope you like Barbara Streisand or Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass!) and the physical condition of the records is often quite poor. But at around a buck a pop, its not a huge loss if you take one home and find it unplayably damaged. Within all the crap, there are hidden gems at these stores; recently I got the first two volumes of The Beethoven Bicentennial Collection (by Deutsche Grammophon) for 20 bucks. It includes all 9 of his symphonies and were in great condition.

More debate and discussion on Vinyl vs CD from Google Answers