Golden Ears?

On June 11, 2011, in Audio, Headphones, Headset, iPod, Macbook, Macbook Pro, NAS, Original Blog, Speakers, by Larry Grinnell


MyMac.com’s very own John Nemo dared me to blog by sending me a link to an article in the New York Times about someone who wanted to build a music server, one of the very highest possible quality. He wanted to rip his CDs at full, uncompressed resolution, and use a fairly high-end digital to analog converter in the playback stream in order to extract the very best from his music collection.

Very interesting, and very admirable. The technology is sound (pun unintended for a change), and if ultimate quality is the goal, it’s great. I guess I’m not quite so hidebound about ultimate quality anymore, and based upon the crappy quality of many of the audio playback devices on the market today, fewer and fewer people are. Frankly, I’m not a “golden ear,” and never was. I’ve owned some decent music reproduction gear over the years, but, I don’t know…maybe it’s my near-57 year old ears that have been damaged by numerous flights in the back of uninsulated C-141 and C-130 aircraft, loud playback on earphones/earplugs beginning with the original Sony Walkman (purchased in 1980), and so on, which have lowered the bar on what is acceptable music reproduction quality.

As a true music lover, what interests me most is not the accuracy of sound reproduction, but the actual content. Besides, much of what I listen to (old jazz) was recorded in the 30s through the 50s, so quality isn’t always the best–usually far from the best.

I’m satisfied to pull up my iTunes library on my Plex media server, or to just plug my 160GB iPod Classic into my car’s audio system, because, most of the time, “good enough” really is good enough. The ears, working in concert (another pun?) with the brain, are nature’s greatest filter. I can enjoy a pockmarked old 78 or LP that spent much of its career being played with the equivalent of a pitchfork (one of my engineer friends used to refer to cheap record players as “carborundum groove gougers”) just as much as I can enjoy an audiophile LP pressing played back on a $10,000 Sota Turntable, into a $10,000 Audio Research tube preamp and power amp combo (that’s the cheap one) through a set of obscenely expensive Magneplanar speakers (the ones I aspire to own when I hit the lottery). Mind you, I hate listening to music through a tinny, cheapo $1.98 stereo system as much as the next guy, but there is a happy medium between that and the “golden ear” gear, with its $100,000 speakers, and, this is my favorite, $700 AC power cords, for which the golden ears enthused about how this AC power cord added a level of transparency and accuracy never heard before. Oh, please! It only goes to prove that P.T. Barnum was right: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Just remember that in the end, it’s the content that’s important. No need to get all mental about a pop, click, or scratch. Use your brain to filter it out and enjoy the music!

Likewise, the losses incurred by the conversion of a standard CD into an MP3 file are only really an issue if the sampling rate is insufficient to adequately reproduce harmonically rich sound. I often use the example of the muted trumpet solo on the evergreen tune “Sonny Boy” (on Marty Grosz’s “Swing It” album on the Jazzology label). I had originally ripped a number of CDs in my library at 128kb using a CD ripping application that at the time was considered state of the art, without too much of an issue. Then came this recording. The high degree of harmonic output from that muted trumpet (think Miles Davis and his muted trumpet solos) drove the digital to analog converter into a complete tizzy. It wasn’t that the tune was originally recorded at too high a level. It sounded great, played directly from the CD. I think it was that the digitizer/ripper could not adequately capture the extremely rich harmonic output of that muted trumpet and fell apart in sheer distortion, quantization noise, etc. When I re-ripped at 192kb, all was again right with the world. I have since re-ripped much of my collection at the higher sampling rate so I don’t have to experience that horrible cacophony ever again!

There are a number of media server solutions, and more hitting the streets every day. Using an old computer with one of these open source applications is a great way to corral and take control of your music library, letting you play items from your collection without having to go wading through it to find that “one obscure tune” you want to hear. With over 1300 CDs in my collection, many which are highly obscure, this can be a big issue. When I eventually finish ripping my CD collection, I’ll be a happy man, indeed. I’m maybe halfway through the task.

If you want to rip your collection with lossless compression (several options are open to you), or leave them completely native (AIFF or WAV format), good for you. Figure on storage requirements ten times higher than a decent quality (192 or 256kb sampling rate) MP3 collection. Hard drives are cheap, so even with a large collection, this shouldn’t be a big financial burden. My own storage system, a 7.5 terabyte NAS, is, for the most part, future proof. Cloud? Not for me, baby! I want my bits where I can see them.

Regarding the NY Times article, I don’t know why the author, intent on dedicating/repurposing his old laptop to music serving, didn’t just reformat his drive and reinstall his operating system. He spent way too much time on needless activity, cleaning out files, and trying to make space on his existing machine.

Oh, and before I forget, goodbye Roger. It was indescribably great to know you.

 

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