Sunday, April 10, 2016

Are Physical Digital Formats Better Than Digital Downloads?

From a sound quality perspective – are digitally downloaded music stored in solid state memory sounds inferior in comparison to their physical digital counterparts? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Ever since legal digital music downloads became a commercially viable reality that benefited both artists and record labels, it has been touted by environmentally concerned individuals as a “green” way of selling music around the world because this means that there are no shipping of CDs and other physical formats around the world that produce significant amounts of carbon dioxide emissions. Musical distribution carbon footprint would be limited to the power used by servers and PCs or other devices used to download the music and this could be much lower if those devices are powered by renewably-generated electricity. From an electronic engineering perspective, digital music stored in solid state memory has “supposedly” eliminated the problems of digital jitter in comparison to 120-centimeter CD or DVD discs played in a transport. But why is it that an increasing number of audiophiles have noticed that downloaded music, more often than not, sounded inferior in comparison to its physical counterparts?

Ever since the popularity of universal players that are able to play any 12-centimeter disc – whether it be 16-bit CDs, DVD-video, DVD-audio and Super Audio CDs – and digitally downloaded music via a USB slot, many budget conscious audiophiles, including me, had noticed that digitally downloaded music, even high resolution ones that are in FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) format tend to sound inferior to their physical format. In my own experience, using a 150 US dollar Oppo universal player, physical Redbook 16-bit 44.1-KHz sampled CDs tend to sound better than their downloaded 24-bit 192-KHz FLAC encoded counterparts. The most common recordings that are usually available in both that can be compared side-by-side using a universal player are Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album and Martin Taylor’s Spirit of Django album. 

To my ears, it seems as if the downloaded versions sounds as if it has the sound quality of a typical 100 US dollar CD player while the physical versions sounds as if it has the sound quality of a typical 500 US dollar CD player. And to Stereophile magazine leaders, most downloaded music played on universal players priced between 150 to 500 US dollars via its USB slot has a digital sound that Stereophile contributor Michael Fremer used to describe back in the 1990s as “everything gets flattened out – including dynamics. Given that solid state storage devices supposedly doesn’t have the digital jitter inherent in CD / DVD / SACD drives, why is it that digitally downloaded music – even hi-rez ones – sound inferior to their physical counterparts?  By the way, digitally downloaded music only started to sound as good as of better than their physical formats only after I’ve burned them into their requisite 12-centimeter recordable CD or DVD discs using a PC with Windows Media Player that can handle FLAC encoded music data.  


VaneSSa said...

On universal players that play both USB solid-state memory digital music downloaded music and physical media like CDs and DVD audio, the solid-state memory saved digital music sound as if they were CDs played in a 200 US dollar Pioneer PD-103 CD player while the physical CDs sound as if they were played on a 500 US dollar Marantz CD 63 SE KI Special Edition.

Ringo said...

Kind of my similar experience while auditioning a Wadia Universal Player Vaporware being demoed in a Hong Kong Hi-Fi Show back in 2013 where the PC-based digital music / solid state memory stored music sounded inferior to their "physical" counterparts when compared to digital music that were either burned or were actually originally from a 12-centimeter silver disc. Sometimes it makes me wonder if those universal CD / DVD / SACD transports designed, made and manufactured after 2012 are already "jitter-free" in comparison to their 1990s era counterparts.

Freeform said...

I suspect the usb port on a universal player is not the ideal replay device for a music file.

I don't have a usb port on my CD/SACD machine, a Sony SCD-XA5400ES - not 'hi-end' but a respected benchmark at it's price point. For files, I have a laptop PC running carefully set up Foobar2000 connected to a relatively inexpensive Korg DS DAC 100m. Correctly set, Foobar is able to decode almost any digital audio file from mp3 (I don't bother with), 16/44.1 - 24/192 in (various) lossless & uncompressed formats & DSD. As the DAC is native DSD, that is how I have Foobar set to output.

With files ripped from my own disc collection, the reproduction is every bit as good as the disc playing machine, and usually preferred. To my initial surprise, higher bit rate and DSD files are also reproduced to advantage by the Foobar/DAC setup (the Sony is not so versatile and my SACD collection is admittedly limited).

A friend with access to much more ambitious players and file replay systems than I also reports better results streaming from file based systems and I have on occasion heard this when visiting.