Why shouldn’t a digital download be better, not worse, than a CD release?

Sit in a studio as most of your favorite albums are recorded, mixed, and mastered, and odds are the digital material is being recorded at higher bit depths and sample rates. And while the perceptual record is more mixed, there’s also no question that, in terms of data, lossy compression schemes like MP3 do demand some loss in audio information. (Lossless schemes like FLAC, by contrast, use less data but do so without sacrificing sound information.)

All of this means that it’s news that you can get Radiohead’s “The King of Limbs” album in 24-bit, lossless FLAC. It’s the first time there’s been a major artist doing this kind of release online, say 7Digital – and, in turn, the first step back toward greater fidelity after the step backward from 16-bit, 44.1kHz lossless audio CDs to the lossy versions available now. By “first,” I can only imagine they mean on 7Digital; if you like this sort of release, it’s worth checking out HDtracks, an online store with content all going this direction (and lots of FLAC):
https://www.hdtracks.com/index.php

It’s also the latest case that demonstrates that iTunes need not be your only online store for music. UK rival 7digital is the first and only digital store to offer up the band’s brilliant “The King of Kimbs” in 24-bit FLAC.

http://7digital.com
Deluxe release @ 7digital [US link]

Whether their listeners can really hear the difference or not, it’s likely stores will begin to move to greater audio fidelity. For their part, 7digital says that the 24-bit FLAC codec for Radiohead “is the first step in 7digital’s move towards higher quality digital music downloads.” The reasoning is pretty simple. Bandwidth and storage costs are getting smaller for online stores as those stores grow and better leverage server infrastructure. Storage is generally cheaper now than it had been, too, though somewhat mitigated by the increasing popularity of solid state flash memory over larger, cheaper hard disk drives. But most of all, stores are likely to respond to artist and listener demand, particularly as resellers try to differentiate themselves from streaming sound and justify your purchase. It’s likely labels may also look to formats like FLAC to squeeze more revenue out of the enthusiasts who are most likely to buy full albums. The deluxe FLAC edition – bundled with 16-bit FLAC and 320kbps AAC for compatibility – costs US$11.99 instead of the technically-inferior US$7.92 320kbps MP3 version.

I’m skipping over the most important issue, though – how do you listen to this?

FLAC isn’t the only compressed lossless codec, but it is the only format that’s fully free and open source. It’s really an ideal tradeoff – you maintain smaller file sizes, but the quality of a 24-bit FLAC file is the same as a much bigger 24-bit WAV or AIFF.

It’s hardly a household name, but FLAC support is surprisingly widespread. Streaming players like the Logitech Squeezebox and Sonos products support it.

Many desktop software players will play FLAC, too: once codec support is installed on your OS of choice, in fact, most players will do it. Linux these days does it out of the box with most players. VLC is probably the easiest, sure-fire way to get FLAC support on Windows and Mac. On Windows, the excellent MediaMonkey, Winamp, and foobar2000 all play FLAC natively. On the Mac, the open source Cog is also an option (though it appears it hasn’t been updated recently, sadly). Aside from VLC, cross-platform, open source players like Songbird (Mac, Windows) and Banshee (gradually being ported from Linux to Mac and Windows) are promising, too.

Of course, part of the reason the situation is spotty is that iTunes has gained a certain hegemony. Nothing against iTunes per se, but I believe having choice is a good thing. Indeed, the predecessor of iTunes itself – the long-forgotten SoundJam MP by Casady & Greene on which Apple’s product was based – was the product of a period of heated Mac and Windows player rivalries. If you love music, you’ll want some options.

Finally, you again have real choices in how you listen to music – even on the Mac. Pictured: Fidelia.

And the tide is turning. One of the most encouraging audio player initiatives I’ve seen yet is from Audiofile Engineering. I’m already a fan of AE because of their excellent wave editing and loop products (working on a new review – stay tuned). Now, they’re reviving the spirit of SoundJam’s principle rival, and my own player of choice in another life, Audion. Fidelia is a perfect choice of commercial player for Radiohead; it can play FLAC natively and even dither the 24-bit audio stream for a 16-bit output. I haven’t reviewed Fidelia yet as I’d like to see it mature a bit; minimalism is good, but some basic functionality is still emerging. But I do hope to talk about it soon. And while Windows users have had lots of terrific choices, it’s nice to see choice returning to the Mac, too.

http://www.audiofile-engineering.com/fidelia/

Speaking of hegemony, mobile players have tended to lag in FLAC support, but that’s improving, too. The free and open source andless for Android supports FLAC, and I expect more as the Android music player market continues to heat up.

Many of these players do actually also support Apple’s Apple Lossless format – even including many of the free Linux options – so I expect future iTunes lossless exclusives wouldn’t necessarily be a dealbreaker. (That’s true even of andless, so you could, say, rip to Apple Lossless with iTunes and load Apple Lossless and purchased FLAC files onto an Android music player when on the go. Maybe someday we’ll even see DIY devices based on Android that offer high-fidelity audio outputs.)

An obviously-essential part of this equation is whether you can actually hear the results. I won’t start on music consumers who listen regularly on internal laptop speakers and generic Apple white earbuds. But I’d be interested in what you can detect, comparing different music content, using better listening environments. With “deluxe” editions bundling the MP3 and FLAC together, we’ll have lots of raw material for double-blind tests. Anyone with some experience in administering such tests – or who wants to get involved in a research project?

  • http://noisepages.com/members/renzu/ renzu

    format nerd time:

    Double-blind testing is used often in codec development. If you're tuning it for human ears, that's the only way to do it, really.

    As far as 16-bit vs 24-bit goes, the only difference (provided proper dithering is involved) should be noise floor, right? 16-bit already has an impressive noise floor. For typical pop music levels, it would be safe to assume the noise floor of 16-bit would be quieter than the ambient noise of wherever the music is being played, which is probably not an anechoic chamber at "live" levels. It probably exceeds the SNR performance of the DACs & amps that most people use to power their speakers or their headphones. 24-bit seems like a novelty more than anything practical, but I suppose there's nothing wrong with novelty in the world of distribution & merchandising– just look at vinyl records. The argument can be made that 24-bit sources make for slightly better lossy re-encodes, as things like MP3 & Ogg work at 24 (or was it 32?) bit internally and will otherwise have to encode the 16-bit dithered noise floor. I did an experiment once to see for myself, and using a 24-bit source vs a dithered 16-bit indeed produced an MP3 with a (measurably, but not perceivably) lower noise floor while saving a few kilobytes of space. It hardly matters though :p

    / format nerd time

  • rather listen to vin

    flac doesnt play back in itunes

    nor does flac work in traktor 

    it's a stillborn format 

    i'd rather we were listening to 24bit wav

    but i'm not holding my breath

  • Peter Kirn

    @renzu: Yeah, 16-bit FLAC seems to me to be the winner here.

    @rather listen to vinyl: FLAC works in Mixxx, a free and open source DJ tool, just FYI. Have to check other app compatibility. But apart from compatibility, what would the advantage of 24-bit WAV be (?!)

  • http://noisepages.com/members/renzu/ renzu

    ^^ FLAC is lossless. Just convert it to 24-bit WAV and it will be (literally) every bit as good the 24-bit WAV exported from the mastering house.

  • http://www.nineinchnails.it cloddo

    "It’s the first time there’s been a major artist doing this kind of release online"

    Sorry, that's wrong… :)

    In 2008 Nine Inch Nails released the album The Slip as a free download and one of the available options was "High definition WAVE 24/96 (1.2 gb), better-than-CD-quality 24bit 96kHz audio".

  • http://avanturb.com Primus Luta

    @peter Honestly I wish this wasn't just a vendor and that Radiohead made some big deal out of this, because without someone of that stature laying it out I just don't see FLAC's catching on.  I love it, and have been for years.  I take advantage of the fact that Bidule supports FLAC and thus convert my samples to FLAC.  But again I think it will only ever be niche until and this is partially to @renzu point, we move to a 24 bit standard which makes it the best compressed format.  And to get there I think it'll take someone like a Radiohead saying, if you really want to hear our stuff you need to hear it in 24bit.

    Now I'm also with you on the you only need 16 tip kind of.  The difference is lost on most.  But I don't think that should keep us from going there.

  • http://www.jeremyabel.com Jeremy Abel

    I dunno, my use of flac is pretty limited to just keeping reference copies of albums I really like. That way, if the CD or LP ever gets damaged, and it usually does, I'll always have a 100% quality backup. Kind of like how some libraries keep archived books in acid-free boxes in climate controlled rooms, and then put copies of it on the shelf for normal reading. I'll keep my favorite music on an external drive, in FLAC format. For day-to-day listening, I still manage to survive by literally listening to youtube and grooveshark all day…

  • Bonbo

    @rather listen to vinyl

    Flac works in Traktor, where are you getting your information? I've been using flac in Traktor for years.

    As for "i’d rather we were listening to 24bit wav", you do understand that sound quality wise they are the same?

  • http://twentyfourhourpartypeople.com psi

    Vox is a good option for playing FLAC on OS X these days…
    http://www.voxapp.uni.cc/

    And Traktor totally supports FLAC, although I've generally been converting 16-bit FLAC to Apple Lossless so that I have a consistent lossless format that works in iTunes, on my iPhone and in Traktor.

  • http://www.inoutfest.org Flplsx

    if you care to fiddle, you can play FLACs in itunes, too.

    http://www.macworld.com/article/142096/2009/08/pl

    I haven't checked to see if this works, because personally, I'm AOK with mp3s that are >= 192kbps. Good to see 7digital catching on though. I've been using Amazon for my purchases, but might switch over.

    NOTE: the James Blake album is $5 there now!

  • Peter Kirn

    @psi: Vox! I knew there was another "minimalist" player for Mac OS with three letters, but got it confused with Cog. ;) Vox, unlike Cog, appears to be more actively-developed (and looks nicer, too).

    I should do another FLAC round-up *after* we're done with this comment thread. So readers, fire away.

    @cloddo: I realized in my haste writing this I didn't finish that sentence – it was 7Digital making that claim, not me. I believe it's correct if you say:

    1. Major artist

    2. Greater-than-CD quality

    3. ** through an existing online store **

    They didn't attach all those disclaimers, but it's the only way I can make it work, and then I believe it is true – particularly if the bar is set high on point #1. ;)

  • orbiting

    isn't the great thing about lossless audio files that you can 1. re-encode them in any other lossless format without any loss of quality, so for example if you want to keep using itunes, you can just re-encode them with apple lossless, and 2. when you need a compressed file five hundred years in the future when mp3 has died out, you can still compress your lossless audio without degradation? (though by the time mp3 has died out, storage will probably have become a non-topic). plus, for some people (like for me, partially) lossless is a mental thing. i don't want to compress my chopin complete edition for some reason, even if i probably can't tell a 192 from a 320 apart. it just feels dirty.

  • Peter Kirn

    @orbiting: No, that's absolutely, positively true. So even if FLAC isn't compatible with everything you might play it on, you can transcode to something else without going through generational loss. And really, there's no one format that's ideal and works everywhere – not even MP3.

  • http://noisepages.com/members/adamsomers/ Adam

    XLD is the best transcoding tool for Mac.  Use it to convert FLAC to ALAC and have it automatically import to iTunes.  Done.

    @peter: The Alison Krause & Robert Plant album "Raising Sand" was released digitally in 24 bit.  Radiohead is certainly not the first household name to be released in this format, but really, who cares?

    @ renzu: 24-bit does not *only* provide better noise floor, although that's part of it.  Bit depth translates to dynamic range, in other words, how many steps between the softest and signal levels.  The human range of perception is 140 dB.  16-bits gives you 96dB.  24 bit, 144 dB.  So in theory, 24 bit should be the "nyquist" of bit-depth.  However, analog circuitry has a limited dynamic range of 120 dB, so 20-bits is the limit needed for optimal sound quality through current converter technology.

  • dynamique

    Nice of you guys to ask why a digital download shouldn't be better than a CD release. I still wonder why lossy 128/192 Bit shit still seems to be the standard for some guys "music archives" – regarding cheap HDs and fast internet connections.

    I NEVER paid for compressed music and rather bought CDs. Radiohead offering MP3s for the online "In Rainbows" release just made me angry that time – luckily they offered (16-Bit) lossless with TKOL.

    There already have been a lot of 24-bit music releases (e.g. Porcupine Tree DVDs – generally lots of DVD music releases – or by Autechre via download). Can you hear that`? Guess its true that even on good monitors you'll often hear more noise floor, sometimes more high frequency (party in a rather unpleasant way). Even have to admit that one time I preferred an MP3 cause it was less noisier… (-> bad recording)

    Well… Sometimes you can achive better sounding recordings with higher sampling rates (in digital PROCESSING you need that anyway). But at some stage the border to esoterism gets thin. Recording and mastering are often more important than 16 vs. 24 Bit for release… Just look how much crappy crank-the-compressor music is released these days. But less than 16 Bis lossless – why?

  • Peter Kirn

    Actually, right, you definitely have lots of other options as far as major artists:
    https://www.hdtracks.com/index.php
    Maybe they mean "first" on 7Digital? I mean, on the other hand, if you consider 7Digital one of the larger outlets – with Beatport, Amazon, iTunes, eMusic – then yes, this is the first. But that's a stretch.

    And yes, I'll agree again – beyond 16-bit / 44.1 *lossless*, it'd be interesting to really check that with some blind A/B testing, as with 24-bit.

    That said –

    @Adam: yup, good argument at least on paper for 24-bit.

  • http://noisepages.com/members/adamsomers/ Adam

    I'm a strong advocate for 24/96 (or 24/192), not because I can hear the difference from 16/44.1–I can't.  I advocate it because 16/44 is just *barely* above the edge of our perceptual threshold.  It was created this way because of technical limitations which are no longer relevant.  In other words, it's just "good enough".  Why settle for that?  We music lovers should be all too keen on maximizing the integrity of audio content.  Maybe its benefits will be revealed in ways we can't currently conceive of.  You never know!

    As an aside, some speakers are built to represent signals far above 22,050 Hz (something I find kind of funny, but anyway…).  A 22.05kHz sinewave sampled at 44.1kHz is a pure square wave.  You would literally be playing back pure harmonic distortion out of those speakers.  Obviously, then, you need to feed them signals with nyquist at their cutoff.  What benefit is there, since we can't hear that extra harmonic content just as we can't hear the harmonic distortion?  I have no idea, but I bet the speaker marketeers could feed you a line about it.  But it's interesting to think about, IMO, pure high res signals going way out of your hearing range just like acoustic sounds (with infinite spectrum).  The extra information might be superfluous, but there's something beautiful in improving that approximation of reality.

  • Brandon Jones

    I'm surprised this article doesn't mention Decible for Mac:

    http://sbooth.org/Decibel/

  • lala

    lets leave the theory of recording and playback for a minute and lets look @ the real world:

    u walk down the street and you hear some music from an open window – u can tell @ once if its a playback of some sort or live music;

    is 24/88.1 with excelent monitors going to fix that (or come closer to live sound), or is it just the limited dynamic range from compressors & limiters on the recordings that takes away the illusion of live sound? maybe both? im open to suggestions …

  • lala

    ups, 88,2 or more

  • B.C Thunderthud

    I'll buy FLAC when it's available, and convert it to V1 VBR .mp3 for playback. It doesn't make a lot of sense but 320 CBR offends me, storage is basically free but I still don't like wasting it for no benefit and so I'm a bit disappointed that that's the cheaper option here.

    I strongly suspect that 24 bit FLAC is nothing more than a gimmick, and yet I'm glad that this particular release exists because a lot of people will buy it and we should get some interesting data from ABX tests.

    I think that everyone with an interest in digital music formats owes it to themselves to try ABX testing. We can argue over the benefits of various formats forever but there's so much subjectivity that the only opinion that really matters is your own. I came to ABX testing as an audiophile skeptic and was surprised to find that I could tell two samples apart as often as I could, I think people from the other side of the argument would be surprised at just how subtle those differences are.

    I strongly doubt that anyone could tell the difference between 24bit and 16bit on a real recording but I can't be certain so I look forward to seeing some more informed opinions on the matter. I should really test it myself but I just have no interest in Radiohead.

  • lala

    paying more for the same songs just because its has more bits is ridiculous, isnt it? i mean its not like they had more work to do, in fact they had to do less, no need to downsample …

  • Peter Kirn

    @B.C.: I agree on ABX testing, and actually, that's a good answer to my query about methodology.

    Of course, the FLAC (lossless) versus lossy argument is a bit simpler – if you're purchasing a download, it makes sense to prefer a lossless over a lossy format if you can spare the storage space.

    But I agree, as for specifics of something like bit depth, until you test it, you don't really know.

    Oh, PS, was that 320kbps CBR? I thought it was VBR; I only had the bitrate. I absolutely agree VBR over CBR, now that the variable bit rate algorithms are accurate.

  • Lloyd

    Check out Fluke. It's a free utility that allows you to play back FLAC's in itunes.

  • West

    Looks like the Mac/Zune team just added the ability to play (or at least transfer/transcode) ALAC to Windows Phone 7 devices. Nice one!

  • Witte

    Is Fluke available for Win7?  I dug around online without much luck, hopefully I'm just missing it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/styrofoammusic Arne

    I'm totally gonna get this and stream it from the Amazon cloud.

  • Peter Kirn

    FWIW, 7Digital confirm that 24-bit is the native bit depth of the band's studio sessions. But yes, that still means it's worth A/B testing to hear if you can actually hear it. The needs of data for playback and the needs of data for production may not prove to be the same.

  • Flim

    It's either FLAC, WAV, or OGG. Obviously FLAC wins since, both Apple & Windows support it.

  • Hugh

    This particular release is a travesty.  The "24-bit" ballyhoo is completely meaningless garbage.  The files are still 44.1kHz, so there's no additional frequency content – it's not 24/96.  They've been EXTENSIVELY FLAT-LINE CLIPPED in mastering, which is completely unforgiveable.  The 24-bit depth doesn't get you anything if the peaks are still smashed into oblivion.

    Honestly, from Radiohead, I expected better.

  • Hugh
  • kconnor9000

    @adam – I agree with your point, but have to comment about the old "square wave" argument. When you play that square wave out of a DAC and output filter, you get the sine wave back. You don't get a bunch of odd harmonics of a 22.05kHz square wave coming out of the speakers — it's the role of the output filter to smooth that out. Of course, in practice, you /don't/ have an ideal output filter, so real-world systems lowpass the input signal to somewhat less than Nyquist/2. Of course, this just makes you point about 24/196 even stronger. I just hate that square wave argument ;)

    This said, I thought Peter's post, from the headline, was going to be about the difficulty of actually listening to 24/196 signals — the playout part. I run a bunch of Airport Expresses in my house, but they downsample my nice 24/96 files to 16/44.1 at their optical out, which I run into my nice Headroom headphone amp/DAC. I find the wireless streaming to be a bottleneck. I do expect a new 24/96 capable airport express from Apple any day now, however. I believe the new Airplay protocol will support 24/96 streaming (if raw pcm content is packaged in Apple Lossless).

  • lala

    @kconnor9000: i use audio streaming only for the comfort of not having to wire everything up each time, but if i want to check some 24 bit recordings there is no way around the audio-interface of choice, yet.

    thanks for reminding me that the a. express can also be used as optical out, i forgot :)

  • kconnor9000

    Thought I'd mention something here re: audibility of 24b/96k vs. 16/44, etc. I recently ripped a bunch of Depeche Mode SACDs, the 2007 remasters, into various formats — dts surround rips of the individual 6ch wavs, live recording of SACD 6 output channels into a MOTU 828 @ 24/96, the stereo LPCM (24/48) from the DVDs, and stereo LPCM (16/44) from the CD layer of the SACD. Whew. These last two formats allow comparison of the same music, in 16/44 (properly dithered) and 24/48.

    The point of the exercise was not comparative listening, but rather to decompose the new 5.1 surround mixes as individual .wavs, which I could then study for fun, hear parts in a new light, do my own stereo mixes, etc. It's a boatload of fun to do this. Check out some of the Beatles raw multitracks floating around the web — a real eye opener.

    Anyhow, a couple of interesting things emerged. I did some sighted listening (i.e. knew which was which) of the 16 vs. 24 bit stuff, over a very nice DAC and headphone amp (Headroom Desktop Balanced Amp) driving some excellent headphones (Senn. 650s) and/or Adam A7 monitors. I imagined I could hear a tiny difference under those conditions, but I strongly doubt they'd appear in a blind test. I'd bet my grandmother that no one would hear any difference in anything other than quiet room, microscopic-type headphone listening conditions. None of that is particularly interesting, however. You'll see similar half-assed comparisons all over the web, and just about zero actual, proper, controlled listening tests. (Check out Sean Olive's blog for some actual science.)

    What I did learn, or re-learn, was two things. The headphones were by FAR the most important element in the quality chain here. I usually run the 650s from a nice amp, with pristine sources, but I found that even plugging the 650s directly into a crappy ipod, playing 16bit wavs, is an astounding experience. I have lots of good IEMs (er4s, etc.), but really, using a pair of excellent over-the-ear headphones is about the best thing you can do to foster a good musical listening experience. (Full disclosure: I'm a child of the 80s walkman era, and a headphone listener, rather than a loudspeaker-in-room type. YMMV.)

    The other interesting thing was about over-familiarity with the source material, and how it can interfere with a listening test. One of the tracks in the remastered edition (The Sun and The Rainfall, off A Broken Frame) is quite different from the "canonical" version. For giggles, at one point I was comparing the old and new stereo mixes. I was often confused about which I was listening to, even though the difference is very large, and would have been completely obvious to someone hearing the two versions for the first time. With familiar music, I think your attention is divided, half running the coded, stored version of the music you have in your head. This idea is nothing new — it's always wonderful and magical to hear something for the first time. But this has some implications for running comparison tests with favourite, deeply familiar music selections.

    Long and short — my little exercise with the DM remasters reminded me that

    1: The difference between 16/44 and 24/48 or 24/96 is tiny compared to the difference you get between headphones.

    2: Being over-familiar with the music can interfere with your ability to hear sonic differences (duh!), which is probably further evidence that you should, if possible, do your mixes with lots of rest periods, and if possible, get someone else to do the mastering. And the idea of bringing your favourite music CDs to the store to audition different components — maybe it's good to bring a less familiar CD than something from your 'top rank'

  • nisios

    Last year, we  (my university class) had to do an ABX test with MP3 128kbps vs WAV.

    We didn´t tested many people (only 13 individuals) but only 2 were acctually able to distinguish the mp3 from the WAV.

    Remember, these are sound trained individuals, certainly not the average ipod listener.

    I think these results depend a lot on the acctual encoding quality and the audio material. We used high quality 128bit encoding and we tried to use a broad spectrum of music, but the results, even as statistically poor as they are, kind of have a strong message.

    As a sound technician, i think that having more quality at the recording and mixing process is very important, because you easily have to amplify a file more than 6 dB wich is the noise floor realation you gain using 24bit insted of 16bit.

    But after all the mixing and processing, 98dB of dynamic range (16bit CD) is more than enough, because if you think about it, if you listen in a really extraordinarily quiet room  with say: 20db acoustic noise floor in it, you have to listen to your music at 118dB to take full advantage of the CD quality …..THIS IS ROCK CONCERT WAKING THE ENTIRE BUILDING LOUD!!!!

  • Joseph Dee

    Peter talking out of his hat as usual, NiN aren't a major artist, since when? They pioneered this method over 3 years ago.

    If you can't hear the difference between 16bit and 24bit you shouldnt be allowed into a recording or mastering studio ever, there is a huge difference if you know where to listen.

    I dont think you understand the difference between depth and rate, or recording and playback situations, even given the same equipment, eg soundcard, speakers, etc.

    Let me put the analogy of recording a movie onto high quality reel versus digital medium and let you think about it, theres a reason the movie industry still uses HQ reels, the same applies to audio. web breeds know-it-all eejits like flies, get some skills, make some music and then talk about it.

  • Peter Kirn

    @Joseph: I never, ever said NIN didn't count as "major." 7Digital made the claim of being first. I thought at first maybe they had some claim if you excluded direct from artist sales (like NIN) but it's not. so I agree, it was silly, but the point would be to identify a trend, anyway, which means these releases being rare wouldn't be useful!

    As for the quality and perception claims, until you use a proper testing methodology, anyone can claim anything they like. If you're human and not lab equipment, perception is everything.

  • Jeffrey

    "If you’re human and not lab equipment, perception is everything."

    Amen Peter!

  • dyscode

    Not a player but for undersupplied OS X users that want convert easly between FLAC, Apple and a ton of other formats MAX from http://sbooth.org/Max/

    is a very nice tool.

  • Geoff

    Although many people are touching on the point, Hugh is the only one right on the money. Formats released in both higher bit depth and sample rate will yield noticeable results. If Radiohead are simply releasing 24/44.1 (presumably not the resolution in which it was recorded), then there won't be much difference between the 16 and 24 bit versions besides a small amount of dither noise and reduced dynamic range, which from what Hugh says, has been destroyed in the mastering process anyway. Sample rate conversion is a much more intrusive process with regard to audio quality than (properly implemented) bit truncation.

  • Peter Kirn

    @Geoff: right, though at this point, even SRC is unlikely to introduce anything exceptional, because again, it's implemented properly.

    Despite (ahem) the lead I myself wrote, I think that the most significant and indisputable issue is the advantage of buying a format that you can transcode to other formats without introducing additional issues; i.e., if you can buy something lossless – and as in FLAC not burn too much storage space in the process – that's probably a good thing.

  • JBo

    I can weigh in some thoughts on this. I recently bought a Porsche with a very high end Burmester stereo. I'm a huge music lover as well as an amateur musican who does mixing and mastering. For my studio I use Apple's Logic and Universal Audio plugins. The Burmester sound is amazing. Plenty of power, neutral sound, and incredible detail from ribbon tweeters. It's an awesome experience. The stereo can take a PCM file up to 24 bit / 48 kHz from an external drive.

    This has led me down a path to explore 24 bit music to try to get as much sonic bliss as possible from the system and to provide a neutral listening environment for mastering my own music. I've downloaded numerous 24 bit recordings from HDTracks and I've done a great deal of ripping of vinyl to 24 bit / 48 khz.

    So what have I learned?

    I'm loving the sound of well mastered vinyl ripped to 24 bit / 48 kHz and I'm blown away by the HDTracks recordings (especially Paul McCartney's uncompressed Band On The Run, Eric Clapton's Slowhand, Rolling Stones "Honky Tonk Women"). The sound in general has a great deal of punch, the drums sound REAL, and the instruments are spaced out in 3D much better. The detail on the vocals is amazing. Charlie Watt's drums sound right there. BTW plenty of noise from the analog tape and the hiss of the LP, which does not bother me a bit as the sound just opens up and covers the noise level quickly. In short, 24 / 48 music from LPs or HDTracks sound incredible in my car. Just stating that fact, which of'course proves nothing relative to 16 vs 24. Yet, for what its worth, 24/48 is breathtaking in this environment when done with music that was mastered with loving care.

    I use Pure Vinyl to do the ripping on my Mac to 24/96. I then use Sound Studio 4 to splice the tracks and clean up any pops that bother me or needle drops. I also use Sound Studio to downsample the HDTracks and vinyl rips from 24/96 to 24/48. I've done some AB testing of 24/96 DVDs to 24/48 DVDs of HDTracks and I can't tell a difference. This was not a scientific test and perhaps my car DVD player was downsampling 24/96 to 24/48 anyway. But just a data point here.

    My main discovery is how much better 24 LP rips sound as compared to their commerical CD counterparts. Its not subtle, the difference is big.

    Although, technically I realize that some would say LP's have less dynamic range than even CD's — I can tell you from experience that the dynamic range I'm getting is awesome from LPs and blows away my commercial CDs generally speaking. Why? Likely the difference is that LPs can't be mastered with massive amounts of compression / loudness. A professional studio engineer explained to me that the needle would effectively skip. So the LP's must be less processed basically — and its this limitation that allows the music to breath and be dynamic. Yes, it's counterintuitive, but the limitiations imposed by the LP format provide a blocker to the mastering process from over processing and ruining the original sound. I have learned from my own mastering that the compression / loudness process not only effects dynamics but it causes the overall sound to be more smeared / blurry / less defined. Things can get glued together too closely. In my opinion this is why LPs have a better 3D sound than counterpart CDs, the over compression is causing harm in many many ways.

    That said, a CD mastered in the right hands by someone like Greg Calbi sounds great because he shows restraint in mastering the CDs and avoiding the overprocessing pitfalls. Also, the recent Decemberists CD sound fantastic in my car btw — most CDs sound very good, but few sound awesome like that one.

    I've learned that CD's can sound really good, but sadly, most do not. So I only buy vinyl now, although at times the vinyl sounds like it was just a transfer of the CD and is no better — in my experience so far, this is maybe 1 in 10 LPs that sound the same as the commercial CD and 9 out of 10 LPs sound better than the CD counterparts. I'm slowly rebuilding my library in vinyl and ripping to 24 / 48. The worst CDs are the remastered CDs of the last 10 years. At first listen the loudness sound fresh, but as you crank up the music you start to say to yourself "I wonder what's playing on talk radio, this is giving my me a headache". The more naturally mastered CDs and LPs sound better and better and better as you crank the volume. At really low volume levels and over little computer speakers I suspect the loudness maximation sounds better, which is why its done in the first place.

    Although I've not done a lot of A/B testing of 24 bit vs 16 bit, I have noticed on my own recordings and masters I've done as a musician, that the 24 bit just sounds smoother to me, a little more open and little more realistic. It's hard to describe. But I master my music for 16 bit for my fellow musician so he can cut CDRs of our music and then I also create a 24 bit version for playback on my Burmester. To my ears the 24 bit just sounds a little more natural with more snap and punch. I also hear more detail — which in my case means hearing more mistakes :) The 16 bit glosses over some of that. But the difference is certainly real to my ears.

    However, that difference is subtle relative to the massive difference of CDs and LPs that I have compared. Again, I'm convinced that difference is largely due to mastering differences and the limitations of LPs saving us from ourselves.

    This point is probably well established, but I think it deserves an exclamation point here as we look towards the future of more digital capabilities and 24 bit.

    Some food for thought on the bits — I've read that the difference in 16 vs 24 bits is all in bits 17 and 18 and maybe 19 but after that there is really no benefit to the last 5 or so bits. This may explain why looking at 24 bit versus 16 bit can be misleading, perhaps putting the 17'th bit under the microscope is more useful than putting the 24'th bit under the microscope. Just a thought there.

    My final point is that I think music production is finally in the process of returning to better dynamics, each generation rebels a little from the previous generation and maybe this one will rebel against the sound of maxed out smeared 2D recordings. Those recordings will sound "so 2000s" soon. With 24bit may come the advent of a new era of more natural sound (dynamic, open, 3D). And therefore, in a weird way, the sound quality of 16 bit commercial CDs may go way up due to a cause / effect relationship with 24 bit availability. I suspect this will happen.

    IMHO the real juice in bits 17-24 is going to be in the mindset to try to use it in the first place.

    BTW some suggestions for 24 bit vinyl or HDTracks listening that have blown me away:

    Cat Stevens "Where Do The Children Play" (LP)

    Rolling Stones (HDTracks) "Honky Tonk Women"

    Eric Clapton (HDTracks) "Cocaine"

    Emmylou Harris "Hold On" (LP)

  • PR

    Here's something radical for all you folks: EVERY digital format is by definition lossy. Why? When you sample a wave at twice its frequency, you don't get nice integer values – you get real numbers. Translating these real numbers (either via rounding up or truncating) into integer values loses information. Hence, the greater the bit depth, the less information you lose. 

    Additionally, equipment (like DACs) by itself is inherently imperfect. To get a DAC to resemble the original audio waves as accurately as possible, it's best to "guide" the DAC with oversampled data.

    Anyone can hear the difference between 24/96 and 16/44.1 on a halfway decent system – either naturally or once someone points out the improvements. Download some of the music from HDTracks at 24/96 and listen for yourself. 

  • JG

    I just downloaded the King of Limbs in 24bit FLAC, the 320k MP3 and I got it streaming on spotify free (which is 160kbps OGG apparantly). I am yet to A/B them properly but I am also very interested to hear the differences. We have become so used to heavily compressed mp3s etc that we have collectively forgotten how well recorded/produced music should sound.

    I’ll try to post my thoughts after a good listen!

    • JG

      So far I can’t tell the difference between the 320 mp3 and the 24 bit FLAC. Listened on a pair audio technica ATH-M50′s and Red Audio studio monitor headphones, had internal Macbook pro soundcard set to 24 bit and was playing the tracks in Ableton live with a sample rate of 44.1khz (both files un-warped).

      I looped various parts of Lotus Flower and soloed each track one after the other, listening to specific elements of the track (vox, reverbs, keys etc), trying to gather whether one had more clarity, brightness, low end etc. I tried to hear if one sounded more compressed. 

      There was **potentially** a slightly clearer high end on the FLACs, however I often picked the 16 bit mp3 as sounding “better” or clearer. This could be due to the compression raising the volume of certain frequencies etc…? I was about 50/50 in picking the FLAC from the mp3, basing it on overall clarity.

      Disappointing!

    • aux

      You’re not using studio monitors or hi-fi speakers then.

  • http://www.facebook.com/peter.bjornild Peter Bjornild

    there is a new smal company, Sound Liaison, with a very small but outstanding catalog of 96/24 waw files.

    Carmen Gomes inc.’s version of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire”is in my opinion the best sounding recording on my PC.

    Maybe because no conversion has taken place,it’s the original studio master.

    http://www.soundliaison.com/