Category Archives: music industry

Arcam’s high-end Solo soundbar: fixing TV sound

Arcam launched its Solo soundbar and subwoofer at a press event in London last week. When this footage was playing I was not thinking about the soundbar at the foot of the video screen, nor of the subwoofer sitting in the corner. Rather, I was thinking how wonderfully the great B.B. King is playing on this concert Blu-ray; and that is how it should be when auditioning hi-fi.

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The Cambridge-based Arcam occupies a distinctive spot among UK audio manufacturers, neither low-budget nor at the silly-expensive end of the market. MD Charlie Brennan told me that the company’s focus is audio engineering: not lifestyle, nor ultra high-end, but products that are affordable and which sound great.

The aluminium-bodied Solo bar seems at first listen to be a good example. It is a solid product in every sense, weighing a hefty 6.4kg and featuring 100w of class D (highly efficient) amplification into 6 speaker drivers, midrange (4″), woofer (4″) and tweeter (1″) for each channel.

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This is more than just a better audio system for your TV. The Solo bar has four HDMI inputs (with 4K support) and one output, so you can connect your games consoles and video streamer sources. There are also optical and coaxial digital (S/PDIF) inputs, and an analogue input for general purpose use, and an output for a subwoofer.

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It does not end there. The Solo bar supports aptX (which means high quality for systems that support it) Bluetooth streaming both as player (for your mobile device) and as source (for your wireless headphones).

A setup microphone is included in the box, which accounts for the mic input on the panel. Use of this is optional, but it is often worth running this type of setup routine, by placing the mic at the normal sitting position and having the unit optimise the sound for the room, taking into account the position of the subwoofer if present.

Room effects are huge and often ignored, so it is good to see this. However you cannot fine-tune the results yourself; you either disable it, or enjoy the results the bar comes up with.

There is a controller app for iOS and Android but sadly not for Windows Phone, though all the functions are also accessible through the supplied remote. You can switch between unvarnished stereo, or audio processing for Movie or Concert.

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The Solo subwoofer has a 300w amplifier and 10″ driver. We heard the system with and without the sub. My brief observation is that while it sounded good without the sub, adding it lifted the sound substantially; it is not so much the added bass that you notice, but greater realism. The sub is also important for those all-important explosions and sound effects in movies and games.

The Solo bar is £800 and the Solo subwoofer £500. That does not seem to me expensive given the quality I heard, but neither is it a casual purchase. There are drawbacks to the soundbar approach, notably two-channel sound rather than surround, but the simplicity of the system more than compensates for many (Brennan said that the soundbar market is one of the few areas of home audio that is growing).

Personally I would recommend getting system with the sub if possible, as they are designed to work together.

You should be able to buy a Solo later this month, November 2014.

This is not a review; that will have to wait for an opportunity to try the system for myself and test it in detail.

More information on Arcam’s site here.

Future of music: files are over says WME music boss (or, why Apple bought Beats)

In February at the music industry conference Midem in Cannes, Marc Geiger of  WME (William Morris Endeavor), which represents artists across all media platforms, gave a keynote about the future of music. Geiger is head of the music department.

It is from six months ago but only just caught my ear.

Gieger argues that the streaming model – as found in Spotify, YouTube, Pandora and so on – is the future business model of music distribution. File download – as found in Apple iTunes, Amazon MP3, Google Play and elsewhere – is complex for the user to manage, limits selection, and full of annoyances like format incompatibilities or device memory filling up.

With unusual optimism, Gieger says that a subscription-based future will enable a boom in music industry revenue. The music server provider model “will dwarf old music industry numbers”, he says.

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Who will win the streaming wars? Although it is smaller players like Spotify and MOG that have disrupted the file download model, Gieger says that giant platforms with over 500 million customers will dominate the next decade. He mentions Facebook, YouTube, Amazon, Netflix, Google, Yahoo, Pandora, Apple iTunes, Baidu, Android (note that Google appears three times in this list).

Why will revenue increase? Subscriptions start cheap and go up, says Gieger. “Once people have the subscription needle in the arm, it’s very hard to get out, and prices go up.” He envisages premium subscriptions offering offline mode, better quality, extra amounts per family member, access to different mixes and live recordings.

The implication for the music industry, he says, is that it is necessary to get 100% behind the streaming model. It is where consumers are going, he says, and if you are not there you will miss out. “We’ve got to get out of the way, we’ve got to support it.” Just as with the introduction of CDs, it enables the business to sell its back catalogue yet again.

A further implication is that metadata is a big deal. In a streaming world, just as in in any other form of music distribution, enabling discovery is critical to success. Labels should be working hard on metadata clean-up.

Gieger does see some future for physical media such as CD and DVD, if there is a strong value-add in the form of books and artwork.

You can see this happening as increasing numbers of expensive super-deluxe packages turn up, complete with books and other paraphernalia. For example, Pink Floyd’s back catalogue was reissued in “Immersion” boxes at high prices; the Wish you were Here package includes 9 coasters, a scarf and three marbles.

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This sort of thing becomes more difficult though as consumers lose the disc habit. If I want to play a VHS video I have to get the machine down from the loft; CD, DVD and Blu-Ray are likely to go the same way.

Geiger’s analysis makes a lot of sense, though his projected future revenues seem to me over-optimistic. People love free, and there is plenty of free out there now, so converting those accustomed to playing what they want from YouTube to a subscription will not be easy.

That is a business argument though. From a technical perspective, the growth of streaming and decline of file download does seem inevitable to me (and has done for a while).

Listen to the talk, and it seems obvious that this is why Apple purchased Beats in May 2014. Beats offers a streaming music subscription service, unlike iTunes which uses a download model.

Why Apple needed to spend out on Beats rather than developing its own streaming technology as an evolution of iTunes remains puzzling though.

Finally, Gieger notes the need to “put out great music. After we all have access to all the music in the world, the quality bar goes up.” That is one statement that is not controversial.

Here is the complete video:

Event report: Sony demonstrates the high-res audio HAP-Z1ES player at the Audio Lounge in London

I went along to the Audio Lounge in London to hear Sony’s Eric Kingdon (Senior European Technical Marketing Manager) and Mike Somerset (Product Marketing Manager) talk about high resolution audio and demonstrate the HAP-Z1ES player.

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The HAP-Z1ES costs £1,999 and plays both DSD (the format of SACD) and PCM formats, including DSDIFF,DSF,WAV,FLAC,ALAC,MP3 and ATRAC. PCM is up to 24-bit/192kHz and DSD up to double DSD (DSD 128). It was demonstrated with the Sony TA-A1E amplifier (also £1999) and the Crystal Cable Arabesque Mini loudspeakers which costs €12,999 (not sure of £ price) including the stands.

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This was a small event for customers and there were around 20 attending. Ruth Phypers at the Audio Lounge gave us a warm welcome and conveyed nothing other than enthusiasm for audio; no high-pressure sales here. The talk and demonstration took place in the basement listening room.

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High resolution audio is controversial, in that there is evidence that even CD quality (16-bit/44.1 kHz) is good enough to capture everything we can hear in normal music played at normal levels – see Monty Montgomery’s excellent technical explanation and accompanying videos for why – and I was interested to see how Sony is pitching high-res to its potential customers. I was also interested to see if it would broach the tricky subject of DSD vs PCM and whether there is any audible difference.

In this respect it was a curious event as you will see. One of the odd things was that little music was played, maybe 10 minutes out of a one and a half hour presentation.

Somerset kicked things off, explaining the battle between convenience and quality in music reproduction. “We’ve lost a lot in quality” he said, thanks to the popularity of MP3. So what does Sony mean by high-res? Anything beyond CD quality, he said, confusing the issue: is it MP3 that is limiting audio quality today, or CD?

“A lot of people out there think CD, that’s as good as it gets, nothing better, obviously we know that’s not true,” he said.

That said, he made the point that the Z1ES is not just designed for high-res, but to perform well with most formats and resolution. It has a DSEE (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) which supposedly improves the sound of lossy-compressed audio by “improving the spectrum” (according to the slide; I still have no idea what this means); and a DSD remastering engine that converts lossless PCM to double DSD on the fly (the PCM file remains as-is and it is not stored twice).

Why would you want to do that? I asked Kingdon later who said it was a matter of personal taste; you should take it home and try it. Personally I’m not sure why it should make any difference at all to the sound; you would have thought it would be audibly transparent if the double DSD encoding is doing its job, and if it does sound different it raises the question of whether the DSD conversion ends up colouring the sound; unless perhaps the DAC is more capable with DSD than with PCM. On this latter point Kingdon said no; the Burr-Brown DAC is excellent for PCM. DSD remastering is optional and you can easily enable or disable the feature.

Somerset also explained that the Z1ES does not stream music; it copies audio files to its own internal storage (1TB hard drive). However it can detect when music is added to a network location such as a NAS (Network Attached Storage) drive and copy it automatically. The reason it is copied and not streamed is to eliminate network latency, he said. If 1TB is not enough, you can attach a USB external drive, but this must be reformatted to Ext4 by the system, deleting any existing files.

The Ext4 limitation was a matter of some discussion and discontent among the audience. The Z1ES runs Linux internally, hence the requirement for Ext4, but Linux can mount other file formats successfully so a future firmware update will likely remove this limitation.

Kingdon then answered questions – would the unit go out of date quickly? No, it will have a long life, he promised. Why no video output? “It’s a pure audio product,” he said.

Eventually we got to a demo. Somerset kicked off by playing a Bob Dylan track, Blowing in the Wind (recorded in 1963) in three different formats. The first was 24-bit 88.2 kHz flac (I imagine derived from the DSD used for the SACD release, as conversions from SACD often end up as 24/88). The second was 256kpbs MP3. Finally, there was what he described as a “heavily compressed” MP3, though the exact resolution was not specified. All were derived from the same original source, we were told.

“For me, focusing on the vocals, you can really hear the difference in brightness,” said Somerset.

The odd thing was that (to my ears) the 24/88 version did indeed sound brighter and slightly louder than the MP3, which I find puzzling. I’m not aware of any technical reason why high resolution audio should sound any brighter (or tonally different) from CD or MP3. There was not a dramatic difference in overall quality from what little I could tell in the few seconds of music we heard, but I was not sure that the brighter sound was an improvement; Dylan can sound a little strident at times and the slightly mellower (and dare I say, more analogue-sounding) MP3 version could well be preferred.

We switched back and forth a couple of times, and then Somerset played the “heavily compressed” version. This sounded OK too, from what I could hear of it, which might explain why Somerset talked over it and stopped playing it quickly, saying how bad it was.

Next we heard a DSD download from Blue Coast records; it was Immediately Blessed by Keith Greeninger. This sounded superb, far better than the Dylan, though I doubt this was much to do with formats, but more because it was a modern recording made by a dedicated audiophile label. It was the best sound we heard.

Daft Punk followed, at 24/88.2, and then a 24/96 Linda Ronstadt track from 1983, and then a Nat King Cole song from 1957 in 16/44.1 format.

That was it for demos, if I remember right. What was notable to me was that Sony never demonstrated high-res vs CD quality, played only one DSD track, and used mostly older recordings. Some of these older recordings do indeed sound great, but I doubt it is the best way to demonstrate high resolution audio. If you attended the session as a high-res sceptic you would have heard nothing to change your mind.

Another odd thing was that we heard tracks there were available on SACD but played to us as PCM, most likely converted from the SACD source. Why did we not hear the DSD? It is probably do to with the difficulty all of us have in ripping SACD to audio files, which can only done (as far as I am aware) with a hacked PlayStation 3 with old firmware.

I asked Kingdon why Sony does not make its high-res products like the Z1ES more attractive by giving us the ability to rip SACD at best quality? The record companies would not like it, he said. “I’ve had this discussion so many times, I’ve got a big SACD collection, some of it isn’t available any more, I’m sorry, I don’t have an answer for you.”

Despite some frustration at the brevity and content of the demos, this was an enjoyable event with great hospitality from the Audio Lounge, some fascinating recollections from Kingdon of his time with Sony over many years, and a high level of warmth and friendliness all round.

Now if I were Sony I would use the best possible sources to show off high-res audio and the new player, and avoid misleading comparisons or doubtful technical statements. The fact is that many high-res sources, whether SACD, DVD Audio (which you can easily rip to a player like this) or downloads, do sound excellent, and for many that is more than enough to justify purchase.

Would a beautifully mastered CD or CD-quality download sound just as good? Possibly, and the fact that Sony did not attempt to demonstrate the difference, but compared high-res to MP3, lends support to the idea. If there really is a big difference, why not demonstrate it?

As for the Z1ES itself, I heard enough to know that it can sound very good indeed. It is disappointing that it has no surround sound capability, and no digital input so you could use it as an external DAC, but those are not show-stoppers. For myself I would be more inclined to invest in a standalone DAC, maybe one which is both DSD and PCM capable, but if you like simplicity, then a machine with its own storage, DAC, remote, and handy screen for album artwork does make sense.

Keep your CDs and DVDs: how the UK copyright law is changing but still does not make sense

The UK copyright law is changing in June 2014. The details of the changes are here. There is also a simplified Guidance for Consumers [PDF] document.

One of the reasons for the changes is to allow format-shifting, such as ripping CDs or DVDs to a smartphone, MP3 player, home media server, or cloud storage.

The changes will mean that you will be able to copy a book or film you have purchased for one device onto another without infringing copyright.

says the consumer guidance. However, the law does not allow making copies for friends or family, nor making copies of media acquired illegally.

You will be permitted to make personal copies to any device that you own, or a personal online storage medium, such as a private cloud. However, it will be illegal to give other people access to the copies you have made, including, for example, by allowing a friend to access your personal cloud storage.

Sensible; but note this provision:

Am I able to give away or resell media, such as CDs, that I have made personal copies from?
Yes, but you will infringe copyright if you retain any personal copies that you have made. Therefore, if you wish to give away or sell a CD you should first delete any personal copies you have made from it.

The actual legislation says:

The rights conferred by this Chapter in a recording are infringed if an individual transfers a personal copy of the recording to another person (otherwise than on a private and temporary basis), except where the transfer is authorised by the rights owner.

The intent of the law seems to be that you must keep your physical CDs and DVDs safely in the loft after ripping them, if you want to stay the right side of the law. What about destroying the media (rather than passing it on)? You would think that might be OK but the document does not say.

In the old world you could buy a record, CD or DVD and store it in the living room for everyone at home to enjoy. You could lend a DVD to a friend, during which time she could play it but not you, and then get it back and enjoy it again. Even with the new provisions, it is still hard for the law to cover what is normal in the new digital world.

For example, the focus on the new legislation is on individual rights. I cannot see anything covering the common and normal scenario of a media server in the home accessible by the whole family. If anything, the new law implies that this is not OK: the legislation specifies that the format-shifted copy “is made for the individual’s private use.” The guidance makes a point of including family among those who are not allowed copies:

Creators have a right to be paid for their work, so the law will not allow people to get content for free by copying from friends and family.

Is merely playing content different from copying it? Maybe, maybe not. If you can play it, you do not need to copy it, and you are forbidden from allowing others access to your private media in cloud storage, such as Amazon or Google cloud players.

I am not saying that a shared home iTunes or Squeezebox library is not allowed, as it also seems to me that the intent of the law is to allow normal activities like this, but it looks like a grey area to me.

Another tricky area is copy protection. Copy protection, such as DVD or Blu-ray encryption, is allowed, but only if it is does not prevent the kind of fair use backup and format-shifting described above. If your format-shifting is prevented by copy protection, you can complain to the Secretary of State who will ask the vendor to ensure:

that the owner or exclusive licensee of that copyright work makes available to the complainant or the class of individuals represented by the complainant the means of benefiting from section 28B to the extent necessary to benefit from that section.

where 28B is the clause which gives these new rights. What might be sufficient? What about a downloadable compressed MP4 video or MP3 music, for your copy-protected Blu-ray, would that do? That is not much of a backup for a 4K video.

While it is good to see UK copyright law beginning to catch up with reality, it will continue to be imperfect as well as impossible to enforce. There are now three common forms of private media licensing:

  • Physical media – the license travels with the media. For example CD, DVD, Blu-Ray
  • Individual downloads – a personal license to specific files. For example, iTunes, Amazon MP3
  • All-you-can-eat subscriptions. For example, Spotify.

The third of these makes most sense in the digital era and will I believe come to dominate. Framing legislation that works sensibly for all three cases, while protecting common-sense rights, is all-but impossible.

Neil Young’s Pono: an advance in digital music?

Thanks to the just-launched Kickstarter project, there are now firm technical details for Neil Young’s curious Pono project, which aims to solve what the musician sees as the loss of audio quality caused by the transition to digital music:

“Pono” is Hawaiian for righteous. What righteous means to our founder Neil Young is honoring the artist’s intention, and the soul of music. That’s why he’s been on a quest, for a few years now, to revive the magic that has been squeezed out of digital music. In the process of making music more convenient – easier to download, and more portable – we have sacrificed the emotional impact that only higher quality music can deliver.

There is a lot about emotion and the spirit of music in the pitch; but ultimately while music is art, audio is technology. What is the technology in Pono and can it deliver something markedly better than we have already?

Pono has several components. The first is a portable player:

  • 64GB on-board storage and 64GB SD card
  • 8 hour rechargeable battery
  • Software for PC and Mac to transfer songs
  • Two stereo output jack sockets, one for headphones, and one a line-out for connection to a home hi-fi system
  • Ability to play FLAC, ALAC, WAV, MP3, AIFF and AAC at resolutions (at least for FLAC) of up to 192Khz/24-bit. 

The Pono player will cost around $400.00, though early Kickstarter backers can pre-order for $200 (all sold now) or $300.00.

There will also be a Pono music store “supported by all major labels and their growing catalogues of high quality digital music”. The record companies will set their own prices, but high-res (24/96 and higher) music is expected to cost between $14.99 and $24.99 per album. Individual songs will also be available.

Here is the key question: will you hear the difference. Here is what the pitch says:

Yes. We are confident that you will hear the difference. We’re even more confident you will feel it. Everyone who’s ever heard PonoMusic will tell you that the difference is surprising and dramatic. Especially when they listen to music that they know well – their favorite music. They’re amazed by how much better the music sounds – and astonished at how much detail they didn’t realize was missing compared to the original. They tell us that not only do they hear the difference; they feel it in their body, in their soul.

Count me sceptical. There are two ways in which Pono can sound better than what you use at the moment to play music – which for many of us is a smartphone, a CD ripped to a hard drive and played from a PC, Mac or iPod, or streamed to a device like a Sonos or Squeezebox.

One is though superior electronics. Pono is designed by Ayre Acoustics, a high end audio company, and you can expect a Pono to sound good; but there is no reason to think it will sound better than many other DACs and pre-amplifiers available today. As a dedicated audio device it should sound better than the average smartphone; but Apple for one has always cared about audio quality so I would not count on a dramatic improvement.

The second is through higher resolution sources. This is a controversial area, and the Kickstarter pitch is misleading:

On the “low end” of higher resolution music (CD lossless, 16 bit/44.1kHz), PonoMusic files have about 6 times more musical information than a typical mp3. With ultra-high quality resolution recordings (24 bit/192kHz), the difference between a PonoMusic digital file and an mp3 is about 30 times more data from which your player reconstructs the “song”.

We need to examine what is meant by “musical information” in the above. The Pono blurb makes the assumption that more data must mean better sound. However, just because a CD “lossless” file is six times the size of an MP3 file does not mean it sounds six times better. Listening tests show that by the time you get to say 320kbps MP3, most people find it hard to hear the difference, because the lossy formats like MP3 and AAC are designed to discard data that we cannot hear.

What about 24/96 or 24/192 versus CD format (16/44)? Advocates will tell you that they hear a big difference, but the science of this is obscure; see 24/192 downloads and why they make no sense for an explanation, complete with accompanying videos that spell this out. Most listening tests that I am aware of have failed to detect an audible difference from resolutions above CD format. Even so, audio is subtle and complex enough that it would be brave to say there is never any audible improvement above 16/44; but if it exists, it is subtle and not the obvious difference that the Pono folk claim.

The irritation here is that digital music often does sound bad, but not because of limitations in the audio format. Rather, it is the modern engineering trend of whacking up the loudness so that the dynamic range and sense of space in the music is lost – which seems close to what Neil Young is complaining about. The solution to this is not primarily in high resolution formats, but in doing a better job in mastering.

Why then do so many well known names in music praise the Pono sound so highly?

While I would like to think that this is because of a technical breakthough, I suspect it is more to do with comparing excellent mastering from a good source to a typical over-loud CD or MP3 file, than anything revolutionary in Pono itself. If you have a high-resolution track that sounds great, try downsampling it to 16/44 and comparing it to that, before concluding that it is the format itself that provides the superior sound.

The highest distortion in the audio chain is in the transducers, speakers and microphones, and not in the digital storage, conversion and amplification.

The Pono Kickstarter has already raised $550,000 of its $800,000 goal which looks promising. Even if the high resolution aspect makes little sense, it is likely that the Pono music store will offer some great sounding digital music so the project will not be a complete dead loss.

That said, who is going to want Pono when a tiny music player, or just using your smartphone, is so much more convenient? Only a dedicated few. This, combined with the lack of any real technical breakthrough, means that Pono will likely stumble in the market, despite its good intentions.

Within the crazy audiophile world we are also going to hear voices saying, “you should have used DSD”, a alternative way of encoding high-resolution audio, as found in SACD disks.

Qobuz lossless streaming and hi-res downloads available in the UK

The French music streaming and download service Qobuz went live in the UK this month.

Qobuz has some distinctive characteristics. One is that unlike most music services (including Apple iTunes, Amazon MP3, Spotify and Xbox Music) Qobuz offers an option for uncompressed music both for streaming and download. For streaming, you can choose 16/44 CD quality, while downloads are available up to 24 bits/176.4 kHz.

High resolutions like 24/176 appeal to audiophiles even though the audible benefit from them as a music delivery format may be hard to discern. See 24/192 Music Downloads … and why they make no sense. Getting true uncompressed CD quality is easier to defend; while it may still be hard to distinguish from MP3 at a high bitrate, at least it removes any anxiety that perhaps you may be missing the last degree of fidelity.

Despite the technical doubts, better-than-CD downloads may still be worth it, if they have a superior mastering or come from a better source. This seems to be the case for some of the selections on HDtracks, for example.

One complaint I have heard about some sites offering high resolution downloads is that some of the offerings are not what they appear to be, and may be upsampled from a lower resolution. This is the audio equivalent of padding a parcel with bubblewrap, and strikes me as bad practice even if you cannot hear the difference. Qobuz says it does no such thing:

Les albums vendus par Qobuz en qualité “Qobuz Studio Masters” nous sont fournis par les labels directement. Ils ne sont pas ré-encodés depuis des SACD et nous garantissons leur provenance directe. Nous nous interdisons, pour faire grossir plus vite cette offre, les tripatouillages suspects.

which roughly translates to

The albums sold by Qobuz ‘Qobuz Studio Masters’ are provided directly by the labels. They are not re-encoded from the SACD and we guarantee their direct origin. We refuse to accelerate the growth of our catalogue by accepting suspicious upsamples.

It strikes me as odd that Qobuz insist that their hi-res downloads are “not re-encoded from SACD” but that its highest resolution is 24/176.4 which is what you get if you convert an SACD to PCM, rather than 24/192 which is the logical format for audio captured directly to PCM.

Qobuz has mobile apps for Android and iOS, but not Windows Phone. There is a Windows 8 store app, but I could not find it, perhaps for regional reasons. There is also integration with Sonos home streaming equipment.

I had a quick look and signed up for a 7-day trial. If I want to subscribe, a Premium subscription (MP3) costs £9.99 per month, and a Hi-Fi subscription (16/44) is £19.99 per month.

Navigating the Qobuz site and applications is entertaining, and I was bounced regularly between UK and French sites, sometimes encountering other languages such as Dutch.

I installed the Windows desktop app is fine when it works, though a few searches seems to make it crash on my system. I soon found gaps in the selection available too. Most of David Bowie’s catalogue is missing, so too Led Zeppelin and The Beatles. You will not go short of music though; there are hundreds of thousands of tracks.

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I also tried downloading. I installed the downloader, despite a confusing link in English and French that said “you are going to install the version for Macintosh.”

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The downloader quietly downloads your selections in the background, just as well for those large 24/176 selections.

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If you hate the idea of lossy compression, or want high-resolution downloads, Qobuz is worth a look. It would be good though if the site were less confusing for English users.

You can subscribe to Qobuz here.

High end home entertainment with a Cornflake flavour

Tucked away on a side street off London’s Tottenham Court Road is The Cornflake Shop, which appeared back in the Eighties to sell high-end audio equipment with a more considered service than was available from the multitude of hi-fi shops which, at the time, thronged the main road.

Since that time the audio industry has changed and many dealers have struggled or closed. Hi-fi today, for most people, means an iPhone dock or a set of powered speakers. Despite those challenges, on a recent visit to London I was interested to see that the Cornflake Shop lives on; in fact, they have just opened a new showroom called the Art of Technology, Realised and whose window declares “The Smart App-artment”.

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I could not resist a visit. Inside it has a striking animated graphic projected on the wall and framed artefacts – a typewriter, an old tape recorder.

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I chatted with them about the state of the audio industry and was told that the their business had transitioned to something more like automating the home, but still with a strong element of home entertainment; they aim to have every installation include a fine music system. However they will still sell you just a CD player or a pair of loudspeakers if you ask, and now intend to renew their focus on high-end audio alongside the other things they do.

Go downstairs and a series of subterranean showrooms demonstrate various home environments.

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The back room, if that is the right word, is amazing; racks of networking gear, home entertainment controllers, music and video servers. They use Sonos for multi-room audio and Kaleidoscope, which lets you legally rip Blu-Ray to a server, for video.

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Would someone really have something like this in their home, I asked? Oh yes was the answer.

Then it was time to listen to some music. These striking Martin Logan loudspeakers from the Reserve ESL series combine electrostatic drivers for the mid-range and treble with a conventional sub-woofer.

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Spot the valve amplifier. What on earth are valves doing in an ultra-modern home entertainment setup? The answer is simply that they like the sound. There is an element of retro here.

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We played a couple of tracks, selected from an iPad app, and a music video, for which a large screen slid elegantly into view. It sounded good but I did not stay long enough to be able to comment in detail.

The Cornflake Shop always had its own individualistic and slightly quirky approach and it is great to see that this continues. You will get something stylish for your money that will deliver high quality home entertainment. But how much back-end kit do you need in the modern home? If you are looking for the minimum amount of wires and the smallest amount of equipment, this might not be the place for you.

17CD John Martyn download set offered for pennies across the web

A recently released 17 cd box set, “The Island Years”, collecting most of the recorded works of singer, songwriter and guitarist John Martyn (who died in 2009) is being offered at download stores from just £1.29 – which is just over 7.5p per CD and less than 0.5p per track.

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The offers, which have been available for several days, are on reputable download stores including Google Play, Amazon MP3 and Rakuten Play.com.

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The physical box is around £150 which suggests that the bargain offers are some kind of mistake, but one that is replicated around the web on different music stores. Did someone at Universal Music mis-tap a number? Or is it a sign of some kind of automatic pricing algorithm, where one store sets a wrong price, and the others replicate it so as not to be outdone?

Or maybe someone is a John Martyn fan and wants the widest possible audience for what is a remarkable body of work? No, scrap that idea.

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Dear audio industry, fix mastering before bothering with high resolution

The audiophile world (small niche though it is) is buzzing with a renewed interest in high resolution audio, now to be known as HRA.

See, for example, Why the Time is Right for High-Res Audio, or Sony’s new Hi-Res USB DAC System for PC Audio, or Gramophone on At last high-resolution audio is about to go mainstream, or Mark Fleischmann on CD Quality Is Not High-Res Audio:

True HRA is not a subtle improvement. With the best software and hardware, a good recording, and good listening conditions, it is about as subtle as being whacked with a mallet, and I mean that in a good way. It is an eye opener. In lieu of “is that all there is?” you think “wow, listen to what I’ve been missing!” … The Compact Disc format is many good things but high-res it is not. It has a bit depth of 16 and a sampling rate of 44.1 kHz. In other words, it processes a string of 16 zeroes and ones 44,100 times per second. Digitally speaking, this is a case of arrested development dating back to the early 1980s. We can do better now.

As an audio enthusiast, I would love this to be true. But it is not. Fleischmann appears to be ignorant of the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem, which suggests that the 16-bit/44.1 kHz CD format can exactly reproduce an analogue sound wave from 20–22,050 Hz and with a dynamic range (difference between quietest and loudest signal) of better than 90Db.

Yes there are some ifs and buts, and if CD had been invented today it would probably have used a higher resolution of say 24-bit/96 Khz which gives more headroom and opportunity for processing the sound without degradation; but nevertheless, CD is more than good enough for human hearing. Anyone who draws graphs of stair steps, or compares CD audio vs HRA to VHS or DVD vs Blu-Ray, is being seriously misleading.

Yes, Sony, you are a disgrace. What is this chart meant to show?

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If shows that DACs output a bumpy signal it is simply false. If it purports to show that high-res reproduces an analogue original more accurately within the normal audible range of 20-20,000 Hz it is false too.

As an aside, what non-technical reader would guess that those huge stair steps for “CD” are 1/44,100th of a second apart?

The Meyer-Moran test, in which a high-res original was converted to CD quality and then compared with the original under blind conditions (nobody could reliably tell the difference), has never been debunked, nor has anyone conducted a similar experiment with different results as far as I am aware.

You can also conduct your own experiments, as I have. Download some samples from SoundKeeper Recordings or Linn. Take the highest resolution version, and convert it to CD format. Then upsample the CD quality version back to the high-resolution format. You now have two high-res files, but one is no better than CD quality. Can you hear the difference? I’ve yet to find someone who can.

Read this article on 24/192 Music Downloads … and why they make no sense and watch the referenced video for more on this subject.

Still, audio is a mysterious thing, and maybe in the right conditions, with the right equipment, there is some slight difference or improvement.

What I am sure of, is that it will be nowhere near as great as the improvement we could get if CDs were sensibly mastered. Thanks to the loudness wars, few CDs come close to the audio quality of which they are capable. Here is a track for a CD from the 80s which sounds wonderful, Tracy Chapman’s debut, viewed as a waveform in Adobe Audition:

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And here is a track from Elton John’s latest, The Diving Board:

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This everything louder than everything else effect means that the sound is more fatiguing and yes, lower fidelity, than it should be; and The Diving Board is far from the worst example (in fact, it is fairly good by today’s standards).

It is not really the fault of recording engineers. In many cases they hate it too. Rather, it is the dread of artists and labels that their sales may suffer if a recording is quieter (when the volume control is at the same level) than someone else’s.

Credit to Apple which is addressing this to some extent with its Mastered for iTunes initiative:

Many artists and producers feel that louder is better. The trend for louder music has resulted in both ardent fans of high volumes and backlash from audiophiles, a
controversy known as “the loudness wars.” This is solely an issue with music. Movies, for example, have very detailed standards for the final mastering volume of a film’s
soundtrack. The music world doesn’t have any such standard, and in recent years the de facto process has been to make masters as loud as possible. While some feel that overly
loud mastering ruins music by not giving it room to breathe, others feel that the aesthetic of loudness can be an appropriate artistic choice for particular songs or
albums.

Analog masters traditionally have volume levels set as high as possible, just shy of oversaturation, to improve the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). With digital masters, the goal
is to achieve the highest gain possible without losing information about the original file due to clipping.

With digital files, there’s a limit to how loud you can make a track: 0dBFS. Trying to increase a track’s overall loudness beyond this point results in distortion caused by
clipping and a loss in dynamic range. The quietest parts of a song increase in volume, yet the louder parts don’t gain loudness due to the upper limits of the digital format.
Although iTunes doesn’t reject files for a specific number of clips, tracks which have audible clipping will not be badged or marketed as Mastered for iTunes.

Back to my original point: what is the point of messing around with the doubtful benefits of HRA, if the obvious and easily audible problem of excessive dynamic compression is not addressed first?

None at all. The audio industry should stop trying to mislead its customers by appealing to the human instinct that bigger numbers must mean better sound, and instead get behind some standards for digital music that will improve the sound we get from all formats.

You cannot resell music downloads, says New York court. Bad news for ReDigi

A New York court has concluded (PDF) that you cannot resell music downloads.

The case is Capitol Records vs ReDigi, a web site which lets you trade in pre-owned legal downloads.

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The argument from District Judge Richard Sullivan is that reselling a music download is impossible, because you cannot transfer your download, you can only copy it:

Simply put, it is the creation of a new material object and not an additional material object that defines the reproduction right … the fact that a file has moved from one material object – the user’s computer – to another – the ReDigi server – means that a reproduction has occurred.

But by that argument, don’t you make a “new material object” every time you copy your iTunes download to a new directory?

Sullivan says:

As Capitol has conceded, such reproduction is almost certainly protected under other doctrines or defenses, and is not relevant to the instant motion.

The concept of “fair use” does not protect ReDigi either, according to the judgement, since it is a commercial transaction and not merely storage or personal use.

This is a decision with far-reaching implications. In essence, it says that once you pay for a music download, your money is gone forever. Your download collection has no resale value, nor can you legally transfer it to anyone else. The only way you might get your money back, oddly, is if your collection were destroyed; I have seen provision in some insurance policies for downloaded assets.

Who is going to stop you from transferring your collection to another person privately? That is different, a question of enforceability rather than legality.

You are better off buying a CD; the used CD market is deeply depressed, but does at least exist. Ripping a CD to your hard drive is illegal in some countries (including the UK, as far as I am aware) but I do not know of anyone being pursued for this, and there is a better argument for personal, non-commercial, fair use.

If the music industry could convert us all to streaming subscriptions, that would make more sense in the digital world. That said, it is unfortunate that streaming services like Spotify pay very little to artists in comparison with download services like iTunes.