Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Luddite Joins the New Millenium - Take Two

I was reading the new issue of Rolling Stone magazine last night. There was an interesting article about how music is going low-fi: that the MP3 format doesn't have the detail that CD's have, and that music producers are compressing the music so much that the quality is shoddy. I got to wondering just how good the quality of my ancient turntable, old CD player, and new iPod were. So I ran a test.

I chose one of the few albums that I had in vinyl, CD, and MP3: Led Zeppelin's first. I played "Good Times/Bad Times" and "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" on the turntable. Then I plugged my iPod into the amp and played the same two songs again. The iPod beat the hell out of the turntable: it was much clearer and sharper. The turntable just sounded fuzzy. Well, it's going on thirty years old and I remember replacing the cartridge once ... about two decades ago. Tonight I ordered a new cartridge and will do a re-test when it's installed.

Then I compared the sound of the iPod's ear buds to that from the stereo. No contest: the stereo was much better. My bookshelf speakers aren't high quality, but they put out some pretty good sound. The ear buds sounded overworked and compressed. Which they are: they have one tiny little speaker stuck in your ear that has to do the work of several large speakers that share the load in a regular stereo.

We have a Bose system at home. I played the same two songs on the Bose CD player and again off the iPod plugged into the aux jack. The CD was tops: very clear with a wide range, it could play quiet and loud, high and low, equally well. The iPod, by comparison, sounded clipped, like bits of it were getting cut out.

The Rolling Stone article said that, to get the best sound out of an iPod, you should set your bit sample rate as high as it would go. I dug around in iTunes until I found that mine was set (by default) to the lowest setting. So I reset it, then erased the album and re-recorded it at the higher bit rate. I checked the file sizes afterward and they were twice as big as previously. Then I compared the same two songs. The iPod was much better, almost as good as the CD and I couldn't really tell you what the difference was.

Great. So now I gotta re-record all my CD's onto my iPod. Gee, thanks, Rolling Stone!

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