Digital Audio Insider -- the economics of music and other digital content

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Digital Audio Insider is David Harrell's blog about the economics of music and other digital content. I write from the perspective of a musican who has self-released four albums with the indie rock band the Layaways.

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May 18, 2006

Hi-Fi iPod?
by David Harrell
Hi-Fi iPod?
This Wired story gives the lowdown on how to boost the audio quality from an iPod, with a link to this 2003 Stereophile piece that compares audio quality for various bit rates:
The iPod offers such an embarrassment of choices regarding file storage and playback that I had to begin by discarding quite a few of them as irrelevant to a discussion of its fidelity. That's not to say that 96kbps MP3 and AAC, for example, aren't useful space-saving options; simply that they represent sonic compromises most readers of this magazine wouldn't tolerate even while jogging...

Things are somewhat better at 128kbps in both MP3 and AAC, but neither cuts the mustard for critical listening at home. MP3 robbed Steve Swallow's pulsing bass lines of dynamics and punch on the Carla Bley album, while blunting the shimmer of the brass overtones. AAC fared slightly better, offering better bass response (although it was still pretty lightweight compared to the original CD) and slightly more extended HF (again, shelved down in comparison to the CD).

Surprisingly, upping the bit rate to 160kbps did not result in major improvements for either format. Bass impact remained MIA in MP3, and the upper frequencies sounded strident, with that unmistakable "too much compression" punchiness. AAC again sounded marginally better, although Bley's big band still seemed flattened and lacking in dynamic variation.

The audiophile in me began to pay attention at 192kbps. Both MP3 and AAC began to exhibit a small degree of soundstaging, albeit not with great amounts of front-to-back dimensionality or layering. MP3's highs began to lose their stridence, and AAC sounded fairly detailed and revealing.

The compressed formats began to show some real promise at 320kbps. Definition, detail, and soundstaging were all impressive, and high-frequency response was almost liquid in its lack of edge effects. At this rate, differences between the two formats jumped into sharper focus: MP3 made transients "splashy," while AAC just sounded anemic compared to the original. With both formats, dynamic variation was considerably reduced compared to the CD.

Best of all -- and, to my ears, completely indistinguishable from the original CD -- was AIFF. Dynamics were impressive, imaging was nuanced and detailed, and the frequency extremes sounded extended and natural. On my reference rig, I could listen with immense pleasure for hours on end to files ripped in AIFF. In fact, I did.

Ah, some of you are saying, but what about VBR? Variable bit-rate formats seem to offer extremely satisfying sound and show a great deal of potential, but those options deserve greater exploration in a dedicated comparison.
My prediction: As storage capicity on the iPod and other players increases, don't be surprised if the record companies try to get consumers to once again upgrade their music collections, this time with a second generation of digital downloads.


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