Digital Audio Recap

02010-02-01 | Uncategorized | 3 comments

Günter commented on February 1st, 2010 at 06:06:
Sorry to bother you with a stupid question, but since you offer not only the 320 kbps downloads but also the lossless version and since you plan to release your next album also in a 24/96 version, how can I make those play on a MacBook or ipod. I’ve tried but failed. Thanks for any help on this!

Not a stupid question at all Günter. High end digital audio is a relatively new subject and there is a lot of bad information out there on the interwebs. Here are the basics:

A 2 bit recording has a resolution of 4.
A 4 bit recording has a resolution of 16.
A 8 bit recording has a resolution of 256.
A 16 bit (((e.g. CD and mp3s))) recording has a resolution of 65,536.
A 24 bit recording has a resolution of 16,777,216.
A 32 bit recording has a resolution of 4,294,967,296.

As you see the dynamic range of a 24 bit recording is dramatically larger than a 16 bit recording, 256 times larger to be exact. Think of these numbers as something similar to the amount of colors or shades or pixels in an image or video. The higher the resolution the more detail and the bigger the palette. Lots of shades of color instead of a line-drawing.

Expressed in dB it looks like this: 24-bit digital audio has a theoretical maximum dynamic range of 144 dB, compared to 96 dB for 16-bit. An increase of 3dB is roughly a doubling of power, meaning that 144 dB doubles the dynamic range of 96 dB 16 times. And that means a gentle plucking of guitar-strings can be reproduced in true contrast to a hard attack…

By the way the new album will be released in 24/88.2 and not 24/96. Why? Well, we still need a 16/44.1 version of the audio for CD and for the mp3s that are sold by the LL, iTunes, amazon and so on. That means my studio computer has to downsample the audio from 96,000 to 44,100. If we divide 96,000 by 44,100, the result is 2.17687074829932…… and so on, an infinite number. If we divide 88,200 by 44,100, the result is 2. Well, the software does a good job of downsampling 96,000, but because of the nature of the infinite number there has to be a change here and there – whether that is audible or not I do not know. But the difference between 88,200 and 96,000 is so minute, that I’d rather divide 88,200 by 2 than 96,000 by 2.17687074829932… Anyway we will record the new album at 24/88.2.

What you need to listen to HD (((High Definition) audio files:
1. Software
2. a Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC) that plays back 24bit and 48-96 or even 192k files
3. an amplifier and loudspeakers or a headphone amp and headphones.

Without an external DAC, iTunes will play back an HD AIFF file, but will automatically dither and downsample to 16/44.1. There is no computer on the market that has a built-in DAC that is better than 16/44.1!! That means you will need an external DAC to play back a 24/88.2 files at its full resolution!

To my knowledge none of the iPods or iPhones play back any files that are 24 bit and 48k or higher, whether they be AIFF, WAV or AppleLossless. There are quite a number of external DACs for iPods available, like this one by Wadia for example. (((I haven’t heard these and just saw it while searching))) A larger, dedicated, external DAC will of course sound better than the miniaturized chip inside a small iPod, but the iPod still can’t play HD files, which means you are still stuck at 16/44.1.

Have I confused you yet?

We’ll get back to DA-converters later, let’s start with the playback software.

1. the Software:

For playback I use Peak Pro, Songbird or iTunes:

Peak Pro is made by Bias and is a very nice app, for playback, editing, processing and mastering, with lots of features. Unless you want to edit music files, create fades or crossfades, change the EQ etc., this will be overkill for you. Peak is also useless at cataloging music, something iTunes does very well. I don’t mind his limitation, because I don’t have a huge catalog of HD files yet and also because I don’t mind looking for the file and loading one piece of music at a time. I like the care that goes into listening like that. I make it a point to really listen to HD files, I don’t play them as background music while I do the dishes or at a party.

Another app I use handles cataloging quite ably, is open source and is free!

Songbird – Open Source Music Player
Songbird is an open-source customizable music player that’s under active development.

We’re working on creating a non-proprietary, cross platform, extensible tool that will help enable new ways to playback, manage, and discover music. There are lots of ways to contribute your time to the project. We’d love your help!

Songbird is a free open source application that is available for Mac, Linux and Windows. It plays back a bunch of different file formats including FLAC files in 16 and 24 bit, from 44.1 to 96kHz. Very nice.

I use iTunes for my main music library, which contains the music from my 1,500+ CDs, ripped as AppleLossless (((Apple Lossless Audio Codec or ALAC))) files. iTunes does a great job with large catalogs. Sadly iTunes does not play FLAC files, which means one has to use one of these free apps to convert the FLAC file to an .AIFF or .WAV file, which one can then import into iTunes and convert to ALAC. I use an older iMac which sends the digital signal via my home-network to an Apple Airport Express. The Airport Express in turn is hooked up to an external DAC, which creates the analog signal that goes into the stereo amplifier and speakers.

The Amarra Plugin for iTunes, made by highly respected SonicStudio looks good, but it’s $995 (((for a plugin!))), although there is also a mini-version for $295. Weiss in fact recommends Amarra on their website.

I haven’t gone that route yet. The Amarra-iTunes combination together with a nice external DAC would work very well if the computer is located near the stereo system and can be wired in, but, and I haven’t researched this well enough, I don’t think the iMac sends full HD over a network. So, the computer would once again downsample to 16/44.1 automatically…

2. the DAC:

My Digital-to-Analog Converter, is the Weiss DAC2, which I mentioned (here and here) already. The Weiss DAC2 D/A Converter is made in Switzerland. Look at it, it recalls Helvetica, speaks of handmade precision… and looks expensive in that small edition audiophile way.

Yes, but you won’t need a CD-player!! The Weiss DAC2 is a Digital-to-Analog converter that connects to your computer via FireWire and turns zeros-and-ones into delicious analog sound, parsing anything from 16/44.1 to 24/192. Your audiophile super system will only consist of a computer with FireWire output, the Weiss DAC2, and whatever amplification you choose, that is, a nice headphone amp and cans (((studio slang for headphones))) or pre-amp, power-amp (((or one that combines the two))) and a pair of loudspeakers.

What I find most attractive about this setup is that one can have a very high-end sound system using only three or four relatively portable components: a laptop, the Weiss DAC2 and a headphone amp + headphones. Nice!

There are many different DACs out there. The price range is enormous! Most of them are hooked up via FireWire, but there are also USB-connected ones. Google “DAC audio converter” or something like that. Or visit a dealer – it’s always good to listen first. You might bring your laptop with a few HD files you know and like so you can compare. (((Songbird or iTunes will not switch a DAC to the desired resolution automatically, but iTunes with the Amarra plugin, or Peak will. So, if you use Songbird to play back a 24/96 file, you must switch the DAC to that resolution manually… otherwise, if the DAC is set to 16/44.1, the computer will once again downsample the file and you will listen to 16/44.1)))

If you want something small that allows you to listen to HD audio on headphones and doesn’t break the bank, you might want to check out this:

CEntrance -> DACport
– Audiophile-grade D/A converter plays 24-bit/96 kHz HD music natively, with bit-for-bit accuracy.
– Headphone amp, designed for hours of listening without fatigue offers clarity, soundstage and detail.
– No drivers needed. Plug ‘n play operation with most laptops, nettops and music servers.
– No power adapter needed. DACport uses USB power and works anywhere you take your laptop.
– Stereo, 1/4-inch headphone jack, perfect for the most advanced headphones on the market.

The DACport might be perfect solution for people who want to listen to audiophile HD music files, but want something mobil. Pair the above DAC with a good set of headphones and you are ready to go – anywhere you carry your laptop. Cost: $500 for the above DAC plus the price of a set of headphones.

3. Amps, loudspeakers and headphones:

This is a very personal decision. I don’t want to recommend any loudspeakers because they all sound so different. Since a external DAC outputs an analog signal, that signal can be amplified by any old amplifier/loudspeaker combination you want to hook up.

I use the STAX SRS-4040II Signature System II for $1,775, which includes Ear-speakers and a wonderful vacuum-tube-low-noise-Class-A-DC-amplifier. I listened to STAX for the first time in Köln in the early Eighties, while visiting my parents. I bought my first STAX system around 1997, I think, and have used it on every mix since.

I also own a pair of Ultrasone PRO 900, which I found on Amazon for $130 off. These headphones sound great with some music and not so great with other music. You should try them before buying, if possible.

(((I modified my Pro 900s, because they come with two cables – both unfortunately with 1/4″ plugs – and a 1/4 to 3.5 mini plug converter that is HUGE. I am very careful about inserting the giant converter into my iPhone, but it seems like trouble waiting to happen. That’s why I replaced one of the 1/4′ plugs with a gold-plated Neutrik NTP3RC-B Plug 3.5mm Right Angle for $6. Now I can use one cable for 1/4″ plugs and the other one for mini plugs, which are on all portable players and computers.)))

Then there are these Sony Headphones ($70), a true workhorse. And, for something more discreet, for walking around for example or or for the stage – this is what we wear during our concerts – there are the Shure SCL5CL earphones ($350).

Find an audio store and test-drive a bunch of headphones. Price and quality both vary enormously.

One last thing about headphones. Our ears are all different and since the shape of the ears is so instrumental in creating what we hear, headphones are not for everyone, and not every set of headphones works with every set of ears. If you had, say, large ears that stand out quite a bit, you might find that some headphones force your ears back and that might not sound good to you or could be uncomfortable. Your ears are meant for loudspeakers, maybe, or a different headphone design.

I have always enjoyed headphones. Headphones are as introverted as a boombox on one’s shoulder in the Eighties was extroverted…

I hope this helps. Feel free to ask questions or add information in the comments.


  1. Günter

    Happy Birthday and thank you so much for taking your time and answering in such detail! The information given will take some time to digest, but it has become clear that it is not that easy to switch from 320 kbps to 24/88. I’ll read and try to understand step by step what you have written. Thanks!!!
    Since you mentioned Pascal Mercier a few weeks ago and in case you are interested, you can listen to his thoughts on understanding and writing literature
    I have also enjoyed his latest project discovering the musical dimension in literature:

  2. Ottmar

    Thank you for the links!

  3. Carolynn

    Ottmar – Happy Birthday month to you!
    I appreciate that you know so much about “electronic stuff.” I’m far from being that kind of person, and just reading all of the knowledge you pour out doesn’t quite do it for me. So I have two wishes –
    1. I would love to see the systems / set-ups of true audiophiles, like yours, while getting the technical info on how things work. I might be able to digest it better that way.
    2. I would love to have an audiophile to go shopping with. So that if money were no object, I could get real feedback from someone who knows what they’re talking about through experience and I could get a kick-a$$ system!
    A girl can dream…


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