Massive Portable Player Shootout

I’ve been using an iPod Video 80Gb (5.5 generation) for years now and have loved it, but my music collection continues to grow and I’m a fan of lossless audio (ALAC and FLAC) so it’s no longer large enough to hold all my tunes. I’m now at a major crossroads when it comes to finding the right combination of quality, capacity, and ease-of-use. There are a few options I’ve considered and I’ve been lucky enough to try all of them so I’m sharing the results here. I’d like to extend a massive thanks to Wing and the team at Minidisc.com.au for providing the Cowon J3 demo unit and outstanding customer service in my purchase of the Cowon X7 unit.

What’s Being Compared:

  • Apple iPod 80Gb (5.5 Generation) – middle of image
  • Apple iPod 160Gb (late 2009)  – top right of image
  • Cowon X7 160Gb – top left of image
  • Cowon J3 – bottom left of image
  • Sony 460 Series Walkman 4Gb – bottom right of image

If you’ve spotted the odd one out here (yes, the Walkman) and you’re wondering why I’m comparing a little 4Gb player to three hard-disk behemoths and a large-scale SD-based player, it’s purely thrown into the mix as a reference point to see how the expensive players compare to a relatively cheap option.

I’m comparing the players on 4 key factors:

  1. Sound quality (including power output)
  2. Size
  3. Interface & Ease of Use
  4. Customisation & Flexibility

Sound Quality

It’s very hard to conduct a subjective test of sound quality on audio sources because the only real way (short of complicated and expensive setups) is to keep switching your headphones or line-out cable from source to source. Because each of the player’s has a slightly different volume scale, it’s also hard to match the volume exactly and that can influence our perception of quality, too. I’ve done everything I can to minimise the impact of volume, delay between sources and personal preference. All players were tested with no sound “enhancements” (i.e. no BBE effects on Cowon products and no EQ or Sound Check on iPods). All testing was done using 320 kbps MP3 tracks to avoid any potential difference between ALAC and FLAC files. I used my Audio Technica AD900s, Ultrasone HFI-680s and HiFi Man Re0s with each player for a thorough sample.

The order of performance here is a little tricky, but essentially it’s:

First Place: Cowon X7 & J3 – Clean, rich sound with a massive open sound stage and all of the details perfectly presented. My only criticism of the Cowons is that they actually are a little under powered from a volume perspective. They have no trouble getting great sound quality out of the higher impedance HFI-680s and Re0s, but they are at more than 95% volume in order to create an energetic, exciting listening experience.

In addition to their naturally awesome sound quality, the Cowons offer the range of BBE features to further enhance your listening pleasure and although I normally steer clear of “sound enhancements”, the BBE suite is exceptional. The EQ settings are widely adjustable and powerful, the BBE bass boost seems to do a great job of boosting the bass without all the added distortion of many systems and the compressed music enhancement (MP Enhance) is quite effective at bringing the brilliance of lossless music back to a compressed track. Finally, the winning feature for me on the Cowons is their stereo enhancement (equivalent to crossfeed in RockBox). This feature replicates in your headphones the effect of listening to speakers. It’s a simple process and doesn’t mess with the source signal and sound quality, but does result in a beautifully focussed stereo image.

The only key sound quality feature missing (which could also be considered ease-of-use) is ReplayGain. The Cowons don’t normalise the volume for you meaning that you may have to regularly adjust your volume from track-to-track and that’s an issue when you try using the volume controls, but more on that later…

Second Place: iPod Video 5.5G – Solid, clean sound with good depth and good detail. The iPod Video is a great no-frills player. I’ve used it with RockBox and also the regular interface. Either way, the natural sound is great and it seems to have more oomph than other players (volume at 85-90% for higher impedance headphones).

The EQ on the iPod is horrid and introduces all kinds of distortion, but I don’t feel it needs equalising if you have decent headphones. It also lacks a quality volume levelling feature in its original Apple guise (RockBox fixes this). The iPods do have the Sound Check feature, but I find it fairly useless and have heard many reports of degraded sound quality from its use.

Third Place: iPod Classic & Sony Walkman (tied) – These players don’t sound the same, but it’s hard to split them based on their differing shortcomings. The iPod Classic lacks depth in the bass and has a touch of harshness at the high end combined with a lack of very high end detail. It also suffers from the same lack of sound enhancements as explained for the Classic (above).

The Walkman actually has an enjoyable sound for a cheap device (<$100), but it can’t match the others in terms of detail and soundstage. That said, the sound enhancements offered are quite good and quite effective. It’s a perfect exercise player for me (i.e. when I want fun sounding music that I’m not listening to for quality).

Size

I’m not comparing the Walkman here because this is about capacity. Very simply, the J3 is the smallest, but not by much. The iPod Classic is next, followed by the iPod Video and the Cowon X7 is easily the largest and quite bulky. All but the X7 could comfortably fit in a pocket, but the X7 would require a bag of some sort to carry around. It fits nicely in the palm when you’re using it, but the X7 is definitely a bit bigger than the alternatives. That said, if you want to match the sound quality of the X7 you’ll need to add an external amp to the iPods meaning that they just got a bunch bigger and have extra cables sticking out… I’ll be doing a post about the pros/cons of external amplifiers soon.

Interface & Ease of Use

The iPods are the easy winners here – that’s just what Apple do – make things easy. There is no doubt that the Apple interface and synchronisation protocols work well. My only complaints are the lack of effective volume normalisation and the restriction to ALAC as the lossless format. Having recently converted my entire library to FLAC, I really don’t want to have to undo it now. RockBox on the iPod Video allows the use of FLAC, but the Classic can’t use RockBox so it’s slightly more limited.

Another bonus for the iPods is the massive range of accessories available. Being able to drop your pod into a dock and have instant, remote controlled music is a great plus and something that no other player can offer without significant fiddling and expense.

The Walkman comes second because it just works. There are limited bells and whistles and the synchronisation with MediaMonkey was easy and painless. It can’t play lossless formats, but with 4Gb capacity and just-above-average sound quality, 320kbps MP3s are fine. The menus are easy and obvious and the buttons are easy to use and well-placed. Perhaps the best thing about the Walkman though is the SenseMe feature which scans your library and sorts them into mood-based groups. The system isn’t quite perfect (it put a slow song into an upbeat category), but it’s a great, quick playlist solution.

I’m a big believer in working with industrial design rather than fighting against it. If it doesn’t work how I initially expect, I take the time to understand it and learn it, but the Cowons are a long way behind in the ease of use category because of some crazy design decisions. Both players have the volume controls on the side down the bottom of the players. When you’re holding the players you’re fingers are nowhere near the buttons so it’s awkward to adjust the sound (and you need to because there’s no volume levelling).

The menus in the Cowons are quite good and you can access all the important settings direct from the “now playing” screen so this is a plus for the Cowons, but it doesn’t make up for the killer…

You can’t auto-sync playlists to a Cowon player!! That’s right, the Cowon X7 will hold 160Gb of your music, but it won’t let you easily transfer the playlists from MediaMonkey (or Winamp or WMP, etc.) to the player. When you do ask the media player to transfer the playlists, they appear in the X7 (or J3), but when you click on the playlist it says “no file”. I’m sure there’s a fix, but from everything I’ve read it’s a manual fix not an automated one – very frustrating and possibly a deal breaker for me.

Customisation & Flexibility

There are a bunch of custom interfaces for the Cowons and this makes them more customisable than the others. Combine this with their ability to sync with any system and play any type of sound or video and you’ve got a very flexible and customisable player.

The iPod Video can run RockBox and that gives it plenty of flexibility. I rate it only a fraction behind the Cowons because RockBox can be a bit unstable.

The Walkman and iPod Classic tie for 3rd place for different reasons. The Walkman can’t play lossless audio, but it can sync with lots of different systems. The iPod can play lossless audio, but only ALAC so they’re pretty even. The iPod might win by a hair thanks to its ability to play lossless and sync with MediaMonkey.

Summary

What’s the player of choice then? For a collection up to 80Gb, I think I’d take the iPod Video, but over 80Gb it has to be the Cowon. The sound from the iPod Classic just doesn’t cut it for this type of premium player. If you have a huge library and need a large capacity player, there’s a good chance you also appreciate the quality of good music.

I’ll be adding a line out adapter and portable amp to my iPod Classic in the near future and will be sure to report back on the results. In the meantime, I actually think the best answer is to have the Classic for dropping into a dock, using in the car, etc. and having the Cowon X7 (or J3 if you want a small pocket-sized option with killer sound) for mobile portable listening direct to headphones.

 

 

 

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A Simple Guide to Equalisers

Equalisers are an interesting topic. Many people will steer clear of them while others love the option to customise every song, album, pair of speakers or pair of headphones to their own personal tastes. To help you make an informed decision about whether to use an equaliser and how to use an equaliser, here are some key facts.

Impact on Sound Quality

Firstly, electronic equalisers like those in iTunes and in your iPod will generally reduce the quality of the sound. Depending on the headphones or speakers you’re using and depending on how loud you listen to the music, you may not notice the difference so don’t necessarily write off the use of an equaliser based on this fact – you need to decide based on the merits for and against. For some people, a slight reduction in quality might be worth the improvement to the overall tone of the sound. There are also some ways to use an equaliser that are less likely to impact on the sound quality – I’ll discuss these later.

The main reason that equalisers decrease sound quality is the power required to boost audio output by even a small amount. A 3dB increase to the sound (or selected frequency) actually takes double the power! This generally means that you’re pushing the limits of the in-built amplifier of your computer or portable player which leads to a thing called clipping. Without going into detail, clipping refers to the top of the sound wave being cut off because the amplifier doesn’t have the power to create it. It’s a little bit like accelerating in your car until the engine hits the redline and the power disappears, resulting in a rapid loss of performance and potential damage to the equipment.

To minimise the impact on sound quality, you can employ a technique that’s often referred to as subtractive equalising. All this means is that you drag the sliders down rather than push the sliders up – I’ll explain.

iTunes EQ

See the image on the right? That’s the standard iTunes equaliser panel and it’s typical of most EQ setups where the sliders are sitting in the middle at “0dB” meaning that there is no change to the standard amplification of each frequency. If you move a slider up by 1 “notch”, you’re increasing that frequency by 3dB and asking the amplifier to provide double the power at that frequency. The result is generally distortion around that frequency. It’s much easier to set an EQ by increasing the frequencies you want more of, but you’ve probably gathered that this will hurt the sound quality.

EQ settings from -12dB

Here’s the alternative: rather than increasing the frequencies you want more of, decrease all the rest! The simplest way to do this is to start by dragging all of your EQ sliders down to the bottom (-12dB). At this time you might need to turn up the master volume of your device to get the sound back to an enjoyable level, but this is fine because the master volume doesn’t decrease quality. Now you’re ready to adjust your EQ. Start using the sliders to increase the frequencies you need up to a maximum of 0dB. Avoid going above 0dB for any frequency because it will instantly decrease sound quality.

All sliders increased (Maximum 0dB)

Once you’ve got the sound the way you want it, try to increase the sliders so that the shape of your EQ stays the same, but so that the highest slider is right on 0dB (see the last EQ image).

Note: one slight issue you might face with this technique is a lack of maximum volume. If your headphones or speakers are hard to drive and you need nearly 100% volume to get the sound you want, this technique may lead to insufficient sound levels. If that’s the case, you might want to look into extra amplification or different headphones or speakers.

The final dilemma you might be facing is which slider to increase to get the sound you want. The next section should help…

What Does Each Frequency Change?

So you’ve opened your EQ settings and you’re ready to perfect the sound signature for your ears only, but where to start? Which slider to slide?

In the end, it’s all experimentation for the fine details, but here are some clues about where to start. (I’m using the iTunes frequency points as a reference to make it easy for comparison.) I’d recommend using the following information by listening to a range of tracks that you’re familiar with. See if you can identify what’s “missing” from the sound based on the descriptions below and then add a little at a time to see if it helps.

32 Hz – This is subwoofer territory – the bottom end of the bass range. As much as we all love it, sometimes it’s better to drop it out or leave it flat if your speakers can’t this depth of bass. Bass is difficult for amplifiers to sustain so you can give your amp some breathing room by dropping this away if you can’t hear it anyway.

64 Hz – This is the part of the bass that we feel as much as hear. This is a great frequency to boost if you want to feel a bit more bass vibration. Increasing this will give your music more kick at the bottom end.

125 Hz – This is musical bass. If you’re listening to melodic bass guitar riffs, this is where the action is. It’s a good frequency to increase to emphasise the musicality and accuracy in bass rather than the rumble or the mass of the bass.

250 Hz – Although there’s no simple definition of bass vs midrange vs treble, I think of 250 Hz as the crossover point between bass and midrange. At 250 Hz we’re starting to increase the bottom end of male vocals and the lower range of instruments like guitars. Beware though – increasing the midrange sliders can very quickly make your music sound muffled or “canned” (like it’s being played through a tin can”. I would rarely increase this frequency, but might consider reducing it slightly to open the sound up a bit and make it more “airy” and spacious.

500 Hz – Like 250 Hz, 500 Hz is the realm of muffled sound. It covers male vocals and the middle of instrumentation. It’s impact on most music is a sense of muffling – like you’ve covered everything in cotton wool.

1 kHz – This is the realm of vocals, instruments like guitars and saxophones and the snare drum. It can bring brightness to the midrange, but can also start making the sound a bit tinny.

2 kHz – Around 1 – 2 kHz is where we start venturing into the realm of treble. We’re still in the world of vocals and instruments here, but we’re getting towards the top-end so it’ll cause vocals to sound a bit more nasal and increase the perception of the texture of voices – things like breathiness and raspiness. It also can make sound very tinny.

4 kHz – This is the frequency that’s most prominent in sounds like “sh” and “ssssss”. It’s also a part of sounds like cymbal hits and the upper end of a snare drum’s sound. Adding emphasis to the 4 kHz range can very quickly make music harsh on the ears and unpleasant to listen to. That said, using it carefully can bring clarity and brightness to vocals and percussion.

8 kHz – This frequency is pure treble. This is what is most prominent if you turn the “treble” dial up. It influences the very upper end of sounds like “sh” and “ssss” and it has a major impact on percussion such as snares and cymbals. It is great to use to add brightness to the sound, but can also get uncomfortable if overused.

16 kHz – Given that 20 kHz is considered the upper end of human hearing, this is obviously the pointy end of the treble band. It mostly affects cymbals and similar sounds, but it also picks up the brightness and detail in the texture of certain instruments. For example, increasing the 16 kHz slider (and/or the 8 kHz slider to a degree) will enhance the sound of the plectrum hitting the strings of a strummed guitar. Like the 8 kHz slider, the 16 kHz slider is a great way to add brightness and tends to be more gentle on our ears. That’s not to say it’s not just as loud, but generally it doesn’t sound as harsh. Incidentally, 16 kHz is also at the end of the hearing range where we lose our hearing first so we might appreciate a slight boost to this area as we get older and lose our hearing.

I hope this has helped you to get more from your music collection, favourite speakers or portable player!

Quincy Jones AKG Q460 Review

As per my recent post “When Branding Meets Audio“, more often than not, musician-endorsed headphones seem to be below average quality. It seems almost safe to say that in the majority of cases, the musician branding is done to make up for crappy, mediocre headphones

Quincy Jones AKG Q460

I was hoping the Q460s would break this trend and they certainly look promising…

Straight out of the box, the Q460s look and feel great. They’re light, made of nice materials and have a great carry case that’s compact and solid. The package also includes 2 different cables – a really short, plain cable and a slightly longer one with volume controls for iPhones and certain iPods. The cables are bright green to match the Quincy Jones branding, but my headphones are the black version (as pictured).

When I first listened to these, I made the mistake of coming straight from my Audio Technica AD900s which have a very clean, balanced and lively sound. In comparison, the Q460s seemed muddy and lifeless, but that’s not entirely fair to them. Listening to them clean (i.e. having not listened to anything else for a while) is a different experience and while they’re not perfect, they’re not as bad as I first thought.

Quick Specs

Impedance:  30 Ω (portable player friendly)
Frequency Range:  8 Hz to 24 kHz
Max. Input Power:  30 mW

Bass

Attack: The attack from the Q460s is punchy, but not entirely sharp. I always use “Take the Lord Along with You” by Wayman Tisdale for this test because it’s a bass guitar instrumental with plenty of lively bass activity. The Q460s handled TTLAWY without too much trouble, but it’s not the best I’ve heard it sound.

Rating: 6 / 10

Mass: The mass of the bass in the Q460s is truly impressive. For a little pair of on-ear headphones, the bass is epic while still controlled. Listening to “Who Could It Be Now” by Luciano (feat. the Jungle Brothers), the bass is massive, but well placed. It doesn’t drown other frequencies, but gives you the full impact of the track. The bass output from these headphones is very realistic – they create the feeling as well as the sound so a smooth bass guitar not both sounds and feels right.

Rating: 8 / 10

Vocals / Mids

The mids and vocals are a mixed bag with the Q460. Certain vocals and instrumentals sound warm, rich and smooth, but some others sound a bit harsh and forced at the upper end of the midrange. Jamie Cullum’s “These Are the Days” is quite unpleasant (for a set of good headphones) because of the upper-end raspiness of his voice. The tone of his voice just seems too forced through these phones. Patrick Stump from Fall Out Boy and Amy Winehouse also edge into this slightly harsh territory on the Q460s. On the other hand, “Tin Pan Alley” by Stevie Ray Vaughan is smooth and lush and sexy with Stevie’s guitar sounding as silky as ever, and Nas’ rapping on the Illmatic album sounds clean and punchy over the top of the beats behind him.

What this really means, is the the vocals and mids will sound great on some of your tracks, but may sound a bit edgy on others. It’s not a deal-breaker, but this is an area that can make the listening experience a little less than perfect.

Rating: 6 / 10

Detail

Detail isn’t the strong point of the Q460s. They’re not super sluggish, but they’re also not detailed. There are certain mid-range frequencies that really shine through and surprise with their clarity, but other sounds get lost in the mix. The Q460s are a smooth and rounded sound rather than an accurate detailed sound. That’s not to say it’s bad – some people will no doubt prefer it to the sharpness of more detailed phones, but for me it’s a tiny bit too smooth.

The top end frequencies are very subdued in the Q460s and some tracks really sound like they’re missing something – like there’s a hole. Interestingly, adding the standard treble boost equaliser on iTunes or iPods / iPhones brings an extra sparkle to the Q460s that makes them quite lovely. I don’t like having to use equalisers because it introduces noise and distorting into the sound and also means constantly changing settings if I change headphones, but if you were permanently using the Q460s with you computer or portable player, a permanent EQ setting can create a really enjoyable portable listening experience.

Side Note: where possible, if using EQs on electronic devices such as iTunes, iPods and iPhones try to create your EQ so that nothing is above the central line. In other words, if you wanted the 16kHz frequency 3 clicks louder, don’t raise it by 3, but drop everything else by 3 clicks. It makes EQ setting a bit more fiddly, but the sound quality will be better and will just mean turning up the master volume a tiny bit more.

Rating without EQ: 4.5 / 10

Rating with EQ: 6.5 / 10

Staging

Whenever I listen to closed cans, I expect a restricted soundstage. It’s a rarity to find closed cans that can create an open, wide soundstage. It is possible, however, to have good sound placement within the closed space created by closed cans.

The Q460s place the sounds quite well, but all of the placement occurs in a very tight area. The sounds are placed in a band that runs from one ear around the inside of the front of your head to the other ear. In other words, the stage is as wide as your head and has a narrow range of forward depth – it doesn’t really extend out in front of you very much, but it’s not bad as such. The sound placement is accurate and clear and instruments are clearly defined in most tracks even if they’re not spaced a long way apart. Listening to the “What is Hip” by Tower of Power (Sheffield Labs, Direct Plus! version), it sounded like all of the horns, rhythm, organ, vocals and guitars were crammed inside my head, but I never felt like anyone was on top of anyone else – and that’s a busy recording!

Rating: 5 / 10

Overall

At full price I think these headphones are a little pricey, but if you can pick them up on sale or second hand they could be a good option if you like your music smooth and lush with plenty of body in the bass. They’re a much better option than some of the alternatives like the Beats range by Dre so check them out before buying any other musician-branded headphones.

They’re comfortable, well made, look good (even in the green) and have a great, compact carry case.

I would recommend them for:  Hip-Hop / Rap, Electronica, some Rock (listen to them first), mellow Jazz

I wouldn’t recommend them for:  Acoustic, upbeat Jazz , Blues, Pop

Overall Rating: 5 / 10

Understanding MP3s (and other compressed music) – Part 3… Finale

Welcome to the final installment of my 3 part series of posts about the pros and cons of compressed audio. If you haven’t read from the beginning, it’d be a good idea. Here’s a link: Understanding MP3s (and other compressed music) – Part 1

By the end of Part 2 you hopefully have an understanding of the process of compression (i.e. removing sounds that we theoretically won’t hear) and also the impact that this removal has on the overall “picture” created by the sound. For this final part of the article, you need to keep this concept of a musical “picture” in mind because this final concept is all about the hidden magic within the picture, not the individual, identifiable details.

Harmonics

You might have heard of harmonics before. If you’ve played certain musical instruments (particularly stringed instruments), you might have even deliberately created pure harmonics. If you haven’t heard of harmonics, don’t worry – here’s a short explanation.

Anytime you play an instrument that uses a string or air to create sound (i.e. just about any instrument other than electronic synthesizers), you are creating harmonics. Harmonics are the sympathetic vibrations that occur along with the note that you’re creating. Have you ever run your finger around the rim of a glass to create a musical note? That’s the same concept. Your finger running on the edge of the glass creates vibrations. If you get the speed of your finger movements correct, the vibrations you create, match the natural vibration frequency of the glass. As a result, the whole glass vibrates together and forms a beautiful clear note. Different glasses will vibrate at different speeds of movement  and will create different notes as a result. This is the concept of harmonics.

If you were to walk up to a piano and strike the key known as “Middle C”, you would hear a note – just one single note, but that note will have a quality very different to the same note on another piano or on a violin. The reason for this is the creation of resonance and harmonics. To explain this, I’m going to talk about the note called “A” which is a few notes above “Middle C”. I’m using the “A” because it makes the maths easier.

If you now strike the “A” you’ll hear a single note once again. This time, the note will sound higher than the previous “C”. What’s actually happening though is that your ear is receiving vibrations in the ear and these vibrations are moving 440 times every second (440 Hz). However, there are also other vibrations going on and the majority of these vibrations are directly related to the 440 Hz we began with. As the “A” string inside the piano vibrates, it creates waves of vibration. The loudest of these move 440 times per second, but it also creates other waves moving 880 times, 1760 times, 3520 times per second, etc.

Every note created by an acoustic instrument naturally creates these harmonics which go up in doubling increments (i.e. like 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc.) Old synthesizers sounded particularly fake because they didn’t recreate these harmonics and the output sounded flat and lifeless. Newer synthesizers create harmonics artificially and have come closer to the sound of the real thing, but there’s still a degree of difference created by the subtleties that can be created by acoustic instruments. A slight difference in strike pressure on a piano, plucking/strumming strength on a guitar or force of air through a trumpet can create a significantly different tone as a result of the different range of vibrations it creates. All of these subtleties are the “magic” that make music so special and exciting.

A quick note: this blog is not an anti electronic music. Electronic instruments (i.e. synthesizers, drum machines, etc.) can create amazing music which is impossible with traditional acoustic instruments. The discussion of acoustic versus electronic instruments is designed purely to illustrate the importance of keeping harmonics where they were originally intended/recorded.

Harmonics, Subtleties & Compression

In reading the section above, you might have wondered why you’ve never heard these harmonics. You might even choose to put on your favourite CD and try to listen for them. You can actually hear these harmonics if you listen carefully, but the key thing to recognise here is that we aren’t consciously aware of them in normal circumstances. The harmonics and subtleties happen “behind the scenes” of the music and are rarely noticed by the casual listener or anyone who is not actively listening for harmonics.

If you now think back to my previous discussion of compression and the removal of sounds that we theoretically don’t hear, you might see the connection. The first things be “compressed” (i.e. removed) are the harmonics and subtle, quiet sounds that create the finest details and tonal qualities of the music. To the casual ear, nothing seems to be missing, but play the same song compressed and uncompressed through good speakers and you might notice a difference that you can’t quite put your finger on. Here’s another visual example.

The following picture is a hi-resolution (1900 x 1200) desktop wallpaper image provided with Microsoft Windows 7. I’ve used it because it has a certain magic about it in terms of its depth and detail.

The next version of that image is at a lower resolution of 800 x 500 pixels (a bit like a lower bit-rate of compression).

Notice there’s a certain level of the “magic” missing from the second image? It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what’s missing, but the image isn’t as instantly captivating and engaging to the eye. It almost looks flatter somehow – less bright and alive.

Here’s one last version at 600 x 375 pixels, making it even lower resolution and stealing more of the “magic”.

Are you seeing a difference? Don’t worry if you’re not. Go back now and take a close look at the textures of the character’s face and the stitching on his costume. As the resolution drops, so does the detail. See it? That’s exactly what’s happening to your music.

Compressed Music in Real Life

Although it’s probably clear by now that my preference is always for uncompressed music (known as lossless music because no detail/information is lost), it’s not always practical. Understanding compression allows you to choose what suits your needs best. Here are some factors to consider when choosing your level of compression (or choosing no compression):

  • How much space do you have for your music on your computer, device hard drive, iPod, etc? You’ll need to use compression if your space is limited and you want to store a large number of tracks. Here you need to weigh up quality, quantity and space. You can consider increasing storage space, decreasing the quantity of tracks or increasing the compression (and therefore decreasing the quality of the music).
  • Where and how do you listen to your music? If you listen in noisy environments, at very low volume (i.e. background music only) or use low quality speakers/headphones then you might as well use slightly higher compression to maximise the quantity of tracks. The noisy environment issue can be overcome with in-ear earphones and noise cancelling earphones, but the other situations generally mean you can afford to sacrifice quality for quantity.
  • How much does it matter to you? After all, you’re the one doing the listening so if you’re happy with music at 128 kbps that’s all that matters. There’s no such thing as a right or wrong level of compression – it’s entirely up to you.

The best way to decide is actually quite simple. Take a well-recorded track (or two) that you really like and use your music player (iTunes, Windows Media Player, etc.) to compress it in different ways. Next, listen to the different versions on your favourite headphones and/or speakers and decide what you’re happy with. Way up the differences you noticed between the different levels of compression and think about how much space you have to store music and then make a decision.

Summary

Compression is a fantastic tool for portable audio and convenience, but if you have no significant space restrictions, I highly recommend sticking with lossless audio (either Apple Lossless Audio Codec – ALAC, Free Lossless Audio Codec – FLAC or Windows Media Audio 9.2 Lossless). You never know when you might upgrade your speakers or headphones and even if you can’t hear a difference now, you might be amazed at the benefits you get with that next pair of speakers or the next set of headphones! Don’t give up the magic of the music unless you absolutely have too!

Understanding MP3s (and other compressed music) – Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of my series of posts about the pros and cons of compressed audio. If you haven’t read Part 1, it’d be a good idea. Here’s a link: Understanding MP3s (and other compressed music) – Part 1

Wielding the Eraser

I explained in Part 1 that compression means pulling out sounds that we won’t actually hear, but think about this… The music is like a painting that we “see” with our ears. Compressing music is the equivalent to taking an eraser to the Mona Lisa. It’s like saying, “No-one will notice this brush stroke of stray colour or this tiny bit of shading.” Perhaps that’s true and, to a degree, no-one would notice, but at some point the whole painting’s just going to lose something. It’ll lose a little bit of soul. Sure, you might not pick exactly which parts are missing, but you’ll know something’s not right. Here’s an example:

Notice how the sky in the second image looks unnatural and full of lines? That’s because the process of compressing has removed some of the subtle shades of blue and replaced them with wider bands of other shades. For example, let’s number the different shades 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and 1.4. During the compression process we would replace shade 1.2 with a second band of 1.1 and replace 1.4 with a second band of 1.3. Now that blue sky would be made of bands of shades 1.1, 1.1, 1.3, 1.3. You can see the evidence of this above in the second image.

So looking at the example photos, it’s clear that they’re both the same photo, but if you had to choose one to print and frame, I’m guessing you’d choose the first one because it’s closer to real life and therefore more pleasing to the eye. The same goes for music.

Think of music as a complex bunch of vibrations making a particular range of patterns. Any little detail you remove from those vibrations will permanently alter the overall “picture”. You’ll still recognise the sound or the song, but it won’t actually sound identical to the original.

Let’s talk about the ear again. Remember my description of how we hear? The ear perceives music like the eyes perceive a painting. You take it all in at once, you don’t pick out a particular colour here and a particular texture there, you just see it as a picture. When we compress sound we permanently alter the “picture” as if we had taken to it with an eraser. To our ears, the result is no different to the photo above on the right. It might not be as dramatic (depending on the level of compression), but it’s essentially the same. You don’t notice a loss of individual sounds, you notice a loss of overall quality and realism.

Here’s one final visual version to show you what I mean. The following charts are spectrograms that show sound as colour. The darker the colour, the louder the sound and the higher up the colour appears, the higher pitch the sound is. A bass guitar shows up down the bottom while a violin shows up further towards the top. There are 2 lines in each chart – these are the left and right stereo channels.

Spectogram - lossless

"This is How a Heart Breaks" - no compression

"This is How a Heart Breaks" - moderate compression

"This is How a Heart Breaks" - mid-high compression (128 kbps)

Notice the density of the yellow and orange colours reduces as you get more compression? The more blue you see, the less of the musical “picture” is still intact. You might also notice that there is more variety and clarity in the colours on the top chart and the colours all get more “blurry” as you move down the charts. That’s the effect of averaging things out. If you look at the first spectrogram and then the second, you might notice that the second one looks like a slightly out-of-focus copy of the first one.

By the time we get to 128 kbps, nearly every high frequency sound is removed. That’s because we lose those hearing at these frequencies first and are less likely to notice the missing sound… or at least that’s the theory. The key thing to notice here is that the musical pictures are different. This is the most visual representation of sound that I can provide and it illustrates exactly how the musical “picture” is gradually erased by compression.

In the Final Installment

Now that you know how we perceive sound and how compression works, you’re all ready to read about why compressed music loses its “magic”. In Part 3, I’ll explain a bit harmonics and their role in creating the soul of the music. I’ll also sum up what this all means when it comes to choosing the level of compression that’s right for you.

As always, I hope you’re enjoying this information and I welcome any feedback or questions you might have.

Ready for Part 3?