May 15, 2006 4:00 AM PDT

Syncing high-def music with digital generation

Elvis Presley would judge the recording quality of his songs by whether the sound "moved him or not," says music producer Elliot Mazer.

After four decades producing some of the recording industry's biggest artists--everyone from Janis Joplin to Switchfoot--Mazer has developed his own test. He asks himself: "Can you enjoy the music when it's playing at a low level?"

In the digital age, too often the answer is no. Much is lost when cramming Joplin's booming vocals or the rich guitar play of Pete Townshend or Jimi Hendrix into tiny digital files, Mazer says.

The rise of digital music players has made it easier to cart hundreds of songs around but has done little to improve listening experience, say music aficionados. A popular misconception is that digital music has to produce sound quality inferior to compact discs.

Not so, say companies such as MusicGiants and Sonos, which offer audiophiles a chance to listen to digital music whose sound quality is every bit as good as that available on CDs.

MusicGiants, which launched last September, is the only download site that sells high-definition music from all the major labels. Incline Village, Nev.-based MusicGiants sells songs on the Windows Lossless format, which means that the company offers music at a bit rate of 470 to 1,100 kilobits per second. Most songs downloaded off the Web are at 128 Kbps, says Scott Bahneman, MusicGiants' founder and CEO.

A song recorded on a Lossless format can be as big as 15MB. Most music on MP3 is about 3MB.

"In files that small, most of the bits are missing," Bahneman said on Friday. "It's like taking octane out of gas. If you do, your car is going to ping."

Apparently, pinging cars wouldn't bother today's music fans and neither does compressed music. Yes, most digital music lacks the depth and subtle nuances produced by CDs. But most listeners don't seem to care. Sales of digital music players reached $3.7 billion last year, far outpacing the $1.2 billion in sales of home stereos, according to a report released this month by the Consumer Electronics Association.

"It turns out that portability and price trumps quality," said Mitch Bainwol, chairman and CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America.

This marks an attitude shift for music lovers. For most of the past century's second half, music fans went to great lengths to acquire equipment that could produce a more lifelike sound from a recording. A sound system with a high-end turntable, amplifier and speakers was once a status symbol.

The times they are a changin'
Are those days over?

Maybe not, but they certainly appear to be numbered. Consider that Apple Computer has sold 50.8 million iPod digital music players since launching the device in October 2001. In the most recent quarter, iPod sales topped 8 million, a 60 percent jump from a year earlier.

With so many people growing accustomed to digital music, those selling high-definition formats face several challenges. The first is that songs digitized in HD formats take up to five times more room on hard drives and flash memories than most popular formats, such as Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) or Windows Media Audio. When it comes to price, MusicGiants sells songs for $1.29, or for 30 percent more than the 99 cents that Apple's iTunes music store charges. Downloads from MusicGiants aren't compatible with iTunes songs, so they won't play on iPods (Bahneman recommends customers place the company's music on to CDs).

Another hurdle is that Lossless formats are already offered by Apple and Windows. When an iTunes user rips music on to their PC or Mac, they can choose a Lossless format instead of iTunes' default AAC. Mazer, a consultant to MusicGiants, says Lossless produces CD-quality sound.

Yet iPods and other digital music players can't provide the ultimate listening experience, says Mazer. Digital players are fine for travel or for working out, he says, but for serious listening at home he prefers big stereo sound systems.

John MacFarlane, Sonos' CEO, is betting that more Americans will prefer filling their homes with the clearest and cleanest sounding music possible. That's why the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based company connects existing home stereos and entertainment centers to PCs via wireless networks.

Last month, Sonos released the ZonePlayer 80, a unit that wirelessly connects a stereo or boom box to a home's music network. A remote control then enables a user to choose songs for any room in the house. The start-up system features two ZP 80s for $1,000. Each additional unit costs $350.

In rooms without any music players, the company offers the $500 ZonePlayer 100, which comes with a built-in amplifier. All it needs to play music is to be hooked up to speakers. MacFarlane too suggests customers record their music in a high-quality digital format.

"Serious music fans want to hear details," MacFarlane said. "The home environment is different than sitting on the subway listening to music through ear buds. For those situations, compressed files are fine. What we're finding is that customers are keeping two libraries. One for Lossless files and one for compressed."

Mazer says he expects the public to begin demanding high quality again. Otherwise, what good does it do for artists to toil on producing the best sound?

"Napster's popularity really angered artists," Mazer said. "Yeah, they hated getting ripped off, but they also hated MP3s because they sounded so lousy."

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18 comments

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Near CD quaility
Now that is damming faint praise.
The reason that MP3s are popular is that they
aren't that much worse than CDs.
Get DVD-audio on a nice system.
MP3s should be freebie advertisements for the
real quality product.
Question: the wireless product mentioned,
does it transmit in FM-stereo or AM?
Or does it have some "patented" scheme?
Give me Monster cables throughout the house.
The industry needs to work on product placement of
quality components. Where are the "Friends" to
laugh at someone playing the iPod in a boom box.
Posted by swwg69 (48 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Sonos
The Sonos transmits digitally using 802.11b/g -- while some detail is lost (as enthusiast site HardOCP discovered), it's still a great system (and far, far better than something like an FM transmitter).

One of the other issues is that some people are able to detect subtle sound quality differences than others. Some people are perfectly happy with 128kbps MP3 files, yet others swear by CD's or lossless formats. I fall about halfway between them (192-256kbps MP3 is fine for me.
Posted by Dennis Deveaux (9 comments )
Link Flag
Some fault lies with music producers
The reason people are listening to mp3 at 128kbps is because, most of them can not tell the difference between mp3 music and the original CD. Why? That is because, most electronic musical instruments that musicians use are limited to 15K in frequency, whereas a human can hear upto 20K and perhaps higher. The result is, most music lose the upper harmonics that makes the sound crystal clear - meaning live!

Some years ago, I did an experiment using a chamber group from Utah Symphony by digital recording with a laboratory microphone that has a sensitivity to 50K in frequency response. When the musicians heard the recording, they said, they have never heard such clarity in recorded music. They also picked up subtle mistakes in music including breathing.

Just like high definition video where one can see the pimple on an actor, music can be made natural and live. But only if the producers demand it. Similarly, it is useless if one tries to get a copy of the old movies in HD format, since the information is not there to begin with. The HD format would not provide any benefit.

Same way, when music production uses heavy freqency filters, equipment that max out at 15K, audio samples that max out at 10K, there is not much information left for lestening pleasure. Even the Classical recordings are heavily filtered so that mistakes would not be apparent.

Until users who never heard high quality music, demand such quality, increasing digital sampling rates for contents that never had the information to begin with, would not provide any real benefit.

BTW: Now that we have HD video, there is talk about using program chips to soften, blur (take information out)the video...so that flaws would not be apparent.
Posted by kmguru (12 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Quality of mp3 files
As many people know, mp3's deliver a good quality of music for their size, but there are audiophiles who will disagree. The problem with using the high quality music on a limited size device means people will not be able to tote their entire music collection around. New tech such as perpendicular recording for micro hard drives could do one of two things: allow people to carry more lossy music, or carry the same amount of music at a much higher quality. I personally would rather have the high quality music, but because space limitations, I usually carry my music at 256kbps (128kbps is much too lossy).
Posted by Jabib (8 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Or you can buy a Plays For Sure WMA device and get twice the quality...
You could buy a WMA based player and get twice the quality or twice as many songs of the same quality compared to standard MP3...
Posted by richto (895 comments )
Link Flag
How large are the files?
I didn't parse all of this article but I think it should make every person that reads it do the math.

A 4 minute song @ "470 to 1,100 kilobits per second" would equate to what file size compated to typical 128 kilobits/sec?

I don't see how that information is not relevant to this story. Intentionally leaving it out transitions the piece from journalism to marketing.

Since this is not marketing.com I am asking for correction.
Posted by Dachi (797 comments )
Reply Link Flag
It's in the article...
According to the article, "up to five times" larger. So my typical 4
MB MP3 or AAC file would then be up to a 20 MB HD file instead.
Not hard math. I could then only store about 1/5 as many songs,
but enjoy them much more. Five times as much? Don't know! I'll
just have to try it...
Posted by James Garvin (21 comments )
Link Flag
How large are the files?
In response to the reader's question, uncompressed CD-DA files, found on CDs, run approximately 10 Mb per stereo minute. So a four minute pop song would be slightly over 40 Mb. Since the bit rate for an uncompressed file is 1411 kbps, a 400 kbps file of such a song would be about 29% of that size, or about 12 Mb.
Posted by mcgrail (5 comments )
Link Flag
For clarification of the daffy article...
470 is 3.67x as much as 128 and 1100 is 8.59x as
much.

In definite terms 4 minutes = 240 seconds. 240
seconds * 128 kilobits / second = 30720
kilobits. 30720 kilobits / 8 bits/byte = 3840
kilobytes (about 3.75MB).

@470 kbps = 13.76MB
@1100 kbps = 32.2MB

The article is silly in that it carries the
implication that "digital music files" are of
inferior quality than CDs. Of course, the data
on a CD is also digital music and can be pulled
off and stored with exactly the same fidelity as
the original. I don't know where this "popular
misconception" comes from.

Any degradation of quality is through
compression. At 128 kbps, maybe that's bad, but
at a more typical 256 kbps or 328 kbps the
quality of the speakers/earphones becomes the
dominant influence. That's assuming a quality
recording on the CD anyways -- and that's pretty
rare for all but some classical and jazz titles
these days.

Id should also be pointed out that while MP3 is
a lossy algorithm, compression itself is not
necessarily lossy. It is possible to compress
data and then uncompress it and get output
identical to the input -- it may not be as
simple or space-efficient as lossy compression,
but it's possible.

But, if you are listening to hip-hop music
sampled at 17 kbps per channel, the 470 kbps
"high-definition" version won't be any different
save for the price. For the majority of people,
the difference between a high-bitrate MP3 (224+
kbps) and a CD (which most people seem to agree
is satisfactory) is so small as to be
imperceptable.
Posted by Zymurgist (397 comments )
Link Flag
What does Sonos have to do with high quality?
Maybe I am missing something, but there is a big disconnect between the beginning and end of this article. I agree that low bitrate audio files sound lousy, which is the focus of the first half of the piece. But the Sonos device mentioned in the second half -- or competitors like the Slim Devices Squeeze Box -- doesn't solve this problem. Play a 128k MP3 or AAC through a Sonos or Squeeze Box connected to a high-end audio system and it still sounds like crap.

gb
Posted by sdengineer (6 comments )
Reply Link Flag
MusicGiants' $50 hurdle
Aside from the difference in audio quality, the other thing that sets MusicGiants apart from all of the other download services I can think of is this:

They want $50 to open an account!

Its not money down the drain. True, <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.musicgiants.com/download.aspx" target="_newWindow">http://www.musicgiants.com/download.aspx</a> states:
100% of your first year's fee will be applied to music purchases.* Each year thereafter, the fee is
waived when you spend $50.*

But wow, what a commitment! No way I'm going for that, not when I can go to the local record stores and get many CDs for less than what MusicGiants charges!
Posted by geckokarma (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Well Said!!
I was really enthusiastic about MusicGiants until I saw the $50 minimum per year. I'd be more than willing to pay the $1.29 per lossless track. I would probably end up spending $50 per year (where as I spend $0 on iTunes do to the crap quality), but that is still a big hit.
Posted by CagedAnimal (67 comments )
Link Flag
He asked how big are the lossless files
He asked how big are the lossless files. Not how big is the raw data.

WMA lossless and similar technologies - e.g Monkey Audio do provide some compression. Goto www.allofmp3.com and use the online compression to choose the format and it will tell you how large the resulting files will be...
Posted by richto (895 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Sadly, evidence indicates that few care about quality
Look at the long lifespan of VHS tape, AM radio, even decades of cars with 8tracks. Or look at the "superior" formats that failed or languished as niche items, like Elcasette, consumer DAT, Laserdisc, SACD/DVD-A (and Bluray/HdDvd in future tense). I'll take the 5th on how many I bought :) MP3 will live a long life, as will AAC - not due to it's higher quality, but simply because most people are too lazy/unengaged to dig into itunes &#38; change the defaults. Let's face it, there are more mcburger joints than 5star bistros. 90% of people are content with ...um... "good-enough". That's just the way of the world. I'll continue to support the superior odd/niche formats for as long as they exist, but I don't expect everybody else to.
Posted by punterjoe (163 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The problem is not just consumers
The majority of the fault lie with the record companies. For over
a decade, record companies made little improvement in quality
of their music. When they did make an improvement, they spent
the majority of their time trying to own that format, in which
split the industry into DVD Audio (DVDA) and SuperAudioCDs
(SACD). Because music companies are pig headed, they let it
completely obliterate the chances for survival. How many people
have more than a dozen of either SACDs or DVDAs? The same it
true for MiniDiscs. Yes, the audiophiles had them, but the public
as a whole did not, and that was why all three failed miserably
compared to what they could have done.

The reason music portability has gone the direction it has is
simple. The average Joe wanting to avoid another case where
they purchase equipment that never succeeds, said, I am going
to jump on this and really support it. The fact that it made many
leaps in what music fans used to have helped to propel it to
where it is today. It had nothing to do with quality, but rather
diverse quantity. Now, people can sample songs, artists and
genres, all without having to leave their homes. They can take
their music and fit it to their lives, rather than be limited to what
is on a given medium like a CD.

Quality will come back, but I think it is going to come back in a
longer time frame than people expect. Audiophile are tired of
being burned with record company-supported formats. I think it
might just show up in satellite radio and internet radio first. It
cuts out one of the biggest problems - the medium. Yes,
technically, it has a medium, but it is not physical, and does not
require more than a software player, but I think we will be
surprised to find that someone takes the initiative to create
something a little more friendly than iTunes and WMA. The
world is going to tire from the forced usage of iTunes or WMA.
The fact that Apple is less than friendly will make this happen
outside of their realm, despite the current marketshare. I don't
think it will be WMA either. I think we are all ripe for another
option...
Posted by jasonemanuelson1 (82 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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