Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Computer Music: choosing the right format

Two orders of business to attend to before we get started. First, happy thanksgiving!

Second, I messed up the link in this month’s newsletter to John Darko’s article entitled 12 reasons why high res audio will never go mainstream. Click here to read the actual article. Sorry about that.

We left yesterday’s discussion with the knowledge that what’s recorded onto a CD must be placed into a container before a computer will recognize it. And there’s a lot of confusion as to which container and format is best. Understanding the good and the bad of the formats is essential in the early part of your computer audio journey. This is the time when you want to make sure you get the data in the right form. So it’s worth taking some time to understand what’s going on. First, a little primer.

What’s on a Red Book CD is a continuous stream of data. Music spools off the CD and is sent from the player/transport to a DAC, through a cable, and you hear music. But computers aren’t transports. Computers are fussy things that don’t know what to do with a continuous stream of bits. Instead, they like their data broken up into chunks–like a child who needs a parent to first cut up their meal. Each of these chunks needs to be placed in a container, and the container needs a label that tells the computer what it is–like buying packaged food at the market. The computer doesn’t look at the bits inside the container (the bits contain the actual music). Instead, computers read only the label attached to the chunk of bits and then route the entire chunk where it needs to go: stored on a hard drive, sent out the USB port.

When you put a CD into the computer’s disc reader–the tongue that extends out of your computer–what’s the first thing that happens? It reads what’s on the disc and makes a guess as to what you want to do with it. If you have installed iTunes, and the disc is a CD, it will guess you want to add what’s on the CD to your computer. If that is, in fact, what you want to do, the process is rather simple, it just does it. But how does it just do it?

iTunes assumes you don’t know what you’re doing and just does it for you.

iTunes assumes you’re not an Audiophile. iTunes assumes you’re only interested in storing music on your computer for casual listening, or perhaps transferring to your iPod or phone. iTunes never assumes you want high quality lossless music. And so we must tell it otherwise; bring it up to speed with who we are! But, before we do that, we need to know what we want and why.
Can we agree up front none of you reading this blog want to lose quality from what’s on your disc in the first place?

There are two choices we have to make right away: lose musical quality or keep quality. I am assuming you want to keep it. What iTunes is going to recommend is the opposite–they think you’re ok with lower quality than you started with–called lossy–instead of preserving what’s on the disc–called lossless. Containers that lose data have names that may be familiar to you: AAC, MP3, Opus, Vorbis, WMA lossy. Stay away from these.

They are bad for your musical soul.

The formats we’re interested in do not lose quality, though there are other considerations which we will get into. Those formats are divided into two groups: uncompressed and compressed. Both retain all the information present. The most popular uncompressed formats are WAV and AIFF. The most popular compressed formats are FLAC and ALAC.

oday’s takeaway: Do not assume iTunes is your friend. iTunes must be setup properly before copying music to it.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Computer music: getting inside

Yesterday’s takeaway was that music management programs are glorified spreadsheets with pretty interfaces: iTunes, Roon, Songbird, eLyric, MediaMonkey, Windows Media, etc.

Like any spreadsheet, its value is dependent on the quality and quantity of data fed into it – as well as how that data is then presented to the user to be managed. But before we enter into this minefield let’s stay focused on understanding iTunes, the single most prolific music management program in the world.

Remember the jukebox? Any of you watching Happy Days has seen one: a stand alone machine filled with vinyl records displayed under glass, a menu system for selecting what you wish to hear, a loudspeaker and turntable that played what you asked it to. Here’s a picture of the kind I remember, a Seeburg.

A jukebox has the same functionality as iTunes. Music is stored inside, the user can scroll through a library of contents, the player outputs selections. Yes, it’s that simple. Strip away all the hoo-haa and fanfare, and iTunes, and most other music management programs, are digital jukeboxes.

So let’s break iTunes down into its four core elements:
• Acquiring music
• Cataloging music
• Displaying music
• Playing music

Like the jukeboxes of old, iTunes provides the four essentials of any computer based music system. Tomorrow we’ll look at each of the four tasks separately.

Today’s takeaway: computer based music systems are functionally the same as the jukebox of old.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Computer music: the library

I recently spent time with my friend Michael Fremer (the Stereophile reviewer). Mike’s the king of vinyl. His entire basement listening room is filled with albums; thousands and thousands of albums, lining walls, shelves, pressing up against the listening chair, overflowing like a weed that’s taken over.

There’s little room for more in Mike’s home, yet more come and he struggles with where to put them. And he seems to remember what he has and where he stores them. He’s amazing.
I, on the other hand, have trouble remembering what I had for breakfast, let alone what the contents of my music library is and where it is stored. But I have a secret weapon. My entire library is available to me at the touch of a finger on my iPad. Thousands of tracks are there. Tracks I hadn’t thought of in a long time, and I am reminded on a regular basis what this or that album is or when I got it, and I play it by pushing a button.

The advent of digital audio has brought progress in service of the music. Greater dynamic range, lowered noise, and better sound when the system owner has focused their attentions on optimizing playback for that media.

And here’s a side note before I continue. Mike loves to demonstrate the superior sound of vinyl to all that will listen. And what’s fascinating to me is he’s right. At Fremer’s home vinyl rules. In every case, when we compare digital audio to vinyl audio, vinyl wins hands down. If you visit Music Room One, I can demonstrate the exact opposite. So which is right? I think the answer lies in system optimization. I have made every decision in my system in service of optimizing one media, digital. Mike Fremer has done the opposite. And while each of us pays lip service to having maximized media performance of the ‘other format’, the truth is neither of us has really done so.

If we accept the idea of digital audio as our primary source of music, we can enjoy one major aspect of it without regrets for sound quality; library management. Regardless of how you interface with your computer: server, phone, website, or tablet, digital files have the distinct advantage of easy organization that allows normal human beings the pleasure of scrolling through their libraries without leaving their armchairs. While vinyl aficionados are jumping up to stalk their rows of plastic and search their libraries between cuts, those of us with well organized digital libraries have the clear upper upper hand when it comes to selection.

iTunes, the world’s most popular music management program, is the point we will be starting with to understand how we take advantage of all the cool features inherent in a digital audio library.

Today’s takeaway: iTunes, JRiver, Windows media, Sonos, etc., are music management products – spreadsheets with pretty interfaces, used to catalog and organize your music collection.

Whatever else they do/provide, is secondary to this one task.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Computer music: iTunes

Getting music out of machines has never been easy: the mystery of turntable setup, arms and cartridges, heavy platters, light platters, direct drive, belt drive–and then there was the phono preamplifiers–and record cleaning machines–moving on to little silver discs, and DACs.

Over years, manufacturers have simplified music machines and, at the same time, consumers have increased their knowledge base and comfort levels with those machines. Today we might snicker at a person bewildered by a turntable, yet even those simple vinyl scrapers weren’t all that intuitive to use at first–we’ve just gotten comfortable with them. And no sooner do we feel at home with one technology, another comes along we have to learn. Sheesh!

Some of us throw our hands up and get off the merry go round–perfectly happy with vinyl or perhaps CDs. The problem with stopping your forward progress is two fold: you miss out on the improvements and features, and supplies of media begin to dry up. I think of technology’s progress like riding on a party bus. As the bus chugs along the party gets better and better and you’re having a hell of a good time. At one point it becomes too much and you get off. Life slows down. Times are quieter. You settle into a routine. You can hear the party on the bus as it goes by each day and you look longingly at the happy faces. Eventually, you hop back on.

Most of us have gotten comfortable with computers. We surf the web, we write emails, we pay our bills, we watch the news, we ask Google questions–all online. But what about playing our music?

In June of 2013, Apple’s music program, iTunes, had half a billion users worldwide. One year later, that number has grown to 800 million, a growth rate of 40%. In another year, they’ll likely pass 1 billion. There are 7 billion people on this planet; half of them access the internet daily, and nearly 1/3 of them use iTunes. That’s a lot of music being played on computers; both desktop and mobile versions.

And here’s today’s takeaway. Computers come in many forms.
I smile when someone tells me they don’t feel comfortable with a computer, then proceed to pull out their Android or iPhone and make a call or take a picture. The computers that ran the Space Shuttle are less sophisticated and complex than those running your television, phone, or car. Truth is, you interface with computers every day of your life. Unless you’re a relative of Ted Kaczynski, living in a shack out back, your life is filled with computers.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Getting music out of a computer.

Getting music out of a computer can be a challenge, yet the benefits often outweigh the struggle. For some it’s a daunting a task to even give it a go, preferring instead to play CDs or vinyl.

The thought might be, “I’ll wait until it’s easy.”

To make it easier there are a growing number of instruments that look like audio equipment, yet, are dedicated computers. Servers, NAS, our own Bridge, speakers with built in DACs ready to accept output from computers, all with the idea of closing the gap between easy plug and play and a degree in computer science.

I thought it might be instructive to start a new series on wrangling music from computers. Much has changed since I last looked into the subject and perhaps we can cover some of the progress made and where weakness still exist.

Tomorrow we’ll start with the basics, using iTunes.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

What is high end audio?

I had mentioned on our forums that there were several companies I did not believe aspired to produce high end audio products: McIntosh and B&O among them.

Ok, ok, I can see the fur flying already. Take a deep breath. This is not a put down. For the record, I admire both of the aforementioned companies: McIntosh for their superb build quality, measurement excellence and customer loyalty, B&O for style, innovation and leading edge ideas. But I don’t believe either aspires to produce high end audio products: McIntosh aspires to be the best built, greatest measuring luxury audio brand, while B&O the leader in style and innovation. Nothing wrong with either of those goals.

I don’t think there’s an industry standard, a qualifier to suggest this is high end audio, and that is not, so I wanted to open a dialog on the subject.

Where do we draw the line? What parameters do we use to define these categories so we’re all speaking a similar language? We can agree it isn’t price. There are plenty of pricey things that aren’t high end audio, as well as plenty of cheap things that are. We can likely agree it isn’t looks. There are plenty of snazzy products that don’t qualify, and an equal number that look like DIY kits, but few would argue they are not high end audio oriented.

No, I would suggest it is intent plus success at achieving a level of performance we can mostly agree upon (as Audiophiles). When the intent of a company is to design a product based on sound quality first, everything else second, I would suggest their intent is high end audio. On the other hand, if a company pushes specs and build quality first, it may be second to none, but that doesn’t a high end audio product make it.

Take a mass market product like Sonos. Their intent has never been sound quality that matters to Audiophiles (at least I can’t see it). They are the gold standard for usability, ease of operation, and hassle free music. But they are not high end audio, nor do they seem to aspire to be.

Or, take B&O. This is a great company, but their focus is style. I am guessing they style a product first, make it sound as good as possible second.

I am certain this is going to spark much debate, and that’s good. I didn’t write this as a put down to anyone or any company. No, quite the opposite. I own a Sonos system, I have owned B&O, I have lusted after McIntosh, and I am an Apple fan boy (and Apple is about as far away from high end audio as you can get).
But when it comes to high end audio there’s a line I draw that suggests this and that qualify – and these others don’t. And my standard is intent and performance. What were they trying to achieve and did they get close?

What’s yours?

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Step up and speak out

If you know someone that listens to music too loudly, on speakers, headphones or earbuds, do them and us a favor. Say something. Let them know the danger they are in. Let them know hearing damage is cumulative and irreversible.
If you can hear music from a person’s headphones from more than a couple of feet away, they are probably listening too loudly (the exception might be open earphones). If folks leave a concert with their ears ringing, it was likely too loud.

The explosion of personal listening devices has helped the cause of music, but with some unintended consequences. Hearing loss.

And as I mentioned, there’s no healing from damage. Once lost, it’s gone for good.

The sad truth is few know the potential for damage. And, as Audiophiles, we need to band together to speak up and let people know.

Step up, speak out.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Blanket statements

We all love to wrap thoughts and conclusions in blankets. It’s our brain’s way of categorizing complex data into chunks that can be more easily managed. But there’s often a downside to this. It can hold us back from experiencing that which is new to us.

Silver is always bright, copper is always mellow, that group of people always think this way, servers are a pain in the ass, Subaru drivers are overly cautious, vinyl sounds like…, digital sounds like…, this amp sounds like…, and the list of generalities goes on forever. None of us are immune.

The problem with issuing blanket statements is at the heart of our personal biases. I was asked yesterday my opinion on the sound of silver cables. My first reaction’s probably like yours, bright and aggressive, tizzy. Yet my favorite speaker cables are pure silver. The guys at MG Audio use construction techniques that are very different from what others do – and these differences account for a musical cable so good, not one of you would argue with me when you hear it. But, does that mean I should change my opinion–my blanket statement–that silver is bright? I think not. I shall simply add a footnote to my drawer full of assumptions.

I do my best to be a liberal in my thinking process: open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values. Others characterize themselves as conservative in theirs: holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation.

Blanket statements, even those describing liberal and conservative in thinking, are necessary to forming our individual worldviews.

We cling to our statements not out of an absolute truth, but out of truth as it has applied to you.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Copper’s sound

Yesterday’s post on wire gauge sparked a few questions that needed to be asked. The constant pulling of wire through tiny openings, 10, 12, perhaps 20 times to get the wire size you need must have some effect on the wire itself. And the question comes quickly. What impact does all this copper pulling have on the sound of wire, if any?

Talk about opening a hornet’s nest, let me start out by suggesting my evidence is strictly empirical–I have spent a great deal of time listening to different coppers–and can report to you they do make a difference. And, depending on the use, a big one. So, let’s look to see what’s happening.

Copper is a soft metal with high conductivity properties, second only to silver. Internally, most copper is formed from crystals and commonly referred to as polycrystalline (many crystals).

Each of the crystals are contained in many small regions called grains and between the grains are boundaries (called grain boundaries). The electricity must pass through these boundaries on its travels. There is another type of copper, called single crystal copper, which is made not from pulling copper through small openings, but by casting it into long strips of the exact diameter needed.

As copper is pulled through these many small openings, the grains are continually deformed, with increasing numbers of boundaries between the grains. The more you mess with the copper, the worse it gets at a microscopic level. And how you pull this wire has much to do with its character as well. For example, there are different types of copper, each depending on the process used: long grain, short grain, pure, impure, oxygenated, oxygen free, etc. Each type has different electrical characteristics that we can measure.

But the question at hand is this. Are these differing electrical properties audible?

Here’s what I can tell you from my limited experience. First, what holds true for power cables doesn’t always apply to audio cables, though in general they are close. I have never heard a difference when comparing oxygen free vs. oxygenated copper. I have heard improvements in long grain coppers and in particular single crystal vs. polycrystalline. And, for the record, there’s a definite difference between copper and silver. But, by far the biggest improvements in sound quality come from construction and gauge of wire.

That’s at least my experiences.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Wire gauges

When it comes to wire sizes, numbers are confusing. Take for example our power cords. Our lowest cost power cable is based on 12 gauge wire, the next up 10 gauge, then 8. And from these numbers you’d imagine the size of each power cord is getting smaller, corresponding to the smaller number, yet you would be wrong. 8 gauge wire is considerably thicker than 12, and 2 gauge wire is huge, while 30 gauge wire is as thin as hair. Why do the gauge sizes not match the numbers? Surely a higher number should describe a thicker wire. Right?

The answer to this puzzle is interesting. The number does not describe the size of the wire, but the number of process needed to get it there.

Wire starts out as a block of copper, which is pulled through a small opening called a die. This pulling process is called drawing, and it is the opposite of how toothpaste gets on your brush, or pasta comes out of a machine. Toothpaste and pasta are extruded, or pushed through a die. Wire is pulled, or drawn through a die. And you can only change copper’s shape so much before it breaks. The first pull of wire is 0 gauge and that’s really thick wire. To make it thinner, we start with 0 gauge and pull it through a smaller opening and we get One gauge, and so forth.
You can see that by the time we get to twenty gauge, or even 30 gauge, the copper has been pulled and pulled time and again to get that thin.

So the next time you’re at the nerd cocktail party and the inevitable question of wire gauge comes up, you will be in the know!