I love listening to music. And while I am lazy (which is the popular term for considering if something is worth the effort before doing it), I still prefer listening to it in a realistic sound quality. Which sounds like a contradiction, isn’t it? Well, yes, but only if you are not ready for compromises. In this blog, I focus on technologies and software problems, and the compromises I made to keep listening to music simple but still enjoy it. On the audio device side, I won’t mention any brands.
My number one compromise is that I listen to digital audio. I am often told that a true audiophile listens only to analog sound sources. For them, listening to music actually starts days earlier: doing all kinds of cleaning rituals on vinyls.
I have multiple problems with the vinyl approach. First of all: I have no idea what I will want to listen to in a few days. I do not even know what I want to listen to in a few hours. I only know what I want to listen to right now. This need is easy to meet with digital sources, but not so convenient with analog ones, especially not with vinyl. The other problem is that there is no vinyl without some extra noise. When I bring this up, I’m reminded of concerts, namely that there are extra noises in the concert room as well. That is right. And I do not like that either :-).
Whenever I mention that next to my regular headphones, I also use a pair of Bluetooth headphones, people swear at me, claiming that it substantially degrades sound quality. Yes, that is right. And to add insult to injury, I even use active noise canceling, which changes the original sound even more. But who cares when it is just background music, so I can concentrate on my work when people are talking around me? It does its job: keeps the noise out. Of course I switch to my studio headphones as soon as I want to focus on the music itself. But when it comes to background music, Bluetooth is a lot more comfortable.
I have tons of CDs, but no CD player anymore. I have a USB CD drive instead, which I use to grab CDs into FLAC files. I play those lossless files whenever I want to play my collection. Of course you might ask why do I still buy CDs. There are many reasons for that. First of all: I want to own the music I like in physical format. I also like the booklets. Many CDs are never published to TIDAL or to online services. Finally, music could be removed from online services or could become region limited. So, it could happen that the music I like suddenly disappears. What I have in a physical format and grabbed into FLAC files is already my own. It just cannot disappear suddenly.
I also buy digital music files. Once I was a Society of Sound member, but as you can see, this service is no longer available. They published one, later two albums each month. Even if I did not like the music on each and every album, the quality of their recordings is fantastic, and a joy to listen to.
Currently, I am a TIDAL subscriber. When you use their player, they have all albums available at least in CD quality, some even at a higher quality. Originally, they had a very limited repertoire, but now it is quite good.
For many years, I listened to music on Linux. First of all, because it is my primary operating system. But also because it sounded the best. There were no additional layers between the sound card and music player applications, making the sound very clean. Unfortunately, pulseaudio became popular later, and now you cannot use a GUI without using pulseaudio. And while it adds some extra flexibility, it really degrades sound quality. With some tuning, the situation can be improved, but it is far from perfect.
There are still some Linux-based music appliances without pulseaudio, providing excellent sound quality. But unless it is just background music, the Linux desktop is not really good to listen to music anymore.
Another pain point on Linux is TIDAL. You can only use it from a browser, where only the lowest sound quality is available.
I am a Linux guy, so I avoid Windows as much as possible. But of course sometimes I still use it, for example for photo editing, when playing with my MIDI keyboard, and for some minimal gaming. On Windows, I have Foobar2000 as music player. And of course I also have TIDAL. Recently I learned some extra settings: using the sound card directly (without sharing it with other applications), and turning off normalization. These two settings eliminate all degradation I could hear. Of course some people say that even this is not enough, but for me, additional complex tweaks just do not worth the time, money or effort.
Not my favorite OS either. Neither of my DACs work perfectly with music player applications trying to use the sound directly. The only exception here is TIDAL, which works just perfectly and can use the sound card directly, just like on Windows. So, I often use my MacBook Pro when I want to listen to TIDAL. It is an Intel-based one though, but hopefully it will be supported for another few years.
A surprising choice: Android
Android is not famous for its multimedia capabilities. The TIDAL Android app cannot use the sound output directly, so sound quality is degraded, only good for some background music. Previously I used a music player application, which could play my FLAC and DSD files from my NAS accessing the USB port of my Android device directly. First they broke DSD support, which was not a problem though, as I only had a few sample files. My own collection is purely FLAC. But then they also broke network support, which proved to be a bigger problem, as my music collection sits on a NAS, because it is a lot larger than it could fit the storage of my Android devices.
Luckily, I heard about USB Audio Player Pro in one of the Facebook discussion groups I am a member of. It can directly access the USB port, making “bit perfect” audio possible. And best of all, it can play back not just my FLAC collection, but also TIDAL - in better sound quality than the official TIDAL application on Android itself! Of course, there are some limitations: discovering new music is not so easy as it is in the official app. As a workaround, I use TIDAL on my MacBook Pro to discover new music, but I use my Google Pixel C tablet with USB Audio Player Pro whenever I listen to music or composers I already know. There, I can easily combine music from my NAS with music from TIDAL. A few weeks ago, I complained that the keyboard of my Google Pixel C tablet died. Luckily the tablet itself still works just fine, so I can use it to listen to music.
A bit of fun
And just to prove that analog vs. digital is more of a religious question than audio quality. One of my favorite recordings is John Metcalfe – Kites And Echoes (The Vinyl Experience). It was one of the albums from Society of Sound. And, as its note states:
A special exclusive edition called The Vinyl Experience. This is to provide listeners with a high resolution 96kHz recording of the actual vinyl LP.
Someone was listening to music at my place, and loudly complained that digital music does not have a soul, as it’s missing important details, and all the usual arguments. So, I proposed that we listen to an LP instead of digital. Of course I do not have a record player, but I started the above recording on my Pixel C. The mood quickly changed, and my guest was all smiles once the familiar sound of an LP started coming out from the speakers. However, the smile turned into laughter, once I explained how I cheated :-)