How to Get the Most from Digital Music

A Computer, Digital to Analog Converter (DAC,) and headphones can get you started But how do you source enough music you really want to hear?

A Computer, Digital to Analog Converter (DAC,) and headphones can get you started But how do you source enough music you really want to hear?

Computer audio delivers easy, low-cost alternatives to obsolete analog music source technologies, offering higher fidelity, greater portability, massive music library capacity, and easy music management, including affordable wireless music throughout your home or business.  Digital music technology keeps thriving and growing despite slow audio market conditions. What we used to call “computer speakers” have evolved into full-fledged Hi-Fi audio systems that achieve a high-end listening experience at all-time-low, affordable costs.  

Computer-based music technology improves your whole listening experience, offering –

  • Music quality that sounds closer to performances
  • Fast and easy music storage, selection, and playback 
  • Affordable music and component costs
  • Playback mobility with speakers or headphones
  • Gigantic streaming libraries with vast selection

 Many early adopters are convinced computer audio has become the best Hi-Fi music technology ever and not just for listening with ear buds from a phone, tablet, or dedicated player.  New digital audio systems bring excitement and some growth in a generally stagnant industry. Geek Audio, Sony, TEAC, NAD, iFi (from AMR,) Audioengine, and other significant brands are introducing new generations of digital components.  Some brands generate entire product lines to test this emerging sub-market and claim a slice of computer audio business. 

Although the audio gear has passed a tipping point, listeners (and sales) are constrained by an archaic music distribution model.  Economical access to high-res recordings lags behind growing demand.  Computer audio obsoletes physical media -- the legacy spinning plastic LPs and CDs. Yet Big Media’s piracy paranoia and profit-hungry price control strategies apply brakes to music sales. Many enthusiasts are challenged to acquire enough digital-format files to keep their audio systems playing despite the variety of excellent audio gear becoming available to this active new market sector.

Music distribution could match newer, more compact audio systems with better, lower-cost access to high quality music files.  That strategy would heat up audio sales and drive increasing vitality throughout the whole audio ecosystem but distributors want to keep music prices high long after production costs and sizable profits are captured.  The lure of making a piece of media once and re-selling it forever has to be hard to resist.

Until music distribution improves, we need a strategy that works.  Many savvy buyers have moved beyond reflexively paying a dollar per song.  You can get streaming access that sounds quite good thanks to the Ogg Vorbis format on Spotify.com, my current favorite streaming site.  This is a great strategy for exploring new music and expanding your library.

Excellent-sounding powered speakers will put real ih-fi in your whole room

Excellent-sounding powered speakers will put real ih-fi in your whole room

The Typical Legal Option

Present legal music choices are limited to tactics like transcribing LPs and “ripping” CDs – converting the music you can access on plastic to digital files.  With good process and technique, nothing is lost in translation.  In fact, digital files can be enhanced during transcription to produce a superior listening experience. 

Collectors who have the stamina and the right gear can acquire LP records and CDs, re-record the music digitally, and then resell the hard media to recover some cost if you can find buyers for the plastic.  In this way, you can generate a growing music file library and acquire some recordings of excellent performances.  But it's hard work.
 
Vinyl LP-sourced music can be enhanced and stabilized so it stops suffering from scratches, dust, dings, an wear.  Quality USB turntables an be found at affordable prices.  Good transcription software removes the surface noise and any need for RIAA equalization during every playback.  Issues with turntables, cartridges, record wear and maintenance, etc., instantly go away.  You can always keep the vinyl and jackets in storage.  A lot of album art is available digitally now and can be added to certain file formats.

Some CD ripping software includes access to “extra” musical data that is usually lopped off by filtering during standard CD playback.  Due to acoustic energy interactions, even sound that is far beyond the human hearing range affects audio playback in any listening room.  So everything recorded is part of the performance whether audible or not. Musical fidelity rises audibly when this hidden music data is up-sampled into 24-bit hi-res formats.  Unfortunately, the "Exact Audio Copy" software only runs on PCs but there is a good (also free) alternative discussed HERE -- called "X Lossless Decoder."

However, CD-ripping, even with format conversion, doesn’t provide access to enough new music to satisfy most listeners.  Transcription is a slow, arduous process in bulk quantities.  When I switched to digital, I started ripping my way through my CD library.  Discovering how much work is involved, I fatigued after a few dozen CD's and started seriously exploring streaming music.  Now some friends own my library of plastic and I listen to digital files exclusively, one way or the other.

More Legal Options

Purchase Digital Music Files – I haven’t discovered any physical retail stores offering digital format music.  Sales seem to happen just online via download.  There are many sources on the web, including Linn Music, HD Tracks, and Qobuz.com.  However, these may be far too pricey for your home audio budget at up to $25 or more per 24-bit digital album.  Lower resolutions cost less and 16-bit may be acceptable for some music.  However, we can stream unlimited music for 2 to 3 months non-stop for the typical cost of a single 24 bit digital album file. The music available in this form is quite limited.

Download Free Files Online – A dedicated, resourceful and skilled web researcher can find many scattered caches of free high-res music files all around the Internet.  A few are listed on iHi-Fi.com.  You may even find you enjoy ferreting out free music files, downloading, and trading with friends to build up your library.

The issues to consider are selection and convenience.  Free music you can find is very limited so this really isn’t shopping.  It’s more like archeology -- collecting discoveries you dig up.  You may experience searching as I do – too frustrating.  You can find a lot of old jazz, folk music, and new indie musicians trying to make it but it's hard to find what you are really looking for, music that matches your tastes and preferences.  I have difficulty settling for less than what I really want to hear. 

Stream Music Instead of Buying – With on-demand streaming, we’re talking stupefying mega-selection and satisfaction for any musical taste at very low cost.  I greatly value the option to save music to my devices for offline play.  You just queue up music you want to hear later and it copies down as you listen to other streaming files.

The greatest advantage of streaming is how it can expand your listening horizons.  Searching for artists or genres usually turns up music you want to hear.  You'll want to add lots of new artists to your favorites.  You won't even scratch the surface of what’s available streaming in many months of daily listening.  

However, the trade-off may often be to lower fidelity, the best common quality being compressed 320 Kbps CBR Mp3.  Such a lossy format produces an audibly inferior listening experience compared to 16-bit/44.1 KHz true CD quality, and above.  However, it exceeds most lossy music downloads presently available at commodity prices.  Some folks find 320 KB Mp3 music passible for casual or background listening.  Tolerating some of this quality can part of the streaming experience.  

On Qobuz.com (from France,) I find more higher-fidelity music. I often locate 16-bit music I can stream or save to my device but I’m often confronted with pressure to buy overpriced files.  Most selections I would like to hear in 24-bit formats are blocked except for file purchase.  In the end, this site is too full of sales traps to be conveniently useful and too annoying to tolerate, long-term.

There are also some radio-style streaming sources that don’t allow music selection beyond genre preferences.  These hold little interest for more serious and adventurous listeners who like to engage deeply and explore for new finds.  For that, you need the advantages of on-demand music streaming and a great suggestion function based on your listening habits.  MOG.com had that previously and now Spotify.com still offers something comparable though it lacks the genre breakdowns that MOG.com had.

So far in my exploring, Spotify.com is the bright spot.  It definitely sounds a cut above on my gear and in my ear.  I maintain a library of selected 24-bit reference quality files in parallel.

Outside the Law

Supplemental Music File Sources – Let’s stay real and admit many listeners feel driven to step outside the law to overcome the general lack of selection in affordable, high resolution, yet convenient music.  Some listeners hold “backup libraries” of their friends’ audio files.  Of course, these caches require “periodic review and validation” via playback.  

While we’re getting honest, let’s also admit many listeners know what "bit torrents" are and some resort to them.  I only support legal listening.  Yet I deplore the distribution industry's inability to step up to the utility and economy of streaming at higher fidelity.  Instead, they use IP rights to hold high-res music we want hostage until we pay a ransom.  I believe this practice does not help the rights owners as much as it holds them back.  There's an underlying fallacy that supporting inflated prices will make more money.  What is really needed is for artists to become more popular.  For that, one must study the strategies of The Grateful Dead.

Big Media’s current policies and archaic business model are causing the music piracy black market to flourish.  Pirate music will lose appeal when affordable, desirable music becomes conveniently available legally. 

A wireless DAC sends music across the room or through the whole house or office

A wireless DAC sends music across the room or through the whole house or office

Summary

What serious listeners really want is simple and obvious – a rich, rewarding, no-hassle experience of music you can afford to indulge in all day.  This musical experience includes variety, choice, convenience, immediacy, quality, discovery, and low cost.

  • Variety – access to all musical genres in a giant database with excellent discovery tools for finding new music
  • Choice – self-determined selection of music files on-demand, with genre-based streaming as a selection but not the only listening mode
  • Convenience – fast and simple music selection and playback, with encrypted file downloading for offline playback
  • Immediacy – a here-and-now streaming experience, not waiting for downloads
  • Quality in music and delivery –
    • Selectable file densities up to 24 bit master file formats
    • Continuous streaming without annoying gaps, noise, dropouts, etc.
    • Accessible through an attractive, intuitive interface
  • Discovery -- technology that suggests more of whatever you like
  • Low Cost – Something like $10 per subscription month satisfies the masses yet enables gigantic profits when a cloud based system implements delivery at scale.  

With transcription, you only get your own library plus any music you can borrow, at the fidelity recorded, or somewhat enhanced.  However, it’s so much continuous work to acquire and transcribe enough music, it’s impractical.  If you already have the players and plastic, the better course may be to go with a hybrid approach combining analog sources for legacy media and digital sources for new library additions.

With purchased music files, you can get superb fidelity, quality, and some selection, but price gouging rules. Downloading delay is also required.  At some affordable price point, buying music starts to make sense but that level is far below current typical asking prices for denser files.  If you're willing to pay and don't mind the hassle, this works for acquiring "reference music."

With free files, some are out there but their provenance is uncertain and downloading is more effort than I’m willing to sustain even when the files are free.  Not to mention you can only get what you happen to find rather than what you want.  If you’re like me, you’ll want to select something wonderful, listen soon, and get it playing with minimal fuss and bother.

Conclusion

Music piracy is the market’s response to present distribution schemes and pricing.  Until music distribution modernizes and gets real about what consumers want to pay and the limited effect of holding price lines, we have limited means available for personal music acquisition, even if we step outside the law.  When and if Big Media learns to out-pirate the music pirates by selling low enough, we’ll have legal sources for all the digital music we want at good prices and with easy access.  It’s probably inevitable but when?

The stupefying variety of streaming music compensates for the shortcomings.  With on-demand streaming, you get the best overall compromise from sites like Spotify.com.  There are many more streaming sites of variable quality.  You can find more options at DreamStreaming.info. The ability to mimic typical music downloads is a big plus -- when you can save encrypted music to your device without paying to own the files.  As long as you are subscribed you can still play saved files.  You just can't copy or re-sell them which seems like a great IP rights-satisfying solution to me.

At present, for all but the most discerning listening, one option still stands out -- online streaming audio.  Spotify is the best streaming experience I've found and quite satisfying for exploration and discovery.  Augment your streaming with a superb, smaller collection of select high-res files and try to get by until a day when the IP rights holders stop hoping Big Media will make them rich despite lacking talent and without doing the touring work to become popular.