Comparing Audio Formats: High-Resolution vs. Current Standards

With the introduction of PonoMusic’s Kickstarter (which at the time of writing sits at just about $5.3M in crowd-funding with almost two weeks left), high-resolution audio has been on the mind of a lot of music lovers lately.  The Neil Young-backed campaign currently has over 15,000 backers, with over 13,000 backers preordering an actual, physical PonoPlayer, which shows that there is a real demand for higher-quality audio.

But what is high-resolution audio?  The simplest answer is that high-res audio is digital music that uses larger samples at a greater frequency than standard CD “lossless” audio.  It all boils down to more data representing the audio you’re listening to.  If you’ve ever downloaded lossless audio in formats like FLAC and ALAC (both offered on Murfie), you’ve probably gotten CD-quality files that use a 16-bit sample size and 44.1 kHz sample rate.

The team behind PonoMusic looks to push the currently less popular high-res audio standards into the mainstream.  These files typically use a 24-bit sample size at a sample rate of either 96 kHz or 192 kHz.  In the past, these files were prohibitively larger, but increased network speeds and decreased storage cost has finally made them a viable option.

(Note: According to their Kickstarter FAQ, the PonoMusic store will offer files at CD-quality, not just high-res, stating that the store “has a quality spectrum, ranging from really good to really great, depending on the quality of the available master recordings.”)

Neil Young + Pono
Image Copyright CBS (via The Quietus)

The only remaining question, then, is if the difference in quality is worth the added cost.  Additionally, labels have been slow to make albums available in this quality, and many works were never recorded in a way that allows for high-res products.  I don’t want to take a position one way or the other, but I do want to give you the chance to test out some high-res music and decide on your own.

To help you decide if high-res audio is for you, we’ve enlisted the help of The Cypress String Quartet, who have generously allowed us to share a sample from their release Beethoven: The Late String Quartets.  Below, you can download a high-res test sample in 24-bit / 96 kHz FLAC (which Murfie currently offers for vinyl digitization), as well as CD-quality 16-bit / 44.1 kHz FLAC, 320 kbps MP3 and 320 kbps AAC.

Audio Format Comparison Samples (right click & “save link as”):

All formats in one zip folder

High-Res 24-bit / 96 kHz FLAC
CD-Quality 16-bit / 44.1 kHz FLAC
CD-Quality 16-bit / 44.1 kHz ALAC
320 kbps MP3
320 kbps AAC

If you need a program to play the samples, VLC media player is a free, open-source application that will do exactly that.

So, what do you think?  Take a listen to the samples, and let me know in the comments or hit us up on twitter.


Note: These samples are provided courtesy The Cypress String Quartet, who reserve all rights.  Please do not re-distribute without permission from the quartet.

Interview with Thorsten Loesch of iFi (Makers of the iPhono Preamplifier)

Recently, we introduced you to the Pro-Ject Audio RPM 5.1 – the turntable that will be driving Murfie’s (currently-in-beta) vinyl service. Today, I’d like to introduce the iFi iPhono Preamplifier. The iPhono is a versatile phono preamp that is helping us accurately reproduce the audio on your LPs as it was originally intended.

For those who don’t know, when vinyl records are pressed, an equalizer is first applied to the audio in order to compensate for some of the physical qualities of vinyl. For example, pressing un-equalized audio into vinyl with no manipulation to the lower range could cause grooves that are too wide for the stylus. To make up for this, different companies have applied different EQ curves before masters have been created. To get accurate audio reproduction, you must then apply a equalization to the raw signal from the record you are playing.

In the process of doing that, you also have to worry about amplifying the signal to line level without adding noise or distortion. There’s also an added complication in that you have to accommodate the myriad EQ curves used over the years.

The iFi iPhono Preamplifier helps us tackle these issues with a simple and robust setup. I sat down for a chat with Thorsten Loesch (Chief Designer at Abbingdon Music Research and iFi) to discuss iFi, the iPhono, music and more.

John: First of all, thanks for taking the time to chat with me today. Tell me a bit about iFi. On your site, I see that iFi is a company striving to be green. Can you tell me what that means to iFi, and what steps you’ve taken to make audio gear green?

Thorsten: Thank you. First and foremost, being majority-owned by Abbingdon Music Research, a maker of ultra-fi audio products, we are upheld to a high, corporate standard. Here in England, as part of the EU, we have to adhere to the EU regulations, and from 1st Jan 2013, the Standby law meant that all electronic products must consume <0.5W when in standby. We went down the other route, which is to not have a Standby option. So the iFi unit is either on or off!

Even when in use, our products only consume 9v. We also use as few plastics as possible – for obvious reasons. We endeavor to make our product range to offer as much long-term enjoyment as possible, so that the user does not have to change any iFi product, or if they do, then they can pass onto friends or family.

Our packaging is 100% cardboard so it can be recycled. These small initiatives give you a snapshot into how we try our best to be environmentally-friendly while still making really, really great sounding products.

John: You guys seem to have been quite busy lately. You were recently at the Guangzhou Show, and you’re headed to CES in January, correct?

Thorsten: Yes. We are going to showcase the nano iDSD and iCAN series at CES. These are palm-sized products aimed at the broader market for audio on the move, but executed to a very high-quality.

The nano iDSD is a ‘Digital-to-Audio Converter’ so with suitable Computer/Smart Device, one can send the highest quality (lossless as opposed to lossy) files and enjoy them direct on in-ear monitors. The nano iCAN is a Headphone Amplifier that has 10x the power of a normal iPhone to ensure aftermarket headphones perform to their full potential.

John: The piece of equipment we’re excited about here at Murfie is the iPhono preamp. Can you talk about about the design of that device?
Continue reading Interview with Thorsten Loesch of iFi (Makers of the iPhono Preamplifier)

Murfie Vinyl is Coming!

Pro-Ject Audio RPM 5.1
Photo courtesy Pro-Ject Audio.

Meet the RPM 5.1 by Pro-Ject Audio. The RPM 5.1 features a newly upgraded low-resonance MDF main platter; a completely decoupled motor with a finely tuned two-step pulley drive; a single piece carbon-fibre tonearm and headshell assembly; adjustable azimuth, counterweight and anti-skate weights; and more. This turntable is solid, and it sounds great!

This is the turntable that will be used to rip your records when they arrive at Murfie HQ in Madison, Wisconsin.  After hearing requests from our members again and again, we are happy to say that a fully functional Murfie vinyl service is on its way.

Your feedback is very important to us. For that reason, we’ve built this service from the ground up with constant member contact. Before writing a single line of code, we surveyed hundreds of members and spoke one-on-one with dozens of real people interested in getting their vinyl records on Murfie.

With beta testers sending their records in as we speak, I’m glad to finally spill the beans about the Murfie vinyl service. We’ve been hard at work for the last few months learning from our members and building a service that both suits their needs and offers a competitive price for vinyl digitization – plus all the benefits of cloud access. 

Stay tuned for more information about the Murfie vinyl service. I can’t wait to share more details with you in the weeks to come!