Quality Control: For your enjoyment

Fresh Heirs’ friend Miller Roberts, dedicated audiophile, has generously written a guide/rant on music quality, and the search for the perfect file.

The capturing and reproduction of sound and music has existed for well over 100 years, beginning with the wax cylinders of the phonograph in 1877 and moving all the way through the handheld digital recorders of today.  Though the quality at which sound is recorded has increased exponentially since it first was invented, it seems as if the general public’s view of it’s reproduction still needs to catch up.

“Audiophile” is typically the term used for a person who spends absurd amounts of money on high quality, high end audio reproduction systems.  This term is a long debated subject within the music community because of associations with stereotypes, “snobbish listening styles”, and excessive spending on system components which have seemingly no effect on the ultimate outcome of a sound.

My personal definition of “audiophilia” is this: “An obsessive search for high quality sound which is logical, educational, and appealing to the listener.”   I stand by my definition because I consider myself on that search for my “perfect sound”.  I have been through many phases of this search since I began immersing myself in the audible stimulus world roughly two years ago, and I am positive that I will continue searching for the rest of my life.

Many people who listen to music think almost nothing of the effort which goes into it besides the musician’s. There are those who record, master, mix, edit, produce, re-produce, and then distributors who finally give the music to the people.  The obsession of sound isn’t purely limited to changing the system in which you listen to the audio, but it begins where the distributors left off; The search for good quality releases.  Most people think nothing of the music which they download (legally or illegally. I won’t delve into this issue now) or purchase on a physical medium such as a CD.

I would like to call this (hopefully) informative editorial a guide to becoming an active listener and a seeker of quality sound.  That being said, what is a guide without a 5 step program?

1. Learn how to find high quality music.

This is quite literally the most important step in the entire process so make sure to pay attention here, kids.

When on the search for high quality music, the most general rule of thumb is “The higher bit rate and sample rate, the better.” If you don’t know what that means, it really is quite ok.  Direct yourself to the nearest search engine and start searching. I normally search for music in FLAC(lossless audio) or 320kbps mp3 format(Sample rate of 48kHz if I can manage. Look that up too!). These are tough to audibly differentiate in the long run, unless you have extremely sensitive ears and extremely high end equipment.

The image on the top is of a lower quality mp3 file, while the bottom is a higher quality mp3 of the same song, though of slightly different lengths. The top is of audio downloaded from a youtube video containing the song. The second is of a 320kbps mp3.

2. Learn how to differentiate high quality music from the same music at a lower quality standard.

Now that you have some good quality music, it’s time to learn what makes it different from the stuff you were listening to before.  Most audible differences include clipping, compression (and all the terrible forms of distortion that coincide with the method it was compressed), and hums and buzzes that were recorded or somehow pushed into the bad quality audio tracks, and bad equalization of gain levels. These small differences are the types of things a trained ear can pick out when performing blind listening tests comparing two tracks of differing quality. The stated quality for each song doesn’t always indicate a lack of these “impurities” which is why your ear is always right when it comes to listening tests, but the in most cases the higher quality song is audibly different when listened to through a decent pair of headphones or monitor speakers.

This image exemplifies soft clipping and hard clipping in songs. Most of the clipping you hear in distorted songs is hard clipping due to compression.

3. Understand some basic theory behind audio reproduction and recording.

Much of the music industry does care greatly about the mastering behind their product, but always with the good you get the bad.  By the bad I mean the kind of people who have been participating in the musical “Loudness war” that has been occurring since the mid 80’s.  There is much debate over the actual methodology behind the “loudness” of mastered songs and albums, but for the most part it seems relatively uniform.  Since rock and roll has been around it seems everyone and their mother wants to make their music louder than everybody else before them.  There is a lot of speculation and discussion of methods which do this, but most involve compressing an original track, turning up the gain on the entire track (amplifying) and then compressing it again, and repeating this process a number of times applying different effects to try and mask the distortion. Of course there are other ways of doing similar things to make it louder, but this seems like a fairly established way of murdering the dynamics that recorded music attempts to transfer to the listener.  What you get after this looks something like a solid wall of sound, and what it sounds like? Well. I don’t even want to begin to describe the level of pain I felt listening to recent “loud” tracks off of albums.  (For reference, some of those albums include The White Stripes’ “Icky Thump”, The Flaming Lips’ “At War with the Mystics”, and of course the “loudest album of all time” Metallica’s “Death Magnetic”.  I had trouble listening to Death Magnetic because I just honestly couldn’t stand the way it was mastered.)  Obviously some albums are different levels of loudness, and just because it is loud doesn’t mean that the music itself is worse.  I would just prefer listening to originally mastered tracks than the “remastered” albums that people release today which often uses the process described above.

My point in this portion was to understand why things sound the way they do.  You will need to conduct research on your own time regarding this aspect, and I’m certain that it will change over the next few years. But I pray to Flying Spaghetti Monster that it doesn’t get “louder”.

An example of how music levels have grown substantially over the years, shown in the constant "remastering" of the song "Because" by The Beatles.

4. Choosing speakers, headphones, and other components.

This is again, an extremely crucial part to the process. At this point you should know some things to look for as far as high quality audio files go.  You should also know how to audibly identify a large number of impurities within files of the lower quality, and you should have some knowledge on how the recording and mastering of music affects your ultimate listening experience. Now onto the part everybody loves. Getting yourself a nice pair of headphones, a nice set of speakers, or anything else hardware related.

There is a vast selection of listening devices available to the public through many different sources online and retail.  If you’re on a budget and looking for the most exquisite and intricate listening experience, headphones are the way to go.  They normally have a better bang for your buck as far as clarity and other equipmental support, but more on that later.  If you’re not on a budget, speaker systems can be nothing short of magical when set up properly.  Speakers, however, do require much more tweaking as far as hardware and acoustic equipment is concerned because the sound produced by them has to travel through a much larger space to reach your ear.  Not only that but you also encounter echo problems, other similar things.

I know I’m rambling, but it’s hard to keep a subject like this brief, so bare with me.

Headphone wise you have many different options, as I said previously.  Around the ear, earpads, in ear, earbuds, and noise cancelling sets are just a few of the different styles of headphones you can use.  I recommend www.headphone.com for any kind of headphone needs because they have good prices, free shipping for orders over $50, and good product reviews and selections guides.  To learn more about headphones I recommend you direct yourself to their site for their articles covering headphones.  REMEMBER: Many headphones have high impedance values, so you need a suitable amplifier to make them work correctly.  Make sure to research this before spending money on high quality and high impedance headphones!

My personal recommendations regarding headphones(Ranging from least to most expensive, O means Open, C Means Closed): Soundmagic PL-30(IEM, $23), Sennheiser HD 428 (C, $60), Sennheiser HD 448 (C, $100), Beyerdynamic DT 440 (C, ≈$140), AKG K701 (O, $250-$280 These have very flat frequency response, but I find them a little too hostile and sharp to my ears.  Otherwise great cans.), Beyerdynamic DT 880 (O, $300-$350. Great pair of headphones, though beginning to get pricy.), and finally my favorite and coincidentally most expensive headphones of those listed, the Sennheiser HD 600s (O, $350-$400)

Or you could pick up a pair of these bad boys for about $20,000. Note the enormous tube amp (like you would miss it.)

That concludes my headphone portion, and sadly I don’t know nearly as much regarding speakers.  If you’re interested in building speakers (Which can be very rewarding and surprisingly inexpensive if done correctly) I suggest you go look at www.partsexpress.com for supplies and speaker building tutorials.  I also know that if you’re interested in finding out more concerning speakers and acoustics,www.audioasylum.com has good speaker reviews and tutorials for setting up your own audio system.  Remember if you don’t know what something means, chances are neither does somebody else. So go search it!

Further exploration and self education.

I have spent countless hours reading, searching, studying, and finding ways of learning about audio technology and engineering.  Obviously you don’t have to do the same to understand what you want or what you need, but I enjoy learning about this kind of stuff, and chances are if you’ve read this far into this article, you do too.  Seriously.  Pat yourself on the back for reading all this.  Its hard to understand everything at once, and I am still learning about audio and everything surrounding it every day.  My main point of this step is to make sure you keep searching for answers if you have questions.  Someone else is bound to have asked the same question or figured out a way to do what you wish to do.  Just keep searching, and never stop learning!

In conclusion

Thank you for reading what I had to say.  I enjoy telling people about it, and I love learning about everything surrounding audio engineering and audio technology.  There is a lot I didn’t mention here, even of the fundamentals, but you will find everything you want to know through searching.  This was just a barebones crash course on high end audio reproduction.  If you have any questions regarding anything I mentioned, I would be glad to help. Send any questions to my email, millerdroberts@gmail.com and I’ll respond as fast as I can.

My listening rig:

Some of you may be curious as to exactly how I listen to music, software and hardware wise, so I figured I would include this small section just for reference. This is as of July 21, 2010:

Listening Software: Foobar2000 with Sox Resampler, Graphic EQ, and -6dB limiter DSP plugins.

Sound card: Creative X-Fi (I forget the model number)

DAC: External Firewire “Audiofire 12” DAC (12 inputs, 12 outputs)

Headphone Amplifier/Preamplifier: I use a RANE HC 6 for headphone testing and auditioning hardware.  I also use a DIY CMOY amplifier I made when I’m just listening to music around the house or walking, etc. I recommend making a CMOY as a good starter project into DIY audio.

Headphones: Soundmagic PL-30 (Great budget IEM. I use them when running) Sennheiser HD 600 (Not mine yet, but hopefully soon)

Loudspeakers: Technics SB-CX50, Infinity Studio Monitor 150

Amplifiers: Cheap secondhand Sony receiver for my bedroom setup, Crown D-75A for auditioning and testing.

Other Misc. Hardware: Yamaha Graphic Q2031A 32 band stereo Equalizer. Soundproofing foam isolation pads for desktop monitors.

Thanks for reading!

-Miller

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