Note: I am going to do my best to keep this article from becoming overly technical. There are loads of technical information available on line. For this article, I will attempt to keep things in simple terms anyone can understand, without trying to insult those with some knowledge on the subject. BTW – this is a lot harder than it sounds!
Chapter 1, where I give away just how old I really am
Do you remember going to your favorite record store (what are these records you speak of? Heck, what are these record STORES you speak of?) Do you remember spending hours searching through bins looking for your new favorite artist or an album that had slipped in under the radar? Back then we didn’t have the internet, so we relied on record stores and their knowledgeable employees for our music information. Do you remember racing home to play your new music, listening to every song, IN ORDER, while reading the album’s liner notes over and over until you had them memorized? There was something special about this whole experience. Collecting and listening to music was life changing for many people. It was for me. And it was fun.
Setting aside time to listen to music, an entire album, is something few of us do any more. We simply don’t have the time, partially because we are simply too busy. But I think another reason is that the way we collect music has changed. Record stores are becoming a thing of the past, as your favorite music is just a mouse click away. Now you can purchase a new album while sitting in your underwear, never leaving your house (if you do – put some pants on please) and enjoy it seconds later. This has revolutionized the music industry, for better and for worse. Better because a wider variety of music is now readily available, and smaller bands can have successful careers. I have discovered some fantastic music while surfing through iTunes, music I would have never been exposed to otherwise. Oh, and owning music has become cheaper. And I guess you could argue more environmentally friendly (fewer CDs in land fills.) So what could possible be bad about this? Read on.
Oh, I’m 47 by the way.
Chapter 2, where convenience trumps quality
Delivering music via the internet, and storing it on computers and iPods, requires that the music be compressed to smaller file sizes. Or so we were told. You see, back when music was first becoming digital downloads we had slow internet speeds. And hard drives were small and expensive. So the “powers that be” decided that music should become compressed into tiny little files called MP3s. For all intents and purposes, an MP3 is a compressed version of the original song. A song can be converted to an MP3 using different bit rates. The lower the bit rate, the smaller the file, and the more songs you can fit on your computer or iPod. However, the lower the bit rate, the lower the sound quality. And unfortunately, most music downloaded from the internet is at very low bit rates.
And so people became obsessed with owning as much music as possible, and loved that fact that it could be easily transported almost anywhere. I think if someone had told me when I was a growing up that I would one day be able to carry thousands of albums around with me on something the size of a pack of playing cards, I would have thought they were either insane or on drugs. Or both. And yet we do this everyday, and take it for granted! I use my iPods (yes – I have several of them) and could not imagine ever giving them up. But I also recognized what I had to give up for this convenience … mainly quality. And the magical experience of listening to an entire album while immersed in the liner notes.
The “high-end” audio community lashed out against this form of music. They tried to convince us that it sounded horrible. That we weren’t “listening” to music. That anyone who loved music would never be caught dead listening to an iPod unless it was in our car or while jogging. Which of course, according to them, isn’t “listening” to music anyway. They even created music formats that were much higher quality than the CD (DTS music CDs? SACD? DVD-Audio? Anyone? Anyone?)
Of course, we all realized how right they were, threw away our iPods and digital downloads, invested tens of thousands of dollars (or more) in high end audio gear, and got back to listening to music, right?
Chapter 3, where a few smart companies realize that music is music, no matter where it comes from
So a few intelligent manufacturers (and one local retailer – see below) decided that if this was to be the future of music, then why not embrace it rather then fear it. Peachtree Audio is one such company that decided to focus on how to make the music we now have on our computers and our iPods sound better. And they have been very successful doing just that. From simple external DACs (digital to analog converters that breath new life into old equipment) to iPod docs (that make your music sound so much better) to complete integrated solutions (just add speakers and a computer for music nirvana) Peachtree has carved a nice little niche for themselves.
And you want to know a secret? A secret that much of the “high end” audio community does not want you to know? It’s this: that a computer can be the best source for high-end music. Better than CDs, LPs, anything. This is a fascinating topic that I will save for a future article. But suffice it to say that if you really care about the quality reproduction of music, high definition music downloads will be in your future soon. You already own a computer, so you’re part of the way there already!
That said, there are things you can do to improve the sound quality of music stored on your computer and iPod that cost little or no money. Start by increasing the bit rate at which you rip your CDs. 320 is the highest MP3 bit rate, and it’s the only MP3 bit rate I would ever consider. A better option is to rip your music in a “lossless” format. In the PC world this is called FLAC, and Apple uses Apple Lossless. These are interesting options that shrink the file size of each song to roughly half, but maintain the same sound quality as the original CD. It’s a shame that Apple didn’t just go ahead and support FLAC, and it’s for this reason that Hermary’s prefers AIFF as the best option for ripping your music. It’s basically a bit for bit copy of the original CD. Just realize that your music library will take up a lot more room on your computer hard drive, and you may not be able to get all your music onto your iPod.
iTunes is one of the most popular programs used for ripping and playing back music on a computer. And it does a decent job. But there’s a wealth of programs available that you can use instead of, or in addition to iTunes to improve the sound quality of your digital music. One of my favorite ways to quickly and (relatively) cheaply improve iTunes sound quality is with a program called “Pure Music”. The main advantage of this program is that you still use iTunes as your interface to your music. But Pure Music takes over all of the sound reproduction, and simply sounds better. It also allows iTunes to play back FLAC files, and opens the world of high resolution digital music downloads to you. Come in for a demo, or download the program for a 15 day trial period for free.
Chapter 4, where listening to music becomes fun again
So you’ve got your music on your computer and/or your iPod. But who wants to walk over to a computer to start the music playing? Not me. And I’m really not THAT lazy. Since most of us already have iPhones, or iPads, Apple has made it very easy to talk to your iTunes music library from these devices. It’s a free app called “Remote”, and if you are using iTunes, and have an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad, it’s indispensible. What a joy to be able to browse all your album covers, and with the touch of a button have said album begin playing instantly. Of course, it’s not the only option available. And this article has just scratched the surface of what is out there.
There are many options available, but suffice it to say that they all begin with music residing on a computer or, better yet, a networked hard drive. But where on Earth could you possibly go to help navigate the wealth of information and choices?
Chapter 5, where this somewhat informative article turns to blatant self promotion
So while many A/V retailers (no names please) continue to tell their customers that digital music is the devil’s doing, or have forgotten all about music and only focus on home theater, Hermary’s has quietly positioned itself to be your computer audio specialist. Need proof? Simply come visit our showroom. Is that an iPod doc in our 2-channel listening room? Why yes it is, thank you very much – but no ordinary iPod dock. This iPod dock will make the music on your iPod sound better than ever, no matter what bit rate it was recorded at. Don’t believe me? Bring yours in and we will prove it! Is that wall-mounted iPad really streaming music wirelessly to a pair of speakers, speakers sitting all by themselves with no receiver or amp hooked up to them? You bet. And what’s that Apple iMac doing over there in the corner? Is it possible that the music coming from a computer and small but gorgeous looking speakers can really sound that good? Yes. Absolutely.
Our staff can show you the many options that are available, and help you select that one that is best for your needs and your budget. Of course, this is what we’ve been doing for over 40 years, and why we are still around while other retailers have come and gone. Best of all, we will help fuel your desire to discover your music collection all over again. And if you love music, that’s really what it’s all about.
In a future installment, I will talk about manufacturers who have embraced high-end audio sound and build quality without the high end audio price tag. But next will be the annual report of what impressed us at this years Consumer Electronics Show, which is the second week of January in Las Vegas.