Posts Tagged ‘Bach’

How bad is MP3? (Part 1)

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010
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

Vinyl review : Time-Life Great Men of Music series

Saturday, September 4th, 2010

One way to enhance your hipster cred is to feign interest in the high arts, so what better way than occasionally listening to classical music? Classical music on vinyl at that…

Time-Life Great Men of Music LP Boxsets

I own 8 out of the 13 pictured

Much of my LP collection started out as stuff my parents previously owned. Nearly all of the classic punk and new wave I own once belonged to my dad, but I also claimed the classical music he got via mail-order back in the early eighties. These were from the Time-Life Great Men of Music series, which consisted of 4 records each from all the major classical composers. Each set had the composer’s most famous works (e.g. Symphony No.5 for Beethoven, Rondo alla Turca for Mozart) but also had some of their lesser known pieces. The full series pretty much covered everyone from the Baroque to the early Modern period (Bach to Copland), but my dad only had 8 of the 30 box set.

The records come in sturdy, attractive boxes with anti-scratch sleeves and a booklet containing the history of the composer and notes on each included recording. Many of the recordings are sourced from the well-regarded RCA Living Stereo series. Internet research later backed me up, but I had originally suspected this when I first played the Living Stereo SACD of Van Cliburn performing Beethovens Emperor Concerto and found it…somehow familiar. Sure enough, they are the exact same recording.

The overall sound quality of the records is pleasant and mellow; as I write this I am listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #2, which flows smoothly from the speakers while demonstrating a well defined soundstage (that is, every instrument has a discernible “place of origin” emitting from the speakers that mostly corresponds to how an actual chamber orchestra is set up). Mozart’s piano works are crisp and believable , if not a tad bright, while Beethoven’s Fifth is immersive and effective. The recordings aren’t always perfect though, some of the tracks, like Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, aren’t true stereo but are “electronically reprocessed” , which I personally don’t like but YMMV. Some of the speedy glissandos in Chopin’s Etudes kind of smear together, but I suspect this is a weakness of my system rather than the recording.

These boxsets are a great way to start a classical collection, and they seem like the kind of thing you could score from a yard sale, thrift store, or Craigslist. Amazon has just the Beethoven set starting at 22 bucks, but if you’re more of a completist then eBay has most of them, unfortunately sold separately.

Final scores:

Music: A

Sound: A- to C+, depending on each recording.