Apple Takes a Bite out of DRM



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If you're listening to music on an iPod or whatever, try to enjoy what you're doing and where you are and forget about the sound quality.  You can't notice if you sing along!

-A Sound Guy

P.S. I hope that one day soon this won't be the case and all of us will have the "highest fidelity" at our fingertips.  



Having done this ( and a thousand other versions ) test more than I EVER care to remember ( I've forgot MORE about this subject, than most people even know!!). I can weigh in as THE expert hands down , worldwide !

First I will describe my mistakes, then I'll give my unsatisfying opinion. I was in the navy ( got out as a 1st class ET ) when I first started to experiment with audio fidelity. Mp3's and low bit rates are one tiny portion of my research. According to the US Navy I have perfect hearing. 1) Don't EVER use ear or headphones to conduct these tests, they 'through off' the minds ability to percieve auditory slight changes.

2) Until I tested with my Yamaha cdc 865 and my 750w Carver amp coupled to a pair of Infinity SM 152's, I was kinding myself in attaining ANY accuracy in my results, you've GOT to be able to reproduce the electrical to mechanical B4 you hope to make comparisons.

3)First establish highest possible 'music/sound' preception with the highest quality equipment you can get, this baseline may seem high, but after you do it, you'll know why!

Opinion: WMP variable bit rates and/or cda files are THE ONLY acceptable listening experiences, the rest ( and especially mp3 crap ) is GARBAGE !! Until you've been to the 'promised land' even garbage can sound good !!



There are two issues here. (1) Portable player use: Is it worth it to pay more for a file that's twice as big and offers little if any improvement in perceivable quality on portable devices? Answer: No. (2) Hi-Fi system use: Can the larger file deliver better sound quality on bigger, higher resolution systems? Here the answer is definitely YES. With iTunes Plus, you can convert the AAC file to WAV, send it to an upsampling program like DVD2oneX2 and burn a 24-bit 96kHz interpolated file to a standard DVD for high resolution playback on a standard DVD player. The slight improvement in air, space, and upper harmonics in the iTunes Plus file is maximized by the interpolating program, and depending on the quality of the original material, the result is actually superior to the CD version (DVD's superior filtering is a big reason)! There is potential here for a new preferred way to purchase all music, even for critical listening.



I can hear the difference between bitrates of 128, 160 and 192Kbps. I however do not notice the difference between bitrates exceeding 192Kbps.
Also, irregardless of operating system, I do not use any bundled software to play my media files. I use third party software, and by the way "Codecs" used in Vista or XP are dealt with no differently between operating systems. Windows 98 or Windows Vista is of no difference whatsoever.
As for DRM, I don't use any device which support DRM media. I prefer to use my media encoded with whatever codec I choose and in whatever bitrate I decide to encode it in. So as far as the ruling goes with the 128 or 256 Kbps, I really don't care, as it doesn't affect me. I will never buy an Ipod or any other device which forces me to use DRM. Get a Pocket PC. You can play music, movies, control Television or VCR's, Navigate with GPS, transfer files with your cell phones, Make cell phone or internet voice calls, Use the internet, Alarm clock and timepiece, all in one, and have the upgrade ability with the expansion slots that they come with. If your battery dies, you can always replace them too unlike Ipods.



Be it 256 or 128, don't waste your money on the absurdly high priced shure ear buds. Get a pair of Ear thumps from Griffin for 29.00 and enjoy a crisp and clear treble and a powerful bass response. Only a audiophile snob would spend that much for a piece of plastic you stick in your ear. Oh, and by the way, I did buy a moderately expensive priced pair of ear buds from Shure. The Griffin ear thumps trounced them in performance and comfort and were on quater the price.



Of course they do, that's why there's a market for high-end IEMs. If they own, then why doesn't everyone use them? Why does everyone else (who pay attention to SQ) use IEMs from UE, Shure or Westone? BECAUSE THEY SOUND BETTER. I can personally guarantee you that ANY Shure in the world WILL own the Ear thumps.

1. You're listening to it from an Ipod (correct me if I'm wrong). Ipods have the WORST SQ in the world.

2. You drew a conclusion from two factors...comfort and treble/bass response. How about noise isolation, or durability?

For a real test, get an amp, THEN compare the two. BTW, nice of you to label audiophiles as snobs...



The most basic factor in audio testing is to ensure that the audio levels are exactly the same A/B and I mean you have to measure it. It's well proven that even an tiny difference in volume will skew the results strongly toward the louder one. This phenomena is on display by snake oil salesmen in audio showrooms across the country...buyer beware.You make no mention of careful level matching. To be fair it would be very difficult to compare an earbud to an in ear phone audio level without sophisticated test setups.
Secondly, there is a "squeaky wheel" effect as well-the casual lisener often mistakes distortion as having better highs or more "kick" in the bass simply because the distortions bring the attention to those frequencies. You see a dirty window but not a clean one. Important because distortion causes fatigue and can,sadly, lead to listeners wrongly concluding they just don't like listening to music all that much...



Apple recommends all people creating content for their store submit the best possible source, preferably 24 bit and 96 Khz minimum. A real test would have been to purchase the track twice, once as iTunes Plus and once at iTunes DRM file. To test the quality ripped from a CD (at 44.1/16) vs. a 96/24 source tells us little about the store audio file quality differentiation. This is not a test of ripping quality - you could have done that years ago. If you want to compare iTunes to iTunes Plus, buy iTunes and iTunes Plus audio tracks and compare them. I can't beleive how badly you guys botched this test.



I really didn't find this article to be useful. Of course the two formats sound about the same coming from an Apple IPod. It is generally known that the Digital Audio Converter (DAC) used in the IPod is very limited, even compared to other MP3 players. Further, as another post indicated, headphones aren't very good for evaluating sound quality.

I don't think any of the compressed formats are very good. To help you understand why I think so, let me explain the audio setup I use for listening. I don't use hand-held players when I really want to listen to digital audio. Instead, I use a SlimDevices Squeezebox playing uncompressed WAV (ripped from the original CDs) through its ANALOG outputs (I've tested them and they sound better than the digital outputs) through a Pioneer VSX-56Txi amp into a pair of large tower speakers. I also have a CD/DVD player connected through the same amp.

On my system, a DVD playing uncompressed PCM 48/24 sounds much better than a CD playing PCM 44.1/16 (example: music tracks from U2's "Making of Joshua Tree" DVD vs. the "Joshua Tree" CD), so saying that these compressed formats sound as good as CD isn't saying much. There is an article in the Feb. '07 issue of Audio Xpress magazine that describes burning music to DVD in detail for this very reason.

But moving onto the "Compressed as good as CD" question, I also have the two-disc DVD/CD/DVD-ROM version of the album "Forget Yourself" by The Church. When I play the compressed files from the DVD-ROM against the uncompressed content on the CD, I can hear the difference VERY easily. If you can't find a difference extending from 128K compression to 300K compression to uncompressed from CD, then I respectfully suggest that your testing methods may be flawed.

There are a number of additional issues related to compressed formats that need to be covered. For instance, the media isn't covering claims from some in the audio community that "lossless audio compression" sometimes isn't really lossless because the codec algorithm, operating in real-time, is introducing audible temporal jitter to data stream going to the DAC on playback. Any chance MaximumPC could run a story on that?

Anyway, I suggest that someone should improve these reviews.

-- Thorn



The article says: "We suspect that the performance of the Shures masked the flaws in the tracks encoded at lower bit rates."

Good earphones are the ones that don't "mask" anything, and reproduce the sound as accurately as possible.



The article says: "We suspect that the performance of the Shures masked the flaws in the tracks encoded at lower bit rates."

Good earphones are the ones that don't "mask" anything, and reproduce the sound as accurately as possible.



Apple's iTunes uses ABR or Average Bit Rate. To get a better encoding, you should use VBR or Variable Bit Rate. The aac consortium's recommendation is just that. They used to be here: but the website is now down (maybe the Wayback Machine will work). I guess with VBR it's too complicated to calculate how many songs an iPod holds... Marketing weasels. Nero makes a very good aac encoder that is way better than iTunes, but is Windows only. I haven't ried QuickTime Pro though. Also, I really doubt very many iTunes songs are remastered. My brother-in-laws and sisters CDs aren't. They weren't even asked for their masters, just their pressed CDs. My guess is that anybody who uses any kind of compressed audio (of which I would argue aac is the best of the sad lot), they don't spend very much on music/concerts/equipment anyhow. Not catering to those of us who aren't deaf and would actually buy music that is at least lossless, and actually could be encoded for better than 16-bit 44.1 (downloadable music would be awesome for this) is just another misstep by the entire music industry.



I actually did something very similar to what the other "Commenter" suggested, using both iTunes and M$ Media Player to rip music to CDs. The reference was Pink Floyd "The Wall", Disks One and Two. I downloaded versions off-line, as well as ripped them from the Mobile Fidelty, Gold-disc mastered series (about 15 years old). I used iTunes to rip from CD and then used M$ as well, and experimented with 192 versus 256, versus the ridiculously highest rate of Media player (I apologize, I can't remember what it is) around 300-500k.

On the iPod, I heard no difference using the Apple provided buds. The difference was remarkable on the home system, which was a Denon AVR-985 (20-20k Hz, 100 watts at .05% THD) to really old Klipsch speakers. The speakers were EQ'ed (using auto-eq feature w/ mic) and stereo turned loud enough that a conversation would be very hard, but possible, to hold during peak transitions within the songs. The differences between 192 and 256 was evident, but not startling. The differences between iTunes ripped and Media Player was remarkable. I would say it was similar to going between CD and FM Radio. The iTunes sounded very condensed, with rapid transitions dampened.

My conclusions: CDs are ripped at much better quality than iTunes is able to provide, with not much difference in iTunes ripped 192 or 256. Using other software to rip will have more effect than changing data rates.

On a side note, but related to the article, the age difference doesn't surprise me. I don't think most people under 30 have heard uncompressed music. Meaning, I'm 37 and have heard the transitions from Vynil (sp?), cassette, CD, to compressed MP3. I can usually pick up quickly on high notes that have been compressed/uncompressed. If you haven't heard the difference, you're not going to really know what to listen for.



You said, "It would be crazy to pay that premium if you're going to buy the entire album."

It's worth noting that "iTunes Plus" albums don't cost more than regular iTunes albums. So if you buy the entire album, you pay no premium at all for the higher-quality tracks with no DRM.

I'm surprised you missed that point considering the depth of your coverage.



So we rip them both with iTunes, we play them both with the same iPod and use Apple 'buds and somebody else's high-end 'phones, and no one can hear the difference. Uh, so does anyone else think either iTunes or the iPod itself (or both) might be the problem?

Any music fan in the world can hear the difference between 128 and 256, if the software and/or equipment can reproduce the files at their full potential. Use crappy equipment-'buds, 'phones or speakers-and if you can't hear any difference, the reason isn't the files, it's the crappy equipment.

So I say this test only proves than an iPod only reproduces crappy 128kbs sound no matter what it's really playing, or iTunes only really rips at 128 quality no matter what the setting is. And why wouldn't Apple do that? They want you to buy their crappy 128 downloads. If you could hear a difference when you ripped your own CDs @ 256, you'd stop buying from iTunes. Duh.

Prove it to yourself: rip one of your favs at 128 and again at 256 USING SOMETHING BESIDES ITUNES. Now do the same thing using iTunes.

Burn all 4 files to a CD and play it in your car or home stereo-somewhere where there's actual speakers and good equipment. I'm sure you'll hear the difference between the first 2, and if you don't, your equipment isn't worth much. But if you hear the non-iTunes difference but can't hear the difference between the iTunes rips, then it's iTunes that's degrading your rips. Now d/l all 4 files to you iPod. If you do't hear a difference between any of the files, then it's the iPod itself or your earbuds or headphones that's degrading your sounds, all to 128 quality. Only you can decide if that's what you want.

I don't have an iPod or iTunes, so someone else will have to do this. Do it and register here (free and spam-free) and post your results. But the whole premise that people can't hear the difference between 128s and 256s is just ridiculous unless some part of the equipment-ripper, player or sound reproducers-is not capable of reproducing all the information in the files.

When there's only three parts, and two of them are common to all the tests (iTunes rip and iPod play), and the other part involves hardware that's very different in specs, then there's no way to say it isn't one (or both) of the Apple parts that's affecting the outcome.



I have issues with the methods.

I have read several places that Apple's commercial encoding method is quite different than that used by the iTunes software.

Additionally, music encoded with DRM clearly requires additional processing vs music without DRM.

Therefore, is comparing music ripped from CD a good reference source? Shouldn't the actual source come from the iTunes Store as DRM and iTunes Plus.

Additionally, is a group of ten listeners conclusive or even relevant?

Are magazine editors and staffers the best choice for respondents.

Should the listeners be aware of the formats included in the survey.

Wouldn't a sampling of DRM vs lossless, iTunes Plus vs lossless, DRM vs iTunes Plus, etc. help draw a better conclusion.



Something I have noticed is that the Audio Engine used plays a large part in the quality of the audio output.

For example, when I first played music on Linux I was blown away. ALSA was just a vastly superior audio engine to Windows' Audio Engine.

One of the things that came out in the discussion of Vista's features was improvements to the audio engine. The spec's on the old XP engine were so bad it's no wonder most people can't discern the difference between bitrates.

It's a bit like ripping MP3's with whatever codec you find on the net, using the default settings. Then encoding the same song using LAME or another high-quality codec. And that also comes to play here.

I'd personally like to see some sort of test done in this same way, but using the latest ALSA engine vs Windows XP or even Vista. Everytime I go back into Windows and play an MP3, it's blatantly obvious to me the difference between it and ALSA.




Hook up an iPod to a REAL stereo. Preferrably something from Linkwitz Lab and Audio Artistry.

You will even notice a difference between SACD and CD so distinctly that you'll need to re-listen to your entire music collection. MP3s just won't do on a real system. The majority of energy is in the mid-bass and one loses the fundamental's information.
Whilst one may receive a BOOM this is actually the harmonic to the fudamental "bang, strum, or what have you."


I hope this marks a transition to all DRM-free music from music stores. The only reason I avoid online music stores is because of DRM, especially with videos.

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