Recorded music has evolved enormously since its origins in the 1870s, getting better and better until reaching its zenith with the introduction of the CD at the start of the 1980s.
Paradoxically, in the last 15 years, while technological advances now allow for a theoretically better quality of music to be recorded and played back than our ears could ever hope to appreciate, at the same time, issues of convenience and commerciality have seen music quality decline rather than improve.
The iPod and other portable MP3 players gave us unbeatably convenient music anywhere and everywhere. But while the music was convenient, the tradeoff was in its quality. The extraordinary popularity of such devices, combined by formerly market-dominant Apple’s desire to lock their customers into a proprietary system, has frozen much digital music into a regrettably low quality format – MP3, AAC and various other similar formats, all of which are inferior to CD quality.
Happily, this is no longer an unavoidable compromise. The technological constraints that applied around the turn of the millennium and which required a quality/convenience compromise no longer apply. It is now possible to store and play back full CD quality music, and without incurring any measurable price premium, other than inconsequentially for the additional storage that higher quality formats require.
High Quality Music File Formats
If you wish to have CD quality music on your portable music player, the first thing you need is a portable music player that can handle the high quality music file formats. Older MP3 type players are unlikely to support these new formats.
Although there are several different music file formats that are capable of storing and playing back high quality music, the one you should focus on is FLAC.
This is a compressed but ‘lossless’ format, which means you don’t lose any of the musical information when it is compressed down from full size (ie about 9 MB/minute on a CD, and compressed down to about 5 MB/minute in FLAC format). Just about all other formats are either uncompressed (so use much more of your portable device’s storage) or else are ‘lossy’ rather than lossless, which means that when you go to play the music back, some of the quality has been lost.
Formerly, the loss of some quality was accepted as a necessary part of the compromise to get portable digital music, but this is no longer needed. Avoid lossy formats and stick only to lossless formats.
For broad compatibility with other music formats, particularly if you have a transition period during which you are juggling both older MP3 and other type music files as well as new FLAC music files, your selected music player should be compatible with as many different music file formats as possible. Clearly, MP3 is a key format, and so too is AAC (Apple’s proprietary lossy compressed format, sort of similar to MP3).
Another common file type is WMA (another similar compressed lossy product, this one from Microsoft, and which does have a rare variant, WMA lossless, too). It might be convenient to also have WAV compatibility (uncompressed format) and ALAC (Apple’s lossless compressed format, comparable to FLAC).
There are other file formats too – many of them – but they are not so mainstream, and if you should encounter them and your music player can’t handle them, you can always use a file conversion program to change their format.
So, what players support most or all these different formats? Surprisingly, many Android phones and tablets support most or all of these formats. iOS phones and tablets are not so broadly compatible, and neither are iPods. If you have a phone using Android version 3.1 or greater, it probably natively supports FLAC files, and if its built-in music player doesn’t support these files, you can readily load other music player software through the Google Play Store, where there are tens, if not hundreds, of free music player apps to choose from.
If you want to play your music back from your computer, there are plenty of music players that are free and which will do an excellent job of playing all these files for you. We use and recommend Foobar2000.
High Quality Portable Music Players
If you have iOS portable devices, or if you wish to have a separate portable music player as well as a phone or tablet (and we think this is an excellent idea so you can have more storage capacity for music – see below) then you have several choices.
Like many other parts of the electronic industry, these days we are not only seeing brand name electronics that has been made in China for whatever company then proudly slaps its label on the product; we are also seeing some of these formerly anonymous Chinese companies now starting to produce and sell their own products, and while the brand names are usually unfamiliar to us in the west, the products can sometimes be astonishingly good, and the prices stunningly low (we’ve just bought some wonderful two-way radios at the formerly unthinkably low price of $17 each on Amazon that almost rival name brand HT units costing ten to twenty times as much!).
This is happily the case with portable music players, too. A Chinese company with good quality players at good quality prices, and sold through Amazon for instant fulfillment, etc, is iBasso. Their DX50 ($230) is a nice player, and their DX90 ($420) is even nicer still, although more in the case of extra features than in the case of any extra audio quality. We doubt you’d ever hear the difference between the two units.
But, in our opinion, as good as iBasso is, there is an even better company, with even better value products, and also on Amazon. Fiio. Their X3 (get the combo deal complete with a 64GB MicroSD card) is an outstanding bargain at $214, and their X5 gives you much greater versatility with its two MicroSD slots, for $349.
We have Fiio gear ourselves. We like the players, although for sure the interface isn’t nearly as polished as on an iPod, and we’ve found their customer support people to quickly and completely answer our emails when we’ve needed help. The units do double duty as both a personal music player and as a DAC (some people think this allows them to get better quality sound out of their computer, bypassing the digital to audio conversion on the computer’s soundcard and doing it on a separate external unit instead). They have a good amount of output power, making them compatible with most headphones of most different impedances, and will handle just about any conceivable type of music file, at sampling rates/depths all the way up to 192k/24 bit.
To be specific, they handle AAC, ALAC, APE, FLAC, MP2, MP3, OGG, WAV, and WMA, and possibly one or two other formats that I’ve overlooked.
There are other brands of high quality portable music players too, but they rapidly become ridiculously priced, while offering little or no advantage in return for the massive increases in cost. The South Korean brand with an improbably English sounding name, Astell & Kern, offers to take as much as $2400 from you in return for one of their galactically priced AK240 units.
We’ve one word to say to people who pay that : Why? And a challenge – come do a double-blind test of your $2400 player alongside our $240 Fiio player, and we’ll wager you can’t consistently identify your player as being the better player.
Update : A lot has happened since we first wrote this in 2014. But some things have also stayed the same – most importantly, the FLAC format remains supreme (and is likely to continue to do so long into the future). Fiio continue to make excellent digital music players, but their model line has changed greatly (and costs have dropped. This Amazon link shows their current range of players (plus has their headphone amplifiers mixed in too, sorry). Musically speaking, there’s not a lot of need to buy anything other than the entry level player, probably in the $60 price range, but you’ll get a nicer interface and screen if you go up to perhaps $80 or even $100.
The Pono Player
Out of respect for the Pono player’s origins and originators, and noting the considerable media interest in this device, we’ll discuss this high quality digital music player separately.
The Pono player is a new product, designed by Americans in America (but, of course, unavoidably also made in China), and essentially the brainchild of Neil Young (the well-known rock star). Young, as a music lover and musician, has lambasted the dearth of high quality digital music recordings and players, and so has spearheaded the development of what is now named the Pono player.
This is another high quality digital music player, and now available for pre-order at a $400 price point, with units shipping in the first quarter of 2015, although an initial shipment of – we guess, about 5,000 – players is expected prior to Christmas, to be distributed to people who crowd-funded the initial player development via a riotously successful Kickstarter campaign earlier in 2014 (it raised over $6 million in a month, as contrasted with a mere $800,000 goal, making it the third largest fund-raiser on Kickstarter).
The Pono will be very similar to the Chinese and South Korean music players we discussed above, albeit redolent with claims of being designed to the highest standards possible. Talking about design, it is definitely different in appearance, looking like a Toblerone bar rather than a standard sort of ‘pack of cards’ type player shape. It has a generous 64 GB of built-in storage plus a Micro-SD card slot, and also has a 64 GB card included with the unit.
Pre-production units have been generally well reviewed (with some notable exceptions, although to be fair this negative review is more about some of the nonsense out there that advocates ‘better than CD’ quality sound, rather than attacking the Pono player directly). On the other hand, we’re not sure if the favorable reviewers were comparing the Pono players to other high quality players, or to lower quality MP3 type players. And if we wanted to be nit-picking about these pre-production units and the reviews of them, we’d point out that the pre-production units had different electronic components in them than the production units will have.
We’re confident the Pono will impress as a high quality unit. We’re not sure if the price differential will be fully justified (eg $400 for a Pono with 64GB storage built-in and another 64GB micro SD card, compared to $214 for a Fiio X3 with 8GB storage built-in and a 64GB micro SD card), but we’ll look at that when the Pono, in final form, is ‘in the wild’.
There’s one very distinctive thing about the Pono product. In this article, look at the picture of the Pono executive team, and what do you notice? Instead of the usual collection of vapid twenty-something-year-olds, they are all at least twice that age. As someone who ceased being a twenty-something many decades ago, it is good to see a company based on worldly experience as opposed to youthful naivety for a change. It augurs well for the quality of the product.
Update : Rather as we’d expected, the hype was not matched by the reality, and the Pono player was on the market for only a short time. Here’s our analysis of what happened and if the Pono player was predestined to fail.
Using Swappable Memory Cards for Limitless Music Storage
In the case of both the iBasso and Fiio units, the idea is to record your music files not onto the small amount of built-in memory in the devices, but onto external MicroSD cards (and in this respect, we think the 64GB of built-in storage on the Pono unit is not as valid as it might seem).
The players currently can handle either one or sometimes two of these cards plugged into the unit, and with cards currently holding up to 128 GB per card, this means you can have up to 256 GB of music ‘online’ at any one time, and a limitless amount of additional music ‘off line’ in the form of additional cards, which you swap over as necessary.
Compare that to, say, an iPhone, with a maximum capacity of 64 GB, which you have to share with everything else on your phone, or an iPad with up to 128 GB, again shared across everything on the device, and in all these cases, with no way of swapping in and out additional chunks of memory. Clearly the ability to plug/unplug memory cards massively magnifies the convenience of a separate personal music player.
Each 64 GB card can hold over 200 hours of CD quality music, and with a typical CD usually having a bit less than an hour of music stored on it, it seems fair to equate a single 64 GB as representing 250 CDs worth of music, all stored on something the size of your smallest finger’s fingernail.
At present, due to the newness of the 128 GB micro-SD format, the storage cost per GB is somewhat higher with these cards than with the 64 GB cards. The 64GB cards cost just over 50c/GB – ie about $35 for name brand cards, with generic cards sometimes very much less. You’re spending about 15c in digital media to store a full CD of music – a stunning bargain, and clearly illustrating that these days there is no longer any need at all to compromise on sound quality by using more compressed and lossy types of file format.
High quality music plays best on reasonably high data rate cards and so we buy name brand rather than generic cards, ourselves.
32 GB cards are about the same, in terms of cost per GB, as 64 GB cards so there is no benefit to buy 32 GB cards and less convenience, due to having less music on each card.
The 128 GB cards are of course much more convenient, but cost about $100 each, meaning you’re currently paying about a $30 premium for the convenience of a single 128 GB card, over what you’d pay for two 64 GB cards. Many of us will decide the $30 premium is worth it, but if your entire music collection currently takes up no more than 64 GB, perhaps it is not so necessary.
Getting Your High Quality Music into Digital Format
So now you have the capable to store and play back high quality digital music. That’s a very positive step forward. The next requirement of course is some high quality music to play back through your system.
To ask a rhetorical question, what’s the best source of CD quality digital music? Yes – the answer is sort of obvious, isn’t it! CDs. But whereas in the past, you would take a CD and convert it (ie ‘rip’ it) to an MP3 type low-quality music file, now you need to do the same process, but to a high-quality FLAC file instead.
There are a number of ripping programs that can do this, including several ones that are free such as the Fairstars CD Ripper and Exact Audio Copy. Both are good programs, and Exact Audio Copy is almost overwhelming with all the options it offers.
However, we decided to spend a few dollars and buy the dbPowerAmp software. It has – we think – the nicest/most intuitive interface, and where it really excels is in matching up CD information to the CD you are recording. The convenience of having the program automatically and accurately identify the music on the CD and save you the bother of keying in the details by hand is wonderful, and well worth paying a small amount of money for.
You can download and use dbPowerAmp for free for three weeks, so try it and if you agree it is the best, then you’ll probably happily pay the $39 cost.
All the ripping programs will read and convert the music on a CD to FLAC format at a rate of probably about ten times the normal playing speed. In other words, a 50 minute CD will be converted to FLAC format in about five minutes. This makes it possible to convert your entire CD library in a fairly short time period.
Two comments when ripping from CDs. The first is to give your computer’s CD player a rest every hour or so, otherwise it may overheat and start to create errors. Most computer CD drives are designed to read a little bit of data, only occasionally, with lots of time to cool in between reads. When you start working them hard and fast, they will definitely heat up, and do need some recovery time. You’ll notice this when the read speed starts to decline and the error rate starts to rise.
The second suggestion is to be careful about allowing your ripping program to create file names that are too long, or else you may risk exceeding the Windows limit if you copy the files to another directory (Windows allows 255 characters for the path, directory and file name in total).
Even Higher Quality Music?
Is it possible to get music that is better than CD quality?
Certainly it is possible to find lots of claims for music with better than CD quality, and music files are offered with a broader frequency range and less noise – sampling rates go up from the CD standard 44.1 kHz and all the way to 192 kHz, and sometimes even higher still (the upper frequency limit is a bit less than half the sampling rate so 192 kHz implies an upper frequency response of about 90 kHz), while sampling depth goes from the 16 bit CD standard (about 100 dB of dynamic range), up to 24 bit (about 150 dB of dynamic range), and with vague hints to even greater numbers. But would you ever hear these differences, or is CD standard sufficient?
It is possible to find probably millions of pages on the internet with people expressing limitless enthusiasm for the transformative experiences they’ve enjoyed by listening to ‘better than CD’ quality audio, and only perhaps a few thousand pages decrying these claims as snake oil. So the majority is probably correct, yes? And the people disputing the superiority of these enhanced formats are probably tone-deaf, or maybe simply stone deaf!?
Actually, both statements deserve an emphatic ‘no’ rather than a ‘yes’.
In our opinion, 99% of these claims in support of higher quality music are based on illusion and nonsense. We suggest that – for all normal people and normal equipment and normally recorded music – there is no discernable difference at all as between a good CD recording and any of the more esoteric recordings.
We’re not only suggesting this. We’re willing to prove it, too, and directly to you, and unless the people advocating this ‘audio overkill’ can do the same, you know which side of the issue to trust.
As quick easy proof, visit our page ‘You Can’t Trust Your Ears‘ and try out some of the audio tests midway down the page to quantify exactly how discriminatory your hearing is. If you can’t hear above, eg, 15 kHz, what is the point in paying more for a recording that claims to have frequencies way over 20 kHz? If you can’t hear the difference between 60 dB of dynamic range and 70 dB of dynamic range, what is the point to pay extra to extend the dynamic range of a recording from 100 dB to 144 dB?
Stripped of all the ridiculous hyperbole and pseudo science and outright nonsense, it really is as simple as that. If you can’t hear the differences that may (or may not) be present in these higher quality formats, why would you ever, ever, ever, choose to pay more for something you can not hear? You can very readily prove to yourself you can’t hear these differences, and so surely there’s no need whatsoever to consider these higher priced audio alternatives any further.
There is a reason that the CD specification is what it is. This represents everything that is necessary to ensure as close to perfect quality sound recording and reproduction as is ever needed. Our ears and hearing haven’t changed over the last few decades, and the CD spec remains as appropriate today as it was when first developed. (Well, maybe we wish it maybe sampled at a slightly higher rate – perhaps 48 kHz instead of 44.1 kHz, but our own ears are well past hearing the difference now so it no longer matters to us.)
In addition to the tests in our article, above, that allow you to determine the limits of your hearing, we’ve published an article explaining how you can test the difference between ‘better than CD’ and regular CD quality sound. After that testing, you’ll both know the limits of your hearing, and also have it confirmed that you truly can’t hear any difference between CD and other more expensive music formats.
Free High Quality Music?
A bit of searching on Google will lead you to lots of places online offering free high quality music. But note the phrase ‘high quality music’ is much abused, and often relates to music that is not truly high quality at all. We suggest that no lossy compression formats are ever high quality, so if you see a site offering ‘free high quality MP3 files’ then it is using ‘high quality’ only in a comparative form, ie, higher quality than lower quality MP3 files, but not in an absolute form in the sense of truly high/CD quality.
You’ll also notice some CDs make various claims about the quality of their mixing processes and procedures. These might be relevant, but they also may not be relevant, and in our experience, the biggest determinant of the quality of any CD recording is the skill, judgment and settings used by the recording engineer, rather than the equipment he is using when mixing the recording.
If you are in a jurisdiction where, ahem, the copyright law allows you to do this, you could borrow CDs from your public library or friends and rip those as a source of truly free and truly high quality music files.
High Quality Headphones Too
The last link in your audio chain, and so the last part of this article, is how you actually hear the music when you play it back. Much of the time, this might be through headphones, and so please allow yourself a fair opportunity to actually hear and appropriately enjoy the improved quality of the music you are playing.
We’ve published a multi-part series with some specific headphone recommendations here, and also an article on how to properly evaluate and compare headphones here.