Monday, 23 November 2009

hi fidelity can you hear me?

One of the consequences of shuffling things around in my man room is that I have finally set up my iTunes library so that it can be listened to through my best stereo. Like most people, getting an iPod back in the day was a tremendously liberating experience: suddenly I could carry a huge swathe of my record collection with me at all times. Now, if I wanted to listen to 2ManyDJs on a flight back from Australia or Scott III whilst sat at my desk at work, both albums were only ever a few clicks away. Brilliant. It was an innovation that really opened up the depths of my record collection, and the little CD wallet I used to carry around everywhere has quietly remained untouched since I got a connection that made my iPod work in the car -- with the CDs it contained still filed within, Billy Joel's Greatest Hits and all.

I quickly ripped a hefty chunk of my CDs and put them back on the shelf, where many of them have remained untouched ever since. I discovered a while ago that my CD copy of "By The Way", long kept in my car, was scratched beyond any hope of ever being played again. Given that I almost never play CDs now, it hardly seemed to matter. I had the album on my iPod and on my computer. Why would I ever need the CD again? And even if I did, I could just burn myself another copy. I still buy CDs, but now I rip them and most often never play the actual disc ever again.

Needless to say, this has led a lot of people to look at their CD collections and wonder why the hell they bother keeping them: why not free up the space and perhaps make a few quid by selling the CDs on? I've never been tempted. I have CDs lying all over the house, but just as I like books as tangible things and can't be doing with the idea of a Kindle, I have no desire to shift over to a record collection that sits exclusively online. I back my computer up every day, but the CDs are something of a fail-safe fallback, aren't they? (Rather stupidly, I also don't really like the way that downloaded albums tend to clog up my "recently purchased" playlist, much preferring them to disappear neatly into my artist and album filing on iTunes.)

Real audiophiles talk about how the compressed MP3 is markedly inferior in quality to physical storage formats like CDs and records. Until recently, I wouldn't say that I'd ever really noticed the difference: after all, I do most of my listening to my iPod through a pair of headphones, through my car stereo when I'm driving or on a little portable speaker dock thing that I carry around the house. Since connecting up my decent stereo to iTunes though, I've suddenly realised what they're talking about.

My decent stereo system consists of an Arcam Alpha 3 amplifier, a decent Rotel CD player and some Infinity bookshelf speakers. I say "decent", but in reality it was only a decent entry level separates system when I bought it back in about 1991 and I have no idea how it stacks up in terms of audio performance now. Two things were for certain though - it was better than any of the other stereos I was using and it was totally wasted hidden in the spare bedroom behind the futon. As I rearranged that room to become my man room, that stereo - with some new speaker cable - was suddenly centre stage and the connection to iTunes via airtunes means I am now listening to it all the time.

In the main, the streamed music sounds great, but out of idle curiosity, and a desire to hear how good the CD player still sounded, I did a side-by-side comparison of a song played through the amp/speaker: one streamed via iTunes, the other played directly via the CD player. As it was LB's idea, the song I chose was "Atlantic" by Keane, and the difference was immediately clear.... the CD version was louder, richer and warmer sounding than the MP3 equivalent. At a stroke, I realised the compromise inherent in the MP3 format and the impact if makes on the quality of the music we listen to. Not such a big deal through headphones or a crappy speaker dock, but as clear as a bell on a decent sound system. I'm hardly an audiophile, but the difference really is striking, even to my heavy-metal damaged ears. I realise that you can increase the quality of the files that you rip, but the trade-off is that they take up loads more space. If you want to carry huge numbers of files around, as I do, then you compromise the sound quality. I knew that before I did the test, I just hadn't appreciated how big a compromise that is.

I was never going to be selling my library of CDs, and I'm still going to mainly be listening to my iTunes library through those speakers simply because it is so convenient. What this discovery has done though is to make me even more reluctant to purchase whole albums electronically through the internet. Why would I? It's more convenient, but it's often no cheaper (the Air CDs that I bought on yesterday evening were £4.99 each and £7.99 to download from iTunes). It's not that I won't continue to buy or to listen to MP3s, it's just that I don't like the idea that I'm now knowingly buying something of an inferior quality and, without the CD, will have no recourse to a better quality sound should I want it.


Incidentally, I am having some annoying intermittent drop-out problems with this airtunes set up, where a song will be happily playing, cut out for a few seconds and then come back. I thought this was related to the old stereo connection cable I was using between the amplifier and the airport, but I replaced that and I'm still hearing the problem every so often. I'm not having the problem with my other 2 (newer) airports hooked onto my network, but this one (running v6.3 of the firmware) is the only one that cuts out, even if for a few seconds every hour or so. It could be the amplifier, I guess, but I've heard that airtunes can have these problems. If anyone's got any bright ideas about what I can do to fix this, then I'm all ears.....


... yeah, that's the way.  New URL, new start.... let's really wow'em with the first post proper, eh? Something cool, yet accessible.  Subtle, but witty and erudite.  Above all, something not in the least bit geeky.

...oh. Bugger it.



  1. I note the word "louder". Surely it would be a fairer test to adjust the input levels so that the volume is the same from both sources?

    (Ps. As this is my idea, can you test it on something other than Keane)

    Given the advantages of portability that the ipod delivers are not necessary in your house, why not consider something like this? - CD quality, no searching for discs.

  2. Dear Mr Swisslet,

    Doh! Use lossless AAC when importing good quality recordings. Yes the files are big, but the improvement in sound quality is audible at every level.

    The eye in the sky