No doubt, the iPod era heightened access and convenience to a whole new level. Early iPod naysayers argued that compressed digital files had low sound quality and believed iPods would be sidelined for critical listening purposes. Yet today’s options for digital music not only prove more convenient, but meet and even surpass yesterday’s standards for sound quality.
Digital music has improved sound quality for many reasons. One reason is that storage space has become much cheaper and more accessible since the first mp3 player came out. Thus, equipment manufacturers and music service providers had to improve the bit rate of the files to effectively offer near (or the same) quality as a regular CD. Apple’s lossless codec is one of the most popular for home archival and offers CD quality. In portable devices, it’s still more popular to compress, although 256K has replaced 128K as the standard.
Simply put, compression “throws away” some of the data while it makes the file smaller. Playback without the original elements makes the files sound less dynamic and can affect bass response, which takes away from a listener’s realistic audio experience.
Good news for the low bit-rate files (you probably have files of this type in your library): they’ll sound better than ever on high-quality playback equipment. One of the enhancements has been in digital to analog conversion. In this conversion process, the digital file converts to a file that language speakers and headphones can understand. Strong advancements have been made in this area. Many of the current designs prove well-equipped to deal with jitter in the file transfer and low bit-rate files. They can smooth out the listening experience. And of course, if you give these designs a high quality to work with (such as uncompressed or 96/24, 192/24 files), the results will typically exceed the performance of your CD player.
To set up a system of the magnitude mentioned above, you just have to plug in the proper cable from your computer to an outboard DAC (digital to analog computer) and then plug in in your traditional audio system. Use a USB cable or optical digital cable (instead of the analog cable typically used to plug in a standard set of headphones).
Recently, some companies have combined a high-quality DAC and amplification into one chassis with shortened signal paths, yielding very musical results. Peachtree Audio is on of these companies, with their Nova and Decco products. These products combine multiple digital and analog inputs and use high-quality amplification that allows you to playback all your new digital sources and old analog ones (tape decks and turntables).
Mobile listening has also joined the pack. You can now purchase a quality DAC for use on the road – which elevates the sound of your headphone listening. These devices not only improve digital to analog conversions, but also feature a more powerful amplifier than the one built into your smart phone, tablet, or laptop. This results in a more dynamic, detailed experience on your favorite set of headphones. NuForce is one of the pioneers in this area and offers solutions starting at around a hundred dollars.
If you are looking for the ultimate choice in music playback, using a computer paired with external drive(s) provides a state-of-the-art playback combination. By ensuring that you have a substantial amount of RAM memory (8 GB recommended), you can utilize digital players that play the entire file from memory, while the original music file stays stored on a separate storage device. The advantage here is that you are not spinning up the hard drive on the local machine, creating vibration and noise that can make its way into the audio signal. You will want to back up your files on the external drive to ensure a hard drive failure won’t cause file loss. This can be easily accomplished by using a RAID1 drive set-up as your external storage. In this configuration, one drive consistently mirrors the other, providing an exact copy of the original drive files.
If you need advice on how to get the most out of your digital files, whether they’re on a smart phone, computer, or hard drive, give us a call. We’d be happy to recommend a solution that’s right for your situation.