Andrew Everard

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MP3 is, by its very nature, lossy - I'm not sure whether you're after players or files, so I'll try to cover both.

Apple iPod players will support Apple Lossless audio, but this isn't MP3 - you see what happens when a term like MP3, Hoover or Sellotape becomes a generic term? The terms iPod and MP3 seem to have become interchangeable.

There's also a lossless form of Windows Media Audio (WMA), but this isn't supported by too many players, and FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec), which is an open-source format. FLAC reduces the file-size by about a half, but doesn't lose any bits in the process. But again, it's not supported by all players.

If you're talking about finding files, some hunting will be involved. But Linn Records, for example, makes some of its titles available as FLAC downloads - see here.
 

Clare Newsome

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Andrew's spot-on.

We did test all the various formats for a 'What MP3?' special, and Apple Lossless was the best-sounding of the bunch - though even at its best, it didn't match uncompressed (PCM) CD audio.

It enrages me that so many MP3 and even Apple AAC downloads are described as 'CD quality' when they are far from it. Even the DRM-free new iTunes downloads only have a 256kbps bitrate (standard iTunes downloads are a mere 128kbps).

Unless it's for a Shuffle or smaller nano, we'd strongly recommend ripping your own tracks at a minimum of 320kbps. That and a decent pair of headphones and you'll hear so much more from your portable/streamable tracks.
 
A

Anonymous

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[quote user="Clare Newsome"]
We did test all the various formats for a 'What MP3?' special, and Apple Lossless was the best-sounding of the bunch - though even at its best, it didn't match uncompressed (PCM) CD audio.
[/quote]

I didn't see that issue. Out of interest, was FLAC tested as well? A month or so ago when I got my Sonos, I had to choose whether to re rip my CDs in either FLAC or Apple Lossless and went for FLAC in the end. It sounds fine to me but now I think I might be missing out :)

Thanks,
James
 
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Anonymous

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[quote user="Clare Newsome"]We did test all the various formats for a 'What MP3?' special, and Apple Lossless was the best-sounding of the bunch - though even at its best, it didn't match uncompressed (PCM) CD audio.....[/quote]

This is incorrect.

Apple Lossless and FLAC are the audio equivalent of a Zip file. They don't lose any data, but merely pack it more efficiently. When 'unzipped' back to the original PCM format, an Apple Lossless file will be a bit-for-bit perfect copy of the data off of the CD.

If you heard a difference between the two, you either imagined it, or it was just an artefact of using different replay equipment.
 

Clare Newsome

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hi James,

We didn't test FLAC in that particular test (it wasn't as widespread then), but I have heard files in both, and i'd say they're broadly compatible. If you're happy with it, stick with it!

However, FLAC is not compatibile with iTunes, so if you were planning to port your music collection to an iPod, you won't have much luck....
 

Clare Newsome

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Sorry to contradict you, CS, but there was a definite - if minor difference - when you compare the original CD file to the Apple Lossless file on exactly the same equipment. Any form of conversion or manipulation can and does effect sound quality - which is why cables and connections are so important in the hi-fi world. Yes, even in the digital domain.
 
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Anonymous

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[quote user="Clare Newsome"]Sorry to contradict you, CS, but there was a definite - if minor difference - when you compare the original CD file to the Apple Lossless file on exactly the same equipment. Any form of conversion or manipulation can and does effect sound quality - which is why cables and connections are so important in the hi-fi world. Yes, even in the digital domain.[/quote]

Try this simple test :-

1. Import a CD into iTunes using AIFF or WAV format (ie. the original CD PCM format).

2. Within iTunes, convert the above file to Apple Lossless.

Now try playing both files through the same DAC/amp/speakers of your choice. You will not discern any difference, because there is no difference. As I said, an Apple Lossless file does not change the data at all, once played back in PCM format.

Note:- Make sure you have all the optional 'sound enhancements' in iTunes switched off, as some are 'on' by default.
 
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Anonymous

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cs,

Your point that a 'lossless' format packages the information differently but does not 'lose' any (as opposed to lossy codecs that dispense with data) is of course true. However, the point Clare is correctly making is that our reviewers have shown time and time again that ANY difference in processing or components can have an impact, however small, on sound quality.

While the Apple Lossless codec is, like FLAC, extremely efficient at rendering the original data (and to be fair, we recommended using lossless in our feature on the subject), it is still the case that our reviewers, myself included, perceived there to be a tiny difference in quality - in blind tests.

The uncompressed file of Regina Spektor's Fidelity on my laptop is a file of 38.3MB, with a bitrate of 1411 kbps. The Apple Lossless file of the same song is a file of exactly 24MB, with a bitrate of 881 kbps.

Yes, the lossless codec tries - and largely succeeds- to reconstitute all the original data. But this still involves a DIFFERENT coding and processing of the data, which to our ears has a small impact on quality.

All of that said, we HIGHLY recommend using lossless codecs for audio in hard drive or 'MP3'-based listening.
 
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Anonymous

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[quote user="dominic dawes"]....Yes, the lossless codec tries - and largely succeeds- to reconstitute all the original data. But this still involves a DIFFERENT coding and processing of the data, which to our ears has a small impact on quality.[/quote]

As part of my job (professional electronics engineer), I have access to software (Agilent SystemVue) which allows the comparison of such files, on a sample-by-sample basis.

I can verify that the test I have described yields identical sample values - that is, you can overlay and subtract the two waveforms to give a zero output. The packing, formatting and unpacking has had no effect on the PCM sample values.

If you have heard differences, it must be some other effect - most probably a slight difference in volume, where one file has been (maybe inadvertantly) scaled slightly relative to the other, which would introduce a difference in the quantising and hence audibility.
 
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Anonymous

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In the world of hi-fi and home cinema, there are many arguments, such as yours, which suggest this or that variable 'makes no difference to sound quality'.

As full-time professional reviewers, it is our view, based on much experience, that the alteration of almost any variable will have some effect, however small, on sonic performance. It should always be borne in mind that the 'data' in music consists of information of such astounding subtlety, that any difference in processing or setup - from the lengthening of a cable, to the distance between components, to an extra stage of digital processing - can indeed make a difference.

I'm sure the measurements you've taken show identical data streams. I'm equally sure - because it happened in front of my own eyes - that when I blind tested one of the most experienced hi-fi reviewers in the country with five different versions of two very different pieces of music (the 'versions' went from MP3 128 kbps up to uncompressed, and included Apple Lossless in each case), he rated them for sound with 100% consistency - with the uncompressed file scoring highest and the Apple Lossless file coming (a very close) second. Make of that what you will.
 
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Anonymous

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As I said, you must have inadvertantly made some other change to the file, which is not part of the lossless encoding process. Carefully check all your iTunes settings.

Lossless codecs, such as ALAC, FLAC, etc, are totally deterministic and reversible algorithms. So, if you take a 16 bit, 44kHz sample stream, convert to ALAC, then convert back again, the resultant sample stream will be identical to the original. There is absolutely no change or errors introduced by this process. You end up with the same file as you started with. Try it for yourself, and look at the files.

It's no different to zipping a Word doc, then unzipping it. You get back what you started with, error free.

Remember that effects such as distortion and jitter are only manifest during the D to A process. If you feed the same file into a DAC, you get the same audio output. Is that so difficult to understand ?
 

Mr.H

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[quote user="dominic dawes"]I'm equally sure - because it happened in front of my own eyes - that when I blind tested one of the most experienced hi-fi reviewers in the country with five different versions of two very different pieces of music (the 'versions' went from MP3 128 kbps up to uncompressed, and included Apple Lossless in each case), he rated them for sound with 100% consistency[/quote]

Blind tests mean nothing. Only properly analysed double-blind tests have any validity. There are many subtle signals that you can accidentally give away to the reviewer, however well intentioned you are.

You will know from the "wma lossless to iPod" thread that my views on Lossless are the same as cs's. So, I have a challenge for you:

You pick any track you like, rip it from CD in AIFF or WAV format, and take a 3 minute section from it (if the track is longer than 3 minutes). You then send me the file. I'll get my girlfriend to duplicate the file 9 times, and then convert the 10 files to Apple Lossless and back to AIFF/WAV (giving 20 files total - 10 original, and 10 converted to Apple Lossless and back again). She'll then randomly name all files one to twenty, keeping track of which are "original" and which have been converted to Apple Lossless and back again. She then gives the files to me on data CD to check their integrity. I then send the CD to you, and you have to determine which 10 files have been converted to Apple Lossless and back. You can ask as many people as you wish to help. The probability that you'd get it right by just randomly guessing would be 1 in 184,756. Let me know if you're up for it...
 
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Anonymous

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Hi everyone,

This is a very interesting debate not least because it is heretical to hifi buffs. I suggest that some of the questions that the debate highlights include:

1. Can anyone really hear any difference in a 'real' environment between these formats?

2. Alternatively, can anyone who is not a trained and experienced sound engineer/reviewer (much like a 'sniffer' trained to appraise perfumes or wine') really hear any difference? e.g. Computers that claim to show Xbillion collours when the human eye can only detect X divided by 10 colours.

3. Even if there is a difference if that difference is negligable or at least marginal, is it worth the extra cost for that difference?

For what it's worth I agree with everything that cs and Mr H have commented. I have an interest in psychology and alternative medicine and it is uncontroversial to state that unless the test is double blind it is pretty worthlesss. I like the idea of Mr 's test but wonder if WHFM will take the challenge as a 'wrong' result could bring down the house of cards!

Now I'm not saying that there's no validity in reviews because I certainly value reviewer's advice and opinion on how speakers and receivers etc sound and, clearly, a great pair of speakers is going to sound far better than a smaller/cheaper pair. I just have doubts that most people (if any) can really hear any difference in most pop/rock recordings whether at 128kb or 1441kb. Maybe my system isn't good enough to discern the difference (or more likely I'm going deaf in my old age!). I have an MT30 home cinema coupled to a Denon A1XVA connected to an Onkyo SR875. Maybe the Denon is working hard to make the most of the mp3?

What do others think? Shall we bring it on and maybe save ourselves thousands of £££ in future?!!?

:) Ian
 

Alec

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[quote user="ian757"]
Hi everyone,

This is a very interesting debate not least because it is heretical to hifi buffs. I suggest that some of the questions that the debate highlights include:

1. Can anyone really hear any difference in a 'real' environment between these formats?

2. Alternatively, can anyone who is not a trained and experienced sound engineer/reviewer (much like a 'sniffer' trained to appraise perfumes or wine') really hear any difference? e.g. Computers that claim to show Xbillion collours when the human eye can only detect X divided by 10 colours.

3. Even if there is a difference if that difference is negligable or at least marginal, is it worth the extra cost for that difference?

For what it's worth I agree with everything that cs and Mr H have commented. I have an interest in psychology and alternative medicine and it is uncontroversial to state that unless the test is double blind it is pretty worthlesss. I like the idea of Mr 's test but wonder if WHFM will take the challenge as a 'wrong' result could bring down the house of cards!

Now I'm not saying that there's no validity in reviews because I certainly value reviewer's advice and opinion on how speakers and receivers etc sound and, clearly, a great pair of speakers is going to sound far better than a smaller/cheaper pair. I just have doubts that most people (if any) can really hear any difference in most pop/rock recordings whether at 128kb or 1441kb. Maybe my system isn't good enough to discern the difference (or more likely I'm going deaf in my old age!). I have an MT30 home cinema coupled to a Denon A1XVA connected to an Onkyo SR875. Maybe the Denon is working hard to make the most of the mp3?

What do others think? Shall we bring it on and maybe save ourselves thousands of £££ in future?!!?

:) Ian

[/quote]

no offence, but im not at all sure what you've just said. exactly waht are you doubting the diference between in a "real" environment...?
 
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Anonymous

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Hi. Good post Ian!

First, I must agree with you with the idea of the House of Cards, especially in this forum and this magazine. I do think they make a very good job in testing equipment and aiming for the best, but in many cases it's really misleading.
Most reviewers usually end up saying "good for the price", "you won't find anything better at this price", or then they test many products under the title "best xxx under 1000", and they end up choosing the one which costs 999.99. But even then, at the end, they say "but not as good as my many million xxx.

Hence, I like your comments, especially 1 and 2, regarding whether people can actually hear a difference in a "real environment", and what I understand by this is simply the environment and conditions where you usually listen to your music. I enjoy listening to music, and I want to get the most out of it, but I don't really call listening to music sitting in my sofa for hours changing sources and components, and just listening to a 5 second extract to see which one sounds slightly better. I'm talking about real differences, which will make you miss, let's say for example, your equipment, when you're using another one. Or put it this way, suppose you had two rooms in your house with different equipment. One system is better than the other if you would only listen to music in one of them, and never in the other.

Regarding the original purpose of this thread, I must say that I'm a big supporter of lossless files. Generally, and especially in your home environment, listening to lossless instead of mp3 doesn't really incur a bigger expense. Hence, I'd always recommend to listen to lossless, even if it's not possible to tell them apart. Just rip all your cds to lossless and that's it. An ipod worth £150 can store 160 cds in lossless format. These 160cds would cost at least £800, hence spending around 10% of the cost of your music on the source it's really a good deal in my own opinion. So this is my response to what you suggested, "Shall we bring it on and maybe save ourselves thousands of £££ in future?".

However, the matter of choosing which source to use can make a huge difference in the cost of your equipment. There're cd players for £50, and some for 100 times this price or even more, around £10,000. Is it worth it? Or, is there at least any difference in a "real environment", as described above? That's my question and that's what I want to know!

Cheers,

also, can you check my other post, iPod playing lossless vs CD player, http://whathifi.co.uk/forums/p/12574/83021.aspx#83021, and tell me what you think?
 
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Anonymous

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Hi Al,

The main point I'm making in connection to your reply is as follows.

Can anyone tell the difference between mp3s burned onto a cd and the source cd in their living room even at 128kbs? Some people say that you can if you turn it up very loud. Is that correct? I recently burned 'The Best of Roxy Music' frrom an SACD onto a cd at 128kbs and found it hard to tell any difference. When I thought I could hear a difference it may well have been just that the vollume was slightly louder on one of the discs.

Ditto for 256kbs all the way up to 881kbs. Is there a point at which the human ear in any environment, let alone in a living room maybe walking around or just changing position slightly, cannot discern any difference?

If we can't discern any difference but some people 'think' they can it puts into doubt their ability to discern quality differences in other tests.

Ian
 
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Anonymous

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Hi. I definitely agree, especially with the last point.
I'll repeat that I'm not that interested in the mp3 lossless comparison, since, as I said in my previous post, that has a very simple and cheap solution. However, I definitely agree that "If we can't discern any difference but some people 'think' they can it puts into doubt their ability to discern quality differences in other tests". Also, I think the mp3 lossless comparison can be used for giving a standard for audio quality. When people say a cd player of £1000 sounds much better than a £50 one, do they mean that this difference is comparable with, what I least for me, is the difference between a 128 mp3 an a lossless file? If so, I believe the £1000 cd player is a waste of money.

I also burnt many files in mp3 and lossless in an audio cd and listened to them with my Marantz cd player and Sennheiser headphones, and the difference is so subtle that I'm not sure it even exists. What usually happens is that I find a particular sound to be of slightly different quality in the lossless file, but then when I recheck with the mp3 I also find that same quality present in the mp3. So, maybe there something, not even audible, I'd say, that makes me notice more subtleties in the lossless file, but then this subtlety is also in the mp3, just what makes me notice it more clearly is missing in the mp3. However, this statement lacks a reasonable explanation, since if I'm using just my ears as input, then if there's any difference it's because my ears are hearing it, and hence the sound is different. Hence I mainly believe that it's a subconscious thing that when I listen to lossless I pay more attention to details than when with the mp3. Let's say "I don't trust the mp3".

(just a comment about your experiment: maybe you knew it but just in case someone reading this didn't, the file you imported from the sacd, it's actually imported from the cd layer of it, hence it's the same as if it was imported form a non sacd cd)
 
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Anonymous

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[quote user="Clare Newsome"]Andrew's spot-on.

We did test all the various formats for a 'What MP3?' special, and Apple Lossless was the best-sounding of the bunch - though even at its best, it didn't match uncompressed (PCM) CD audio.
[/quote]

Clare, you're completely wrong. It worries me that you're running a magazine.
 

professorhat

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[quote user="ian757"]Can anyone tell the difference between mp3s burned onto a cd and the source cd in their living room even at 128kbs?[/quote]

Definitely. I can tell the difference between an MP3 encoded at 128kbs compared to one encoded at 320kbs, let alone the source CD. Some people may not be able to, in which case, fair enough, don't worry about it for you. The only way to tell is to try for yourself.

The original argument is about lossless though - I've never tried listening to different lossless files, I suspect I probably couldn't tell a difference. However, that doesn't mean that because I can't no one else should be worried about it. If the guys at WHF can tell a difference, they're entitled to report that so that people can make up their own minds from this and try for themselves. If you can't, don't worry about it.

I don't know why there always has to be such a big argument about these things!
 
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Anonymous

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Well, I agree and disagree in part with you.
Lossless is better, obviously, just analyse the spectrum in an audio program and see that the edges of the wave are smoother in the lossless file compared to mp3. But then, lossless against cd audio!!! It's exactly the same! It's the same function, no difference at all, just check it graphically! How can you claim you hear a difference if you can't even see it with a dedicated program? It could be that a source, like an ipod, is better at decoding lossless than audio, but I don't believe that. Computers don't really work like this, they're deterministic in what they do. As I type this message it types what I input to it, not random words. If there's a spelling mistake it's because I made it, not because when I typed "A" my computer put "B".
Also, then Clare goes to say that if you match it with a decent pair of headphones "you'll head much more" from the mp3 than the lossless file. That's also a lie! Or at least I can't hear this difference at all! I have a decent pair of Sennheiser headphones, and it makes no difference which format I'm listening too in an ipod!!! The point is whether by using a high end cd player and amplifiers anyone could be able to tell file formats apart, but not by just using an ipod and decent headphones.
 

professorhat

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[quote user="bf2008"]Also, then Clare goes to say that if you match it with a decent pair of headphones "you'll head much more" from the mp3 than the lossless file. That's also a lie! Or at least I can't hear this difference at all![/quote]

So because you can't hear it, it's a lie? That's fairly egotistical...

Also, I think you're understanding of digital data and it's transport from one system to another is fairly basic. You'd be amazed how much error control goes on in standard computers once you start transporting data around.
 
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Anonymous

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Well, I said "it's a lie or at least I can't hear it".

And then, yes, my understanding is probably basic, but could you explain us further the transport of information and how it can get "damaged" on its way? Also, could you point us to other examples where I can see this modification of the original information taking place?
 

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