Category Archives: Essays

How bad is MP3? (Part 1)

an mp3 player made out of a grenade casing
Image source:

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

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.

Machina Dynamica : audiophools or master trolls?

In my first entry, I mentioned that among the more ridiculous hi-fi products are “bags of magic rocks that enhance your system’s sound”. These special stones are Brilliant Pebbles, one of the fine products offered by Machina Dynamica, a company with an infamous reputation in the online audiophile community. They specialize in intensely dubious “tweaks” backed by incomprehensible pseudoscience, such as a chip that upgrades the sound of CDs with the power of quantum physics, a Casio clock radio that affects A/V equipment through the aether, and my personal favorite, the “teleportation tweak”, where you pay sixty bucks to call MD up and have them play a 20 second series of “sharp, mechanical pulses” over the phone (your gear doesn’t even need to be on, but it helps!).

Anyone with a functioning brain stem would naturally be skeptical of these extraordinary claims, so we might go ahead and assume this is all one big troll; a jab at some of the more bizarre thing audiophiles really do to their system (like cable elevators or cryogenically treated speaker wire ). The Machina Dynamica website doesn’t make it easy to actually to purchase their products; you must manually enter the item and price into a PayPal form. Additionally, the product descriptions are full of  absurd technobabble and the site’s proprietor lists his credentials as:

Education: Aerospace Engineering (theoretical fluid dynamics, propulsion, statistical thermodynamics, nuclear physics, indeterminate structures). Undergrad thesis: Design of propulsion system for interplanetary travel utilizing momentum transfer mechanisms in highly magnetic metal crystal bombarded by high-energy ions. Work experience: NASA satellite operations & radar data analysis; aerodynamics of high-performance aircraft; reentry vehicle dynamics; radio and satellite communications; spread spectrum communications. He incorporated Machina Dynamica in 1998.

An hilarious troll, right? Maybe not. This guy actually sells this stuff, and people buy it. Hi-fi sites have reviewed the products and his Audiogon profile is full of positive feedback. If this is a joke, this guy is laughing en route to the bank.

Someday (when I have the cash to waste and I am drunk enough to make it seem like a good idea) I just might buy those Brilliant Pebbles and test the power of the placebo effect. If I spent over 100 dollars on a jar of aquarium gravel , you better believe I’m gonna delude myself into hearing an improvement. If I like them, maybe i’ll get a rock tumbler and start my own tweak business.

Green hi-fi

Green hi-fi

Caring about the environment is another pillar of hipsterdom, so if you’re going to get into hi-fi, you should do it in a eco-friendly way. There’s a few ways to go about this:

Green hi-fi
Image courtesy of

1. Use energy efficient amplification

The folks at MetaEfficient drew up a list of power saving stereo amplifiers, but most of them are beefy power amps that require a separate pre-amp to function. More resources, more space, more weight, etc. However, one amp on the list that stands out is the Onkyo A-9555 which uses efficient digital circuitry and is available new for only $439.99.

2. Buy from sustainable companies

NAD Electronics, in addition to using efficient circuitry and standby modes in its products, also avoids using harmful heavy metals or excessive packaging (and utilizes recycled material in the packaging it does use). Cambridge Audio, another affordable hi-fi company, also has a strong environmental commitment, as well as pledging to not use child or prison labor. Now that’s a plus!

3. Buy used gear

If you’re just starting out, thrift stores can be a great place to find components for your system. You can also check out the Audiogon Marketplace for deals on used high-end gear, and eBay or Craigslist are options as well. By buying used, you keep old electronics out of landfills, reduce the amount of resources consumed, and just might score some hip vintage stuff to impress your guests!

4. Listen to vinyl

Keeping with the thrift store theme, there are tons of old vinyl records out there that would otherwise end up in a dump. Sure, you wouldn’t be caught dead listening to most of the crap they have at Goodwill, but there are some great finds if you’re willing to look. Plus, all those Burt Bacharach records you’ll find can be hung on the wall for decoration or turned into DIY snack bowls or bookends. And finally, turntables use less power than other music sources; my turntable consumes only 2 watts while my Sony SACD player sucks down 15 watts.

Vinyl records versus CD = what do hi-fi lovers prefer?

Vinyl vs CD

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

My current system and how I got there

I first got into hi-fi in my senior year of high school. I had already been a bit of a video/home theater geek, so the extension came pretty naturally. My first setup was some hulking Aiwa minisystem and a Denon automatic turntable. I soon decided that the Aiwa’s onboard CD player was woefully inadequate so I hooked up some cheap Hitachi DVD player that had a 24/96 upsampling DAC (pardon my jargon so early in a beginner blog!) and used that to play discs. Overall, the sound probably wasn’t that bad, but in my mind it was still nowhere near hi-fi.

I eventually saved up enough to replace the weakest link in my system – the speakers. I went to the area hi-fi store and after laying out my budget and requirements, he left me alone in a listening room to A/B compare two candidates. I settled on the Energy C-1, a neat little pair of bookshelf speakers that I still use to this day. That summer after graduation, I managed to get my first full time job that I held for a few months before I started college. Instead of saving my money wisely, I went kinda nuts and put most of my earnings into building my system. The ugly, cheap minisystem I had used as an amp was replaced by a NAD C320BEE , the Denon was put away for a Pro-Ject Debut II, and the DVD was put back to DVD playing duties to be replaced by a Sony SACD changer.

Save for a few cable changes and vibration isolation tweaks, my system has remained mostly the same since then. And i’m pleased with the sound…mostly. There’s a lot more that can be done. My next big purchase will be speakers, which I feel are always the weakest link in any system. The Energys have served me well over the years, but it’s time to move up to floorstanders, mostly for the better overall frequency response, but also cause they look cooler! I’m thinking of the Polk Audio TSi400 , as it is nearest to my budget right now. When and if I get them, i’ll be sure to post a review.

It’s interesting to note that nearly every piece of equipment in my system is no longer manufactured. For example, the entry level NAD integrated amp is now the NAD C326BEE which is practically the same as mine performance-wise but has additional features like a line-in jack on the front for MP3 player hookup and a subwoofer connector.

Here’s a couple pics of how my system looks now (yes, my listening room is really bare right now, i’ll fix it, I promise!):

Full list of equipment used:

Amplifier – NAD C320BEE

Turntable – Pro-Ject Debut II

Phono Preamp – NAD PP-2

CD/SACD Player – Sony SCD-CE595

Speakers – Energy C-1

Vibration control – Vibrapods (under turntable), Vibrapod Cones (under SACD)