Tag Archives: audio

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.

Hope for Squeezebox as Raspberry Pi becomes a streaming player

Now that Logitech has near-abandoned the Squeezebox (the one remaining player is the UE Smart Radio, and even that is not quite a Squeezebox client unless you download different firmware), existing users may be concerned for the future of the system.

Squeezebox consists of free server software which runs on a PC or NAS (Network Attached Storage) device, while the players are supplied by Logitech and controlled by a web app or smartphone/tablet app. Although more fiddly to set up than rivals like Sonos, Squeezebox is a strong choice for multi-room audio at a modest choice, and its community has come up with solutions such as support for high-resolution audio.

The latest community innovation is a project to make a Raspberry Pi into a Squeezebox client. piCorePlayer is delivered as an image file which you can write to an SD card. Pop the card into a Raspberry Pi, supply power, and it is ready to go – meaning that you need no longer worry about getting hold of a Squeezebox player.

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The OS is the MicroCore version of Tiny Core Linux, and the player is Triode’s Squeezelite.

I gave this a try. It was almost very easy: my Pi booted successfully from the piCorePlayer image and was immediately recognised by my Logitech Media Server. The player supports output to the built-in audio jack, or HDMI, or a USB DAC, or an add-on DAC for the Raspberry Pi called HifiBerry.

I am using a USB DAC (Teac UD-H01) which requires a little extra configuration. I logged in to the piCorePlayer using Putty, and typed picoreplayer to display the configuration menu:

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Configuring a USB DAC is a matter of getting a list of available ALSA devices and setting the output accordingly.

It worked, but oddly I found that FLAC in 16/44.1 format played with crackling and distortion. 24-bit files played perfectly.

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The only solution I have found (though it sounds counter-intuitive) is to force output to 16-bit by adding –a 40::16 to the Squeezelite arguments. Everything now plays nicely, though limited to 16-bit – you are unlikely to notice much difference but it is a compromise.

If you try piCorePlayer, here are a few tips.

Log in with user: tc pwd: nosoup4u

The Squeezelite executable is stored at:

/mnt/mmcblk0p2/tce

and the settings scripts are in

/usr/local/sbin/settings_menu.sh

If you need to edit the configuration without the script, you can use vi, which is the only pre-installed editor I have found. Quick start with vi:

  • Type i to enter edit mode
  • Press ESC to enter command mode
  • Quit without saving by typing :q!
  • Save and quit by typing :wq

There are plenty of vi tutorials out there if you need to know more!

Finally, note that this version of Linux runs in RAM. If you make changes they will not persist unless you create a “backup” with

/usr/bin/filetool.sh –b

This is also an option in the picoreplayer menu, and must be used if you want your changes to survive.

Review: Om Audio INEARPEACE ear buds. Superb sound

Ear buds are massively popular, but most do not sound that good. Tinny bass and splashy treble is nothing unusual. They can sound good though. At CES I heard a couple of true high-end in-ear headsets, Shure’s SE 846 ($999) and Audiofly’s AF180 ($549); I especially liked the AF180 and wrote about it here.

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But how about Om’s INEARPEACE at a mere $149? No, they are not the equal of the AF180s, but at one third the price they are delightful, musical, smooth, clear and with actual bass.

Om Audio is a company with some personality – “listening to music should be a sacred experience,” says the website, and that is reflected in the packaging, with the ear buds embedded in the side of a foam inner container.

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You get a set of ear buds with an inline controller and microphone for a smartphone, a smart zipped bag, and a packet of ear tips in various sizes.

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The ear buds themselves have a distinctive design, with a cylindrical body. The cable is flat and supposedly hard to tangle.

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Within each ear bud are two drivers, a balanced armature driver for treble and mid-range, and a 10mm coiled driver for bass.

The INEARPEACE ear buds are aimed at those in search of better audio quality than the average in-ear headset, and they deliver. Listen to these and you will not want to go back to the set that came free with your phone. There is adequate treble, but no sign of the shrillness that characterises so many ear buds. The bass is not overpowering, but it is clean and reasonably extended, making music more balanced, rhythmic and enjoyable.

I am not going to get too carried away; these are not the last word in sound quality. There are others to consider in the price range $75 – $150. These are more than decent though, and their musical sound and elegant construction wins them a recommendation.

Naim’s Statement: no compromise home audio

I was fortunate to hear Naim’s Statement amplifier, currently a prototype subject to final tuning before release in July, at the CES exhibition in Las Vegas.

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Statement is actually two amplifiers, the NAC S1 pre-amplifer and the NAP S1 mono power amplifiers. In the above picture you can see them standing together as three large vertical boxes, the slimmer pre-amp and the power amps on either side. Each amplifier is also divided horizontally, with the power supply below and the amplifier electronics above.

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I do not have confirmation of the price but believe it will be around £150,000 for a set.

My quick comment is this. The sound is huge and has the qualities Naim aficionados love: muscular, etched, authoritative. Naim is often considered to have a house sound dating back to its earliest electronics in the eighties, and the Statement continues that tradition.

I did not think the sound was flawless though. Rhythm and percussion was stunning, but whether it is the most natural sound I am not so sure. Can Statement do sweet and delicate? Bear in mind though that I only had a short listen and that some fine-tuning remains.

Naim says the sound is without compromise, and Statement will only appeal to those who are not only wealthy, but share that attitude, building their living space, or at least their music listening space, around the electronics, rather than having it blend into the furniture Bang & Olufsen style.

High end earbuds impress at CES 2014–especially Audiofly’s top model

I have heard a couple of high-end earbuds here at CES 2014 in Las Vegas. One was Shure’s SE 846. Great sound, but then you would expect that at $999.

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I was impressed by the extended bass and clarity of the 846’s and they should be on your shortlist if you are looking for the very best in earbuds. They sport four microdrivers including what Shure calls a “true subwoofer.” Frequency range 15Hz-20kHz.

On the other hand, when I heard Audiofly’s AF180 at a mere $549 I thought, hmm, I wonder if I could afford these?

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In other words, the AF180 struck me as exceptional rather than merely excellent. Part of the secret, I suspect, is their close fit into the ear. It is hard to explain, but you fit them with the cable dropping behind your head and over the ear, and the shaped housing fills more of your ear than the average earbud.

The AF180 includes four armature drivers in each earbud. Frequency range 15Hz-25kHz.

I listened briefly to both recent and older recordings. Even the Beach Boys California Girls, which I would not describe as a hi-fi recording, sounded as clear as I have heard it – and I mean clear, not artificially boosted in the treble.

I am researching hi-res audio here at CES, and these earbuds reminded me that for all the fuss about audio resolution and formats, the speaker is the source of most distortion in the audio chain.

Every ear is different and earbuds are a particularly personal area of audio. I head the AF180s the day after the SE 846 so was not able to compare them side by side or on the same musical material; perhaps if I did, I would change my preference.

Nevertheless, I like to post about products that particularly impress me, and the AF180 is one such.

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.

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.

DTS Headphone X surround sound from stereo is astonishing though Z+ music app disappoints

I first heard the DTS surround sound from stereo demo at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The technology is called Headphone X. It was astonishing. You went into the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 theatre – it was in association with Qualcomm become some DTS technology is baked into the latest Snapdragon chipset – sat in a plush armchair, and donned stereo headphones.

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The next thing you knew, sound was coming from front left. Then front right. Then rear left. The illusion was amazing, and I was not the only one who removed their headphones temporarily to check that they really were the sole source of the sound.

I interviewed the DTS folk about the technology, and also spoke to the guys at Dolby. Nothing new, said the Dolby folk, we’ve had virtual surround sound for years. Yet, the demo at the Dolby stand fell far short of what DTS was showing.

Now you can try it, if you have an Android or iOS device. Download the Z+ app and listen to the demo.

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I tried this on someone today, and his “Wow!” reaction showed that the demo is still astonishing. You know it is an illusion, but it sounds as if you are seated in the middle of a room with five or more speakers.

If DTS has proved that surround sound from stereo is possible, what are the implications? Surround sound has not failed exactly, but its inconvenience has limited take-up. Many surround mixes of music albums are now hard to find, because they were made for long out of print SACD or DVD-Audio releases. What if you could easily download all these mixes and enjoy them with stereo headphones or earbuds?

An enticing thought, but there are caveats. The Z+ app, for example, is disappointing once you get beyond the demo. The only album it plays is the Hans Zimmer soundtrack to the Superman film, Man of Steel. One track is included for free, and the others are in-app purchases. It sounds good, but the surround effect is less convincing than it is in the demo. I heard better music demos in Barcelona. I also get superior sound on the iPhone than on the iPad (it is an iPhone app), though I might be imagining it, and in both cases I get occasional stuttering, though that may be because I am not testing on the latest generation Apple hardware.

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An app that only plays one album is not a revolution in sound, and if this is to go mainstream, DTS needs to sell its technology to one of the major music download or streaming services and have it built-in to the client app. It has made a start, with its Qualcomm deal which is meant to be in shipping chipsets from “the second half of 2013” according to the information in Barcelona. My guess is that any problems with stuttering will be removed when there is hardware support.

How does it work? The DTS guys told that it “it’s psychoacoustics. You’re triggering the brain with responses that induce it to say, this is from here. It’s a combination of timing and frequency. That’s traditional virtualisation.” After that, they explained, they apply room acoustics that take the illusion to another level. This could be the room acoustic of the studio, achieving a holy grail for audio engineers, or that of the listener’s own room or a concert hall, for example. The room acoustic can be user-selectable, though this is not a feature of the current Z+ app.

There is a caveat that might upset hi-fi enthusiasts. Think about it. Virtual surround sound is delivered in stereo, which seems impossible, but then again we only have two ears. Our ears are designed to hear sounds more clearly if they are in front of us. Therefore, to simulate a sound coming from behind you, do you need to make it less clear?

I put this point to a guy from DTS, that parts of the music are in a sense deliberately distorted or muffled. “That occurs naturally by our head,” I was told. So is the fidelity of the sound reduced in order to achieve the surround illusion? “No differently than speakers in a surround system would do anyway,” he said.

Another caveat is that, by design, the system only works with headphones. Of course, if you have a full surround system in your room, you can play surround mixes in the normal way, turning to the DTS technology only for headphone listening. Headphones are also unable to recreate the effect of a sub-woofer which you can feel in your chest. “It’s a physical element. We’re not going to be able to replicate it,” said DTS.

Headphones are unbeatable though if you want to recreate the acoustic of a different room, such as the studio where the music was mixed. Further, for a mass market, delivering surround sound through a mobile device and standard earphones is the right approach.

The Z+ app is disappointing, but I would nevertheless encourage anyone with an interest in audio technology to download it and try the demo. Headphone X has huge potential and I shall follow its progress with interest.

Linn music downloads: is the Studio Master worth the extra cost?

I was interested to note from this feature in the Financial Times that more than half of the music downloads sold by Linn, a UK audio company, are of the “Studio Master” at 24 bit, 192kHz, rather than the cheaper MP3 or 16 bit, 44.1kHz as used for CDs. Apparently the MD Gilad Tiefenbrun had projected that the Studio Masters would only be 5% of sales, but in fact:

Even though Studio Master albums cost £18 compared with £5 for an MP3 version, these highest-quality recordings account for more than half of all downloads. That proportion rises to 90 per cent for classical recordings.

The question: why? Here are sample prices, in this case for Claire Martin’s Too Much in Love to Care:

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The prices range from £8.00 in 320k MP3 to £18.00 for the Studio Master. CD quality is £10.00. These are substantial differences. You could have more than twice as much music for the same money in MP3, and 80% more music in CD quality.

Linn says of the Studio Master:

If absolute sound quality is what you want then this file is best for you.

However, whether a Studio Master is audibly different from CD quality, if mastered to sound the same, is disputed. A well-known study, which has never been disproved as far as I am aware, found that music could be played through a 16/44.1 analog to digital to analog loop without listeners being aware of the difference. Science bears this out, to the extent that for music at normal listening levels the Shannon/Nyquist theorem indicates that the entire original music signal can be recovered up to half the sampling frequency, in this case 22kHz which is beyond the range of human hearing.

MP3 uses lossy compression, making the choice of CD quality over MP3 understandable (especially for only 25% extra cost), but even here most people struggle to hear the difference between MP3 at 320k and its original source. The folks at Hydrogen Audio have studied this obsessively; there is plenty of objective evidence.

Why then do people buy the Studio Master? Here are a few contenders.

1. Ignorance. Linn says (or strongly implies) that it sounds better, and Linn should know.

2. Anxiety. The buyer wants the best sound and is not sure whether or not the Studio Master might sound better, so rather than take a chance decides to cover herself with the premium download.

3. For further processing. When you process digital audio, the quality degrades. Studios therefore work with high resolution audio as they may process the audio multiple times. Given that most listeners are not running studios, I think we can dismiss this for most purchasers.

4. The Studio Master is mastered to sound better. This is an interesting possibility. Here is a comment from Linn’s forums:

When I converted the original 24bit FLAC file into an MP3 myself I was unable to hear any differences between them. But When comparing the Linn MP3 and 24bit FLAC versions I can hear a difference. This suggests to me that the difference I hear is due to Linn using two differently masterered versions for their MP3 and 24bit FLAC files.

The implication is that the MP3 and lossless versions could sound the same, for practical purposes, as the Studio Master; but either by accident or design it does not.

5. Is it possible that contrary to the evidence referenced above, high resolution audio (ie more than CD quality) does sound better? Certainly many people believe this. However, in my experience the number falls dramatically if you include only those who have done objective blind listening tests to verify it. Further, those who do experiment with objective tests invariably discover that the audible differences (if they exist) are very small.

The frustrating aspect of this is that in practice most CDs that you can buy, or MP3s you can download, sound worse than they should. There are many reasons for this, of which the biggest is probably the “loudness wars”, in which the dynamic range of 16/44.1 audio is squandered for the sake of the overall loudness of the audio, using compression and clipping to reduce the difference between the loudest and quietest passages.

Other common problems are that the best source tapes are not used, or that (in the case of older recordings) noise reduction damages the audio quality, or that the frequency response is adjusted for increased “boom and tizz” in the belief that this may sound more impressive.

High resolution recordings, such as those available on SACD, are generally (but not always) less prone to these problems, because they are designed for a more discriminating market. In other words, they sound better not because of high resolution itself, but for other reasons. Purchasers however may attribute the quality to the high resolution, making them inclined to purchase Studio Masters from Linn.

On the other hand, if Linn masters this music to sound the same in all formats, there is no reason the same logic should apply.

My suggestion: try one of Linn’s sample downloads. Do your own conversion of the Studio Master to CD quality or 320K MP3 and see if you can hear the difference using something like Foobar ABX. If you cannot tell the difference, there is no reason to buy the Studio Master unless Linn is deliberately making the other formats sound less good.