InnerFideliBits: NPR Audio Quality Test; Apple Launching Streaming Service; Crowd-Sourced Met Museum Ambient Album; Massdrop On The Creative Aurvauna Live! and Soundblaster E1

Hi there! Welcome to another enticing edition of InnerFideliBits! Today we put your bitrate senses to the test, brace ourselves for Apple's dive into the streaming scene, source some sounds for a collaborative composition, and share a scrumptious deal on the Creative Aurvana Live!

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Testing News: NPR Bitrate Test

Audiophiles love a good challenge. With the advent of streaming services which tout higher bitrate tracks, NPR has decided to give you a place to test you ears. The NPR test allows you to listen to three versions of a track (192 kbps mp3, 320 kbps mp3, and uncompressed WAV) and pick which one you believe is the highest quality. Historically, I've personally found it pretty easy to tell sub-256 kbps tracks from uncompressed tracks, but I'll be the first to admit that individual bitrates can be a challenge to audibly discern. In any case, this should be an interesting exploration for those who want to hone in on the right streaming service to occupy their valuable ear-time.

Put yourself to the test at NPR's page.

InnerFideliBits_Separator Streaming News: Apple Streaming Service

Sometimes you just wanna plug into your mobile phone, click on a playlist, and discover some brand new music. The veritable smorgasbord of streaming services available nowadays serves up a number of delectable musical spreads, ranging from curated online radio to socially shared playlists. Apple has dominated the paid music download scene for awhile, with some attributing up to 85% of physical downloads to the iTunes store. Today, Apple is jumping head-first into the streaming scene with a new service. Word on the street is that this new service will cost $10 and offer radio stations voiced by a number of hard-hitters in the music industry like Drake and Pharrell.

Check out the details of the launch of Apple's new service in this Business Insider article.

Music News: Crowd-Sourced Ambient Sounds to Fuel Collaboration between Met Museum and John Luther Adams

Music is all around us. I've always personally enjoyed a track with natural, ambient sounds incorporated. Whether it was birds chirping or water trickling, ambient sound has served to further immerse listeners into the atmosphere of a great track. Composer John Luther Adams has worked in the past to incorporate the sounds of nature into his compositions and now he's turned an eye to more urban sources. Between now and July 31st, those close to the museum can record whatever ambient noise they desire as they walk from the Met museum on 82nd to the Met Breuer on 75th, in NYC. The museum will accept recordings in mp3 and WAV formats online. The final composition, to be entitled "Soundwalk 9:09", will be available for public download after completed.

For more info on the project, check out the full article on CNet.

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Deal of the Week: Creative Aurvana Live! and Soundblaster E1

The Creative Aurvana Live! is a fantastic little headphone. In fact, Tyll strongly prefers the first edition over the second. Well, for a couple more days, you have the opportunity to grab on at a bargain. Massdrop is bundling the Creative Aurvana Live! and Soundblaster E1 for an already great price of $57.99 ($159.99 MSRP), but if more people pick up the bundle the price will drop as low as $49.99! Pick this one up while it lasts!

For more info check out the Massdrop page and Tyll's recent review of the revamped Creatuve Aurvana Live!.

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Alright folks, so I've run a few editions of InnerFideliBits at this point and I'm looking for some suggestions. I'll be taking the usual suggestions of news stories to cover, but I'd also like you to drop any additions or changes you'd like me to make to the posts themselves (format, tone, new ideas) in the comments below! I'll keep an eye out for your thoughtful suggestions and see if they can be incorporated in future InnerFideliBits!

COMMENTS
ktmracer's picture

I tried the sound test through a pair of Q701's with an O2 amp hooked right into the headphone jack of my ipad. My answers were WAV four times and 320 twice. The 128 was fairly easy to tell, but honestly I think the WAV being my answer more than the 320 was total coincidence. It was pretty hard to discern them. Maybe I am spending way too much energy trying to convert CD's into FLAC files. Maybe a premium Spotify subscription is all I need. Anybody with a better setup get different results?

zobel's picture

There seems to be no real constants. There seems to be unlimited variables.

1) To start with, the tracks selected all should have been selected from recordings made with the best masters, high quality digital recordings that themselves aren't compressed victims of the loudness war. All versions of the tracks being compared must come from the same original master, not different masters for each example.

2) Then, equal loudness between the versions of the same track must be done better than NPR did here.

3) Then each version must be made very carefully on the best equipment to best represent that file type.

4) Now, assuming that each file type per tune was properly produced from the same top quality master of a great recording, and presented at equal volume levels, This is where for meaningful comparison of these files becomes a big issue, and lack of controls here allow the presentation of those files to be as much or more of a variable as there is between files as presented here.

The huge variation in presentation of these files is due to several factors;

A) Internet connection, server quality, speed, bandwidth, and type all vary. People responded that they could pick the biggest files by loading time.

B) Player quality. Sound cards, power supplies, DACs, and of course, headphones or speakers vary greatly in performance. Everything from low end cell phones with cheap ear buds, to top end computers with premium USB DACs and headphone amplifiers driving high end headphones were used. Curiously, there were users of low end gear reporting perfect scores, while some users with high end gear reported zero success. This suggests that factors other than the overall quality of playback gear weighs heavier for some listeners, or perhaps, low quality gear emphasizes the weaknesses of poorer files since ear buds characteristically lack bass and wearers often listen to the upper frequencies at higher relative levels, where the bulk of differences between files exists. We really don't know.

C) How the listeners used the samples varies. Some listened chose speakers (of various qualities) or used headphones (of various qualities). Some listened at low volume, some mid, some at high volumes. Some listened through the entire tracks once each then voted. Some listened to entire tracks repeatedly, then voted. Some listened to short sections of each track repeatedly then voted. Some took only one, or part of one test, while some took the test repeatedly.

All of this points out the difficulty in producing a valid blind test. This NPR offering isn't a valid test, and for all the reasons above, and probably more, don't take it as any sort of meaningful measure of audio quality in those file types.

Whatever you are listening to music on, enjoy it!

Impulse's picture

I've never viewed ripping to FLAC as a waste of time, regardless of whether I can hear the difference or not... Ripping to FLAC is like preserving film negatives, it just means you can go back to the original at any time and convert to any format without losing anything.

I only play my FLACs on the PC tho, I keep an identical MP3 library (well, the rips + whatever I've bought online) for mobile use and streaming around the house. Once you've committed to FLAC, the extra little space taken up by the MP3 copies is inconsequential.

In the same vein, streaming vs owning has never been about sound quality for me, maybe dyed in the wool audiophiles see it differently but for me it's a much more practical matter.

Streaming's great for variety and discovery, but it has very obvious downsides that owning your own tracks doesn't. I'll use Pandora/Spotify/Songza/Prime on occasion but in general I prefer not to waste a ton of bandwidth and battery life streaming all day every day.

Impulse's picture

Streaming can also makes it easier to manage your music, for me it's just more restrictive and a constant expense I can't easily pull back on without losing ALL my music...

I wish we had more streaming plans with the bonus of buying a few tracks ever month like Microsoft's old Zune service, only way it'd make any sense to me personally.

drblank's picture

is getting good WiFi connection OR you have to have unlimited cellular contract. At home, I would have to use my WiFi setup and if my WiFI isn't giving me the bandwidth for a streaming service, then it stops to buffer, which is annoying. When I tried Tidal, my WiFI service kind of sucked and when I streamed a song, it would take literally 10 minutes to listen to a 5 minute song because it was stopping and starting due to buffering because of my WiFI connection sucked.

Once we get really good, consistent, reliable bandwidth everywhere we go, then Streaming will make more sense. It's still not that way for everyone. Some of us just simply have to do it the old fashioned way.

I like the concept of streaming as long as the sound quality is there and there is no buffering problems.

drblank's picture

with what you are doing. It's a more of a pain in the arse keeping both formats, but I understand why. I mean, MP3's were originally for situations where sound quality and storage is limited or not a high priority. FLAC and AIFF or other Lossless compression is for playing on a computer or media server where storage is available and sound quality is a higher priority. It's more important as to what the original uncompressed file sounds like first.

From the record labels perspective, they saw DSD (which later got sold in the SACD format) was used to preserve the original analog recordings for archival purposes. That's where they got the idea for SACD. And now since we can get USB DACs, etc. we want to have the ability to get recordings in DSD or a PCM conversion from these DSD archives that we can play. So, I believe that's where a lot (not all) of the 24 bit (whichever sample rate they convert from the DSD archives) is coming from.

Impulse's picture

With some simple automation performed by Media Monkey I never really think much about managing two separate libraries...

One is transparently used for playback (including downloads I only have in MP3 form, but also all the FLACs) and the other is used for sync to mobile devices (be it by playlist or randomized selection, or both).

It's actually really really simple, tho I can understand why the average user would find it inscrutable, specially coming from iTunes or what have you. If you're the kind of person that has never had an issue keeping stuff backed up, you can deal with multiple libraries.

I realize the description doesn't fit a lot of average consumers, so streaming is great for them...

drblank's picture

I typically rip from CD to AIFF (same as FLAC) OR I have downloads from places like HD Tracks in 24/x, but I do also have iTunes Match and what it does is it takes my main catalog and matches it and then on my mobile devices, I can DL from Match the AAC converted versions. For me it works great. When I get a really reliable ISP where I can stream lossless then I'll do that. I would have preferred it Apple or someone that wasn't JayZ was doing it. I just wish Apple or someone other than some thug rapper bought Tidal. That's all.

It would have been interesting if Meridian bought Tidal.

bobgraham2's picture

I got 5 out of 6 right (Asus Essence ST/Beyerdynamic T1), but I am impressed with the sound quality of the 320k mp3. I had the hardest time differentiating the synthetic pop music tracks (like Katy Perry or Jay-Z), it was much easier with voice or classical. I agree with "Impulse" that ripping to FLAC is like saving a film negative. Storage prices have dropped tremendously. Why are people in such a rush to throw things away?

calaf's picture

I tried with my Beyer T1 driven by a Meier Corda+DACcord stack. I picked one WAV (Neil Young), four 320kbps, and one 128 kbps (JayZ). To be perfectly honest my choices for Kate Perry and Jay Z was random as I could not hear any difference among the three samples. For the other four I thought I heard differences but picked up 320kpbs over uncompressed WAV three times out of four!

Smiling Kev's picture

I have been combing the Internet for any mention of the bitrate of Apple's new streaming service that was announced today and will be available at the end of June. I'm 99.99% sure that I will be signing up for it, but it would be nice to know what the baseline will be for audio quality. It's probably not relevant to my situation, given the limitations of my equipment and hearing . . . but my score of 4 out of 6 on the NPR test, while using just my iPad Air and a set of Sennheiser HD 239s, makes me curious about what differences I might notice on Apple Music when it premieres. Do any of my fellow Innerfidelites have any info about the bitrate?

Sean Sabino's picture

Looks like we're gonna get 256kbps. Blergh. Not the best. In fact, that's a bit lower than a number of competitors. At least the content sounds intriguing, though!

tony's picture

You're doing good work.

There's gonna be tons of stuff happening now, Personal Audio is the dominant Category in Audio.

2-Channel is nice but dying-off.

5.1 & 7.1 home theater stuff is kinda like a $5,000 appliance for Family activity.

The Billion Dollar Gorilla in the center of our room is the iPhone playing "Everymans" high-res music. ( even if it's MP3 ). Show folks how to get the best outa their smart phone and you'll earn your keep.

Bon Vivant,

Tony in Michigan

SonicSavourIF's picture

the quality of compressed audio is very dependent on which codec one uses. Do the same blindtest (yourself) and use the vorbis format at different quality levels.
The compression you achieve without hearing any difference (or having an even harder time to decern differences than with mp3) is insane. I think over at hydrogenaudio most people stop hearing differences after quality 4. Try it. you will be impressed at how low, yet still inaudible bit rate can be. (Though it is more audible with the mp3 codec.)

Probably streaming services (and everyone else that uses compressed audio) should switch to the vorbis format. This would solve some of the buffering problems maintaining quality or deliver even higher quality than before.

By the way, vorbis has been extensively used in the game industry and elsewhere "under the hood". Plus, vorbis is completely free (and monty is an awesome guy).

check in out http://www.vorbis.com/

Also if you have not read it, this article is a very good read
https://people.xiph.org/~xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html

Smiling Kev's picture

Thanks very much for taking the time to share your knowledge and resources about "bitrates," "compression," etc. I'll check it all out and, I'm sure, end up with a much better understanding about what I am (and am not) hearing when it comes to streaming audio.

Keep listenin' and keep smilin'!
Kev

SonicSavourIF's picture

No problem. My knoledge could actually be much better, but since it all takes time to read I started to listen more to the technically and scientifically inclient experts out there.
Make sure to whatch the videos mentioned in the article, they are as informative as fun to whatch.

Also, concerning auio fidelity in genereal and more technical aspects of digital and analog audio check out the articles on this blog
http://nwavguy.blogspot.de/

They are long but very informative. Oh and of course stuff by Ethan Winer
http://ethanwiner.com/articles.html

His book helps a lot, too, recommended. This information might save you a lot of money and help you to just lean back and enjoy your music knowing, that you probably already have very good sound and there is just no need to spend n000$ on equipment. (headphones excluded =)).

Cheers

SonicSavourIF's picture

First a quick non serious listen, with my realsound dynamics IEMs directly out of the headphone jack of my Lenovo X230. The jack is pretty noisy and I wasn't able to hear any difference.

With more time and devotion I tried again in the evening with my HD650 hooked up to an O2/ODAC. This time I got 4/6 right (didn't get the Jay Z and Perry Track), though I confused the high and low mp3 bitrate 2 times or so.

I did the test again with the IEMs hooked to the O2/ODAC and screwd up the whole test. 1/5 and afterwards I was too frustrated and impatient to finish the test.
I don't really know if this means, that the RealSound Dynamics are not as resolving, or
I was just more tired and impatient because I had already spent some time doing the test or
if I was just lucky in the trial with the Sennheiser (e.g.: I got the classical track right but had a real hard time doing so and this could easily have been luck).
Also, with the IEMS, I had to reduce the output stream volume digitally to 50% to be able to listen at a comfortable level and not underdrive the ODAC). Might have influenced the result.
I will just try to do the test a few times in the next days to see if I can get consistent results with my Sennheiser.

Technical note: I am on an Archlinux Box with more or less standard pulseaudio configuration. I changed the resampling to a higher quality though after what is pointed out in the Arch Wikis, it doesn't seem to matter. I didn't bother with bit perfect audio, I have tried that but don't think it makes a difference so out of convenince I dropt it.

I must say that I took the test at volumes which I typically would not listen to. (I am more sensitive to volume than most people I know). When I tried to discern differences at a lower volume it was even harder if not impossible.

Still, I believe that you can learn to hear the differences and train to listen for the effects of compression. This means that a person first doing the test might not hear the difference, but given some time, practice and perhaps some being pointed towards where the differences lie, it will be possible. The differences at high bitrates are minuscule, though, so probably it's not worth bothering. Again, with the vorbis format I failed a similar test completely. Instead relax and enjoy your music.

bogdanb's picture

NPR Bitrate Test
I like the analogy with an image, but the analogy is being done wrong!
I think I would go into colour profiles for the analogy. One of the biggest issues with images are colour profils sRGB, Adobe RGB or ProPhotoRGB, basically colour profiles containing less ore more colours. You can work on an image at 32 bit ProPhoto RBG (even if there are no monitors that can display ProPoto) but when printing high quality printers still use 8bit AdobeRGB files and convert it to CMYK.
If done the work correctly you end up with a great Digigraphie print!

I think is all about the initial recording quality and the sound engineer working on it. Downsampling being also a job for a delicate touch.

Otherwise it's just like ending up with an autumn picture heavily saturated again by the guy behind the computer for a horrible calendar.

The best analogy would be HDR images! There are so many horrible out there, I would say most of them. And yes they have more dynamic range than needed. You can work on a single raw file if exposed correctly and end up with a much more pleasant image than all HDR's.

Jim Tavegia's picture

Got all the wavs, except the MP piano piece, which really surprises me as I am a huge fan of his and classical piano works; and KP which I picked the 320. I am 68 so my hearing is diminished, but it was hard to pick out the wav files...harder than I thought this would be. I am still really shocked that I could not nail the piano piece. Bummer.

incidentflux's picture

I got 4/6 right with my Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD USB Soundcard and Tannoy Reveal 502 studio monitor speakers on NorStone stands.

Effectively Mp3s are too punchy, WAVs may sound quieter but more filled out with dynamic range depending on track.

Let's not forget our ears are tuned to bitrate and dynamic range compression. Our ears are used to junk food.

irenvonnie's picture

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