Playing with high-resolution audio

Some time ago, I’ve found out that under special circumstances I can hear differences between 320 kbps mp3 and CD audio. Now, I’m curious whether I can hear any difference between CD and high-resolution audio.

There is a lot of discussions whether high-resolution audio is a gimmick or a useful thing. Maybe the answer is simple: some people can hear the difference against CD audio, some can’t and some think they can while they can’t. Either of that is fine, one enjoys the music the way he likes it.

However it’s not that easy to find relevant arguments about high-resolution audio. One of the most pro-arguments is that it’s better because it has a higher sampling frequency and a higher bit depth. Yes, it has both, but an explanation whether it actually matters and why is usually missing. On the other hand, there are cons-arguments about „Nyquist theorem“ and „dynamic range“. But they also usually miss meaningful explanations. Yes, according to the Nyquist theorem, CD audio is good enough to capture frequencies up to 22 kHz, i.e. covering the frequency limits of human hearing. But music is not only about frequency but also about volume and tone curve shapes. Imagine what happens e.g. to a sine or another 10 kHz or 11.025 kHz sound curve when it’s sampled on 44.1 kHz. Yes, you get exactly the same tone frequency, but possibly with a lower volume and sounding like a different instrument. And regarding dynamic range, it’s about resolution in the quiet parts. While 16-bit whole-range resolution covers the whole audible specter, less than 10-value range remains to represent quiet but still audible sounds, which looks a bit coarse.

So purely numerically, high resolution audio adds information within nominal human listening range. Whether we can recognize the added information is a different question as well as whether we can percieve inaudible frequencies some way. I guess my tentative answer above holds, but let’s return to the original problem, whether I can hear the difference. The best way to find out is to try it, which is not completely trivial.

The first step is finding true high-resolution audio. Some popular hi-res sites sell overpriced recordings, which I’m not going to buy. Another option is utilizing streaming services offering hi-res audio but I’m not their subscriber. Fortunately, there is a selection of Czech music of various genres in hi-res, not much more expensive than their CD quality versions. I bought five albums of different kinds there that I’d probably buy anyway sooner or later (three contemporary recordings, two older recordings from analog tapes; one classical orchestral work, two single-instrument classical works and two popular music albums with a lot of vocals; one 192 kHz, two 96 kHz, one 88.2 kHz, one 48 kHz and all 24-bit). For a total additional price of about one pizza I could obtain their hi-res versions. This is worth the fun, isn’t it?

The second step is how to play hi-res audio. Besides the obvious need of having an audio system capable of playing hi-res audio, there are also software issues. The PulseAudio thing clearly tries to solve different problems than playing hi-res audio (well, I wonder again which ones — my recent experiences include heavily distorted sound on normal play and inability to switch to a different sound input for a running application) and it’s best to avoid it. Fortunately, there is a way to prevent PulseAudio from touching a USB DAC. Then it’s possible to use the DAC safely with a player that can send sound data to the DAC directly, without any sound processing and conversions. I used VLC with ALSA output. Another option is to use Volumio on a dedicated device (such as Raspberry Pi), which does the right thing out of the box.

The third step is to get something to compare the hi-res version to. The mp3’s bundled with the hi-res recordings are lossy and I can’t be sure they weren’t processed differently. I used sox utility to convert the audio to a CD like quality, i.e. 16 bit depth and 48 or 44.1 kHz frequency (depending on the original hi-res frequency):

sox FILE.flac -r 48000 -b 16 FILE-cd.flac

The fourth step is finding a calm moment when it’s possible to listen to the music carefully, without disruptions and background noise. This is the most tricky thing!

Finally, the fifth step is actually listening to the music.

And the result? I couldn’t hear any difference.

Natalika

Who remembers the old times when most music albums were not available on streaming services and couldn’t be bought online as downloadable archives? In the pre-online music era, there was a lot of amazing recordings by non-mainstream artists that are no longer available nowadays.

I was lucky a couple of times and discovered great old CDs in some “forgotten” e-shops or in second-hand stores. A few of those old recordings were released again. But most of them are unfortunately inaccessible, maybe forever.

One of the recordings that I’ve missed were albums by Natalika. That amazing world music band was quite popular for a few years around 2000 (in the sense that it even appeared on TV several times). And then the band disappeared for long time. IIRC their CDs were never available in normal distribution so I’ve never seen them in CD shops. And I think their online presence was irregular during the time. From time to time, I recalled the band but couldn’t find their CDs anywhere at the moment.

I’ve recently recalled the band again and found out that they have a working web site and their 20 years old CDs are still available. What a discovery! I ordered the CDs and now I can enjoy listening to those great pieces of music, which were previously missing in my music archive. AFAIK those CDs are the last unsold pieces, which won’t be available anymore in any form once they are sold out. If you like that kind of music, grab them while you can, they are worth it.

User-Centric Payment System for streaming

Deezer’s push for User-Centric Payment System (UCPS) looks like the right step. It has always annoyed me that, because I don’t stream much, my money spent on streaming goes mostly to the popular music that I don’t listen to. I wonder whether the planned Deezer move to UCPS will really happen.

In any case, one of good ways to support the artists one listens to is buying their albums. If I really like some album, I buy it.

25 years of Indies Records

I had the opportunity to attend the 25th anniversary festival of Indies Records last month. Indies Records, founded 25 years ago and later split to Indies Scope, Indies MG and Indies Happy Trails, has always been a great music label supporting Czech high quality alternative and non-commercial music. They did a lot of hard work to support good music one can listen to. Most Czech music I buy comes from Indies or from artists related to the label; Indies was also one of the first Czech labels selling non-DRM music on-line.

The party was great. I could enjoy my favorite bands as well as music previously unknown to me. Good music is about freedom and sharing, sharing emotions, something fine and our love for music. Good music provides variety one can choose from, without artificial barriers we often meet in our everyday lives. And that was felt in the audience, consisting of both Indies musicians and Indies fans, during the party.

Thank you, Indies Records, and happy next years!

eMusic gone

I’ve been a satisfied eMusic customer for several years. Their interesting catalog providing unrestricted mp3 (even in the era of DRM madness) for reasonable subscription prices allowed me to find a lot of good music which I would have missed otherwise. About a month ago they notified me without further details that they no longer provide services in my area and that my subscription was cancelled. It was somewhat strange, but they were fair and refunded my whole year subscription.

Although I liked eMusic I don’t regret it much. Nowadays there are other alternatives available, offering good music for reasonable prices and with standard selling model instead of the subscription service. So it’s time to start spending money on music elsewhere. I’ll start with picking my favorites from Indies Records and I’m also going to look at Magnatune. Any other tips for nice music mp3 shops?

Autopilote

About once a year I manage to attend a live music show. This year I’ve chosen Autopilote (Fajt, Smeykal, Yumiko, Holý, Václavek). I watched them in Noc s Andělem on TV a few weeks ago and I liked the music, thinking it might be nice to listen to it live. This opportunity came yesterday and the concert was great, incomparable to what I could previously hear on TV. For me the music is catching and original, I’ve never heard something like this, it just evokes (not surprisingly) some Brno roots. Recommended.