We wake up welcomed by the blinking wink of a smartphone. Flooded by data, we’re constantly pulled by shared pictures and composed status updates. Some of us choose to indulge right away and jump at the glaring screen at first blink, others hold on to waking rituals undefined by the digital instant.
In With The Old and In With The New
Two forces are pulling on us daily, the allure of the bells and whistles of your all powerful smartphone or the urge to slow down and take stock of your life — should you jot down your thoughts in a notebook or tap on a text app on your smartphone.
Do you choose a modern copy of an old process and embrace the digital revolution’s fixation with the new and follow its irreverent pace or do you cherish nostalgia – find a way for the momentum of the future to accommodate the past?
Even listening intently to music, a supposedly calming ritual is being pushed in a format tug of war between embracing a future of binary ones and zeros or embracing a warm nostalgic past.
On the one hand the throwback appeal of vinyl records are experiencing an unlikely but welcome revival, providing a shining glimmer of hope to a record industry embattled by digital pirates and the slow demise of its ultimate cash cow — the compact disc.
For anybody who still assigns immense value in listening to music and find that an anemic low bitrate mp3 file played through a tinny earphone is an act of disrespect for a cherished song, the landscape seems to be divided into those embracing the onslaught of digital, with High Resolution Audio being touted as the next big must have format, and those battling out digital’s breakneck momentum by going back to analog playback and vinyl records, akin to living out a romantic resistance by embracing a format steeped in nostalgia with a subjective preference for the warmth and the engrossing allure of vinyl LPs.
Vinyl is experiencing a rebirth at the oddest moment in history when every aspect of our lives are being swallowed by the internet and increasingly all our media is racing to reside on an intangible cloud.
Here comes a mechanical format, notoriously inconvenient with clicks and pops that require patience to set up properly and to operate — not to mention that the format is more than a century old.
You also can’t skip tracks on a vinyl album, so you better love what you’re listening to.
In spite of all these drawbacks analog audio is experiencing a revival with young audiences discovering its potential to give an involved and immersive musical experience.
Old timers are also re buying their records in a sudden bout of romance with the forgotten warmth of a vinyl LP, not to mention the symbolic re-purchasing of memories of a simpler time, when music was sacred and not an orgy of gigabytes that can oftentimes confuse you more than it can uplift you.
Vinyl is music you can cradle, display and physically own. Its sound is distinct; with a fuzzy warmth and an immediate musicality that begs to be heard.
On the other hand you have High Resolution Audio or HRA, a seemingly superior digital mirror image of music that a lot of manufacturers are betting on to peddle a new wave of audio players and accessories that can allegedly rival the fidelity of CDs, LPs and other music formats downgraded to history’s trash bin.
Sony and a group of music labels even came out with a formal definition of High Res Audio – any audio file with a higher resolution than two-channel 44.1 kHz/16-bit CD audio. The audio sampling rate could be 48 kHz/16-bit or 192 kHz/24-bit.
Hardware manufacturers and record labels are quickly capitalizing on these two trends in audio and have released products, records and accessories in a last ditch effort to prop up high fidelity audio against the simple tyranny and convenience of an earbud and a smartphone to play music.
Record labels are in a mad rush to roll out remasters of your favorite records in both formats to squeeze out the new niches HRA and Vinyl are carving up. Boomers, Gen-Xers and Millenials are being encouraged to purchase and re-purchase their music library in these formats to administer financial CPR to the ailing record industry.
PLAYBACK WARS: Analog vs Digital
Music is simply organised sound (volume plus frequency or tone) moving across time and the main contrast between the two formats is how they store and reproduce recorded music. If we take a quick, oversimplified look at each format we can appreciate their differences even more.
If you zoom into a vinyl record, a smooth flowing waveform of music is etched into a groove in the LP, which are microscopic bumps running along the ridges of the opposite sides of the groove. One side of the groove represents information for your left channel speaker and the other for your right.
A stylus (that needle-like device at the end of a turntable tonearm) is mounted on a suspended cartridge containing a crystal or magnet. This stylus drags through the bumps and ridges of your LP’s groove via the spinning action of your turntable.
The microscopic vibrations due to the stylus moving across these ridges, generates an electric signal that courses through your cartridge’s crystal or magnet which is then sent to an amplifier. This electrical energy is amplified then sent to your speakers or headphones, which in turn delivers sonic bliss to your ears.
Audiophiles obsess about each part of this chain in analog sound reproduction and the demands of perfection can sink a small nation’s economy just by ensuring that each part in the chain of sound can perform at their best.
Analog is simple, straightforward audio information reproduced and stored by physical means.
BITS AND SAMPLES
At the heart of High Resolution Audio is the playback and storage of music in the digital realm. Musical information is encoded not by physical means (like the etches in a vinyl groove) but by assigning numerical values to each detail of musical nuance. If you go back to that smooth flowing waveform of music and cut up this wave into chunks and have a binary number assigned as a “description” of that musical chunk you get a “sample” of a musical event.
This brings us to the sample rate of a digital music file represented in kilohertz or (Khz). The higher the sample rate the more “descriptions” of a musical event can be present in your file. In order for a digital file to be considered Hi Res it must have a sample rate above the CD’s 44.1 Khz, with HRA usually hovering in the 96khz range.
Next up is the bit depth of your digital file or how many bits a file can have to “describe” the softest and loudest parts of a musical event. The higher up the number of computer bits you have, the higher the range of volume between the loud and soft parts of music (or dynamic range) your file has. Hi Res files can have upwards of 16 bits to 24 bits (can be higher) while your usual CD has a bit depth limit of 16 bits.
The last aspect of digital audio is bit rate and is used to describe the total amount of data used every second to approximate sound. The higher the bit rate, the higher the amounts of data that can be processed resulting in a bigger file size — and supposedly, a better sounding file.
The lowly compressed mp3, (and other lossy compression formats like ogg that is used by Spotify) which was adopted due to limited hard disk space in the early 2000s, boasts a puny high of 320kbps compared to a CD’s 1,411.2 Kbps. Compared to Hi Res Audio that can easily go 9,216 kbps the other formats seem downright impoverished in terms of bit rate.
To be able to hear your digital file you’d need a Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) to interpret the digital data and convert these pulses of data into an analog electrical signal that can then be fed to your speakers and/or headphones for you to hear the extended range of sound offered by digital High Resolution Audio.
Hi Res Audio also has a number of lossless formats to offer too, from the open source FLAC, the Windows based WAV (which can now also be played on an Apple based platform), AIFF the Mac based counterpart of WAV and Apple Lossless.
PICK A SIDE: How Does Each Format Sound?
Opinions will be used as bullets and scientific jargon will be spread out like a biochemical weapon as Analog purists and High Resolution Audio enthusiasts will slug it out in the coming years in the wonderful and subjective landmine of opinion called the internet. Trolls will continue to call out vinyl records for their inherent noise and comment commandos will continue to deride High Res Audio as cold and lifeless sounding.
Each side will tout their chosen format as the most life changing, most eargasm inducing and the best sounding playback method known to mankind. Cutting short of uttering that grand tech cliché – that their format can, “make the world a better place”.
WHY YOU LOVE VINYL
Analog enthusiasts liken listening to vinyl as a singular listening experience— organic and fatigue free. Extreme bass and highs are slightly rolled off, resulting in listening sessions that can last longer without any strain.
Our ears evolved over time to be finely tuned to the midrange frequencies of sound (like the human voice and other horned instruments) so we can immediately react to someone talking or a branch snapping signifying danger or an approaching animal.
Since analog playback boasts an impressive mid range heavy sound at the expense of high and low frequency extension, vinyl playback can give a natural realism to music that begs for your attention and this can make listening a very pleasurable experience.
BUMPY ANALOG RIDE
Even with these advantages vinyl playback is very far from perfect. New enthusiasts of the format have to relearn a lot about the proper set up of a turntable, its adjoining parts and the electronic components needed in order to have a decent listening experience. Not to mention, the obsessive cleanliness needed to preserve your stylus and your LPs to sound halfway decent, scrimp on cleanliness and you end up suffering through noise, clicks and pops on your music.
A nosebleed is in proper order if you try to get a millennial to memorize at least a dozen tuning points in order for vinyl playback to at least get to the level that will compete with a Hi Res Audio set up. Phrases like Vertical Tracking Angle, Stylus Force Gauge, Azimuth Adjustment and other technical words are essential to squeeze out the performance of an analog rig – and that’s just the turntable. On the equipment end you’ve got the phono pre-amplifier, another box that comes between the speakers, amplifiers and the turntable.
A phono pre-amplifier adds volume to an otherwise microscopic vibration that your stylus picks up on grooves similar in size to airborne bacteria.
Oh. Your Vinyl records will also degrade after every playback. Wear and tear is inevitable, as each playback is essentially a needle scratching the surface of a delicate set of grooves.
Even with these analog caveats, manufacturers have put in a lot of effort to cope up with the new wave of vinyl revivalists. Brands like Rega, Pro-ject and Audio Technica are reissuing decent entry-level turntables that can be an introduction to the sweet sound of vinyl. Decent phono preamplifiers from the likes of NAD and Musical Fidelity can also be purchased to feed your headphone setup and stereo system the best that analog has to offer.
Conversely, High Res Audio is more convenient to playback than Vinyl LPs. First off you just have a digital file with the HRA specs, which you can purchase via several HRA download sites like HDtracks or QoBuz. If you’ve got a stable Internet connection you can also stream HRA tracks from a streaming service like Tidal, which offers HRA.
This file is theoretically indestructible, as it exists merely as a collection of data squeezed into a file format that can reside in every storage device. Major manufacturers have released supporting hardware that can handle your High Res files for eventual playback through your headphones or stereo system. The choices range from recent portable all-in-one devices such as the FIIO X5 to the more upscale Astell & Kern HRA players.
If you intend to use your computer, laptop or any desktop bound device there are excellent outboard DACs that can deliver your High Res fix, from the excellent value Light Harmonic Geek Out and the Audioquest Dragonfly to more substantial products from Schiit Audio.
THE WHOLE SHEBANG
High Resolution Audio offers a clean, almost clinical sounding presentation to music that can delivers an extended range of frequencies to counter vinyl’s warmth. Modern music tracks that have subsonic bass can exploit HRA’s extensive sound to provide that rumbling oomph needed in modern electronic music as well as Hiphop and R&B’s penchant to slather their tracks with bass.
High frequency sounds like cymbals can have an airy fizzle that lends an illusion of added space to your listening experience. With the absence of any erratic pops and noise, you’ll be able to indulge in music with a clear and artifact free presentation.
Since we’re dealing with pure data and doing away with optical discs due to advancements in storage capacity, HRA formats can last decades in terms of playability as opposed to analog playbacks constant wear on your vinyl records.
Though HRA can chalk up its format’s invisible footprint as an advantage, the recent vinyl revival seems to be fueled by a direct opposite reaction to music floating in a cloud of data. A major factor in the purchase of a vinyl record is the fact that vinyl is a visceral medium. You can hold music, admire an album cover without squinting and indulge in the liner notes of a 12 x 12 inch miniature work of art.
For a generation weaned on ghost-like mp3 files, the visual appeal of a vinyl record is irresistible to the software weary millennial – it even looks like an instagram snapshot. If the record was a hand-me-down copy from a parent or a thrift shop find, it becomes an heirloom – a musical inheritance.
THE SECRET CHORD
We’re missing the last half of the equation on why either format can outperform each other, and that half is your playback system – your stereo amplifier and your speakers or headphones; but that is another topic filled with another buffet of differing opinions, not to mention another endeavor that can punch a crater-hole in your bank account.
But then, what format sounds better?
A MUSIC LOVER’S CHOICE
Vinyl isn’t better, it just sounds different than HRA and vice versa.
If you’re looking for a technically superior and convenient medium that ticks all the performance boxes on paper, then HRA has all the cards in this game, but rarely do numbers determine the end all and be all when it comes down to an individual’s subjective preference over how they playback music.
Some people love the extension of musical detail provided by HRA, while others have fallen in love with the syrupy warmth that a well thought of analog set up can produce — not too mention the allure of fondling album art while listening.
That’s where we are right now and a reflection of the times we’re living in. We have all the information, all the choices, right now, at all times and all at once. It’s a dilemma and a privilege rolled into one, the convenience of a universe of data on your fingertips and access to better technology to revive any old medium should we wish it.
Both formats just sound different from one another, but both can deliver an added dimension, in their own way, for YOU to be touched by YOUR music — for a symphony of notes to speak for what’s inside of you. The best recourse for such polar opposites is to be format agnostic.
Indulge in both mediums.
Embrace them both if you truly feel that music is essential.
Why choose a single format when were living in a time with an explosion of compelling products that can bring you to musical nirvana either through a single tap on a screen or a needle dropping on a groove?