If I download an album from bandcamp, I am given a choice, mp3 or FLAC and several other file formats.
The Sixteen are offering digital downloads in various formats. For example The Earth Resounds, music of Josquin, Brumel and Lassus, which will be performed on their Choral Pilgrimage 2012, is available as a CD, but also available as mp3, FLAC and several other formats. The FLAC and other lossless formats is direct from the 96kHz/24-bit studio masters, but at a price.
The Sixteen say the lossless formats such as FLAC will give CD quality. If what is being offered is from the 96kHz/24-bit studio masters it should be much better than CD quality!
Note: The Sixteen have asked me to note that ONLY the FLAC files for The Earth Resounds are available as 96kHz/24-bit download, all the others are CD quality only, ie 16-bit.
Our newest CD – The Earth Resounds – is the only disc currently available as a 96kHz/24-bit download – all the other discs are available to purchase as CD quality FLAC files. We didn’t want people to think that all the FLAC files were 24-bit and so there is a note on The Earth Resounds page to let folks know it is a Master Quality download.
Unlike bandcamp, The Sixteen Digital store provides minimal help and information on the various file formats. Basically it is buyer beware. They do though provide test files of Handel’s Hallelujah to try in various file formats including mp3 320 and FLAC. Some to be played within a web page, others to download and play. I found some did not play. Why, I do not know, as no explanation or error messages. At a guess a required plug-in missing.
The information from bandcamp and The Sixteen on digital downloads and the various file formats compliments each other which is an aid to understanding. I would advise read both.
Downloads from bandcamp include lyrics, album art, sleeve notes. I do not know what downloads from The Sixteen includes as does not say.
mp3 is lossy compression. Smaller file size, but loss of quality, mushy sound.
FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) is an audio format similar to mp3, but lossless, meaning that audio is compressed without any loss in quality. The downside is large file size. But does that matter, when you can do something else whilst downloading?
mp3 will play with Windows Media Player, FLAC will not. For FLAC you will need to download VLC Media Player (which is a superior media player to Windows Media Player).
Why bother, will I notice a difference? The simple answer is yes. Yes, with a but. I will return to the but.
Last night I listened on bandcamp to the excellent jazz fusion album The Traveler and The King by Stadtmusikantin und Sterntaler, aka Traveler’s Diary aka Trav ElersDiary. Unlike most sites where all you will get is a lofi snippet, bandcamp lets you listen to the entire album at mp3 128 (which I did twice, it is that good), I then downloaded the album as mp3 320 and as FLAC.
Bandcamp makes the listening and downloading very easy. They also make it easy to share the music with your friends. You can share on your or their facebook wall, tweet, or if you wish, they provide the embed code to embed on your blog.
I sat back and listened to a couple of tracks. I was amazed at the difference. The mp3 320 was superior to the on-line mp3 128, the FLAC was a lot different. Going from mp3 to FLAC was as though cotton wool had been removed from my ears!
I said there was a but!
I am listening using a top-end-range HP laptop with top-end-range Sennheiser HD580 precision headphones (no longer available but we are talking about headphones a decade or so ago that were £200). These are open headphones which give a much more natural sound than closed headphones. Were I to listen on my hifi system, I would be using a reference amplifier, feeding into very large transmission-line speakers with Kef drive units, built and designed by myself. Begs the quetsion how do I transfer files to a CD to then listen on CD player.
Note: Linn recomend a digital connection to amplifier (assumes digital input on amplifier) or a usb converter (line output via phono):
A much better option is to connect your computer to your hifi using a digital connection. This can easily be done if your computer has a digital audio output and your amplifier has a digital audio input. It will be either a phono (RCA) shielded cable or a fibre optic cable. Either will give much better results than the analogue output from most sound cards. However not all hifi amplifiers have a digital input, and not all digital inputs are equal. Check what connections you have, your computer supplier will be able to help select the correct cables and connections.
If your hi-fi amplifier does not have a digital input, the best solution to connect your computer to your hifi is to use the highest quality of external USB sound card with onboard DAC you can afford. Connect the analogue outputs of the USB sound card to your hifi amplifier auxiliary inputs.
Hard drives fail! If you have paid for an expensive FLAC studio recording, then back it up to DVD.
I am also listening with two different media players. Windows Media Player for the mp3 320 (though I could use VLC Media Player, the files within a zip file defaulted to Windows Media Player) and VLC Media Player for the FLAC. I do not know what is used when I play the mp3 128 on-line, I simply click and play.
If you were using a cheap portable player with cheap in-ear headphones, then no, you would probably not notice a difference. Whatever you listened to would sound bloody awful.
If I use my portable CD player, I use reasonable quality Sony in-ear headphones that at the time cost something over £20 at duty free shop. They of course are not in the same league as my Sennheiser headphones.
We are also dependent on the quality of the original recording. Most is poor quality and unbearable to listen to. You need a live recording, and by live, I do not mean live as in live but recorded with high quality microphones direct from the sound sources, or in the case of electric guitar, plugged in. Sound tapes, drum loops, heavy electronic processing, forget it.
Piano is a very good test.
The sad fact of life is that most people have never met quality music either musically or sound quality.
I would love to repeat this exercise with The Earth Resounds by The Sixteen.