“Audiophile” is a word the internet uses to describe people who are particular about the quality of audio. Of course, they don’t hand out a certificate or anything, so the term may apply to anyone from a seasoned expert to the sort of person that lives on the Internet, scouring forums and comment sections for new things to complain about in a fog of desperation and loneliness.
At any rate, as a musician and a lover of film, understanding what makes things sound good is both important and interesting to me. Problem is, finding concise and impartial materials with which to educate one’s self on the world of audiophilia on the Internet is sort of like standing in any random crowd and yelling, “how does everyone feel about vaccines?” Opinions are abundant, actual data harder to come by. Either the conversation begins so far over your head there’s no way to reach the ceiling, or it’s all so subjective you can’t imagine caring.
Enter Josh. I went and scooped up this giant brick of a book from the library, so you don’t have to. What follows here is a breakdown of the part that matters as it pertains to, you know, listening to music.
The fewer impediments between you and the source, the better.
Imagine your favorite band is in the studio, tracking a fantastic album. Let’s say whoever is tracking the album really cares about the integrity of the production and much work is done to record well. Those original masters are the real deal.
But you’re not going to hear those original masters. Not even close. That music is about to go on an arduous journey to get to you. What’s worse, things won’t be pleasant on this ride. They’re going to get digitized (if they weren’t already) and then compressed big time for their harrowing journey across the Internet. The squished shell of what the music once was downloads to your phone, then scrambles up those white wires and crawls, choking and gasping, from the cheap, tinny, earbuds that came in the box.
Put it another way: It won’t sound as good.
So, there are two elements to bear in mind if you prefer things to sound good.
Firstly, the formula.
The original masters are better than a vinyl version cut from the original tape, which is better than uncompressed/lossless digital files, which are better than a CD version of the album, which is better than a compressed mp3 (losssy) file, which is the bottom of the barrel.
Original masters > vinyl > uncompressed/lossless > CD > mp3.
How’d I get there, you ask? Vinyl offers the potential for the purest transference of the real deal to a format you can enjoy at home. But that potential can only be realized if the process is done correctly. That is to say, a vinyl cut from the original tapes and reproduced on heavyweight records, keeping the information farthest away from the center as possible, can get the job done, but if the vinyl is simply cut from the CD version (which is often the case when the original masters are unavailable), there’s not much of a difference.
Next step down is uncompressed and/or lossless digital files (WAV, FLAC, ALAC, etc.). These have either not been squashed, or they’ve been squashed in such a way that important data (effecting the quality of the audio) has not been lost.
But there’s a second caveat. Like vinyl, care has to be taken in the process for optimum results. That is to say, a file with a bit-depth of at least 24 is better than a 16, 12, or 8 bit file. And 48 kHz is better than 44.1kHz. Seems like it’s getting convoluted, but it’s not so bad. Look at it this way…
Original masters >
(heavyweight, cut from original masters, leaving enough space between the songs and the center, thus, less music on each side, more discs)
(24-bit, 48 kHz or higher)
Interestingly, you can actually rip lossless files from CD copies of your favorite record. So why would the files already living on the disc be better than just playing the disc? Well, when a CD spins, a tiny laser works to read the data in question as that little plastic frisbee whirls about on a spindle in your stereo. The laser can’t read that spinning data perfectly, so it’s giving you the best interpretation it possible can. Think of a translator working out a debate in real-time. It’ll probably be mostly right, but a word might get lost here or there.
A hard drive on the other hand can take it’s time surgically removing the files in question and playing them back by simply working with the data. No spinning lasers necessary.
And then of course, there’s the sad, squashed wimp version most people listen to more than anything. The dinky, tiny, mp3. The mp3 is the bloody Voldemort fetus languishing under that bench at heavenly King’s Cross. Go ahead. Jam it.
Finally, there’s one last nagging detail. Nice as your LP is, listen to it on a crappy turntable without quality speakers and it’ll barely sound distinguishable from the Voldemort fetus. Same thing with high-quality digital files: Your iPhone can’t freakin’ play ’em.
So how much will a quality system set you back? Is it somewhere under $500, as some allege? Or is it more like a few grand, as others insist?
It’s better to avoid the all-or-nothing mentality if you want to ease your shivering body into the warm water of high-quality audio. A step in a better direction is just that. At the end of the day, how much of a distinguishable difference depends on how much you even care in the first place. I can’t get my wife to stop listening to mp3’s on her awful laptop speakers even though there’s a quality system she could plug into just feet away. She doesn’t care, and that’s fine.
Not to mention that investing in listening to music is about more than just the way it sounds. Like I was saying earlier, embracing a more tactile, focused experience changes the way we process, understand, and are moved by an album or song. The way I hear songs on my bike ride to work coming through awful earbuds is quite different than when I sit down, distraction-free, in a dark room and listen to an album start-to-finish.
If you do happen to care, things can often be better with a little research. Personally, I hate spending money, so any steps I’ve made toward a better listening experience have unfolded over several birthdays and Christmases. Lucky for us, we can all take one big step forward by reaching for something other than an mp3 when there happens to be options. Nowadays, unless you’re buying some top 40 pop record, the options are usually there. If you are buying the pop record, it probably doesn’t matter how high-quality it is.
(My wife took the photos.)
After reading the above post, a gentleman reached out to me on Twitter with some interesting push-back. Below are some fun facts from Tyler Hall.
I’m going to have to respectfully disagree that vinyl is better quality than lossless files. The way vinyl is cut, it’s subject to a lot of extra distortion. Also, just having the vinyl out is going to add more distortion due to climate wear and tear and dust and such. With lossless files, the code they are run through creates little to no distortion at all. What it really ends up happening is the “analog vs. digital” debate, because everyone likes the vinyl distortion but for what it’s worth, the data you’re hearing on a lossless file is almost exactly what was recorded. To my knowledge, all CDs are pressed in 16kbps/44.1khz sample rate/bit rate. This is a lower quality than any studio master. When a 24/48 master is brought down to 16/44.1, you lose that quality permanently. A codec will not bring it back. You can rip a lossless file with nothing lost from Blu-ray (because they can handle the file size), but no one does music on them. TL;DR CDs can’t hold enough data to give you a truly lossless file.