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Thread: Compared to vinyl, how poor is iTunes/Music sound quality?

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    Senior Member Chilham's Avatar
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    Default Compared to vinyl, how poor is iTunes/Music sound quality?



    I gave-up vinyl many years ago (Rega Planar 3, Nytech CA 202, Kef Celeste III), in favour of CD (Marantz CD-67 SE, Mission Cyrus 3, Q Acoustics Concept 40). I plan to do a lot of travelling once restrictions are lifted, and will be off grid much of the time. Without the space to carry a vast quantity of CDs, and not able to stream, I've uploaded all of my CDs to iTunes/Music, and listen on my laptop, iPad or iPhone using a pair of relatively high-end earphones (Shure SE425). I've also purchased quite a bit of music there.

    So my question, is to what extent am I downgrading sound quality for convenience?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Chilham View Post


    I gave-up vinyl many years ago (Rega Planar 3, Nytech CA 202, Kef Celeste III), in favour of CD (Marantz CD-67 SE, Mission Cyrus 3, Q Acoustics Concept 40). I plan to do a lot of travelling once restrictions are lifted, and will be off grid much of the time. Without the space to carry a vast quantity of CDs, and not able to stream, I've uploaded all of my CDs to iTunes/Music, and listen on my laptop, iPad or iPhone using a pair of relatively high-end earphones (Shure SE425). I've also purchased quite a bit of music there.

    So my question, is to what extent am I downgrading sound quality for convenience?
    I honestly don't know, and frankly don't care. Your graphic says it all, in ways that made me laugh a lot!!

    The serious answer is: you have nailed the dichotomy. Quality v. convenience. It has ever been thus since you had to decide whether to ship your string quartet in first class or coach (embroidered).

    If you are 'off grid', then local storage is king. So that's SD card. So that's 64GB or 128GB (unless your device supports the higher specs: 2TB is possible, but only on alternative Thursdays with a following wind). So pick whatever codec your device can cope with that gets the music you care about down to 128GB with the quality you can put up with. For those purposes, 192Kbps MP3 is acceptable.

    Seriously: how old are you? If you are over 40, you will not tell the difference on a good day between 192Kbps MP3 and lossless FLAC, I can't, and I care about this stuff! Stick a 64GB SD card in you're phone and you will have at least several weeks, quite possibly several months' of music playing capability.

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    Senior Member Bkeske's Avatar
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    Agreed, that graphic is hilarious.

    But yea, if you can keep your files in lossless formats, that would best if you have the storage space. At that point, your headphones are the key. You might also check out a small DAC, like one of the AudioQuest Dragon Fly’s. I’ve heard they can make a dramatic difference.

    But, portable digital is somewhat out of my league. I don’t pay much attention to it, so cannot offer much educated thought or opinion.

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    Senior Member Chilham's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by AbsolutelyBaching View Post
    ... Seriously: how old are you? If you are over 40, you will not tell the difference on a good day between 192Kbps MP3 and lossless FLAC... .
    That's a really good point. I'm 62.

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    Senior Member Chilham's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bkeske View Post
    Agreed, that graphic is hilarious.

    But yea, if you can keep your files in lossless formats, that would best if you have the storage space. At that point, your headphones are the key. You might also check out a small DAC, like one of the AudioQuest Dragon Fly’s. I’ve heard they can make a dramatic difference.

    But, portable digital is somewhat out of my league. I don’t pay much attention to it, so cannot offer much educated thought or opinion.
    I've recently purchased a MacBook Pro with enough storage capacity to run a lunar mission.

    I'll research DAC. Thanks.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Chilham View Post
    That's a really good point. I'm 62.
    Right. If you are 17, on a good day, and with a following Spring Tide, you can hear above 20KHz. But most people can't. It takes extraordinary genetics -and even they drop off (oooerrr) after about 20.

    Most people who really care about hifi cannot hear above 17KHz in their 40s. So the difference between lossless and MP3 for them is practically nothing. (It's not clear-cut: MP3 doesn't just say 'above this frequency, we will not encode', but has an 'aural-acoustic model', meaning that it cuts out things it thinks you probably can't hear. Now we're into the goodness of the models territory!)

    So, shorter version: at 60+, the difference between good MP3 and FLAC (or WAV, which is essentially the same thing as FLAC, without compression) is nil. You won't tell the difference between 320Kbps MP3 and a FLAC encoding of the same track. So, for portability and convenience, you are well-advised to pile a stack-load of 320Kbps MP3s onto your phone's storage and your ears will thank you. If your ears are like mine (6 years younger, but still not young, godammit!) you are highly unlikely to spot the difference between a 320Kbps MP3 and a 192 Kbps MP3 track. But I wouldn't, personally, push it to 128Kbps unless I was desperate (and even then, it sounds OK, compared to listening to the average Polish airport lounge announcement system).

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    Senior Member Malx's Avatar
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    AB - may I politely take issue with your insistance that people of a certain age can't hear the difference between an MP3 track and a Flac/CD. I get that hearing deteriorates with age but please accept that because you can't hear the difference it doesn't mean no one can.

    I agree that the difference between a 128MP3 and 320MP3 may be inaudible but I would suggest, without having 100% technical knowledge, that the difference between an MP3 and Flac/CD is to some degree down to the method of compression used.

    The means of playback will also have an effect on whether a difference is audible to an individual listener or not, the quality of the hardwear and the abilty of said hardware to resolve differences in the quality of the input signal will influence what is heard. I will however accept that there is clearly an element of conveinence/quality trade off once storage space enters the equation.

    I maintain differences can be heard - whilst fully understanding that not everyone will be able to hear them or even strive to hear them.

    ETA - I am 63
    Last edited by Malx; Feb-02-2021 at 23:01. Reason: correct spelling error

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    I have a 1TB micro SD card stuck in a laptop. It contains more music (FLAC) than I could get through in years. I don't know if I could tell the difference from MP3 aurally, but I don't think there's a need, unless you're strapped for cash.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Malx View Post
    AB - may I politely take issue with your insistance that people of a certain age can't hear the difference between an MP3 track and a Flac/CD. I get that hearing deteriorates with age but please accept that because you can't hear the difference it doesn't mean no one can.
    I'm sorry I missed this. Let's just clarify my claim, because we (I) use words loosely sometimes, I realise!

    It is a biological fact that no human can ever hear above about 22KHz.
    It is also a biological fact that all humans lose their top frequencies as they grow older.
    On average and as a general guide, by the time you are around 30, you cannot hear above around 17KHz. (Not the most rigorous of sources, but it was all I could find in a hurry! They say 17.4KHz is something only teenagers can hear. I won't split hairs: 17KHz and 30 seems broadly equivalent).

    Now, on the other side of the equation, FLAC files will contain a complete audio signal with a filter cut-off at 22.05KHz (we know this because the source CD -and I am assuming CD sources- have a 44100Hz limit, and that was arrived at by using the Nyquist sampling theorem, which says that if you have a filter cut-off at X, then a sample at 2X will capture every part of it perfectly. Since 2X=44100, we know X must be 22050. Hence, the CD cannot contain frequencies higher than that, and therefore no FLAC ripped from that CD can contain frequencies higher than that.

    So, you are over 40. You physically cannot hear about 5KHz of the FLAC content (i.e., the frequencies from around 17000Hz to 22050Hz are inaudible to you), and that's assuming good ears and genetics. I should be lucky (at 57) if I can hear anything about about 15000Hz, to be honest. So I'm not hearing almost a third of the FLAC signal content!

    Anyway, that wasn't your point. You quite rightly say that 'some people can hear the difference between and MP3 track and a FLAC'. And that's undoubtedly true for something I did mention further upstream: MP3 doesn't just chop off signals at (say) 17000Hz and calls it a day. It uses a psycho-acoustic model to determine what frequencies it thinks you are unlikely to be able to hear. And there are different models out there (LAME, for example, is not the same psycho-acoustic model that the Frauenhoffer model uses). They vary, at a given bit-rate. And then they vary more because of the different target bit rates you feed them. Hence why a 128Kbps MP3 will sound worse than a 192Kbps one, for example: the lower bit-rate requires higher frequencies to be dropped for starters, and a different set of model parameters are then applied. So you end up with a much lossier signal and as a result, a good set of ears will definitely hear the difference.

    So... takes breath. That's all the technical stuff out of the way.

    There are a couple of other points to be made. No discussion of lossless/lossy can be had without being clear on two fundamental points: we're talking the same mastering and the same reproduction hardware. If we're not, then it's not worth having the discussion in the first place.

    I mean, simply, that you get a lot of people insisting that 'this BluRay Audio is streets better than that CD'. And what they mean is that they can hear the impressive audio re-engineering that has gone on to create the Blu-Ray master in the first place. Re-master the recording, and all bets are off, basically. It only makes sense to have these discussions about whether you can hear the difference or not if we keep the mastering fixed.

    Ditto, of course a great set of speakers is going to make even crappy MP3 sound brilliant compared to a set of tin cans trying to play a FLAC. So, we also have to say the music playback equipment is fixed between comparison runs. If not, everything else goes out the window.

    So I'm going to dismiss your third paragraph (nicely, I hope), only in the sense that, if we are to have a sensible discussion about whether this or that audio format is noticeably different from that or this one, we cannot be altering the listening hardware. We must assume that the hardware is a constant.

    Now, with all that said, if you are listening to the same mastering on the same hardware, one version at MP3 128Kbps and one at 320Kbps, you will almost certainly hear a big difference. The acoustic models are so different between those two sampling rates that you would be hard-pressed not to. (And I shall further assume we're using the same encoder software, so variability between encoders is not an issue. Say we do it all with LAME, just as an example). So LAME 128Kbps v LAME 192Kbps... it will be tricky to hear the difference, because the bit rates are so close, but a good music education will probably mean almost anyone could hear it: cymbals won't be as bright at the lower bit rate; bare violin sounds will not be as pure. And so on.

    But, with the same mastering and the same player/amplifier/speaker hardware you cannot hear the difference between 320Kbps and FLAC at your age. There: flat-out assertion on my part, I realise. But it is biologically true: you've lost your upper frequencies anyway, so you're not hearing them in the FLAC to start with. And the 320Kbps MP3 acoustic model means it's barely throwing away much more of the audio signal than you already can't hear.

    That bald assertion comes with a couple of caveats. If you are a teenager, you might be able to tell the difference. If you're significantly older than that and are blessed with excellent genetics, you also might be able to tell the differences, but your chances are vanishingly slight and are getting worse every day. And it is also true that there are some people who are so attuned to telling the difference between sounds (recording engineers spring to mind) that they also might be able to tell the difference as a result.

    But the number of people who can tell the difference between 320Kbps MP3 and FLAC is tiny. It's not zero, but I'm sorry: at 63, it is extremely unlikely that if you take precisely the same master and construct two files from them, one at 320Kbps MP3 and one as FLAC, and play them on exactly the same hardware in precisely the same room that you would pass a double-blind listening test. They've been done, and people our age basically just don't pass.

    I'm not ruling it out entirely, because there's no point in being dogmatic about it and miracles can happen. But I'm not claiming that just 'because I can't hear a difference, no-one can'. I'm saying there are excellent and well-documented biological and technical reasons for being unable to tell the difference once you reach a certain (quite low, actually) age.

    Finally: your second paragraph would seem to have things slightly the wrong way round. I didn't say that the difference between 128KBps and 320KBps would be inaudible. Quite the opposite. They'd be as plain as the day and utterly obvious, even to an old fogey like me. The claim I made (I hope!) was that you would be unable to tell the difference between a 320Kpbs MP3 (i.e., about the best that format can do) and a FLAC. At our age. On the same hardware. Using the same mastering. And only talking about Stereo. (I think I've probably covered myself for all eventualities now!)

    And edited to add: there is a concern that the way MP3 processes an audio signal (chops it up into frames and so on) can mean that even at the highest bitrates, it's going to be distinctively different from FLAC, in incredibly subtle ways, not because you're hearing any different frequencies, but because attacks are -possibly- minutely blurred. We're talking 40 millisecond time frames: if you miss 40 milliseconds of the start of a cymbal crash, can you hear that? And if the timpani are going with the violins and horns at the same time: can you still hear that? Anyway, that's a bit of a different issue from the specific 'frequencies are missing' one, and I didn't want to get into it too much, because I've already wittered on for too long.
    Last edited by Guest002; Feb-14-2021 at 17:47.

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    I love the graphic of the OP, and I enjoyed reading AB, but it simply isn’t the case that the older we get (I’m a few months older than the OP) the more we can’t tell the difference in sound. As a Physician, I think the answer is that we haven’t discovered all of the parameters that need to be measured, including the role of Psycho acoustics in the whole process.
    So to return the OP, iTunes vs vinyl? A lot will depend on the encoding format. I haven’t used iTunes to burn CDs for a while, but you want to avoid their codec that is basically mp3 quality ( I forgot what the Apple Speak name was). Go for their FLAC equivalent.
    If you want something much better, use something like dbPoweramp as ripping software. And storage isn’t at issue these days; as someone noted upthread you can get 2TB on a camera card. And then if it’s really the vinyl sound you crave, fry some bacon in the background

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    It's not about high or low frequencies being inaudible. It's about reduced soundstage and so much information randomly lost to compression. There are crucial details lost all the time.

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    Quote Originally Posted by AbsolutelyBaching View Post
    Seriously: how old are you? If you are over 40, you will not tell the difference on a good day between 192Kbps MP3 and lossless FLAC, I can't, and I care about this stuff! Stick a 64GB SD card in you're phone and you will have at least several weeks, quite possibly several months' of music playing capability.
    Age related hearing loss, does effect high frequency hearing. But, there is much more to listening to audio reproduction, than the loss of some high frequencies.

    I am over 60, and I can easily hear the difference between MP3 and lossless FLAC, and even more so, DSD. All I have to do is pay attention to imaging, soundstage, hall ambience, and other spatial cues. These attributes are not effected by age related hearing loss.*

    I also think that some high frequency hearing loss, is only a minor detriment to discerning differences.

    But the musical instrument with the highest frequency response, violin, goes out to about 16K, including harmonics, on the highest note. So, the vast majority of the range violins play in, are well below 16K, and well within the range most 60 year old's can hear.

    But the vast majority of musical instruments barely pass 10K (a couple, oboe and clarinet) go out to about 12K.


    https://alexiy.nl/eq_chart/


    * I took part in a double blind listening test about 3 years ago, where we compared 16/44.1, 24/192 and quad rate DSD.
    Last edited by Simon Moon; Feb-15-2021 at 22:32.
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    I've always been of the opinion that vinyl is more about collecting than comparing the sound quality to CDs. I have CDs, downloads and vinyl, and am quite happy to swap between the three formats. Some of my 'very' budget label albums still sound great, despite the odd snap, crackle and pop. Maybe the collector angle is an age thing...

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    Quote Originally Posted by Triplets View Post
    I love the graphic of the OP, and I enjoyed reading AB, but it simply isn’t the case that the older we get (I’m a few months older than the OP) the more we can’t tell the difference in sound. As a Physician, I think the answer is that we haven’t discovered all of the parameters that need to be measured, including the role of Psycho acoustics in the whole process.
    So to return the OP, iTunes vs vinyl? A lot will depend on the encoding format. I haven’t used iTunes to burn CDs for a while, but you want to avoid their codec that is basically mp3 quality ( I forgot what the Apple Speak name was). Go for their FLAC equivalent.
    If you want something much better, use something like dbPoweramp as ripping software. And storage isn’t at issue these days; as someone noted upthread you can get 2TB on a camera card. And then if it’s really the vinyl sound you crave, fry some bacon in the background
    ALAC or Apple Lossless

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    Quote Originally Posted by Triplets View Post
    I love the graphic of the OP, and I enjoyed reading AB, but it simply isn’t the case that the older we get (I’m a few months older than the OP) the more we can’t tell the difference in sound.
    Well, that wasn't my claim (and what I claimed isn't actually my claim, either). The statement was that as we age, we lose the ability to hear higher frequencies, and that's a biological fact that you as a physician will know is perfectly true. We lose it at different rates; out work and leisure environments can affect the process, and so on. But that we lose our higher frequencies with age is fact, not claim.

    Quote Originally Posted by Triplets View Post
    As a Physician, I think the answer is that we haven’t discovered all of the parameters that need to be measured, including the role of Psycho acoustics in the whole process.
    I think that's a given, and I already said as much when I pointed out that different implementations of the MP3 codec can affect quality of output, even given fixed bitrates. But that's an irrelevance in any discussion of FLAC, for example, which isn't using any psyco-acoustic models, since it's not having to decide which bits of the audio signal to lose.

    ALAC is the lossless, compressed Apple proprietary audio codec (broadly equivalent to FLAC). AAC is an Apple proprietary lossy codec (broadly equivalent to MP3). AIFF is the Apple proprietary equivalent of WAV (i.e., uncompressed, lossless).

    I would avoid all proprietary codecs unless you are already heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem and never intend to leave it.

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