08 January, 2009

MUSIC SERVER DIARY: (3) Apple Lossless vs Wave 44,1 vs Wave 48

MUSIC SERVER DIARY: (3) Apple Lossless vs WAV 44,1 vs WAV 48

Part 3
iPod/Wadia iTransport
First Impressions in my home:

My test at home prior to the trial at Danz's place was actually not in one session. I burned some files and listened and then prepared different files again. But for convenience I am writing this up as if it happened in one session.

Preparation of Files using iTunes
I had burnt a lot of CDs into iTunes. I used Apple Lossless to burn and store, but for testing purpose the WAV files were mostly converted from Apple Lossless. The reason for this is that if WAV is directly used somehow album artwork cannot be imported. Bad apple! Since Sampling Rate can be customised for WAV files, for testing purpose I prepared both 44.1 and 48kHz for many tracks. These were all automatically synced onto the iPod via a USB cable.

FILES used:
For the following CDs I have prepared files of Apple Lossless, Wav(44.1) and Wav(48):

1. Shostakovich Symphony #5/Haitink, Track II. Allegretto
2. 陳果 有空來坐坐
3. Brubeck Time Out, Track 3: Take Five
4. Serenata, Track 1: Nightingale
5. Manger Test CD, Tracks 1, 5, 7, 9, 10 (no Wav44)
6. Britten Noye's Fluddle, Track 5

Test Equipment:

I used basically the equipment I used for the Yamaha NS-1000 (click for details):

-SONY CDP-R1/DAS-R1 (accepts 44.1 and 48 kHz)
-Counterpoint 2000E preamp (XLR out)
-Bryston 4B old version
-Yamaha NS-1000
- Cables (Sony Twin link; XLO 4.1 for iTransport; Gotham GAC-4 XLR and 50040)

All tracks are compared with CD replay. The following conclusions are reached:

1. Through the iPod/iTransport, none of the formats was able to beat CD playback (in a comprehensive way). CD playback is just more dynamically accurate on both macro- and micro- levels, yielding a more nuanced performance, with more tonal shadings and harmonic integrity.

2. The Apple "Lossless" format is definitely LOSSY. Although it still sounds quite decent, compared to CD playback and WAV formats, it alters the tonal balance and dynamics in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, in ways I don't think any serious audiophile can accept. With small scaled music, this detriment may not be so easily noticeable, but on orchestral climaxes the "dropout" is audible. The other interesting thing is that Apple Lossless sounds subjectively louder, which is almost surely an indication of compression.

3. WAV files in either 44.1 or 48 kHz, are significantly truer copies of the CD. However, the difference between the 2 sampling rates is of surprisingly magnitude. The higher sampling rate of 48kHz is superior: it firms out the instumental outlines, imparts a little more harmonics and, most importantly, better dynamic shadings to bring it remarkably close to CD playback. This is evident across the board. In the Shostakovich, the bass line is more threatening and climax cleaner; in Tave Five, the drum solo became more finely shaded and varied, a sure sign for better playback. With WAV at 48 kHz, the sound is really quite close to CD playback. This (re)up-sampling is ceratinly another can of worm.

CONCLUSIONS for this session
1. Although for the moment I may still continue to use iTunes to create WAV files, for sonically superior CDs, I know I shall never use Apple Lossless again, as conversion to WAV files is superior.

2. As all my DACs support 48 kHz, as long as I am using iTunes for ripping, for good sounding CDs I shall be preparing Wav files of 48 kHz for personal use.

3. Most importantly, I am satisfied by the quality of replay offered by iPod/iTransport, especially as an adjunct and not a main source. For good sound, (WAV 48 kHz) is close enough and the one I shall use. I'd like to mention that much of what I rip are sonically compromised mono "historic recordings", some dating back almost a century ago, and I think I can use lossy formats for them to save disc space. Some of these I have converted to custom AAC (at highest allowable MONO rate). Perhaps one day I shall run a comparison between the better lossy methods and seriously test even iTransport's analogue out for these files.

Questions and Coming Tests
1. Part 4 would be the next session, which had already taken place at Danz' place: comparing iPod/iTransport files with WAV 44.1 files ripped by EAC and played directly from hard-disc via USB out.

2. A big question: would ripping directly using other possibly superior methods, like using EAC or creating FLAC files, be significantly better than (conversion by) iTunes? I have already downloaded and started to use EAC (but not Foobar). I shall be comparing WAV 44.1 files ripped by EAC (which cannot do 48 kHz) with both WAV 44.1 and 48 files converted from iTunes.

3. Another big question: Would the use of an anti-jitter device improve further the digital out of the iTransport? To this end, when I have time, I shall insert such a device in the chain. I have the Genesis Digital lens, Monarchy DIP and Audio Alchemy DTI Pro32 on hand for testing.

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