Posts Tagged ‘MP3’
If you’re like me and live in the Washington, DC area, you know that flipping through the radio stations is an exercise in frustration. You basically have the choice among no less than three classic rock stations with identical lineups of tired 70s dadrock, some top 40 channels, a few hip-hop/rnb networks, a couple of bro-rock stations featuring imbecilic Morning Zoo programs, classical and NPR at the bottom of the dial, and the rest is filled out by latin stations or those “mix” channels that are non-stop Cyndi Lauper and Maroon 5 (basically, music for dentist’s waiting rooms).
Before I continue: yes, I do sometimes listen to the radio, unlike most people under the age of thirty. There’s something reassuring and familiar about the FM dial, despite how its rarely a fulfilling experience. And forgetting higher tech stuff like satellite or HD radio, FM is actually a hi-fi format. If you can get a strong signal, you can get high quality stereo audio for free, provided that the commercials and DJs don’t make you tear your hair out. Something cheap and simple like this one from NAD Electronics can get you started off.
The sorry radio offerings around DC are probably the same around most U.S cities, but there was once a great local channel that met a sad demise: WHFS 99.1 . It had been around since the 60s and was eclectic from the get-go: mostly playing prog, art rock and jam bands. In the eighties it took a turn towards indie and “college rock” genres and was the first radio station to play tons of influential groups.
I have many fond memories of listening to this station as a child in the early 90s : rainy Saturdays riding in the back of my dad’s old Pontiac Sunbird to the strains of Soundgarden or The Psychedelic Furs. It was the first place I remember hearing dozens of bands: The Pixies, The Chameleons, Kitchens of Distinction, R.E.M., Nirvana, My Bloody Valentine, The Stone Roses, Depeche Mode, Jesus Jones, Stereo Mcs, Big Audio Dynamite, Catherine Wheel, Violent Femmes, Butthole Surfers, The Cure, I could go on and on. Not to say that all of it was good, but it was all memorable. Every so often I’ll come across a song that sounds vaguely familiar, and I’ll surmise that I must have heard it before on HFS.
By the end of the nineties, the station was starting to go downhill: you were more likely to hear Papa Roach and Eminem rather than Concrete Blonde and The Smiths. This reflected changing demographics and tastes which is entirely understandable, but it just sucked to hear the station losing its focus (but at the time, my middle school-self actually preferred nu-metal and hip hop so it only sucked in retrospect). Finally, WHFS met it’s demise on January 12, 2005 when it suddenly switched to playing some kind of Mexican polka music. I recall riding home from school in my friend’s car, turning it to HFS and laughing, thinking it was all a lame “wacky” joke. Alas, the switch was permanent, and DC lost its only listenable radio station. Others tried to fill the void, e.g 94.7 “The Globe” which was very HFS-esque for a while then switched to bog standard mix format.
We could blame ClearChannel like a lot of people do, but radio’s demise owes a lot to evolving technology and demographics. The only major bit of hope I see is the fact that the latest iPod Nano has an FM tuner feature…but why would anyone under the age of 40 bother with that when there’s podcasts and free MP3 downloads compatible with the same device?
Artist – Times New Viking
Title – Rip It Off
Format – 180g Vinyl LP
Label – Matador
Year – 2008
Finally, I’m reviewing an album that isn’t from the 1980′s ! Times New Viking is a loud as fuck lo-fi group from Columbus, Ohio. Now I know what you’re thinking : a lo-fi recording on a hi-fi system? Is it even fair to evaluate this on sonic grounds? Well, I picked up this record to hear how my system can handle an intentionally poor recording, and to also find out if a lo-fi band can still create a recording that is in some way acoustically remarkable.
I’ve “owned” this album in MP3 form for a few years, so I am familiar with how earsplittingly hot and strident this recording is. Quite often it comes up during shuffle mode, causing me to wince and fumble for my iPod volume. Having experienced this, I lowered the tonearm on Side A expecting Teen Drama to explode out of the speakers. Strangely, and somewhat disappointingly, I wasn’t blown backward like the Maxell guy. The music buzzes and blares but makes no attempt to go forward, politely making a din at a reasonable distance. On the back of the album cover reads the advice “please play loud”, which didn’t help much when I tried. Everything is mostly the same volume. The drums sounds like someone hitting cardboard boxes. No bass frequencies to speak of. Just one constant midrangey howl.
Some of the tunes are really catchy, e.g. DROP-OUT and RIP allegory, but the rest of the album sounds like short Dinosaur Jr. songs with broken equipment and forced indie affectations. The packaging is cool, if you dig played out typewriter and collage motifs. There’s a “contains explicit lyrics” warning on the front, which I found very amusing.
I put this record on expecting shit, I accept this, but I thought it would be shit with some feeling of engagement or presence. It offers little improvement over the MP3 copies (and the album comes with a coupon for the free downloads if you want them). Buy the album here for around 20 bucks if you want some hipster cred (which is a new grade I’m adding to my reviews from now on). At least it’s on 180 gram vinyl.
Music – C+
Sound – D-
Hipster Cred – B
Title – Double Nickels on the Dime
Format – 2x Vinyl LP
Label – SST
Year – 1984
A few years ago I kept reading how groundbreaking and influential Double Nickels on the Dime was so I downloaded the album (naturally). I tried to listen to it but couldn’t really get into the music for some reason. The short, quirky, directionless songs didn’t do anything for me, with the exception of “Corona”, which anyone can immediately recognize as the Jackass theme. Recently, I picked the vinyl version up on a whim and gave it another shot. Now I finally get it. The reason I didn’t like this album on MP3 was cause I kept skipping around between tracks, looking for something that I instantly liked. Double Nickels does not work that way. The record has to be taken as a whole, with the good songs nestled among the weak and forgettable. Listening to it on vinyl makes shuffling around the tracks practically impossible, forcing you to groove on the gestalt. And that goes for any record regardless of genre, which is yet another advantage of the almighty LP.
I’ll leave you this link to Wikipedia for all the background about the band and the record because they summarize it much better than I can, and it’s not really relevant to the audio review. I will say that for a band that “jams econo”, the production on Double Nickels is uncharacteristically great. Great in the sense that there isn’t really any production to speak of, no effects or multitracking or anything, just a solid analog recording of the band doing their thing. The tracks run together with little gap between, which is totally intentional and give the impression of an extended jam session. I noticed quickly that the soundstage is kind of compressed and cramped, but it seems to open up as the album progresses. Hurley’s drums and Watt’s bass burst out of the speakers without assaulting my ears to the point of annoyance. Quieter acoustic guitar portions are well defined and natural, with humanizing string squeak and a good sense of dynamics. D. Boon’s vocals are satisfactory in the acoustic sense, but the lyrics are mostly just stoned ramblings with a few trenchant insights sprinkled in.
The album’s packaging ain’t bad, a nice gatefold sleeve with barely legible lyrics on the back and some band pics plus Raymond Pettibon artwork on the inside. Double albums always have beefy spines that look good on a shelf, so much so that i’ve encountered records that are only a single disc but put in double packaging anyway (like the Plain Records re-release of Loveless).
Double Nickels on the Dime proved that punk rock could be more than just power chords and blastbeats. Get this record for the noteworthiness but also for a true vinyl experience. Drop the needle, ingest your intoxicant of choice (optional) and take an engrossing ride that tosses you between genius and garbage. Amazon has this sucker in a warehouse just waiting to be raked with a microscopic piece of diamond, all for the low-ass price of thirteen bucks!
Music – B+
Sound – A
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.
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.