Thursday, 13 February 2014

Pact Coffee Review: Subscription Service and Mobile Enabled

Review over three packs of he Pact coffee subscription service, mobile and social enabled business model, and generally mulling on the freshness of coffee.

So over the past 6 weeks I've been systematically going through my coffee armory and trying to weed out the weak links and generally supercharge it.  With a new born in the house, it's been a good time to be drinking a lot of coffee.  So Chemex and V60 for drip, Aero and French press, Gaggia Classic for Espresso, along with Hario and Electric grinders have all been getting a workout, along with replacement Motta accessories.  But far more important than that was to upgrade what I was sticking into the kit the first place.

From a lot of Illy (still love the cans and still a fall back) recently I'd been amazed at how many of the supermarkets had started carrying premium coffee beans, and been cycling idly through seeing what they were like last year.  This was not a very good experience.  Not outright bad, but quality being extremely random.  Probably also not helped by my randomness of purchasing.  Ikea for instance: it's very cheap for apparently decent coffee.  When we were out in Stockholm we found out that Swede's drink A LOT of coffee (mostly all drip and sitting on the warmer).  I can't really recommend the Ikea beans by the way.  Anyhow I had a really good bag of Sainsbury's Fairtrade Taste the Difference Colombian Beans, but the next one wasn't on repeat purchase.  Nothing else really stood out.   So a freshly roasted to the door service, that I could rely on, was the biggest thing I need to find, and coffee friends kept chivying me about.

Pact are actively promoting through Social Media, and I picked up their £1 introductory offer advertising flavour, freshness and flexibility for their subscription service through a promoted tweet, and decided it couldn't hurt to start there.

A subscription service?

So £1 for the first bag and £6.95 each week or each fortnight with premium special editions at £8-9.  Didn't subscription services die with Britannia music in 2007?  I thought this was the bit that I was least going to like, but actually it wasn't a problem at all, as the "service" part was really good and more than mitigated the "subscription" bit.

The buying experience is really nice.  Pact looks great on the web and mobile, and they've clearly gone to a lot of effort to make it simple, clear and direct.  Check out this lovely looking coffee picker: a great mixture of added value in the tasting notes, in understanding the differences of potential clients preferences, and a visual web representation of making a recommendation from a limited selection for clarity without forcing a choice.  Textbook trying to appeal to a wide market, making it very accessible, and generally very nicely done.

The blog, staff profiles, and attitude is really open and approachable, and their Social Media based open feedback approach (every bag prompts you to take a photo and say what you think) brave, and well monitored.  Transparency and personality in a social media promoted company like this really important.

After initial signup (better on the web), the mobile site is the thing that really makes it for me.  You can pause your coffee, delay the delivery date, change what coffee if going to come, and get it dispatched immediately.  I did all of those and each worked really well, communications were good, warnings of dispatch prompted you to make a change if you wanted before actually dispatched and bags turned up exactly when forecast.  So whilst grinding when low on coffee, it was literally: pull the phone out of the pocket, and two clicks on the site to sort new or different coffee, and getting it shipped now.  The coffee available on the site changed enough during my trial to keep me looking.  

So it completely avoided the thing that sucked with Britannia Music back a decade ago which was that things you didn't want turned up in the post, and it was a hassle to send them back.  I only got what I wanted, and actually them having my payment details just made it easier to get the coffee.  Ultimately I do need coffee regularly, so is a subscription that bad?  I'm also wondering what other goods areas could see subscription as a come back model, if facilitated with a really great, lightweight mobile-enabled access model.  Free iPhone if you sign up to buy an iTunes track a day anyone?

Post and Packaging

So it's not a big thing to get right, but I think they really have got this right.  The coffee comes compressed quite flat in a stiff A5 cardboard outer, with a tear open, valved resealable padded inner.  The flat format means it always went through our awkward letter box.  The resealable bag tore or cut open easily and went straight into the fridge.  The reseal was really nicely airtight, and the bag comes with roasting, and packed dates, and tasting notes.

I had three bags during my test out of the service

Coffee Quality

Bag 1: House Espresso Ground
I really wanted to see what a premium service thought a quality ground should be, both what sort of grind, what sort of coffee, and whether that freshness came through, and what difference it made to my espresso.


So this was good coffee, it was pretty fresh, had a nice consistent grind and did indeed make a good espresso.   Opening it up out of the post was a great experience, however on brewing it didn't blow me away as something a lot more special than something I'd freshly ground myself.  The real problem though for me was that after 3-4 days, I really wasn't excited about the coffee at all. Opening the bag had a lost a lot of it's wow, and I quickly pressed the button to accelerate getting some whole beans.  There is quite a lot of this bag still left in the fridge.

What I'm taking from this is that ground premium coffee really not worth the premium.  You've got to be grinding yourself.  I know you read that a lot on the internet, but this really brought it home for me.

I think if you're only getting a bag every fortnight, and buying ground, and especially if it's already say up to a week roasted, even if ground just before shipping, it's probably eating up a lot of the quality difference between this and a good supermarket bag.  So it's a very convenient way to buy coffee, but I'm not sure it's really going to take your coffee to the next level.  This bag didn't for mine, the next was much, much better

Bag 2 Whole Bean Colombia La Joyeria #388

This bag was a joy right from opening.  Amazing smell, beautiful not-too-dark roast, fantastic taste, I had one really sensational coffee out of this (Chemex Drip), some really great cappuccinos, a lot more really good drip, some good espresso, and the bag disappeared really quickly.  I found the tasting notes really accurate, the grape acidity not my thing in espresso, but perfectly described, and the milk chocolate seamless in cap.  Strictly it wasn't primarily recommend as a drip blend, but I pretty much did everything with it - and the Chemex was my favourite, produced some amazing cup aromas.


One really noticeable thing was though that the amazing coffee was made in the first two days, the great coffee in the next few (still much better than supermarket) but just didn't get back to those first two days.  So after the first bag being so so, and this one being great, I was really starting to buy into this freshness thing.



Bag 3: Whole Bean Finca Las Flores

Previous two bags had been at standard prices, this one was a limited edition import premium at a little bit more.  I think the previous bag, and this premium had unfortunately raised my expectation and the bag fell rather flat on me.

Again I found the tasting notes really accurate, which I was impressed with as normally (ok normally with wine labels) I have no idea how they came up with the words written on packs for what you actually find inside.  But mandarin, was a really good description of the espresso, again not necessarily my thing, but that wasn't the issue.


The real issue was I excitedly got it out of the post box, opened it with those raised expectations and just wasn't impressed.  The smell wasn't nearly as good as bag two, and no matter which way I made the coffee it just didn't have that wow factor - especially the aromatics just didn't hang around the cup the way bag two had done.  This bag has been steadily disappearing, it's certainly good coffee, but I wouldn't spend the extra on it.  Either as a special edition, or actually as a premium coffee services.

Looking at the bag, it's very noticeable how much older it was by the time it arrived with me, than the last bag and this is my suspicion of the issue.  Roasted a week ago is certainly a great deal fresher than supermarket coffee, but is doesn't seem to be really enough to make a big difference to the quality of the coffee, especially if you are then going to be keeping it over a week or a fortnight.

Cost

So Pact coffee costs are very similar to other premium roasting internet coffee sites, Hasbean and TwoDayCoffee as two I'm looking at next for instance.  The difference in cost mostly seems to be in the postage: the subscription nature of Pact, means that Pact seem to be able to roll the cost of postage into the weekly, or fortnight pack price.  Where as these other two would ask ~£1.40-1.60 to post.  So an advantage to the subscription service there.

However looking at that Flavour (Good IMO), Flexibility (Very Good), and Freshness (Not so sure) advertising blog from Pact both these other two sites are hanging their hat on coffee roasted within 48 hours.  So for the cost of postage each time, without a subscription, that's something I definitely want to try.

Conclusions

For 
  + Friendly and flexible
  + don't worry about previous hangups on subscription services, if you have a smart phone it isn't a problem
  + Cost competitive, especially for good packaging and posting
  + Good tasting notes
  + Variety of coffee

Against
  - Coffee roasted up to a week ago.

So I liked getting coffee from Pact, but I definitely want to try out a few more delivery sites before I could settle into leaving a subscription service.  So any final view held off, and I'll re-update..

One suggestions though for Pact, if you're reading this:

Suggestions 

Options on Pact's site are for coffee are to have Pact send you one you've chosen repeatedly, or rotate what they send you to let you try coffee.  I think a third option would be great for their site, which would be send me the freshest (i.e the most recently roasted), along with a suggestion along with the tasting notes on each packet, on how the think you make the best coffee with this pack.  I'd be much happier with things just turning up then and trying them out.

Oh and I loved the staff pages about half way down here along with detail on how each of them liked to make their coffee.

Really interesting company.

2014-11-05 Follow up
Thank you for persevering all the way to the bottom of this review.  Later on in the year, I went and did an onsite visit, if you want to read how that went, the post is here

Monday, 10 February 2014

Blue Coast Collection DSD v HD Audio v CD

Review of the Blue Coast Collection E.S.E sessions DSD DFF download and comparing it to a HD 24bit 96khz and a CD 16bit 44.1khz versions of the same tracks. Using Korg Audiogate and JRiver Media Centre for the conversions, and coming to some conclusions on whether higher definition than CD audio is worth it.

So an end of an era today as my Meridian 565 left to a good new home. This was the lynchpin to my first attempts at computer high fidelity, as well as one of my most aspirational purchases from when I selling hifi, I still remember it being launched. It left the house for £132, originally retailing at about £3000. Happy to see it go to someone who will enjoy it. I think the recent dive in residuals largely due to it not supporting the higher resolution formats (tops out at 48khz). Is that a worthwhile devaluation for that additional resolution?  When I replaced it with a 568 I did that off the back of CD Music/BluRay Films based performance - it's clearly better at both.  But would it be justified just for the 24/96 capability?  If you don't have High Res Audio, are you don't are you missing something special?

 I think today I've got to the bottom of it.

So my last test was with the Beatles White Album, and in Blind ABX listening I couldn't reliably tell apart the CD and Pseudo HD (24bit 48khz) audio versions, but that is a remaster of a 40 year old recording.  Before that I looked at a Bad CD master, against a good HD and Vinyl master, and found the later very close, and the CD very noticably worse, but mostly due to the dynamic range and not the technology.  Today I really wanted to rerun the test with something modern, which was recorded with high definition format and audience in mind, and that the internet really rated the high definition version of.

http://www.computeraudiophile.com/ of great help with picking a record, and that record turned out to be the Blue Coast Collection, nominated in this post by Jud.

I bought it on the Direct Stream Digital (DSD) DFF download ($50) from the nice fast site Blue Coast has.. DSD is the format used on Super Audio CD format (SACD) and is a complex single bit process sampling at 64 times the resolution of CD.  It's actually quite difficult to play like that so JRiver Media Centre  turns it back into PCM audio 64bit 352.8khz which gives you an idea how much more data and resolution there is in the file.  The question being whether I can notice that difference.  The highest JRiver or my Soundcard can output is 24bit/192khz, and the Meridian 568 DAC can only handle is 24/96.  Ok so that's a lot of numbers.  

Essentially though what I've chosen is tracks are recorded and mastered with a target resolution far in excess of what my system can possibly access, and I'm converting down to the highest the system can handle, and to CD quality 16/44.1 as a comparison.

Conversions were done using Korg Audio Gate which is very effective software, but is generating Korg a lot of seriously bad Karma as unless you have some Korg gear, it forces you to tweet each time you use it!  I would have quite happily paid them some small amount of money for a licence, but there wasn't an option.  Really not the way to do social business. 

JRiver can do very good conversion on the fly and sorts the levels out, however I did a 24/96 and 16/44.1 conversion in audiogate to ensure that the levels were identical between the two(-3.5DB to original DSD which can go over 0DB) and making sure JRiver could play them native so there was an absolutely fair back to back without one having a further DSP conversion.

The plan then was to do a set of serious ABX blind tests, and compare how much better 24/96 was than 16/44.1.  But before I come to what actually happened with those results, let me talk briefly about the music


Blue Coast Collection (E.S.E Sessions)

This is the single best sounding album I've ever heard on my setup at home.  The clarity is awesome, the stereo and positioning totally sharp and locked, it's amazingly crisp, beautifully clear, hugely powerful without distortion, with a great dynamic range.  The music is all recorded without headphones, overdubs or digital affects, it's acoustic guitar of different types, banjo and singing.  It's hugely musical throughout with a fantastic sense of performance, and so transparent it's like it's happening in your living room.

So if nothing else, I have found a new set of reference tracks.  If anyone comes round and says: "so all this kit, and xyz khz is it worth it?" I shall pull this out saying: "well I've got this amazing ultra high resolution DSD file, have a listen" and then blow them away with it.  However why it sounds so good bears a little further examination.


Test Method and Equipment

As per original Muse test

Results

This is where it all starts going off script.  Both the WAV (16/44.1) and FLAC (24/96) sound fantastic.  I went back and forward a lot listening overall.  Then I went back and forward dissecting tiny sections and listening to specific parts, and  I get to the point where I convince myself, that I can just hear something little better in the HD version, in the fret noise, the gliss on the guitar strings, in the overall room abience, and distinctions between the vocal harmonies.  (I was particularly listening to the first track - Looking for a home).

I then go into blind tests - I utterly can't back up a difference.  Once again, I'd be as good just randomly guessing which is which.  I haven't included the results sets, as they are all junk.   I'd find myself listening, wowed, convinced it must be the HD version, and it's the WAV version.  Or vice versa, thinking that guitar gliss didn't sound as a "Real" on this WAV version and low and behold it's the FLAC.

End result - I can't tell the difference in any meaningfully repeatable way.

So I'm not saying, that I'm the last word in audiophile listener, nor that there isn't a difference.  Just that as really enthusiastic amateur and with a long relationship with testing and my equipment, I couldn't spot anything that was worth spending the extra money on the higher resolution file.

Discussion

When I was selling HiFi and multiple times since I've done so many back to back tests, and always been comfortable will finding some meaningful difference and normally clear preference.  Especially with speakers I've found the tone is often clearly and obviously different, especially moving between different cabinet designs, tweeter types, or drive configurations.  

But so often even if doing a relatively strict comparison you're changing a lot more than you think you are.  Perhaps you don't have all the same cables between two sources, the speaker positioning is different if speakers are set up in parallel, or probably different if moving each each time, your positioning is slightly different after getting up and changing things, the compatibility of the equipment is different between the pieces being changed, or just the tone of the equipment is different.  As an example if you're going between a SACD player and a different DVD-Audio player you're definitely comparing a lot more than just the format.

But in this test the only thing to switch between the two, was one press on the remote - everything is identical apart from the resolution of the file. I was really surprised, actually make that disappointed, that I couldn't reliably tell a difference.  It makes me qestion how much is Psychosomatic in those other testings I did, especially where listening is minutes or longer apart.  Can I really reliably remember the sort of subtle of difference that often audio tests are full of, if I can so easily convince myself of hearing a difference when aware of which is which, and so unable to distinguish them when I'm not.

So is there a silver lining - undeniably yes.  The WAV sounds fantastic.  I wish that my other CDs sounded this good, if they did I don't think I'd have a record deck, this sort of quality of sound is exactly what I tend to find I have to go to vinyl for, and I'm looking for my vinyl system to recreate.  Apparently though it doesn't have anything to do with the resolution of the underlying technology.

HD releases of audio seem incredibly variable - full in equal measure of insensitive remasters, cynical re-releases in HD (often 5.1 downmixes) to cash in without adding any value, and then some sonic gold.  There are also a lot of competing formats and technologies - nothing has fully come out the mix yet as the way-to-go.  However it's a good thing,  even if you don't have high res audio, as it's forcing a real look at the quality of the recordings on some great music.  CD quality can often be poor.  I've covered one in a detail on this blog, but started both back into vinyl and off into high def because I was frustrated by how often quality on CD was average or outright bad.  Buying on vinyl is much reliably better, buying on HD very hit or miss, but has a lot more releases targeted at the audiophile and has some fantastic things available.

If you're lumbered with a CD you have bought that is bad, and are lusting after a high res release that is being raved about.  Don't think you need to upgrade, the format probably isn't at fault.  Get a downsample of that new release from a friend with high res - or do one yourself!  Don't pirate, pay for that CD, pay for the effort of a remastered version, but if you're paying in my view you should get a version that adequately makes use of the good technology available CD.  So I'd feel totally justified in replacing my Muse 2nd Law WAV from CD which I bought, with a down sample of the HD version, as the CD is just crippled by the mastering, it has nothing to do with the technology.

So it's worth a note that the 568 is up-sampling the CD to 24/96 - but to my mind this isn't relevant, if it sounds as good with the DAC guessing the additional data, you didn't need the additional data in the source,  you're just relying on the quality of the DAC.  Better DACs do sound better, and are probably now built to higher definition.  However it's not perhaps necessary to have the higher resolution file to exclusively access that quality (although if new DACs are only tuned on high resolution material that may start to be the case)

Conclusions:


Should I upgrade my kit just to get high resolution audio?
No, if you have a great 16/44.1 (or 48) digital system stick with it.  Just taking it to 24/96 on it's own isn't going to make a big difference and it will involve changing some fairly fundamental parts of your kit with expensive new things.  Spending that money elsewhere may well give you a bigger difference.  If it sounded great before, it still sounds great now and good news:  You can down-sample those lovely new HD remasters and they will still sound fantastic on your agree.  Certainly don't upgrade your kit until you've tried a downsample of the music you'd be upgrading to get!

If I'm significantly upgrading sources anyway should I get a high resolution component?
If you are upgrading your source anyway, probably you'll end up with a high res one any way if you're spending significant money as this is where the market is moving.  More material will come out for it, and getting a 24/96, or 24/192 or even 32/192 gives you future proofing.  But don't think you need to throw away your CDs.  If your new DAC/Source is to better, it needs to be better with those as well, not just with new files  Back to back it with your current music.

If I'm getting started should I go straight for high res?
If you'll consider second hand, there are a lot of fantastic 44.1/48khz DACs out there on the market that the move to high def is driving into the market.  On the same whole-system-budget of say £1000-2000 buying one of these, and matching carefully with other fantastic second hand components available, I think is going to give you a much better sound overall, than spending a lot more of  the budget on a DAC and source capable of higher res nad having to compromise elsewhere.  Certainly than trying to buy new High Res at this amount of money.   Similarly getting hung up on 96 v 192 khz (or any other numbers) just isn't worth it.  Good quality hifi kit with a lower res, will outperform cheap computer based equipment with a higher res every time. Go for quality kit.

Should I ditch my vinyl for HD? 
No.  Though if you have a CD Quality digital source as well,  you may be pleasantly surprised by how some of the better HD releases sound down sampled to what your system is capable of.  Almost not sounding like CD at all!

Is the DSD premium for Blue Coast worth it?
$20 for 16/44.1, $40 for 24/96, or $50 for DSD DFF or DSF

I can't really answer this authoritatively, so no outright recommendation here, as I didn't buy the 16/44.1 I down-sampled from the DSD.  But if they take such care over the high res, I would expect they haven't messed up the down conversion. 
I also didn't listen in DSD - this requires a special DAC.  I might see in the future if I can borrow one to see.  But there is a lot of controversy out there on whether DSD is worth it - I remain a skepti but don't have the science to back that up at the moment.

My encouragement would be to buy the 24/96, it will encourage people to record this sort of audiophile recording, and you're recognizing that with a premium.  The file is future proofed to a large extent, and will be playable by a lot more things than the DSD.  You also get to know that you're buying a very high quality source and utilizing the maximum affect of your kit if it is compatible with it.

Happy listening.

Monday, 3 February 2014

The Beatles White Album HD Audio v CD v Vinyl

Detailed comparison of the HD 24bit Audio, CD and Vinyl 2009 stereo release of the The Beatles White Album

So the other reason to start really looking at HD Audio was a that Doug, a good friend asked me whether it was worth getting into High Definition Audio, and specifically about the Beatles 24bit "Apple" USB Stick: "Is this anything special?".  My answer was probably not, but we've had a plan to try and verify that for a while for and this is a major step towards.

So there are two parts to that "Is this anything special?", the remastering part and the HD part.  On the 2009 version versus 1968 I'm not really a qualified enough Beatles fan to know, so that is a future back to back listen with Doug.  This was an early listen to look at the 2009 versions at a technical level and which ones to take forward to that listen.

The 2009 HD 24bit USB stick is a bit controversial as it doesn't provide a 96khz+ version, only 44.1khz.  Conspiracy theory out there goes that this is to hold back a final, ultra premium 96khz or 192khz version as a money making exercise.  Other opinions are that this was just an unadvoidable result of technical decisions early on in the big remastering project, when high resolution audio trend hadn't really taken hold.  On balance of probabilities I'm guessing the second, but you never know.

So into the test went the CD 16/44.1, the USB 24/44.1 and the Vinyl - the 2012 release from the 2009 remaster - i.e the same as the Digital ones




I again didn't do a lot of pre-reading on the three version on them deliberately.  However when back when I first talked about this and researched the lack of a 96khz, I remember there being a lot of discussion about whether the 24bit one was or wasn't better, so I expecting it to be a lot more close.

I did though put both tracks through the Dynamic Range Checker - this time, both scored the same respectable 9.

Equipment
As with Muse test 
This again means that the 568 will be up-sampling in this case both the CD and HD audio.

Test Method
Again equalized Sound Pressure Level (SPL) with a meter between the sources this time to about 92db at peaks.

For digital testing, using the same 1 song, 20 track (10 HD, 10 CD) playlist blind randomised, and then playing 5 back to back blind,  marking each A or B, and then comparing to the versions that had played.

I did this over four tracks

  • While My Guitar Gently Weeps
  • Blackbird
  • Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
  • Back in the U.S.S.R

For vinyl, playing the vinyl 30s or so ahead of the digital and manually switching back and forth to the digital through most of Side 1 Disc 1.

Results
Complete failure to differentiate at all between the two digital versions.

I wasn't expecting a big difference between the two, but my A/B marking scores were nearly exactly as good as just randomly guessing.  At various times I thought I could hear the faintest of things in the big 2nd guitar entry "GRAAANGG", at the start of USSR, but back to back ABX style listening proved I utterly couldn't back that up.

It was rather sobering.

Vinyl again sounded very good, but this time, the stereo difference was marked.  The very clear decisions in the remaster of LEFT or RIGHT for certain things, and where voices singing over each other in chorus which seems to happen on a lot on these tracks, were much more clearly further out to the sides in the digital.  Not sure whether that was a good thing or a bad thing.  Generally the remaster is going for a very clear new sounding sound, and very clearly a STEREO sound as far as I can hear and ultimately I though the CD version suited it better.  I'd still say that the vinyl was slightly more musical, but it didn't seem to be what the remaster was going for, so for once I didn't prefer it.

Discussion
Not being able to scientifically separate CD and HD versions was very disheartening, even if not hugely surprising.  I had kind of thought it might be the case, but was determined to hear something, however I really couldn't back any differences up at all. On the plus side, I got to listen to a lot of the White Album, that to my shame, I'd never listened to at all before as an album, though many tracks individually.

In terms of what does this show about HD audio I'm not sure really very much.  I'm sure the limiting factor with this master from 1968 is not the digital technology, but rather the original recording.  I'm also not saying that there isn't a difference between the two digital sources, just that I can't reliably tell that difference enough to tell them apart.

I was really surprised that the vinyl didn't come out better.  But there you go.  Annoyingly, the vinyl is a lovely thing, and I'd much prefer to listen on it if sitting down to actually listen for pleasure, so I'll just now have to do so, knowing I slightly preferred the sound of the CD version in this case!

Conclusion

The Apple 24bit USB CD is a convenient way of buying all of the Beatles back catalog at theoretically the highest quality.  However you shouldn't bother upgrading your system for high definition sources just to get this version, as if you want the remasters, the CD (to my ears) are basically as good. 

Post Script

This version or a really good 24/96 rip of it appears in some Beatles circles to be the definitive audiophile version. This Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab version, appears to be massively collectable and hugely expensive. So Thousands!, rather than Hundreds for the Apple CD

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Muse 2nd Law Dynamic Range Research (Avoid the CD version)

Dynamic Range Measurement and Visualization of the Previous Muse 2nd Law Listening tests

So I wanted to do the Muse listening test without having researched the available versions beforehand and prejudicing the listen.  However researching afterward, shows that there was quite a lot of material saying that the CD version was definitely not the one to buy, having a very compressed dynamic range.  So at least I wasn't imagining things, and pretty happy to have heard things backed up by the technology, but it wasn't actually the best back to back to have selected to work out whether 24/96 was worth it.

It also turned out that the internet is full of angry people, with quite strong opinions on dynamic range, and it gets pretty complicated quickly as there are a whole bunch of different ways of measuring it, a fair amount of suspicion around the pro-vinyl brigade's measuring practice, and also on the practices of recording companies reflogging remasters or format copies into HDs on the internet. Also a piece of music without a big dynamic range, might be meant to be all loud, so it's not necessarily a measure of quality.

Simply though, my summary would be that the quiet bits should be quiet, and the loud bits be loud.  To make things sound better in cars, compilations and CD shops a lot of CDs are mixed so the difference between the small bits and loud bits is much smaller, compressing the range of loudness so it's all loud.  Things can also get too loud, and have to be chopped off, with a variety of limiting or clipping at the top.

So could you see the difference in the tracks if you looked at them, and how bad was the compression on this CD?  It turns out, yes, it's blinking obvious, and yes it's really pretty bad.

You can get an overall number for your Dynamic Range of a track with Foobar (whether it's measure right or not is a bigger question) with this plug in.   There is also a database of these numbers you can look up, so comparing different versions, remasters, and formats can be done before purchase.  This is something I think I will be doing in the future.  It's not that low is bad, but if the CD is much lower than alternative formats, I think I'll be thinking fairly hard before purchasing

CD 16/44.1 scores 5.  This is bad.






The HD 24/96 scores 9.  Decent










The Vinyl apparently scores 10, but I'm just focusing on the Digital as I don't want to get into digitizing the vinyl to measure at the moment.

Sicking it into Audacity it became immediately obvious how compressed the CD master is.  I've colour coded to accentuate, but the latter section really shocked me.  The CD is at the top and the HD is at the bottom - this is the Madness track I was mostly listening to.  I really wasn't expecting it to be so immediately visually obvious.


Amusingly I was mostly stopping my listening before the compression got really bad!  No wonder if I let it play on it got tiring.  The CD track bounces off the top, all the time, and the latter section has almost all the dynamic range wiped out with compression.  You can see on the HD track how it should look more like with the the loud bits going very nearly to the top, but with lower bits in-between.

I think it's amazing how much the CD has been compromised by something that has been deliberately done and not anything to do about the technology.  This seems from reading to be worryingly common.  So buying Vinyl or HD is much more likely to get you it looks like a better recording, but it's not necessarily for anything to do with the format, but rather the market in which CDs are being sold in.

Annoyingly it took me about 2 minutes to re-sample to 44.1k and save to 16bit WAV the 24/96, and you get the right uncompressed range, in the 16/44.1 format.  So basically it looks like a new back to back listening is required: HD against the re-sampled down to CD quality HD




Saturday, 1 February 2014

Muse 2nd Law HD Audio (24/96) v CD v Vinyl

Detailed comparison and ABX test of Muse 2nd Law HD Audio (24bit 96khz) release against the CD and the Vinyl LP Record releases

So getting the fine audio section of the site going has been a lot slower than getting the fine food (or coffee) section.  Mainly I think because the whole family has to eat, but I'm the only one really fussed about what sort of plastic the music arrives on.  But today was the day to kick it off writing up some of things that I'd been working on after a great day out at park farm with FourLegsGood.

Dunstan at work has to put up with the occasional hifi rant from me, and has a patent sign-off to each of them, with a pleasant smile and "as long as you can hear the difference".  Which is exactly the thing, are you *sure* you can see, taste or hear the difference?  After finally getting my digital and analogue audio into a state where I was finally happy with all of them, I wanted to put some method around looking at whether I could *really* hear the difference, and to whether spending extra money on high resolution audio files, or vinyl was worth it.  For that matter, I plan to do the same with coffee, the forums filled on discussions of whether the most minuscule things make a difference to your espresso, share a huge amount with the audio forums.

I didn't want to go into this over-informed about what I was *supposed* to be able to hear in the difference. So whilst "greater dynamic range", and "the dog should enjoy the extra high frequencies" is something I've heard people talk about I very deliberately haven't looked it up in detail.  So for once I didn't do a lot of internet reading, and am hopeful i'll hear and discover some things that when i do read it up in detail later, will be backed up by the technology.  But going into this first test I just didn't know.

I'd cast around for a couple of candidate  albums, and done a quick set of test listens.  The major issue being that a lot of the time, I had the original CD version, and the HD version was a remastering.  It really wasn't clear whether the differences where they were obvious were due to the remaster or the format.  So whilst I'm definitely going to look at a remastered example.  I wanted to start off with a release that went straight to High Def, Vinyl and CD at the same time, and that I also knew and liked well enough to make the listening test worthwhile.

Enter Muse, the 2nd Law (2012)


From left to right CD (Digipack), HD Audio Download (24bit 96khz) from their website, and double LP.

Muse is a bit marmite (love or hate) for people, but I like this one, it's big, dynamic, slightly electronic sounding, but with good vocals in the middle.

Equipment

Digital:  Exact Audio Copy (for CD), JRiver Media Player, External Musical Fidelity VLink 192 external soundcard, Meridian 568.2mm DAC and digital pre amp (24/96)*.  iPhone JRemote remote control

Analogue:  Nottingham Audio Space Deck, RB300, Ortofon Rondo Red, Dual Meridian 525 Moving Coil Phono Stages, Meridian 502 Analogue Preamp

These then both go through a custom built high quality switched set of interconnects (Chord Siren based) to the same Poweramps (Delta 290s x 2) and Ruark Prologue II Speakers.

I'm pretty happy with the setup at the moment, it's slightly brighter than I'd want overall and doesn't quite have the total overall amount of slam I'd like when really pushing it.  But with the space constraints in place I've got the tone to somewhere I like on all sources.

So essentially the CD and HD audio will be going through exactly the same route, and I can switch between the two with a blind press of the remote button.  The vinyl will be going through exactly the same power stages, but has dedicated equipment up to the pre-amp, and needs a manual switch flicking for each channel between the digital and analogue pre-amps.

*note this will be up-sampling the CD output.  So this might mean you would get a more stark difference on a lower resolution DAC, but I'm happy to run the test like this as any differences I do hear will underline the difference in the sources.  I've also always been very dubious about the ability of equipment to add things by up-sampling, but prehaps this will challenge that presumption.

Test Method.

So I wanted to get reasonably close to a strict ABX test and to minimise the component differences between the setups.  However with only one person, and with the necessary phono stage and pre-amp switch necessary for vinyl, I was only going to be able to get so close to that.  However for the CD for the HD audio, everything could be identical except the original format, so I wanted first to tell before I went into subjective differences: could I really spot the two apart?

First thing was to set the levels.  I equalized the SPL with a slow, C weighted Sound Pressure Level Meter at listening position to key parts of the tracks for both of the pre-amps. I was listening at around 93db at these reference points. Which is about as loud as I like to listen. 

Checking between the CD and HD versions the sound pressure peaks at the same key points, but the needle dropped a lot less on the HD and vinyl versions in the beats imbetween the CD versions keeping the needle much more consistently near the peak.

I assembled three playlists, each with one song from the album only (Supremacy, Madness and Survival), each with 10 CD and 10 HD tracks of the same song on.  Then queuing the playlist, and blind (not looking at screen) hitting CTRL-R to randomize the 20 tracks 7 times and playing 5 of them, skipping after I'd made a decision and recorded a result each one.  Generally listening to about the first 50s of each track.  This way I didn't know how many of each source was present in each listen, or which one was playing.  After recording all 5 then looking at the play list order and which 5 I'd listened to in what order.

Results - HD versus CD

I was slightly relieved that for all 3 songs, with 5 tracks each, I was 100% correct.  At least I hadn't imagined all the differences with getting the HD audio working, the probability of being right all those times being an accident being very low.  So I could definitely hear a difference - but what was it?  Rafts of additional detail in the HD?  Erm.  No.

So the CD versions were actually very very good.  They sounded more upfront, and actually more attention grabbing.  There was nothing detail wise I could really hear in the HD versions that I couldn't hear well in the CD versions.  However the CD versions sounded like EVERYTHING WAS LOUD, not just the key things on the track, all the elements going on at once sounding presented equally forward.  The CD versions also started to get tiring quickly through the track..  The musicality especially at the mid to upper range and the depth of soundstage wasn't as goodas the HD.  However when really focusing on listening to any particular instrument, even something at the back of the mix, the detail seemed to me to be all there, and when focusing on one thing, the tone didn't seem to be noticeably worse on individual instruments, just when it all came together, the overall thing didn't seem to be as mature or sophisticated, or generally as pleasant to listen to.

I was really surprised how close the CD was on detail, and how comparatively small the overall difference was, but how noticeable on tone it was, and how it seemed louder and more tiring, even though the SPL read peaking at the same.

Results HD and CD versus Vinyl

I couldn't do an ABX of this, as I knew exactly with the manual switch which one was being listened to.  So instead I set the vinyl going and then the HD/CD version about 30s behind, listening to the same section on Vinyl for 30s, then flipping to HD or CD and listening back to the same section.  I quickly dropped the CD version from the comparison as the differences to the Vinyl were all basically the same as to the HD, and just started on comparing the HD to the Vinyl.

Results here muchm much closer.  I was really amazed at how close on quality both sounded.  Stereo soundstage was slightly wider on the digital, especially at anything steered to extreme left or right.  Central positioning on the vinyl very slightly better.  Male midrange voices sounded particularly impressive on the vinyl, but still great on the HD.  Bass on the Vinyl warmer, with slightly more attack on digital, but very similar levels of overall bass between the two, and really no significant difference in definition or articulation.

I was listening really hard to hear differences, and would have been entirely happy with having been stuck with either the HD or the Vinyl both were excellent.

Discussion

I'm not convinced that the mastering is totally out of this comparison.  Perhaps the HD/Vinyl is from one mastering or final mix, and the CD from another one.  Maybe the CD being aimed more to impress and make an impression in shops or cars.  I'm also wondering whether the system was starting to clip very slightly with the CD as I'd set the volume based on the HD where it sounded great at that volume and very listenable for a long time, the SPL meter different behaviour really surprised.

Taking price then into it.  The CD is £6 from Amazon, the HD £12 from Muse Website and the Vinyl £23 from Amazon.  The HD for £12 is a bargain to me if you have 24/96 capable components, and you can down sample it to whatever you need for portable music, but doesn't come with any lovely tactile materials.  The vinyl really very pricey for a very little (if any) sonic improvement but as always a beautiful thing.  The CD then a complete bargain, and if you don't have 24/96 it's debatable whether upgrading a lot of your components to get 24/96 it is going to be make a bigger difference than investing the same in Amps/Speakers or CD technology.

Conclusion

The nice thing, is that there is really no need to ditch the big library CD music I have - it still sounded great, even in comparison.  However in this case it was definitely worth opting for the HD or the Vinyl version if you had capable components.   

Next up is a 24bit 48 khz album for the same sort of test.  From this first outing I'm suspecting that I'm not going to miss much (if any) difference between the 48 and 96 khz, but very interesting to see whether the overall findings are similar, or there is a big differences in the mix of the 2nd Law CD and HD versions.