Pono, IPOD, MP3, CD, LP, SACD, Vinyl - WHAT SOUNDS BETTER AND WHY
The evolution of high fidelity has followed a generally upward trend with the occasional sidestep into poorly thought out or poorly supported formats.
As the means of reproducing music has burgeoned, so too has the variety of formats with the consequences of confusing media incompatibilities and redundant software.
Amid this blizzard of formats, delivery systems and exploding playback options, the holy grail of the past 80 years of audio enthusiasts of ever higher fidelity has been largely sidelined in the scramble for market dominance and "accessibility".
But no matter what the format or the listening environment, sound quality will ultimately have a huge impact on the enjoyment the listener will get from the music. So to put the evolution of music into perspective and evaluate the stages, it is important to compare the fidelity potential of the various formats whether iPod, MP3, SACD or DVD Audio. The latest effort to reverse the mediocrity of MP3 comes from Neil Young's Pono. As you will see from the chart below, the Fidelity Potential in the formats Pono has adopted (they didn't invent their own) is far higher than the ubiquitous MP3.
• CD lossless quality recordings: 1411 kbps (44.1 kHz/16 bit) FLAC files
• High-resolution recordings: 2304 kbps (48 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files
• Higher-resolution recordings: 4608 kbps (96 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files
• Ultra-high resolution recordings: 9216 kbps (192 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files
Comparison between analog and digital is difficult. However, it is possible to establish ranges of equivalence for comparisons among the formats. Below we list different formats and quantify their potential to deliver sound accurately and fully to the listener.
Expressing digital in terms of mathematical quantity is simple but not so for analog whose limits are possible to ballpark but not to pinpoint.
Also, the different formats have different weaknesses making exact comparison even less precise. However, in broad strokes, comparison is possible and long overdue.
The ongoing debate over the past 25 years as to which format - analog or digital - "vinyl or CD" - sounds better has been conducted in the fog of ignorance and marketing hype. The first digital format, the CD, was billed as "Perfect Sound Forever" - fidelity so high no one human could perceive anything better.
Many people knew at its introduction this was marketing hyperbole and now everyone knows it. Despite the many hoary flaws in analog playback that the public found extremely frustrating, the new CD system clearly had limitations of its own and they weren't all due to poor implementation.
But the move to digital represented a complete direction shift for playback systems and perhaps we should not have expected the new system to be superior in every respect to the old.
All things being equal, the more information a format can transmit, the better the sound will be. So here are the formats broken down into their bare bit potential some with high and low ranges. There are a huge number of caveats and remarks about the formats' various weaknesses but the Fidelity Potential Index gives a reasonable approximation of the fidelity a particular format is capable of delivering.
FIDELITY POTENTIAL INDEX (FPI) TABLE
|The Formats||Analog or Digital||Dynamic Range||Frequency Response||Eqivalent Sampling Rate (Hz)||Equivalent Bits||Bits per Second||Fidelity Potential Index|
|160 - 3kHz
160 - 3kHz
|AM Radio||analog||48dB||50 - 6kHz||12,000||8||96,000||1|
|60 - 7kHz
60 - 7kHz
|78 rpm Record||analog||40dB||40 - 11kHz||22,000||6.7||147,400||1.5|
|FM Radio||analog||70dB||40 - 15kHz||30,000||11.7||351,000||3.5|
|45 rpm Record||analog||45dB||40 - 11kHz||22,000||7.5||165,000||1.7|
|The Vinyl LP 33rpm||analog||50dB
|30 - 25kHz
30 - 25kHz
30 - 25kHz
|Reel to Reel Tape Recorder||analog||60dB
|20 - 18kHz
20 - 50kHz
|Cassette Tape Recorder||analog||45dB
|40 - 15kHz
40 - 15kHz
|8 Track Tape||analog||45dB||40 - 8kHz||16,000||7.5||120,000||1.2|
|The CD Compact Disc||digital||44,100||16||705,600||7.1|
|Dolby True HD||digital||96,000||24||2,304,000||23|
|Satellite Radio (mp3)||digital|
|iPod (mp3) 16 kbs 320 kbs||digital||16,000
Converting analog performance levels to a digital equivalent involves developing bit rate (sampling frequency) and bit depth (bits per sample) from the analog data.
Since the sampling frequency for the CD format is 44.1 kHz - roughly double the highest frequency (20kHz) it can reproduce, the analog equivalent sampling frequency is calculated to be double the highest frequency that medium can deliver.
For the bit size figure, a 6dB difference in dynamic range is taken to be equal to 1 bit so an analog medium with a dynamic range of 60dB has an equivalent bit size to a 10 bit digital signal.
The bit depth times the sampling rate per second equals the number of bit per second the medium can deliver. This number divided by 100,000 for brevity is its Fidelity Potential Index.
How fully the fidelity potential of each medium is exploited by the format structure and electronics limitations could be covered only by an extremely drawn out discussion so here, briefly below is a very truncated list of caveats.
FORMATS AND SPECIFICATIONS NOT INCLUDED
Many formats both analog and digital were not included. Digital formats like Dolby ProLogic which are lossy (ie they drop bits and then try to re-construct the signal to make the signal more compact) are not included due to the a huge amount of guess work involved.
We have not included frequency response and dynamic range figures for the digital formats - only their sampling frequencies and bit rates.
Bit Depth - a sample of the musical waveform at one point in time can be represented by one single byte of information. The resolution of this byte (the number of bits that it can have) dictates the dynamic range of the signal. The more bits, the greater the number of possible levels which means louder loud passages and quieter silences. The range of the dynamics in the music can be much better represented by a 24 bit system than an 8 bit system.
Sampling Frequency - how often the bits are represented. The more often they are represented the higher the frequency they can represent. Sampling 2,000 times a second cannot represent a 5,000 Hz signal. A waveform must be represented by at least 2 data points per cycle so the minimum sampling frequency required to cover the highest level of human hearing (20,000Hz) would be 40 kHz.
FORMAT DESCRIPTIONS AND CAVEATS
A sound signal starts out as an analog waveform - the original musical note - and finishes as an analog waveform - the sound that is reproduced for the listeners ears. The fidelity of a recording format is dependent not only on the raw ability of its core engine to capture high dynamic range and broad frequency response but on its ability to handle analog to digital conversions and processing of the recorded signal.
The potential inherent in one medium does not guarantee sound quality superior over another medium of lower potential capability as music production standards vary immensely as does implementation of high standards of engineering in the recording and reproduction equipment.
Dynamic range is not signal to noise. Digital systems are inherently noise free. Any noise comes from their associated electronics, not their media. Analog systems, with their different types of mechanical noise (tape hiss, record ticks and pops) have a signal to noise level far smaller than their ultimate dynamic range.
Digital systems use various forms of filters in their recording and playback processes. These filters can introduce distortions in the audible frequency range. One of the most famous examples of this is the "brick wall" filters used above 20kHz on CDs. Early implementations of this introduced various phase anamolies down as far as 10kHz or even lower.
COMMENTARY FROM THE WEB
Of course, there are lots of ways to measure noise -- weighted, unweighted, and on phono recordings, whether you measure the pops of surface noise, or just the average.
I can give you ballpark estimates of dynamic range based on my experience. High quality vinyl LP: 60-65 db Average vinyl LP: 50-55 db cassette (excluding noise reduction) 45-50 db. Add 8-10 db with properly functioning noise reduction professional reel-to-reel quarter-inch 2-track 15ips: 60-70 db (depending on tape formulation) 78 rpm shellac: 30-40 cylinder (vertical modulation) perhaps 20-30 35 mm optical ("academy" cinema, pre-Dolby) 40-50 db
I have measured some of these -- reel-to-reel, vinyl test LPs. The others are what I would call educated estimates, based on what it sounds like to me over the years, in comparison to the other media.
I should give a heads-up for one of your caveats, in case you are not aware, that a numerical S/N figure, or a firm number on distortion, is not really possible on perceptually-based bit-compression schemes, such as mp3, ATRACS, Real Audio, Windows media, etc. These encoding systems will give near-perfect results on steady state tones, normally used to measure analog systems. They end up wrecking the signal depending on the complexity of the waveform. The idea behind these systems is an algorithm based on what in listening tests people could hear, and what would be "masked" by other sounds, based on spectral content from moment to moment. The encoder then throws away the data representing the parts that people supposedly will not miss. E.g. a 96 Khz mp3 file throws away more than 85% of the data of a CD quality 44.1 KHz stereo PCM datastream.
I am not aware of any reliable quantitative measurements of the quality of bit-compressed systems. They are all based on blind listening tests.
With strict uncompressed PCM, there is of course a direct mathematical correspondence to S/N radio and dynamic range.
Hope I have not belabored something you may already well know.
FIDELITY POTENTIAL INDEX
I'm a long time owner of 645's and have used the 45" ribbons in a variety of ways and systems, so I'm on your newsletter list. I posted the link to your "Fidelity Potential" page to a private group of audio guys as we were roughly on the topic of MP3's and how "kids today" don't care about quality etc. I won't name names, but some of these are guys you would have heard of. One of them asked: "Could someone further indulge me on the derivation for this theoretical "Fidelity Potential?" so I thought you may want to have a whack at that. If you do I will forward to the group and keep you posted.
Personally I found it interesting, but also could not imagine how you might have quantified the "anecdotal", I think you referred to a conversion to sampling rate if I recall (I read the page a few days ago).
There is a fair amount of discussion of the method on the page and there will be more when some posts are put up. Several posts will elaborate on what I'm saying here and include their own estimates of analog format capability. So ranges are important to include.
The "anecdotal" are judgments about how far into the noise floor and ceiling one can hear. These extend the range of the hard specs for the format say vinyl. Digital has a hard, brick wall limit on dynamic range. It has no noise of it's own within that dynamic range. Analog formats have lots of noise sources and the signal to noise is less than the dynamic range. However, one can still perceive signal into the range of noise and this is what effectively extends the dynamic range of analog sources.
Yes, these are personal estimates about what sounds good and why but they affect the range of the rating not the core value.
If we could arrive at similar ranges for the effects of digital artifacts, I'd establish ranges on that basis as well. Of course, these would reduce the digital format FPIs whereas the analog FPIs are increased by the process.
Particularly it would be interesting to assign reductions for various compression schemes and for room correction methods which may increase amplitude correctness but reduce "transparency".
Let me know what you think!
If you are playing with the R45s, - do a Coaxial Ribbon LineSource - build a system with 4+ good 7" drivers in sealed enclosures and stick the R45s in front of them, hopefully using a digital crossover and re-arrange your audiophile benchmarks. This is a step up from anything you have heard guaranteed.
Your rating is an interesting project! The ratings look sensible on a wide window. I tend to disagree however on certain basic assumptions.
Sampling rate is assumed to be identical to high-level bandwidth (eg. 0 dB -10 dB). So you assume vinyl as 50’000 kHz sampling rate. This is maybe true for high level signals (maybe even worse). But, with a good low inductance cartridge and a capable stylus, like hyperelliptical, VdH I&II, Gyger I&II, micro-ridge, Paroc etc. at least 100’000 kHz sampling should be assumed. There is even proof that 75 kHz signals are traced with LPs that were cut with DMM (Direct metal mastering). I think in real life there is a wide variability in the amount of ultrasonic content on LP. But the fact is, there is considerable energy above 20 kHz available in LPs (not always the recorded signal...), And there is traceable energy up to 75 kHz. Then there is the roll-off frequency and order of roll-off in analog systems compared to digital, which makes even a (IMO wrongly) assumed “analogue sampling frequency” of 50’000 Hz audibly different to a digital one, with it’s sudden, high order drop-off vs. the more “natural” analogue roll-off, which behaves more closely related to real-ear experiences with acoustical phenomena. Which most probably is audible in supersonic “inaudible” regions, specially when “linear phase” pre-ringing oversampling filters are involved. The problem in lining up digital and analogue systems sonically is the problem of comparing apples with oranges. High-level linearity (Freq. Resp. And distortion) vs. low-level etc.
Sonically I would not totally disagree with 320 kBs MP 3 vs. Cassettes being in a similar range of “fidelity”, still it’s my feeling that one can get (considerably) more involved in the music and the sound with a superb (and expensive) cassette tape recorder. To my ears there is a certain aspect in the sound of digital compressed formats reminding of bad main’s, sucking out some of the bounce and communicating warmth and “energy” of the music. You don’t have this with cassette, and, BTW, good cassettes register information above 15 kHz (-20 dB bandwidth), contrary to MP3. This is audible too – eg. in PRAT...
My ears told me on any DVD vs. SACD comparison I made (Sony SACD player, Audio Synthesis DAX Discrete) that even 24/96 PCM(DAD) sounded potentially more alive and natural than SACD. DVD-Audio sounds good too but I haven’t had the experience of totally locking into the performance with it, as was possible with optimal 24/96 DADs. Less data processing? 192 kHz / 24 Bit is promising, haven’t really heard it yet. And it’s a huge storage consumer. SACD is (for me) a theoretically impressive and brillant format which was promoted with kind of an audiophile-underground marketing hype, but which is, contrary to the hype of being “most analogfue-like”, highly feedback processed (high-order noise-shaping) and somehow in the end sounds kind of like it. It is definitely not on the level of 24/96 kHz for me, and is even a slight sonical trade-off compared to good CD. PRAT is in favour of CD, bass is heavier (hifi impressive) on SACD, and the top octave has considerably more “air” though. A further inherent problem of all these high data rate formats when burned/pressed on optical media is the considerable higher speed and motor forces involved in the process of reading DVD & Blue Ray (I think too) compared to CD. And even in CDs this problem is audible. An interesting observation when playing different data formats on my iBook and MacBooks: When you look at the processor load you see that the non-lossy compressed format ALC needs about 50% more processor work compared to AIFF or WAV. This is to my ears slightly audible on both the computer and an iPod Touch. Processor work is in the end analogue current and shapesdigital power supply noise, which in reality can not completely be blocked out by any measures IME.
You were looking for “trouble” with that rating, didn’t you ? ;-)
Note by Andrew Marshall on vinyl LP frequency response. - the quadraphonic systems may have included response up to 100kHz to manage the signal steering but they never worked well probable because at 100k, the LP playback system is simply not reliable. Also, cassette tape can go up to 20kHz with the right tape and noise reduction system.
"Civil, informed and humourous comments will be given preference". Er, quite. But the idea behind your your is rather simplistic and you have to understand may well provoke an irate response. You end up with 24/194 PCM sounding 7 times better than LP, a result so different from reality it doesn't really bear any further comment.
However, what George has to say about compression systems being impossible to measure meaningfully with steady tones (multi-tones do yield a result) yet wrecking music is very true. More amazingly they are contrived on listening tests alone - often crude ones - a point few people understand. Read what Karl-Heinz Brandenburg and the Fraunhofer Institute say. So thumbs up to George on this!
Finally, the idea of a controlled listening area freed, to an extent, from room effects, as provided by a line array is an interesting one little talked about. This also brings in ribbons, which most of us admire. Hope we can cover your products sometime.
So good luck with your Index. Time to strap on the tin hat methinks.
Noel Keywood, publisher Hi-Fi World
I knew there would be criticism but it has not turned out to be as severe as anticipated. I may be a little beaten up but not unhorsed.
The FPI is not intended to be a linear representation of the fidelity a human is capable of perceiving, but rather simply a method of putting raw capability in a numerical order. So day in, day out, the 192/24 can be counted on to sound better than the LP. But, as you say, not 7 times better or even 2 times better. Just distinctly better on most recordings.
Compression systems and the judgement of being able to listen into the analog noise floors and ceilings can skew the hard numbers. Also, from my own point of view, room correction systems flatten amplitude but result in some loss of transparency - I'm not sure at all as to how this happens or how to represent it numerically.
And the flaws in digital which effectively reduce the dynamic range or add noise/distortion are not represented in the FPI either. Maybe all in good time.
Thanks for your comment!
by Dennis Burton
CD vs. Vinyl with some other stuff thrown in.
When I was a child, the hifi debate was over small vs. large speakers (really) and transistors vs. vacuum tubes. These arguments never end because people use music systems for different reasons and also hear different things. For some people dynamics seem to be important beyond all reason, and so that is what they will notice. Others may worship at the shrine of tonal purity and musical pitch. Most of these people are quite in denial, claiming that, in fact they want it all; imaging, dynamics, vast bandwidths, seamless crossover, low coloration etc. etc. But this is not necessarily true.
Each component in a music system has a “sound”. Now we are getting simple. A reel to reel tape machine will not “sound” like a turntable, or a cassette machine-all technical limitations and considerations aside. Transistors have a sound. In the end you go with what you like best. One man’s fluid sugary midrange from tubes is trumped by another man’s huge expansive bass line from a huge Class A transistor. Or is it the other way around?
I listen to cassettes, open reel quarter track and half-track tape, MP3’s, CD, vinyl, and FM, and have heard quite acceptable results in all of them. Oh I am a blasphemer aren’t I? The ultimate source? Well it may well be reel to reel. But the machines are hard to use, tapes have to be rewound to prevent print-through, there is hiss, there can be dropouts, transport noise etc. This is not convenient. So then vinyl, only the big catch is that I simply cannot afford the equipment necessary to have that happen. I use a Linn Sondek LP12 and it is a nice turntable, but of course I would need between $30 and $60 thousand for a really good turntable and would then be off hunting for a suitable and expensive cartridge for it. Let us not discuss the drub pressings foisted on us over the years, which simply cannot be rescued by any known technology, or the fact that a cutting lathe has rumble figures you simply would not accept in a turntable of any price.
My very first CD player cost less than the phono cartridge in my turntable. I knew then that the CD was inevitable. But more than that, at $175 that Philips CD player smoked anything and everything in a turntable at that price range. It’s not about money you say; it is art, purity, subtlety, and poise. Oh, I suppose so, but personally I enjoy music. I have heard an MP3 mastering from a 45RPM 7” single of the Chiffons singing He’s So Fine coming out of the hideous 3” speaker of my kitchen clock radio and been thoroughly delighted. The audio mangling was scarcely describable, with multipath from the FM into the bargain and the fridge itself adding noise to the background. Music, as with Art, demands that we bring something to the table or we are simply being entertained for good or bad. The whole idea of HIFI is to enhance the “transportation” of that music. With listening, I am not talking surrender, I am talking engagement. That is not the HIFI bit, that is your bit.
Does a CD sound better than a vinyl record? Well that depends. If it is Classical Orchestral music recorded in a great hall, then I suspect that Half Track Reel To Reel or vinyl is the winner. If the music is Ultra Chilled Down Tempo Electronica then why use vinyl when all the samples are 16 bit anyways-CD wins there. And that is just two examples folks. Some people love songs and listen to the words, others adore virtuosity and listen obsessively to the playing, ignoring whatever words there might be. Still others surrender to melody and yet others to rhythmic structure. Still others love tempo and arrangement. Some thrill at production values and sonic volcanoes. And there are still others and others and others, but they will all tell you they want it all, and none of them (or you!) can pretend to be a final judge of anything we all might or might not care to actually hear.
Years ago at the dawn of digital, I listened to a test involving a Classical vocal quintet in a very large room singing. It was a recording studio and we had two Neumann microphones optimally placed and we used a pair of very expensive microphone preamps and simultaneously routed the signal to a Dat recorder, which was then a new recordable digital medium, also the signal went to a very large Sony PCM reel to reel, and
finally also to an Otari Studio Half Track analogue machine. All three recordings “sounded” different. Most noticeable however was that the analogue half track recording, although having a bit of noticeable hiss provided a very interestingly pleasant insight into the harmonic structure of the blending of the vocals as presented by the room itself. This was absent from both digital recordings, which presented as comparatively “dry”, although I hasten to add, both of them sounded wonderful with the Sony sounding superior to the Dat. We could not actually speculate as to what might be happening except to surmise that perhaps 16 bit 44.1 KHz was insufficient to render the complexities of the harmonic structure. Does this mean that the analogue was better?
Well, to whom? I mean, the choir members were listening to their performance and couldn’t understand our obsession with some tiny detail of the sound. They thought it all sounded great. The choirmaster loved the room information and chose the analogue. The Sony reel-to-reel mastering machine was worth about $110k at the time and the Dat was $799 and the analogue half-track was about $34K. For the studio, the money certainly mattered, but quality is number one. But was the absolute silence of the digital to be opted for over resolution of harmonic structure? Which best was best? They ended up buying the Sony, but they never sold the Otari. They figured that for multi track recordings where lots of blending and stacking of tracks happens, then the edge goes to the digital because it does this very well. Co-incident pair purist Classical recordings were offered the choice between analogue and digital and for most of them, they either ignored the faint hiss or never heard it and went analogue. Which is best?
OK, so you’re saying that someone who loves all this stuff has to be the judge, the final arbitrator so that for everyone else there is a reliable standard to follow, and if we can’t agree on or figure out what is best, then we aren’t worth our salt as experts. If asked any expert on anything is sure of herself or himself. So if I do not know wines, I can ask an expert and know that the given advice is based on vast experience and therefore worthy. But hey! It is the same for them-there is no best. It just depends on exactly what you want, who you are, where you are and maybe a few hundred other things.
There is the story of the Buddha walking through a small village, and as he was passing the Butcher he happened to overhear a customer ask the butcher which of his cuts of meat was the best. The butcher replied that they were all the best. At these words the Buddha became enlightened.