Wednesday, April 9, 2014

16Bit VS 24Bit Audio Comparison, & Our Bigger Issues To Worry About

16Bit Vs 24Bit Music:

The Pono, a handheld 24Bit Music Player
A lot of noise is being made about high-quality, high-def audio recordings and whether or not the huge file sizes associated with them are worth the headache or not (for a detailed breakdown of Analog VS Digitally encoded music and the filetypes associated with them, click on this past blog from me). Recently, Neil Young has finally unveiled his consumer friendly 24Bit media playback device named the "Pono" and has reignited the debate about quality VS efficiency in music distribution, but can the consumer actually hear the difference? Well, I'm here to let you find out yourself and afterwards I'll show you why the entire debate is pointless when compared to an even bigger problem in the music industry.

Young promoting the Pono on Letterman

The primary question at play in this debate is can the human ear actually differentiate between CD quality 16Bit audio and "High Def" 24Bit? Well, the answer according to a double blind study is no. However artists such as Neil Young, Bobby Weir, and Flea wholeheartedly disagree. Audiophiles prefer the analog medium of vinyl, but for reasons I'll get into in a moment, even a lot of them don't care about the 16vs24 debate.

So, science says one thing, artists say another and although both have valid opinions and reasoning, what it will come down to is one thing:

"Can YOU hear a difference?"

The Test:

I'll save my opinions until after the test, but before we get there it is important for you to understand the limitations of the system you are listening on. If for instance you are operating a computer/device that plays back in 16Bits, then listening to the 24Bit stream is meaningless as your computer/device is downsampling them to 16. Also, make sure that you have the FLAC codec installed in your system or you cannot listen to it, I recommend downloading VLC.

For this test I sampled 30 seconds of multiple versions of Metallica's "No Leaf Clover" from a vinyl recording of their live album "S&M". I chose this track and section for several reasons. First, sonically it displays both strings and orchestral music via the San Francisco Symphony alongside heavy guitars, drums, and singing. This gives the listener an all around "view" of what both loud and soft music sounds like. Secondly, I chose Metallica because I believe they won't ask me to take the music down (I mean, its 30 seconds of a song). Plus, I'm pretty sure Metallica has had enough of giving their fans shit about their music digitized ;-)

24Bit HD Version:

16Bit HD Version

16Bit CD Rated Khz Version:

Hear the difference? Personally I cannot. I have listened to it on Sony 7506 Headphones (industry standard), my DIY HiFi Tube Preamp surround system, and through standard shitty speakers. Although my systems sounded totally different, the quality between the versions did not. So even if there is a difference there, it is minimal at best.

So why would I call this a Red Herring????

The Real Problem: The Loudness Wars

These all sound amazing because they were ripped from the vinyl copy, NOT from a CD. Yes, technically CD's do have a higher potential dynamic-range (Dynamic-Range is the range of acceptable or possible volumes of sound occurring in the course of a piece of music) than vinyl, but the record-industry is embattled in what is known as the "Loudness Wars".

Dynamic Range Comparison of CD VS Vinyl
Every record label wants their music to be louder than the competitors, therefore CD plants compress their music, resulting in making the recording sound louder. Unfortunately, the downside result of this is less dynamic range meaning that there is less of a difference between quiet and loud sounds. Whispers are no longer as quiet and yells are no longer as aggressive... better yet, think of it this way:

Imagine that a song is a roller-coaster that is designed to have climbs to increase tension, and then descents to electrify you. Compressing a song effectively limits the entire emotional breadth of the experience by turning the peaks and valleys into a much flatter surface while maintaining speed. Thus, the differences between loud and quiet sounds are greatly eliminated.

Due to the physical constraints on vinyl, compression is not possible. This results in the consumer hearing the proper version of the song, not what the record labels want to drown you out with. Amungst many other things, this adds depth and clarity to the entire song.

To give you an example, let's compare the CD ripped at CD quality FLAC, to the Vinyl ripped at the same Bitrate, but with the higher Khz allowed by FLAC compression.

Notice no level peaks
Notice the peaking levels

16Bit CD Version:

16Bit Vinyl Version

Now to me personally I can hear a night and day difference between those two. If you can too, then perhaps ripping your own music is for you...

You Can Fight This (If You Really Care To):

Most people don't care to take good sound this far, if you don't, skip this section. If you do, read on.

Unfortunately this loss of quality due to the unscrupulousness of the record industry effects anything you download or purchase that is not a physical copy. To be repeated, this not only effects your CD collection, but almost every MP3 that you have ever downloaded from a store. But do not take this as my bashing MP3's. MP3's can be good quality when ripped at 320Kbps from your own source material. So how do you do this?
$500 Pro-ject Debut Carbon With USB

Well, it's not easy and requires money to do it from scratch. It requires purchasing a damn decent turntable/needle combination with a USB output or a 24Bit soundcapture device (M-Box) for your computer, recording the source signal and then outputting it to your preferred filetype and size. Or you can download an already ripped version of the album via torrent...

I AM NOT A LAWYER, but if you own an album, you ARE allowed to rip your own version of it. Therefore you ARE allowed to own a digital rip of a vinyl if you own the vinyl, and seeing as there is an ever growing online community of people doing exactly that, it is easy to find high quality ripped downloads of music that people have already made. Downloading music you own IS a legal grey-area, but one that I am comfortable living in if someone has already done the leg work for me. Simply import your audio file into a program such as Audacity and choose yourself whether you are comfortable with 16Bit, 24Bit, or even MP3 quality.

To reiterate: I AM NOT CONDONING THE DOWNLOAD OF MUSIC YOU DO NOT OWN. But I PERSONALLY am OK downloading albums I already own, regardless of whether it is legal or not.

And for you to choose your own option wisely, on top of the already provided examples of audio, here are some examples to compare and contrast of No Leaf Clover ripped from both CD and Vinyl to a MP3 format.

If you enjoy vinyl, buy this damn set. It's genius.

In Conclusion:

Does 16Bit or 24Bit matter? Well, you now have a way to decide for yourself. Personally to me, it doesn't make a huge difference, but the one thing that I CANNOT and WILL NOT tolerate is over compression of music due to the greed of a corporation. If you're lucky or privileged enough to even concern yourself with this subject, then you should be worried about over-compression first, and which high bitrate works for you second.

Between the two bitrates, I choose 24. Why? Because with how cheap hard drive space is becoming, I have the room to deal with it. Can I tell the difference? Not really, but one day I may own a $20,000 system where I can and for now, it doesn't put me out to collect in the highest possible quality. But in this choice, I am fully OK with admitting that it is complete overkill for the amount of difference gained.

So to hell with the scientists, to hell with the artists, listen here and "choose wisely".