Get some great sounding music

If you’re a fan of great sound or you want to really test the capabilities of your ears or your gear, here are a couple of resources you might love like I do.

HD Tracks

The first one is HD Tracks (www.hdtracks.com), a site specialising in high quality audio recorded (or remastered) at high sample rates and bit depth. Albums from HD Tracks mostly cost around $18 (AUD) and are mostly available as FLAC files, but in some cases there is the choice of lower quality MP3 files. They have a range of new and old recordings including artists and albums like:

  • Norah Jones
  • The Dark Knight Rises Soundtrack
  • Fleetwood Mac
  • Rolling Stones
  • Aretha Franklin
  • Otis Redding
  • Ella Fitzgerald

They also have a huge range of classical and jazz albums that I’m yet to explore.

The albums on HD Tracks range from 44.1kHz/24-bit recordings through 96kHz/24-bit to 192kHz/24-bit recordings. All of these are significant improvements over the 44.1kHz/16-bit standard of CDs. If you’re unsure of what all those numbers mean, here’s a brief, hopefully simple explanation.

All CDs are 44.1kHz/16-bit audio. This means that the recording system takes a snapshot of the sound 44,100 times per second and that snapshot contains 16 “bits” of information which equates to 65,536 pieces of information (like pixels on a TV – the more pieces, the higher the resolution). The theory behind the 44.1kHz sampling rate of CD audio is that humans can only hear up to 20kHz and so CDs are capturing information more than twice as fast as the human ear can detect.

44.1kHz audio is mostly good enough. You will hear some improvement to the smoothness of the sound at 96kHz and possibly at 192kHz, but at 192kHz it’s debatable and may in fact detract from the music due to the processing power required for 192kHz sound. I choose to use 96kHz audio where possible, but am perfectly satisfied with good 44.1kHz recordings too.

Bit depth is a bit different. Just like a high definition TV looks clearer and sharper than a standard definition TV, the bit depth of audio is the same – more bit depth makes the music clearer and sharper. While there are just over 65,000 pieces of information recorded in each snapshot at 16-bit, 24-bit audio records more than 16.7 million pieces. That’s right, we jump from 65,000 pieces to over 16,000,000 pieces – a massive difference and therefore the sound is much clearer and sharper.

If you’d like to know more about sample rates and bit depth, there’s a great article here.

Grammy Awards – Engineering

Just today, I stumbled upon the interesting fact that every year, there is a Grammy award presented to the album with the best audio engineering. The list of past winners includes some albums worth listening to and a few that aren’t worth as much time (from a musical enjoyment point of view), but they are all beautifully recorded and will make your system shine and bring a smile to your face. There is a complete list of recent winners on the following Wikipedia page:

Grammy Award for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical

As the name suggests, these are non-classical albums (pop, blues, rock, etc.), but there are also classical albums awarded and the list is also available on this Wiki page.

Having gone through my collection to listen to some of my albums on the non-classical list, I can confirm that they sound awesome and there are some great albums on the list by artists like Sting, John Mayer, Quincy Jones, and Ray Charles.

I hope you find some audio gems amongst the Grammy list or on HD Tracks. Happy listening!

 

 

 

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