Lossy files sacrifice data for brevity. Lossy files can be very small relative to their original versions and they get smaller by throwing away musical data. The smaller they get, the more data is lost. They hope you won’t notice what’s missing, like the grocer who puts his thumb on the scale.
The most famous of the lossy files, MP3, allows data storage and transfer of music files with relatively low space and bandwidth. Without MP3 the entire iPod and portable music player phenomena would likely never had existed.
It’s perhaps accurate to suggest 99% of all music enjoyed by billions of people around the world is heard through the lens of an MP3 (or similar) lossy container. Uncompressed files, even losslessly compressed files, are not the norm. Not even close.
What’s the point of accepting loss of data in your files, and who cares?
The answer to the first question gets fuzzier nearly every day. Originally, the point was storage and bandwidth restrictions. There simply wasn’t enough storage and streaming/download bandwidth to go around. Now that has changed, at least in first and second world countries, with third worlds catching up quickly. So, why are we still so concerned with compressing data? Cost is one answer. Regardless of what’s available, it still costs money to store and send data around the world. That’s likely to always be true.
And as to the second question, who cares. I can tell you without reservation billions of music lovers around the world don’t care about loss of some fidelity, and likely they’re unaware there was anything to lose in the first place. The small handful of folks like you and me that do care appear as anomalies to those in charge of data storage and transmission. It’s likely we don’t even make a blip on the radar.
Except… and that’s what we’ll cover tomorrow.
In yesterday’s post I had mentioned that I get questions on the two compression types, lossy and lossless. Some have questioned the term compression and wonder, if it’s compressed how can it be lossless? Is it a marketing scam or is it real? Probably worth spending a few minutes on this subject.
Lossless is indeed lossless. This means an identical copy can be extracted once uncompressed.
If you’ve ever gotten a ZIP file you’re already familiar with compressing data. You would never expect to unpack a ZIP file and have your picture, text or document anything less than perfect. Audio compression of the lossless nature is the same.
The best known lossless compression schemes, FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) and ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec), are both able to compress a music file into about half the space of the original. Uncompress it and the bits are identical. There are other lesser known schemes just as accurate too, like MLP (Meridian Lossless Packing), WavPack, TAK, Monkey’s, WMA, OptimFROG, TTA, among others. The list is long.
There is a lot of talk amongst Audiophiles that despite the fact lossless files are unquestionably bit perfect, they don’t sound the same. How could that be? Well, for one thing, the amount of processing resources required to unpack a lossless file are far greater than those playing the original WAV file. If for no other reason, the extra number crunching impacts noise, jitter and increases power supply demands. So while the bits are identical, the payback demands are not.
If you download a compressed lossless file, uncompress it, and place it on your hard drive, that file will now sound identical to the same file on the same hard drive that had never been compressed. In other words, compressed or uncompressed the bits are the same.
Playback of compressed bits has different demands than playback of uncompressed bits. Hence, sound quality varies depending on the hardware reproducing it.
But that should be no surprise.
I am often asked about the difference between lossy and lossless and what it actually means. I am also asked why our DAC natively only supports one and not the other.
Lossy means to lose something: in this case, musical information. Lossless, means the opposite: all the musical information is preserved.
Why would we want one over the other?
Both terms refer to compression, the practice of squeezing more out of less. In this case, more data in less space. There was a time when memory and bandwidth were more precious than they are today. And back then whatever designers could do to squeeze more data into a smaller space meant more songs could be placed on hard drives, and hard pressed networks could stream music to more people without clogging up.
More, more, more.
There’s only so much you can do to squeeze more into a smaller space if you’re unwilling to lose information. Lossless file types, like FLAC and ALAC, squeeze about twice as much data into the same size container as their uncompressed versions. To get more data into a smaller space you need to start giving up some of your data. Lossy.
Lossy files can range from not losing much to losing a hell of a lot, and everywhere in between. The most famous of the lossy files is MP3. What’s interesting about MP3 is its variability. MP3 can range from the very compressed to the not so compressed, depending on the intent of the person compressing the data. I’ve heard MP3 files that squeezed double the amount of data into half as much space as a lossless file and they weren’t half bad. Not half bad at all. Listenable, especially if you’re not in the critical listening mode.
We’ll look at some other file types tomorrow.
Our financial controller, Keenan Haga, likes to run. He likes it a lot. Check out his website. He’s one of only a handful that has run 50 marathons before he was 50.
One of the reasons he runs is for the earned energy, called endorphins. Endorphins charge you up after exercising and, if you exercise enough, you start to depend on them, hunger for them, like a junkie. Endorphins are the prize I get after a morning run, though my efforts are paltry compared to Keenan’s.
Energy you earn is superior to energy you force into something (like the “energy” of caffeine). Take for example a DAC.
We’re in the middle of the final voicing of Torreys, the new operating system for DirectStream and DirectStream Junior. And one of the things that strikes me most is the energy some of the versions present. We voice the DAC by careful listening to different compilations of FPGA code. Each compile sounds different than the other.
On some versions voices, both human and instrumental, seem to resonate with an energy that is very close to the spine tingling reactions we get at a live performance. Yet other versions are dull, lifeless, and sound recorded.
I suppose you could duplicate the energy some versions present by artificially pumping up a certain frequency range, adding energy artificially, but I bet it would never sound the same or have the sense of magic I hear in these version changes.
I think energy, naturally acquired through the hard work of exercising or voicing products, will always trump external attempts to add in something that isn’t natural.
Better to earn it than to force it.
We’re a cutting edge company. We like to think we’re continually pushing the limits of technology. But in a sober moment, I wonder what are the limits?
If you had asked me that question when we first launched the PerfectWave Transport, or the DAC, I would have told you we had reached the limits of the possible. In hindsight and with the launch of DirectStream and its associated products, I recognize that imaginary limit fell quickly by the wayside.
And if you ask me the same question today, I’d reply with the same answer. DirectStream bumps up against the limits of the possible, certainly the practical. DACs and transports today can deliver dynamics covering the pressure differential of a single molecule against the eardrum, to standing next to a 747 engine at full throttle. What more could we possibly hope to achieve?
And yet we manage to achieve more: greater levels of musicality and realism on a near daily basis.
Limitations are self imposed, they do not actually exist.
Perhaps its our horizons that need to be expanded instead.
When you’re going to construct a tall building you first need to dig down to bedrock to can anchor its foundation.
The same can be said for building a high performance music system. Without firm foundations decisions we make in building materials are suspect.
Take for example cables: the nails we use to bind the building parts together. Cables are typically chosen for their synergistic contributions to the overall sound, yet often, they’re used as a crutch to prop up a weak foundation.
Imagine you built your system without consideration of proper power conditioning, taking whatever the wall AC gives you. You’d be faced with weaker bass, dirty, grungy, upper harmonic structure to the music. The cables you subsequently choose would likely try to compensate for the failings of the power. You’d find cables that rolled off the upper end, thus reinforcing the lower regions and obfuscating the grunge.
Then one day you decide to fix the AC power. Now your system seems bass heavy, duller, out of whack.
If you have the luxury of starting fresh, make sure you check with your architect first.
It takes some digging to reach bedrock, but once anchored, the rest gets easy.
In yesterday’s post I had mentioned we have invested a lot of money in state of the art measurement equipment. That equipment finds all manner of little distortions, noises, jitter, and frequency anomalies we would never have found without it. It’s absolutely worth the investment we’ve made. Yet, it cannot measure much of what our ears can. This fact drives Dave Paananen, our Director of Engineering, bonkers. And not just Dave either. The entire team is challenged to deliver properly engineered new products, as well as maintaining and servicing existing products, based on someone’s opinion that it “sounds good”.
It sometimes feels like an impossible challenge, one unique to our industry.
And yet there are many examples of this same frustration within other industries. Take art for example. Imagine you were responsible for choosing which art has enough value to go in your museum, store, or client’s home. Or food. Restaurants (even McDonalds) live and die by taste and the opinions of others.
When your company’s products are defined by taste, creativity, or sonic accuracy, and the final measurements are a matter of someone’s opinion, the ballgame changes from that of a simple right or wrong, to one of multiple shades of gray. (Probably more than 50).
Let us not stress too much over the fact our machines cannot quantify that which we can taste, feel, smell, or hear.
You don’t need a machine to back up what you already know.
We spend lots of money on measurement equipment. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in fact. These instruments help us ensure the products you get measure correctly and perform as they were designed. And these same measurement tools aid our engineers in developing new products, quantifying changes made in their design. Yet there is much we hear but cannot yet measure.
If you ever wanted proof of this, you’d get it on our forums. We’ve recently launched a beta test of the new DirectStream firmware called Torreys (named after one of Colorado’s many 14,000 foot peaks). The praise for its improvement to sound has been near universal. Raves in fact. But we did discover some bugs.
The bugs were not hard to fix, required no changes to the basic architecture designer Smith had built, and we released a fixed version to a handful of users with a simple caveat. “Pay no attention to the sound quality, just let us know if the bugs are fixed.”
They did, and the bugs were fixed. But they could not restrain themselves from commenting on the sound, which they were told to ignore, but hated none the less. Not one of them could listen for long and they all had the same comments: dull, flat, lifeless, etc. None of the testers know each other, they are scattered throughout the world, their equipment as varied as strangers in a crowd.
Whenever changes–even small ones–are made to the firmware we have to voice the DAC anew. Voicing does not involve changes to the firmware itself, we compile multiple versions and go through a day-long process of choosing the right sound.
Try and measure differences between versions and the meters just cough and die. There are no measurable differences. Yet the ears hear them easily.
Of course this means we’re better measuring devices than our meters. It doesn’t mean meters can never measure something.
This post isn’t about meter bashing.
It’s about levels of acuity.
It’s risky being an Audiophile: a perfectionist, a quest seeker. You risk ridicule and failure.
Some say better to be safe then to look like a schlemiel.
And yet, safe is often boring, with little in the way of reward.
As I have gotten older I am less worried of criticism than when I was younger. Younger means you’re still testing the waters, working on establishing your mark, ranking, position within the group. You’re uncertain, often covering up doubt with bravado.
And then one day you look around and realize everyone else seems in the same boat and you can relax a little, take more chances, hope for more reward.
Our shared passion for things better is risky business, but the rewards are worth the risk.
The next time you lower the lights, close your eyes as the music envelops you, just remember you’re being treated to something only the smallest of the smallest groups on the planet get to appreciate.
Revel in it.
“Obsessed is a word that the lazy use to describe the dedicated.”
I am not sure where that quote came from or who said it, but it rings true.
At times I feel shamed that I am obsessed with achieving higher levels of sound quality, like a junkie needing another fix, but the high I get when the veils are removed and the music is set free is intoxication enough.
Obsessed seems to have many negative connotations attached to it, while dedicated lends credibility to the endeavor; a sort of blessing.
Words are funny.