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Audiophile Column No 19. Balance between the quality of music tracks and audio section

I will start with two recent letters.

Letter 1

Dear Ilya,

I need your professional advice. I consider myself to be a music fan and often listen to different styles of music. I decided to try lossless format for the first time. The following scheme was used:

  1. Iphone 3gs
  2. Docking station with line exit
  3. Koss PortaPro (special thanks for the review, so now I have a professional opinion about the headset)
  4. I rarely employ Samsung X420 laptop for music playback
  5. JVC RV-DP200BK boombox(60 W are enough to fill my small room)

I never complained about my hearing and can easily tell a low quality mp3 player (with low bitrate and artefacts) from a decent one.

Now I will move to the matter of my question. I downloaded Apple lossless and started listening comparing with tracks I have in my media collection. I tried different connection options (and was particularly interested in iPhone + headphones combination), but didn't feel ANY difference. I was at my friend's place and could clearly hear the difference with his cheap 5.1. audio system (I am not deaf after all ). Can you advise a pair of headphones to appreciate lossless? I prefer circumaural models, though earbuds will suffice as well. The price range is $100-150 and I would be glad to order from eBay and pay less than in Kiev.

Thank you in advance.

Letter 2

Dear Ilya,

My name is Alexander. I always enjoy reading your reviews. Thank you very much! I recently decided to test my equipment. I ended up with the following result. According to reviews there must be a difference between the harmonic distortion of 0.038% and 0.001%, but I cannot hear it.

0.038 for Samsung Galaxy S.
0.001 for T.C. Electronic Konnekt 24D

Наушники TripleFi 10

I am a professional musician and can feel details, which sometimes cannot be recorded, so you can be sure as to my listening skills.

Can you explain the phenomenon?

Thank you in advance and take care!

On our forum our user Geo13 asked the following question:

I listen to tons of music not to be had in good quality. I often get Mp3 with the bitrate of no more than 128 let alone flac or wave formats. Sometimes it is old and rare (jazz and blues from the mid 20 century) or recorded not in the studio. This fact one day stopped me from searching for a better player and headphones. I could not listen to these tracks on НМ 801, so I would like to ask the audience if there is any difference between expensive devices and mass market products in terms of sound when you listen to the abovementioned music tracks.

All three messages have one common feature if it is necessary to have expensive equipment to listen to the music. We mean music listening not recording here. In other words does music playback for enjoyment require special investment?

To my mind it is necessary to take into account your own requirements. Listening skills, which can be developed and improved, are not the most important factor here. If you don't feel the difference between two devices and you really need it start from the basics. My favorite Prime Test CD1 offers comments to every track with explanations what to listen for and how a particular track can sound on good or bad devices. It is not completely fair to concentrate on several features of the recording, but you will learn to differentiate between levels of quality with time.

I also recommend Raoul Sanchez takes with useful explanations. Download, create test disks and start listening:

Now I would like to add a couple of words about the difference between MP3 and lossless. I must have mentioned it before, but it is appropriate to repeat that. It is not always easy for me to distinguish between MP3 with the bitrate of 320 from lossless straightaway. The task becomes easier if you use acoustic system and the stereo pan becomes blurred. The same applies to video as a large screen easily highlights the difference between Full HD and DVD, while the phone screen is not enough.

Each person has his or her approaches to tell MP3 from lossless. Some feel the difference on low frequencies, while others use an abstract notion of "tiredness". It is believed that high quality MP3 is no different from uncompressed formats, but the decrease of a sound file size cannot happen without consequences. Sophisticated psychoacoustic algorithms mask the difference, but there are some limits and you can find people who can easily tell MP3 from lossless. Apart from that we have a more complicated task for our brain to add elements for the complete picture. Subsequently, some claim that lossless formats are more pleasant to listen to, especially if you do it for a long time.

On one hand high quality equipment with good sensitivity will surely expose all format drawbacks and artefacts masked by the audio section imperfection. On the other hand you should be able to hear more details of a particular track.

Once again we come back to the issue of requirements. When we scan a 100 year old photo we want to keep all details, but inevitable defects will ask for retouch. The same can be said about old and low quality recordings. During the playback we have to find a balance between the audio section sensitivity and track quality.

It is not as simple as that.

I will use my own example. I decided to listen to some old recordings and tried to enjoy several albums on my Hifiman HM-801. I was more than disappointed with the recording quality, though I listened to lossless files from official CDs. I found copies of old disks, but the results were the same.

I tried several combinations of audio sections, expensive and cheap headphones and different sound sources. It was to no avail. In all cases I could clearly hear the defects of the recording. It all comes to your ability to hear defects and the audio sections used are not as vital here.

On the other hand you can often come across wonderful tracks with the bitrate of 128 and listen to them on Hifiman. They get a better speed and accuracy of acoustic transmission.

Don't be afraid to upgrade your player or headphones. You may have to alter your music preferences, but it will not happen overnight. At first you will like to re-listen to some old tracks and hear something new in them.

I cannot recommend particular combinations to differentiate between loss and lossless. Training allowed me to tell the difference between formats even on Koss Porta Pro. It is useful to employ foobar2000 PC player and ABX plug-in to compare two audio files without any delay.

I became quite interested in the area of psychoacoustics, so if you can recommend books to start with I would more than happy to embrace any advice. Practice is good only after you have done all your homework.

Related links

Review of Koss Porta Pro 25th Anniversary

Do you want to talk about this? Please, go to our Forum and let your opinion be known to the author and everybody else.

Ilya Tarakanov (tarakanov.ilya@gmail.com)
Translated by Maxim Antonenko (maxantonenko@ukr.net)

Published - 06 December 2010

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