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Now We Can All Be Audiophiles

Hi-Res lossless audio is finally here for the masses, and it’s affordable! Finally after 40 years, the average consumer has access to superior sounding digital audio – kind of. Let’s discuss how digital audio has evolved and why this is so revolutionary, and why it took so long to happen.

The Compact Disc (CD)

Compact Discs were revolutionary! Even now, they maintain the same audio quality no matter how many times they’ve been played. They’re easily ripped into a multitude of formats to be transported and played on a plethora of devices, and have become the de facto standard to measure audio performance by.

Despite all of their acoustic benefits, analog audiophiles have maintained that something was lost when converting analog masters to compact discs. Not only is this entirely possible, it’s probable. Back then, they didn’t have all of the sophisticated audio equipment and recording technology of today. Nuances, certain tones, harmonics, and subtleties could have been and most definitively were indeed lost. After all, CDs are relatively old from a technology standpoint – almost 40 years!

CDs were also quite expensive! Back in the 80s and 90s, it wasn’t uncommon for a new CD to range in pricing between $15 and $17 for a new release. That’s not even adjusted for inflation!

I grew up in a college town with two music stores, and two more within a 15 minute drive, not to mention a couple of pawn shops as well. Thus, there were plenty of used compact discs for sale. Back in the day, I spent a lot of my McDonald’s pay checks on used CDs. Even used, I would pay on average about $8 for a used album or $7 for a new CD single.

CD’s definitely have some faults though. They can scratch easily. They’re Not very convenient or portable as they can skip during playback if the disk is scratched or the player is jostled. Their jewel cases were terribly made, fragile, and broke easily – sometimes prior to you even peeling off the cellophane wrapper. Nowadays, they are mostly obsolete. Do you even have a compact disc player anymore? Personally, I guess I could play one in my Xbox or on our old Blu-Ray player (now we stream and rent movies online), but after ripping all my CDs to my hard drive years ago, I haven’t used a physical CD in years.

MP3s, the Internet, and Napster

During the early 2000s, the internet was growing in popularity, adoption, and usage. However, the speed of the internet was terribly slow. The majority of people were connecting to the web using dial-up modems. In order to display or play any multimedia, compression algorithms were implemented. The compression techniques were lossy and didn’t sound or look nearly as good as the original file, but it got the essence of the content across. Moreover, with the computers and audio equipment of the day, it blurred the lines of what was acceptable quality.

MP3s become the first widely used compression method for audio CDs since you could compress audio files to a tenth of their original size and still have acceptable audio quality. Additionally, they didn’t take up a lot of space on your hard drive or when burned to a disk. You could fit ten albums of burned MP3 music on a 700 MB disk writeable CD-Rom.

Because of the ease in which people could rip their own CDs and share the files online, peer to peer sharing apps like Napster became all the rage. Essentially “free” music to the masses (albeit piracy).

iPods, MP3 players, iTunes, Amazon MP3, and Smartphones

Rather than fight technology, electronic companies created new products for consumers. The iPod and portable MP3 players were born. They allowed people to take their entire music collection with them, or at least a large portion of it.

Fast forward a few years, those portable MP3 players were essentially replaced with cell phones that offered the same functionality.

However, space on these devices was limited. Therefore, MP3 and other lossy formats like AAC were used in order to pack as much music on the equipment as possible. People gave up audio quality for convenience.

Technology Improved, Storage Limits Increased, and Lossless Audio

As technology improved, so did audio quality. Lossless and higher quality CODECs became available. Some of these were open source, while others were proprietary. Many people would argue about which format was the best, FLAC, LAME MP3, Apple Lossless, Ogg Vorbis, AIFF, and more. Many of these formats are still in use today.

At one point, Apple even created an iPod with a 1TB hard drive in it. That little device could hold hundreds of losslessly encoded albums in the palm of your hand! These devices are still sought after and sell on eBay for hundreds of dollars!

Eventually, the technology to record at higher than CD quality started to emerge. So did new standards like Super Audio CDs and DVD-Audio. Unfortunately, these formats didn’t really take off with consumers, and thus became niche products, but the technology existed.

Audio Quality Decreased at Premium Prices

In order to tighten their grip on profits, the music and technology companies colluded and put artificial limitations on their hardware and music libraries. All of this was to the detriment of consumers. Apple is to blame for a huge portion of this too. How?

  1. The original iPhone came in 4GB and 8GB variants – with no room for memory cards. The technology existed to have many many more GBs than that.
  2. Apple pushed their proprietary AAC encoded files through their iTunes store. Even if you purchased an AAC file from iTunes, they limited how you could play your files, and on which devices they could be played on. This practice is referred to as Digital Rights Management (DRM). It was to benefit the music industry – not consumers.
  3. AAC files were not encoded with the highest quality available. They were unquestionably lossy.
  4. Even though the audio quality was worse than that of a physical CD, they still charged full price for the albums. an average of $15 for an album or $1 per track.

At least Amazon offered tracks without DRM in the lossy MP3 format. To Amazon’s credit, they were encoded with a higher bitrate than Apple’s music offerings. Like Apple, you would be the same for these digital albums as you would for a compact disc – at a reduced quality.

Consumers Took it in the Shorts, but Profits for the Music Industry Increase

Consumers traded audio quality for convenience, but they gave up control of their music. Rather than buy, trade, or gift a music CD, they had to buy their music online, and couldn’t play the file everywhere they wanted. On a side note, every music store in my home town went out of.

Technology Advances and Audio Quality Got Even Worse

Apple is to blame for this as well! They forced people to adopt bluetooth wireless transmission for their music. All bluetooth audio is compressed. This was done for convenience and reduced latency of transmission. Even the most expensive pair of Apple headphones uses compressed audio.

Technology and Competition Is Finally Helping Music Customers

Now that high speed Internet is available virtually everywhere, compounded with increasing storage on portable devices, there’s less of a need for heavily compressed audio formats.

Competition and ad based income models have made many ways that consumers can now listen to their music- including YouTube, Spotify, Sound Cloud, Amazon Prime Music, etc.

This has resulted in online music services offering their entire library of millions of songs for less than the original price of a compact disc. That’s not even factoring in inflation or buying power! No commercials, high quality lossless audio, and new songs becoming available all the time.

Unfortunately, you don’t own anything. That means they can delete content form their library at any time. This is unfortunate, but the ease of access makes it worth it.

I easily spend less in dollars a month on music now than I did 30 years ago. Again, that’s not even accounting for inflation! Prices for music have finally gone down!

Hi-Res 24-Bit / 192Khz is Finally Here

Technology and competition march on. Even though higher bitrate audio files have been possible for years, the major online music services are now making them available in an effort to differentiate themselves from the competition.

This means that after 40 years, the audio quality of compact discs has finally been surpassed and it’s within reach of average consumers!

However…

You’ll Need to Buy New Equipment

So you’re ready to listen to Hi-Res Audio? You’re already paying a monthly fee for it, but unfortunately you can’t hear the difference with any of your fancy bluetooth headphones, shiny new laptop, smartphone, or tablet. Why? You need new equipment…

In my next article, I’ll discuss the audio setup I’m currently using. I’ll also go into why I chose the particular equipment that I’m using, and lastly discuss which music service I recommend.

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