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Krakow Sonic Society

Meeting #116:

Has the playback of music from files matured enough to achieve high-end level? Who knows... This time we will take a closer look at PCM files.


Files are a topic that is of interest to almost everyone today. This is the most popular way of distributing music. But is it the best? Are record labels and producers able to offer more demanding listeners a high-end sound? We will try to answer these questions in the second KTS meeting dedicated to music files. This time will deal with PCM.

CM, i.e. Pulse Code Modulation, is a way of recording digital signal used in audio on CD, HDCD, DVD and BD discs. And also in music files. During the previous meeting of the Society, we looked at DSD files ripped from SACD discs (more HERE). This is one of the most popular methods of acquiring them, although it is deals with many problems – the ripping process largely depends on external factors that can change the sound. A better idea is to download such a file from an on-line store - stores receive them directly from the publishers.

This creates a clear chain:

Each of these stages, even the last one, can be carried out in a physical way, by transferring data on a permanent medium - HDD, SSD, SD, pendrive or DVD-R / CD-R. In fact, the signal between the studios and then to the publisher is sent via the Internet. This causes problems that computer guys do not want to hear about and that we need to make them think about in the future, because not every router is "transparent" and not every data copying over the Internet is 100% correct.

| Meeting

From the user's side, it makes sense - downloading files or listening to them through the streaming service is easy and hassle free. And we decided to deal with such files this time. They were bought in on-line stores - mainly - and several were received directly from the publishers. We compared the files with Compact Discs and Super Audio CDs.

The listening session was divided into six parts, because there are six basic types of PCM files on the market, that can be called hi-res. It is generally accepted that the file is "hi-res", meaning: high resolution when the word length is 24 bits. Many engineers believe that the second condition must be still met, i.e. the sampling frequency must be at least 96 kHz (or 88.2 kHz), but the reality is that the vast majority of the files offered by the publishers have a sampling rate of 44.1 or 48 kHz.

So there are five parts, divided by the sampling frequency of used files: 44.1 48 | 88.2 | 96 |176.4 |192 kHz. In each of them we compared them to discs with the same master (or remaster). We used the Ayon Audio CD-35 HF Edition player and the Ayon Audio NW-T DSD file player. The signal was sent from the transport using I2S cable to the DAC in the player.


Shortly on the way disc titles are noted: at the beginning there is a track that we listened to, followed by the album title from which it came and the type of file from which the music was played: WAV or FLAC. The next information is about the publisher and whether it is a re-edition and which one. At the very end, there is a type of physical medium (CD, BSCD2, SHM-CD, SACD) and the date of release and – if that was the case – the re-edition.

STEP 1. | PCM: 24 bits | 44,1 kHz

  • The Beatles, Come Together | FLAC: The Beatles, Abbey Road, Apple/USM Japan UICY76978, SHM-CD (1969/2014)
  • The Beatles, Eleanor Rigby | FLAC: The Beatles, Revolver, Apple/USM Japan UICY76972, SHM-CD (1966/2014)
  • Dead Can Dance, Children of The Sun | WAV: Dead Can Dance, Anastasis, [PIAS] Entertainment Group PIASR311CDX, „Special Edition Hardbound Box Set”, CD+USB drive 24/44,1 WAV (2012);
  • Antonio Forcione, Heartplay | FLAC: Charlie Haden & Antonio Forcione, Heartplay, Naim Label Naim CD098, CD (2006)

Wiciu | The difference is audible, there is no doubt about it. I wonder if the bottleneck is not a signal transmission from the player, for example the cable. This is because the files sound worse than the CD. There is lesser dynamics, the file sounds like it's slightly extinguished, less spontaneous. The disc is much more spacious. As for me, it's a similar comparison, like between my system and this one here – keeping in mind that Janusz's system is the reference one. With the disc there is magic of "here and now", and the file is a reproduction of an event.

Janusz | The first two albums sounded in such way that it would be difficult for me to choose better version. But the difference is clear. Especially in the middle of the first track, it struck me, with the second I was already sure: the files were brighter. And it does not mean that they were better. I liked the CDs better. If I did not listen to the CDs, it would not be a bad sound, the files would really appeal to me because they sounded very nice. But when compared with discs it's the discs that came out better, sound was lower - and for me it's more important.

However, with the last recording, Naim one, especially after the repetition, the files sounded better. There was a momentum, air, it sounded more freely. It was louder but also deeper - I love it! Therefore, as for me the score is 3:1 in favor of discs. But the last reproduction of the file was so good that even such a result is not unambiguous for me and I would take files seriously into consideration. Guys, what are we doing here ...

Rysiek B. | I will be partly in opposition to Janusz, partly in agreement. Mr. Editor put us on a slippery ground, because this material will be read, I hope, by many thousands of people. And in this way we can already influence the sales of music files. That is why I will be uncompromising, because we must be completely honest.

The first two tracks of The Beatles proved a definite advantage of the CD over the files that seemed to me flat, colorless, boring, sounded like hi-fi. If someone has a high-end music system, in this case he should stay with physical discs and let the files go. If he has a hi-fi system, then the quality of files will suffice. But this is not unambiguous, because with Dead Can Dance it was different – the file sounded much better. It was open, spacious, and had good colors. However, with Heartplay from the Naim album, I have to disagree with Janusz, the file sounded dead, extinguished, boring and the difference was huge. I forbid the high-end enthusiasts to spend money on files. You should buy a CD and enjoy its sound.

Marcin | As for the Beatles, the file in both cases sounded, in my opinion, better. And that's because I've heard more details. Each instrument had more details and for me it is a plus. Regarding Dead Can Dance, I did not hear any great differences and it was a draw for me. The biggest difference I heard on the Naim album, where the file sounded better, much better. There was more resolution and bigger space.

Tomek | My observations will be close to what Marcin said. Maybe because we're sitting next to each other. As for the Beatles with Come Together, the difference between the disc and the file was greater than with Eleanor Rigby and I choose the CD. But I would also like to say that finally when listening to files I hear everything that I usually miss with them - bandwidth extension, detail, resolution. However, something is happening here in favor of the CD, because there is additional energy and dynamics with it. That's why I enjoyed the Beatles more with CD.

I can not agree with Janusz, however, when he says that for him the files sounded brighter, because here, where I sit, the discs sounded brighter. With Dead Can Dance both presentations sounded very similar. In general, I would like to say that all these tracks sounded so well both from CDs and files that I could switch to files. I will not do it because I am a collector, but for the music itself - why not? I would not have to go to the player to play next disc...

Especially that with Antonio Forcione's album it was clear to me that the file was much better. It had energy, there was a beautiful reverb. Apparently Naim made the file neatly and even after sending it over the Internet and saving it on its carrier these advantages were preserved. But there must be someone who knows how to do it...

STEP 2. | PCM: 24 bits | 48 kHz

  • Depeche Mode, Sometimes | FLAC: 1. Depeche Mode, Black Celebration, Mute/Sony Music Labels SICP30539, Blu-spec CD2, (1986/2014) 2. Depeche Mode, Black Celebration, Mute DMCD5, „Collectors Edition”, SACD/CD + DVD (1986/2007)

Janusz | Maybe I will surprise everyone, but I liked the SACD more, though not entirely. I heard something on the disc, which was not in the file. It was an unbelievable space. But on the other hand, when musician was hitting a key, it was with some kind of "thickness". With disc there was a momentum, space, swing. But in turn with the file the sounds had a better pronounced "presence", they were denser. It was powerful! And that was what convinced me to the file.

Wiciu | For me, this is not a technically correct recording. But this is the domain of popular music recordings - highlighting sopranos, etc. That's why I really liked the SACD, because it quenched bright sibilants. The file was in second place - the sound was cleaner, had more space, the elements on the stage were better organized. And the last place goes to BSCD2.

Rysiek B. | I agree with Wiciu. The last version was “unlistenable” - listening to this recording from BSCD2 was painful. Fortunately, the file partly mitigated these inconveniences, the artifact space was balanced, colors appeared, etc. But I liked the SACD version best because I heard the music.

Marcin | The BSCD2 sounded in a very chaotic way. It seemed to me as if the piano did not fit the whole. Same goes for reverbs. This track was in conflict with me. However, when playing it from a file, everything was sorted out and finally sounded like one coherent track, not a compilation of different sounds. It sounded so nice that even when we played the SACD at the end, although it sounded best, I would not be sure if I would like to spend extra money on it. There was no such a difference here and in the blind test I probably wouldn't be able to say which one was played. In contrast to the BSCD2, the file sounded so much better – just a huge quality gap.

Tomek | At first, let's say that this recording is very specific in itself - it's not a classic Depeche Mode. This recording is avant-garde in a way. So I'm applying to it different criteria than Rysiek. For me, in this case, the file was the best version. It sounded darker and the textures and details were presented in a better way, it was possible to analyze what was added later and what was actually recorded. I did not hear that with CD. If any of the formats gave me some pleasure then it was a file. However, I did not like the SACD version.

Wojtek Pacuła | It seems to me that you can not transfer the aesthetics of the piano from the classics and jazz to this genre, these are two different things. You can accept such aesthetics or not, but it can not use other genres as reference. I liked the file most, then SACD and last BSCD2. I agree with Marcin that everything played together on the CD, merged with each other, there was no dramaturgy. Musically, it was not clear what was going on.

SACD sounded better because everything was sorted out. But also the sharpest. The nature of this track has changed though. A sharpened and enlarged piano disappeared because it sounded lower. The vocal came to the foreground. The reverberations, in turn, diminished and were not part of it. But it was only with the file that I understood what the producer was doing, everything came together - and I liked it. It was not too bright, it was good.

STEP 3. | PCM: 24 bits | 88,2 kHz

  • Lars Danielsson & Leszek Możdżer, Pasodoble | FLAC: Lars Danielsson & Leszek Możdżer, Pasodoble, ACT Music, ACT 9458-2, CD;
  • Komeda Quintet, Kattorna | WAV w: Komeda Quintet, Astigmatic, Polskie Nagrania „Muza”/Warner Music Polska, Master CD-R (1966/2016)

Rysiek B. | The situation has repeated - the absolute advantage of the disc over the files. The differences were spectacular to me, it's like high-end and hi-fi.

Wiciu | I agree with Rysiek – Możdżer with Danielsson album repeated what I heard earlier, that is, from the file the sound was not very dynamic and dull, there was less space in it. Możdżer played normally and did his thing with the piano, which was clearer with disc, more honest. It was different with Komeda. The file sounded brighter, more clearly, sharper and more acutely. Unpleasant. The disc, which sounded in a more subdued way, sounded better and the piano was more real.

Janusz | For me, the difference was also spectacular. In the place where I sit, the file sounded brighter - it's another time when we have different feelings about it, but it probably goes to the place where I sit. For me the brightness is unacceptable, which is why the file was immediately in disadvantage. It was an unnaturally bright which does not happen in the real world.

Marcin | With Danielsson, the differences were clear - the album sounded sharper, more dynamic, with more drive. And with this music it was a plus for me. The file rounded up it up, wrapped it in "cotton" and served nicely, but it was not so spectacular any more.

Tomek | With Pasodoble played from the file I really liked the nuances of playing the instrument, it was well complemented by additional sounds made by musicians. After switching to the CD it was still there, but it was a bit less exciting. It was not a big difference and I could listen to it from both the file and the disc. In turn, with Komeda I definitely preferred the file. The Master CD-R sounded worse. The intrusiveness that my colleagues have found in the sound was an advantage for me, because the file delivered more information. It sounded brighter, but not shrewdly – the disc sounded shrewdly.

Wojtek Pacuła | In my opinion, the differences were the smallest compared to the previous ones. They were least important. Both disc and file were enjoyable. But if I had to choose, I would not kill for one or the other. If, however, I had to choose, then for Pasodoble I would choose a file, because it sounded nicer, more enjoyable, richer. I could hear also non-musical elements of the recording, but in a good proportion, as at the concert. On the disc they sounded unnatural, separated.

It was opposite with Komeda - the disc was nicer and more enjoyable. But the file offered more information, there is no doubt about it. Until then all the files sounded nicer, because they offered smoother and nicer sound. And here it turns out that this file is the brighter side. So you need to ask yourself what do you prefer. This is not a "documentary", only a creation, that's why we can ask about it at all. I liked the CD more, even though I knew what it was missing. Ideally, everything would sound like a CD, but with additional information that is in the file.

STEP 4. | PCM: 24 bits | 96 kHz

  • Led Zeppelin, Dazed and Confused | FLAC: Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin (I), Atlantic/Warner Music 8122796439, „Super Deluxe Box Set”, 2 x CD + 2 x LP (1961/2014)
  • Leonard Cohen, Almost Like A Blues | FLAC: Leonard Cohen, Popular Problems, Sony Music Labels SICP-4329, CD (2014);

Tomek | I am delighted with Cohen's song, I am very happy that we listened to it. It sounded phenomenally both from the file and the CD. I was going to say "almost identically" until Cohen sang, because the vocal was much better from the file. There were some holes in the band from the CD, and the vocals were even, clear and distinct. As for the instruments, the CD and file sounded very similar - similar space, colors, etc.

With Led Zeppelin, it seemed to me that more information was delivered from the file, the atmosphere of that time, of the studio was better reflected, but it was more enjoyable from the CD. But the differences were not big.

Marcin | As for Cohen, I agree with Tomek 100%. Differences between the CD and the file were not big, although the file sounded nicer, smoother. It spoke to me more. But already with Led Zeppelin, I had a different opinion - the CD sounded shrill, it was horrible, and the file was smooth and beautiful. I am too young to remember that time, so I do not know how it should sound, but here and now the file sounded better for me.

Wiciu | I'll start with Led Zeppelin. I liked CD more. My attention was drawn by the bass - on CD it was taut and energetic, and on the file it dragged on, like rubber. I've been thinking about Cohen for a long time because the differences are minimal. But I agree with Tomek - the best distinguishing feature is the Cohen's voice. With the file it seemed to me better arranged, better "written". It is difficult to say exactly what the difference is, but I preferred a file.

Rysiek B. | The CD with Led Zeppelin sounded better, because it had more energy, more drive, tonal richness – simply much better. However, when it comes to Cohen - I agree with Tomek: the vocal sounded better, nicer from the file. But the entire remaining part, or instruments, was definitely a better from CD. So: CD rulez!

Janusz | My statement will be short: oh my god! Unfortunately, age takes its toll and people like Rysiek should not be invited :) First of all - I agree with Tomek about Cohen: he sounded better with the file, precisely because of the vocal. But as for the Led Zeppelin, it was awful! I had this record when it was released, so I can say that the sound of the CD was a complete failure! It was small, it was squeezed and compressed, nonsense. Where is the dynamics? And with the file I got it all. It was still a weak sound, but at least something opened up.

Wojtek Pacuła | I agree with the fact that Led Zeppelin on the CD, in this remaster, sounds shrill. But this is how this music, as it seems to me, is supposed to sound according to the band, especially Plant, who was responsible for the remaster. From the artistic side, it is the CD that sounds, or so it can be assumed, as it was intended by people in the studio. It's just that it's a total chaos. It was only with the file that it sounded nice. There were layers, a pretty guitar. The bass was not as compact as on a CD, but I did not have a problem with it. I liked the file with Cohen too. The album is not bad, but the file showed layers, great backing vocals, the whole thing was more vivid. The vocal sounded naturally, like an elderly man who actually speaks.

STEP 5. | PCM: 24 bits | 176,4 kHz/88,2 kHz

  • Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio, Happy Soccer Striker | WAV w: Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio, What a Wonderful Trio!, First Impression Music FIM DXD 079, Silver-CD (2008)

Janusz | A huge gap! – more then a gap. With CD there was dynamics, momentum, air, a with files... Let's forget it. These were two completely different presentations.

Rysiek B. | For the first time I can agree with Janusz. These were two different performances - that's how it was from the beginning - the CD sounded better to me every time.

Marcin | I think differently - what we heard earlier was repeated again. So we can talk about a constant, that is, about the preferences of each of those present here. For me, the CD sounded very good, nice, but only until the moment we heard the file. Both were more resolving, there were more details, the music was more orderly.

Then what I heard earlier came out, namely that the CD is more bright, more feisty - but in my opinion it is too bright. The difference between the 176.4 kHz and 88.2 kHz files was smaller and you would probably have to sit perfectly in the middle to capture some differences in space, etc. The difference between the disc and the 176.4 kHz file was very large, huge, but my opinion in favor of the file :)

Tomek | I can agree in 90% with Marcin - the difference was large, undisputed, but the differences were the same as in previous comparisons. Listening to the disc, I am happy that there is energy, that it sounds powerful, forward sounding, the foot itself taps the rhythm. But the file gives you the opportunity to look deeper inside the recording, offers peace. I remember that it used to be the opposite, that the files sounded bright - you can see the technique of their playback has changed so much that everything turned around. It's hard for me to say what I liked more. And the difference between the different sampling frequencies was much smaller, for me quite negligible.

Wojtek Pacuła | This time I liked the file more. The album is great - I know these recordings from the CD, not from the files and I like it very much. It is perfectly made and the music is also at a high level. The contrabass sounds quiet in both cases, but with the file we better understand why. Most often the double bass is recorded close up, almost with a microphone inserted into the resonance box. In this way a very large and clear sound is recorded. And yet the contrabass is not like that, it is lighter and smaller. It seems to me that it was recorded for this album with that in mind and it is better presented with the file. And I liked the 88.2 file much less than 176.4 kHz because it was "dull".

STEP 4. | PCM: 24 bits | 192 kHz

  • Miles Davis, Flamenco Sketches (mono) | FLAC: Miles Davis, The Original Mono Recordings, Columbia Records/Sony Music Japan SICP 30521-9, Blu Spec CD2 x 9 (1957-1964/2013)
  • Norah Jones, Come Away With Me | FLAC: Norah Jones, Come Away With Me, Blue Note 7243 5 81880 0 4, CD (2002)
  • Yes, Close to the Edge | FLAC: Yes, Close to the Edge, Atlantic Records/Warner Music Japan WPCR-15905, 7” SACD/CD (1972/2014)

Marcin | Miles Davis from the disc sounded very nice, but when I heard the file, I already knew that these were two different presentations. The biggest difference is just the trumpet – on the disc it is quite sharp, I think it is too sharp and with the file is smoother. This is the most important difference. With Norah Jones, there is nothing to talk about - the CD sounded shrill but also dull. The file delivered the decay of the guitar, its vibrancy, details. With disc it blended together.

Tomek | Exceptionally today we agree with each other – it seems we can hear in the same way :) Davis' trumpet was dimmed in the file and brighter from the disc. And indeed - it was more enjoyable from the file. But ... This is Davis' trumpet – it is supposed to be strong and bright. It seems to me that the “relaxation” of its sound deprives listeners of some of the relevant information. I must reluctantly admit, that disc sounded better. With Norah Jones it was hard for me to listen to the disc, I barely survived until the end of this sweet show. However, it made sense with the file, it sounded like smooth-jazz, in a natural space with a well-shown voice. In this case – I choose file.

Wiciu | The only thing I noticed with Jones is the better vocal from the file. The CD was sharper, brighter.

Tomek | Let me add, that Norah Jones and me are both of the same age…

Wiciu | Aaa – congratulations, do you want us to envy you? Anyway, with Davis, he sounded much better from the file, there was less noise in it, even though it was the same remaster. Bass was better controlled in the file, and the trumpet was gentler than on the disc and for me it was better. I definitely prefer the file.

Rysiek B. | This time I disagree with Wiciu, but I agree with Tomek - this brighter and better differentiated trumpet on the CD creates a more interesting spectacle. I do not agree with Wiciu because the bass on the disc was more resolving, and on the file it was a bit monotonous. In my opinion, the disc sounded better in my opinion. With Jones - the piano's timbre was better on CD! Someone who has not heard the matte piano from the file probably does not analyze the recordings for timbre accuracy. I have the impression that the recordings in files are flattened, because the back of the stage is being pulled up closer to the front.

Wojtek Pacuła | This time I liked the file more, in both cases. Rysiek's note about the timbre is incomprehensible to me, because in my opinion the timbre was more real with the files.

Rysiek B. | But I am concerned about the extension of these colors, how they differentiate, and not about "truthfulness", because it is difficult to say what is "real" in the recording. In one sound there are one hundred harmonics and on the disc they are audible.

Wojtek Pacuła | It stretched on the disc, agreed, but it was too bright, too sharp. Tomek is right - the trumpet is bright by nature. But not every trumpet with a damper is sharp. Miles played quite sharp, but not that sharp. In terms of the "absolute truth" perhaps the disc showed a more real trumpet. But when listening at home, we do not always want to hear what is on the stage, because we are in a different situation, at a different distance from the sound source. Everything was much bigger from the file. With the disc it was fast but small. In turn, with Jones played from the file, a voice opened, it was nicer.

Wiciu | When listening to the Yes, I definitely liked the sound of the SACD more, mainly due to bass and better exposed vocals. As far as I remember Yes from concerts, it was the bass that was really impressive. I literary “saw” how much work was done by Chris Squire. Earlier I listened to discs and somehow it did not rub on to me - and now I know that it sounds like here, from SACD.

Marcin | Shortly - in my opinion, Yes from SACD sounded a bit better, the sound was thicker, the colors were saturated, etc. The file sounded good, the difference was not big for me, but it was the disc that I liked most.

Tomek | These were similar presentations for me, but the file sounded darker, with more dynamics, it was calmer. But the differences were not big.

Janusz | This is the recording of my high school times and I love it. The beginning of the album sounded better from the file. I was shocked at how poorly it sounded from the disc. But also later, when the instruments entered, the file sounded better.

Marcin | This is probably the first time in KSS history, when for Janusz SACD lost to any other medium :)
Wojtek Pacuła | No matter what, the file in this case sounded very well. It's probably the first time that we all agree in principle – it's good.
Rysiek | Because it hurt less…
Wiciu | And I lacked more life in it…
Wojtek Pacuła | In all cases files sounded darker, smoother, except for Komeda. And ‘darker’ in audio usually means ‘better’. The files lacked only in terms of impact, some ultimate dynamics. The files get a little "sticky", they bring the presentation to one compact message.
Wiciu | That seems right and I will say that - on the discs we have a sound aesthetics, which is closer to a regular listener.

Wojtek Pacuła | You might be up to something ... It seems that the files sounded in this case just like SACDs in our system - with the same advantages and disadvantages.


So which format is a winner - a disc or a file? In truth, there is no one winner. The comparison showed, above all, how much the reproduction technique affects the artistic side of the recording. But it also worked out greatly that the technique associated with file playback is already in such a place that you can discuss the superiority of files or discs, it's a similar level. But ... The files still lack the dynamics that disc offer and the richness that is an advantage of SACDs. Apart from that, it's great because the files can sound in a nice, nice way. Provided that the signal is sent to a D/A converter in a proper way.

The way of preparing the files remains a separate matter. It's not all the same who will do it and how it will be done. It is not all the same how it is sent and how many "intermediaries" are there in the whole chain. Therefore, the files are not always the same, even if they have the same parameters and come from the same album. That is why it is becoming more and more urgent issue so that they are properly described by publishers (meta data) - we should know who the author of the remaster is, who prepared the file and where, and what was the master file. I am sure that soon we will witness a rash of "Japanese" Directly-Cut-From-Original-Master-Hard-Disc files ... I will probably buy them :)