Listen to this

Stephen Fry explores the high-end of digital music technology

Column “Dork Talk” published on Saturday 11th October 2008 in The Guardian “Dork Talk Listen to this” – The Guardian headline.

Mankind’s hunger for what Emerson called “a better mousetrap” is unquenchable. I can think of few technological solutions perfect enough to force inventors and innovators to proclaim, “Right, that’s it. Problem solved. Let’s move on.” The Screwpull came along in the 80s and was declared the last word in corkscrews, yet innovations continue to stream from the world’s drawing-boards. Coffee makers: I could hymn on coffee makers until you begged for mercy. Pencil sharpeners, umbrellas, cigarette lighters: mankind will never cease from reaching ever upwards towards the paradigmatically perfect implement. Actually, you might argue that in the last category Zippo reached the sunlit uplands decades ago: wind-proof, reliable, a design classic that works every time and comes with a lifetime guarantee. Pity no one smokes any more.

ipodkatiemelua.jpg
Katie Melua listening to her iPod. Photograph: Linda Nylind

There is surely no climb to perfection more impossible of completion than that of the ascent towards the ultimate high-end sound system. How can we hope to recapture the first fine careless rapture with which music originally smote us amidships and enslaved us for ever? The rainbow we chase is to make music sound new again. Hi-fi is like wine: dangerously expensive as taste refines and jolly enthusiasm turns to pernickety connoisseurship. Audio shops still exist where twins of the Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy sell valve amplifiers, record decks and styli as if the digital revolution never happened. They’re probably right: nothing matches vinyl and analogue for audio range and richness. I want, however, to consider users who are hunting high-quality portable, digital music.

When you rip from a CD or buy music online, it is usually saved as AAC, M4P or MP3: these are called “lossy” formats, a trade-off between memory compression and sound fidelity. There are alternative “lossless” formats: ALAC comes built into iTunes, while FLAC is gaining ascendancy elsewhere. But be warned: FLAC cannot run on iPods, and all lossless files take up more room than MP3 or AAC. Convert an album (from vinyl or CD, not from MP3!) to one of the lossless formats, and see if you notice the difference.

If you can’t be bothered, splash out on good earwear. A few years ago noise-isolating headphones were all the rage, with Bose and Sennheiser leading the way. I never saw, or heard, the value in them: big, clunky things that needed batteries and were inconvenient. More recently, high-end plug-in buds have become fashionable: for £360, Shure’s SE530PTH Triple TruAcoustic Micro-Speakers deliver amazing sound. For a very competitive £79, Apple has introduced a pair with built-in tweeter and woofer drivers that dramatically improve the standard music player experience. But there is an even more impressive option.

I recently tried out made-to-measure T2 In-Ear monitors from Advance Communication Systems. A month ago, its MD, Andy Shiach, came to squirt silicone in my ear and two weeks later he fitted a pair of cochlea-shaped creations in my lugholes. Ex-musician Andy, whose own hearing was harmed by overexposure to loud music, specialises in acoustic research, and I can vouch for the astounding quality of the music that fills the head when wearing his phones (hearingprotection.co.uk).

They come in a distressing medical pink suggestive of NHS hearing aids, which is fair, because once they are pushed in, you are deaf to the world. But not to the music. When that comes, wow! The dynamic range, the richness, the power: this is the best performance digital music has ever given me. Like most custom-made items, they are expensive and, once tried, impossible to give up, but what a Christmas present. The company keeps the moulds, so new gels can be cheaply made for attaching to other makes. Listening to a lossless version of Siegfried’s Death March reduced me to the happiest puddle of butterscotch Angel Delight in Britain.

Initials of the week

AAC Advanced Audio Coding – ‘lossy’ successor to MP3
ALAC Apple Lossless Audio Codec
FLAC Free Lossless Audio Codec
NHS Norwich High School (amongst other things)

This blog was posted in Guardian column

19 comments on “Listen to this”

  1. Karellen says:

    “FLAC cannot run on iPods,”

    Doesn’t that frame the problem backwards? To me, that makes it sound like it is a problem with FLAC, which is an open standard that is freely implementable by anyone (including Apple) who chooses to do so. Surely the correct framing should be that “iPods cannot play FLAC files”, which correctly emphasises that the problem is with iPods.

    (Or, even better, “Apple chooses to not let iPods play FLAC files”)

  2. Copernicus says:

    “a pair of cochlea-shaped creations”

    Hmm, not sure about cochlea – if he’s, er, penetrating quite that far you may find some disruption to your hearing. Ear-canal shaped is probably what you’re looking for; meatus-shaped if you fancy a bit of Latin. If only I knew the Greek, I’m sure I’d have managed to inveigle my way into your esteem; to warm the cochleas of your, well, inner ear really.

  3. a0 says:

    For what it’s worth, there are two free Mac programs for converting between FLAC and ALAC (the lossless format for iTunes/iPod). They are called XLD and Max. It is pretty much a drag-and-drop operation to convert FLAC files purchased from the online stores that sell them, and you can use Automator to automatically convert and add them to your iTunes library. Since both formats are lossless, they can also be converted back to FLAC at any time.

    The rumour is that Apple developed ALAC to minimise risk of exposure to patent disputes over other lossless formats. Unfortunately, the claims of the developers of FLAC that it is patent-free are no guarantee that some other company won’t try their luck with a lawsuit.

    As for lossless vs. lossy – according to my last.fm account I have listened to around 30,000 tracks this year from around 2500 albums, in every style from bebop to breakcore. It is safe to say that the variation in recording quality between even the best albums is greater than the variation in quality between lossless and MP3. I also have a large number of digitised albums from vinyl, and the variation in quality (despite the use of good turntables and A/D converters) is far larger than the difference between lossless and MP3.

  4. gjhsu says:

    Though lossless these formats may be, audio quality depends on how the tracks are mastered from the studio. Increasingly for modern music, the mantra seems to be ‘louder is better’ with no regard for clipping the signal and/or distorting the sound. Less is not more, of course – more is more. A shame.

  5. ickledot says:

    This is all very well, but isn’t it ironic that as the audio technology improves, the biological equipment no longer works as it should? Laser treatment for ears anyone?

  6. writeon says:

    The APE Monkey codec is the best digital audio codec. I like FLAC have a lot of music in it. But I find APE gives better sound than its competitor. It seems to hold more of the sound curve than FLAC, its just produces just lovely sound.

  7. Adrian Benson says:

    Regarding your T2 phones, I’m pleased that you have sufficient influence that the MD comes round to take your ear impressions personally. I’m also pleased that you are happy with the sound. I wish that I could say that I was as pleased with the company or their products as you evidently are. My experience with my T3 phones (not quite the king’s ransom figure required for the T2s, but expensive enough) is that if the music listened to is played at a relatively high volume (not really the point of the exercise), the sound is indeed fantastic. However, at a lower volume, there is a contant background noise, a bit like a slightly out-of-tune radio or surface noise on an LP. This may or may not be something called noise-to-signal ratio: I don’t know. When I brought this to the attention of the company, with a detailed description of the problem, the matter was dealt with in an extremely peremptory fashion, the phones chucked in a plastic bag rather than the soft pouch in which you’re supposed to store them, accompanied by a scrawled message saying that they tested OK, and delivered to the family across the road, because they couldn’t even get my address right. The only way I’ve managed to resolve this is to purchase a cheap in-line volume control, keep the volume on the original sound source high, and turn the in-line volume control right down. I would advise anybody against the substantial outlay required for these phones without taking the above into consideration.

  8. morrijr says:

    It is possible to get *some* iPods (mainly the older, non-touch ones) to play FLAC and many, many other codecs… the RockBox software team released version 3 only a little while ago. I’ve been using unstable releases since I bought an iPod and wouldn’t consider going back.

    J.

    Oops… the link; http://www.rockbox.org/

  9. Sir Josmould Herringpole says:

    Readers may be interested to hear that Linn have released some material on 24bit FLAC. It can be bought and downloaded here:

    http://www.linnrecords.com/linn-downloads.aspx

    The sonic quality is staggering, and there are a few test files for trying out before purchase.

  10. Tams says:

    I good review, which is a lot easier on the eyes than some of the others out there.
    One question though. Are they the best IEMs? I know its really down to personal tastes, but how do the T2s compare to other makes such as Ultimate Ears (10pro and 11pro) and even to the T1s? That’s not including the other various manufactuers out there.

  11. Wii says:

    FLAC really is an amazing format, it’s basically the same as the CD format, basically is the same with the same quality. But then obviously, this means that file size will be bigger, so not really feasible to put on an MP3 player yet.

    Great review though, thanks a lot.

  12. idmmao says:

    With respect to ipods not playing FLAC: this is presumably a deliberate choice apple has made, but if you’re willing to update the firmware to something such as rockbox (http://www.rockbox.org/) most ipods (depending on the model and generation) will be able to play FLAC as well as ogg and a fair number of others.

    (quote)
    # writeon Says:

    The APE Monkey codec is the best digital audio codec. I like FLAC have a lot of music in it. But I find APE gives better sound than its competitor. It seems to hold more of the sound curve than FLAC, its just produces just lovely sound.
    (endquote)
    For the record, this is impossible. Lossless is lossless, and any two lossless codecs used on the same original CD (or any other audio source) are 100% absolutely identical no matter what, because they’re both absolutely identical to the original, which is what “lossless” means. Any differences you hear between the two are purely imaginary.

  13. nikogeeko says:

    I am a bit disappointed that, after the 1 September column about GNU and free software, no mention was made of Ogg Vorbis! This standard is free, and provides better quality than MP3 for the same bitrate. It is a shame on all the big audio manufacturers (e.g. Apple and Sony) that they do not support Ogg or, as pointed out in SF’s article, FLAC (for Apple, I believe most of the others do).
    More about Ogg: http://www.vorbis.com/

  14. ChasCreek says:

    Audio is really never what was recorded or performed in the first instance.

    MP3 is as all know compressed, but even CD quality is a reduced version being at 44.1Khz 16bit where high end audio would have been recorded at 96Khz 24bit WAV or BWF (Broadcast WAV Format).
    Even if originall recorded at 44.1Khz 16bit it isn’t what was performed as the limitation of the sampling leaves sound information out.

    Radio severely compresses the signal middling out highs and lows, loud and soft to fit within a spectrum.

    As mentioned earlier in the comments a trend of late has been to compress CD recordings to a stupid amount with all the punch and quite and loud sections ‘middled’ out where if you look at the recording graphically you will see a rather ‘squared off’ image rather than a good range of peaks and lows. The idea I believe behind this has been driven by the Radio Broadcast compression with recording engineers now trying to provide a counstant ‘loud’ on a CD to make it stand out when broadcast.

    Microphones, Pre Amps etc etc, Amps, CD Players, Speakers, Headphones all add their own colour to a recording on recording and playback.

    True Audiophile systems are designed to add as little colour as possible, but to most ears the playback would be dissapointing as those rumbling lows coming out through the speakers are colouration from components and on a system that is a pure as possible it can all sound a little thin to some ears.

    Hearing also plays a part, everyones hearing is a little different and as age advances we aren’t going to hear those little nuances anyway.

    Being an ‘Audiophile’ for many years I realised that I have a liking for certain components that colour sound in a certain way and that the ‘purists’ components do not suit my tastes.

    Recording podcasts as I do, I record at BWF but it is all compressed down and when saved out I save the mp3 out at a higher sample rate than is the accepted norm which obvously has its impact on file size. But even so as I record at 48Khz 24bit on my smaller recorders (Olympus LS-10 and Edirol R09-HR) and at 96Khz 24bit BWF on my Larger Fostex field recorder even at CD qulity a lot of information would have been lost – but – would you really hear much difference – probably not. Do I even know what it wil sound like for a listener? No again. As when I mix down I am listening either through my preffered choice of stuido grade closed back headphones or through the nearfield monitors next to my mixing desk which colour the sound as little as possible.

    Audio perfection is rather like a dog chasing its own tail or chasing rainbows for the pot of gold at the end. It doesn’t exist, there is only what appeals to your ears (to the extent that your ears can still hear as time goes on) and for many people the difference between an MP3, a 44.1Khz 16Bit CD or a 96Khz 24Bit BWF or indeed the ultimate 1bit file which supposedly is the future of digital recording would be hardly noticable or important.

  15. JonMcLellan says:

    I smoke! But not everyone can waft a Zippo!

  16. webbster says:

    just a little thought, some of you might have tried to sync .flac songs to your iPods using rockbox or similar apps….A simpler way is just to install winamp ( http://www.winamp.com ) and using that to sync yout iPods instead of iTunes. Winamp can do almost everything iTunes can do and more, and as i say, it can sync more types of files to your iPods (and it isn’t as hard on your computer as iTunes is)

  17. hedeweg says:

    Winamp isn’t available for Mac though. I’ve heard some people having success playing FLAC with an iTunes plugin called fluke. As far as I know, it works only on older generation iPods. As for iTunes alternatives, Play works quite well for flac, and Songbird also offers Flac support.

    On another note, playing flac/alac on an ipod may not be the best idea. The files are substantially larger, meaning more read-writes to the hard drive, which has a subsequent drain on battery life. Its also arguable whether one can get the full value and tonal range of flac through earbuds, Mr.Fry’s excellent reviews notwithstanding.

    I tend to compromise and use the LAME encoder at its high setting (known as V0) which creates files of variable bit rates. These are typically twice the quality of files purchased from the iTunes store. Files sizes are substantially smaller than flac, but the quality is almost as high. For most people the difference between the two would be transparent, and you will get the benefit of longer battery life on your iPod or mp3 player.

  18. spinaltap19 says:

    Digital music is astonishing in its variety and implementation: I cannot believe that a micoSD memory card literally the size of my little fingernail can hold 48 hours of music. It is incredible the way it can just be sprinkled like confetti upon all manner of hardware and software from speaking Xmas cards to websites that play accompanying music on opening.

    However, its ubiquity is also its downfall. Traditional HiFi, still seen in specialist HiFi shops found in high streets up and down the land, specialises in the acoustic reproduction of sonic experiences such as those found when listening to live music in a club or hall.

    The emphasis is very much on the production of an appropriate environment hence the requirement for single speaker set ups in appropriately quiet listening rooms. Large amplifiers with plenty of power handling capacity linked to high quality loudspeakers placed in a suitable setting with a reflective rear surface and sufficient furnishings to provide appropriate sound absorbance. A set up like this will demonstrate the need for a high quality source with minimal compression.

    MP3s are a superb way to pass the time when walking the dog or running in the gym but lossless systems are required when the primary purpose is to actually listen to the the music.

    The launch of SACD was a disaster as the discs and players were priced at too high a level to achieve a critical mass of users. Similarly, DVD-Audio has never taken off which leaves the original redbook CD still going despite its prehistoric age in digital terms.

    Apparently FLAC may well be the answer but the current players from NAIM and Linn are extremely expensive. Hopefully time will lead to a reduction in cost and they will gain true acceptance by audiophiles.

    In the meantime, if you want to see how CDs should sound, book a listening session with your local hi-fi dealer, take an afternoon off work and some of your favourite CDs and see what you are missing. Good hi-fi has come along way!

  19. Marco Raaphorst says:

    I personally prefer FLAC for lossless and Ogg for lossy. But open source is not well supported at this moment.

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