September 8, 2010

End Of Days For The Physical Media?

Tapes, CDs, and LPs. How much longer would they remain viable as a music format?
I have lived thru two media changes in my audiophile life. I have started in the compact cassette/LP days as a kid growing up in the 70's. By the 80's, I had started to buy compact disc. At that time CDs made so much sense, it's small, convenience and overall clean sound found favour in me. The compact cassette soldiered on in my audiophile life until in-dash CD players became popular in the car. By Y2k, CD's dominated my music collection, sprinkled with a good dosh of SACD. By year 2003, it was clear to me SACD was not to be, so I sold off most of my small SACD collection. Guess what, strangely LPs never really left and made a strong return in to my daily musical consumption today.

The last few years, we've been reading about the impending change of the physical media format to the form of media servers. A few of my tech savvy audiophile friends dived in to the new form of media. I am not convinced with the sound quality of the said media that I heard so far. Add to my list of resistance, the user interface was just mind boggling to say the least. However, by each year, my buddies tried to convince me that the sound have improved to the point that the CD quality had been surpassed and the new interface is simplified. I remained unconvinced, up until this week that is.

This week, I've just taken part in a double blind test A/B. I never knew which source was playing, even though I could see both the CD player and the media server right before me. A buddy had both the sources playing in sync and both sources are volume adjusted so that the differences are minimal. Both the media server plus DAC vs the integrated CD player is of the similar high end credentials and quite nearly the same price range, with the media server plus DAC being somewhat more expensive. For the media server plus DAC rig, only true 16 bit ripped tracks were used against the 16 bit conventional CD. The game was not about which is better sounding, rather if I could tell a difference between the two sources when it was switched, and which one I preferred.

During a series of 3 test tracks selected based on the familiarity of the group members participating in the blind test, the source switcher is never allowed to take part. I could immediately recognised a switch between the two sources due to differences in sonic character detected. I had found myself to constantly liking source A, for it's overall higher resolution, better defined images, and more incisive sound quality over source B. In all my prejudiced heart, I had always thought source A was the CD player!

It was later revealed to me that source A was the media server! I had to come to terms with my prejudice.
The new media frontier, and it's all digital!

Similarly, I had lived thru three significant media format changes in my videophile life too. I started in VHS tapes in the 70's, then migrated to the short lived, but excellent Laser Disc format in the 90's. I never considered the VCD a videophile viable format, but used it for family entertainment for a while until DVD became the norm by the year 1999. My DVD player recently behaved strangely and finally said good bye last week.

And last night, while searching for a replacement DVD player, I was shown a demo, consisting of a high end Blu-ray player vs media server for HT in a high end system. Here, I still felt Blu-ray was still superior in terms of picture and sound quality, but the media server came oh! so.... very close(the fact that it offered a whole lot better picture quality over DVD was attractive enough) . Factor in the cheaper hardware price, and the convenience factor of the media server, the choice is a no brainer for me. The latest batch of HT media servers does not require a computer geek to operate, it's user interface is as easy as operating a high end DVD or Blu-ray player via it's hand held remote. I'm sold to the idea, and will probably start a media server based HT system soon.

I woke this morning to make a statement that in 2010, is the year I'll see a practical transition to yet another media format, in my audiophile/videophile life. I think if the ever late adopter and skeptical me can accept and endorse the new media, I believe the end of days is near for the physical media.


mikelau.2 said...

I think so too. Cd will soon disappear like the compact disc.

Will vinyl die a second death ? Difficult to predict on this one.

Me too have no more reservations whatsoever on the potential of music reproduction with media server.

mikelau.2 said...

typo...compact cassette.

Hasegawa said...

Personally, I think the obsolete of physical media is a good thing. Well, you don't have to worry the room space taken for storing them; searching from your bulk collection is another issue here.

Digital media promises us with the best quality of audio/video without compromise. Isn't that the best thing we could have?

Ng said...

Correction :
1. The CD was compared with similar 16 bits music files ripped into the hard disc and not with 24 bits as written in the double blind tests. it was 16 bits cd versus 16 bits music file playback from a computer with a standalone DAC. In order to reduce variability a similar pressed CDS was used , means if the CD was USA pressed ,the music files/tracks that was played were also from the same pressing.
2. The word "music server" is not too accurate in describing this format. It is not necessary to play computer audio music using a server. I think that the term" computer audio" would best describe this format.

Hasegawa said...

Are you using lossy or loseless codec for music ripping?

Drubb said...

Hi Big E,
Your ears were correct. I have had my QSonix 110 Music Server for more than 2 years now and I can attest to your findings. I use it as digital source connected to the DAC on my Cary Audio 306 SACD player via Stereovox XV2 digital cable.
I can assure you that it sounds at least as good as, and most times better than CDs played on the Cary itself. But of course, SACD still has the edge, in my opinion, even though the format is just about dead.
What I love about the QSonix is the utter convenience it gives for CD playback. At a touch of the screen I get access to a thousand CDs to choose from.
Ng is right. The QSonix does not take high res digital at the moment. It plays 16/44.1 only but it seems that the manufacturer has plans to upgrade to higher formats soon.
All my CDs on the shelf are now for show only as they have all been ripped into the QSonix. And when friends come by I always tell them to bring their favorite CDs along so that I can rip them for free. Believe me, the QSonix pays for itself this way!

Ng said...

Recommend to rip uncompressed format in high end audio which is much more "safer" than lossless, unless you cannot avoid them
Definitely not lossy .

Big E said...


Thanks for clarifying the actual A/B blind test proceedures. I am glad you've included me in the blind test.

Cheers mate!

Big E said...

Hi all,

Article edited for accuracy, based on Ng's clarification.

Hasegawa said...

There are reasons that musics played from media player through DAC are better.

A good media player utilised SPDIF while a better media players utilised IsquareS. This, however, requires a HDMI for it to works.