I buy music from a lot of vendors: I buy lots of CDs, and I buy music by download from iTunes, Amazon, and individual record labels. I went to Deutsche Grammophon’s web site today to see if they sold Berg’s Wozzeck after a commenter to this post pointed out that Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was excellent in it. I’m not a fan of Berg in general, but I thought I’d give it a try. (I bought it from Universal Music because it was a bit cheaper than Amazon, and much cheaper than iTunes.)
Shame on Universal Music for selling downloads like this. There are no track numbers, no disc numbers in the files; the tags are truncated, and the only album art is a 100 x 100 pixel file. Here’s how the tracks look when I added some of them to iTunes:
That’s exactly what the files display; it’s not iTunes that is truncating the tags. Universal expects me to dig out the correct tag information, and, especially, to make sure the tracks are in the right order. There’s also no indication of which tracks are with which opera (this is a set of two; Lulu and Wozzeck), no information about the singers, other than what’s in the truncated Artist tags, nor is there any booklet or any other textual information.
No, never again. I won’t be buying downloads from Universal. I’ve written them asking for a refund, because it is unacceptable that the files they provide are this crappy.
Update: Universal Music is refunding me, but they didn’t say anything about the quality of the files. I’ll delete the ones I have and go buy them from iTunes, where at least I know that the tagging is correct.
Posted: 5/19/2012 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: classical music, digital music | 9 Comments »
Available from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR
As a music lover, and especially as a reviewer for MusicWeb International, I am confronted with a number of different types of optical discs. CDs and DVDs are, of course, the most common, and have been around for a long time. But in the past couple of years, Blu-Ray discs have come into the market, and they are especially desirable for recordings of classical music concerts or operas.
But even CDs offer a variety of formats. In addition to regular CDs – which follow the “Red Book” standard – there are SACDs, and these come in two types: either in stereo or with multi-channel sound, and they are at a much higher resolution than standard CDs. While most SACDs sold today are hybrid – featuring a CD layer and an SACD layer – there are still some that are not. In addition to offering more channels or higher resolution, SACDs also offer much greater capacity, potentially providing a playing time that exceeds CDs.
Another format is the HDCD standard, which is not widely used. However, I have dozens of HDCD discs, because one of my favorite rock bands, Grateful Dead, issues all their recordings in this format. HDCD claims to offer better resolution than standard CDs, yet these discs are compatible with standard CD players.
There is one last form of “hybrid” disc: the DVD-A, or DVD-audio disc. This is a DVD, just like one used for a movie, but where there is little or no video. (There are generally only menus and/or still images.) The advantage of using DVD-A is longer playing time – up to several hours – and higher resolution files in stereo or multi-track.
When it comes to DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, there are also audio formats that need to be decoded, such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.
So, with all these formats of optical discs, it can be very useful to have a device that can play them all. This is the case with the Cambridge Audio 651BD, which handles all of the above formats, including 3D Blu-Ray discs.
Posted: 5/12/2012 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: audio equipment, digital music | No Comments »
I hadn’t owned a CD player in a long time, having digitized all of my music so I can stream it to my stereo. As for movies, I previously had a standard, consumer-grade DVD player, not really thinking that there would be that much of a difference. I wasn’t that concerned about SACD or HDCD – even though I have dozens of the latter discs, playing them as standard CDs is fine with me. However, after Cambridge Audio sent me a 651BD, I changed the way I look at all of these pieces of plastic.
First, I had long thought that there wasn’t much of a difference between the video playback of an average DVD player compared to better devices. My last DVD player was a Sony that cost about €100 when I bought it a few years ago. (Similar players seem to run about €75 today, though you can get others much cheaper.) However, when I started watching movies, concerts, operas and TV series with the 651BD I was very surprised by the quality of the image. It is much sharper, and much more fluid, especially when there is rapid movement. I don’t pretend to know much about video (I’m an audio guy), but I’m pretty sure this has to do with what Cambridge Audio calls “motion adaptive noise reduction.” Not only do fast-moving films look better, but I noticed much cleaner video when watching older TV series on the 651BD, those shot in 4:3, with much lower quality than today’s techniques. One series in particular that I had been watching on my Sony DVD player had interlacing artifacts which, on the 651BD, were imperceptible.
But what about the sound? If you’re going to spend this much for a disc player, you probably want to play both movies and music. This player uses a Cirrus Logic CS4382A 8-channel, 24-bit, 192 kHz DAC to provide excellent sound; the device outputs both stereo and multi-channel, up to 7.1. As I said earlier, all of my music is digitized, but with the 651BD, I’ve been finding myself listening to CDs anew. The sound is richer with this device than my previous DVD player (which had, let’s be honest, mediocre sound), and the act of listening to a CD has become enjoyable again. I should add that I got this player shortly after getting a new pair of Focal Chorus 806v speakers, so my sound system overall has improved, but when I added the 651BD, before changing the speakers, there was a clear increase in CD playback quality.
I don’t do multi-channel; I really don’t see the need to spend what it costs to have the full 5.1 or 7.1 setup with decent speakers, so I only listen to stereo with the 651BD, and can’t judge its multi-channel playback. (It’s worth noting that since the 651BD does all the necessary audio and video decoding, it may allow you to play discs that your AV receiver might not be able to decode, if it is not recent enough.)
As far as usability is concerned, the 651BD has everything I need: two HDMI outputs, 7.1 RCA outputs, as well as SPDIF coaxial and Toslink optical digital outputs. (It also offers component video and composite video for those with older TVs.) It starts up very quickly – some Blu-Ray players can take a long time to get ready to play a disc – and is very quiet. The remote control included with the 651BD can take some getting used to; there are a lot of buttons, and I find that not all of them are in what I would consider logical locations. Also, if you’re watching a movie in an otherwise dark room, and forget which buttons pause, skip tracks or fast-forward, it’s hard to tell from looking at the remote. I got used to it, but not after making mistakes for a few weeks.
When you play audio discs, the 651BD sends a video signal to your TV, which contains a simple background screen, but also shows the current track number, time (elapsed and total) and the format of the disc (CD, SACD or HDCD). When playing SACDs, there is also text displaying showing the artist, title and track name. (I don’t have many SACDs, so I don’t know if this is available on all of them.) You probably won’t want to leave this on, but if you’d rather navigate by looking at this screen instead of the small LED display on the device, it can be practical to turn the TV on and off when needed.
This is not a cheap player: it goes for $800 in the US, £500 in the UK, and around €900 in France, where I live – but if you compare what it offers with other devices, it stands up well. The only comparable players that can handle all these formats – notably SACD and HDCD – seem to be Oppo’s players, such as their BDP-93, which costs about the same. One non-negligible advantage to the Oppo is its availability as a multi-zone player, which the 651BD does not offer. If you buy discs from regions other than your own, this could be a deciding factor. The 651BD lets you play back some digital files, if you connect a hard drive or USB thumb drive to a port on the front of the device, but it doesn’t support as many formats as the Oppo. (And USB devices must be formatted as FAT, FAT32 or NTFS, which means that storage devices formatted for Macs won’t work.)
Interestingly, the documentation and specs for the 651BD don’t say that you can stream audio and video files over a network – if you connect the player via Ethernet – but this is possible. The interface for selecting files is a bit clunky, and the device takes a while to buffer video, but it is possible to do this. (I have another video player connected to my TV which starts playback of files on a server immediately.) While the documentation says that the 651BD supports many formats – MPEG2, MPEG2 HD, MPEG4, MPEG4 AVC, VC-1, XviD, VCD, AVCHD, MPEG ISO, AVI, VOB, MKV (4.1), JPEG, JPEG HD – I found some files that it wouldn’t play, which my other video player handles with no problems. It can also play some music files. It plays MP3s with no problem, and, while it recognizes FLAC files, when I try to play them they don’t play; the interface shows me that they are playing, but they just remain at 0:00. The device does not, however, even recognize AAC files, which is unfortunate.
Ideally, I’d like to see the 651BD offer the ability to play audio streamed using Apple’s AirPlay protocol; that would make it a perfect device for all of my listening. (The Oppo players don’t do AirPlay streaming either.) But since I can stream to an AppleTV, this isn’t a deal-breaker. Its network playback should be more explicit, and it should be able to play more files. It would just be nice to have full convergence of all the audio and video that I use in one device.
One other things that I spotted somewhat accidentally. I have a handful of region 1 DVDs (I live in France, which is region 2), and I popped one in the 651BD one night, and was somewhat surprised to find that it played. Apparently, Cambridge Audio cannot promote the fact that this is a multi-region DVD player; it is not, however, a multi-region Blu-Ray player.
The Cambridge Audio 651BD is, for me, nearly perfect. I’d like multi-region playback and better streamed audio and video playback, but I can live without these. The capabilities of this player, the quality of the sound and video, and its flexibility make this an excellent choice if you want to move up from a standard CD and/or Blu-Ray player. And if, like me, you want to play every format of optical disc you have, then the 651BD is for you.
Spotify announced today the availability of a widget that people can use to “embed” music on their blogs and websites. When I first read about this, my initial thoughts were, “brilliant idea; now lots of people will discover Spotify, and different types of music.”
But I forgot how stupid Spotify can be.
If you go to the Spotify Classical Playlists blog, you’ll see that the blog owner has embedded some music in his posts. Here’s a screenshot of what it looks like:
And when you click on a triangle to sample some music, here’s what happens:
Oops! Sorry, non-Spotify user, you either pony up or move along. These embedded widgets serve no purpose other than advertising for Spotify (other than for those users who are already subscribers or have limited free accounts). So people who embed these widgets on their blogs are essentially giving free advertising to Spotify, but the company is offering nothing in exchange. It’s a lose/lose deal.
To be fair, Spotify is probably under the yoke of the recording industry, and this is why they can’t even let users listen to a song once; not ever get a 90-second, or even 30-second preview. But as long as Spotify depends on the ass-backwards nature of the recording industry’s reaction to new methods of music distribution, they will fail. While I’m not a fan of streaming services (yet), I don’t think Spotify is ever going to succeed, unless the recording industry starts taking enlightenment pills. You can embed YouTube videos and other types of content using widgets; just think how much exposure some music could get if you could do the same thing? This widget isn’t about the music; it’s all about Spotify promoting itself.
The worst thing of all is that the many blogs and websites are giving a lot of space to Spotify with free ads. I guess it’s worth it for Spotify to get all of that free promotion, but in the long run, I think this new gimmick just looks stupid.
Posted: 4/11/2012 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: digital music | 7 Comments »
(Note: this article is written for Mac users. If you have Windows tools to recommend, please mention them in the comments.)
The bit rate debate regarding compressed music is one that will be around for a long time. Some people think that any compression of music files is anathema. Take Neil Young. He recently complained about the poor quality of digital music files, while greatly misunderstanding much of what is involved in compression. He claimed that only “5 percent of the data present in the original recording” is present in MP3 files, without specifying the bit rate used or the original sources, and without understanding that compression is more than just lopping off bits of the music. (Andy Doe, writing on the Naxos Blog, recently published an article, All About Bitrates, which explains how compression works. You should read this to understand some points that most people overlook.)
When you start ripping music, and decide what bit rate to use, you have several options. You could go for lossless, which compresses music around 40-60%. One advantage to this is that you can then re-convert the lossless files to a lower bit rate if you want, keeping the originals as archival copies. But lossless files take up much more space. While this isn’t an issue on computers – hard drives are huge these days – it is for portable devices like iPods or iPhones.
If you don’t use a lossless format, you have to decide which format to use (AAC or MP3), and what bit rate. For a long time, Apple sold music at 128 kbps at the iTunes Store. It is now 256k, which is roughly what Amazon uses in their MP3 store (their music is in VBR, or variable bit rate, so it is not exactly 256k). This is an excellent compromise between space and quality. But you might want to go even lower. What’s important is to find the point at which you cannot hear the difference between an original file and a compressed file, and stay above that bit rate.
To do this, you need to perform what is called blind ABX testing. You are presented with music and don’t know which bit rate you are hearing, and you must choose whether you think it is compressed or not. While this test takes a bit of time – you need to rip tracks at different bit rates, then test yourself, one pair of tracks at a time – the results can be interesting.
To start with, find several songs or tracks that you know very well. It’s best to use familiar music, because you will be able to hear more of the differences (if any) because of your familiarity with the melodies, arrangements, etc. I’d recommend not ripping full albums for this test, but rather individual songs or tracks from different albums.
Rip these tracks from CD in lossless format. In iTunes, go to Preferences > General, then click on Import Settings. Choose Lossless Encoder from the Import Using menu.
Next, add the tracks you have ripped in lossless format and to a playlist. Select them all and press Command-I, then enter an album name, such as Lossless Tracks. You’ll want this later to be able to find them.
Posted: 2/28/2012 by kirk | Filed under: iPod & iTunes Tags: digital music, essential music, iTunes | 41 Comments »
Back in iTunes’ Import Settings preferences, change to the AAC Encoder, and set the bit rate at 64 kbps. Yes, I did say 64 kbps; you want something that is low enough so that you are guaranteed to hear the difference. As above, create a playlist, then tag all these tracks in an album 64 kbps Tracks.
Go to the Mac App Store and download the free ABXTester. This application lets you choose two tracks, then listen five times to a random selection of those tracks, and choose the one you think is better.
Click on Select A. Navigate to your Lossless Tracks album, and select a track. Click on Select B, navigate to your 64 kbps album and select a track. You know that the first track is lossless, and that the second severely compressed.
The next step is to try five tests, listening to tracks selected at random, and choose whether you think each track is A or B; in other words, which is the better sounding track. For example, when you listen to the first track at X1, if you think it’s the lossless track, click on A; if not, click on B. At the end, click on Check answer, and see how well you did.
I suggested starting with 64 kbps tracks so you can hear a difference. The next step is to find at which point you can no longer hear that difference; at which point your results are no better than random (2 or 3 correct, or a score of 40 or 60%). Rip the same tracks at several other bit rates: I suggest you use 128, 256 and 320. If you do too many, the test will take too long. Label each group of tracks. You can now either go to the next level, 128 kbps, for track B, and go through the tests, or you can start from the other end, at 320 kbps, and work your way down. No matter what, I think you will be surprised.
A couple of notes. First, make sure you do this test on the stereo equipment or headphones you use to listen to music. (If you’re curious, these are the headphones I use.) You might find that, if you try this out on a friend’s Really Good Stereo that you might hear a difference. If you don’t plan to buy the same Really Good Stereo, don’t bother testing on it. If not, you won’t hear a difference; I guarantee it.
Of course, this begs the question: if you don’t have good stereo equipment or headphones, is it worth using a higher bit rate? On the other hand, if you plan to upgrade your stereo or headphones, you might want to plan ahead and do this test on better equipment to see if it’s worth ripping your music now at a bit rate higher than where you can currently hear a difference. And if you have plenty of disk space, you might want to rip your music in lossless format for archival purposes, then convert it to a lower bit rate for use with your portable devices. With iTunes, you can rip in Apple Lossless format, then have iTunes convert your music files during the sync process to 128, 192 or 256 kbps.
Second, if you want to compare high-resolution files, make sure you open Audio MIDI Setup (in the /Applications/Utilities folder), and set the sample rate to the highest possible setting. Otherwise, you won’t hear the full resolution of these files.
I’d be interested to hear your results. Feel free to post them in the comments. If you can really hear a difference between a lossless file and a high-bit-rate compressed file, please also post what kind of stereo equipment or headphones you are using.
I recently pointed out that the Apple Lossless codec has gone open source, meaning that this lossless codec can now be freely used in both hardware and software. The Apple Lossless codec (also known as ALAC) is similar to FLAC, and offers the same advantages. When you compress files in a lossless format, you lose absolutely none of the original data. Just as when you compress a text file using zip compression, decompressing returns all the original letters and characters, lossless music compression provides the full fidelity of the original audio you compressed.
It’s interesting to look at the sizes of files compressed in Apple Lossless format. (These file sizes are similar for other lossless formats, such as FLAC, SHN and APE.) I took a handful of CDs, and ripped some tracks to show how the amount of compression can vary.
When comparing file sizes, the easiest way is to look at the bit rate that displays in iTunes. (Comparing file size is more difficult, as the different files used would have to be the same length for this to be valid.) This is an average bit rate, but it gives an idea as to the amount of compression that was achieved. Different types of music, notably with different instruments, result in compression rates that vary widely. Compare the bit rates below to the bit rate of uncompressed music on a CD, which is 1411 kbps.
Here are some examples:
- A solo harpsichord work by Johann Sebastian Bach: 902 kbps
- A solo piano work by Johann Sebastian Bach: 554 kbps
- A movement of a string quartet by Ludwig van Beethoven: 565 kbps
- A choral work by Johann Sebastian Bach: 690 kbps
- A piece for jazz piano trio by the Brad Mehldau Trio: 687 kbps
- A live recording of a song by the Grateful Dead: 796 kbps
- An excerpt from Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians: 597 kbps
- A movement of a symphony by Franz Schubert: 645 kbps
- A song for male voice and piano by Robert Schumann: 446 kbps
Again, these figures are in no way absolute, and for each piece of music, the resulting level of compression could be different if the tempo, volume or instrumentation varied. But what they do show is that some types of music – notably solo harpsichord, which has a high level of harmonics at high frequencies – compress less well than, say, solo piano or voice and piano. The range of compression for these examples is from 36% to 68%, with the majority of the examples clustering around the 50% level.
Note that I haven’t tested much rock music, and especially not much recently recorded rock or popular music. With many recent recordings having high volume and using compression (not the type that reduces data size, but the kind that reduces the dynamic range of music), file sizes can be much larger. If you listen to recent recordings of such music, you’ve probably noticed that they are often very loud, compared with, say, recordings from a couple of decades ago, and these will result in higher overall bit rates when using lossless compression.
Posted: 11/5/2011 by kirk | Filed under: iPod & iTunes, music Tags: digital music, iTunes, music | 41 Comments »
Spotify, and other streaming services, are supposed to offer legal “alternatives” to file sharing. Yet are they fully legal themselves? Search briefly for some of my favorite non-classical artists, I came across a number of bootleg recordings: the first two albums shown when you look for music by the Grateful Dead, and the first two albums listed by Bob Dylan. I haven’t searched too many artists to see what other bootlegs are in the Spotify collection, but the presence of any bootlegs makes me question how such a service can claim to be honest.
Posted: 7/30/2011 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: digital music, music, rants | No Comments »
Spotify, which I discuss here and here, announced, in June 2009, that they would offer higher bit rate streaming to premium members. Spotify has long used 160 kbps Ogg Vorbis, certainly a respectable bit rate, but the company announced that premium members would have access to 320 kbps files. However, as the Spotify Classical Playlists blog points out, it has taken the company a long time to only convert a small part of their catalog to the better-quality format.
Personally, this is no big deal to me. In my limited experience using Spotify, I find that the music sounds good enough. But when you promise to people who pay more money that they will get something, and they don’t effectively get what you promised, that’s called… wait, there’s a word for it… yes, it’s called “lying.”
Now, since the initial blog post mentioned above was published, it seems that more files have been converted. But it still shows a serious deficit in honesty and customer service on the part of Spotify. Many customers are unhappy, as can be seen in this support forum thread.
It’s worth pointing out that another issue with Spotify, which I mentioned in my article on Why Spotify Sucks for Classical Music, is the lack of gapless playback. Spotify has had this under consideration for the past three years, yet hasn’t figured out how to implement it.
My feeling is that Spotify cares only about the customers who don’t listen to much music, and listen to the hits; the rest of them, the deep listeners, who require that the company have a very big catalog, probably make them lose money, and they most likely don’t care enough about providing what those customers want.
In any case, while they’re pretty much the only choice in Europe, their entry into the US market occurs in a context of several competitors. If they don’t figure out how to provide better service and features, they won’t last long.
Posted: 7/30/2011 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: digital music, music | 2 Comments »
A neat new app for playing music on an iPhone and iPod touch came across my radar today. The 99¢ Glissando brings a new take to playing music from your library. Launch the app, and you’ll see album art filling must of your screen. The first thing you notice is that there are no buttons – to play or pause your music, just tap the screen. To move ahead or back to another song, just swipe to the right or left on the album art. To view your entire library, swipe down, and you’ll see playlists, artists, albums and podcasts.
The display is big and clear, and it’s perfect for listening to music when walking, running, exercising or anything else when you don’t want to have to zero in on the small buttons in Apple’s Music or iPod app.
There are other ways to access music. When you’re shuffling, if you come across a song by an artist you like, you can choose to play the album it’s from, or play other songs or albums by the artist. There’s even a Shuffle unplayed podcasts feature. And, since it interfaces fully with your library, it even updates the play counts and last played dates of tracks you listen to.
There are a couple of weaknesses, though. It can’t play Audible audiobooks, and doesn’t provide lists of composers or genres. Hopefully the developer will add these in the future. I’d also like to be able to scrub through certain tracks, especially podcasts, with a timeline. And it’d be nice if it could display lyrics. It’s only iPhone-sized, and I’d like to see a version for iPad with more features, to take advantage of the larger screen.
In the meantime, I’m glad I grabbed this for a buck. Check it out at www.glissandoapp.com.
Posted: 7/22/2011 by kirk | Filed under: iPod & iTunes, music Tags: apps, digital music, iOS | No Comments »