Monday, October 27, 2008

Digital Music, High-Fidelity, and making it all work

The latest addition to my music system is the Slim Devices Transporter. It also represents the completion of my shift from spinning discs to digital music files as the music source.

I have been dismayed by the reduction in the quality of music reproduction driven by the move to MP3 and portable music players. If this had been just an extension of the music industry, it would not have mattered, but highly compressed "music" has dominated to the exclusion of all other forms.

The result has been the death of the music store, limiting access to the back catalog. It has also meant that producers are cranking up the volume and boosting the treble range to make their offerings sound better on MP3 players. This has left those wanting to play music, with what is now almost archaically referred to as high-fidelity, at a loss.

Things had gotten bad enough that I was tempted to give up on CD's and digital music and go back to vinyl LP's. I still have my original collection built up over the years, and with many Japanese pressings I bought while in Hong Kong. Others must have had the same reaction as vinyl sales are exploding, with Amazon listing tens of thousands of albums available.

After our last home move, I didn't get around to setting up my turntable. It is a fussy job at best, and many of the components are now well past their "use by" date. The idea of going back to cleaning vinyl, balancing tone arms, changing LP's every 15 minutes, and all the other annoying aspects of using record albums left me cold. Yes, the sound is often "better" when everything is setup perfectly, but it is a constant battle to derive an excellent outcome.

The final straw was looking at the prices of turntables and cartridges. The industry survived during the lean years by serving those with money - serious money. Prices are simply astronomical for good quality equipment. Indeed, even my current AV Amplifier lacks a phono input.

I decided to give digital another look. I have long used music streaming equipment from Slim Devices, from the original SliMP3, to the current Squeezebox. These devices stream digital music from a server to an amplifier using Ethernet, either wired or Wi-Fi.

The Squeezebox does a great job, but I had been using standard ripping programs to create MP3 files to be streamed. Even with high bit rate encoding, this is still a compressed music source and the impact is audible. It is actually quite tiring to listen to compressed music over any extended period of time.

Reading reviews of equipment for translating digitally encoded music to analogue for play back, it struck me that I was looking at the wrong end of the problem. Instead of investing in better CD management and better CD transports, the real opportunity was the data itself. Given that the CD is the medium on which a digitally encoded source is placed, the challenge was to get that data off the CD and stored in a format that was lossless and available for playback by a high quality analogue reproduction system.

It turns out that the CD player is attempting to read the CD and correct for read errors on the fly. The original standard for encoding does not have anywhere near the robustness of even the cheapest computer with a hard disk. Storing music on CD's, with their degradation over time, was simply the wrong way to go if the intent was to build a music collection.

It turns out that there are a huge variety of formats for ripping music, some with Digital Rights Management (DRM) and some without. Various levels of compression are possible, and different tagging is available. I started from the basic desire to have a lossless file format, non-proprietary, widely supported, and without DRM. The clear winner was FLAC.

Having chosen a format, the next issue is which tool to use in order to rip CD's to FLAC. The best ripping programs use plug-ins so that third party CODECS can be used, and improvements made without changing the whole system. After looking at a few of the most highly rated programs, I settled on dbPowerAmp. Exact Audio Copy (EAC) is also a good choice if you are obsessive about tweaking every last detail.

For ease of use however, dbPowerAmp wins. It has a paid version which includes a subscription to AMG for automatic track and cover art look up, and this is the one to go for. By comparing all the rips of each CD, dbPowerAmp can determine the accuracy of your rip. It can also detect read errors and go sector by sector to obtain clean data.

After installing dbPowerAmp, I added a multi-rip CODEC that encodes both FLAC and MP3. With the software and ripping process determined, it was just a matter of pointing the SqueezeCenter server software at the FLAC directory, and firing up the Transporter.

The result is CD quality music streamed digitally over a Wi-Fi network to the Transporter, and playback that is as good as it gets. A great user interface and access to my entire music collection means that I am now listening to music I didn't even know I had.


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