Tag Archives: hifi

Online Music Stores and Lossy Compression Redux

It’s 2011, why are Amazon.com and the iTunes Store still selling compressed music?

Because they know they can get at least two more “upgrades” out of you. They know they can increase the bitrate from 256 kbps to 320 kbps (while calling it CD “quality”, equivocating on quality – here meaning perceived quality), and then from there to lossless compression (mathematically equivalent to CD “quality”). Each time they might charge you an upgrade fee (or “forgo” it to increase loyalty) to alter your purchased music licenses to the latest standard and cover the relatively small cost of serving music downloads.

They also both sell  transducers (loudspeakers, headphones), and profit from the belief that buying more expensive equipment will result in higher perceived audio quality than will using source files with lower compression levels. While this may prove true for some (using the absolute worst DACs/transducers, or for those with impaired hearing), I doubt it is true for the majority of their clientele. Even on iPhone headphones or my Honda’s stock radio/paper-cone speakers, migrating from compressed to uncompressed music has yielded audible improvements.

It’s definitely not bandwidth or bandwidth cap issues.

With AT&T’s 20GB bandwidth cap, you can download 27 uncompressed CDs, or 54 losslessly compressed CDs, or 150 lossy (256 kbps) compressed CDs. That’s assuming each CD is full length (700 MiB).

For AT&T’s 150GB cap, those numbers change to 204, 408, and 1126 CDs respectively.

For Comcast’s 250GB cap, those numbers change to 340, 681, and 1877 CDs respectively.

Dynamic Range Compression

Online music stores also have an opportunity to continue differentiating themselves by pressuring labels to release “organic” remasters – forgoing, or with reduced dynamic range compression. Since music is increasingly consumed privately (as opposed to in ice cream parlors or on analog (tuned) radios half a century ago), they can fight the Loudness War. This differentiation complements increases in music quality as higher dynamic ranges benefit from decreases in compression.

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Budget Bookshelf Speakers

With multi channel audio codecs constantly being foisted on movie lovers, it seems people rarely eschew complexity for a simpler (but higher quality) 2.0 or 2.1 system. Instead, they make-do with the plastic- or metal-enclosed speakers that come with a home-theater-in-a-box kit.

When I first got in to hifi just before college, I decided I wanted a pair of 2-way bookshelf speakers. I made a list, read reviews, looked at prices, and finally listened to several different models. I ended up at Definitive Audio in Bellevue, comparing the B&W DM602 S3 against the Paradigm Mini Monitor (version III)*. (At the time, I was not aware of AudiogoN, where one can find used hifi gear.) Now that I have been paying attention to the hifi scene for longer, I thought it might help others to have a list of “budget” bookshelf speakers.

For the most part, they all have a 6.5 or 7″ woofer (excepting the S30), are ported, have a crossover point below 3 kHz, and can be had for under $1,000 new. Several are from manufacturers that have benefited from the Canada’s National Research Council. The Boston Acoustic, Energy, and Cambridge Audio speakers are the most affordable and can be readily found online. The B&Ws and Quads both use Kevlar woofers — which I did not like in the DM602 S3s — but include here because sound is subjective and they are well-reviewed. While it is not all-inclusive, I have purposefully excluded some makes**/models.

Check out review sites

A few humble notes on speaker design, audio industry

  • Ceteris paribus, heavier is better as one can infer a better cabinet and/or better internal bracing
  • A ported speaker will generally be capable of lower frequency extension than a sealed one, but a poorly tuned/designed port can have major downsides too
  • A lower crossover frequency used with a metal tweeter (versus a cloth one, ex. silk) requires a better engineered tweeter to avoid ringing
  • A front-facing port reduces the effects of room placement
  • Crossovers are hidden from view, and so manufacturers often cut costs here — sticking with a relatively simple 2-way design minimizes this risk
  • A speaker with a higher sensitivity is more efficient and will seem louder
  • It’s best to avoid budget speakers that advertise an upper frequency range above 20 kHz because common digital sources are only faithful to the Nyquist Frequency and most digital to analog converters (DACs) will produce artifacts above it
  • Power (watt) ratings are mostly meaningless
  • Ceteris paribus, a company that spends a greater proportion of its income on advertising/marketing will make an inferior product


*My former roommate bought the Paradigm Mini Monitors from me when I upgraded to floorstanding speakers.
**Atlantic Technology, Bose, Definitive Technology, Infinity, JBL, KEF, Klipsch, Mordaunt Short, Thiel, Wharfedale.

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