Personal blog and comfy corner of Lyra Rhodes: musician, cake aficionado, whinger...maybe just a place where I can stuff things (words!), rather than them falling down the back of the sofa

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Why iPod docks have SUCH a lot to answer for

Here's the thing.

When we had HiFi at home...

Do you remember when most folks had a 'HiFi' in their lounge? Perhaps a 'music centre' or even a separate amplifier, cd player, turntable - that kind of thing. Do you remember that? It's not so long ago really, I don't think I'm referring to the dark ages as such.......
Along came these things called 'mp3 players', from manufacturers like Archos, Zune, Sony, all kinds of little things. But we all waited for the iPod...didn't we? A cute little thing that could store your whole record collection, and using this piece of software on your home computer (iTunes) to create playlists....
And we could then put SO SO much of this music onto these devices, and carry them around with us. Like being 80s kids (that was me) with our Walkman devices again....
For me, that never worked.
The sound quality has always been poor on these devices.

I might well be an Audiophile...

You might paint me as an "audiophile", eh? That the sound is "good enough", and I must be some kind of purist, and why would I need amazing sound when on a bus, or in a crowded shopping centre? Hmmmm. Let me think about that. You see, mp3 (and the Apple - albeit much better .m4a replacement) was never designed to sound GOOD. It was designed to compress the filesize, based on what it considered the human ear could not register. I'm not going to bore you (hell, I bore my loved ones and myself enough) with the science behind that....but suffice to say, there is way too much of "just good enough and if you want more, you must be an AUDIOPHILE grrr" going around in audio right now, yet curiously.... curiously this doesn't seem to apply to Video movies, where everyone fully embraces BluRay..... yet mp3 is the equivalent of a VHS tape.....
But back to the subject.

Should we really care about sound quality?

So, we ended up with an iPod, holding vast quantities of our music collection. And how can we tell the difference, how do we know whether it's a "quality" sound or not? Do we care? Well, your average minidisc (remember those?) or CD walkman CARED. But now we don't. Tape walkmans with Dolby-S cared. And now.....now.... disk storage is cheap. Broadband speeds have increased HUGELY. So why do we still need mp3? The premise, the demand, the need - is broken.
Except, it isn't.
Because along came the iPod dock.
And we propogated this problem into our home, our listening environment, our ageing stereo systems which ended up in the loft, bought perhaps by the man of the household for his Pink Floyd collection, got covered in dust.
A lovely single box, popular in the home perhaps? Takes up much less space than a big ugly hifi (all those cables!) and the iPod that makes the bus or Tube journey simply slots in.
I *hate* the sound of these things.
The effort taken by a musician (I pretend to be one sometimes) to create an album on Vinyl or CD, is compressed to 1/20 of the size, and that piece of CD plastic... where is it? In your loft? Sold to music-magpie, or eBay? Or did you buy the music from iTunes or Amazon as an mp3 in the first place? That plastic then goes unused...

It's all down to personal choice...

Would Ridley Scott want you to view his latest masterpiece on VHS? Filmed in the latest HD technology, but you choose *all of the time* to watch it on a black and white portable telly? Of course.... this comes down to CHOICE, and that may be your choice, your economy, your lifestyle to do so, it's not for the director or the music produce to mandate the hardware upon you. But in the case of iPods, that have propogated, that choice has been dictated somewhat. I think that's my point.....
Plus movies are heading for 4K!!
But hey, you just like it for the convenience, and that Album Art, eh? ;-)

Is there an alternative?

So why hasn't someone come up with an alternative?
Well.... they have tried.
Heard of "Sonos"? Huge expensive home audio systems, very lifestyle, very designer, but still compressed audio, not even the level of a CD.
What about Bluetooth? I can do that to my stereo, even my car stereo, right?
You can.
But even aptX is compressed audio.
You fool!!! ;-) Fool!!!

I've heard of HDTracks, what about that?

These guys seem to have the answer, but isn't that just for 'Audiophiles"?
Well, hdtracks.com has been around for a while, and recently launched in the UK too. And it's true, that downloading audio at greater than CD quality, ie from the studio masters - high res - is desirable. But only if the production standard, mixing and mastering lives up to that. Case in point - much gritty 70s/80s recorded material was produced on 8bit hardware, or even designed to be "dirty" in the first place, without high-end recording techniques - purposely, or just a sign of the times...not much point in listening to that at 96kHz 24bit....
However, get that amp and those speakers out of the loft, THAT technology - particularly speakers - hasn't changed much in 30years, why does it need to? It's analogue.
As for HDTracks itself... in the right setting, with the right album, it can be good. I've used it. But you'd better have researched how that album was recorded - and you won't be doing that, will you?

This is besides the point, but what is?

Let's not get distracted talking about Hi-end audio. All we're asking for, well "I" am asking for - actually, I'm not asking for anything really.... is to just unlock those CDs again, I'm not even an exponent of Vinyl.... hell, I accepted the compromise of CD years ago, and digital done right (no excessive compression/loudness/remastering debacle aside) can sound smashing.... and I'm not just talking about the absence of crackles/pops/rumble that we were all originally sold on.

But here's why even Neil Young is too late

Well, yes, he might be.

It looks nice. But, too late. Everyone - as I've said above - believes that ANY level of quality music is ok for on the bus, in the car.
I've always wondered why we settle for this. I can tell the difference. However, we've heard mp3's for so long, that kids these days PREFER it, the increased treble ("tsssh" sound) is more enticing... the human ear hears these sounds, and in short comparison tests it sounds *clearer*. Yes?
This article also agrees that it's too late, and kids prefer mp3.

Should I just plugin my CD player? (if I've still got one)

Well, yes.
It would help.
By all means listen to your low quality mp3's on the bus, but not in the house.

Or, check your BluRay or DVD player. How do you have the audio connected up? You've got a shiny new LED/LCD telly, yes? Soundbar? Stupid surround sound cables and speakers everywhere? If the latter, is the BluRay player connected to an AV amp by optical cable? Well hey, maybe just pop that CD into the player then, and see what it sounds like. Your ears are the judge. Find an album you used to listen to, and the *sound* of it always captivated you. Not Rihanna's finest please, hey, I'll even allow you to find that Enya or Clannad CD you once had.

But this is the better answer - check your iTunes settings

I don't use iTunes. But if I did, I'd go into Edit -> Preferences menu, and click on "Import Settings". And then I'd change it to "Import using AAC Encoder". That way, you don't stupidly squash your music to a small file size (eg. for mp3 or m4a). You've got a big hard disk computer now, haven't you!
Then carry on using your iPod.
Change the firmware on your iPod (a bit like "jailbreaking" it) to use Rockbox.
But only if you're a geek.
A music geek.
Or just someone who doesn't see why music should DELIBERATELY SOUND BAD.

Like me.

PS. The first, YES, the first person to tell me that 320k mp3 sounds just as good as anything else, and is fine, and is good enough, and not even EXPERTS can tell the difference between it and a CD original.... that person will.... get ignored.