June 2010

In Praise of Downloads

When it comes to music-playback technology for the home, audiophiles like to be on the cutting edge -- at least, they like to think they are. But Iíve noticed resistance by some audiophiles to downloading music. I donít quite understand this. Perhaps itís because, at first, almost all downloadable music was available only in low-resolution MP3 files, not higher resolutions of CD quality or better; perhaps audiophiles opposed to downloads still think that MP3s are all thatís available online. Or perhaps they equate downloading with piracy. Who knows? In this article Iíll give you a little bit of the history of downloading, but mostly Iíll be telling you why, if what you really want is the very best reproduction of music in your home, downloading is a great thing.

I wasnít the first to jump on the download bandwagon -- teenagers and college kids, with their rabid infatuation with downloaded music, even as lo-rez MP3s, can take credit for that -- but early on I could see that it wouldnít be long before the technology would have a huge impact on the music business, and overtake such physical formats as the Compact Disc. I knew this because my background in computers (my first career, in computer systems, began in 1985) had shown me the effects in other areas of the electronic transfer of data files -- which is all that downloading, whether of music or anything else, actually is. Just look at the impact that e-mail has had on snail mail.

My background in computing also meant that I saw the CD in ways quite different from how most audiophiles see it. For me, the CD has always been two distinct things: the optical disc, a permanent storage device not unlike a tape mechanism or memory stick; and the digital music files it contains, in the form of binary data encoded on the disc in a particular way. Some like to think of the CD as being analogous to an LP: a large plastic disc, essentially a storage device, with grooves in it, the grooves containing the music. But itís not the same at all. With an LP, the plastic disc and the grooves on it comprise one thing that canít be thought of separately. In order for an LP to be a music disc, the grooves need the plastic and the plastic needs the grooves. Digital is different -- those digital music files can reside in any number of places, not just an optical disc, and they can be transferred electronically without degradation, something no analog system can do. So, from the point that CD was first introduced, I couldnít help but think: How long will it be before we donít need the disc anymore?

In fact, quite a long time -- a lot longer than I would like. The optical disc was vital in the 1980s and throughout the í90s, if only for how much data it could hold: about 700 megabytes, which translates to about 80 minutes of CD-quality stereo music. To put that in perspective, in about 1983, a 20MB hard drive was enormous, expensive, and very fragile -- but 20MB isnít enough to store even a single four-minute song. At the time, the optical disc was necessary because it was a durable medium for storing a great deal of information.

Also, back then, data transfer was nowhere near what it is today. The Internet was not yet available to the public, and speeds of transfer of electronic files were a fraction of what they are now. Twenty to 30 years ago, computers communicated via phone lines and modems that were painfully slow by todayís standards. I remember sitting in my office in 1986, calculating how long it would take to transfer the amount of data on a CD through a modem connected to a phone line. I canít remember the exact figure, but it would have taken days, if not weeks, to do so -- provided you could get a reliable connection for that long, which you never could.

In short, downloading wasnít feasible for a long, long time, and CD sales flourished. But times changed.

In the early 1990s the Internet went mainstream, giving unprecedented communication abilities to users around the world. Since then communication systems have done nothing but improve, to the point that, today, almost everyone has high-speed connections, and very few people now use a modem and phone line. Storage devices have also improved. We now think of hard-drive sizes in terms of not megabytes but gigabytes (1GB = 1024MB) and terabytes (1TB = 1024GB). We now have Internet connections that are so fast and reliable that it takes only a few minutes to electronically transfer the data comprising the average four-minute song, and less than an hour for the 700MB of an entire CD. Itís even practical to electronically transfer the contents of a DVD, which contains 4.7GB per layer. And donít worry about storage space -- itís easy to find a 1TB hard drive for under $100. End of history lesson.

Todayís audiophiles can electronically transfer music files and store them wherever they want -- and in higher sound quality. While some optical-disc adherents are adamant that CDs sound better than the same 16-bit/44.1kHz music data played back from a computerís hard drive, I havenít found this to be true. At worst, the music from my hard drive sounds the same; usually, though, it sounds better. Iím not going to get into how or why this might be, but Iíll tell you this: thereís absolutely no degradation in sound quality when you stop using optical discs for playback and use the hard drive on your computer instead.

More important, downloading opens the doors to playing better-than-CD-quality music files, which, by definition, a CD cannot contain. The Compact Disc is limited by the Sony/Philips ďRed BookĒ standard of 1980, which specified a word length of 16 bits, which resulted in 96dB of dynamic range; and a sampling rate of 44.1kHz, meaning that a CD can theoretically store and play back recorded signals whose highest frequencies canít exceed 22.05kHz. Weíve been stuck with that standard ever since, even though longer word lengths and higher sampling rates have long been available.

In contrast, music files available for download offer word lengths of up to 24 bits (theoretically capable of 144dB of dynamic range), and itís commonplace to find sampling rates of 88.1, 96, 176.4, and 192kHz, or even higher. These result in recordings with sound far superior to what a CD can contain.

Apart from sound, one other benefit of downloading has to do with getting music quickly, something Iím a big fan of -- when I decide to buy something, I want it now. You no longer have to drive to the store to buy your music or, worse, get there only to find that they donít have it in stock. When somethingís available for download, itís available 24/7, and you can have it more or less right now. For example, in the time itís taken me to write this article, I could have simultaneously been downloading Peter Framptonís Frampton Comes Alive! in the 24-bit/96kHz FLAC format from HDtracks.com, and played it when I finished. That capability is here -- right now.

As time moves on, fewer and fewer CDs will be pressed, and almost all music will become available online for downloading. Optical music discs, while cherished by some, are, for all intents and purposes, finished -- and I seriously doubt weíll see any kind of resurgence of the CD, as we have with the LP. The physical disc just isnít needed anymore. Downloading is better.

But downloading isnít perfect, and there is one area in which optical discs are still superior: durability. CDs can take quite a beating and still play well. Hard drives, on the other hand, still crash fairly regularly, even if theyíre much better made than they were in the 1980s. I have CDs that have been around since 1983, but no hard drive anywhere near that old.

Hence my subject for next monthís editorial: ďThe Backup Plan.Ē

. . . Doug Schneider